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The work of Professor Peter Söderbaum has inspired many, which the coming workshop is proving. I am grateful to Professor Söderbaum for fostering the openness to conduct a dialogue among existing paradigms and an open-minded treatment of the subject matter, that inspires my own research. I would like to address and highlight four of the particularly appealing and original aspects of Professor Söderbaum’s message:
Connecting sustainability economics (“economics plays a key role in attempts to get closer to a sustainable society” (Söderbaum, 2007: 205)) with the political and the ethical (and ideology more broadly). The extent of the intertwining of these elements is still underestimated not only within economics circles but also in my own field of environmental ethics.

However, as Professor Söderbaum reminds us, economics is necessarily political economics and ideology at the same time, all quite saturated by our values. Ethical issues matter and have to be brought to the table as one of the indispensible key points of sustainability (2008: 19). At the same time, the ethicist’s job is not (exclusively) to theorize in the abstracts, but to pay attention to what people from outside their professional circles are saying, and proceed together.

Directing attention beyond the three main dimensions of sustainability (environmental, economic, and social) toward more comprehensive ones (Söderbaum, 2008: 20), related to the ideology, values, and epistemologies. Bringing individual actors to the table. Peter Söderbaum rightly states that “sustainability is a public and political issue.” At the same time, “it becomes meaningless to speak about sustainability if it is assumed that the individual is not concerned” with the impact on the broad environment (including social). The scope of accountability is very broad given the variety of roles of individual actors. Personal interpretations do matter when it comes to decision making, regardless whether from people in power or citizens voting for representatives. Daily conduct also matters. Both individuals and organizations matter—the relationship between the individual and the collective is that of reciprocity. These insights enter also into discussions within environmental ethics, where often an artificial line is drawn between the accountability of the individual and the institutional regimes.

Democratization of economics, and the development of democracy more broadly.

I interpret Professor Söderbaum’s use of the term democracy to be that of the deliberative democracy ideal and will be referring to it as such in further investigations and discussion. Drawing from the work of John Dryzek, Seyla Benhabib, T.M. Scanlon, and others, Peter Wenz contrasts deliberative democracy with mere aggregative democracy. While the latter focuses the results of majority-rules outcomes, such as the results of voting, the former is more concerned with involving citizens in the processes prior to voting. It stresses the importance of engagement of all those affected by decisions. Engagement in deliberative democracy necessarily includes being open to listening to alternative views and modifying one’s views in light of other people’s concerns and values. On this approach, people must feel like their positions are taken seriously (2007:247-51). This is in contrast to a view of democratic process that allow for the rich and powerful to dominate (Wenz, 2007:269).

The questions posed by Professor Söderbaum and our workshop are so interrelated that it is not possible to answer one of them without at least indirect reference to the others. I will attempt to address these questions by focusing my attention particularly on pluralism in economics and decision making, referring to the four points highlighted above.

