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Economics, morals and ethics August 19, 2013, 7:24 pm R. M. B.

Senanayakes letter published in The Island of 17 July deals with matters related to economics, morals and ethics. It seems to me that in economics RMBS is an out and out capitalist; in morals he is an absolutist; in ethics he is normative. Significantly, he concludes his polemic by quoting approvingly. The Economist to the effect that, "the empirical and the normative are two different things." Before I say what I mean by the technical jargon I have just used, let me confess that as an old medic my principal concern has been with human health and my judgment about what is in the best interests of human health (physical, mental, and social well being of people ) trumps everything in economics, morals and ethics.

Mass Poverty

The World Health Organization has declared that "poverty is the deadliest disease and the commonest cause of ill- health in the world." To the question: What is the main cause of mass poverty? my simple- minded one word answer is : Capitalism. And capitalism has dominated the world during the last 500 years or so. In capitalism private markets with little government intervention are the prime instruments used to produce and distribute goods, services and incomes. Capitalists believe that all that is necessary for a well ordered, prosperous society to emerge is the pursuit of wealth by individuals motivated by self- interest ( within the provisions of the criminal law). One outcome of the operation of this system is that (according to the Human Development Report ) in 2003, for example, the richest 1% of the worlds population received an income equivalent to 57% of the poorest people on earth. In the decade that has passed since then the gap between the richest and the poorest has become even wider. When I think about the three acute crises (food, fuel and financial) and the two chronic crises (climate and development ) which are responsible for the worlds current ills including the unsatisfactory state of general human health, I have to attribute them to the failure of capitalism. And yet my friend RMBS who is a kind, Godfearing, decent man remains alterably convinced that what the world needs to restore humanitys health and well-being is even more capitalism.


In morals RMBS appears to be an absolutist i.e. one who believes that there are certain actions e.g. murder, which are wrong under all circumstances. Here I have to confess that , at one stage in the long drawn-out conflict between ethnic groups in our country, when Velupillai Prabhakaran got Mr. Lakshman Kadirgamar murdered, I who believed like RMBS that murder is absolutely wrong, decided (inconsistently) that it is anyhow morally right to get Prabhakaran murdered.


When it comes to ethics, some may wonder as I once did whether morals and ethics are not one and the same thing. I gather that they are not quite the same. (According to Ben Dupre in "50 Philosophy Ideas you really need to know " ) whereas morality deals with the question, " What is the right thing to do ? ethics address the question, "what is the best way to live"? And ethics can be either normative or positivist ( empirical ). RMBS evidently fancies a normative ethics and quotes The Economist to justify his position. The Economist which began publication in 1843 has been nakedly, unashamedly and unapologetically capitalist in outlook. In economics people talk of normative economics as opposed to positivist economics. For example, in relation to tax on tobacco a positivist economist will ask only whether or not increasing tobacco tax will decrease number of smokers and if so whether it will adversely affect government revenue. On the other hand, a normative economist would favour tobacco taxation even if it decreases government revenue because it will serve to promote human health. ( Remember my dear friends who stills smoke, smoking one cigarette decreases your lifespan by seven minutes.!) Like RMBS I favour a normative approach in ethics. The problem is how my friend RMBS who is an out and out positivist, capitalist, economist can be an absolute moralist and a normative ethicist simultaneously. I am afraid that my friend is a walking contradiction!

Carlo Fonseka