UN Development Goals

The UN has recently adopted new development goals which admirably aspire to commit governments to the elimination of poverty, among other things. It may be slightly unfair to say this, but new goals were necessary because the old millennium (Millennium! Old!) goals had failed to produce the results they were meant to produce – there was some progress on some goals, just not enough on enough.

Sadly, the new goals are unlikely to be more successful. In the first place, there are seventeen of them, each divided into many sub goals, more than 150 in all. (I haven’t actually counted!) Any manager will tell you that 150 goals is too many. It is a sufficient number for every country in the UN to claim that it has achieved its own impact on the final document, which is perhaps the hallmark of such diplomatic efforts. But the targets are too diffuse to create real pressure, real focus. Every country will be able to say in the end “Well, we made progress on some goals but of course not all were possible.”

Secondly, as many have pointed out, there are likely to be many tensions between so many different goals but there is a particularly stark contradiction between development goals which hold out growth as the answer to poverty and environmental goals contained (again presumably for diplomatic reasons) in the same document which require slower growth. Unless very different patterns of growth can be found, more growth is likely to mean more environmental impact. Something will have to give and in the meantime existing levels of environmental impact from growth are likely to increase poverty in many parts of the world.

Third, there is a danger that well-meaning people will mistake this declaration for a statement of world values, as happened with the declaration on human rights. These are diplomatically negotiated aspirations, not values. They may be very useful as part of the process of mobilising opinion in favour of desirable goals or even in encouraging people to think about values. Equally, they will almost certainly be appropriated at some stage by corporations who will argue that advancing their corporate interests will further a development goal and is therefore the moral duty of governments.

It is possible that at a practical level some clearly stated and agreed goals could act as a focus of collective action which embodied shared values. But such high level goals are not values. What would happen, for example, if by some miracle they were all achieved – we would presumably set new goals but would that mean new values? That would be a very strange result.

Collective goals should spring from our values, not the other way around. More importantly, these goals tell us nothing, or very little, about how to live our individual lives. Do we for example subjugate our personal goals and aspirations to the UN development goals? That would lead to a sort of developmental totalitarianism. On the contrary, we can only test the relevance and significance of these goals against values we already have. Is sub-goal no. 47 for example (whatever that is) a goal worthy of our wholehearted effort and support? We do not know unless we already have a value framework we can apply. Again, values must lie at the heart of everything we do and thus the search for shared values is no ivory tower game but an essential, civilisation defining activity.

Does wealth cause poverty?

It would if there were a fixed amount of wealth, but there obviously isn’t. There are issues here about what we should do if we wanted to move to a zero growth world in order to reduce our environmental impact, because then the amount of wealth would indeed be fixed. But that is not the world we currently live in.

It would if the wealthy stole from or exploited the poor to get rich. Of course this has often happened and still happens. Not only do people cheat and steal directly from others but people have often appropriated the commons to enrich themselves at the expense of their neighbours, from the early enclosures of common land for example to the despoiling of the environment as an economic “externality”. But to see whether this happens in any particular instance we must look at the facts, inconvenient though this may be for ideologues. The Marxist notion that any and profit is expropriated from the workers, for example, was probably more often true than not in the aftermath of the industrial revolution, but it need not be true. There can surely be such a thing as a fair wage, there can be such a thing as a fair return to enterprise or invention. To declare all profit as expropriation is to expound a tautology once it is declared in advance that all value is from labour. That is not to deny that some employers will grab whatever they can from their workers in the name of free enterprise, but not all profit is dishonest.

A better explanation of poverty existing side by side with wealth is thus that in economic relations human values are very often forgotten. People succumb to their own greed. People do not deal fairly or justly with other people. So of course there are plenty of cases of exploitation and expropriation, more than enough to keep the simple myths of the dogmatic left alive. But again, these are because values are forgotten, not because exploitation is necessarily at the heart of economic relations.

