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Rethinking thinking itself

Dr. Van Eijk is a senior rural development expert and multi-disciplinary tropical agronomist.

‘Updated’ ethics

Jeffrey Sachs says in his article ‘Rethinking macroeconomics’ that a return to prosperity “also requires the reassertion of core values in economic life: integrity, fairness, justice for the weak, and sustainability for the future. … Our institutions and ethics come from a different era and have not yet been ‘updated’ to knit together a globally stable society”.

To my mind Sachs rightly underlines here the importance of values and ethics in the development of fair global macroeconomic governance. The interconnectedness of today’s world makes a return to superficial fixes dangerous. As Sachs says: ‘we are all intricately interconnected’ but ‘our politics and social networks remain mostly local’. Subsequently he argues that a large-scale stimulus [of a new macroeconomics that faces up to the three interconnected challenges of climate and energy security, food and nutrition security, and poverty reduction] requires “the nitty-gritty of public–private planning, technology assessments, demonstration projects and complex project financing”. Unfortunately, he does not indicate the relationship between this nitty-gritty (of planning, technology, demonstration and money) and the earlier mentioned ‘updated’ ethics. The underlying assumption seems to be that ‘planning, technology, demonstration projects (such as the Millennium Villages) and money’ can be organized, managed and coordinated by human rationality alone, without recognizing that the ‘updating’ of human ethics has to precede such an exercise. It is easy to mention the all-important role of ethics, but it is much more difficult to indicate how to ‘update or upgrade’ human ethics. It is recommendable that Sachs stresses the role of ethics, because relatively few authors do this, but the next step on ‘how’ to upgrade ethics and human behaviour is missing. For my own ideas on this issue, I refer to the references 1-4.

The fact-value dualism

Sachs argues that basic reforms in global governance and in macroeconomic science require entirely new ways of thinking. He says: “The challenge we face is to bridge the divide between macroeconomics and global governance, both in scientific and in policy terms … We have not solved the problem of the proper integration of scientific and technological knowledge in public policy making”.

The divide between politicians/policymakers and scientists is indeed large. There is no guarantee that scientific knowledge will be used by policymakers. Distrust between scientists, politicians and civil society seems to be on the increase, as the present fierce debate on human-induced climate change shows. According to the Dutch philosopher Herman Koningsveld the fact-value dualism, as part of the dominant scientific paradigm, is contributory cause to our ignorance or irrationality at the economic, political and cultural levels. Precisely this dualism seems to have contributed to the fact that normative matters are no longer topic of thorough scientific reflection in Western culture. On the other hand, the fact-value dualism (causing the divide between science and politics) is one of the most important normative attainments of our culture. Especially in our technocratic society, in which practical problems with a normative or political dimension automatically are translated into technical questions, the defence of this dualism is a matter of the highest importance, says Koningsveld.

The main question is how to ‘re-educate’ politicians and scientists so that they become wise men with insight in societal rationality and with a holistic perception (Van Eijk 1998: 167-8). This re-education of politicians/policymakers and scientists ought to entail a transcending of the fact-value dualism – a dualism which is simultaneously contributory cause to our lack of wisdom ánd an important attainment of Western culture. Such paradoxical situations cannot be ‘solved’ by logical reasoning alone: such ‘divergent problems’ (as Ernst Schumacher labelled them) can only be transcended by the infusion of a higher ability. Basically policymakers and scientists need an ‘updated’ ethics, in the words of Sachs. Today’s multiple crises (finance, energy and security crises) indicate clearly that the intellect alone cannot cope with the fact-value dualism. I believe that supplementing intellectual reasoning with experiential spirituality stands a better chance to generate wisdom. Scientists and policymakers will then be more qualified participants in a debate on global governance or societal rationality. My ‘belief’ is supported by scientific evidence (Van Eijk 1998). And mind you, also the worldview of the dominant positivist-oriented, technocratic scientists is grounded in a ‘belief’ – be it a single-minded belief in intellectual reasoning. Perhaps it becomes time to ‘rethink’ this dogged fixation on thinking alone. The continual identification with the rational-empirical consciousness needs to be lifted.


  3. Van Eijk T. (2010a). Development and Work Ethic in sub-Saharan Africa. The mismatch between modern development and traditionalistic work ethic. Free Musketeers, The Netherlands (to be published at end of March 2010).
  4. Van Eijk T. (2010b). Societal Transformation through Consciousness-Based Development. Civic Driven Change through Self-Empowerment. (In press).
  5. Van Eijk T. (1998). Farming Systems Research and Spirituality. An analysis of the foundations of professionalism in developing sustainable farming systems. Ph D thesis, Wageningen Agricultural University, The Netherlands.
Author: Toon van Eijk

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Dr. Van Eijk is a senior rural development expert and multi-disciplinary tropical agronomist.

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