All Ownership is Conditional

GWMNM private property sign

GWMNM private property sign (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All property ownership is conditional, and it always has been. This thousands-of-years-old legal doctrine is seldom appreciated or understood by modern activists, politicians, economists, or even by lawyers.

Some think private property is the cornerstone of civilization. Others criticize the institution of private property, finding in  it the root of all evil. They may hold the institution of private property responsible for all manner of social injustices and environmental ills. The alleged evils of private property are often attributed to the underlying legal system in which property ownership is established and enforced. Sometimes it is argued that private property should be abolished and/or that alternative legal frameworks, such as a “law of the commons” need to be established through legislation.

But the law of the commons and the doctrine of conditional ownership are already fundamental parts of our legal system, and have been since remote antiquity, leading me to think that our problems are less structural than maybe cultural or psychological.

It shouldn’t be surprising that political thinkers tend to see remedies to social and environmental problems in political terms, economists in economic terms, philosophers in philosophical terms, and so on, without any of them giving a lot of thought to legal history.

Because the doctrine of conditional property in existing law is so little understood outside a fairly small circle of scholars, and because the commons are constantly being despoiled,  privatized, and mismanaged, people tend to assume that our legal framework is deficient in this area.  So they naturally assume that we need new laws to protect the commons, rather than looking at existing law and asking why it is under-utilized. But if we don’t understand the the ways that existing law can  protect the commons, how will we be able to protect that important part of our legal heritage from attack by corrupt courts and legislatures? And that part of our legal heritage most certainly is quietly under attack, right under our noses. We may loose it before many of us ever even knew it existed.

The confusion about private property ownership is exacerbated by theories about “natural rights” and “natural law”, which have little or no basis in our actual legal system, but belong instead to the theoretical justice systems of  philosophers. Natural law (as in philosophy, not natural science) and natural rights theories have been advocated by conservative and liberal thinkers alike, in various historical contexts, to affirm or dispute the authority of kings or governments, and in general to dispute existing laws they didn’t like. Nature’s law (sometimes also mashed up with “divine law”) is different things to different people. Examples can be found in nature for anything from symbiosis to cooperation to violent territorial conquest. Natural law theories are often simply attempts by one group to dispute the prevailing legal authority of another group by appealing to a vague, transcendental authority. Thus natural law theories are now most commonly used by anarcho-capitalists and neo-libertarians to dispute the authority of civil law to regulate their economic activity.

In most Anglo-American jurisdictions, the body of  law includes constitutional law and

statutory law” enacted by a legislature, “regulatory law” promulgated by executive branch agencies pursuant to delegation of rule-making authority from the legislature, and common law or “case law“, i.e., decisions issued by courts (or quasi-judicial tribunals within agencies) (

The term “civil law” has several different connotations (one being a distinction from criminal law), but in the map below it is used to mean “a legal system inspired by Roman law, the primary feature of which is that laws are written into a collection, codified, and not (as in common law) determined by judges.” (Wikipedia/Civil law)

Legal Systems of the World (via WikiMedia)

Color Legal System Type
Civil law
Common law
Common law and Civil law

Contrary to the above map, I would characterize the US as a hybrid system of constitutional law, civil law, and common law; but of the three, common law may very well be the most powerful and the least appreciated.

Law in the West may be inspired or influenced by romantic interpretations of  nature (the law of the jungle, survival of the fittest); or by ethical, moral or religious teachings; or by scientists, philosophers, economists, politicians, jurists, etc.– but the law is not ruled, over-determined, or limited by any of those influences. Law is a complex bit of sausage-making that has been evolving for thousands of years. We have a legal heritage that one age and culture has passed to the next since even before the times of ancient Greece and Rome. The US, for example, did not start all over from scratch with a brand new legal system after the US Constitution was adopted. For the most part we continued to follow English Common Law. Ironically, many new laws which are established by parliaments, legislatures, executive agencies, courts, etc. are created in ignorance of, and often to the detriment of, the existing body of  law, especially the common law. Conservative efforts often harm the law by elevating private, special interests above the general welfare. Liberal efforts often harm the law by trying to reform a legal system they don’t adequately appreciate or understand, and by putting the structural cart of law before the functional horse of human behavior.

Upper portion of Hammurapis’ stela (Wikimedia)

When activists, political thinkers, and economists criticize the mainstream conventions of property ownership they often fail to realize that they are objecting to various implicit defaults and assumptions about ownership in common practice today. But those customary defaults are by no means the only arrangements permitted and protected under most modern legal frameworks.

The terms and conditions of a specific transaction or instance of ownership may be codified in legal terms and placed in deeds, titles, contracts, etc.. “Standard” legal language is used to convey the standard, default assumptions. But alternative, atypical terms and conditions of ownership can be legally codified as well — without any structural changes in our legal, political, or economic systems. Activists and reformers often blame a legal system they may not adequately understand for the ways in which the system is most commonly being used by the individuals and interest groups in society.

In other words, ownership problems may be rooted more in the philosophy, psychology, and behavior of individuals, groups, and cultures than in the technical structure of our legal systems– at least that seems to be the case in the modern Western nations I am most familiar with.

Our oldest known legal code is the Code of Hammurabi  — a  Babylonian law code of ancient Mesopotamia, dating back to about 1772 BC and found on the Hammurapis’ stela. “Nearly one-half of the Code deals with matters of contract, establishing, for example, the wages to be paid to an ox driver or a surgeon. Other provisions set the terms of a transaction, establishing the liability of a builder for a house that collapses, for example, or property that is damaged while left in the care of another. ” (Wikipedia)

Here are some samples of conditional property laws from the Code of Hammurabi:

36. The field, garden, and house of a chieftain, of a man, or of one subject to quit-rent, can not be sold.

37. If any one buy the field, garden, and house of a chieftain, man, or one subject to quit-rent, his contract tablet of sale shall be broken (declared invalid) and he loses his money. The field, garden, and house return to their owners.

38. A chieftain, man, or one subject to quit-rent can not assign his tenure of field, house, and garden to his wife or daughter, nor can he assign it for a debt.

39. He may, however, assign a field, garden, or house which he has bought, and holds as property, to his wife or daughter or give it for debt.

[Hammurabi’s Code of Laws  Translated by L. W. King]

Under Western legal systems (that evolved largely from English common law and Roman civil law),  ALL ownership is conditional. The relationship between an owner and the  thing that is owned is a form of custody.

Despite what we naively call “absolute” private ownership, the entire bundle of property rights is never held by any one owner. There are always multiple stake-holders with legal and equitable interests in any resource, even when the majority of the bundled rights are in the custody of a private owner. One  interest that is always present, both in law and equity, even when temporarily delegated to private custodians, is the public interest. The public interest includes public health, the public welfare, the sustainable viability of the ecosystem, and the interests of future generations, among other things.

Bundle of rights likened to a bundle of sticks (Wikimedia)

A private owner who holds a deed to property that conveys what in the US we call a “clear, unencumbered, fee-simple absolute title” is nonetheless subject to the rights of others to have unobstructed views, access to other property, or a neighborhood free of public hazards and nuisances. There are literally dozens of rights that others may have to or over some aspect of my private property.

In ancient times, one of the stakeholders that was always included in any ownership arrangement , even if only implicitly, was the king (and sometimes a deity). That is the origin of the legal doctrine of  conditional property ownership. Today however, in modern Western societies, the legal rights and equity interests once reserved by a sovereign or deity are now vested collectively in we, the people.

As a blogger comments at Commoning, “All property relations are conditional – the concept of absolute ownership is an idea that serves a logical function in some liberal jurisprudence and a misleading rhetorical device for various uninformed libertarians with no social conscience.”

The principle of conditional property ownership  is explicit by contract or implicit in many of our legal doctrines, such as:

Ironically, Western legal systems are doctrinally and structurally more aware and protective of these third-party and public interests than are most of those who use the system to conduct their business and enforce their property rights (and most of those who criticize the legal system for the sins of those who use it antisocially).

A liberal defense of private property

The concept of private property, like a stone axe, a hammer, or a gun, has utility even if it can also be abused. Aristotle writes, in Politics:

“For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Everyone thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few.”

This is not armchair philosophy. It it something we have all seen in our own lives. Certainly there are exceptions, but what Aristotle describes is as close to a law of human nature as I know. I have often seen it play out among family members, friends, co-workers, and commune members.

In some Soviet state-run farms, individuals and families were given small plots to grow their own food. It turned out that the productivity per acre was far greater on those hand-tended private plots than in the large fields where the latest scientific methods were used. “The size of the private plot varied over the Soviet period but was usually about 1 acre (0.40 ha).  … However, the productivity of such plots is reflected in the fact that in 1938 3.9 percent of total sown land was in the form of private plots, but in 1937 those plots produced 21.5 percent of gross agriculture output.”

Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), a detail of The School of Athens, a fresco by Raphael. Aristotle gestures to the earth, representing his belief in knowledge through empirical observation and experience, while holding a copy of his Nicomachean Ethics in his hand, whilst Plato gestures to the heavens, representing his belief in The Forms. (Wikipedia)

Aristotle says further:

“It is evident then that it is best to have property private, but to make the use of it common… And also with respect to pleasure, it is unspeakable how advantageous it is, that a man should think he has something which he may call his own; for it is by no means to no purpose, that each person should have an affection for himself, for that is natural, and yet to be a self-lover is justly censured; for we mean by that, not one that simply loves himself, but one that loves himself more than he ought; in like manner we blame a money-lover, and yet both money and self is what all men love. Besides, it is very pleasing to us to oblige and assist our friends and companions, as well as those whom we are connected with by the rights of hospitality; and this cannot be done without the establishment of private property, which cannot take place with those who make a city too much one [referring to Plato’s idea of the ideal Republic (city) holding all property in common]; besides, they prevent every opportunity of exercising two principal virtues, modesty and liberality. Modesty with respect to the female sex, for this virtue requires you to abstain from her who is another’s [referring to Plato’s idea for the Republic’s ruling class to hold all their wives and children in common]; liberality, which depends upon private property, for without that no one can appear liberal, or do any generous action; for liberality consists in imparting to others what is our own.” (Aristotle, The Politics, II.v.)

It is very interesting that Aristotle says “it is best to have property private, but to make the use of it common.” He goes on to extol the virtues of sharing and hospitality, and to propose that they are virtues only thanks to private property. Elsewhere he talks about using universal education, and not collective ownership as Plato proposed, to achieve the common good.

By defending private property I am not suggesting that Garrett Hardin’stragedy of the commons” is inevitable. Far from it. Few commoners are as stupid as Hardin seems to think. In most cases commoners understand that their enlightened self-interest lies in protecting the commons from abuse and managing it sustainably. Even if they neglect their own responsibilities to the commons and cause problems, others are likely to intervene. Self interest will move us to regulate each other if not ourselves.

Nor am I suggesting that all property should be private. The public interest is best served by a diversity of conditional ownership relations for different applications, and even a diversity of ownership forms for the same applications. For example we should probably have a combination of private farmland, community farmland, and national farmland. On the other hand, we should probably not, as a rule, have private wetlands, coal mines, or oil fields. But here again, few rules are without exceptions, as in the case of the Nature Conservancy‘s wetland holdings. The Nature Conservancy is a private corporate entity that purchases and encloses natural habitats and excludes spoilers.

One thing that Aristotle never contemplated was the form of  “private” ownership practiced by capitalists and their immortal and often trans-national corporations. The virtues that private ownership may promote in people and communities are entirely absent from balance sheets and quarterly reports. The perpetual and amoral ownership by capitalist corporations is so different from the kind of conditional private ownership practiced by people that it should have another name. It should probably be called property tyranny.

The biggest problems associated with ownership are not about privacy, enclosure, or exclusion per se but about the degrees, arrangements, and durations of those things. Both private and public enclosure of property can work for or against the public interest depending on the circumstances. Something I like to call “preemptive enclosure” is a means of using conditional enclosure of the commons, by the commons, for the commons. Conservation easements, land trusts, and Creative Commons copyrights are just a few examples.

In my opinion it is not in the public interest for the majority of land or durable property in a state to be held in direct public ownership. I agree with Aristotle that individual custody and stewardship of property promotes moral virtues. It is also consistent with the principle of subsidiarity. The Oxford English Dictionary defines subsidiarity as the idea that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level. This especially applies to the custody and management of property where absentee ownership is one of the most common sources of problems. Private ownership is still always subject to conditions (via common, statutory and administrative law) to protect public interests such as public safety, conservation, and sustainability.

Structure (law) vs practice (application)

In my opinion the greatest problems of ownership in practice are:

  • absentee, idle, or disinterested ownership
  • extractive ownership
  • ownership in perpetuity
  • excessive concentrations (actually just another variety of absentee ownership)

None of these are entirely structural (that is, dictated by our legal or economic system). They are behavioral as well.

The legal and institutional structures of society are formalized, normative reflections of the aggregate psychology (implicit associations, cognitive and cultural biases, assumptions, etc.) and behavior of the people. The structures of society have a degree of normalizing influence, but if the structures are changed without the underlying cultural assumptions and biases being changed, the old behaviors will tend to return. For example, a revolution or redistribution of wealth may only have a temporary effect– the previous social, political, or economic disparity may re-establish itself within the new structures, adapting the new structures to the old behaviors. History is full of examples, including the US “experiment in democracy”, which has come  “full circle” from a revolution against a partnership between the British Crown and the East India Company (and other “royal-chartered” mercantile monopolies) to our present domination by a corrupt political class in partnership with global corporations.

Abolishing private property or redistributing wealth by structural reform alone might possibly result in an eventual return of the same behaviors in new structural guises. On the other hand, changing our practice within the existing legal framework would probably result in a gradual change of the structural framework to reflect our new behavioral norms, almost as a matter of course.

However, promising new styles or designs of conditional ownership are gradually being introduced into public awareness. One example is called “generative ownership:”

“[Generative] ownership designs are aimed at generating the conditions where all life can thrive. From the Greek ge, generative uses the same root form found in the term for Earth, Gaia, and in the words genesis and genetics. It connotes life. Generative means the carrying on of life, and generative design is about the institutional framework for doing so. The generative economy is one whose fundamental architecture tends to create beneficial rather than harmful outcomes. It’s a living economy that has a built-in tendency to be socially fair and ecologically sustainable.

“Generative ownership designs are about generating and preserving real wealth, living wealth, rather than phantom wealth than can evaporate in the next quarter. They’re about helping families to enjoy secure homes. Creating jobs. Preserving a forest. Generating nourishment out of waste. Generating broad well-being.”  (Majorie Kelly,  The Emerging Ownership Revolution)

Our existing legal framework has many mechanisms for protecting the commons, but we often fail to use the legal tools we have at our disposal. We sit by while corrupt regulators give away public property and resources to corporations. Why? Our legal system does not dictate that. Could our addiction to cheap energy and consumer goods have anything to do with it?  We could encourage private property owners to trade various kinds of rights to their properties in exchange for tax breaks. Or we could impose tax penalties or fines on owners who mange their property in ways that harm the public good. Why don’t we do this more intensively and consistently? Could our lifestyles have more impact on our environment and our economy than our legal system does?