If everyone had sufficient, there would be no moral problem with some having more than sufficient. There might be practical arguments – which would have to be based on empirical evidence – that society could be better, safer, more cohesive at lower levels of inequality, but there would be no moral case for equality if everyone had enough. As a simple demonstration, inequality as such could easily be reduced by destroying the wealth of the rich. Would this help the poor? Obviously not, which shows that inequality is a false target.

Poverty itself is absolutely what we should be taking aim at. The moral outrage is that so many do not have enough. The hyper-rich may be too powerful for everyone else’s good, but that is another argument. They may have become hyper-rich by dubious means, but that too is another argument although it is one we should engage in more vigorously. Focusing on wealth as if it is the direct and only cause of poverty is a distraction which does no one any good.

Left and right

Oversimplifying only a little, the right in Western politics is generally about individuality, from self reliance at the better end to selfishness and greedy at the worse. The left is about collectivity or concern for others, from solidarity and compassion at the better end to compulsion or subjugation to the common cause. Both ends of the conventional spectrum can result, at their worst, in cruelty, fundamentalism or totalitarianism.

But this suggests that we should classify political positions not in one dimension – the usual left-right spectrum – but in two.

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We could thus look at politics derived from human values as superseding the old left-right divisions. In fact, left and right define a dimension which is not the critical dimension for human flourishing at all and arguably never was. Both left and right have their positives but also their negatives, the latter making them almost indistinguishable at the worst extreme. The important dimension lies on another axis entirely.

 

Merit, or fortune?

I am of a generation who, born into a world in which privilege was hereditary, instinctively thought that society should be ordered on “merit” rather than accident of birth. I remember being shocked when I first went to university to hear an eminent teacher maintain that meritocracy was a terrible idea. But he was right, of course.

The idea of merit or “deserving” is murky at best. For the most part merit, be it academic achievement (which is of course what we young students wanted it to mean), entrepreneurial skill, athletic ability, creativity or anything else is as much an accident of birth as wealth or title. Even hard work, application, dedication to the task and so on are surely impossible without some natural aptitude for such effort.

But if you take merit out of the equation – and still assume that hereditary entitlement is not a great way to organise society – what is left? Raw wealth, however acquired? Celebrity? Those, in effect, are what we have increasingly, perhaps overwhelmingly, tended towards and they have always and will always have an influence. But perhaps their current dominance is an indication that “ordering” is a bad idea anyway. The more hierarchical society becomes, the less just. Ordering is necessary only for certain functions – someone has to take decisions or nothing will get done, for example. But the underlying principle should be moral equality.

Moral equality does not imply an attempt at material equality, any more than it implies that no one may exercise their talents of whatever kind, although it may imply an attempt to restrain the degree of material inequality we can tolerate. It is an assumption that differences are just differences, not indications of underlying or evident merit. The wealthy are not deserving because they are wealthy, as the deep influence of Calvin may have taught us, they are just wealthy. They are fortunate, not superior.

We could not eliminate the effects of good and bad fortune from any society even if we wanted to, nor should we try. But it matters greatly whether we frame our differences in terms of fortune or merit. One leads to compassion and if not justice then less injustice. The other leads to hardening of the heart, arrogance and ultimately suffering and instability.

The four horsemen of the modern world

There are four existential threats to our species.

The best known and most talked about, although still stubbornly disputed, is global warming. It is probably too late to head it off, even if we really knew how. It would help if people could agree it was a threat to life and not see the very idea as a threat to their profits, but there we are. We have absolutely no idea what the consequences will be but they are unlikely to be wholesome.

The second, of which I confess I have only just become aware, is that we are already in the middle of a mass extinction of animal life on the planet, comparable in scale and perhaps effect to the extinction of the dinosaurs. This has nothing to do with global warming as such, although our sheer numbers affect both, for it is simply an effect of the pressure which human life exerts on the rest of the biosphere. Animal species for example are being lost at an alarming rate as they are pushed to the margins of survival. The figure which stands out for me is that we humans and our domestic animals now account for over 95% of animals by mass on the planet. There is no “wild”. See for example this article.┬áCan we continue to flourish without it? Probably, for a while but maybe not indefinitely.

