Why More Upstream Care Ethics Are Badly Needed

EDITORIAL, 10 Jul 2023

#804 | Howard Richards – TRANSCEND Media Service

The time has come for ethics of care. In the plural. Reverberating through revivals of venerable old spiritual caring traditions. Reverberating through adoptions of benevolent new innovative caring practices.

My story starts in Sweden in the late 1980s. A young African woman, a refugee from Uganda inspired by the theory of structural violence of Johan Galtung, is writing a thesis at the faculty of education of the University of Stockholm. Catherine Odora (later Catherine Odora Hoppers) had been a speechwriter for the president of Uganda, Milton Obote. Earlier, when Obote was overthrown by Idi Amin, fourteen members of her family were killed. One brother was tortured on television and later shot dead by Amin himself.

In her doctoral dissertation on structural violence in Africa she distinguished attempting to solve social problems “upstream” from attempting to solve social problems “downstream.”

Many problems have no solutions downstream but would have solutions if there were emancipatory upstream changes. Now they are located so far down interlocked chains of causes and effects that it is “too late” to solve them.

I leave it to the reader to identify examples of downstream problems that, as things now stand, have no solutions. This will free up space to add to my account of downstream disastrous consequences of upstream rigidity, a proposal for necessary conversations facilitating the absenting of those consequences.

Upstream:  John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1936, “The celebrated optimism of traditional economic theory … is also to be traced, I think, to their [i.e., the traditional economists HR] having neglected to take account of the drag on prosperity which can be exercised by an insufficiency of effective demand.” (General Theory, p. 33) Effective demand is constituted by persons who (1) are desiring willing buyers and (2) have money. For example (1) the desire to hire workers, to be effective demand, must coincide with (2) expected revenues from sales sufficient to fund payroll and all other costs and still generate high profits.

The “optimism” in question is the doctrine that supply creates its own demand (Say´s Law). (p.21)   Somehow, according to the orthodox theory of 1936 and the neoliberals of 2023, an increase in the supply of labour will trigger an increase in the demand for labour. I put “optimism” in scare quotes because, like Keynes (p. 32), I find it mysterious that anyone could sincerely be so optimistic. (p. 33)   It should be obvious that the supply of labour power, like the supply of any other commodity, does not, considering today´s global economy as a whole, create effective demand that guarantees that everyone who needs to sell herself or himself in the marketplace to make a living will find a willing buyer who offers a just wage.  

Correcting this theoretical error (or obfuscation) of traditional economic theory, as Keynes put it, “changes everything.”  But the economic issue is itself is only relatively upstream. Leaving the majority of the world´s population at the mercy of a labour market that does not love them, is itself a consequence of an even more upstream absence of caring social structures.

I have found no better name for the uncaring social structures upstream that stand in the way of solutions to key problems downstream than a phrase found in L’Empire de la Valeur. Refonder l’économie by André Orléan:  séparation marchande.

Séparation marchande describes what it means to be a person in a market defined by the laws that constitute the positions of the actors known as buyers and sellers. The conversations séparation marchande invites are about ethics –about what should be and not only about what is. Why? Tony Lawson answers:  because positions in social structures are defined by the rights and duties of the persons who currently occupy them. For example, if the buyer pays the agreed price, then the seller has a duty to deliver, and the buyer has a right to expect, the delivery of the goods.

Ethical critiques of séparation marchande are not about fairy castles in the air. In John Dewey´s terms. ethics is the rational criticism of customary moral norms. Today more than ever the criticism of customary moral norms is about the requirements of survival. David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist specializing in the evolution  of humans, drove home Dewey´s point when he argued (in his book Darwin´s Cathedral) that when applying Darwinian analysis to learn what adapts and survives, and  to learn what fails to adapt and does not survive, the unit of analysis that survives or does not survive, is what Wilson calls the “moral system,” not the individual, not the group, and not the DNA.

The juridical subject of modern western civilization has no right to the solidarity of others when he (sexism intended) needs help, and no duty to aid others who need help. That is séparation marchande.

