Dr Howard Richards – An Ethical Path to Social Change

Profile Howard Richards Live Encounters Magazine May 2018

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An Ethical Path to Social Change by Dr Howard Richards

Dr Howard Richards (born June 10, 1938) is a philosopher of Social Science who worked with the concepts of basic cultural structures and constitutive rules. He holds the title of Research Professor of Philosophy at Earlham College, a liberal arts college in Richmond, Indiana, USA, the Quaker School where he taught for thirty years. He officially retired from Earlham College, together with his wife Caroline Higgins in 2007, but retained the title of Research Professor of Philosophy. He has a PhD in Philosophy from the University of California, Santa Barbara, a Juris Doctor (J.D.) from the Stanford Law School, an Advanced Certificate in Education (ACE) from Oxford University (UK) and a PhD in Educational Planning from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), University of Toronto, Canada. He now teaches at the University of Santiago, Chile, and has ongoing roles at the University of South Africa (UNISA) and the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business program. He is founder of the Peace and Global Studies Program and co-founder of the Business and Nonprofit Management Program at Earlham. Dr Richards is a Catholic, a member of Holy Trinity (Santisima Trinidad) parish in Limache, Chile, and a member of the third order of St. Francis, O.F.S. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howard_Richards_(academic)

1 Craftsman © photograph Mark Ulyseas


The experience of the education for social responsibility program at the University of Concepción suggests the viability of large-scale moral education programmes, aimed at forming a functional, realistic, and solidary ethical conscience. Three educational principles supported by scientific findings are proposed to guide moral education: understanding, participation, and empathy. Taking as an example the ‘structural trap’ by which the good intention of complying with social human rights, such as health, ends up discouraging economic investment, it is suggested that effective large scale moral education can help to overcome structural obstacles to solutions to social and ecological problems.


At the beginning of his 1947 book Humanismo Social (Hurtado 1947), a book defined as an essay in social pedagogy addressed to educators and parents, Saint Alberto Hurtado wrote, ‘A great principle well understood is the foundation of a moral doctrine and it will allow those who assimilate it to solve the difficulties that arise, or at least – if the problem is very complicated- it will form a state of mind in it that will prepare it to receive the solution; it will give them a spontaneous sympathy for the truth, a connaturality with the good that will dispose them to embrace it, create in them an attitude of soul that is much more important than science itself.

‘When this attitude exists, the discussion is greatly facilitated, the truth penetrates smoothly, the resistances soften or fall apart.

‘That is why before beginning to study the problems and before talking about reforms and achievements, it is necessary to create in the soul a social attitude, an attitude that is the vital assimilation of the great principle of fraternal love.’ (Hurtado 1947, p. .9)

Today, in 2018, almost three quarters of a century later, we have the benefit of a series of studies and experiences that allow us to articulate the vision of the Chilean saint with greater precision and put it into practice with a more solid scientific foundation. We are in a position to plan educational projects whose immediate purpose is to facilitate moral development, and whose eventual result is to open the way to solve those social and ecological problems that require changes in basic social structures.

I start this short article commenting on a valuable book on education for social responsibility (and for three more mega competencies) at the University of Concepción (Navarro 2015). I will comment from a point of view centred on the thesis that it is possible and necessary to transform social structures, using methods that apply findings of current psychology. The methods referred to can be called, broadly speaking, moral education, including methodologies of organizational development and community development.   This broad sense of moral education includes the formation of social and emotional maturity.

Since the University of Concepción is an organization with more than 30,000 members among students, teachers and support staff; and since the proposal of the book I am commenting on is addressed to the whole university community, and to a great extent accepted by it; if one can say that if it actually produced a tendency toward structural change, then the experience of the U of C provides evidence that the necessary massive transformation is possible. Because of the size of this systematic effort, and because of its explicit incorporation of research findings from the field of the psychology of moral development, it is a precedent to be studied by all who try to learn from psychology to improve efforts to achieve economic and social structural change.

Let me mention that in South Africa with Gavin Andersson and others we are launching a project with even greater scope. Its theoretical framework highlights the Vygotskian tradition that the Chilean project in U de C also highlights (Andersson, Carmen, Labra and Richards 2017) but does not exclude other sources. Its initial focus is on gender-based violence, and from there it will inevitably go on to improve human relations in the family and in the community. It will be a program of moral education in the broad sense referred to above.  Its methodology combines community development with reality TV. The television broadcasts will report on one or another aspect of the problem and its solutions; on particular instances of success in fighting gender violence, with one or another couple, family, or neighbourhood. Participating people have the possibility to appear one day on television. A previous program carried out by the same institutions with the same methodology, started by focusing on neighbourhood community development. It reached more than 7 million viewers in South Africa and neighbouring countries.

