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In Defense of the Developmental stage and against the failed Neo Liberal state. Moral Economy: An Original Economic Form for the Ethiopian condition. Condition

By Teodros Kiros PhD
Tigrai Online, July 22, 2018


We must create human beings who can act generously, patiently, tolerantly and lovingly. We do not have such human beings in sufficient numbers to construct an economic form that values justice, uprightness, wisdom, tolerance and loving patience. Taking the virtues singly, the following picture emerges. Let us begin with generosity. Generosity is a virtue. It means that one is willing to give without receiving, or is willing to give without the deliberate intent of receiving anything, or for which the receiving is only incidental. The generous person gives a particular good A to person B; and person B does not simply receive A as a matter of course. B receives A with a profound respect for the giver, and even plans, if she can, to one day reciprocate not in the same way, but in some way. The reciprocity need not be of equal goods (where equality is measured by money). What makes the act morally compelling is the desire to reciprocate, and not the quantity of the reciprocity. One of the central pillars of Maat as an economic form is the cultivation of a human self-willing and able to act generously in the relational moral regime of giving and receiving, or simply giving without receiving, or receiving with a profound sense of gratitude and respect.

Justice is one of the features of Maat and it is also a potential source of a Moral Economy, appropriate for the African condition. As Aristotle taught, one does not become just merely by abstractly knowing what Justice is; rather, one becomes just by doing just things. The puzzling question is this: if one does not know what justice is, then how can one know what just things are, so that one could choose only just things and not others? The question is not easy to answer. But an example might give us a sense of what Aristotle means.

It is Christmas evening and a family is gathering for a dinner and the table is set for ten people. Among the popular dishes are five pies, and shortly before the guests arrive, one of the family members has been asked to cut the pies into exact sizes, such that no single person would feel that he has mistakenly picked one of the smallest pies. The task of the pie cutter was to observe that justice is served and that all the pies are cut evenly and fairly. What must this person do? That is the moral question. Well, at the minimum the person must be just in order to perform just action, and in this instance, justice means nothing more than cutting the pieces equally to the best of one’s ability. The pies must be cut with moral imagination and with intuitive mathematical precision. There is a spiritual dimension to the science of measurement, which could have been simply done with a measuring rope. That possibility, however convenient, is not elegant. Rather, the expectations are that (1) the person is going to make an effort to be precise, because her intention is to be just, and (2) that her eyes are just, or that she prays that they would be. (1) and (2) are the requirements; the rest is left to moral imagination.

She cuts the pies, and it turns out that all the pieces appear to be equal, and when the guests arrive, they randomly pick the pieces, and appear to be satisfied. What we have here is a display of justice in the Aristotelian sense, in which justice is defined as an activity that is guided by a measure of equality, and equality itself is manifest in the attempt at being fair to everyone -– in this case, an attempt to be fair to the guests, without their ever knowing that they are being worked on. They judge the event as illuminated by justice, and as uplifting.

Generalizing to a higher level, what we can say is that any economic form must be guided with justice and that all the commodities that human beings should want must be distributed with such a standard, the standard of justice as fairness. Given justice as fairness, commodity A can be distributed between persons B and C, in such an equitable way that B and C share commodity A by getting the same amount at any time, any place and for a good reason.


Compassion is another feature of Maat; indeed, it is one of the cardinal moral forms for the new moral economy that I am theorizing here. Compassion is to moral economy as greed is to capitalism. One cannot imagine capitalism without the salient principle of greed, and similarly, one cannot imagine moral economy without the originary principle of compassion. The modern world, being what it is, is divided by class, race, gender, ethnicity and groups. Out of these divisions, it is class division which is the most decisive, as it is also the one that seems to be so natural that we cannot surmount the pain and agony that it produces. In a class-divided world, compassion is the least present; since there is no compelling reason for individuals to be compassionate if they are not naturally so, or so inclined. In such cases, though, compassion could be learned, either by example or directly through teaching.

An example may elucidate the place of compassion in moral economy. It is summer, and exhaustingly hot. People that you encounter are hot-tempered too. Everybody is on the edge, including you. You happen to be a coffee-lover, so there you are standing behind a long line of people to get your fix. The heat has made you impatient, and you are ready to explode on anything around you. You are naturally generous, but not this day. Shortly before you leave the coffee shop, a homeless person smiles at you and tries to talk to you, hoping that you will understand the purpose of the conversation. Of course you understand, but you ignore him and walk by. But then something bothers you, and you came back to the coffeshop and generously give the man what he wanted. You are proud of yourself, because you have done what generosity demands, that you control your temper and perform the morally correct action. Surely, you say to yourself, it was not easy, but you did it.

