Civilizing the Economy A New Economics of Provision

10 ways to avoid the ethical

Posted Jan 2, 2011 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, 4 Comments

At one time or another, most of us would like to avoid the ethical.  By ethical I mean the moral dimension of our relationship with others.  As I have detailed in Civilizing the Economy, one of the best illustrations of this is Adam Smith’s use of the “invisible hand” in his The Wealth of Nations. It allowed him to avoid a moral relationship with the slaves in the colonies who created the wealth he enjoyed in the 1760s.  This avoidance, in fact, is a central aspect of the long legacy of our Anglo-American property-based capitalism.  Still, Smith is certainly not alone.  In fact, there are probably more ways to avoid the ethical than one could count.  I think the following 10 could be at the top of most lists.

  1. To believe in an “invisible hand”
  2. To limit one’s description of events to “the way things work.”
  3. To believe that whatever happened was part of God’s plan
  4. To assume it could not have been otherwise
  5. To only focus on what might emerge from what happened
  6. To see everything as autobiographical
  7. To believe that whatever happened to others could not happen to me.
  8. To believe that whatever happens was supposed to happen
  9. To assume that there are really different kinds of people
  10. To shut down one’s empathy with others

4 Responses to “10 ways to avoid the ethical”

  1. Chris MacDonald says:

    January 9, 2011 at 3:09 pm

    I like almost all of this list. My only quibble is with #1. I think the error isn't in believing in the invisible hand, but rather in having too much faith in its ability to solve all problems. The very basic idea that we each, by pursuing our own ends (making a living, supporting a family, etc.) can contribute to the common good seems innocuous. The trouble lies in thinking that this notion licenses either a) greed or b) the utter absence of morals in the market.
  2. Marvin Brown says:

    January 9, 2011 at 5:23 pm

    The question is really about what kind of system the economy is. As I demonstrate in Civilizing the Economy, it is not a self-organizing system, such as the biosphere, but a social system, guided by positive and negative feedback looks as well as human choices. Self-organizing systems, such as the biosphere need to be protected. Social systems, on the other hand, need good management.
  3. JD Moyer says:

    January 9, 2011 at 9:09 pm

    Great list. My favorite (or least favorite) is #8, which might in fact be the same as #3 and #4. You could also add "Manifest Destiny" to the list.
  4. How To Accumulate (Non-Coercive) Power, Part II | The Blog of J.D. Moyer says:

    February 2, 2011 at 12:32 pm

    [...] to “Manifest Destiny“), we avoid the ethical.  Marvin Brown’s recent post 10 ways to avoid the ethical expands on this [...]

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Marvin T. Brown, Ph.D teaches business and organizational ethics at the University of San Francisco and Saybrook University in San Francisco.

This book is the culmination of 30 years of teaching and writing on business and society from a communicative perspective. Visit for more information.

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