First, I will comment on some quotes from the book on education for social responsibility at U of C. Second, I offer a proposal for moral education that highlights three principles: (1) understanding the perspective of the other (role-taking), (2) participation and therefore identity, (3) empathy.  (I feel a need for but have not yet been able to articulate a fourth principle to guide education to understand social structures. Third, I consider briefly some aspects of the relationship between moral education and structural change.)

The comment

I comment first on the definition of social responsibility. It is addressed several times in the book, sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly, and not always using the same words. I quote as examples: ‘… define socially responsible behaviour as behaviour with the intention of common benefit, which seeks to benefit other people as well as oneself; it requires the ability to reconcile the satisfaction of one’s own needs with the contribution to satisfying the needs of others. ‘(Navarro 2015, p.13). ‘Understanding the common good as that which contributes to human survival and development,’ (Navarro 2015, p.13) ‘Living in community implies establishing and following guidelines or norms that favour aid, security and cooperation, so that all have the opportunity to satisfy basic human needs (Doyal and Gough, 1994), and to resolve the conflicts that are generated in the coexistence of those who live in community. ‘(Navarro 2015, p.24)

I suggest that, if one could synthesize the various formulations throughout the book in a single word, the word could be functional in the sense of the functionalist social science of Bronislaw Malinowski. (Malinowski 2013) Being responsible is to be functional. Responsibility, and in general morality and ethics (Mathieu 2014, Varela1998) serve to satisfy vital needs, like the need at the biological level for food, and the need at the psychological level for self-esteem.

The overcoming of exaggerated forms of individualism and the consequent increase of solidarity is regarded in the book as an increase in social responsibility.

The word ‘need’ is a keyword. The social responsibility program of the U de C is in tune with the ethic of care that Carol Gilligan defines as attending to and responding to needs.[1] The word ‘need’ serves to demarcate what is merely desired from what works to maintain vital functions. Ceteris paribus, what is necessary imposes on families the ethical duty to do what can be done to satisfy needs.  Often the government has the duty to ensure their satisfaction (because social human rights), and according to many religions and thinkers, needs impose duties on everyone. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., we are one human family, sisters and brothers, who live on a single planet that is our world-house (King 1967). The biologist D.S. Wilson, among others, has shown that the ethics of solidarity that are usually taught by religions are functional cultural adaptations to meet the demands of the environment. Thus, Wilson highlights a scientific discovery of great practical importance: The human being is a cultural being; without cultural, and therefore ethical, formation, a human is not a complete being; it is not in an animal living in an environment in which a body built according to the instructions of its DNA is ready to function. (Tanner 1985)

For structural change, it is important to derive from the ethic of care that I find in the book about the program at U of C, the principle of the duty to share the surplus. My book Economic Theory and Community Development develops this idea in greater detail (Richards in press). The surplus, by definition, is what one does not need. It is a corollary of a functionalist ethics that one should transfer resources from where they are not needed to where they are needed.

I also derive from moral realism the principle of unbounded organization. If ethics is justified because it works; if the goal is to meet needs in harmony with nature, then human institutions, including social structures, must be modifiable. What has a function can be evaluated using as criterion its degree of success in fulfilling its function. An organization, and an alignment of sectors working together for the common good, is in principle improvable so that it fulfils its function better. There should be no limits to the eligible forms of organization, and all of them should complement each other to better serve the common good. As Karl Popper argued in The Open Society and its Enemies (Popper 2010), institutions should be continually evaluated and improved. We have a website about unbounded organization that includes papers where Gavin Andersson first developed the concept.  www.unboundedorganization.org

I contributed to a new collective book in Spanish a chapter seven that proposes that solidary economy is equivalent to unbounded organization. (González 2017)

I sketch now in a brief form a response to a common objection against solidaristic and realistic philosophies. It is claimed that social responsibility for attending to the needs of others necessarily leads to the loss of all freedoms. This is the argument that Friedrich von Hayek used against the welfare state in 1944 in his book The Road to Serfdom (von Hayek 2008). It should be noted that von Hayek’s predictions of 1944 have not been verified. He wrote his famous book not as a polemic against the Soviet Union, whose sins against human freedom were already too obvious and well known, but as a polemic against social democracy. He argued that each time the state assumes more power under the pretext of contributing more to the common good and with the pretext of contributing more to the welfare of citizens, it embarks on a path whose inevitable end is the loss of all freedoms. Stalin and Hitler are treated as examples of the inevitable end of the path whose beginning is social democracy. In fact, in the thirty years after the publication of The Road to Serfdom the European social democracies built many welfare states and there was no loss of freedom. Experience has shown that the defects of social democracy, and the causes of its current collapse, are other; they are not its imagined incompatibility with freedom. (Richards and Swanger 2006, Habermas 1998) On the contrary, the imposition by force of the economic theories of the Austrian and Chicago schools has led more than once to the loss of liberties. Nobody knows this more because of suffering in the flesh than the peoples of Latin America.

