Civilizing the Economy A New Economics of Provision

A Common Morality

Posted Mar 7, 2014 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, No Comments


            Christopher Boehm points out in his book on moral origins that one difference between humans and their closest cousins—chimpanzees and bonobos—is that we blush, a sure sign of shame.[i]  Shame occurs when we experience a gap between how others see us and how we want to be seen. It turns out that our morality has its origins not in individual development, but rather in what evolutionists call “social selection.”

            Boehm believes that when hunter-gather societies began to hunt large game, they required cooperation of all hunters, and this requirement made it necessary that the division of the kill would also be equally distributed.  How else to ensure that all would participate fully in future hunts?   Although the earliest humans may have been egoists, around 45,000 thousand years ago, when hunter-gather communities required cooperation for survival, they “become decisively equalitarian”[ii]


            By itself, this equalitarian requirement would not have made humans moral.  The moral conscience emerged because a few threatened this social cooperation.  A few of the hunters sought to capture more than their share of praise for a successful hunt or to take more than their share of the killed game.   These are the early thieves, cheats, and free loaders that we know all too well today. Our moral conscience, it turns out, emerged in dealing with such “deviants.”


            Boehm found groups used various means to deal with such deviants.  One common form was gossip.  Gossiping about someone’s bullying antics might potentially so damage his reputation that he would not engage in such behavior again.  Especially if one’s reputation was socially valuable in gaining access to community goods or a better mate.  In Boehm’s research, he finds instances not only of shaming, but also of exclusion, ostracism, and even capital punishment.  These acts of protecting an equalitarian social order had another consequence:  they produced a consciousness of what one should be like.  As hunter-gather communities protected themselves from bullies and other deviants, in other words, they also developed a sense of what they were protecting—egalitarian, and generous human relationship.  What emerged over time was a consciousness not only of what was wrong (a bully) but also what was right (a generous person).


            These two processes—the protection of social norms and their affirmation through internalization—do seem to go together.  In any case, early human communities knew that the world was a dangerous place and their best way of living together involved providing for one another, and protecting their social practices of cooperation from thieves, cheaters, bullies, and sociopaths.  I doubt if our world today is much different. 



[i] Christopher Boehm Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism and Shame (New York: Basic Books, 2012.

[ii] Ibid., p. 154.


The Commons as a Social Relation

Posted May 31, 2013 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, No Comments

At the recent Berlin conference on the economy and the commons, participants had the common burden of finding a common definition of the commons.  The organizers, I think, wanted for us to at least agree that it was a social relation.  The commons was not just some thing—like the water or land—but our social relation to things.  In this sense, the commons is not given, but chosen.

 So when we say that something is a “social” relation, what does that mean?  How about saying that social relations give us our social identity, and furthermore, that our social identity comes from the social groups we belong to such as class or ethnicity? There are many such social groups. Vietnam vets, for example, would be a social group if those who were in the military during the Vietnam War are seen as, and perhaps see themselves as, sharing a similar identity.

There are also social relations among different social groups, such as the social relationship between owners and laborers, or we could say between masters and servants.  Such social relations are usually dominated by unequally distributed privileges and vulnerabilities.  Such social relations, one could say, provide the context for the economic practices of providing goods and services. Because these social relations are based on the ownership of property, only those who have something they can convert into property, such as labor, can participate in such social relations.

Actually, the economy is comprised of multiple social relations, such as the social relations between loaners and debtors, buyers and sellers, and rich and poor.  Those with the most power in these relations (the elite) largely determine their actual characteristics.

If the commons denotes social relations, are the social relations relationships of equality or inequality?  Maybe we could think of internal and external social relations: relationships among members of the social group and relationships among one group and other groups.  Then one could say that the social relations among the commons social group aims for equality, while the actual relationships among the commons social group and the group of property owners is one of inequality, and of conflict.

If all of this is true, then being a commoner—living in common social relations—means living with the elite in social relationships of submission or conflict.  At least that seems to be the choice that comes with the idea of the commons as a social relation.











Civic and Commercial Arguments

Posted Mar 12, 2013 by Marvin Brown in civic vs. commercial, The Civic, No Comments

In a commercial argument, we haggle over the value of something, and try to convince the other that our product or idea is the best one.  This involves engaging in what is commonly called “the marketplace of ideas.”  Such arguments appeal to our interests, and we seek to find a coincidence of interests—a win/win situation—where we can agree.  In commercial arguments, we treat our ideas as properties or commodities that we try to sell to others.  So how does this differ from a civic model of communication?

In a commercial argument, we see people exchanging their ideas with each other.  Each person exists isolated from the other and they market their ideas to each other.  In civic dialogues, we see people working through their disagreements in a shared civic context.  Much like we are engaged in the English language now, as I write and you read this text, citizens become engaged in a civic conversation through participation in it.  In these conversations, instead of trying to sell their ideas as though they were commodities, participants spend time developing new ideas that will move the conversation forward.

This difference between a commercial exchange and civic engagement is really central to understanding civic arguments.  It is like the distinction between ownership and membership.  If we think we own our ideas, then we protect them as we protect property, or we sell them for the right price (a promotion or at least some recognition).  If we see our ideas as belonging to a language and a culture, then we can enjoy their development as we become more familiar with the vocabulary and attitudes that constitute civic arguments.