Intellectual Property (IP)

In the domain of intellectual property (IP), the traditional, default form of ownership of creative or intellectual works was “all rights reserved”. Ironically, those very terms expressed the idea that individual rights (plural) made up a bundle of rights that could be separated and distributed among various stakeholders. Eventually, within the existing framework of copyright law,  conditionality of ownership came to be explicitly defined by various forms of conditional copyright such as the GNU General Public License or Creative Commons license. Organizations like GNU and Creative Commons perform a valuable public service by codifying formerly atypical forms of IP ownership in legally defensible terms (largely a question of adequate specificity and formality) and making those well-crafted legal templates available for public use.

(via Wikipedia)

It is crucial to understand that those new forms of copyright grew out of practice conducted under the existing legal framework. The existing framework was extended (to the extent it changed at all) in a direction established by practices adopted in the free/open software community. We did not make legislative changes to the copyright framework which then unleashed new forms of enlightened social behavior.

However…at the same time that  free/open communities and peer-production communities have been hacking copyright for the benefit of the commons, the corporate world,  especially big entertainment, has succeeded at introducing novel structural defects into the copyright law framework–excessive durations, unreasonable fair use limitations, disproportionate penalties for infringement, and inadequate forms of due process in enforcement. They are structural defects because they undermine the public interest in favor of predatory and monopolistic corporate interests and there are few if any short-term behavioral remedies or alternatives short of opting out of participation in the production and consumption of corporate media content. This is a very limited remedy under the current conditions of monopolization of the industry.  Appropriate structural remedies would include breaking up the media monopolies and returning the terms and scope of copyright and fair use to something like their original specifications, thus restoring greater conditionality. The new forms of  “industrial strength”  copyright law are recent inventions that break with all former legal doctrine. Unlike the commons-oriented copyright extensions which are consistent with conditional property traditions, the industry IP proposals aim at near-absolute exclusive ownership of IP in perpetuity. The introduction and persistence of such structural aberrations depend on the corruption of our political and judicial institutions. Both have become captive to global monopoly capitalism. Thanks to its excessive concentration of wealth, global monopoly capitalism is sometimes able to assert its preferred legal framework — might makes right — over that of the people.

In the absence of a successful structural defense or reform of the copyright framework, the commons-oriented community may have little alternative but to opt completely out of the corporate media framework. In the long term the creative, co-operative working class has the skills and abilities to build an entire media counter-economy and infrastructure from the ground up. In that event we can one day turn to the old media industry and say “Be my guest–keep all your crappy IP to yourself.”

Atlantic salmon. Salmo salar. (Wikipedia)

But patents are another story. Biotech moguls like Monsanto are patenting genetically engineered (GE) and genetically modified (GM) organisms and then loosing them upon the world to spread their Frankenstein IP far and wide. Once their patented-gene-carrying pollen infects your organic corn, soy, or alfalfa your crop may belong to them. Indian farmers tried to tell Monsanto to shove their mutant seeds only to find natural seeds and seed saving outlawed by trade agreements and treaty (WikiLeaks has documented US State Department diplomats working directly for Monsanto). Next it will be GE/GM animals like transgenic salmon that will “escape” into the wild (accidentally, of course) to infect wild populations with patented genes.

That makes the increasingly popular corporate practice of trademarking ordinary English words like “face” seem almost innocuous by comparison.

Needless to say all of this flies in the face (oops) of common law and common sense. Remedies to protect the commons and the public interest from this Trojan-IP invasion will almost certainly need to be served with a side-order of civil disobedience.

Real Property

In the case of real estate and other tangible property the conditionality of ownership can be asserted through deed restrictions, covenants, easements, trust agreements, purchase and lease agreements, contracts and other means. Such arrangements are strongly supported by US courts if the terms are adequately specified and formalized. Many states now have legislatively created conservation easement programs and trusts for various public assets. But such things are perhaps more commonly implemented by non-governmental organizations like nature conservancies, community land trusts, non-profits, worker cooperatives, and individual philanthropists. If the legal framework has changed at all, it is only to the extent that practice has paved the way.

It is our footpaths, as more and more of us practice a new kind of behavior, that gradually are trodden into law. It is easy to make the logical and philosophical error that behavior follows law, that the law prescribes and constrains our behavior, because that is often our most personal, proximate, and visceral perspective. But the reverse is true. Our collective behavior, over generations and eons, becomes structurally crystallized in our laws and institutions. To change our laws in the right way, the natural and organic way, we must first change ourselves and our practice.

However, there are several practical (not structural) obstacles to the wide use of atypical conditional property arrangements for types of property other than IP (although atypical IP probably had similar issues early on). One problem is related to purchases and investments financed by third parties such as banks, retail finance companies, mortgage companies, and venture capital firms. The middlemen in property transactions tend to be very conservative about the conditionality of ownership. They want to retain as much of the bundle of rights that law and custom allows until the mortgage or other credit terms are satisfied. It may only be after a property transaction is “paid in full”  that a purchaser will be free to define an atypical distribution of rights for the property in question. This situation will change as atypical transactions and ownership models become more common, and as more investors and financial middlemen come to understand and tolerate such arrangements (or in the case of public-spirited institutions, even to favor them).

Another major problem is the shortage of attorneys who are familiar with atypical property ownership models and the range of legal instruments that can be used to implement alternative forms of conditional ownership that serve the public interest and the commons. My work in the 1970’s researching the legal foundations for conservation easements and community land trusts exposed me to the lack of depth in property ownership expertise that existed in the legal and philanthropic communities. My recent exposure to the history of the Daniel Pennock Democracy School and the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) convinces me that the situation has improved but little in the past three or four decades. Hopefully that is finally about to change with the CELDF’s new programs and other “Law of the commons” projects that are in the making.

The real tragedy of the commons

Those parts of our legal system that deal with the law of the commons and conditional property ownership are weak or rusty not by design but from disuse. Whose fault is that? Is it a failure on the part of bad, selfish, and greedy people? Sure. But it is also a failure of progressives and liberals (including liberal lawyers, judges and scholars) who are well-intentioned but legally naive and who fail to look outside the box of prevailing legal norms.

In addition to the behavioral issues I’ve mentioned, there are clearly some real structural defects in our legal framework that have accumulated through the influence of powerful and corrosive special interests on our political and judicial system. Examples are the perverse trends in commercial IP law, industry-rigged environmental and regulatory law, and the unprecedented doctrine of corporate person-hood with its perpetual ownership and freedom from inheritance tax liability. All this stuff is relatively new in legal history and it has happened on our watch.

“It is not wrong to say that the nature and intent of a society reveal themselves in the legal and customary concepts of property held by the various members and classes of that society. These property concepts do not change without an incipient or fundamental change in the nature of the society itself. The history of property relations in a given society is thus, in a way, the history of the society itself .” (Schurmann 1956: 507, Properties of Property: A Jurisprudential Analysis)

Our ancient legacy of conditional property law is well known to capitalists, and they are actively chipping away at it all the time. Few liberals even know this body of law exists,  but the common law is as much a part of our commons as our creative works and our ecosystem. And we are sorely neglecting it. Whose fault is that?

If you want to be a steward of the commons, it will help to begin with some knowledge of the common law of ownership. The resources below are some of the best places I know to start.

Poor Richard

Related posts on PRA 2.0

Important Resources

Public Trust Doctrine

The public trust doctrine has its roots in the ancient Roman concept of natural law that held certain things, including the shores of water, were by their nature common to all. Opinion of the Justices (Public Use of Coastal Beaches), 139 N.H. 82, 87 (1994).

The doctrine was adopted under English common law that the tidelands and navigable waters were held by the king in trust for the general public. Id. These public rights were vested in the colonies of America, and following the American Revolution, all the rights of the king vested in the several states, subject to the rights surrendered to the national government by the Federal Constitution. Shively v. Bowlby, 152 U.S. 1, 14-15 (1894).

New Hampshire holds in trust its lakes, large natural ponds, navigable rivers and tidal waters for the use and benefit of the people of the State. State v. Sunapee Dam Co., 70 N.H. 458, 460 (1900). Navigability is not the sole test of whether a river is held in trust, but “when a river or stream is capable in its natural state of some useful service to the public because of its existence as such, it is public. Navigability is not a sole test, although an important one.” St. Regis Paper Co. v. New Hampshire Water Resources Board, 92 N.H. 164, 170 (1942). With regard to large ponds, the Supreme Court adopted a portion of the Massachusetts Ordinance of 1647 to find that a “great pond…containing more than 10 acres of land” is included with the public trust. Concord Manufacturing Co. v. Robertson, 66 N.H. 1, 26 (1889), See also RSA 271:20 (defining state-owned public waters to include all natural bodies of fresh water having an area of 10 acres or more).

The uses and benefits subject to the public trust are not limited to navigation and fishery, but include other benefits. Various cases have held that the public trust encompasses “all useful and lawful purposes”, “what justice and reason require”… See Opinion of the Justices, 139 N.H. at 90-91.


Property, Commoning and the Politics of Free Software by Massimo De Angelis and J. Martin Pedersen (@|Commoning|, excerpted from The Commoner, Issue 14, Winter 2010)

“In legal and philosophical terms, property relations are relations between people with regard to things. In this way, the organisation of a commons is encoded in its property rules, which structure its use, access and decision-making rights and responsibilities accordingly. Property, then, is central to debates about commons and commoning: how do commoners relate to each other with regard to a given resource (land, code, rivers, forests, hills, cars) and how is a commons defined vis-a-vis the rest of the world? Questions such as class, gender and other hierarchies, environmental justice, sustainability and spirituality are relevant here. Most of these social dynamics – most of the time, even on the “outside of capital”– turn on property relations: who has access to what (tools, resources, land), when and under what conditions, who gets to decide and how are decisions made?

“Often, however, property is juxtaposed to commons – as if commoning was a negation of property. Unfortunately, this view presupposes and consolidates a very narrow understanding of property, where the general is conflated with the particular. Property relations are not only exclusive, private property rights as instantiated within capitalist democracy (that is, a particular conception of property). As a jurisprudential concept, property can be used to understand, analyse, reflect upon and organise social relations with regard to things in any context (this is the general conception of property). The conflation of the general with the particular, which conceals the historical and anthropological fact that property can be and is understood (very) differently, takes on a further dimension in colloquial talk. We have come to accept that property is stuff: things that we own, and that we own exclusively. As a rhetorical device in privatisation arguments it is very powerful because it invokes feelings that are close to home, literally. We say things like “this house is my property”.

“Similarly, privatisation arguments in the context of immaterial goods and resources invoke the same passions and feelings: this text or this source code “is the property of Microsoft”. Such a conception of property is not only a conflation, but furthermore hides the complexity of the social relations that property arrangements circumscribe and give rise to.

“It is obvious that social, cultural and political practices define any given property regime, hence analytically exploring property relations gives us an insight into the relation between the socio-cultural and the law. It is precisely at this level that commons are created and organised – and through the language of property we can articulate practices of commoning into property protocols (rules and agreements) that can provide stability of the commons on the inside and protection against threats of capital’s enclosure from the outside. Self-determination and autonomy begins by taking the law into your own hands. (Property, Commoning and the Politics of Free Software)

Properties of Property: A Jurisprudential Analysis (pdf), by J. Martin Pedersen (The Commoner, Issue 14, Winter 2010)

“No doubt the eighteenth century preferred rational treaties expounding the theory of property to
historical essays describing the theories of property. But … we … know that the institution of property
has had its history and that that history has not yet come to an end … We begin with the knowledge
that there must be as many theories of property as there have been systems of property rights.
Consequently we abandon the search for the true theory of property and study the theories of the past
ages. Only thus can we learn how to construct a theory suitable to our own circumstances” (Schlatter
1951: 10).

Property Rights in the Commons: The ubiquity of mixed systems (extracts from Ostrom’s Law: Property Rights in the Commons)

Ostrom’s Law: Property Rights in the Commons, Lee Anne Fennell (University of Chicago Law School) International Journal of the Commons, Vol 5, No 1 (2011).

Blackstones’s Commentaries on the Laws of England

The Commentaries and and some of Blackstone’s other work is the main source of my background in common law. I poured over Blackstone for nearly a year while I was researching the legal foundations for community land trusts and conservation easements. This is probably the greatest single record and repository of humanity’s common legal heritage and it is easily readable by educated laypeople. Various abridgements and online texts are available.

“The Commentaries were long regarded as the leading work on the development of English law and played a role in the development of the American legal system. They were in fact the first methodical treatise on the common law suitable for a lay readership since at least the Middle Ages. The common law of England has relied on precedent more than statute and codifications and has been far less amenable than the civil law, developed from the Roman law, to the needs of a treatise. (Wikipedia/Commentaries)

“When the Commentaries were first printed in North America (1772) 1,400 copies were ordered for Philadelphia alone. Academics have also noted the early reliance of the Supreme Court on the Commentaries, probably due to a lack of US legal tradition at that time.  Robert Ferguson notes that “all our formative documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalist Papers and the seminal decisions of the Supreme Court under John Marshall — were drafted by attorneys steeped in Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England. So much was this the case that the Commentaries rank second only to the Bible as a literary and intellectual influence on the history of American institutions”. Even today, the Commentaries are cited in Supreme Court decisions between 10 and 12 times a year.

“Within United States academia and practise, as well as within the judiciary, the Commentaries had a substantial impact; with the scarcity of law books on the frontier, they were “both the only law school and the only law library most American lawyers used to practise law in America for nearly a century after they were published”. Blackstone had drawn up a plan for a dedicated School of Law, and submitted it to the University of Oxford; when the idea was rejected he included it in the Commentaries. It is from this plan that the modern system of American law schools comes. Subscribers to the first edition of Blackstone, and later readers who were profoundly influenced by it, include James Iredell, John Marshall, James Wilson, John Jay, John Adams, James Kent and Abraham Lincoln.” (Wikipedia/Blackstone)

Related Resources

Organizations and Websites focusing on “The Commons”

  • The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund CELDF works with communities to establish Community Rights – such that communities are empowered to protect the health, safety, and welfare of their residents and the natural environment, and establish environmental and economic sustainability.
  • Democracy School Online, (The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund)
  • The School of Commoning “a growing worldwide community of people participating in the global and local commons. We support the developing commons movement, as well as interested organizations and individuals, with well-organized knowledge resources and educational programs on commoning and the commons.”
  • International Journal of the Commons  “The International Journal of the Commons (IJC) is an initiative of the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC). As an interdisciplinary peer-reviewed open-access journal, the IJC is dedicated to furthering the understanding of institutions for use and management of resources that are (or could be) enjoyed collectively. These resources may be part of the natural world (e.g. forests, climate systems, or the oceans) or they may emerge from social realities created by humans (e.g. the internet or (scientific) knowledge, for example of the sort that is published in open-access journals).”
  • On the Commons/Commons Magazine “a network of citizens and organizations that champions the cause of the commons on many fronts. Our mission is to advance a new worldview by naming, claiming, protecting and expanding the commons for the good of all.”
  • Commons Law Project “We must find new ways to protect our planet from the unsustainable growth imperatives of neoliberal economics and politics.  This will require a new architecture of “green governance”―laws, public policies, and social practices that can honor human rights and commons-based management of natural resources large and small…”
  • The P2P Foundation, Category:Commons “What we share. Creations of both nature and society that belong to all of us equally, and should be maintained for future generations. The Commons has the potential to replace the commodity as the determining form of re-/producing societal living conditions.”
  • Helene Finidori’s Blog “Rethinking Sustainable Development in terms of Commons.” Helene is a trail blazer.
  • Commoning (blog) ~ property relations and the architecture of commons ~  (appears to be inactive now but contains a lot of excellent material, especially on property law)
  • Democracy School Online, (The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund)

General Utility 2.0

Three models of change in scientific theories,...