The research on the psychology of moral development of Martin Hoffman is relevant here.[2] Although it may be that certain abstract concepts of freedom are not compatible with certain abstract concepts of solidarity, in fact research shows that the most solidary people are also the people most respectful of diversity, of the rights of others, and in general of freedom. I suggest that a large part of the solution to the political problem of reconciling social responsibility with the liberties of individuals is to be found in the moral education of citizens.

Regarding the main problems that students who are trained in social responsibility in the U of C should study, I find in the book a criterion of not losing contact with the real world challenges that social responsibility faces. Learning must be transferable to ‘real scenarios,’ (Navarro 2015, p.33). The projects ‘address problems or real issues, not simulated,’ (Navarro 2015, p.261). The acquisition of professional skills is oriented to their applications in real contexts (Navarro 2015, page 279). With this criterion, surely, sooner or later, students have to realize that the solutions to some problems, including many of the most serious problems, require structural changes. Even those problems that appear as pathologies of individuals, usually have roots (here I follow the definition of ‘social structure’ by Douglas Porpora) in cultural rules that constitute social positions that establish material relationships; for example, the positions of ‘owner,’ of ’employee,’ and of ‘unemployed.’ (Porpora 1993, Porpora 2015 chapter 4). This is the case of problems such as ‘… abuse of chemical substances, early sexual behaviour, criminal behaviour, and desertion and poor school performance.’ (Navarro 2015, p.101) This is the case with those chaotic classroom climates that are inimical to learning partly or entirely because of dysfunctional homes and neighbourhoods.

Given the structural nature of many social problems, I am proposing the thesis that moral education can open the way to overcoming them. I will have to explain in greater detail the sociological concepts of ‘social structure’ and ‘social change.’ I have to justify the optimistic thesis that on the assumption that mass moral education will generate abundant goodwill and ethical commitment, then we would be able to achieve structural changes. The thesis is not about just any structural change. It is about functional changes to meet the vital needs of human beings, in a sustainable harmony with the other living forms that share the planet with us. But let’s go one step at a time. Before defending the thesis that the necessary changes would be possible on the assumption that education will generate abundant goodwill and ethical commitment, I sketch a proposal about how education could make this assumption a verified reality and not merely an imagined utopia. My proposal refers to psychological principles that can be applied in multiple ways in countless contexts, whether the strategy of teaching be problem-based learning (PBL), learning by projects (LBP), learning plus service (L+ S), or other.

The Educational Proposal

I affirm that the psychology of moral development opens ways to raise the level of ethics in a massive way at the scale of 30,000 people, at the scale of 7 million people, and at greater scales. I may be wrong.  I may be imagining that what I want to be true is true, because of excessive optimism. Even so, I believe that the weight of the evidence in favour of this affirmation is sufficient to establish that it deserves consideration. I start with three basic principles, without discarding others that are also worthy. I emphasize the three partly to avoid proposing such a complicated theoretical framework that it would be difficult to teach it and to apply it.

The first principle is understanding. That is, the understanding of the points of view (perspectives) of others. There are many researchers who have found in the understanding of the situation and of other people’s way of seeing it, and in the consequent overcoming of self-absorption, one of the keys to moral development.   A great pioneer was Jean Piaget. (Piaget 1932)

Once the principle is understood, there are innumerable opportunities to apply it. For example, John Gibbs and colleagues have done perspective-taking exercises with imprisoned criminals. The prisoners role-play on the stage of an improvised small theatre in prison. They take on the roles of their victims, while other prisoners act as criminals. Then they analyse their thoughts and feelings together. Gibbs and his collaborators have achieved measurable and significant reductions in recidivism rates. (Gibbs 2014, pp. 203-205)

