Economic Growth Isn’t Just Ethical. It’s Sublime.

I take the core claim of Tyler Cowen’s Stubborn Attachments to be that a deep concern for maximizing sustainable economic growth, properly understood, should be an essential element of any system of ethics that purports to care about universal human well-being. Growth is so fundamental to human well-being, both directly and through correlation with other plural values, that this claim hardly strikes me as controversial. What is therefore striking, and the reason why Stubborn Attachments is such a refreshing contrast, is that so many ethicists have neglected any consideration of economic growth whatsoever, taking the productive powers of the economy for granted. Why could this be?

Socrates, Plato, and other ancient philosophers perhaps had an excuse. For most of human history, living standards were similar from century to century. Improvements in productivity led to higher populations (themselves a good thing) but not usually to substantially more per-capita wealth. It would have required extraordinary powers of perception for the ancient Greeks to understand the underlying economics, which were not discovered until much later. The Wealth of Nations could not have been written until the wealth of nations actually started to significantly diverge.

Somehow, in the 17th and 18th centuries, the economy in some portions of the world underwent a phase change. Industrialization gave rise to sustained improvement in living standards, and, with growth suddenly a highly visible phenomenon, modern economics was born. Two and a half centuries later, moral philosophers do not have the ancients’ excuse. While we are always learning more about economic growth, the benefit of economic growth on the quality of human lives is now well understood to be dramatic.

Since the relative neglect of economic growth in modern ethics can’t be caused by ignorance, it must be caused by something else. It could be that the cause lies in the evolution of human reasoning. While reasoning is essential both to moral philosophy and to everyday life, the human capacity to reason did not necessarily evolve to support the discovery of truth. One hypothesis, consistent with a number of documented behavioral biases, is that reasoning evolved as a way to win arguments. Instead of observing a set of facts and applying logic to infer additional facts, the argumentative theory suggests that reasoning’s primary evolutionary value may be in persuading others of a preconceived conclusion.

I do not mean to suggest that all ethics is motivated reasoning rather than honest pursuit of the Truth about right and wrong. But neither is ethics immune to motivated reasoning. Cowen delightfully trolls readers by crediting Ayn Rand with being a philosopher who did not take economic growth for granted. This is true! But she was also a master of motivated reasoning; she had a set of aesthetic values that she promoted as irrefutably rational. To a lesser degree and in a more subtle way, all of us may smuggle our aesthetic values into our ethics.

If economic growth is fundamental to human well-being and therefore also to a correct ethics, then we should seek to raise the aesthetic status of economic growth. If more people came to see growth as magnificent and inspiring, then more of them would smuggle a value for economic growth into their ethics, and fewer would smuggle in a value for non-growth. Because this change in smuggling would likely increase the rate of economic growth, I am ethically compelled to devote the rest of this essay to an account of the unsurpassed beauty of economic growth.

The history of our planet may be summarized as, “We irradiated a rock and it came to life.” The rock itself was made from stuff ejected from previously exploded stars. After a few hundred million years of solar influx, a phase change occurred when the earliest forms of life developed. After another half billion years, some of these single-celled organisms started to produce oxygen through photosynthesis. A billion years later, the atmosphere started to accumulate oxygen, and a geological phase change occurred as oxygen turned methane into carbon dioxide, a less potent greenhouse gas, and rapidly cooled the planet. A billion years later, a genetic phase change occurred and sex was invented.

Half a billion years later, around 541 million years ago, things really got going. In the early Cambrian period the number of species exploded. Over a period of around 100 million years, the diverse range of plant and animal life that we know today emerged. Dinosaurs lived, and then were wiped out, except for the ones that were ancestors of today’s birds and crocodiles.

Mammals gained a niche.Hominids evolved 20 million years ago. A few hundred thousand years ago, the first Homo sapiens was born. So was language. Phase change. Culture, artifacts, and trade developed in the Paleolithic. Phase change. Farming was adopted on the order of 10,000 years ago. Civilization. Phase change. Around 250 years ago, our current phase began. Industrialization. Living standards started to rise. Finally we had what we would recognize as economic growth. Today, we have, as Stubborn Attachments puts it, “trillions of dollars in GDP and a Louvre full of paintings.”

