Bringing Morals Back to the Table

Robyn Van En (facing forward at right), her son, David, and other founding members of Indian Line Farm. Photo by Clemens Kalischer

Many of us are eating locally and organically produced food. From a modern economic perspective, where price is often the paramount consideration, these choices seem illogical.

What accounts for this shift, and does it have the possibility of expanding to all of our economic decisions?

At the end of his 1966 essay “Buddhist Economics,” economist E. F. Schumacher asks, “whether modernization as currently practiced, without regard to religious and spiritual values is actually producing agreeable results?”

Economics, practiced as a science, an objective discipline, seeks to reduce relationships to only those that maximize utility. The worker’s creativity and spirituality are discouraged, and consumers are asked to put aside their moral considerations in economic decisions.

Buddhist economics is the description of another path in economic reasoning, one that involves people “imbued with a fully developed sense of the sacredness of all existence.” Schumacher looked to all faiths to inform his thought about creating a more sustainable economy. He recognized the human as an individual but also as a creative element within a larger system.

The Buddhist economist asserts that a person’s work should have a threefold result: develop and use his faculties; join with others in a common task; and create the goods necessary for comfortable existence. Work becomes an act of bringing needed goods into the world with respect for the environment that led to their creation.

For the Buddhist economist this is the process of finding the middle way, with both material comfort and spiritual reverence.

Altering the economic perspective requires replacing an outward reflection of materialism with an inward reflection of morality. In other words, breaking away from a system that asks us to separate ourselves into “the economical man,” who cares only about compensation and price, and “the moral man” of compassion and good will. Working in the tradition of the ideas taught by Schumacher, the Schumacher Center in Great Barrington, Mass., has launched a local currency, BerkShares, for the southern Berkshire region as a means of reconnecting these two sides and implementing our values in economic decisions. We use the local currency because it represents a support of the local economy that includes our friends and family. BerkShares defines the physical boundaries of our purchases so that we may see their full impact.

As we learn to reinitiate our morality into economic decisions with the help of tools like BerkShares, we will realize the role that locally scaled production can play. Our morals will demand that our purchases be accompanied by a more complete picture of the processes that led to their creation. Therefore, a movement toward relocalizing production must accompany the incorporation of morality into economics.

The American economic system assumes a consumer chooses goods with the lowest price. The decision that many of us are now making to forgo price in favor of local food is based on our values. We believe that food should not travel over vast distances and that a farmer has a right to a living wage. When our purchasing decisions take these value judgments into consideration, we are willing to pay more for local and organic products. This is the beginning of a new economy that embraces the moral and sacred values in all our purchasing decisions.

No endeavor that involves the interaction of conscious beings with an inherent ethical sensibility can be treated as an absolute science. Working conditions, environmental health and community support can be included in our economic decisions. The Schumacher Center and many other organizations are working to build the models that can bring together our economic system and our morals. These models will provide the meaningful work and the awareness of production necessary for a more complete and fair economic system.