Redistribution. Empowerment. Justice.

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This was the title of a conference I visited over the weekend at the Technical University TU Berlin (original title in German: Umverteilen. Macht. Gerechtigkeit.), co-organized by different German, Swiss and Austrian trade unions and NGO’s (such as attac, verdi, medico international, Denknetz, and many others). The conference’s focus was to discuss and ponder about questions of global justice, equality and what it means to lead a good life. Equality researcher Richard Wilkinson from the UK opened the conference with his Friday night keynote on inequality and how it is related to levels of happiness and health in our societies. He works and researches at the Equality Trust UK, a research centre whose goal is “to reduce income inequality in order to improve the quality of life in the UK”. (1)

Panel discussions and workshops that followed during the weekend had a strong focus on the Euro-crisis, with agreement with the crisis not being only “the crisis of the others” (die Krise der Anderen), but a general crisis of capitalism affecting everyone in one way or another, therefore calling for a new economic order, more just taxation and income levels, and moreover, for new interpretations of justice, good work and the good life.

During the conference, I happened to stumble upon an article by UK-based father-son-team Robert and Edward Skidelsky – the older an acclaimed political economist, the younger a philosopher – published in the independent periodical Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, a monthly publication of political and philosophical papers by international authors that was one of the media partners of the conference. The article’s title was, freely translated: “Back to the essential. What we need for a good life.” (Zurück zum Wesentlichen. Was wir zum guten Leben brauchen). A perfect theoretical match to expand and support the ponderings of the weekend, and also other considerations that constantly recur during our research and projects. The very simple query of basic human needs and desires is as old as philosophy, and yet it seems to be an unsolved question until the present day. The awareness that economic growth cannot make us happy seems common sense by now – Jean-Jaques Rousseau already claimed in 1751 that “progress in the sciences and arts has not contributed to the purification of mores” (2) but rather hauled greed, ambition and useless curiosity (3).

‘Economic happiness research’ is a new field that looks into the relations between income and happiness, with its advocates demanding a shift of focus towards GNH (Gross National Happiness), away from the conventional measure for a country’s development by its GDP-level. Happiness has become a serious topic of political discourse. The Skidelskys warn about the replacement of one measure with another, again looking for maximal growth of a good that should and cannot be measurable. Rather, they plead for the creation of  reasons for happiness, such as health, respect, friendship, leisure. But what do we need to be happy? The Skidelskys refer to John Rawls’ seminal work “Theory of Justice” (1971), in which Rawls sketched a category of basic goods necessary for a good life, led by the principles of liberty and equality. Those basic needs are seen as instruments for a fulfilled life, the outer conditions of autonomy. (4) Other important theorists of justice such as Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum expand the idea of basic goods by pointing out the different human preconditions, making it impossible to set a general measure for human needs. According to Sen and Nussbaum, our focus should not be on goods, but be brought to enablement, defined as“any approach which provides means or opportunity” (5) towards more autonomy and quality of life.

To achieve these goals, we need a shift of attitude not only in the political landscape, but also in general thinking: a critical re-examination of what we hold as true, important and desirable. We need to pause and reflect more often before acting – a daily meditation that might give new leverage to issues as important as the ones the conference addressed: the meaning of justice, equality and a good life. Then, we all might become agents of a better society.

window 874 recommends:
Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, Blätter Verlagsgesellschaft, Berlin. http://www.blaetter.de/
John Rawls (1971): Theory of Justice
Martha Nussbaum (1993): The Quality of Life
Amartya Sen (2009): The Idea of Justice

KM, 27.5.2013.

(1) About Us, The Equality Trust UK (2012). http://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/about-us, viewed 27.5.2013.
(2) Rousseau, Jaques (1750): A Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences, Barillot & fils, Geneva.
(3) Skadelsky, Robert & Edward: Was wir zum guten Leben brauchen in Blätter 4/2013, pp. 79-90, Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, Blätter Verlagsgesellschaft, Berlin.
(4) Ibid, p. 81.
(5) Wikipedia, Enablementhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enablement, viewed 27.5.2013.

Photo credits: (featured image) Sascha Bachmann / echtfotografie.de

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