Addressing sustainability, given the ambiguities and vagueness of this contested concept (Söderbaum, 20008: 3), requires a further explanation of how it is framed. My perspective is that what is involved in this concept (like any concept) are certain norms pervasive in our cultural history (see Blackburn, 2000: 175). James Blackburn suggests an analogy with maps as being particularly relevant here, explaining that societal “maps” have been handed down from generation to generation, have arbitrary boundaries, and many may no longer be appropriate for the types of challenges that we are now facing. In other words,
“to define sustainable development is an attempt to create a new map of human interaction and direction. In the new map for sustainable development, there are certain norms that are likely to emerge and that are directly germane to social structure” (2000: 175).
However, the task is quite complicated. The societal maps that shape ideological orientations, when unexamined, can reinforce the old schemes into new concepts and, consequently, actions. The first step, then, to shaping our maps and institutional processes is, as suggested by Professor Söderbaum (2011), to make visible those norms, believes, values, and ideologies. Using language similar to Blackburn, Söderbaum uses the notion of “mental maps,” which include the system of norms, background beliefs, and values (i.e., an ideology) that drives each actor, and which refer to both the micro-level of individual relationships and the macro-level of organized groups and institutions (Söderbaum, 2000; 2008). The maps metaphor, as it illuminates sustainability, is helpful as we seek to better understand the thinking of individual actors, their interactions and discussions with others, and the functioning of institutions and organizations. It is also in line with Peter’s suggested reasonable interpretation of sustainable development (2008), which I find attractive.
The question becomes how to best foster the reasonable interpretation of sustainable development and make decisions together in accordance with democratic principles despite so much existing disagreement. At least three groups of challenges can be distinguished:
The prevailing mental maps and the social construction of values (i.e., the way value develops) and concepts that favor neoclassical and neoliberal ideology.
Incommensurability of values. There are, quite simply, a lot of competing interests and values. In addition, our experience in democratic decision making shows us that many good and important values are in irresolvable conflict. Incommensurability of values and objectives that we are dealing with in daily practice and decision making shows that it is not sufficient to merely list the principles of sustainability and write blueprints for their application to cases; something more is necessary. Sustainability, when interpreted as a process, requires an instantly actualized, procedural approach. The understanding, often limited to the values represented within bounded rationality, needs to be extended. To say this is not to insist that values, objectives, and principles are theoretically incommensurable, but protracted disagreements point to incommensurability existing at least in practice.
Lack of participation and communication. Without adequate participation and communication, some values will remain hidden and policies will reflect only the views of those who participated (often this will be those with power and wealth). A failure to communicate results in actors misunderstanding others’ intentions and priorities.
A more specific issue is the dominance of neoclassical economics in economics curricula, research, and practice. Neo-classical economics is an attempt to understand the world and make predictions to inform policy that constructs models that are primarily mathematical (with the unit of measurement being money). The consensus of those outside this orthodoxy is that it is inadequate and even misleading; it oversimplifies by translating interests and values into monetary terms. This cannot but fail to capture diverse interests and values because it tries to describe the world/values on a single scale when these things are in fact sometimes incommensurable. It is fossilizing in its resistance to fundamental change in response to criticism.
Why is neo-classical economics so dominant if so apparently inadequate, both descriptively and, hence, normatively?
Thomas Kuhn (1996) argues that the degree to which a paradigm gains favorability and resists change is often less about the object of investigation and more about social factors: personalities, graduate programs, funding, etc. If a view becomes entrenched in universities, for example, as has been the case with neoclassical economics (Söderbaum: 2008), this view is the one new economists inherit. Competing schools of thought struggle to gain currency because they are seen by the majority to be wrong, where the evidence is merely that one has more famous advocates at prestigious institutions.

Professor Söderbaum cites “physics-envy” as one reason neo-classical economics has taken the form that it has (2008: 5). This is the striving to gain respect as a (hard) science that leads the social sciences to construct models with the aim of gaining the same predictive accuracy of the hard sciences; this leads them, in turn, to develop mathematical models even when the evidence suggests that the object under investigation cannot adequately be described using such models. Further, as Kuhn says, once a model/paradigm is developed, it resists change in part by treating conflicting evidence as abnormalities to be eventually brought under the model.
Gunnar Myrdal believes that “there do not exist economic and non-economic problems, but only problems” (adapted from Groenewegen, 2007:13). Values are always with us, as Professor Söderbaum reminds us of Myrdal’s message. Because sustainability economics needs to address real world problems, pluralism seem to be the right and adequate stance.

However, two serious issues arise with regard to pluralism.
First, as Jack Vromen suggests, the biggest trouble with pluralism in economics is that the term is ill-defined: it means different things to different people and there have been no successful attempts to clarify what pluralism means and to what it is being applied (2007: 65). But, as political philosopher Peter Lassman notes, “the theory of pluralism cannot itself escape from being an object of controversy and disagreement – the theory is open to a plurality of conflicting interpretations. … we ought to expect pluralism about pluralism” (2001: 4).

One of the questions is, then, whether it is possible to clarify the meaning and scope of pluralism so that it can facilitate our discussions about the possibility of sustainability economics without implying a further paralyzing impotency stemming from the ‘pluralism about pluralism’ problem. What does pluralism mean and imply? Is pluralism condemned to iterating irresolvable conflicts that, ultimately, would prevent any constructive application?
One solution to the first problem may be to work out a sharper distinction between methodological pluralism and pluralism of method. However, we should not expect that once the pluralism of values is recognized, and paradigms coexistence is exercised, consensus will automatically arise.
A second solution would be to demonstrate that despite the diversity and (sometimes) incommensurability of views, there are nonetheless standards available by which to evaluate competing claims.