The third is the threat of our own cleverness. Sooner or later and even though it has long been the stuff of science fiction our creations will get the better of us. We are not clever enough to foresee all the consequences of all our actions. We will create a bio-catastrophe through genetic engineering or a machine we cannot control or software than deems us redundant or some other technological oversight – provided of course we don’t just blow ourselves up.

The fourth has always been with us and come close to succeeding in wiping us out on several occasions – nature itself. We think we are in control, but a major volcanic event, for example, could bring us to our knees. Or a change in climate causing drought or famine. Or a naturally occurring disease might arise which we could not defeat in time – it is less than a hundred years since flu claimed more lives than a World War, for example. A compilation, in other words, of the old horsemen.

In my lifetime the human population of the earth has roughly trebled. There are a lot of us and it would take something extraordinary to get all of us. Fewer humans would paradoxically relieve some of the pressures from some of these four causes, perhaps even making the survival of the species more likely. But it would not be a pretty process. Imagine going back in short order even to the global population level of the middle of the twentieth century, or in other words wiping out two thirds – two out of three! – of the people on the planet.

It would be daft to claim that a stronger sense of values will make all these threats go away. A species which thought about what really mattered rather than, or even as well as, how to make a quick profit might have a better chance, though. And they might both live better and behave with more dignity when disaster arrived.

Equality and neoliberalism

We, or at least I, tend to think of social equality as an aspiration of the left in politics, although I have argued in my recent book that it misdirects many efforts and that material sufficiency (lack of poverty across many dimensions) is a better social goal. However, the idea of equality also feeds the right wing of politics, especially the extreme, neoliberal kind.

How can this be when neoliberalism produces and endorses such massive inequality in society, actively championing “private affluence and public squalor”? (How apt incidentally Galbraith’s phrase from the sixties seems today!) It is because equality excuses inaction. If we are all equal, the poor must somehow be to blame for their own plight for if some succeed, why not all? Those who get rich have done so by merit, surely, so why should they help the less meritorious? Why should there be institutions of government to redress imbalances if everyone is equal but some more hard working than others?

Like many ideological positions this one has a grain of truth which makes it hard to dislodge. Many people do of course succeed because they work very hard. That is why the fruits of hard work should be as little disturbed as possible. But the fact is, however unpalatable to left or right, we are not all equal in all respects. Some are talented, some naturally diligent, some favoured by birth circumstances, while others are discriminated against, or broken in their early years, or just lack any talent to succeed at least in the world they know. “Merit” is largely a matter of chance for which if we are favoured we should be grateful rather than thinking it is all our own doing.

That is why we need ways of balancing the effects of chance. Gratitude and compassion demand them. That is also why material (as opposed to moral) equality should not be assumed or striven for, because whatever the intention it feeds nasty parts of the political right.

The Pope and coal

The Pope may (or may not, a draft document was leaked) be about to suggest that global warming has a moral dimension. The fossil fuel industry in the U.S., the coal industry in particular, is outraged and right wing presidential hopefuls are scrambling to condemn this “interference” in secular affairs. The Pope has been told to “stick to his job” – whatever that means.

Is this not passing strange? Has morality no bearing on everyday life? Then what is its point and purpose? Or is the idea rather that business is exempt from morality? By all means argue that the Pope is wrong on a point of morality, although I can see that is tricky for politicians who are also Catholics. By all means argue that he has his facts wrong, if indeed it turns out he has (we don’t know at this point). But to argue that a religious and moral leader can have nothing to say about what is and isn’t a moral problem or then about where he thinks the weight of moral argument comes down is surely just absurd.

It does not leave the impression that these presidential candidates know the difference between a moral issue and a funding opportunity. It does not inspire confidence.