Orléan uses his key phrase, séparation marchande, to organize the contents of a 334-page book that dissects today´s dominant economic thinking and proposes reforms.   Séparation marchande names a social structure even more upstream than Keynes´ chronic insufficiency of effective demand. It names the basic social structure of the modern world. Without absence of care upstream, insufficiency of effective demand would never have become an issue. Given that it has become an issue, that insufficiency leads in turn to, downstream from it, the second of Keynes´ key findings.

Keynes second key finding –a consequence of the first– is the chronic weakness of the inducement to invest. “The weakness of the inducement to invest has been at all times the key to the economic problem.” (pp. 347-48)   And this, in turn, leads to the centrepiece of public policy in all nations today: namely, the attempt to persuade investors to invest. By persuading others to spend, by spending themselves, and by encouraging banks to lend, governments endeavour to keep going economies that inherently tend to stop.

In the words of Hyman Minsky, in the world of business, only what is financed by investment can be done. The heart of financing is to make financiers confident that if they advance money now, then they will get more money back later. They must be promised the “accumulation” famously analysed by Rosa Luxemburg in 1913, and today grown into the idea of “regime of accumulation” –an idea that when thinkers like David Harvey and Fredric Jameson put pen to paper leads to the claim that in postmodern neoliberal society every dynamic force that moves human activity, including even the passions of unconscious minds, must conform to the requirements of production that is driven by accumulation.  Another name for never-ending accumulation is never-ending growth.

“Growth” is another name for new spending, both spending as investments and spending buying the resulting products. But economic growth is ecological disaster.

Nevertheless, public spending there must be. It has been made indispensable by the insufficiency of private demand.

Public spending on welfare is a hard sell. But it has been known since the time of Thucydides (460 B.C. to 404 B.C.) that it is a comparatively easy sell to convince the public that their enemies are hell bent to destroy them. For this reason, endless militarism and endless lies can also be understood as partly caused by the upstream constraints that make the meeting of human needs depend on it being profitable to meet them.

If the above is telling it like it is, and not like it ain´t, then it is plausible to claim that (1) whatever might have been the case in the past, today reorganizing society to augment the meeting of needs through multitudinous forms of caring action serves everybody´s best interests.  The prior defeat of people who benefit from leaving human needs unmet is not required. No such people exist. (2) Ethical deliberation is required. Social structures are improved by conversations that lead to understandings that change the rights and duties of persons who occupy positions in social structures. A good place to start is to talk about accumulation. What are its social functions? What they should be? Briefly:

  1. A social function of accumulation is to motivate production. But as Evelin Lindner has written, too much is motivated by profit, while too little is motivated by caring. To elicit more caring, we need to recover more of the traditional motivating influences of old words like vocation, profession, mission, good, purpose (telos), calling and service. In the words of a poem by Rabindranath Tagore:

I slept and dreamt that life was joy.

I awoke and saw that life was service.

I acted and behold, service was joy.

  1. Another social function of accumulation is to allocate capital to what is sometimes called its “highest and best” use, where “highest and best” is identified with “most profitable” also factoring in risk. I will not go into the question whether this theoretical notion, identified with David Ricardo, predicts anything empirically verifiable. I will only observe that it is now a function performed very badly. Profits are often made doing things that should not be done. Conversely, things that should be done –notably the provision of dignified livelihoods for people who need them, and measures that ought to be taken to save the biosphere—often go unfunded. They are unfunded in a global casino economy awash with excess capital devoted to socially dysfunctional speculation. It is illusory to suppose that more competitive markets or more government intervention can correct such market failures in the absence of ethical guidance, and in the absence of personal commitments to lead an ethical life by people who control resources and decide on their uses.
  2. A third social function of accumulation contributes to organizing the work done inside an enterprise. Measures of earnings (often EBITDA) define success, or part of success. When success is measured, inferences defining its presumed causes can become feedback for the constant organizational learning needed to adapt to constantly changing environments. However, as Pierre Calame has argued in detail, today organizations must learn how to pursue several different goals simultaneously. A single goal, accumulating profit, is neither sufficient nor desirable. Since Peter Drucker suggested it, organizations have drafted mission statements articulating more than one objective and defining “the organization´s purpose and very reason for being.” The accumulation of earnings usually counts as a means, not as an end in itself. Nevertheless, without measures of accumulation, managers would be lost and would not know what to do. And without revenues exceeding costs an enterprise could only continue to exist with subsidies from outside. But let us not fall into the trap of believing that the purpose of an enterprise is to continue to exist. Meeting human needs in harmony with nature is a physical bottom line that accounting bottom lines should serve. These same accounting bottom lines often signal that it is time to liquidate or reorganize a legal fiction (a corporation, limited liability company, or partnership) while taking measures to save real living flesh and blood human beings from harm.
  3. A fourth social function of accumulation is to create surplus. When revenues exceed all costs, then there is a surplus of value, an accumulation. Today, accumulation creating value is needed more than ever. Technologies like robots are making most workers obsolete as factors of production. Technology produces marketable products better, and at lower cost. Paying everyone who needs work from the sales of what they would make if they were hired has become a non-starter.