Image via Wikipedia

Towards a science of happiness and well-being

Stephen J Gould seems to have spoken for many when he proposed that science and religion, or the domains of “is” and “ought”, are “non-overlapping magisteria,” and opined that “science and religion do not glower at each other…but interdigitate in patterns of complex fingering, and at every fractal scale of self-similarity.”

But whether or not the “magisteria” of science and religion overlap is the question, (a version of the demarcation problem) not the answer. In my opinion they do overlap in the following way: religion, philosophy and science widely overlap in the domain of 1) asking questions about the world, and 2) interpreting evidence—although each may specialize in the types of questions it chooses to ask and the kinds of evidence it chooses to interpret.

The problem, and the glowering, arises when it comes to 3) the scientific method and the CRAFT of gathering and validating evidence, regardless of whether the evidence concerns atoms, evolution, or out-of-body experiences. One person’s justified belief is another person’s heresy.

More to the point of this essay, one person’s “ought” is another person’s “ought not”. Curiously, the difference between an ought and an ought-not often comes down to what “is”. My choice to give a panhandler some money or not may depend on whether we are standing in front of a cafe or a liquor store. The more complete our information about people and situations the better we can decide about the “right” thing to do, regardless of our moral framework.

The hypothesis on which this essay is based is this:  the more we know about the domain of what is, the smaller the gulf between “is and aught” becomes. I will approach the domain of what is, as it concerns happiness and well-being, through the lens and methods of science, without intending to question or threaten any beliefs that science may be silent about.

Reduction of a duck

Hopefully this will not be dismissed as scientism, positivism, reductionism, or materialism. These terms have various negative connotations but what they may all have in common is a criticism of scientific authority when it violates the parsimony principle. In other words, legitimate science crosses the line into scientism when it takes authoritative positions without sufficient empirical evidence to justify scientific conclusions. A lack of evidence for a proposition (the existence of a God, for example) is not proof of the contrary (negative) proposition. The legitimate scientific position where evidence is lacking is to abstain from drawing conclusions, period.

On the other hand, it is perfectly proper for science to evaluate the conclusions of scientists and non-scientists alike, the methods by which such conclusions are reached, and the evidence on which they are based; and to judge their scientific merit. There are many truth claims popular in modern times that are demonstrably false. I think it is important for people in all walks of life to have the opportunity to learn what science may say about the truth claims we are bombarded with all the time by our authority figures and peers. Even in those cases where science must remain parsimoniously silent, that silence may speak volumes.

Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape

Are we satisfied with people doing good for the wrong reasons or doing wrong for good reasons? Doing something for a wrong reason increases the risk of bad side-effects and unintended consequences, including but not limited to the consequence of reinforcing the fallacies behind the original motivation. The branch of moral philosophy known as consequentialism emphasizes the results or consequences of an action or rule over the importance of intentions or motives. What I like about consequentialism in general is a concern about unintended consequences because, after all, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” It also accords with the aphorism that “By their fruits [i.e. results—not words, reputations, intentions, etc.] shall ye know them.” Results alone may not be sufficient to justify actions, but neither are intentions. Of the two, results may well be the more germane; and they are certainly the more easily quantifiable.

Wikipedia says:

Consequentialism refers to those moral theories which hold that the consequences of one’s conduct are the true basis for any judgment about the morality of that conduct. Thus, from a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right act (or omission) is one that will produce a good outcome, or consequence. This view is often expressed as the aphorism “The ends justify the means”.

Consequentialism is usually understood as distinct from deontology, in that deontology derives the rightness or wrongness of one’s conduct from the character of the behavior itself rather than the outcomes of the conduct. It is also distinguished from virtue ethics, which focuses on the character of the agent rather than on the nature or consequences of the act (or omission) itself.

Obviously the glaring problem with that definition is “The ends justify the means.” We have a strong, intuitive, negative reaction to that. But consequentialism makes no such absolute, categorical dictum (in distinction to other schools of thought which might hold the contrary dictum that ends can never justify means). Consequentialism holds that both means and ends have consequences and that a valid utility calculation would include both. Would you tell a lie to save an innocent life? Would you kill someone to save your own life? Would you kill someone to save thousands of innocent lives? If so, you may be a consequentialist. Would you cheat, lie, and steal to win a political election? If so you may be a scumbag, but not necessarily a consequentialist.

The saying “the ends justify the means” is often used to justify means which are actually ends in themselves or which serve ends that are not explicitly stated by those who employ them. Or the stated ends may fail to include various “externalities” or side-effects, by-products, or other consequences which were unintended and/or unjustified.

I can’t prevent the concept of consequentialism from being applied euphemistically and disingenuously to provide cover for special interests and antisocial behaviors, but that is in direct contradiction to the aim of empirically and transparently accounting for all consequences—including side-effects and so-called externalities.

Consequentialism does not hold that results/ends matter more than methods/means but that consequences matter more than intentions. Methods and means are susceptible to empirical evaluation as to their consequences (both direct and incidental) and fitness for any given purpose, but intentions are not.

As goodgraydrab put it in a discussion at The Reason Project Forum, “empirical evidence can significantly alter the notion of support for “justification” and “means,” while at the same time examining the validity and motivation for the “ends,” over unfounded supernatural biblical belief and political greed.”

We often fail to define and justify our “ends” in a full and explicit way. One goal often contradicts another goal. That is why we usually say the ends don’t justify the means. What this really says is that certain implicit goals, such as civil society (the rule of law), or the value of personal virtue, are considered axiomatic and must not be contradicted by the means used to achieve other goals, such as accumulation of personal wealth. The means for achieving one goal may violate or defeat achieving another, perhaps even more important, goal.  Means are properly justified (or judged) by all their consequences, intended or unintended; or to put it another way, by their effectiveness and by all their side effects. In consequentialism, no “externalities” can be sanctioned. To recognize one set of consequences and ignore others would be outright hypocrisy or subterfuge, not consequentialism.

The harder philosophical issue may be judging the merit of the desired “ends” or goals.

Goals can be classed as individual or collective. There is a natural tension between these two categories that can be difficult to resolve even by concepts of enlightened self interest and maximum utility. Human beings would not be well served by the deterministic rules of ant society. A model of maximum utility that includes human beings requires a certain amount of capability, freedom, and dignity, as well as some amount of inequality or disequilibrium. But when, where, why, and how much?

That is where a generic version of consequentialism, utilitarianism or utility theory that I call “general utility” comes in.

General Utility vs The Noble Savage and a Morality based on “Natural Law”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau…argued that civilization, with its envy and self-consciousness, has made men bad. In his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality Among Men (1754), Rousseau maintained that man in a State of Nature had been a solitary, ape-like creature, who was not méchant (bad), as Hobbes had maintained, but (like some other animals) had an “innate repugnance to see others of his kind suffer” (and this natural sympathy constituted the Natural Man’s one-and-only natural virtue). It was Rousseau’s fellow philosophe, Voltaire, objecting to Rousseau’s egalitarianism, who charged him with primitivism [see anarcho-primitivism] and accused him of wanting to make people go back and walk on all fours. Because Rousseau was the preferred philosopher of the radical Jacobins of the French Revolution, he, above all, became tarred with the accusation of promoting the notion of the “noble savage”, especially during the polemics about Imperialism and scientific racism in the last half of the 19th century. Yet the phrase “noble savage” does not occur in any of Rousseau’s writings. In fact, Rousseau arguably shared Hobbes’ pessimistic view of humankind, except that as Rousseau saw it, Hobbes had made the error of assigning it to too early a stage in human evolution.”  (Wikipedia: Erroneous_Identification_of_Rousseau_with_the_noble_savage)

IMO Rousseau actually WAS  enamored of the “noble savage” fantasy though he didn’t use the phrase. However, this controversial and highly speculative side-track to his thought is entirely irrelevant. What matters is the present social contract, not vague speculations about prehistory.

“For Rousseau the remedy was not in going back to the primitive but in reorganizing society on the basis of a properly drawn up social compact, so as to “draw from the very evil from which we suffer [i.e., civilization and progress] the remedy which shall cure it.”  (Wikipedia: Erroneous_Identification_of_Rousseau_with_the_noble_savage)

Civic/legal/moral equality is a relatively modern idea and derives little from evolution or ancient cultural traditions, with the possible exception of the old canard that we are all equal “in the sight of God.” We need to replace both the legacy of evolution and the “sight of God” with the insight of a humanity which bases its ethics on reason rather than appeals to authority, history, nature, or divine revelations.

All rights (including human rights, civil rights, and property rights) are the products of contract, the most fundamental of which is the “social contract.” Regulation and enforcement of contracts (and thus rights) is a matter of jurisprudence and jurisdiction. Law determines what rights may be inalienable in a given jurisdiction, just as law determines what contracts are legal or illegal. This is all a matter of LAW. Theories based on or derived from “natural law,” “natural rights,” or even on economics are irrelevant to the question of rights and property except to the extent that such ideas have been (and still are) toxic to the evolution of jurisprudence. Rousseau, Kant, and many, many others have tried to settle the rights question on the basis of some “natural law” which remains a speculative and unsettled theory.

IMO “Natural law” is simply a modern facade for divine law. It is a fiction. I do not support morality or ethical systems based on religion or fairy tales. I prefer jurisprudence based on empirical (quantifiable and verifiable) equity, and preferably in a framework of the greatest good for the greatest number (general utility). That is the only proper, objective (non-fictional) basis for morality, ethics, law, or enlightened self-interest. I only wish this were considered self-evident by more people. Instead we constantly debate rights on the basis of philosophy, religion, ideology, or economic theory, none of which provide a sound foundation for rational human rights, civil rights, or property rights.

But where do we get the right foundation for a modern and rational social contract? Not from any form of conventional deontological or consequentialist morality. Deontology and consequentialism are usually contrasted with one another:

“Consequentialism, we are told, judges the rightness or wrongness of an action by the desirability of the outcome it produces; a deontological system, on the other hand, judges actions by whether or not they adhere to certain rules (e.g. ‘don’t censor newspapers’).” (“All Ethical Systems are Both Deontological and Consequentialist” by Noahpinion)

Deontology is really just after-the-fact consequentialism. If not prior experience (and thus appreciation of consequences), what would deontological rules and duties be based on other than some form of moral superstition or conjecture? One answer is that deontology is based on contract theory.

“Contract theory is the whole drama of deontology(intent) and ultilitarian(outcome) mergers.  Agential problems are the friction between the crude utlilitiarian measures/systems/incentives and the deontological issues of contracts, and when such problems are insurmountable at any given present, we have tension that can lead to revolution. ” ~Robert Ryan

Yes, the rules and duties of any deontology worth its salt are not merely unilateral assertions–they are social contracts. But the utility of a contract is not merely in its intent. The utility must also be judged by results. Both the intents and the results matter, in the same way that both the ends and the means matter; and both are embraced in the concept of general utility.

Bateson quote balance

General utility (my term for a generic form of consequentialism) is not arbitrary, authoritarian, philosophical, religious, ideological, historical, anthropological, or tradition-bound. Nor is it cruel or heartless. (What kind of madman would calculate well-being or “the greatest good” without taking subjective needs into account?) By general utility I mean much more (and less) than narrow market-based utility functions that are full of externalities.

The so-called “utility function” in economics and the many varieties of utilitarianism and consequentialism have their critics and their historical baggage. In philosophy, economics, and social science utility functions  have been formulated in overly vague, reductive, or simplistic ways often rife with primitive, pre-scientific assumptions and externalities.  Utilitarianism and consequentialism have countless variants each with its controversies. I assume a priori that any economic or philosophical school has historical baggage and needs to be reformulated to conform with a modern empirical framework. Henceforth I will refer to that scientific framework as General Utility 2.0 (GU2). I call it “general” utility to distinguish it from prior species of utility theory and utilitarianism which I characterize as  narrow or “special” versions of utility.

In theory, the GU2 framework is a multi-dimensional matrix of all variables that impact the well-being and flourishing of human life and everything on which it depends, including the biosphere.

Sam Harris is a neuroscientist, but I don’t think he is saying that well-being is only a matter of mental states. Things like organic health, economic well-being, and ecological fitness are important, too.

I hope that an empirical approach to ethics can breathe new life and scope into consequentialism and the utility function. In my opinion, “what is” and “what ought” are on a collision course, and Sam Harris may be one of the early pioneers of that convergence.

Objections to utility

The most compelling objection to consequentialism is that consequences are unpredictable or uncontrollable despite our best intentions and our best-laid plans. This is the problem of chaos, complexity, and uncertainty. But as a critique of consequentialism this is simply a special case of the repudiation of science in general. By a similar process of reasoning we would conclude that science is impractical and that reality is unknowable because it is not perfectly or completely knowable. I hope that pointing out this fallacy dispenses with the “unknowability of consequences” objection.

Perhaps the most common objections to consequentialism are those that simply assert a bias for other standards of morality that are thought to be morally superior. I argue that non-empirical standards, whether based on authority, history, or any other unfalsifiable theory, are no longer worthy of serious consideration in today’s world.

I already discussed the objection to “ends justifying means” but here is a particular example I recently came across:

“Utilitarianism cannot protect the rights of minorities if the goal is the greatest good for the greatest number.  Americans in the eighteenth century could justify slavery on the basis that it provided a good consequence for a majority of Americans.  Certainly the majority benefited from cheap slave labor even though the lives of African slaves were much worse.”

Many objections to utility have to do with the difficulties in weighting, aggregating, and computing individual vs collective well-being.  Some methods can produce “repugnant” results for individuals and minorities, and even for the whole population in some instances. These are mostly methodological issues.

The biosphere and well-being of future generations must also be taken into account in GU2, and the means for achieving maximum utility must conform with certain axiomatic constraints such as justice and allowance for prior conditions. For example, if maximum utility prescribes a population smaller than presently exists, the population goal must be achieved via natural attrition rather than mass extermination.

Further, the goal of GU2 is not to force people autocratically into conformity with some computed state of maximum utility. The idea is make information about the consequences of possible choices available in the expectation that such information will affect the choosers. The GU2 model would allow the results of changes to any variable to be distributed across all knowledge domains and the consequences estimated.

As goodgraydrab put it so well, “empirical evidence can significantly alter the notion of support for “justification” and “means,” while at the same time examining the validity and motivation for the “ends,” over unfounded supernatural biblical belief and political greed.”

Since in the end people still have to decide how to weigh variables and how apply GU2 information, the results of maximizing utility should not violently contradict generic, intuitive attitudes towards well-being. The hope is more that such empirical knowledge would SHAPE such attitudes for the better.

The following is little more than a brainstorming effort, but I think its helpful to have some concrete iteration of an idea to work from.

General Utility 2.0 Framework


I. Identity

  1. personal profile
  2. demographic info
  3. physical metrics and descriptors
  4. biographical info

II. Happiness (mental/emotional state)

Note: possibility of real-time monitoring of some factors

  1. vital signs
  2. galvanic skin resistance
  3. pupil dilation
  4. brain scans (qEEG, fMRI)
  5. hormone levels
  6. homeostasis
  7. presence/absence of stress or other happiness inhibitors
  8. subjective reports
  9. etc.

