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From Utilitarianism To Ethics: The Social Principles of Economic Sustainability

Sustainability requires a sound foundation in universal human principles of right behavior.

Submitted by: John Ikerd

Posted: Feb 18, 2013 – 09:15 AM EST

Series: The Essentials of Economic Sustainability

Tags: economics, ethics, sustainability, economy, ecology, csr, social principles, culture


The recent global financial crisis has raised widespread concern for the sustainability of the global economy and much has been written concerning the negative impacts of economic development on natural ecosystems and civil societies. Unfortunately, few viable alternatives to the prevailing economic paradigms have been suggested for consideration. Those that have been are typically little more than suggestions for fine tuning capitalist or socialist economies.

In his new book The Essentials of Economic Sustainability, John Ikerd addresses the basic principles and concepts essential to economic sustainability. Some of these concepts are capitalist, some are socialistic, and others are general principles validated by philosophy or common sense. What results is a synthesis: something that is neither capitalist nor socialist but fundamentally different. In part four, he explains the social principles of sustainability.


People need relationships with other people for reasons that are purely personal – meaning not economic. Human history verifies the inherent social nature of the human species.

Society, as a general concept, includes all direct and indirect relationships among people – within families, friendships, communities, societies, and nations. People obviously have banded together in families and communities or tribes, for purposes of security, trade, and reproduction.

They also have formed communities and societies for personal companionship. Humans have instinctively sought recognition and approval from their fellow human beings even when nothing of economic value was involved. People need other people to share their joys and to comfort them in their times of sorrow. People need to love and be loved – without rationalization or justification.

Social Values Differ But Principles Same Everywhere

Social standards or norms of human behavior evolve from a common understanding of necessary social valuesmeans for sustaining positive personal relationships. Social values are attempts to translate the essential principles of personal relationships into practical guidelines for day-to-day living.

Social values may be different for different communities and societies at different times in their social evolution. However, the most fundamental of social principles are the same for all communities within all societies at all times. Social principles are the specific subset of laws of nature or natural law that applies to human relationships. As with the laws of physics or chemistry, if people misinterpret or ignore the basic laws of human nature, sooner or later they will suffer the negative consequences.

Core Values of Humankind

People in different cultures obviously have different social values, but a common set of core values are shared across virtually all cultures of civilized society. These core values include such human characteristics as honesty, fairness, responsibility, respect, and compassion.

Such values reflect deeper underlying social principles that transcend societies. Social principles, like ecological principles, are defined at a higher level of organization beyond human observation or full understanding. Over time, however, humans have come to share a common sense of what is necessary for positive personal relationships. Positive relationships simply cannot be maintained among people who are dishonest, unfair, irresponsible, disrespectful, and uncaring. Such propositions do not need to be proven; they are matters of consensus or common sense. 

Trust is Universal

Positive personal relationships must be built on trust. Trust is a “rule-based” principle of human behavior, meaning it is a universal standard of conduct deemed appropriate for all people under all conditions. 

Rule-based principles do not consider the consequences of specific actions; good behavior ultimately trustis assumed to bring good results. The core values of honesty, fairness, and responsibility are all logical aspects of the principle of trust. To maintain positive personal relationships, people need be honest and truthful in words and actions. They need to be fair and impartial in their treatment of others, regardless of their race, age, gender, or any of the other particular social group to which they might belong. They need to do their share of whatever needs to be done and to follow through with their promises or commitment.

Whenever trusts are validated, relationships grow stronger. Whenever trusts are betrayed, relationships grow weaker. To sustain personal relationships, people must be willing to trust and be trustworthy in return.

Kindness & Empathy

Positive social relationships must also be based on kindness.

Sometimes, relationships can be sustained only through empathy, respect, and compassion. We all face the possibilities of ill health, natural disasters, and financial problems in our lives. We all make mistakes. Sometimes, we need mercy rather than justice.

Kindness is a care-based rather than rule-based principle. Kindness is situational: what is appropriate depends on the specific context or conditions. People should do for others as they would have others do for them, if they were in the other person’s situation and the other person was in theirs. 

Empathy is a precondition for kindness. To be kind, a person first must be able to put themselves in the other person’s situation, under their conditions, with their unique obstacles and aspirations. We may not agree on how others should be treated, but to sustain personal relationships, we must treat moral courage others with compassion. We must be respectful of their beliefs and values as we would have them respect ours. This ideal of kindness, generally referred to as the “Golden Rule,” has been a fundamental aspect of virtually every enduring religion and philosophy throughout human history. 

Moral Courage

Positive social relationships also require courage. It takes courage to be trustworthy and kind in the cynical cultures of today that consider trust and kindness to be idealistic and naive. It takes courage to act on personal convictions and to persevere in carrying out good intentions, even in the face of adversity and personal risks. 

Courage is too often associated with acts of bravery or the willingness and ability to face great personal risks in carrying out commitments. However, some of the most evil and despicable acts in the history of humanity were carried out by people with great physical and mental courage. To strengthen human relationships, bravery must be guided by social and ethical values. Courage strengthens human relationships only when it gives people the ability to fulfill some positive purpose for the greater good of society and humanity.

Economics: From Utilitarianism To Ethics

Unfortunately, the global economy is dominated by a utilitarian or ends-based ethic that places no value of human relationships unless something of value is expected in return. The rightness or goodness of decisions and actions is judged solely by their consequences or results, and the economic consequences are the only ones that seem to matter.

The supposed objective of such intentions is to do the “greatest good for the greatest number of people.” But the “greatest good” has become synonymous with the “greatest wealth,” as measured by personal prosperity, regional economic development, or the value of national economic output.

The “greatest goods” arising from trust and kindness have no economic value, as explained in The Essentials of Economic Sustainability. It will take moral courage to speak the truth about the dependence of economic sustainability on the essential social principles of trust, kindness, and courage.


Part 3: The Three Ecological Principles of Economic Sustainability

Part 2: The Hierarchy of Economic Sustainability: Getting The Principles Right

Part 1: Ethics & The Challenge of Economic Sustainability

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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