It is not a non-starter to tap surplus to finance more and better livelihoods. The great day has come, when humans can relax and pursue self-realization or devote themselves to nursing mother nature back to health, while robots do the heavy lifting and computers do the complicated thinking. But this happy ending can only happen if humanity learns to recycle surplus to fund dignified livelihoods for the majorities that are, or will become, redundant in the labour market. And the recycling of surplus can only happen when surplus exists.


Prof. Catherine Odora Hoppers, DST/NRF South African Research Chair in Development Education & PASCAL International Observatory University of South Africa, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. Professor Hoppers is a scholar and policy specialist on International Development, education, North-South questions, disarmament, peace, and human security. She is a UNESCO expert in basic education, lifelong learning, information systems and on Science and Society; an expert in disarmament at the UN Department of Disarmament Affairs; an expert to the World Economic Forum on benefit sharing and value addition protocols; and the World Intellectual Property Organisation on traditional knowledge and community intellectual property rights. In South Africa, Professor Hoppers holds a South African Research Chair in Development Education at the University of South Africa (2008à) a National Chair set up by the Department of Science and Technology and is a member of the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf), and was a member of the Academy of Science Special Panel on the Future of Humanities (South Africa).

Prof. Howard Richards is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment. He is Research Professor of Philosophy at Earlham College and he also currently teaches in the University of Cape Town`s EMBA programme. He was educated at Redlands High School in California, Yale, Stanford, UC Santa Barbara, University of Toronto, Harvard and Oxford. His books include: The Evaluation of Cultural Action, a study of an application of Paulo Freire´s pedagogical philosophy in rural Chile (London Macmillan 1985); Letters from Quebec; Understanding the Global Economy; The Dilemmas of Social Democracies; Gandhi and the Future of Economics; Rethinking Thinking; Unbounded Organizing in Community; and The Nurturing of Time Future. His new book, written with the assistance of Gavin Andersson, Economic Theory and Community Development: Why Putting Community First Is Essential for our Survival, is available from the publisher, Dignity Press, and from Amazon and other major booksellers, as a print book and as an eBook. Email: howardrichards8@gmail.com and howardri@earlham.edu

Howard Richards’ new article, ‘In Praise of Functional Morals and Ethics’ has recently been published by the Journal of Critical Realism. The full text can easily be found and downloaded by typing the title of the article into your browser.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 10 Jul 2023.

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One Response to “Why More Upstream Care Ethics Are Badly Needed”

  1. Thank you for your most interesting Theory, Howard.

    The reality is: no matter how caring humanity is, machine guns, landmines, grenades, bullets, bombs, rockets, torpedoes, rocket launchers, tanks, air fighters, warships exist for the sole purpose for killing. Whilst Governments are entitled to control their slaves (Armed Forces) in the Art of Killing, and have the authority to send their slaves to kill their negotiated enemy and die in the process, the only product is UNCARE.

    The war industry promotes UNCARING ETHICS, uncaring values.

    Voluntarily producing orphans, hunger, disease, destroying families, societies, buildings and the environment, forcing millions to abandon their homes (refugees) means caring for our warlords.

    ‘Optimism’ for military manufacturers means; ‘have faith in politicians organising wars, so that we can sell our products and pay our employees” Can this system create “Care Ethics”?