The second principle in practice is called participation, thinking at first of participation in conversations. In the best cases, the conversation underlies and / or jumpstarts agreement on common criteria and collaboration in action. On the theoretical level, the second principle is based on the works of a series of authors who study ‘identity’ and related topics such as self-image, reference groups, self and self as story.  Erik Erikson tells us that identity is at the core of the individual and at the same time at the core of her cultural community. Erikson adds in somewhat opaque but profound words: identity is a process that establishes the identity between these two identities (that of the individual and that of the communal culture). (Erikson 1994, p.22) Several recent authors consider that identity is the critical link that connects social structure at the macro level with the role played by the individual at the micro level (Lawler 2013).  For Stetsenko and Arievitch (Stetsenko and Arievitch 2004)) the construction with others of the self and, therefore, of identity, is not just any activity but the ‘leading activity’ that defines a life. Steven Hitlin is perhaps the author who has been most explicit in connecting the development of the person’s identity with the person’s moral development, although Kohlberg himself implicitly connected them in his appreciation of Jane Loevinger’s ego development theory. (Hitlin 2003)

Although I believe this and my other two principles could be thoroughly documented with reviews of specialized literatures, my proposal to raise the moral level by facilitating the development of identities, through organizing participation in conversations and actions, inevitably draws also on my own experience and thinking.

Participation in conversations, as well as role play, can be a therapy to get out of self-absorption. It socializes.   It also requires the participants to run risks. When speaking, and therefore revealing to others something of the private ruminations of the inner self, the speakers run the risk of being ridiculous. There is a risk that others will reject what they say. Maybe they will reject the speaker. The rejection of her opinion can be perceived and interpreted to some extent as the rejection of her thoughts and values, as putting down her self-image; in short, as the denial of her being and identity.

On the other hand, while always being risk, participation is also validation. I postulate that when a person assumes the risk of revealing something of himself, he tends (with exceptions) to present his best and most pro-social self instead of his worst and most anti-social self. He looks for the validation of the self that is presented. The more he presents his best self, and the more his better self is confirmed, the more the better self grows and the more weight it has in determining his behaviour. A group of people exchanging ideas with each other is also validating ideas, and with them identities. In the vocabulary of Berger and Luckmann (Berger and Luckmann 1968) they are maintaining subjective reality, perhaps transforming it.

In the vocabulary of George Herbert Mead, the self is formed by relating to the ‘generalized other.’ Everyone with whom we talk registers, even if only in a minimal way, as a member of the cast of characters that makes up our generalized other. New conversations and new collaborations generate, little by little, new generalized others. In the other generalized, some interlocutors count more than others. Similarly, ‘Pozo (Pozo 1998), points out that students do not reproduce any model they observe, but more likely those models with whom they identify, that is, those with whom they believe they share or want to share a common identity.’ (Navarro 2015, p 210)

Participation, obviously, goes hand in hand with understanding.

It is not easy to get participation. I say this from experience, and I explain it at least in part as due to the fact that participation requires effort, and due to the fact that participation is a risk. I mention the case of the participatory budget (PB) in Rosario, Argentina. In Rosario as in many other cities, in the PB process neighbours are supposed meet to decide what to do with that part of the municipal budget destined to carry out public works in their neighbourhood. In 2008, after more than a decade of neighbourhood community development in the whole city, in a typical neighbourhood hardly more than 12% of the total number of neighbours participated. (Richards 2008)

From innumerable contexts, examples can be drawn of the effectiveness of participation well framed and facilitated to tie values ​​to the identity of people. I take an example from the business world. Many, perhaps a majority, of the consultants of companies in matters of organization development (OD) include in their way of understanding ‘development’ one or more objectives that fit under the rubric ‘raise the level of ethics.’  For example, ethical issues, social responsibility, and values ​​arise several times in the popular introductory OD text by Gary McLean. (McLean 2005)

OD consultants often facilitate the participatory writing of ‘missions’ and ‘visions’ that state the values ​​and goals of the organization. The mission, in the best cases — and the best cases are every day more numerous—articulates in one way or another organization’s contributions to the common good. The OD process seeks the commitment of the staff of the organization, each and every one, to the mission. Nothing works without participation. Three experts on the subject prescribe: ‘Get a consensus and complete the mission statement. Ensure that everyone agrees on the wording and on the concepts expressed. It is imperative to clarify to team members that this is their statement of purpose, and not just yours. It is imperative that they be inspired by it, and committed to it. ‘(Wall, Sobal and Solum 1998, p.97)

