Andrew Sayer


On his book Why Things Matter to People: Social Science, Values and Ethical Life

Cover Interview of March 20, 2012

The wide angle

My book examines the role of values, reason and ethics, and concern with dignity in everyday life. It’s about everyday morality and immorality—banal goodness as well as banal evil. While we often reason about “what to do for the best,” we often act reasonably and ethically without following any clear logical process.

Many of the ideas can be traced back to Aristotle’s virtue ethics and his concept of eudaimonea or flourishing. There are also Adam Smith’s extraordinary insights into moral emotions and responses. More recently, the feminist literature on the ethic of care demonstrates the importance of care relations in shaping who we become. Together these help us understand why things matter to us.

I came to this subject from a sense of exasperation with several disciplines—each of which, in different ways, offers alienated and alienating views of our lives.

From economics there is the rational choice—or “ratcho”—model of action. The nickname and what it rhymes with tells us what’s wrong with it.  The individual is apparently born an independent adult with already-formed “preferences,” who does everything on the basis of a simplistic calculus of self-interest. There’s no sense of connectedness to significant others, need of care, or the role of emotional reason, or of being embedded in cultural traditions, of which the cult of self-interest is one.  This model cannot illuminate the richness of our evaluative worlds.

Philosophy often presents an austere model of the individual reasoner—again seemingly born an adult, having no social location, culture, or significant others, and for whom emotions are a threat to rationality.

Sociology offers the “oversocialized” individual, merely a construction of all the forces impinging on her, ventriloquized by arbitrary social norms. Or else values are just subjective, not judgments about what’s objectively happening.

It’s funny how, when sociologists are harmed by anyone, they don’t say “stop that, it goes against my subjective values and the norms of our community.”  Rather, like the rest of us, they say something like “don’t do that, you’re injuring or insulting me.”  In ordinary as opposed to professional life, they know that such values are about something objective, something that can’t be reduced to wishful thinking: suffering and flourishing.

Just what constitutes flourishing is of course elusive, indeed contested.  But while much is uncertain, we do know quite a lot.  We know that children need loving care, that violence and the threat of it harms people, that stigmatization harms, that people benefit from being allowed to develop and use their capacities and participate in social life on a par with others, and so on.

Yes, different cultures provide different forms of flourishing, and different ideas about it.  But those ideas are not necessarily equally good.  What’s so great about the rat race, for example?

We still need to find out more about what constitutes well-being; pretending that we know nothing about it is an affectation, a form of alienation.