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  • John Ikerd

Hierarchy of Sustainable Values

Updated: Dec 5, 2022

In a previous post I explained the basic differences among economic, social, and ethical values. Economic values meet individual, material needs that can be met through impersonal transactions. Social values meet our needs to relate to others personally—to care and be cared for, to love and be loved. Ethical values meet our basic human needs to feel that our lives matter—that we are contributing to the greater good of society, humanity, the earth, the universe. Economies contribute to the greater good by contributing to our collective well-being as individuals. Societies contribute to the greater good by contributing to the common well-being through friendships, families, communities. Individual and societal ethics give purpose and meaning to economies and societies.

However, there is no economic or social value in doing anything for the sole or exclusive benefit of someone else, and certainly not for the benefit of some distant generation. Nothing of social or ethical value can be expected or will be received in return. Ethical values reward us for fulfilling our responsibilities to care for others, and to care for the earth, even when we know we will receive nothing of economic or social value in return.

In a 2016 column in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Sustainability, I proposed an ethic of sustainability. A thing is right when it tends to enhance the quality and integrity of the whole of life on earth, by honoring our uniquely human rewards and responsibilities as both members and caretakers of the earth's integral community. A thing is wrong when it tends otherwise. In the absence of an ethic of sustainability there would be nothing to guide our economy or society toward sustainability. Without an ethic of sustainability, there would be no incentive to do anything for the benefit of others, including those of future generations, unless there was an expectation of receiving something of greater economic or social value in return.

As in the hierarchy of authentic sustainability, a natural hierarchy exists among sustainable ethical, social, and economic values. Ethical values must be given priority over social values and social values priority over economic values. Economies and societies that are unrestrained by an ethic of sustainability eventually exploit every opportunity to benefit from economic and social relationships. Many opportunities exist to “do well” individually and socially by “doing good” for society and humanity. However, many other activities that generate economic and social value degrade the integrity and productivity of the natural and societal resources upon which sustainability ultimately depends.

The hierarchical concept of governance is exemplified by the structure of constitutional democracies. Constitutions typically state the basic purpose for forming a nation and reflect the ethical principles by which it is to be governed. For example, the preamble to the Constitution of the United States begins: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States of America.” The basic principles of governance are spelled out in the structural separation of powers among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government and in the Bill of Rights and other constitutional amendments that have been added since its initial ratification.

All federal and state laws must be “constitutional”—meaning they must conform to the purpose and principles encoded in the Constitution. Laws may vary from state to state, even municipality to municipality, as long as they do not violate federal or state constitutions. Any laws deemed unconstitutional by state or federal supreme courts are nullified. The economy must function within the bounds of the laws enacted by federal, state, and local governments. The perpetrators of economic arrangement, agreements, or transactions that violate these laws are subject to prosecution and assessment of appropriate fines or other forms of punishment.

However, simply encoding ethical hierarchies into the structure of governments does not ensure that the hierarchy will be respected by those who govern. We see the inevitable consequences of failures to respect this hierarchy of values in today’s so-called developed nations—including constitutional democracies. In the U.S., we have turned the hierarchy of sustainability up-side-down. Liberty is secured only for those who can afford to pay the high economic costs of justice. The general welfare is promoted only when it doesn’t compromise economic growth. The current extraction and exploitation of natural resources ignores the promise to secure the blessings of liberty for future generations.

Corporations have been granted the rights of “personhood” and are allowed to use their economic power to influence elections as well as craft legislation. As a result, governments promote, rather than restrain, the unsustainable economic extraction and exploitation of nature and society. Taxes paid by the middle class are diverted to benefit the rich rather than ensure the constitutional rights of the poor. The only government programs seriously considered to address existential ecological and societal threats—such as climate change, species extinction, political injustice, economic inequities—are those promising good paying jobs and opportunities for profits and returns on corporate investments.

Equally important, the governing structures of most constitutional democracies do not reflect the hierarchy of sustainable values depicted in the graphic above. The ethic of sustainability respects the fundamental laws of nature—including human nature. No matter how the ethic is worded, sustainability depends on us humans accepting our responsibilities as both members and caretakers of the other living and nonliving things of the earth, including our fellow humans. If we fail to do so, human life on earth will not be sustainable. The ethic of sustainability is not negotiable, and thus, must be given priority over our social and economic preference.

Human societies are subsystems of natural ecosystems and must accommodate the inherent diversity of sustainable natural ecosystems. However, societies can accommodate the ethical values of sustainability without compromising their diversity. Economic values also must accommodate the ethical and social values of sustainable societies.

Economies that are not allowed to extract and exploit will naturally transition on regeneration, resilience, and resourcefulness to maintain their productivity. There will be no economic disadvantage for sustainable businesses because their competitors will function under the same laws and regulations. In sustainable societies, economic relationships will create social and ethical values, as well as economic values, and social relationships will nurture and strengthen the ethical values of sustainability.

We are physical beings, and we need impersonal, economic relationships to meet even the basic necessities of life in today’s complex societies. We are also social beings and we need the sense of affinity and belonging that friendships, families, communities, and societies provide. And, we are ethical beings and we need a sense of purpose to guide our economic and social relationships and to give meaning to our lives. Ultimately, our individual and collective well-being depends on the well-being of the whole of the earth. The hierarchy of sustainable values is the hierarchy of our uniquely human rewards as well as responsibilities.

John Ikerd

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