This high-level view becomes all the more astonishing when it is supplemented with low-level detail. Civilization is made up of countless human lives, each with struggles and triumphs, heartbreaks, wars, alliances, friendships—each with a sense of self and of mattering. And science allows us to explore in smaller scales yet, witnessing wars between between different kinds of cells in our bodies, the interplay of different molecules, and even the behavior of subatomic particles. Somehow, without centralized choreography, time and solar radiation has produced on our planet a bottom-up masterpiece of ceaseless wonders: a global economy with drama and fascination in every nook and cranny.

A curious aspect of this story is that the phase changes appear to be getting closer together. The time since the Cambrian Explosion is only about one eighth of the time since the first appearance of life. Hominids have walked the Earth for only about half a percent of its history. Modern humans have only been around for one percent of the time hominids in general have. The industrial era, the last 250 years, accounts for only 1/1000 of the time modern humans have existed. The next phase change must be coming soon.

Don’t you want to see what comes next? Will humans expand into the solar system and eventually into the galaxy? Will we merge with machines of our own making? Will we somehow use technology to circumvent even death? Or is humanity just the substrate on which more advanced forms of artificial life will bootstrap themselves? I don’t know what the next phase is, but my curiosity is insatiable. I want to see what happens next in the epic story of the irradiated rock in the Goldilocks zone near Sol.

We are privileged to be witnesses to the most dynamic and explosive phase of Earth’s history yet—the economic growth phase. From here, faster economic growth means we get to see more of the saga. As technology advances, human lifespans may increase, allowing each of us to watch decades more of the drama. But even if they don’t, faster economic growth means more dynamism and that more of the story will unfold during our lifetimes. If the economy grows faster, I will have a better inkling, lying on my deathbed, of what will happen when I am gone.

“This is a big jazz, this world,” says Alan Watts. “And what it’s trying to do is to see how jazzed up it can get, how far out this play of rhythm can go.” The sudden emergence of intelligence, culture, and, yes, economic growth on Earth in the tiniest sliver of cosmological time is all the more astonishing when one considers that the universe is likely teeming with life. There are countless other rocks irradiated by their respective stars, exploding in the same way, no doubt with in beautiful harmony with our own. Johannes Kepler spent decades searching in vain for “the music of the spheres.” As it turns out, we are it, and the music is sublime.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Tyler Cowen looks at the place of economic growth in philosophy and public policy. He finds it’s an underexamined subject. But if we really can make small, sustainable improvements to long-term economic growth, these seemingly trivial changes will prove in the long term to be among the most important choices we make today. Cowen therefore argues for giving greater weight to the longer term.

Response Essays

  • Joshua M. Kim argues for public education and a higher minimum wage, challenging the advocates of economic growth to make the case against them. Although Kim agrees that economic growth matters, he is skeptical that providing social welfare today is liable to slow economic growth, and he calls on Cowen and others to justify this part of their argument.

  • Agnes Callard sees Tyler Cowen as engaged with the classic utilitarian argument for radical wealth redistribution: since spatial differences don’t have moral significance, and the marginal value of our wealth is much higher in the hands of someone crushed by poverty, we should relinquish what we have until that marginal difference disappears. She frames Cowen’s response to this argument in terms of two claims: the similarly arbitrary character of temporal differences, and the utilitarian value of economic growth. When we consider the welfare of future human beings, together with the power of economic growth to raise all boats, then this utilitarian argument becomes an argument for the status quo.

  • Economic growth is fundamental to human well-being, says Eli Dourado; why have ethicists neglected it? He answers that much philosophy was produced when economic growth was either nonexistent or difficult to notice. Even modern ethicists may need to take stock of the world around him, he suggests, and he closes by praising the beauty of economic growth.