As the book about educating for social responsibility at U of C (Navarro 2015, p.21) says, empathy is an affect that is basic for pro-social behaviour. (Marti 2010; Hoffman 2002) Empathy completes the trio understanding-participation-empathy. The scientific basis of educational practices that rely on empathy to raise the level of ethics finds support in biology and especially in the physiology of the brain. (Feito 2015) The latest findings of science confirm the consequences of multi-millennial processes that occurred during the first 95% of the presence of the species homo sapiens on planet earth, prior to the last ten thousand years. In this long period the human body was biologically programmed to be culturally programmed. To say culture in this sense is to say ethics, because in the vital core of any culture are the norms that organize the moral codes with solidarity tendencies that have been for many millennia essential to the survival strategies of most of our ancestors.  They began when the species homo sapiens began.  (Tanner 1985, Wilson 2002)

Therefore, in our educational work to raise the level of ethics we have a hard-wired advantage in the blood and nerves of the human body, and in the last analysis in the DNA. Although it is evident that anti-social individuals have been and continue to be abundant in history and in the world today, the normal human being is pro-social.  Normal humans respond to the fate of their peers with empathy. If a group is presented with concrete facts -for example, using videos or sharing their own experiences– even if the facilitators do not articulate value judgments, it is most likely that the group will sympathize with the suffering they see or hear about. Normally, most will feel that something must be done to meet the vital needs of their peers.

I repeat that I derive from ethical realism (in other words, from functional ethics, the ethics that Gilligan calls the ethics of care), two corollaries for structural change. One is the duty to share the surplus. The second is unbounded organization.

I quote as a practical example an activity that we are now starting in the town of Limache in the region of Valparaíso, where I live. We plan for each Friday of the month at 1930 hours the screening of a film on the subject of immigrants, followed by conversation. The films will present concrete facts about immigrants and about others who are affected by the dramas of migration.  Migration is a current issue here and now, because Haitians are arriving in Limache these days. We will invite some of them to watch the films with us and to tell their own stories.   We expect the films and the personal stories to trigger empathy.  We rely on biology, and especially on the physiology of the brain, to energize moral education.

These are the three principles of my proposal. I do not limit myself to three because the storehouses of science do not contain more, but because this simplification seems to me manageable in practice. Even so, I feel the absence of a fourth. I fear that goodwill and ethical commitment – coming from many sources and augmented by educators facilitating more understanding, more participation and more empathy – will not change social structures without greater knowledge of social structures. Well-intentioned people often fall into what I call structural traps. For example, goodwill and ethical commitment often motivate attempts to comply with human rights. In order to comply with human rights, free health services are increased. Retirement pensions are increased. Etc. Therefore, public expenditures are increased. Therefore, taxes are increased. Nowadays, the taxes that are levied on the poor such as VAT are usually increased first, which undermines the original intention to comply with human rights. Since such sources are insufficient, there are also increased taxes on investors and industries. Therefore, ceteris paribus, investors and industries move away, or do not come.

In other writings, I have proposed specific structural solutions to get out of structural traps. I mention some below. Now, before moving from education to structural problems, I stay a few moments more with educational issues in order to offer three practical tips for the application of the three educational principles, and for the eventual application of a fourth that until now I have not been able to articulate. (1) First, although biology fills our sails with wind, it is important to recognize that purely biological human beings without cultures do not exist. We have to work with the people who exist and therefore with the cultures that exist, most importantly with the currently hegemonic liberal culture. It is necessary to look for the zones of proximal development (which I have also called growth points) in cultures where human beings already have their minds and souls formed. (2) The same Vygotsky who gives us the concepts of zone of real development, zone of potential development and zone of proximal development (Navarro 2015, p.227), also teaches us that there is no thought without action or action without thought. Conversations in the air that do not touch ground do not engage. But it is not always necessary to forge new activities to connect thought with action. You can often add spaces for reflection in contexts where the people reflecting are already working together on a practical level -for example, in the workshops I once did with Alicia Cabezudo facilitating reflection on human rights with police already in active service in various Argentine provinces. (3) When people raise the level of their commitments to human values, it is usually not as individuals alone, but as parts of groups. It is good practical advice to plan educational interventions with already formed groups, which for their members are already reference groups.

Structural Change

My uses of the concepts ‘social structure’ and ‘structural change’ are not idiosyncratic. It is likely that anyone who is familiar with one or another of the common meanings of these concepts will understand most of what I am trying to communicate.

