On Keeping A Professional Distance From Global Inequalities

Recently, I was discussing my views about global inequalities with a couple of international trade law and investment law experts. Their experience and expertise was – both in sum and in comparison to me – rather considerable. Together, they had experience with advising governments in their negotiations at international institutional (eg, UN, WTO), in multilateral and bilateral negotiations (eg, free-trade agreements) and also in public-private partnerships (i.e. government investment in industry).

Rather significantly, after some fairly passionate discussions, they thought my reading of ‘public law’ and ‘economics’ was rather moralistic. That they viewed me in this way was not surprising. What surprised me was that they thought: 1) that I was unaware of my moralistic reading of international economic life; and 2) that their understanding of their jobs – as experts – did not involve moral questioning. They admitted it was rather ‘brutal’, but asserted that it was ‘true’.

When pressed, they accepted that personal morality had some influence on their work. However, they were not enthralled with the idea that morality had a clear and direct link to their professional jobs. Seemed to me that a normative sense of their vocation was inactive. Summarily, they both agreed that I was naive, and that, they had “real” outcomes to achieve. I was really surprised by how unquestioning they were. That such “real” outcomes were so separable from social politics. It troubled me that their professional perspective concludes that the “real” outcomes they worked on, could be considered a-moral.

No doubt, both were sympathetic to taking up a more moral view of international economic life on a macro-scale. But they drew a clear distinction between their professional job and personal morality. They cited examples of participating in recent demonstrations (LGBTI rights), making the effort to volunteer (work place mentoring) and contributing financially to causes (microfinance). They agreed that moral questions did play some part. It certainly was something they learnt in school about their field, but rarely did opportunity present to make such grand reflections. So, it seems their agreement occurs only by completely stepping ‘out of’ the details of their work. Their everyday professional life is too pragmatically determined to consider the normative picture.

They concurred that when doing professional deeds, such as negotiating between parties, they can’t bring a moral reading into it. On the one hand, it is not their job. On the other, it is not expected by those that they are negotiating with or negotiating on behalf. In other words, the two industrious and intelligent persons, who work with the hard realities of public finance, don’t think they ‘have the luxury’ to bring a broader ‘moral reading’ of economics into their daily professional activities.

It is not to suggest that they should at all times no matter what is at stake. It is just to point out that it seems increasingly easy to disengage with broader ethical questions when being professional. And it seems many people have the same experience. In a way, it is to avoid questioning the nature of expertise and the political orders we live in. To encourage blanket avoidance can’t be a good thing. Surely, ‘a moral reading of public finance’ is not to be treated as an alienable luxury.

I can use a quick example from teaching to make my point. Say I have marked a script which was written well but had an immensely xenophobic section in it, what do I do? Do I simply grade it and move on? Do I grade the xenophobic section as an academically poor section or something more serious? Do I meet with the student and discuss it? Do I meet to change their mind, or to advise to avoid expressing them, as potential employers are unlikely to be impressed? Do I alter lectures or seminars in the following academic year to try to prevent students from making the same mistake? In each of the above questions there are situations that do not allow me to do so. For example, a module guide and contained readings did not engage the raised issue, and thus it would make it more unreasonable for me to dock marks for an unspecified learning outcome. Or, anonymity during the marking process of exam scripts does not allow me to identify a student much less to discuss their script. So of course it is understandable to suggest that in some circumstances, ethical questions might not result in any action. All in all, it would be worrying if I avoided all these questions entirely and simply suggested that my job was to simply ‘grade and move on’. I am glad my job allows me to take these things seriously, and also, rather fortunately, scripts have rarely contained xenophobic remarks.

Freedom and Global Inequalities

Obviously, this is all anecdotal and the underlying premises are too vast to discuss in detail within a blog post. My main issue with such professional disengagement is how individuals are increasingly atomising themselves. I think this has consequences to how freedom for individuals in society is maintained and the extent to which we can close the gaps between unequal members in a global human society. To be professionally disengaged does not mean that people do not have moral expectations. What it means is that populations can easily continue to make demands from incredibly powerful states, and all the while, they would themselves be making much more narrow and self-interested calculations.

Reminds me of a book by Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts Into Air, where Berman said:

“In All That Is Solid Melts Into Air I tried to open up a perspective that will reveal all sorts of cultural and political movements as part of one process: modern men and women asserting their dignity in the present – even a wretched and oppressive present – and their right to control their future; striving to make a place for themselves in the modern world, a place where they can feel at home.”

I think there is benefit in thinking about the extent to which private capital could be and ought to be rationalised in moral terms. What are we to do if: human freedoms and human dignity is simply not market efficient? I do not think there is a simple solution to such a provocative question. Just to note that it is worth asking. The big question throughout history concerns human conceptions of freedom. It is the notion and social practice of freedom, which ties the writings of Confucius, Socrates, Hobbes, Rousseau, Hayek, and even the writings of contemporary politicians like Barack Obama.

What might be forgotten by the non-academic audience, with respect to this expansive literature from Confucius to Obama, is the capacity for “private property” to both deprive and provide human beings with a sense of freedom. The relationship between human beings and their property (or lack of) and the power that ‘owning’ or ‘enjoying’ property exerts on individuals and communities is significant for all social practices. It lies at the heart of typologies of self-government (for example consumerism/capitalism) and typologies of state-authority (for example taxation/fines).

Pursuit of self-interest and acting altruistically are often taken to be antinomies. I don’t quite agree with this point. One could say that the more a human being’s sense of worth is, the more charitable and generous they are, and thus, the more sociable they are. Thus, as a matter of logic, a pleasant and peaceful society needs to give human beings the opportunity to pursue their sense of worth. Some might pursue physical wellbeing, which includes everything from dieting to running, meditation to cosmetic improvements like wearing makeup. But there are many pursuits since well-being is incredibly diverse. Beyond the “physical” there are others, including intellectual, financial, spiritual, emotional.

It would not be possible to write down an exhaustive list of the pursuits of people for their wellbeing, and it appears to be almost impossible for two people to agree, in exact terms, how much should be sacrificed by an individual or how much ought to be a social entitlement. A good example that contrasts these discussions might be: How much tax evasion is good or bad? (think #panamapapers) Or, how much medical attention should be free nationally? (think NHS debates in the UK over the years).

These complexities are too “big” to take an exclusively empirical view. I suggest, like all complex problems, it is helpful to resort to heuristics. And surely, heuristics would involve some philosophical questioning about “what/how/why” capital ought to be. A heuristic that substantiates and justifies to what extent capital could maximise freedom and at the same time minimise harm. Of course, such a deliberation is a moral deliberation. Such deliberation, however much ‘just a heuristic’, is ultimately concerned with a normative standard.  For me, this entire discussion has been somewhat ‘rejected’ if one takes a-moral perspective when working in the field of public finance.

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