III. Health & longevity (many dimensions)

IV. Safety/security (ditto)

V. Freedom/constraint/capability (ditto)

VI. Information/communication

A. Education

  1. Formal education
  2. Self education

B. Self-knowledge

  1. implicit associations and biases
  2. conscious values/beliefs
  3. strengths and weaknesses
  4. habits
  5. effective/ineffective reinforcement history
  6. etc.

D. Beliefs and opinions

E. Cognitive and communication skills

  1. IQ
  2. verbal
  3. written
  4. logic
  5. cognitive deficits
  6. internet
  7. mobile
  8. etc

VII. Social matrix

  1. Status (gender, age, wealth, power, rank, position, fame, celebrity, etc.)
  2. Family
  3. Friends
  4. Community
  5. Employment (job code, job satisfaction, working conditions, culture, co-worker relations, etc.)
  6. Memberships and affiliations
  7. On-line social networks
  8. Other support networks

VIII. Skills & abilities (academic, technical, mechanical, professional, athletic, parenting, housekeeping, etc.)

IX. Standard-of-living factors

  1. market basket
  2. assets & liabilities
  3. disposable income
  4. etc.

X. Other quality of life factors

  1. creative activities
  2. recreation
  3. exposure to nature
  4. etc.

XI. Contributions and Costs to the flourishing of others (including ecosystem impacts: carbon footprint, resource footprint, etc.)

It is important to note that various instruments already exist to measure nearly all the parameters in the above table and thus create well-being “profiles” of individuals and groups.

The next level of developing the GU2 model would be to correlate every species of data in the profile so that a change in one variable would be reflected in any others where a relationship was known. So the GU2 framework is a model of both data and relational algorithms.

The GU2 framework might be thought of as analogous to the control board in a recording studio. All the individual parameters of the sounds on multiple “tracks” can be adjusted and combined in an infinite number of ways but somehow one particular set of levels gets chosen as the most pleasing combination. The old-school theories of philosophy, economics, politics, and social welfare might be  analogous to the generic rock/pop/jazz settings on a cheap acoustic equalizer.  GU2 encourages a much more granular, eclectic, and empirical approach to altering parameters and measuring results, either as simulations or as interventions in the real world.

What is the goal?

Everyone has multiple goals with some degree of overlap and conflict. The best way I know to express the overall goal of General Utility 2.0 is this: to enhance the process of evolution. What I mean by evolution is the on-going emergence of new and increased capacities and capabilities in the biosphere and its parts, including but not limited to ourselves.

What happens if we maximize the biomass of human neurons on the planet and minimize the mass of human fat cells? This is a far-fetched question even in the context of GU2. But the current impossibility of simulating such scenarios is not a bad reason for investing in GU2.

Utility is actually implicit in everything we do. The goal of GU2 is to make it explicit. This will seem like a bad idea to some. Many may feel, not without some justification, that such knowledge is dangerous. The funny thing about knowledge, though, is that a little bit is more dangerous than a lot.

The brain is a powerful utility-computing device, but it is an analog device with many eccentric, ad hoc methods for doing its job. An increasing number of brains are becoming aware of this limitation and they are developing science and technology to enhance the power and quality of utility computation. These rational cognitive prosthetics, enhancements, and quality controls are vital because the biological brain is not able to evolve rapidly enough to deal with changing environmental conditions.

Some rational utility computations will no doubt conflict with eccentric brain-based computations. Many of our human eccentricities may be relatively harmless. Some may be essential to who we are. Certainly some are beautiful to us and are deeply cherished. Unfortunately, some are also responsible for a great deal of human suffering and environmental damage. Sorting it all out will not be easy or painless but that is the goal of GU2.

I would also say that a goal of GU2 is for humanity to achieve greater moral-ethical maturity–i.e, to put away childish, pre-scientific notions of morality and to grow up.

Poor Richard

Related Articles and Resources:


Canadian Index of Wellbeing

The CIW goes beyond narrow economic measures like Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and provides the only national index that will measure wellbeing across a wide spectrum of domains. The CIW identifies a set of key indicators that will track Canada’s progress in eight interconnected domains of wellbeing [with a total of 64 individual metrics]:

  • Community Vitality measures the strength, activity and inclusiveness of relationships between residents, private sector, public sector and civil society organizations that fosters individual and collective wellbeing.
  • Democratic Engagement measures the participation of citizens in public life and in governance; the functioning of Canadian governments; and the role Canadians and their institutions play as global citizens.
  • Education measures the literacy and skill levels of the population, including the ability of both children and adults to function in various contexts and plan for and adapt to future situations.
  • Environment measures the state of and the trends in Canada’s environment by looking at the stocks and flows of Canada’s environmental goods and services.
  • Healthy Populations measures the physical, mental, and social wellbeing of the population by looking at different aspects of health status and certain determinants of health.
  • Leisure & Culture measures activity in the very broad area of culture, which involves all forms of human expression; the more focused area of the arts; and recreational activities.
  • Living Standards measures the level and distribution of income and wealth, including trends in poverty; income volatility; and economic security, including the security of jobs, food, housing and the social safety net.
  • Time Use measures the use of time, how people experience time, what controls its use, and how it affects wellbeing.

The CIW currently provides detailed research reports on different categories of wellbeing that can be found at the CIW website.


Global Wellbeing and GNH Lab

“The GNH Centre’s purpose is to manifest in living practice Bhutan’s unique balanced development philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH), which seeks to integrate equitable and sustainable socio-economic development with environmental conservation.

“In partnership with the GIZ Global Leadership Academy, commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the Presencing Institute has initiated a living laboratory exploring new ways of measuring and implementing wellbeing in societies worldwide.”

All Ethical Systems are Both Deontological and Consequentialist (

Tools, apps, and projects of the global Quantified Self community

Lifelogging, An Inevitability

The goal of lifelogging: to record and archive all information in one’s life. This includes all text, all visual information, all audio, all media activity, as well as all biological data from sensors on one’s body. The information would be archived for the benefit of the lifelogger, and shared with others in various degrees as controlled by him/her.

  • Lifeloggers … typically wear computers in order to capture their entire lives, or large portions of their lives.
  • The Quantified Self: Self Knowledge Through Numbers  –a catalog-in-progress of all the self-tracking tools out there
  • The Data-Driven Life Ubiquitous self-tracking is a dream of engineers. For all their expertise at figuring out how things work, technical people are often painfully aware how much of human behavior is a mystery.  Instead of interrogating their inner worlds through talking and writing, they are using numbers. They are constructing a quantified self.
  • Extreme Lifelogging  Memories are made of disks. In the future every conversation, every emotion will be committed to our computers’ hard drives. But some people have already started
  • Dr Cathal GurrinLecturer at the School of Computing, at Dublin City University, director of the Human Media Archives research group as well as being a collaborating investigator in the CLARITYCentre for Sensor Web Technologies.
    • Human Digital Memories – capturing, storing, understanding, searching, filtering, recommending and providing ubiquitous access to personal digital memories and personal multimedia collections. My work has focused on sensecam data, but also GPS and human sensing data. I have gathered a personal sensecam archive of 7 million photos (May 2011).
    • Multimedia Information Retrieval – indexing and retrieval of Multimedia data (video and image data). I have been heavily involved in the development of the Físchlár digital video suite & WWW search – Large scale search for WWW data.
    • Person and Environmental Sensing -sensing the person and the environment; developing search infrastructures and retrieval strategies to deal with such sensor streams.
  • The Second Annual SenseCam Symposium will bring together an inter-disciplinary mix of researchers, clinicians and practitioners all with an interest in visual lifelogging and its applications. The Symposium will include keynote talks, regular paper and poster presentations, and software and hardware demonstrations of visual lifelogging. The Symposium will be of interest to Computer Scientists, Neuropsychologists, Clinical Psychologists, Health Professionals, Rehabilitation specialists, Engineers, Cognitive Psychologists, Memory Scientists, Ethicists, Epidemiologists, Ethnographers, Lawyers, Archivists and Clinicians.

Category:P2P Accounting ( New metrics, evaluation and accounting methods appropriate for a collaborative, peer to peer economy.

The Happy Planet Index:

RSA Animate – The Power of Networks (YouTube)

An Edge Conference

Sam Harris

Sam Harris, Author, Neuroscientist (Huffington Post)
Sam Harris (Wikipedia)
Toward a Science of Morality (Huffington Post  May 7, 2010)

Sam Harris at TED Conference

The Open Parachute Blog (

Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality by Patricia Churchland

Video of Pat Churchland’s Gillford Lecture: Morality and the Mammalian Brain


Quality of Life (Wikipedia)

The term quality of life is used to evaluate the general well-being of individuals and societies. The term is used in a wide range of contexts, including the fields of international development, healthcare, and politics. Quality of life should not be confused with the concept of standard of living, which is based primarily on income. Instead, standard indicators of the quality of life include not only wealth and employment, but also the built environment, physical and mental health, education, recreation and leisure time, and social belonging.[1]

Quantitative measurement

Unlike per capita GDP or standard of living, both of which can be measured in financial terms, it is harder to make objective or long-term measurements of the quality of life experienced by nations or other groups of people. Researchers have begun in recent times to distinguish two aspects of personal well-being: Emotional well-being, in which respondents are asked about the quality of their everyday emotional experiences—the frequency and intensity of their experiences of, for example, joy, stress, sadness, anger, and affection— and life evaluation, in which respondents are asked to think about their life in general and evaluate it against a scale.[6] Such and other systems and scales of measurement have been in use for some time.

Human Development Index

Perhaps the most commonly used international measure of development is the Human Development Index (HDI), which combines measures of life expectancy, education, and standard of living, in an attempt to quantify the options available to individuals within a given society. The HDI is used by the United Nations Development Programme in their Human Development Report.

Other measures

The Physical Quality of Life Index (PQLI) is a measure developed by sociologist Morris David Morris in the 1970s, based on basic literacy, infant mortality, and life expectancy. Although not as complex as other measures, and now essentially replaced by the Human Development Index, the PQLI is notable for Morris’s attempt to show a “less fatalistic pessimistic picture” by focussing on three areas where global quality of life was generally improving at the time, and ignoring Gross National Product and other possible indicators that were not improving.[7]

The Happy Planet Index, introduced in 2006, is unique among quality of life measures in that, in addition to standard determinants of well-being, it uses each country’s ecological footprint as an indicator. As a result, European and North American nations do not dominate this measure. The 2009 list is instead topped by Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica.[8]

Gallup researchers trying to find the world’s happiest countries found Denmark to be top of the list.[1]

A 2010 study by two Princeton University professors looked at 1,000 randomly selected U.S. residents over an extended period. It concludes that their life evaluations, that is their considered evaluations of their life against a stated scale of one to ten, rise steadily with income. On the other hand, their reported quality of emotional daily experience (their reports of experiences of joy, affection, stress, sadness, or anger) levels off after a certain income level. The quality of their everyday experiences did not improve beyond approximately $75,000 a year. Below this income, respondents reported decreasing happiness and increasing sadness and stress; the pain of life’s misfortunes, including disease, divorce, and being alone, is exacerbated by poverty. Further income above $75,000, on the other hand, does not lead to more experiences of happiness nor to further relief of unhappiness or stress.[9]

The Well-being & Progress Index (WIP) introduced by Luca D’Acci (2010), includes several aspects of well-being and progress, like human rights, economic well-being, equality, education, research, quality of urban environment, ecological behaviours, subjective well-being, longevity, and violent crime. (Social Indicators Research, oct.2010, Springer)


The term quality of life is also used by politicians and economists to measure the liveability of a given city or nation. Two widely known measures of liveability are the Economist Intelligence Unit’s quality-of-life index and Mercer’s Quality of Living Reports. These two measures calculate the liveability of countries and cities around the world, respectively, through a combination of subjective life-satisfaction surveys and objective determinants of quality of life such as divorce rates, safety, and infrastructure. Such measures relate more broadly to the population of a city, state, or country, not to the individual level.


Within the field of healthcare, quality of life is often regarded in terms of how it is negatively affected, on an individual level, a debilitating illness that is not life-threatening, life-threatening illness that is not terminal, terminal illness, the predictable, natural decline in the health of an elder, an unforeseen mental/physical decline of a loved one, chronic, end-stage disease processes. Researchers at the University of Toronto’s Quality of Life Research Unit define quality of life as “The degree to which a person enjoys the important possibilities of his or her life” (UofT). Their Quality of Life Model is based on the categories “being”, “belonging”, and “becoming”, respectively who one is, how one is connected to one’s environment, and whether one achieves one’s personal goals, hopes, and aspirations.[13][14]

See also


  1. ^ a b Gregory, Derek; Johnston, Ron; Pratt, Geraldine et al., eds (June 2009). “Quality of Life”. Dictionary of Human Geography (5th ed.). Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-1-4051-3287-9.
  2. ^ Costanza, R. et. al. (2008) “An Integrative Approach to Quality of Life Measurement, Research, and Policy”. S.A.P.I.EN.S. 1 (1)
  3. ^ Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. London: Penguin. 6 April 2006. ISBN 978-0141016900.
  4. ^ “The World Bank”. The World Bank. 2009. Retrieved October 20, 2009.
  5. ^ “Poverty – Overview”. The World Bank. 2009. Retrieved October 20, 2009.
  6. ^ . doi:10.1073/pnas.1011492107.
  7. ^ Morris, Morris David (January 1980), “The Physical Quality of Life Index (PQLI)”, Development Digest 1: 95–109
  8. ^ “The Happy Planet Index 2.0”. New Economics Foundation. 2009. Retrieved October 14, 2009.
  9. ^ “Higher income improves life rating but not emotional well-being”. 7 September 2010. Retrieved 20 September 2010.
  10. ^ Fitts, Catherine Austin. “Understanding the Popsicle Index”. SolariF. Retrieved 2009-06-10.
  11. ^ “To lick crime, pass the Popsicle test”. The Virginian-Pilot. July 9, 2005. Retrieved 2009-06-10.
  12. ^ Darling, John (January 2006). “Money in a Popsicle-Friendly World”. Sentient Times. Retrieved 2009-06-10.
  13. ^ “Quality of Life: How Good is Life for You?”. University of Toronto Quality of Life Research Unit. Retrieved October 14, 2009.
  14. ^
  15. ^ D’Acci Luca, Measuring Well-Being and Progress Social Indicators Research , oct 2010, Springer.

External links



The capability approach (aka capabilities approach) began life in the 1980s as an approach to welfare economics. In this approach, Amartya Sen brought together a range of ideas that were hitherto excluded from (or inadequately formulated in) traditional approaches to the economics of welfare.

Initially Sen argued for:

  • the importance of real freedoms in the assessment of a person’s advantage,
  • individual differences in the ability to transform resources into valuable activities,
  • the centrality of the distribution of welfare within society,
  • the multi-variate nature of activities that give rise to happiness,
  • against excessive materialism in the evaluation of human welfare.

