10 August 2009

The Courage of Conviction

Central to the myth of progress, what Vandana Shiva has called capitalism’s creation myth, is the idea that you can always have more. The lesson of wisdom, of most of the world’s religions, is that there must always be balance. The joy of new love is always balanced by the pain of opening up to another person; the precious love for children is bought at the cost of the fear of their loss; the thrill of being alive is balanced by the fear of death. Balance is the central lesson of life.

It is because of the refusal to accept the pain that accompanies the joy that we are left with a culture devoid of depth and relationships devoid of meaning. We value the instant karma of the reality TV show or the next gadget, while laughing at those who invest their lives in seeking a deeper, more valuable wisdom. When the entrepreneur tells you there is no such thing as a free lunch, he is thinking that everything must be paid for in terms of money, which we are prepared to work for and offer up. But how many of us still understand the price of a meaningful human life, and are prepared to pay for that?

The managerialist politicians who predominate today would probably argue that in order to change something you need to be able to measure it. A cynical wag recently undercut the purported objectivity of this process with his comment that the Blair government has moved from evidence-based policy-making to policy-based evidence generation. The balancing of costs and benefits in the public policy debate demonstrates clearly the predominance of utilitarianism. The downside of this sort of calculation is that it yields outcomes which are repugnant to many citizens.

This is especially apparent in debates over nuclear power, where politicians have decided on our behalf that the number of lives lost as a result of nuclear irradiation are a fair trade-off for the generation of electricity to power homes and factories. Similar arguments are made when decisions are taken to situate landfill sites or incinerators. The welfare of the average citizen predominates over that of the affected individual, making the cost-benefit analysis an inherently immoral calculus. Utilitarianism is also guilty of species chauvinism since the impact of economic decisions on the non-human inhabitants of the planet are never considered, let alone measured.

It is easy to laugh at the economist or politician who attempts to put a price on human life, or the cost of climate change, or the total annihilation of the planet, or who finds that it is best to encourage Czech citizens to smoke because their early deaths save the government money. It is harder – and therefore more vital – to have the courage of our convictions, and of our intuitions and judgements – when we are in situations where important decisions must be made.

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