But I will be a little more precise. I have adopted a brief form of the definition of ‘social structure’ recommended by Douglas Porpora after his careful studies of the main variants of the concept used in the main schools of sociological thought. (Porpora 1989, Porpora 1993, Porpora 2015) Namely: Social structures are consequences of cultural rules that constitute social positions that establish material relationships. For examples: the positions of ‘owner,’ of ’employee,’ and of ‘unemployed.’ Although I hope that this brief definition will prove to be useful, I have developed in other writings more complete and nuanced concepts of ‘social structure’ and the related concept ‘ cultural structure ‘(Richards 1995, Richards 2004, Richards and Swanger 2006, Richards 2017 talk 4, Richards 2018, Richards in press)

If we think of ‘social structures’ as ‘positions’ constituted by rules and establishing material relationships, then we can think of ‘structural change’ in two dimensions: (1) Those who occupy positions can be changed. For example, an agrarian reform can be carried out that changes the land tenure from a latifundial system to a system of small or medium owners.  Or industries can be nationalized, placing the state in the position of owner.  Or taxes can be imposed on inheritances tending to reduce social inequality by putting fewer people in the position of owners of large fortunes, and more people in the position of owning, for example, houses. Many more examples could be given. (2) In a second dimension, structural change can change the rules that constitute the positions and regulate the behaviour of those who occupy them. A social responsibility education programme such as that at the U de C can change the practices of professional graduates, and thus change the material consequences of the positions they hold. Structural change may mean adopting Gandhian ethics (Richards and Swanger 2013) or Christian or indigenous or socialist or ecologist or feminist etc .values and so constituting new positions.  It can revitalize traditional position snow museumized, like the position of hostess for the minga (a position recently occupied by my friend Andrea when we held a minga to ready her house for the winter rains)Structural change can change the material consequences of the currently existing positions by regulating them with different cultural or even legal expectations. (Examples would be the King III principles, and Argentine laws making triple bottom line accounting mandatory).   Etc. The following paragraphs mix these two dimensions.

My general thesis is that structural traps derive much power in the last analysis from excessively individualistic moral education.  The young get an overdose of autonomy.   They learn cultural rules that constitute the overwhelming power of a homeostatic system that counterattacks with capital flight and with disinvestment whenever it is attacked by justice or by ecology.

A moral education that socializes people with a realistic (that is to say, functional or solidary) ethic changes the foundations of social structures. Sharing the surplus and unbounded organization cease to be mere logical corollaries of the cosmovisions of counter cultures. They become normal common sense.  The legal principles of property and contract become more functional and less ideological.  Markets and profits become means, not ends.

Although this second, realistic, kind of moral education is not dominant, it is already happening.  It is already slouching toward Bethlehem not to be born, but to be crowned.  Many children are already brought up in counter-cultures that celebrate community and responsibility.  Curricula all over the world, not just at U of C, are putting ethics in the spotlight for every profession.  Mainstream economics itself has never completely left its theological womb in 18th century Europe. Its historical roots are still Judaeo-Christian.   Liberal theory –however doctrinaire—has always stood and still stands in the shadow of the tacit presupposition that, after all, the economy ought to work to meet everyone’s needs in harmony with nature.

From successful moral education many consequences follow.  They make possible what is now impossible: social justice, ecological sustainability and peace.

I have developed this general thesis and related ideas extensively in other works. In what follows I seek only to bring some abstract concepts down to earth. I have already given a concrete example of what I call a structural trap: the good intention of improving the health of Chileans ends up producing the flight of industry and capital. Now, I will show how moral education helps us escape this trap. I want to illustrate the general principle that a higher ethical level would open now blocked paths for social democracy.  (Richards and Swanger 2006, Richards in press).

A higher ethical level is functional. Its polar star is meeting human needs (such as medical care) in harmony with nature (thus achieving sustainable welfare). From a moral commitment to meet and respond to needs I have derived two structural principles: share the surplus, and practice unbounded organization. They are ‘derived’ because in theory, as principles that define what should be, they are logical consequences of the criterion of solidarity. In addition, they are ‘derived’ because in practice the existence of a culture of solidarity makes it in fact more likely that human needs will be met and the biosphere will be saved.

In the structural trap example, the presenting symptom of the fatal illness is capital flight. In the words of Thomas Piketty there is international tax competition. (Piketty 2015, Part IV) Each country competes with each other country to lower taxes on investment and industry, in order to attract investment and to avoid the flight of the investments it already has. By broadening the focus, it can be seen that the presenting symptom is a manifestation of a deep pathology: the deep problem, at a level geologist would call tectonic, is that the physical well-being of people depends on investments. If there is no investment (neither new investment nor capital to finance existing operations), there are long lines in the streets to get bread, diapers, and cooking oil; while meat is nowhere to be found.

Given that we live with the reality just described, that of an unjust and unsustainable system that defends itself with disinvestment when it is threatened, let us consider for a moment the possibility that neither moral education nor anything else can fundamentally change the system.

