Reflections on Purpose and Economics

I haven’t had much time for blogging so far this year. I’m just back from a speaking engagement in Indiana where another community is being threatened by the encroachment of large-scale confinement animal feeding operations or CAFOs. The previous weekend, I was in San Francisco for the True Cost of America Food Conference which focused on changes in agricultural and food policy. This completes a series of commitments that began in late January and included seven speaking engagements as well as co-teaching two month-long block classes in economic sustainability at Maharishi University. I continue to learn and often relearn from my speaking and teaching experiences. The focus of this piece is on a lesson I have relearned, or at least come to understand more fully, as a result of this year’s experiences.


This lesson relates to the relationship of economics to purpose. I am more deeply committed than ever to the belief that humanity has a purpose for being. I believe we each have an individual purpose that contributes to the greater purpose of the whole of human life on earth. Our purpose is not a goal or destination we are meant to reach but instead, a mission or path that we are meant to walk.  Furthermore, I believe our individual and collective purpose in life is “good.” I simply do not believe that we humans are meant to be a noxious weed or an infectious disease that crowds out or kills off all other life on Earth.


I believe we humans have a God-given responsibility to contribute to the “greater good” of the whole of the earth. Our purpose is not the acquisition and accumulation of economic wealth. The economy simply provides a means of pursuing our individual and collective purpose. The fundamental problem with today’s so-called modern society is that we have substituted the means, meaning income and wealth, for the end, which is a life of purpose.


We can’t prove that life has purpose. As a result, the very existence of and purpose – in any sense other than some innate desire to continue living – has been vigorously denied by scientists and routinely ignored by contemporary society. From the time we are children, we are taught to think critically and rationally, meaning we should not believe anything that can’t be scientifically proven. However, I believe we know instinctively and intuitively that our life has purpose, because without purpose life simply makes no sense. If there were nothing in particular that we are supposed to do with our lives, then it really wouldn’t matter what we did or didn’t do. There would no means of distinguishing between right and wrong or good and bad. Anything we might do would be okay – or not; there would be no way of knowing. In spite of our supposed belief in scientific rationality, we still behave as if life has purpose.


Now to the crux of my lesson. In the absence of an admission of purpose, I believe people increasingly have accepted acquiring money as their purpose of life – or at least as a proxy for purpose. This mistaken belief contains an element of truth. Money today has no intrinsic value; it is simply a “claim” to something of value. The uniqueness of money is that it can be used to claim “anything” that can be bought with money. So if a person has money he or she can buy and do many different things with it and with a lot of money can buy and do a lot of things. In the absence of a clear idea of what we are meant to do with our lives, accumulating money would seem to be a logical means of spending our time and energy. Having money gives us a variety of options if we ultimately discover what we need to claim with it in order to pursue our purpose in life. Money is also a hedge against some of life’s uncertainties.


The fundamental problem is that the acquisition and accumulation of money has become the cultural equivalent of success – society’s validation of a life of usefulness, worth, or purpose. Power and fame are also accepted measures of success, but power and fame almost invariably lead to economic success. Over time, we seem to have forgotten that acquiring money is not a reflection of a life of true worth or purpose unless it is used to contribute to some greater good. Increasingly we have come to accept money as a proxy for purpose. I believe most of the important problems confronting American and global society today is a reflection of this critical mistake.


Contrary to popular belief, the Bible does not state that “money is the root of all evil.” Instead, it states: “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). Money can be a means for good or evil. The love of money, meaning the desire to have money with no sense of commitment to using it for good, is a symptom of human greed. Greed is the desire to accumulate wealth with no sense of purpose other than personal pleasure or the acquisition of even greater wealth. Our misplaced sense of purpose has perpetuated a culture of greed.


Whenever money is accumulated with no real sense of purpose, there is no way of knowing when we have enough money. In the absence of purpose, the basic human tendency seems to be to continue striving for ever more – regardless of how much we already have. The possession of wealth makes it far easier to acquire ever more wealth. Thus, as the wealthy strive for ever more wealth, many others are left without enough money to meet their basic needs and thus without the essential means of fulfilling their purpose in life. Everywhere we look today, we see the dire consequences of mistaking the acquisition of economic wealth for a life of purpose.


John Ikerd