Subsequently, and in collaboration particularly with political philosopher Martha Nussbaum, development economist Sudhir Anand and economic theorist James Foster, Sen has helped to make the capabilities approach predominant as a paradigm for policy debate in human development where it inspired the creation of the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI). The HDI is a popular measure for capturing the multidimensionality of human development, as it also accounts for health and education. Furthermore, since the creation of the Human Development and Capability Association in the early 2000s, the approach has been much discussed by political theorists, philosophers and a range of social sciences, including those with a particular interest in human health.

The approach emphasizes functional capabilities (“substantive freedoms”, such as the ability to live to old age, engage in economic transactions, or participate in political activities); these are construed in terms of the substantive freedoms people have reason to value, instead of utility (happiness, desire-fulfilment or choice) or access to resources (income, commodities, assets). Poverty is understood as capability-deprivation. It is noteworthy that the emphasis is not only on how human beings actually function but on their having the capability, which is a practical choice, to function in important ways if they so wish. Someone could be deprived of such capabilities in many ways, e.g. by ignorance, government oppression, lack of financial resources, or false consciousness.

This approach to human well-being emphasises the importance of freedom of choice, individual heterogeneity and the multi-dimensional nature of welfare. In significant respects, the approach is consistent with the handling of choice within conventional microeconomics consumer theory although its conceptual foundations enable it to acknowledge the existence of claims, like rights, which normatively dominate utility based claims (see Sen (1979)).



What capabilities matter?

Nussbaum (2000) frames these basic principles in terms of ten capabilities, i.e. real opportunities based on personal and social circumstance. This approach contrasts with a common view that sees development purely in terms of GNP growth, and poverty purely as income-deprivation. It has been highly influential in development policy where it has shaped the evolution of the human development index HDI has been much discussed in philosophy and is increasingly influential in a range of social sciences.

The ten capabilities Nussbaum argues should be supported by all democracies are:

  1. Life. Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length; not dying prematurely, or before one’s life is so reduced as to be not worth living.
  2. Bodily Health. Being able to have good health, including reproductive health; to be adequately nourished; to have adequate shelter.
  3. Bodily Integrity. Being able to move freely from place to place; to be secure against violent assault, including sexual assault and domestic violence; having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction.
  4. Senses, Imagination, and Thought. Being able to use the senses, to imagine, think, and reason—and to do these things in a “truly human” way, a way informed and cultivated by an adequate education, including, but by no means limited to, literacy and basic mathematical and scientific training. Being able to use imagination and thought in connection with experiencing and producing works and events of one’s own choice, religious, literary, musical, and so forth. Being able to use one’s mind in ways protected by guarantees of freedom of expression with respect to both political and artistic speech, and freedom of religious exercise. Being able to have pleasurable experiences and to avoid non-beneficial pain.
  5. Emotions. Being able to have attachments to things and people outside ourselves; to love those who love and care for us, to grieve at their absence; in general, to love, to grieve, to experience longing, gratitude, and justified anger. Not having one’s emotional development blighted by fear and anxiety. (Supporting this capability means supporting forms of human association that can be shown to be crucial in their development.)
  6. Practical Reason. Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s life. (This entails protection for the liberty of conscience and religious observance.)
  7. Affiliation.
    1. Being able to live with and toward others, to recognize and show concern for other humans, to engage in various forms of social interaction; to be able to imagine the situation of another. (Protecting this capability means protecting institutions that constitute and nourish such forms of affiliation, and also protecting the freedom of assembly and political speech.)
    2. Having the social bases of self-respect and non-humiliation; being able to be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others. This entails provisions of non-discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, caste, religion, national origin and species.
  8. Other Species. Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature.
  9. Play. Being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities.
  10. Control over one’s Environment.
    1. Political. Being able to participate effectively in political choices that govern one’s life; having the right of political participation, protections of free speech and association.
    2. Material. Being able to hold property (both land and movable goods), and having property rights on an equal basis with others; having the right to seek employment on an equal basis with others; having the freedom from unwarranted search and seizure. In work, being able to work as a human, exercising practical reason and entering into meaningful relationships of mutual recognition with other workers.

The approach was first fully articulated in Sen (1985) and discussed in Sen and Nussbaum (1993). Applications to development are discussed in Sen (1999), Nussbaum (2000), and Clark (2002, 2005) and are now numerous to the point where the capabilities approach is widely accepted as a paradigm in development.

Can capabilities be measured?

Applications to welfare economics and health in high income countries are now also beginning to emerge, Anand, Hunter and Smith (2005). A key dilemma for the capabilities approach has been how to measure what people could do, as opposed to what they actually do, and this has been the subject of a large international research project. Bringing together researchers from economics, philosophy and psychology, their work demonstrates that capability indicators can be found in standard data-sets and more significantly that it is possible to develop new survey instruments which operationalise Nussbaum’s list above. The project solves an important problem for the approach and will be of use to any researchers interested in measuring multi-dimensional aspects of poverty or quality of life. The main capabilities measurement instrument has over 60 indicators, is being used by a number of research groups and is discussed further in Anand et al. (2009) and Anand, Santos and Smith (2009).


  • Alkire, S. (2002). Valuing Freedoms: Sen’s Capability Approach and Poverty Reduction. (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
  • Anand P, Hunter G and Smith R, (2005). Capabilities and Wellbeing: Evidence Based on the Sen-Nussbaum Approach to Welfare, Social Indicators Research, 74, 9-55.
  • Anand P, Hunter G, Carter I, Dowding K, van Hees M, (2009). The Development of Capability Indicators, Journal of Human Development and Capabilities, 10, 125-52.
  • Anand P, Santos C and Smith R, (2009). The Measurement of Capabilities in Arguments for a Better World: Essays in Honor of Amartya Sen, Basu K and Kanbur R (eds) (Oxford, Oxford University Press).
  • Clark, David A. (2002) Visions of Development: A Study of Human Values (Edward Elgar, Cheltenham).
  • Kuklys, Wiebke (2005) Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach: Theoretical Insights and Empirical Applications (Springer, Berlin).
  • Otto, H-U & Schneider, K.(2009) From Employability Towards Capability: Luxembourg
  • Nussbaum, Martha C. (2000) Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge).
  • Nussbaum, Martha C. and Amartya Sen, eds. (1993). “The Quality of Life” Oxford: Clarendon Press. (Google book preview)
  • Sen, Amartya K. (1979) ‘Utilitarianism and Welfarism’, The Journal of Philosophy, LXXVI (1979), 463-489.
  • _____(1985). Commodities and Capabilities. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (OUP description)

External links




Martha Nussbaum, The Capability approach

During the 1980s Nussbaum began a collaboration with economist Amartya Sen on issues of development and ethics which culminated in The Quality of Life, published in 1993 by Oxford University Press. Together with Sen and a group of younger scholars, Nussbaum founded the Human Development and Capability Association in 2003. With Sen, she promoted the “capabilities approach” to development, which views capabilities (“substantial freedoms”, such as the ability to live to old age, engage in economic transactions, or participate in political activities) as the constitutive parts of development, and poverty as capability-deprivation. This contrasts with traditional utilitarian views that see development purely in terms of economic growth, and poverty purely as income-deprivation. It is also universalist, and therefore contrasts with relativist approaches to development. Much of the work is presented from an Aristotelian perspective.

Nussbaum furthered the capabilities approach in Frontiers of Justice (2006), to expand upon social contractarian explanations of justice, as developed most extensively by John Rawls‘ in his Theory of Justice, Political Liberalism, The Law of Peoples, and related works. Nussbaum argues that standard social contractarianism, while far better than utilitarianism in providing a satisfactory framework for justice, relies on the belief and assumption that cooperation is pursued for the purpose of securing mutual advantage. Views deriving from the classical tradition of the social contract, she argues, have great difficulty dealing with issues of basic justice and substantial freedom in situations where there are great asymmetries of power between the parties. As such, Nussbaum argues that the procedural justice-based approach of contractarianism therefore fails to address areas in which symmetrical advantage does not exist, namely, in the context of justice for the disabled, transnational justice, and justice for non-human animals (“the three frontiers”).

Noting that Rawls himself acknowledged the failure of his theory of justice to comprehensively address these three frontiers, Nussbaum claims that Rawls’s attempt to expand his theory to address one of these areas — transnational justice — is “ultimately unsatisfying” because he fails to follow through with the essential elements developed in A Theory of Justice, namely, by relaxing some of the key assumptions about the parties to the original contract. Nussbaum argues that the contractarian approach cannot explain justice in the absence of free, equal and independent parties in an original position in which “all have something with which to bargain and none have too much” (with reference to Rousseau and Hume), concluding that the procedural perspective alone cannot provide an adequate theory of justice.

To address this perceived problem, Nussbaum introduces the capabilities approach, an outcome-oriented view that seeks to determine what basic principles, and adequate measure thereof, would fulfill a life of human dignity. She frames these basic principles in terms of ten capabilities, i.e. real opportunities based on personal and social circumstance. Nussbaum posits that justice demands the pursuit, for all citizens, of a minimum threshold of these ten capabilities. She recently developed the idea of the threshold, with reference to constitutional law, in her Foreword to the 2007 Supreme Court issue of the Harvard Law Review, “Constitutions and Capabilities: ‘Perception’ Against Lofty Formalism,” which will ultimately appear in revised form as a book from Harvard University Press. Her book, Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality (Basic Books 2008) explores the constitutional requirements of justice in the area of religious liberty. Nussbaum’s major current work-in-progress, projected in the final chapter of Frontiers of Justice, is a book on the moral psychology of the capabilities approach, which will bring together her work on the emotions with the analysis of social justice. This book is under contract to Cambridge University Press. The book entitled The Cosmopolitan Tradition is no longer under contract to Yale University Press


The Capability Approach: a theoretical survey

Author: Ingrid Robeynsa


This paper aims to present a theoretical survey of the capability approach in an interdisciplinary and accessible way. It focuses on the main conceptual and theoretical aspects of the capability approach, as developed by Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum, and others. The capability approach is a broad normative framework for the evaluation and assessment of individual well-being and social arrangements, the design of policies, and proposals about social change in society. Its main characteristics are its highly interdisciplinary character, and the focus on the plural or multidimensional aspects of well-being. The approach highlights the difference between means and ends, and between substantive freedoms (capabilities) and outcomes (achieved functionings).


  1. Madoka Saito

Article first published online: 6 MAY 2003

DOI: 10.1111/1467-9752.3701002


Journal of Philosophy of Education

Journal of Philosophy of Education

Volume 37, Issue 1, pages 17–33, February 2003

Saito, M. (2003), Amartya Sen’s Capability Approach to Education: A Critical Exploration. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 37: 17–33. doi: 10.1111/1467-9752.3701002

This article examines the underexplored relationship between Amartya Sen’s ‘capability approach’ to human well-being and education. Two roles which education might play in relation to the development of capacities are given particular attention: (i) the enhancement of capacities and opportunities and (ii) the development of judgement in relation to the appropriate exercise of capacities.


A Sen – Development: Challenges for development, 2000 –
issues as objectivity) to the motivational, and it is not obvious that for substantive political and
social philosophy it is of weights (as I have tried to discuss in the context of the use of the capability
approach52), even the general rationale for using such an approach may be


The felicific calculus is an algorithm formulated by utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham for calculating the degree or amount of pleasure that a specific action is likely to cause. Bentham, an ethical hedonist, believed the moral rightness or wrongness of an action to be a function of the amount of pleasure or pain that it produced. The felicific calculus could, in principle at least, determine the moral status of any considered act. The algorithm is also known as the utility calculus, the hedonistic calculus and the hedonic calculus.

Variables, or vectors, of the pleasures and pains included in this calculation, which Bentham called “elements” or “dimensions“, were:[clarification needed]

  1. Intensity: How strong is the pleasure?
  2. Duration: How long will the pleasure last?
  3. Certainty or uncertainty: How likely or unlikely is it that the pleasure will occur?
  4. Propinquity or remoteness: How soon will the pleasure occur?
  5. Fecundity: The probability that the action will be followed by sensations of the same kind.
  6. Purity: The probability that it will not be followed by sensations of the opposite kind.
  7. Extent: How many people will be affected?

Bentham’s instructions

* Begin with any one person of those whose interests seem most immediately to be affected by it: and take an account,
o Of the value of each distinguishable pleasure which appears to be produced by it in the first instance.
o Of the value of each pain which appears to be produced by it in the first instance.
o Of the value of each pleasure which appears to be produced by it after the first. This constitutes the fecundity of the first pleasure and the impurity of the first pain.
o Of the value of each pain which appears to be produced by it after the first. This constitutes the fecundity of the first pain, and the impurity of the first pleasure.

* Sum up all the values of all the pleasures on the one side, and those of all the pains on the other. The balance, if it be on the side of pleasure, will give the good tendency of the act upon the whole, with respect to the interests of that individual person; if on the side of pain, the bad tendency of it upon the whole.

* Take an account of the number of persons whose interests appear to be concerned; and repeat the above process with respect to each. Sum up the numbers expressive of the degrees of good tendency, which the act has, with respect to each individual, in regard to whom the tendency of it is good upon the whole. Do this again with respect to each individual, in regard to whom the tendency of it is bad upon the whole. Take the balance which if on the side of pleasure, will give the general good tendency of the act, with respect to the total number or community of individuals concerned; if on the side of pain, the general evil tendency, with respect to the same community

See also

The term ethical calculus, when used generally, refers to any method of determining a course of action in a circumstance that is not explicitly evaluated in one’s ethical code.

A formal philosophy of ethical calculus is a recent development in the study of ethics, combining elements of natural selection, self-organizing systems, emergence, and algorithm theory. Ethical calculus is based on the premise that moral and ethical codes are emergent algorithms, epiphenomena of large groups of sentient beings, and that a given moral code or ethical code behaves in organic ways, seeking to prolong itself.

According to ethical calculus, the most ethical course of action in a situation is an absolute, but rather than being based on a static ethical code, the ethical code itself is a function of circumstances. The ideal Ethic is the course of action taken in a given situation by an omnipotent, omniscient being. The optimal ethic is the best possible course of action taken by an individual with the given limitations. The standard of judgment is the continuation of situations in which ethics are relevant.

While ethical calculus is, in some ways, similar to moral relativism, the former finds its grounds in the circumstance while the latter depends on social and cultural context for moral judgment.

Ethical calculus would most accurately be regarded as a form of dynamic moral absolutism.

The science of morality describes an emerging debate in the media and in academia about whether morality can be, not just described, but prescribed scientifically. This debate includes discussion of the possible scientific methodologies behind such normative claims. Proponents include thinkers such as Sam Harris who argued in a lecture that “morality should be considered an undeveloped branch of science” discerning what humans ought to do by looking at what is. [1][2] Critics, such as Sean M. Carroll, argue that morality cannot be part of science.[3]

The term ‘Science of Morality’ is also sometimes used to describe the emergence of moral systems in different species. For a description of how moral intuitions have evolved in humans and other animals, see Moral psychology and the Evolution of morality.

A fact-value distinction has been traditionally used to argue that the scientific method cannot address “moral” questions beyond describing the norms of different civilizations. In contrast, some philosophers and scientists like John Dewey[4](and supporters of either Ethical naturalism, Positivism or a sort of scientism) have argued that the line between values and scientific facts is arbitrary and illusory; they suggest that the subject of morality can be re-conceptualized as a “budding science” [5] spanning various fields to provide instructions for organizing society. In time, an emerging discipline of the science of morality could expand the demarcation of science along the same lines as the psychology of happiness.