Even then –even on a scenario where the best we can do is short run consolation followed by long run extinction — even then we can say that even if education cannot change structures, it can improve daily life.  I mention a solidarity contribution from a former student of the U of C. It happens that in my neighbourhood their lives a penniless woman who a year ago suffered from serious and painful dental problems; and it happened that (for structural reasons) there was no possible public treatment without an intolerable wait. I made an appointment for her with my dentist, who holds a degree in dentistry from the U of C.  She treated her not once but in a series of appointments and did not accept any payment. If instead of this individual case, we look at daily life inside the hospitals of the National Health Service, we will see that there are staff who (for structural reasons) are forced to work two shifts to support their families, and that there are shortages (due to structural causes) of essential medicines and necessary equipment. However, due to the human quality of the people, it is still possible to treat patients with respect and affection. (Gallegos 2016)

But I am an optimist. I do not believe that the best we can do is hospice care while resigning ourselves to the terminal illness of the social and ecological problems that cannot be solved. Moral education can raise the level of ethics, and a higher level of ethics can make it possible to change social structures. I continue with the same example.

Humanity can escape from the structural trap that leaves health under funded because there is no alternative to complying with the systemic imperative to avoid capital flight at all costs.

A first antidote against capital flight is more education in social responsibility like that provided at U of C. A result of doing the same thing on a larger scale, and doing it successfully, would be an atmosphere of common commitment to the common good.

The flight of capital often is not produced by a lack of profitability, or by the attraction of higher profitability in jurisdictions with lower taxes.  It is often produced by a polemical, tense, violent and unstable atmosphere.  Capital strikes, like other kinds of strikes, can be political tactics; they can be weapons in the struggle for power in a context where the struggle for power is all there is.   Their purpose can be overthrowing one government and replacing it with another.

On the other hand, as Father Hurtado taught, when there are social attitudes, concrete solutions are greatly facilitated.  Optimists like me believe that science has shown us how to implement the social pedagogy he envisioned.  Now we know how to avoid descents into social chaos. There are known cures for the abysmal levels of morality that historically have often been both causes and effects of shutting down economies.

But a culture of solidarity capable of warding off those economic and military catastrophes that happen for reasons more political than economic, is still an incomplete solution to the specific problem of capital flight, and an incomplete solution to the deeper tectonic problem of the physical dependence of the vital functions of life on investor confidence.   The hard facts of the systemic imperatives of capitalism remain. Although a lack of profitability is often not the cause of the flight – or the non-arrival – of capital, it often is. I now consider two (although there are many more) remedies in the case when the flight – or lack of arrival – of capital is due to low or no or negative profitability.

First: The physical dependence of life on capital accumulation can be diminished. Solidarity economy can be promoted in its various forms at all levels. When we raise the resilience of families, neighbourhoods and communities; when we lower their vulnerability; then capital flight and economic collapse in general, even if they happen, are no longer humanitarian disasters. (Richards 2008, chapter 6). This benign result is a foreseeable result of the growth and strengthening of all those sectors that produce and distribute goods and services without relying on what is now ‘the system’, i.e. on the investment of major sums for the purpose of producing goods or services to sell; where the purpose of the production and the sales is to turn the sum invested into a larger sum.

Here it is not a question of a few worker-owned cooperatives or recovered industries. Added up, the non-capitalist sectors are already the main sources of employment: They include everything called solidarity economy or popular economy, the majority of stores in the cities, those who work at home doing housework, plumbers and mechanics and other technicians, teachers and medical personnel in the public service, the police, most of  private education and all of public education, the stalls in the fairs and farmers markets, the workers who own their own means of production, public companies like the EFE (railroads) and formerly those of the CORFO group, small-scale agriculture, the majority of professionals, various types of cooperatives, the more and more numerous social enterprises, street vendors, non-profit institutions, and so on in an endless series.

There are innumerable survival strategies for those who neither accumulate capital nor are workers of companies that accumulate. Some exist.   Some used to exist but have fallen into disuse.  Others have not yet been invented.   The abundance of alternatives is one important aspect of unbounded organization. There is an infinite number of institutional forms that can serve the purposes of meeting needs and saving the planet.

Plurality, creativity and pragmatism correspond to an ethic of care: You see a need, and you organize the means to meet it. Life continues even if there is no accumulator who allows the use of money if and only if the amount of money grows.

