I recently returned from Europe. I was at a European wide Forum that brought together people from a variety of fields: politics, economics, social science, technology as well as the arts and philosophy. They were there to discuss a variety of issues confronting Europe (and the world) today. Most focused on politics and economics. In addition, of course, I spent a lot of time on airplanes and in airports reading the newspapers and magazines one finds there. These discussions, plus the newspapers and magazines I read there and on the plane, suggested to me that the vast majority of people in the West are convinced that the all the problems of the world are really economic. That economic "progress" is the only solution to the world's problems and that anything that hinders the "progress" of the economy is to be immediately rejected without further consideration. I do wonder if that's really true. Of course I recognize that I am in a slightly privileged position: I have a fairly secure job and I am paid quite well by university standards. The issue would look different if I was unemployed or trying to support a family working in a small convenience store. On the other hand, I am watching the public education system of the USA being dismantled around me. Still the single hegemony of the economic is very striking to me.

Economists, I gather, work from a model that assumes that everyone is "rational," that is that everyone will act according to their "self-interest." What sort of definition of rationality is that which equates the rational with self-interest? Self-interest is a value. Like any value it may be "rational" (in some sense) in some circumstances. But it is still a value; not a result of formal logic like the Pythagorean Theorem. It also seems quite clear that people don't always act in an economically self-interested way. My most immediate examples come from the realm of religion. I and others have written about how religiously motivated terrorists act according to "sacred values" that are not amenable to such a "rational calculus". And the same is true of monks and nuns who eschew economic "rationality" so they can serve others. This is also true of those who vote in a way that is not in their economic self-interest but that serves what they see as the common good. And, of course to a psychologist, the claim that people are always "rational" appears to fly in the face of the evidence.

So if it is the case that economic decisions rest upon values (like self-interest or self-sacrifice for a higher good), that suggests that the crises we face are economic only in a derivative sense. Rather it would seem we face a crisis of values.

About the Author

James W. Jones, Psy.D., Ph.D., Th.D.

 James W. Jones, Psy.D., Ph.D., Th.D., is a Professor of Religion, Adjunct Professor of Clinical Psychology, Rutgers University.

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