St Paul's Institute

Value(s) for Money

by Anna Laycock

Posted: 23 Jan 2017

I have already broken most of my New Year resolutions. I intended to:

1. Finish work on time

2. Sleep for 8 hours a night

3. Vanquish the dark forces of unrestrained global corporate power, and

4. Reduce time spent looking at pictures of reality TV stars and cute animals.

It's a little early to judge 3, but I'm definitely putting in the effort, which is making 1 and 2 pretty tricky (read: I've failed completely). I've installed a Facebook blocker, so 4's looking pretty good so far.

Like everyone else, my values and behaviours are complex and not entirely consistent. I have many different versions of the 'good' and they're not always reducible to a neat framework. Despite the intellectual appeal of ethical frameworks built on a single unifying principle (like maximising happiness or virtue), they're often better at prescribing behaviour than predicting it. Our conscious and unconscious decisions are rooted in social relationships and wider cultural narratives. They can vary over time and between situations, drawing on a huge number of factors, and often we can't fully articulate what makes us believe something is right, or why we took a course of action.

The complexity of our moral decision-making is part of what makes us human. It reflects the complexity of the social worlds we live in. We hold multiple identities. We value many 'goods': loving relationships, physical and mental wellbeing, social status or a decent wifi connection. For me, the real problems come when we discard this nuanced approach for something much more deterministic, which reduces the diversity of value to a single dimension.

Unfortunately, in our economy one form of value tends to take precedence over others, and it distorts the way we see and act in the world. Want to know how a country's doing? Look up its GDP. Want to know how your company's doing? Track the share price. Want to know whether Brexit was a good idea? Ask the markets.

This sort of financial determinism, reducing value to a single figure, has a very real and very dangerous effect. Decisions are often made on the basis of short-term profit maximisation, without consideration of the wider 'goods' which might be supported or destroyed, such as the local workforce or global atmosphere. And this isn't just a technical: it's a cultural malaise.

When we go to work, we're usually asked to leave at home the things that matter most to us as humans, from our families to our hopes for the future. Too often, a competitive corporate culture and narrow view of business success mean we feel pressured to play our own part in the 'maximising ROI' game, for fear of rejection or isolation.

The flipside of this corporate culture is the need for an uncritical consumer culture. As consumers, we often view a good deal as one which has minimum financial cost or maximum financial gain for us, without questioning what other sorts of 'good' our purchases might be creating or destroying. When best-buy tables only use one measure of what's best, the message is clear: if you don't get the cheapest deal, you're not a savvy consumer.

While the Fairtrade movement has done important work to connect us with the wider impacts of our purchasing decisions, most of us are a long way from integrating the full range of human values into our purchasing decisions. This isn't because we're all fundamentallyweak or greedy people - simply that our thoughts and behaviour are inevitably shaped by narratives and norms that support the status quo.

Money matters, but we need to find a way to include the other things that matter in our financial and consumption decisions. It's an urgent task, because our habit of reducing every decision to short-term profit or loss is leading us to make bad decisions. We're investing billions in fossil fuel extraction while we creep closer and closer towards catastrophic climate change; we're consuming so much stuff that it would take 1.6 planets to keep pace our needs; rising levels of inequality mean that 8 men own the same wealth as half of humanity. This doesn't sound like the sort of world most people would call 'good'.

How can we begin to shift this warped logic? Ideas abound in theory and practice, from triple bottom line reporting and Gross National Happiness to Benefit Corporations and values-based banks. We're seeing the beginnings of a more human approach to business and finance, but these pockets of hope need our support if they are to change the wider economy. That doesn't just mean buying from social enterprises or investing in sustainable funds - it means doing our bit to change the prevailing culture in which we see the world through the lens of money.

We need to create more space for everyone to express and act on the things that really matter to them, in both their professional and personal lives. We need to subvert the culture that denigrates human values as 'soft', when humans couldn't exist without care and connection. We need to challenge ourselves to resist the role of uncritical consumer, to question whether more stuff will make us happier, and to consider whether what we do buy is produced and sourced in a way we can support.

I'm not alone in questioning our current direction. From Just Living to Business Romanticism, more and more people are proposing new ways of approaching our economic lives. But that doesn't mean it's easy to hold tight to our true human values in practice, in a financialised culture that teaches us to be consumers before citizens. Our actions alone may not feel like a significant force, but as one of millions of small actions of resistance, we can be part of a generational change. And given the alternative, I think it's worth a shot. I'm going to make it resolution number 5 and I'm going to stick to this one. Even if I falter on the baby goats.

About this author

Anna Laycock is Executive Director of the Finance Innovation Lab and an Associate of St Paul's Institute.

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.