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Basic philosophy outline

As long as people agree that 1) we need air, water, food, shelter, and a few other things, all of a proper quality, stability and balance to live, and 2) it is more efficient to cooperate in managing these things than not, then: 3) people could disagree on most other things, yet still live together with mutual benefit and without conflict.

However, agreeing with 1 and 2 is not sufficient for true sustainability. People can agree on these things yet still not consider consequences of their actions that only appear after their deaths. So, even if someone agreed with 1 and 2 they may not agree with 4) That it is worthwhile to leave the same system or better for those after us. It is necessary to understand that a decision must be made concerning this. What benefits oneself (increases one’s own capabilities) does not necessarily coincide with what is sustainable for society.

A free market is not necessarily efficient.

It is true that if someone can produce something or provide a service better than what is currently offered, society should allow that person to enter the market. If someone can make a process more efficient it is in society’s best interest to accommodate them. This is an example of positive competition. Positive competition increases the overall efficiency of the economic system.

However, not all competition is positive. There is another way to compete, and that is, instead of making oneself more efficient, making one’s competition less efficient. If I simply burn down all of my competitors buildings, my product or service will become the most value-cost competitive available. The bottom line: more revenue. However, this does not increase the efficiency of the economic system, it decreases it. So it is in society’s best interest to try to prevent this form of competition from entering the market. This is a very familiar role of government.

Though increasing positive competition and decreasing negative competition is a simple concept, it is not so easily carried out. New and creative ways to compete negatively are always being discovered, especially when the economy changes in ways which are difficult to understand. So, we see in the world continuously evolving legal and regulatory systems to deal with the issue, we see successes, failures, and situations we cannot so easily evaluate.

What complicates matters further is that legal and regulatory systems themselves require resources. Not only must society evaluate what is positive and negative competition (sometimes on a case by case basis), society must evaluate whether the legal and regulatory systems it employs save more resources than they cost. A balance must be struck. We see society’s attempt to meet this balance in our everyday lives: not all criminal cases can be solved, not everything that is harmful is illegal, not all actions can be scrutinized.

This is a common theme in politics and economics: a simple concept, complications, and a balance, good or bad, dictated by the effort and understanding of the members of society.

To become sustainable, society will have to reevaluate the concept of efficiency. This should come as no surprise; the economy has changed significantly in recent generations, it is entirely possible that the concepts which may have been sufficient in the past are now no longer clear enough to resolve the new problems humanity is facing. The concept that ’whatever means will lower a product’s price are justified’ is no longer true. Our technology has developed to such proportions that those means can significantly affects other factors, previously not considered to require society’s attention. We must go back to first principles.

What is sustainable? What is efficient? What benefits humanity? Where do we start?

All these questions are best grouped into one: how can we improve society? Society is made up of individuals, so it stands to reason that considering what it means for an individual to improve may give us some insight into what it may mean to improve society. When you improve, be it through gaining knowledge, skill, fitness, or acquiring resources and means, it increases your capability. You can now solve problems and accomplish things you could not before.

Improvement, social benefit, efficient economic systems, sustainability can all be evaluated with respect to capability. For instance, a new invention increases society’s capabilities and so, if used to further increase society’s capabilities, benefits society. Likewise, an unobstructed flow of knowledge, a healthier population, a good transportation system, quality education, all increase the scope of problems that society can solve and the scope of what society can accomplish, for instance, providing the basic necessities to society’s members. Increasing capabilities is a very simple concept: it means being able to do more.

However, as was warned, it is very complex to put in practice. The complication that arises is that doing anything - though it opens up new options - closes others. Whenever resources are used to do one thing, those resources are no longer available to do other things, and by doing something, the situation changes along with what we are now capable of. What increases your capabilities in the short term may decrease your capabilities over a longer term. An example is it is always cheaper not to eat today. At every moment the resources that would be used to eat can be used to do something else, opening up those options; but is not eating sustainable? Not only do you soon become less effective, lowering your capabilities over a more extended time frame, in the end you die and your options are reduced to zero.

So this is the core of the sustainability issue: our current economic system gives society more options in the present, but less options in the future. It is necessary to make a choice.

To create a sustainable economy will require a large and complex social effort. However, there are precedents: the train and road system, the electric system, and the communications system were all projects which used a significant portion of society’s resources in their beginnings. Society recognized the value of such systems and was willing to cooperate to accomplish their goals.

Choosing the path of least resistance will not result in a sustainable system. People will not choose a more difficult path without understanding why it should be so.


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