Philosopher John Dewey suggested a pragmatic approach to ethics, regarding them as a type of empirical inquiry.[6]

The science of morality is most readily justified according to the philosophy: Ethical naturalism. Many arguments for or against the science of morality are leveled towards that philosophical view. The science of morality also bears some resemblances to systems like Utilitarianism (more modern versions of which are advocated by philosophers like Peter Singer). Positivism and Pragmatism are also philosophies related to the science. Sam Harris proposed that one is essentially asking a complex empirical and somewhat utilitarian questions when they ask “what is good?”.[1] Harris suggests that this question might translate to something like “what are probably the best (and worst) ways for a group of individuals to meet each of their various basic needs, and preferably their wants as well, given the society’s present composition and situation. “Harris adds, however, that the science of morality should not be limited by any particular philosophical moral system.[8] He explains that the goals of this science mean carefully considering everything from emotions and thoughts to the actual actions and their consequences for all involved.

Operationally defining terms is an important part of science, as demonstrated by the attempts of Positive psychology to address topics about which many are opinionated. In such areas of science that overlap with philosophy or religion, arguments over the supposed essence of a word sometimes stand in the way of progress.[9] In this case, it bears reminding that objective concepts may certainly still possess subjective aspects to them. For instance, depression has been operationally defined and objectively studied, and yet it is also subjective (when depression is experienced by an individual).Harris admits that there may be disagreement over the exact definitions of happiness and suffering, but says that these disagreements should not be taken too seriously. Harris mentions that even a lack of firm agreement in the scientific community over terms like “life” or “health” has not prevented progress that is generally related to those ideas. In practice this is thanks to the fact that researchers can establish and agree on other clear ‘working definitions’.

Harris explains that we must admit that the question of what normally leads to human flourishing has objective, scientific answers. That is, certain beliefs, actions or legal systems may be proven to lead reliably to either human happiness or suffering. Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson adds that, while some situations would still be very challenging to a science of morality, there are still many “moral no brainers”.[10]

Likewise, the science of morality should identify basic components required for human flourishing, drawing heavily on findings from positive psychology. For example, Abraham Maslow suggested a hierarchy of needs: basic physical survival, then social and self esteem needs, and lastly philosophical and self-actualization. Similarly, positive psychology’s Martin E. P. Seligman and Christopher Peterson wrote the Character Strengths and Virtues book, which discusses their early research into human values by which to live.

Sam Harris does not believe humans will create a machine that can answer all moral questions, or even that we will arrive at a simple set of rules that encompasses all situations. Instead, Harris explains that we can identify increasingly accurate “rules of thumb” about morality, for example, The Golden Rule, or the importance of certain rights like free speech to the pursuit of human flourishing.

Harris explains that there may exist moral gray areas that are difficult to study, but that this in no way refutes the existence of an objective truth.


Science has already begun connecting concepts like sadness with physical structure in the brain

Nobel prize winner Eric Kandel and researcher Cynthia Fu describe their findings that depression can be diagnosed very accurately just by looking at fMRI brain scans.[13] This is because researchers have made strides identifying neural correlates for, among other things, emotions. A doctor’s second opinion would still be used, they explain. But the two researchers suggest that mental illnesses may someday be diagnosable by looking at such brain scans alone.

Ethical naturalism (also called moral naturalism or naturalistic cognitivistic definism[1]) is the meta-ethical view which claims that:

  1. Ethical sentences express propositions.
  2. Some such propositions are true.
  3. Those propositions are made true by objective features of the world, independent of human opinion.
  4. These moral features of the world can be reduced to some set of non-moral features.

This makes ethical naturalism a definist form of moral realism

Ethical naturalism does, however, reject the fact-value distinction: it suggests that inquiry into the natural world can increase our moral knowledge in just the same way it increases our scientific knowledge.

Ethical naturalism encompasses any reduction of ethical properties, such as ‘goodness’, to non-ethical properties; there are many different examples of such reductions, and thus many different varieties of ethical naturalism

Harris suggests that values amount to empirical statements about “the flourishing of conscious creatures in a society”. He argues that there are objective answers to moral questions, even if some are difficult or impossible to possess in practice. In this way, he says, science can tell us what to value. Harris adds that we do not demand absolute certainty from predictions in physics so we should not demand that of a science studying morality.[4]

Garner and Rosen say that a common definition of “natural property” is one “which can be discovered by sense observation or experience, experiment, or through any of the available means of science.” They also say that a good definition of “natural property” is problematic but that “it is only in criticism of naturalism, or in an attempt to distinguish between naturalistic and nonnaturalistic definist theories, that such a concept is needed.”[5] R. M. Hare also criticised ethical naturalism because of its fallacious definition of the terms ‘good’ or ‘right’ explaining how value-terms being part of our prescriptive moral language are not reducible to descriptive terms: “Value-terms have a special function in language, that of commending; and so they plainly cannot be defined in terms of other words which themselves do not perform this function”[6]

Moral nihilists maintain that any talk of an objective morality is incoherent and better off using other terms. Proponents of Moral Science like Ronald A. Lindsay have counter-argued that their way of understanding “morality” as a practical enterprise is the way we ought to have understood it in the first place. He holds the position that the alternative seems to be the elaborate philosophical reduction of the word “moral” into a vacuous, useless term[7]. Lindsay adds that it is important to reclaim the specific word “Morality” because of the connotations it holds with many individuals.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Moral Naturalism”, by James Lenman, first published Thu June 1, 2006; substantive revision Mon August 7, 2006




Average v total

Total utilitarianism advocates measuring the utility of a population based on the total utility of its members. According to Derek Parfit, this type of utilitarianism falls victim to the Repugnant Conclusion, whereby large numbers of people with very low but non-negative utility values can be seen as a better goal than a population of a less extreme size living in comfort. In other words, according to the theory, it is a moral good to breed more people on the world for as long as total happiness rises.[14]

Average utilitarianism, on the other hand, advocates measuring the utility of a population based on the average utility of that population. It avoids Parfit’s repugnant conclusion, but causes other problems like the Mere Addition Paradox. For example, bringing a moderately happy person in a very happy world would be seen as an immoral act; aside from this, the theory implies that it would be a moral good to eliminate all people whose happiness is below average, as this would raise the average happiness[15]

Predicting consequences

Daniel Dennett uses the case of the Three Mile Island accident as an example of the difficulty in calculating happiness.[20] Was the near-meltdown that occurred at this nuclear power plant a good or a bad thing (according to utilitarianism)? He points out that its long-term effects on nuclear policy would be considered beneficial by many and might outweigh the negative consequences. His conclusion is that it is still too early, 31 years after the event, for utilitarianism to weigh all the evidence and reach a definite conclusion. Utilitarians note that utilitarianism seems to be the unspoken principle used by both advocates and critics of nuclear power.[citation needed] That something cannot be determined at the moment is common in science and frequently resolved with later advancements.

Utilitarians, however, are not required to have perfect knowledge; indeed, certain knowledge of consequences is impossible because consequences are in the unexperienced future. Utilitarians simply try their best to maximise happiness (or other forms of utility) and, to do this, make their best estimates of the consequences. If the consequences of a decision are particularly unclear, it may make sense to follow an ethical rule that promoted the most utility in the past. Utilitarians also note that people trying to further their own interests frequently run into situations in which the consequences of their decisions are very unclear. This does not mean, however, that they are unable to make a decision; much the same applies to utilitarianism.


Health/Medical Information

Body organs can send status updates to your cellphone – 08 October 2010 – New Scientist.

Underutilization of information and knowledge in everyday medical practice: Evaluation of a computer-based solution, David Zakim et al

Patient-directed intelligent and interactive computer medical history-gathering systems: a utility and feasibility study in the emergency department, Benaroia M et al


Neurobiology Research


The Brain in Love (

–Fisher, H., et at., “Romantic Love: And fMRI Study of a Neural Mechanism for Mate Choice.”

–Ditzen, B., et al., “Intranasal Oxytocin Increases Positive Communication and Reduces Cortisol Levels During Couple Conflict.”



A scientific consensus on human morality (openparachute)

How Neuroscience Is Changing the Law (

— Langleben, D., “Detection of deception with fMRI: Are we there yet?

— Jones, O. et al. “The Neural Correlates of Third-Party Punishment.”

The Neurobiology of Evil (

— Gao, Yu, et al. “Association of Poor Childhood Fear Conditioning and Adult Crime.”

— Davidson, R. et al. “Dysfunction in the Neural Circuitry of Emotion Regulation — A Possible Prelude to Violence.”

— Raine, A., and Yang, Y. “Neural foundations to moral reasoning and antisocial behavior.”

— DeLisi, M., et al. “The Criminology of the Amygdala.”

— Raine, A., et al. “A neurodevelopmental marker for limbic maldevelopment in antisocial personality disorder and psychopathy.”

— Raine, A. “From genes to brain to antisocial behavior. Current Directions in Psychological Science.”

Neuroethics & Law Blog

Neuroethics: The Neuroscience Revolution, Ethics, and the Law (Santa Clara University)

The Neuroethics Project (The Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics (CCLE))


The Neural Correlates of Religious and Nonreligious Belief

Harris S, Kaplan JT, Curiel A, Bookheimer SY, Iacoboni M, et al. 2009  PLoS ONE 4(10): e7272.

The Neurological Origins of Religious Belief (

—Borg, J., et al. “The serotonin system and spiritual experiences.”

—Kapogiannis, D., et al. “Cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief.”

—Urgesi, C., et al. “The Spiritual Brain: Selective Cortical Lesions Modulate Human Self-Transcendence.”

Religion and visual attention. Also for an eyewitness? (Andrea Lavazza and Mario De Caro) (


Misc Links, recently added

Lifelogging, An Inevitability

URSULA stands for Unified Rating System, Universal Lifecycle Assessment

URSULA is a business intelligence system that provides a way to weight, harmonize and reuse different data sets, enabling that data to communicate, link up and form meaningful relationships with one another in ways never possible before.

URSULA allows data from different systems to communicate with and relate to one another. Using a standard of universal global sustainability enables us to do an “apples-to-apples” comparison of all kinds of data, whether it reflects social, economic, environmental, legal, technological or political elements of nature and humanity.

UNHAPPY CITIES by Edward L. Glaeser. Harvard University and NBER The study looks at things like income, education, sex, housing and age. New York City ranks as the unhappiest city.

A Survey Method for Characterizing Daily Life Experience: The Day Reconstruction Method

The Day Reconstruction Method (DRM) assesses how people spend their time and how they experience the various activities and settings of their lives, combining features of time-budget measurement and experience sampling. Participants systematically reconstruct their activities and experiences of the preceding day with procedures designed to reduce recall biases. The DRM’s utility is shown by documenting close correspondences between the DRM reports of 909 employed women and established results from experience sampling. An analysis of the hedonic treadmill shows the DRM’s potential for well-being research.

The Economical Bestiary

Mythical Beasties of Economyland

The world of economics and economists is a world populated with many mythical and fantastic beasties. This Bestiary or Bestiarum vocabulum is a catalog of some of the most familiar as well as some of the most exotic and bizarre!

“Bestiaries were made popular in the Middle Ages in illustrated volumes that described various animals, birds and even rocks. The natural history and illustration of each beast was usually accompanied by a moral lesson. This reflected the belief that the world itself was the Word of God, and that every living thing had its own special meaning.” (Wikipedia)

Click to enlarge

Detail from the 12th century Aberdeen Bestiary (Wikipedia)

Click for article


“If all the economists in the world were laid end to end, they wouldn’t reach any conclusion.”George Bernard Shaw


“For every economist, there is an equal and opposite economist”. –Source?


“The first refuge of a scoundrel is economics” — Poor Richard

_________________Φ __________________

Economyland Safari Contributors:

Poor Richard: Safari Guide

Lori : Mythical Exo-taxonomist

“Natural Lefty” : Super-Natural Historian

This is an open-source peer-2-peer project owned by its contributors
Please see details here.

You are invited to leave content suggestions in a comment.

Creative Commons License



Both liberal and conservative economists and economic partisans seem to have difficulty separating reality from fantasy.  “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” (Upton Sinclair)

In the culture war each side relies heavily on propaganda or spin (a mixture of valid and false reasoning with a mixture of fact and made-up bullshit); both sides tend to reason backwards from conclusions to any facts that might confirm them while studiously ignoring inconvenient truths. That’s generally known as confirmation bias.

I hope that the reality-based community may find something in the Economical Bestiary that they can use, or at least something that will amuse.

Introduction to Economyland: Reductio Ad Absurdum

(Alternate title: Escape from the Planet of the Economists)

Economyland is a place on the flat world of Reductio Ad Absurdum where the Economical Bestiary’s mythical beasts run wild in a free state of nature. Economyland is the true center of the universe around which the sun, planets, stars, and all the rest of the universe revolves. Economyland was created by God and placed under the dominion of man, a sort of Disney-esque theme park for economists of all species. In ancient times Economyland was known as Economia:

In the Eastern Orthodox, Greek-Catholic Churches, Latin Catholic Church,and in the teaching of the Church Fathers which undergirds the theology of those Churches, economy or oeconomy (Greek: οἰκονομία, oikonomia) has several meanings. The basic meaning of the word is “handling” or “disposition” or “management” or more literally “housekeeping” of a thing, usually assuming or implying good or prudent handling (as opposed to poor handling) of the matter at hand. (Wikipedia)

War of the World-views

Pius conservatives are fond of accusing science of being reductionist, of reducing the divinely-wrought human being and the world of nature to an oversimplified, materialistic machine. This is, as always, the conservative pot calling the kettle black.

Liberal economists don’t do much better. Most economists share a model of the economic world that is simplistic, reductionist, and naively anthropocentric.

<– click on the image for a closer view of Economia

Capitalism defines the economic system in terms of the dynamics of capital and labor; production, distribution, and consumption; or as it is often framed, the supply and demand of goods and services. The natural world is seen only as a supply depot for raw materials. The production and consumption of goods and services of and by the biosphere , is treated as a giant externality. And that view is a giant existential blunder.

Of course, it is a conveniently self-serving (if short-sighted) blunder in some quarters; and we need not wonder too hard about how and why this oversight has persisted for so long.

In contrast, “economics as if people mattered” (see below) has to begin with economics as if the biosphere mattered. The biosphere can not be treated as a free supply depot and waste dump. The ecosystem cannot simply be seen as a magical black box that God put here to provide for all human wants and dispose of all human garbage. You’d have to be either a moron or a person with serious conflicts of interest skewing your judgment (or both) to hold such a view. Yet that is just the view of most economists, for whom nature is simply a part of the human economy rather than vice versa.

One of the first widely respected economists to correct this misapprehension was E. F. Schumacher who published Small is Beautiful in 1973, which placed the study of economics where it belongs, inside the study of the ecology of the biosphere. His ideas were of course treated with contempt by most conservative economists and they are generally still ignored by or unknown to most liberal economists.

Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered by E. F. Schumacher.

Schumacher was a respected economist who worked with John Maynard Keynes and John Kenneth Galbraith. For twenty years he was the Chief Economic Advisor to the National Coal Board in the United Kingdom, opposed the neo-classical economics by declaring that single-minded concentration on output and technology was dehumanizing. He held that one’s workplace should be dignified and meaningful first, efficient second, and that nature (and the world’s natural resources) is priceless.