The second issue, related to the first one, has been formulated by Sheila Dow with reference to the plurality of approaches, schools of thoughts, and paradigms that mark a necessary shift in understanding economics. It poses a problem for policy-makers: although there is no best way to decide on the best methodology and theory, policy makers must make decisions (2007: 23). As Dow puts it, “policy-makers need to be able to exercise judgment with respect to a wide range of sources of knowledge”.
Thus, pluralism has two implications for economics education (Dow, 2007):
Knowledge and skills are to be developed with regard to a wide range of sources and types of knowledge, and
People must be given the tools to become better at forming judgments.
I would like to address at the workshop a methodological pluralistic strategy of how to develop that skill that is applicable for both individuals and institutional actors.
The recognition of a need to exercise good judgment applies to not only economics, but also to morality and the political—all the dimensions emphasized by Professor Söderbaum. As Peter Wenz says,
“A theory has done all that can reasonably be expected when it provides unambiguous answers to some questions, gives hedged or qualified answers to other questions, and merely indicates the kinds of matters to be considered in relation to a third group of questions. In other words, in some cases, it seems reasonable … that a theory … do no more than display the relevant considerations and appeal to people’s good judgment” (Wenz, 1988: 314).

A theory or approach should facilitate instead of replace good judgment (ibid., 315). And, I suggest, this is the role of sustainability economics. To rephrase Wenz, in the practice of social policy for sustainability the principles must be used in an unbiased, well-informed manner with good judgment.
In order to foster ways of thinking that would advance good judgment we must address noted shortcomings in education and decision-making processes. One necessary change is that economics curriculum must be altered to include the development of ideas and skills (that of forming judgment) that move students beyond the limited orthodoxy of neo-classical economics. Second, processes of deliberative democracy (in economics and elsewhere) must be fostered. The first change requires more careful attention institutionally to advancing understanding and skills which, as I want to propose and discuss at the workshop, include the following:
– Methodological awareness
– Social and environmental literacy
– Critical thinking skills
– More careful understanding of the method of (wide) reflective equilibrium
– Political legitimacy

Deliberative democracy requires these elements and real sustainability requires deliberative democracy.
Deliberative democracy can only be advanced when we take seriously the fact that inadequate participation and communication limits policy making in multiple ways. First, it prevents actors from understanding each other. Second, it prevents actors from learning from each other. Third, people who do not participate do not have a chance to shape policy. Fourth, without adequate participation those in power have their own interests and values furthered at the possible expense of others. When democracy is conceptualized as mere “aggregate” democracy, it is the result of voting procedures that are thought to legitimize decision making. However, on a model of democracy that focuses attention on the steps prior to voting—on the deliberative process—more people are encouraged to participate, and that participation is geared towards greater understanding instead of simply winning a vote. People are required on the deliberative democratic model to advance reasonable rationales for their positions, to put themselves in others’ shoes, to listen, to modify their own view to accommodate those of others when possible, and to seek consensus and compromise over mere winning (see Wenz, 1998; 2007).

Sustainability is a dynamic concept in the sense that it “helps to modify the context to which it is applied” (Turner, 1991: 209). I would put this claim even stronger: sustainability necessarily modifies the context to which it is applied, together with the existing mental maps, ideologies, and the like. Because of this, I think that exercising good judgment, so necessary for fostering the goals and principles for sustainable economics, has to be facilitated by the above three elements. The proposal that universities should teach alternative theoretical schools of economics means more than that they will be thus more descriptively accurate when theorizing about sustainability. It is a practical necessity. Simultaneously, the realization of such a task needs to be further supported by teaching students of economics (and also other disciplines) the skills for better understanding alternatives and the social and environmental context of a particular issue, and making good judgments in the face of uncertainty and difference.



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Wenz, P., 2007. Political Philosophies in Moral Conflict. McGraw Hill Higher Education, Boston.
Vromen, J., 2007. In Praise of Moderate Plurality. In: Groenewegen J. (ed.), Teaching Pluralism in Economics. Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham, pp. 64-93.

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