Also, in the capitalist sector itself, in the sector that does invest money in order to increase its amount, ethical motivations can and do have impacts.  This is no small matter. The ethical inspirations of the investors, of the entrepreneurs, and of the technical cadres and workers of companies, is not a factor without consequences to avoid the flight or to obtain the arrival of capital. In general, to the extent that profitability is not the reason, or is not the only reason, for doing business, its low level does not have to mean queues in the streets for bread and other basics; low profits do not need to mean the empty shelves in the supermarkets that are seen in Venezuela today.

When the company is defined by its mission and thinks of profitability as a means and not as an end, the world becomes a little more human and a little greener.   Meeting vital needs depends a little less on the dynamism of accumulation for the sake of accumulation.

Meanwhile, diminishing the physical dependence of life on capital accumulation is happening too.  The many non-capitalist sectors are growing.  Structures are changing.  While the capitalist sector is becoming a more socially responsible collaborator with the other sectors in the common pursuit of the common good, it is also becoming a smaller percentage of the total economy.  As the threat of capital flight becomes less threatening, formerly merciless budget constraints budge, then they bend, then they weaken.   Long waits for hernia operations become the stuff of stories about the bad old days that senior citizens relate to children.

Second:   A social attitude reframes creating surplus, identifying it, and sharing it.   It is first of all necessary to analyse whether a given company has created a social surplus.  In principle, there is a surplus when profitability has fulfilled the social functions that ensure the viability of the company (such as paying the cost of capital and motivating its executives and employees) and then has roared on forward.   Roaring forward, it generates resources that should be transferred.  They might-should go, for example, to the National Health Service.   Or they might-should go to fund dignified lives doing sports, or music, or science or doing some other intrinsically worthwhile activity; for the increasing numbers of people whom technology is making redundant in the labour market. Typically, the major profitable companies, such as Coca Cola, for example, are very profitable. They do roar forward.  They are in a position to pay their executives more than the value of their services. They accumulate earnings much greater than the opportunity cost of capital. (A company does not really need to pay more for the use of capital than its opportunity cost –i.e. the price at which capital can be obtained in capital markets, determined in the light of other opportunities open to capital; this implies that often a surplus can safely be shared, without endangering the viability of the business.) In Chile, mining has traditionally been very profitable.  Today we can say the same about banks and large-scale importers selling in their own large stores. (Martner and Rivera 2013)

Prosperous businesses fulfil the social function of generating large surpluses, whether the surpluses are due to innovation. (Schumpeter 1947, p 155), to barriers to entry and other forces that limit competition (Porter 1985), to monopoly or oligopoly, or to some other factor that prevents competition from driving down prices toward the costs of production.  Generating surplus is a key social function because if surpluses are small or non-existent, little or no surplus can be shared.  Ethics prescribes sharing surpluses, transferring them from where they are not needed to where they are needed. Realism prescribes working with the world as it is, and not with an imaginary world of competitive markets that exists only in economic theories.

Even if they pay their employees well, and even if through taxes, through donations, and by operating their own charitable foundations, very profitable companies make large contributions to the common good, there should be no capital flight. If the company earns enough to pay the cost of capital and its other costs, and can pay its executives enough to keep them motivated, the company will not have a rational reason to flee the scene because of lack of profitability. If for some irrational motive, it does step out, other entrepreneurs will step in.  The other entrepreneurs will see that they can make at least a good normal profit with a good normal return on capital, by occupying the niche that previously was occupied by the company that bugged out.

Still, there is nothing simple or clear cut about the technical calculations, political negotiations and practical judgments needed to identify surplus and to move it to its best use.  A higher level of ethics –what padre Hurtado called a social attitude– motivates applying social and ecological criteria when analysing the options. When there is a social consensus that surpluses should be generated and shared, it is more likely that surpluses will be generated and shared. In legal and constitutional matters, and in economic doctrine, flexibility and pragmatism become more likely.

I mention last the fate of another important class of companies: those with negative profitability. They are marginal, they are indebted, they struggle to survive.   Eventually they close or resort to bankruptcy and reorganization laws. If it is not possible to reach agreement with the creditors and continue in a reorganized form, then they really must close. Nevertheless, their fate is not overly worrisome in a society that has heeded the good advice of Father Hurtado and made the formation of social attitudes the centrepiece of education. In such a society, the former owners and the former workers are not going to be abandoned. In an ethical society, nobody is going to be abandoned.


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[1] I cite from my memory of meetings with Gilligan where I was present. I believe she probably uses this formulation of her views in her published works but I have not yet found it.

[2] I cite from memory of conversations with the author.  I believe this point is probably documented in his published works but I have not yet found it.

© Dr Howard Richards