Schumacher proposed the idea of “smallness within bigness”: a specific form of decentralization. For a large organization to work, according to Schumacher, it must behave like a related group of small organizations. Schumacher’s work coincided with the growth of ecological concerns and with the birth of environmentalism and he became a hero to many in the environmental movement. (Wikipedia)

The Happiness Index (E.F. Schumacher Society/New Economics Institute)

The E.F. Schumacher YouTube Channel

Another writer, Richard Heinberg, a Senior Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute, is making an effort to put the study of economics into a modern scientific perspective. Following are a few excerpts from a pre-publication version of his book The End of Growth:”

The classical [economic] theorists gradually adopted the math and some of the terminology of science. Unfortunately, however, they were unable to incorporate into economics the basic self-correcting methodology that is science’s defining characteristic. Economic theory required no falsifiable hypotheses and demanded no repeatable controlled experiments. Economists began to think of themselves as scientists, while in fact their discipline remained a branch of moral philosophy—as it largely does to this day.

…For help, we can look to the ecological and biophysical economists, whose ideas have been thoroughly marginalized by the high priests and gatekeepers of mainstream economics…

The ideological clash between Keynesians and neoliberals (represented to a certain degree in the escalating all-out warfare between the U.S. Democratic and Republican political parties) will no doubt continue and even intensify. But the ensuing heat of battle will yield little light if both philosophies conceal the same fundamental errors. One such error is of course the belief that economies can and should perpetually grow.

But that error rests on another that is deeper and subtler. The subsuming of land within the category of capital by nearly all post-classical economists had amounted to a declaration that Nature is merely a subset of the human economy—an endless pile of resources to be transformed into wealth. It also meant that natural resources could always be substituted with some other form of capital—money or technology. The reality, of course, is that the human economy exists within, and entirely depends upon Nature, and many natural resources have no realistic substitutes. This fundamental logical and philosophical mistake, embedded at the very heart of modern mainstream economic philosophies, set society directly upon a course toward the current era of climate change and resource depletion, and its persistence makes conventional economic theories—of both Keynesian and neoliberal varieties—utterly incapable of dealing with the economic and environmental survival threats to civilization in the 21st century.

Another giant of economic empiricism and innovation, though not an economist per se, was W. E. Deming.

William Edwards Deming (October 14, 1900 – December 20, 1993) was an American statistician, professor, author, lecturer, and consultant. He is perhaps best known for his work in Japan. There, from 1950 onward he taught top management how to improve design (and thus service), product quality, testing and sales (the last through global markets, through various methods, including the application of statistical methods.

Deming made a significant contribution to Japan’s later reputation for innovative high-quality products and its economic power. He is regarded as having had more impact upon Japanese manufacturing and business than any other individual not of Japanese heritage. Despite being considered something of a hero in Japan, he was only just beginning to win widespread recognition in the U.S. at the time of his death. (Wikipedia)

Though still virtually unknown and unappreciated in the US, Deming was almost solely responsible for the transformation of Japanese industry from having, in my childhood, a reputation for manufacturing cheap junk goods to, by the mid-70′s, a reputation as the maker of the world’s highest quality and highest value automobiles, electronics , and many other consumer goods. Though his ideas of continuous improvement were originally widely rejected in the US until recently because they did not fit with autocratic US corporate culture, in the 80′s and 90′s US industry imported many Japanese manufacturing consultants due to the reputation for quality and efficiency that Japan had gained, ironically, as a direct result of adopting Deming’s ideas.

Demings methods, rejected by US captains of industry for decades, swept through the entire Asian world and are largely responsible for the fact that Asian manufacturers are still kicking US industry’s ass today in markets as diverse as cars, cell phones, personal computers, and solar cells.

Where would American workers be without such enlightened and visionary corporate management? Perhaps still in the middle class instead of in unemployment lines or among the the ranks of the working poor. The story of W. E. Deming proves yet again that a profit is without honor in his own land.

The US Is Becoming an “Underdeveloping Nation”


While President Obama tapped former corporate executives to become his top economic team, many economists question the path the United States is on. Amy Goodman of Democracy Now speaks to the acclaimed Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef. He won the Right Livelihood Award in 1983, two years after the publication of his book Outside Looking In: Experiences in Barefoot Economics.

“We are simply, dramatically stupid. We act systematically against the evidences we have. We know everything that should not be done. There’s nobody that doesn’t know that. Particularly the big politicians know exactly what should not be done. Yet they do it. After what happened since October 2008, I mean, elementally, you would think what? That now they’re going to change. I mean, they see that the model is not working. The model is even poisonous, you know? Dramatically poisonous. And what is the result, and what happened in the last meeting of the European Union? They are more fundamentalist now than before. So, the only thing you know that you can be sure of, that the next crisis is coming, and it will be twice as much as this one. And for that one, there won’t be enough money anymore. So that will be it. And that is the consequence of systematical human stupidity.”

“First of all, we need cultured economists again, who know the history, where they come from, how the ideas originated, who did what, and so on and so on; second, an economics now that understands itself very clearly as a subsystem of a larger system that is finite, the biosphere, hence economic growth as an impossibility; and third, a system that understands that it cannot function without the seriousness of ecosystems. And economists know nothing about ecosystems. They know nothing about thermodynamics, you know, nothing about biodiversity or anything. I mean, they are totally ignorant in that respect. And I don’t see what harm it would do, you know, to an economist to know that if the beasts would disappear, he would disappear as well, because there wouldn’t be food anymore. But he doesn’t know that, you know, that we depend absolutely from nature. But for these economists we have, nature is a subsystem of the economy. I mean, it’s absolutely crazy.”

“The principles of economics should be based in five postulates and one fundamental value principle.

  • One, the economy is to serve the people and not the people to serve the economy.
  • Two, development is about people and not about objects.
  • Three, growth is not the same as development, and development does not necessarily require growth.
  • Four, no economy is possible in the absence of ecosystem services.
  • Five, the economy is a subsystem of a larger finite system, the biosphere, hence permanent growth is impossible.
  • And the fundamental value to sustain a new economy should be that no economic interest, under any circumstance, can be above the reverence of life.”

View the entire interview with Amy Goodman and Manfred Max-Neef.

Max-Neef’s Keynote at Zermatt Summit 2012

Keeping It Real

Modern economists need to get over their hair-splitting theories, self-serving technical jargon, and their detached, ivory-tower naïveté, and get real.

As E. B. White once aptly advised, “Bend down, Librarians, and taste the page.” I think it was also he who said “All their biology is Latin names.”

That is the message of the Economical Bestiary, which ridicules the brand of economics which persists to this day as little more than, as Richard Heiberg calls it, moral philosophy. The moral hazard for economists is succumbing to the personal, financial, and academic conflicts of interest between the cognitive corruption of their profession and the objective imperatives of reality.

Poor Richard

Ecological economics (Wikipedia)

Environment Equitable Sustainable Bearable (Social ecology) Viable (Environmental economics) Economic Social

Ecological economics is a transdisciplinary field of academic research that aims to address the interdependence and coevolution of human economies and natural ecosystems over time and space. It is distinguished from environmental economics, which is the mainstream economic analysis of the environment, by its treatment of the economy as a subsystem of the ecosystem and its emphasis upon preserving natural capital. One survey of German economists found that ecological and environmental economics are different schools of economic thought, with ecological economists emphasizing “strong” sustainability and rejecting the proposition that natural capital can be substituted by human-made capital.


Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution is a 1999 book co-authored by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins. It has been translated into a dozen languages and was the subject of a Harvard Business Review summary.

Their fundamental questions are: What would an economy look like if it fully valued all forms of capital? What if an economy were organized not around the abstractions of neoclassical economics and accountancy but around the biological realities of nature? What if Generally Accepted Accounting Principles recognized natural and human capital not as a free amenity in inexhaustible supply but as a finite and integrally valuable factor of production? What if in the absence of a rigorous way to practice such accounting, companies started to act as if such principles were in force. (Wikipedia)

The principles used by Natural Capitalism Solutions are:

1. Buy time by using resources dramatically more productively.

This slows resource depletion, lessens pollution, and increases employment in meaningful jobs. It lowers costs for business and society, halts the degradation of the biosphere, makes it more profitable to employ people, and preserves vital living systems and social cohesion.

2. Redesign industrial processes and the delivery of products and services to do business as nature does, using such approaches as biomimicry and cradle to cradle.

This approach enables a wide array of materials to be produced with low energy flows, in processes that run on sunlight, emulating nature’s genius. It shifts to circular economies in which materials are reused, remanufactured and waste is eliminated.

3. Manage all institutions to be restorative of natural and human capital.

Such approaches enhance human well-being and enable the biosphere to produce more wealth from its intact communities and abundant ecosystem services and natural resources.(Natural Capitalism Solutions)

Related PRA 2.0 Posts


Now, enter Economyland and see the mythical beasties >>>

(or select a tiny page # below ↓ )

Private Property, Taxation, and Corporate Personhood

Dear cons, neocons, and libertarians:

Your notions of private property, property rights, and taxation seem a little naive to me.

I am not a lawyer but I know something about the laws of real property (real estate law). I proposed and lobbied for the Tennessee Conservation Easement Act of 1981 and some TN legislators and lawyers considered me one of the state’s best experts on property law at the time. While my legal, historical, and philosophical knowledge of property ownership mainly concerns real property, many of the same principles apply to personal property, too.

I am a progressive, but several of my close friends have been Ayn Rand Libertarians, “lazy-unfair”capitalists (thanks to Natural Lefty for that turn of phrase), and free-market fundamentalists. If I  mis-state any of your beliefs please correct me.

The arguments I have seen  in support of absolute private property ownership fall into two categories: appeals to natural law and appeals to utility.

I. The appeal to “natural law” and “natural rights“. Libertarians and some conservatives view private property rights as the foundation from which all other natural rights extend. There are several problems with this:


From The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. (Click image for full quotation)


A. Despite the musings of many erudite (if old-fashioned) philosophers, in the state of nature there is but one right: “might makes right” (Vae victis). Any other right can only be the result of imposing positive (artificial) law.

B. In the state of nature there is but one law: “might makes right” (Vae victis), again. Any other result can only be:

1) another case of imposing positive (artificial) law, or

2) the “law” of unintended consequences (this includes all biological and physical laws such as gravity, etc.)

C. In nature, possession is 100% of the law. The only private property is that which one can take and hold by force. If you can take it from someone else it becomes yours. If they can take it back or induce you to give it back it is theirs again. Natural social behavior might seem to introduce more laws, such as in the “law of the pack” and “pecking order”, but in nature these are simply either:

1) proxies for force which must be regularly backed up by force–there is no court of law, or

2) they are the product of genetically encoded, involuntary, instinctive responses to chemical or physical signals as in the case of social insects and bacteria.

D. Without the rule of law, predictably and impartially managed by society, property is nothing but a temporary possession maintained by private force. If the existence and persistence of private property depends upon a public legal infrastructure, then private property as we know it is a public creation. The public, which creates the “privateness” of the property and preserves it by force of law, always has a proprietary interest in any such property–by the principle of natural law! If this is too hard to wrap your head around, consider this–in any contest between private force and state force, the state wins. The only exception is a successful revolution or coup (Good luck with that!).

E. Many of the philosophers who have argued for “natural law” have conflated it with divine law, nature simply being a proxy for the divine creator. This attitude has passed by inheritance to modern-day conservatives and libertarians. Property, once the divine right of kings, is now the divine right and manifest destiny of whoever has the latest legal claim. In this tradition, the owner has an absolute (thus divine) right to his property which supersedes all other claims. The public interest, the interests of future generations, or the survival of the planet be damned. There are two problems with this argument:

1) This is thinly veiled religion which, in the possible absence or indifference of the necessary deity, amounts to little more than anarchy.

2) This “absolute” natural right can be magically dissolved by signing a piece of paper, just as any other so-called natural right of man can be signed away or even automatically abdicated simply by accepting casual employment. This reveals that the natural right, just like the natural man (the supposed “king of his castle”), is actually nothing more than chattel (from the word cattle–in law, any movable property; also used to refer to slaves, wives, and minor children).


Many of the categories above include additional rights or attributes not listed. (Click image for article on “Bundle of rights”)


II. The appeal to utility

A. Proponents of the absolute right to private property claim that it promotes the common good in the same way that greed supposedly promotes the common good in the “free market”. They rely on an  “invisible hand” to make everything work out for the best even if each person acts purely out of greed, ambition, paranoia, malice, delusion, or any other form of vice, depravity, or pathology.

B. To be fair, they assert that an owner will always act in his own best interest and that the utility of absolute private ownership follows from this (with a little invisible helping hand still required). They assert that an owner will rarely fail to act in his own self-interest. However, only if every property owner acted in his fully enlightened self-interest could the appeal to general utility succeed. That test is clearly unmet. Most owners are not only unenlightened they are predictably irrational. The “rational agent” theory has been fully discredited in psychology, sociology, neuroscience, and even in economics (which tends to fall somewhat behind the curve in theories of human behavior).

C. Science has debunked the invisible hand  for failing to deal with irrational agents, externalities, and information asymmetry:

1. Nobel Prize economist Joseph E. Stiglitz wrote:

“Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, is often cited as arguing for the “invisible hand” and free markets: firms, in the pursuit of profits, are led, as if by an invisible hand, to do what is best for the world. But unlike his followers, Adam Smith was aware of some of the limitations of free markets, and research since then has further clarified why free markets, by themselves, often do not lead to what is best. As I put it in my new

book, Making Globalization Work, the reason that the invisible hand often seems invisible is that it is often not there.

Whenever there are “externalities”—where the actions of an individual have impacts on others for which they do not pay, or for which they are not compensated—markets will not work well. Some of the important instances have long understood environmental externalities. Markets, by themselves, produce too much pollution. Markets, by themselves, also produce too little basic research. (The government was responsible for financing most of the important scientific breakthroughs, including the internet and the first telegraph line, and many bio-tech advances.)

But recent research has shown that these externalities are pervasive, whenever there is imperfect information or imperfect risk markets—that is always.

Government plays an important role in banking and securities regulation, and a host of other areas: some regulation is required to make markets work. Government is needed, almost all would agree, at a minimum to enforce contracts and property rights.