As members of the civic, we can acknowledge each other as global citizens. This membership does not replace city or national citizenship, but rather expands it to include those with whom we share the planet, share this time, and share a similar planetary future.  To be a member is to acknowledge that we are all in this together, and that as members, we all have equal moral status.  This moral equality of all members carries with it a second implicit civic norm: the norm of justice or reciprocity.  The claim here is quite simple:  All members should receive good for doing good.  The relationships among the members should be reciprocal.  Actually, reciprocity also plays a role in justifying differences.  As Ernst Baker has pointed out, reciprocity fosters “balanced social relations” (Becker, 1986).  A balanced social relation does not mean that everyone has the same, but it does mean that the differences are among members, instead of among members and non-members.

When we think about our future, it is truer than ever before that we are all in the same boat.  Even though we today live within the conflicts generated by class, race, gender, and nationality, all our grandchildren will inherit the same earth.  Their inheritance depends on our willingness to work together to create a more just and sustainable world.  Civic membership does not resolve the disagreements about how to do this, but it does give us a platform upon which we can work together toward viable solutions.

Remember that one cannot be a citizen alone.  It is a relational and collective concept.  It is about belonging—belonging to the civic. Because equal membership is granted to all who participate, all have equal rights to be involved, or at least represented, in arguments that affect them.  These civic arguments can occur in many different places from local to international assemblies, in workplaces, voluntary associations, neighborhoods, and government agencies.  A civic argument is not defined by place, but rather by human relationships—relationships of moral equality, reciprocity, and participation.   If we apply these moral claims to arguments among citizens, civic arguments would exhibit the following characteristics.

  1. Each person’s participation is equally valued
  2. Participants feel safe enough to risk sharing their point of view
  3. They ask questions in an effort to understand each other,
  4. They develop reasons for their views that others can grasp.
  5. They value their differences,
  6. They work together for the best solution possible.

You can use the exercise below to assess your experiences of and knowledge about good civic arguments.  List 7 people with whom you have conversations and then rank them in terms of how often (1 meaning seldom and 5 meaning often) the conversations include the six features of civic arguments.

                                  Conversational Capacity


Conversational Partners 1 2 3 4 5 6

Feel safe

Ask questions

Develop good reasons

Give the benefit of the doubt

Value differences

Work together



Seldom   1   2   3   4   5   Often

Seldom   1   2   3   4   5   Often

Seldom   1   2   3   4   5   Often

Seldom   1   2   3   4   5   Often

Seldom   1   2   3   4   5   Often

Seldom   1   2   3   4   5   Often


After you finish the exercise, you can reflect on why some individuals received different numbers than others.  Also, you can imagine how they would have assessed their capacity for good conversations.  If you think they also would have had some high numbers with some people, then all of you have the individual capacity for good conversations.  The question is how to change our conditions so that all of us can participate at our highest potential.  I am not alone on working on this, but there is a lot still to be done.

Living like a Common Citizen

Posted Jan 18, 2013 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, No Comments

What would it be like to live the life of a common citizen?  I think it would include the following activities:


The civic is the space between our common humanity and our social differences.  We are invited by others, and by the urgency of problems, to participate in this space through civic conversations about how we want to live together.


Today is possible because others have cared for us; taken care of us.  Without caring relationships, we easily lose track of our common humanity.  To be full of care (careful) requires that all the providers of care are recognized.


What we do share (a common humanity) is the basis for what we decide to share (provisions, gifts, love).


There’s so much work to be done.  All who have the capacity to work are needed.  Work should not be controlled by the business job market, but rather by the needs of people and the planet.


We are the inheritors of the earth, of knowledge, of the arts, of all that makes the commons a resource for all of us.


Our planet—a home for all living things—is now threatened.  It must be protected.  Many of our communities—a home for families and friends—are crying out for justice and repair. They must be protected.


Together we can hold elected officials accountable to the people they represent, and we can hold all institutions accountable for their violations of justice and environmental sustainability.


Through civic conversations, we can develop systems of provision so all of us have the basic provisions for a good life, not at the expense of some, but rather at the advantage of all.


The violations of justice and sustainability, of all the “isms” that should not be practiced with impunity, must be protested against.


Without disagreement, we have no reason to engage in conversations.  We simply do what we all believe is right, not knowing if it is right or not.  Disagreement is the beginning of ethics—of a life worth living.


If we have not changed our minds, we have not been paying attention.  There is no universal site from which we can know it all, but rather only particular places where others can tell us what we do not know.   To enter into a civic conversation is to enter into a chamber of self-transformation.


Like horses and deer that existed on the savanna, we are fear-based animals.  It is part of what we have in common.  Living like a common citizen means that we try to focus this fear on real things we should be afraid of.


The struggle for moral equality and inclusion has a history.  In the short history of the U.S., it includes the struggles to expand citizenship beyond white male ownership, the Civil War, the struggles for women’s rights, for worker’s rights, the Civil Rights movement, and current struggles for justice and sustainability. The common citizen continues this tradition and passes it on to the next generation.


The Common Citizen

Posted Dec 4, 2012 by Marvin Brown in The Civic, No Comments

We are now living in the time of new thinking about our selves, our human relationships, and our relationships with the planet.   Everything that we hold dear, everything we hold in common, is threatened.  Perhaps the notion of the common citizen will be helpful.

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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