The ambition of On Purpose is necessarily grand: to train leaders who can forge a different sort of economy, an economy that integrates social and environmental concerns with financial sustainability. This is all well and good conceptually, but when it comes to the nuts and bolts of analysis, the sector still struggles to identify whether an enterprise is “social” or not. A first order of business then is to truly interrogate the idea of the “social.” What sounds like navel gazing I think could be valuable time spent generating a framework through which evaluation principles can emerge. If we’re going to reset the whole economy towards sustainability, before tinkering with the legals, we should set the roots of our understanding of social value in fundamental principles, enduring philosophies that can nourish social enterprise’s widest growth.
Business As Usual people have robust philosophical roots, deploying the framing philosophy of Utilitarianism – the principle that we should organise society to produce the greatest ultimate aggregate happiness of a population. Rational economic-man’s search for income has become a proxy for the pursuit of happiness. This established mode of thinking is reflected in all sorts of judgements we make: GDP becomes a means to judge the success of a government, and wealth becomes an indicator of someone’s success (“he’s done well for himself”). The economic success of this philosophy is apparent in the leaps in human development that capitalism has catalysed, but its moral neutrality, and failure to capture the import of the individual amoungst the aggregate, has created gaping catastrophes – environmental degradation, inequality, and financial crises to name but three. For our new and better economy, we need a new and better philosophy, one that still allows for the all important wealth creation, but that also articulates a clear theory of social justice.
For me, John Rawls’ ideas manage to straddle the common sense approach of creating the greatest good for the most amount of people, with a framework that forces us to consider fairness, justice and inalienable rights for all. Rawls’ genius was to introduce a thought experiment that helps us see the human instinct for fairness. He introduced an imaginary “original position”: a society conceived as if we had no idea where we would be placed in it. He believed, and I agree, that were we to design the world from behind this “veil of ignorance”, we would do so in such a way as to maximise the prospects of the least well-off. Rawls suggested that the following (serially ordered) principles would govern it:
- Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible to a similar liberty for others (political liberty, freedom of speech and assembly, liberty of conscience and freedom of thought; freedom of the person along with the right to hold personal property, & freedom of arbitrary arrest as defined by the concept of the rule of law)
- Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage and b) attached to offices open to all.
First someone must be regarded as an individual with rights; then they can be regarded as an economic agent interconnected, fairly with others. This thought experiment is invaluable I think for helping us consider how to combine wealth creation with social justice. It puts people and fundamental rights at the heart of the search for return on investment, and asks that the wealth creation itself be undertaken for the benefit of all: The rising tide must lift all boats.
The current Business As Usual economy is an unjust one in Rawlsian terms, but the business models that we’re engaged with through On Purpose are just in his terms. In Ben & Jerry’s (where I was for my first placement) Linked Prosperity model, inequalities inherent in business hierarchies that do exist, exist for the benefit of all within the value chain. For me – just as Mill et al have been the founding philosophical fathers of modern capitalism, Rawls has the potential to father a different economy. His principles act as a clear framework to answer both the “social” and the “enterprise” of social enterprise, and could act as, not only a useful anchor of measurement discussions, but more ambitiously, could act as the foundation of an economic theory for a better world.
On Purpose is currently recruiting it’s next cohort of Associates, starting in October 2013. To find out more and apply, visit here.