The real debate today is about finding the right balance between the market and government (and the third “sector”—non-governmental non-profit organizations.) Both are needed. They can each complement each other. This balance differs from time to time and place to place.[11] (Wikipedia: Invisible Hand)


(click image for article on “Invisible Hand”)


2. Noam Chomsky, while acknowledging the intelligence of Smith’s thesis, wrote:

Throughout history, Adam Smith observed, we find the workings of “the vile maxim of the masters of mankind”: “All for ourselves, and nothing for other People.” He had few illusions about the consequences. The invisible hand, he wrote, destroys the possibility of  a decent human existence “unless government takes pains to prevent” this outcome, as must be assured in “every improved and civilized society.” It destroys community, the environment, and human values generally—and even the masters themselves, which is why the business classes have regularly called for state intervention to protect them from market forces.[12] (Wikipedia: Invisible Hand)

3. The political economist E.K. Hunt:

[Hunt] criticized markets and the externalities emerging from market exchanges as being a route for self-advancement at the expense of social good. Hunt helped contribute to the literature on heterodox economics, helping to coin the term “invisible foot” in contrast to a presumably beneficient “invisible hand”. Hunt wrote:

“If we assume the maximizing economic man of bourgeois economics, and if we assume the government establishes property rights and markets for these rights whenever an external diseconomy is discovered [the preferred “solution” of the conservative and increasingly dominant trend within the field of public finance], then each man will soon discover that through contrivance he can impose external diseconomies on other men, knowing that the bargaining within the new market that will be established will surely make him better off. The more significant the social cost imposed upon his neighbor, the greater will be his reward in the bargaining process. It follows from the orthodox assumption of maximizing man that each man will create a maximum of social costs which he can impose on others. D’Arge and I have labeled this process “the invisible foot” of the laissez faire … market place. The “invisible foot” ensures us that in a free-market … economy each person pursuing only his own good will automatically, and most efficiently, do his part in maximizing the general public misery. “(Wikipedia: Invisible Hand)

D. Without an invisible hand, the only interested party left around to represent the common good, the public interest, future generations, and the planet, and “to promote the general welfare” (as per the Preamble to the US Constitution), is (no big surprise to progressives) the public. The public interest is a proprietary interest in a portion of the bundle of rights which make up ownership. The public owns this proprietary interest by virtue (as stated before) of natural law!

E. For the appeal to utility to succeed, owners must put their property to its “highest and best use”. This condition is clearly not satisfied. The proponents of absolute private property rights often argue that it is government interference, (zoning, environmental regulation, nuisance laws, etc.), which prevents private owners from achieving the highest and best use of their property, and that such interference is a “taking” of their property. There is law on both sides of this argument and owners are free to file their claims in the proper court of jurisdiction– the venue which they argue is the only proper source of remedy.

Corporate ownership of property

Corporations are chartered by state law. Originally, the justifications for corporate existence were 1) to carry out a specific, narrow set of activities which the state agreed would serve a public need, and 2) to limit the personal legal liability of the investors and operators which might otherwise inhibit achieving  that public good for which the corporation was chartered. Classic examples are the early railroad corporations and hospitals. These served fundamental public needs and the liability issues acted as serious impediments to private developers and operators.

Today, the typical corporate charter includes a catch-all “or for any other legal purpose” article. Now, if corporations were intended to operate “for any other legal purpose”, the entire idea of a charter listing the intended purposes is entirely superfluous. Obviously, a corporation was originally intended to operate only for a very limited set of explicit, pre-defined purposes and those purposes were expected to serve an explicit, pre-defined public need, not simply any private purpose that a corporation might improvise from day to day.

In addition to limiting liability (thus removing a disincentive to meeting a critical public need) the state grants certain other privileges (not rights) to the corporation which are essential to conducting its business:

1. The privilege of acting as a party to such legal contracts as may be necessary for the conduct of its explicit, pre-defined business activity.

2. The  privilege of owning such tangible and intangible property (such as cash, real property, and intellectual property) as may be necessary for the conduct of its explicit, pre-defined business activity.

Now, unless an explicit pre-defined public need is to be served, what is the incentive for the state to specially limit the normal legal liabilities of the corporate investors and operators, including the liabilities incurred by its power to enter into contracts, and to grant it the privilege to hold property in perpetuity without any of the taxes that natural people and families must pay to transfer property among themselves and their successive generations? There are none. Such a charter, uncoupled from any explicit, pre-defined, compelling  public need, would serve no legitimate purpose for the state, and could only be considered a form of fraud, graft, or corruption.

Any extra grant of rights to a corporation beyond those described above, or any post hoc, improvised expansion of its scope of operation, is a direct contradiction of the core raison d’etre of corporations and is blatantly contrary to the public interest.

The privilege of corporate property ownership is subject to an explicit lien held by the state in the form of the corporate charter and the explicit Constitutional duty of the US Government, whose boss is the We The People,  to serve the public interest and to promote the general welfare.

Nevertheless, over the years government was motivated to liberalize the purposes for which a corporation might be granted a charter because it could impose double taxation by taxing both the corporate income and the dividends paid to investors. This was little more than institutionalized bribery–the state granted perpetual property ownership and limitations of liability in exchange for double taxation.

It has not been a fair exchange. In the intervening years since chartered purposes were broadened to include such things as “making shit loads of money” and “any other legal purpose”, corporations have grown increasingly powerful and the contribution of corporate taxes to the public treasury have steadily eroded away.

The Corporate Tax Dodge

By Cassandra Q. Butts, April 10, 2004

The news that more than 60 percent of U.S. corporations failed to pay any federal taxes from 1996 through 2000 when corporate profits were soaring and that corporate tax receipts had fallen to just 7.4 percent of overall federal tax revenue in 2003 – the lowest since 1983 and the second-lowest rate since 1934 – is an outrage. But it should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to national tax policy over the past few years. The General Accounting Office (GAO) report also found that an astonishing 94 percent of corporations reported tax liability of less than 5 percent of their total income during the same time period…

With Tax Day (April 15) fast approaching and the Bush administration continuing to make the case that the Bush tax cuts have benefited American families, the GAO report could not be timelier in painting a far less rosy picture. Both the GAO study and the historical record support the conclusion that any benefit working families have received from the Bush tax cuts has been more than offset by the additional tax burden they must bear because corporations no longer pay their fair share of taxes.

As the GAO study documents and the historical record proves, corporate tax dodging is directly linked to the reduction of corporate tax revenues. Corporate tax receipts dropped from an average of 4.8 percent of GDP during the 1950s to 1.3 percent of GDP in FY2003. Treasury Department figures show that actual corporate income tax revenues fell 36 percent from FY2000 to FY2003. And while the statutory corporate income tax rate is 35 percent, the effective corporate tax rate – the actual share of corporate taxes paid on corporate profits – has averaged just 26 percent since 1993, according to the Congressional Research Service…

Estimates of the cost of corporate tax loopholes have been projected at upwards of $50 billion a year, according to Citizens for Tax Justice.

As corporate tax receipts decreased, payroll taxes, the most regressive of all taxes, increased dramatically. Specifically, payroll taxes increased from 1.6 percent of GDP in FY1950 to 6.8 percent of GDP in FY2002, surpassing both corporate income taxes and excise taxes in their contribution to total federal receipts. This rise in payroll taxes represented a 30 percent increase in the contribution of payroll taxes to overall federal revenues.

At the same time, individual income taxes also increased in the past half century as both a percentage of GDP and in their relative contribution to total federal tax receipts. Individual income taxes rose from 5.8 percent of GDP in FY1950 to 8.3 percent of GDP in FY2002.

During the Bush-Cheney years, the largest corporations (now transnational entities with no allegiance to the US) completed the process of taking the US Government (at its own invitation) captive, as both Thomas Jefferson and President Dwight Eisenhower had predicted they would.

The original reasons for corporate existence and corporate privileges have gradually dwindled away. The only justification that remains, according to conventional wisdom, is jobs. That justification is false. The corporate enterprise has no inherent advantage as a creator of jobs other than its advantage in destroying unincorporated employers and self-employment by leveraging its special advantages of perpetual life, limited liability, market monopolization, and corrupting political influence to force out competition. This is diametrically opposed to the long term public interest and maintaining a balance of power between popular sovereignty (democracy) and rule by the wealthy (plutocracy).

“The word plutocracy is derived from the ancient Greek root ploutos, meaning wealth and kratos, meaning to rule or to govern.”

“Before the equal voting rights movement managed to end it in the early 20th century, many countries used a system where rich persons had more votes than poor. A factory owner may for instance have had 2000 votes while a worker had one, or if they were very poor no right to vote at all. Even artificial persons such as companies had voting rights. In the US, it would take until 1945 before persons living on welfare and persons in personal bankruptcy would get voting rights.” (Wikipedia)

Michael Moore’s recent movie, “Capitalism – A Love Story” mentioned secret reports that Citigroup circulated to their wealthiest clients explaining a concept they called “plutonomy” –a blend of pluto– (wealth) and economy. A plutonomy is a system in which economic growth is both powered by and consumed by the rich. In other words, a plutonomy is a society of the rich, for the rich, and by the rich.

The Secret Citigroup Plutonomy Reports:

“We [Citigroup]… posit that:

➤ The world is dividing into two blocs – the plutonomies, where economic growth is powered by and largely consumed by the wealthy few, and the rest.

➤ We project that the plutonomies (the U.S., UK, and Canada) will likely see even more income inequality…”

Full report:  Citigroup-Oct-16-2005-Plutonomy-Report-Part-1

“Revisiting Plutonomy: The Rich Getting Richer

➤The latest Survey of Consumer Finances, for 2004, has been released by the Federal Reserve. It shows the rich continue to account for a disproportionately large share of income and wealth in the US economy: the richest 10% of Americans account for 43% of income, and 57% of net worth. The net worth to income ratio for the richest 10% of Americans increased from 7.4x in 2001, to 8.4x in the 2004 survey. The rich are in great shape, financially.

➤We think the rich are likely to get even wealthier in the coming years. Implication 2: we like companies that sell to or service the rich – luxury goods, private banks etc. Favored names include LVMH and Richemont.”
Our whole plutonomy thesis is based on the idea that the rich will keep getting richer. This thesis is not without its risks. For example, a policy error leading to asset deflation, would likely damage plutonomy. Furthermore, the rising wealth gap between the rich and poor will probably at some point lead to a political backlash. Whilst the rich are getting a greater share of the wealth, and the poor a lesser share, political enfrachisement remains as wasone person, one vote (in the plutonomies). At some point it is likely that labor will fight back against the rising profit share of the rich and there will be a political backlash against the rising wealth of the rich. This could be felt through higher taxation on the rich (or indirectly though higher corporate taxes/regulation) or through trying to protect indigenous laborers, in a push-back on globalization — either anti-immigration, or protectionism. We don’t see this happening yet, though there are signs of rising political tensions. However we are keeping a close eye on developments.

According to Jamess at the Daily Kos Blog on 10/04/09

“Those [Citigroup] reports, since leaked, plainly discuss the power of the Plutonomy in America, and how it would only strengthen, as long as the “the rest us” (the non-plutonics) could be kept in the dark about the Plutonomy existence, its role, and its over-arching control in the American Economy”

Even though the Plutonomy (the top 1%) control over 50% of the net worth in America — they don’t control the Votes!

The thing they most fear is the principle of “one person — one vote”.

You see despite their extreme wealth and power, they only have 1% of the vote; “the rest us” control the other 99% of the votes.

We, the People

Plutocracy and plutonomy are not the same as democracy and they are not compatible with democracy. They are antithetical to democracy and the liberty of  “We, the People“.

The Preamble to the US Constitution reads:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Plutocracy and plutonomy produce ever greater concentrations of wealth (private property) in fewer and fewer hands. If one wanted to design a system or process by which a democracy would gradually be subverted and transformed into an aristocracy or oligarchy, (society dominated by small elites) plutonomy would be perfect for the job.

Wikipedia: Oligarchy

The word oligarchy is from the Greek words “ὀλίγος” (olígos), “a few” and the verb “ἄρχω” (archo), “to rule, to govern, to command”…  Oligarchies have been tyrannical throughout history, being completely reliant on public servitude to exist. Although Aristotle pioneered the use of the term as a synonym for rule by the rich, for which the exact term is plutocracy, oligarchy is not always a rule by wealth, as oligarchs can simply be a privileged group, and do not have to be connected by bloodlines as in a monarchy.

Economic Inequality

Economists and political scientists tend to agree that a certain amount of economic inequality and disequilibrium is good for a society. It stimulates fluidity, creativity, competition, and motivation. Most economists and political leaders have also come to agree that too much inequality is bad. Monarchy, monopoly and plutonomy represent too much inequality.

Beyond some point, the greater the disparity of income and concentration of wealth (private property) in a society, the greater the degree of servitude of the masses. Mass servitude is not what the US was founded for. That was not the original meaning or original intent of the Constitution. No version of originalism dares claim such an intent.

At some point, the greater the inequality of income and concentration of wealth (private property) in a society becomes, the less healthy, happy, and free the people of that society are.

A study published in 2009[1] has shown that negative social phenomena such as shorter life expectancy, higher disease rates, homicide, infant mortality, obesity, teenage pregnancies, emotional depression and prison population correlate with higher socioeconomic inequality. (Wikipedia: Economic Inequality)

Thus, almost every aspiration expressed in the Preamble of the US Constitution is directly thwarted by the unlimited concentration of wealth.

The principle tool the public has to prevent the excessive concentration of wealth is taxation.



Law and Taxation: balancing public and private interests


The natural, proprietary interest which the public retains in all private property is the basis of the people’s right to tax income, property, and inheritance. If tax rates are too high, the burden may stifle economic activity. If rates are too low, especially in the top tiers, concentrations of wealth may grow large enough to stifle activity in the lower economic tiers (plutonomy). Democracy can not endure if we abuse the power of taxation, nor can it  endure if we use this power too little.

At big holiday gatherings at my grandparents’ house, meals were eaten at two tables–the grown-ups’ table and the kids’ table. There is a social parallel:

At the kids table, political conversations are ideological–ideals are black and white and principles are expressed as simplistic clichés, such as “Government is not the solution, government is the problem”, and “Taxation is theft”. For every complex problem there is a simple solution.

At the grown-ups table, ideals are tempered by reality, complexity, and  pragmatism. Simplistic ideologies and sophomoric theories are subjected to historical and empirical criticism. Black and white values become shades of gray when seen in terms of complex trade-offs between various competing interests. At the grown-ups’ table, the social confiscation and redistribution of wealth through taxation is not an evil in and of itself. It is founded on natural law and it can be used to establish justice and balance. It is an evil only if carried too far.

The potential for evil lies equally in taxing too much or too little.

Well-regulated taxation is as fundamental to the preservation of democracy as the rule of law.

Corporate Personhood

The 14th Amendment of the US Constitution says:

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Corporations are neither born nor naturalized and thus are neither people nor citizens. They are also not citizens in that they are not issued passports and they do not have the right to vote.

If corporations were persons, then by virtue of the “equal protection” clause of the 14th Amendment, all rights and privileges afforded to corporations, such as immortality and limited liability, would have to be extended to all natural persons as well.

Corporations are not persons. They may act as artificial or virtual persons for the purpose of contracts and holding property, period. This is a limited, artificial, legal device created by statutory law–not one created either by natural law or the US Constitution.

There are a few narrow ways that corporations may act similar to persons. But there are many ways in which corporations, special interest groups, and rich persons are all very different from ordinary working persons.

As the Citigroup plutocracy reports correctly point out, the money is on one side and the votes are on the other side. To remain free and democratic, we must steer the bus of state between the ditches of public tyranny and private tyranny.

Anyone is free to argue, with their speech or their vote, that any particular exercise of taxation, zoning, environmental regulation, or other public-interest restrictions on the absolute ownership of private property are bad public policy. However, the argument that all such exercise of law is categorically evil is patently absurd and has no place at the grown-ups’ table. And when wealthy corporations, big associations, or rich people bribe or buy politicians or spend millions on propaganda designed to trick average working Americans into acting against their own enlightened self-interest, that kind of behavior is un-American.

That is not speech. That is not democracy. That is information warfare, and those who commit such acts are enemy combatants.

Poor Richard


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