Now you wonder what all this means, and why you did it. The answer is obvious. Indeed, it is because you are really a compassionate human being. You had no obligation to pay attention to that person. He is not related to you, he is not an ex-friend that fortune turned against, nor did you do it so as to be a media-hero. Your action is morally worthy only because you have internalized compassion. To you compassion comes quite naturally. It is part of your moral frame. Any repeated action becomes a habit. So compassionate action comes habitually to you. You rarely fight it. Rather, you exuberantly let it lead your way, as it eventually did on that hot and difficult day. But even on that day you conquered the temptation of doubt, and excessive self-love, by the moral force of compassion. That is why you corrected yourself when you were briefly but powerfully tempted by forgetfulness, and returned to do the morally right thing.

Compassion is morally compelling when it is extended to a total other, who has nothing to do with our lives, beyond awaiting our moral attention. It is much easier to be compassionate towards a loved one, a friend, a relative and even an acquaintance; harder is the task when the subject is a real other, such as that person by the coffee shop. In order for any action to be morally worthy, the motive must be pure, and the purity is measured by the quality and quantity of the compassion that is extended to any needy human being, uncontaminated by external motives, such as love, friendship, acquaintance and relation. It is in this particular way that I am arguing that compassion serves Maat.


Tolerance is another crucial feature of Moral Economy. In fact, it could easily be argued that it is an indispensable organizing principle, which works in tandem with loving kindness. Just as we cannot love a person –- except illusorily -– without respecting her, so we cannot live with one another without tolerating each other’s needs, habits, likes and dislikes. In the economic sphere tolerance is subtly pertinent. We cannot readily sense its inner working unless we pay attention to its musings at the workplace, as we interact with one another as managers and workers.

Consider the following example to underscore the point. There is this worker who does things in ways that many people find annoying. She customarily comes late to work; she procrastinates; she spreads papers, cans and food stuffs all around her; sometimes she cannot even find herself amidst the dirt, the pile and the dust. Yet, and this is the point, whatever tasks she performs are carried out as flawlessly as is humanly possible. Her supervisor has agonized over what to do with her and has often contemplated firing her. Lulled by the elegance of her work and his loving-kindness towards her, he decides to keep her. He has promised himself to erase those occasional thoughts of getting rid of her. As he told one of his friends, he has learned -– not very easily -– the ways of tolerance as a principle of management, as an approach to dealing with workers who will not and cannot change their habits.

I consider this manager very wise and skilled at the art of management. He decided that it was better to change himself, as hard as it was, than to expect the worker to change. The structure of his thoughts could be put syllogistically:

Y can change his way;X cannot change easily;Therefore Y must change for the sake of Z.


Y is the manager. X is the worker. Z is the organization where Y and X work In this situation Z was saved precisely because the manager internalized tolerance and loving-kindness as the organizing principles of the organization. Y controlled his ego and chose to advance the interests of Z over and against his own private needs. He did not fire X, nor did he insist that X must change. He must have intuitively and empirically concluded that it is pointless to expect X to change, nor would it benefit Z to lose X, since X is an intelligent and skilled worker.


Where tolerance is habitually practiced at workplaces, it becomes an indispensable good that can save many enterprises the unnecessary costs arising from hiring and firing workers -– including the distress of their families and loved ones. Tolerance can easily remedy the situation. If it is easier for managers than for excellent workers to change, then it is the managers who must do so for the sake of a functional and democratic moral economy.

The new moral economy desperately needs thoughtful human beings. A functioning moral economy not only needs leaders who follow the ways of Maat; more importantly, it needs citizens who practice what they feel in their hearts, or who at the minimum know intuitively that that is what they must do, if they are to preserve the human species. Maat shows us the way, and the human heart demonstrates the value of the practice.

Of course, what is difficult is the institutionalization of Maat as a regulatory ideal that could reform individual behavior. Social movements are composed of individuals who can be guided by moral ideals such as Maat. The same social movements, however, also require institutional conditions, which can facilitate individual behavior. The challenge is to use Maat both as a moral regulator and as the generator of institutions willing and able to encourage social movements seeking to change dysfunctional moral principles – such as the principles of the capitalist state that does not embrace Maat as its moral ideal.

Once this new human reorientation is put in place then I propose that the agenda for Ethiopia must  be guided by two principles of Global Justice, which the  Ethiopian State could promulgate in the existing  constitution. They are:

  1. All human beings must be allowed to exercise their liberties and freedoms without constraint and with self-imposed limitations.
  2. The existential conditions of the human self must be fully provided by making food, health, shelter and clothing available to all humans who need them.

I say no to the advocates of Neo-Liberalism for Ethiopia and yes to further refinement and radical humanization of the brilliant idea of development guided by an Ethical state, which combines economic sophistication and Moral vision such the African force of Maat, long theorized by some of the finest minds of the Egyptian state.

The New Ethiopian State must found a new party guided by entrepreneurial socialism and a radically new vision embodied in moral political economy exemplified by Maat and operationalized by the two principles of justice articulated above.

Only a New Party can save us now, and we must work hard and courageously to originate such a party, now. 


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