Expert Opinion

‘Shared society’ and the ‘business case’

Mrs May has begun to develop her ideas about justice and fairness. There were hints of these when she first became prime minister, and they keep resurfacing. The strapline at the heart of these is ‘shared society’, which seems to be an attempt to articulate both the importance of ‘fairness’ in society and at the same time the importance of individual responsibility in contributing to social care. Her stress on mental health underlines this theme. I want to focus on three things in this blog: the provenance of these ideas; the motivation behind their appearance; and the place of business in this ‘shared society’.

It is never easy to pin down provenance until you have critically engaged the ideas, but we can say the shared society is one of a series of attempts to see UK society as sharing responsibility for social care (in its broadest sense). Most recently there was the ‘big society’ of David Cameron. This shimmered on the horizon, fitfully capturing the imagination, but had all the substance of a mirage.  Before that there was the Titmuss idea of the Welfare Society. This differs from the Welfare State because of its focus on the importance of gift- giving to community; but it foundered because it did not begin to work through connections between individual responsibility and state responsibility. For that we need to go even further back, to Pope Pius XI and the doctrine of subsidiarity.

It is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry (Quadragesimo Anno, 79)

The underlying issues are very much alive, not least the question about the relationship between the market and care. Does the market, as Maclean suggests, ‘crowed out’ altruism….just as much as the nanny state? Michael Sandel amongst others argues that use of the market in health and social care can lead to a market rather than a caring society.

The debate can and should continue to thunder, partly because it is about who we are as a society, who we want to be, and what we value. And that raises the question of what is motivating the debate now. Inevitably there are several narratives behind it. For Mrs May there is something about responding to a sense of ‘burning injustice’, the desire for fairness that lies behind much of the political change of 2016.  For Mr Cameron there was something about the State not being able to afford the levels of care provided- this has to be shared by the ‘big society’.  Both of these are important, but should be seen as the start of a debate. In a sense both of these are catch up positions. The first raises huge questions about both global business and how we have developed governance. The global market has left too many people behind, in ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ countries. Our governance mechanisms pride themselves on ‘procedural justice’ in how we allocate remuneration but do not begin to address the criteria or dynamics of fairness. So called ‘fairness’ demands attention not simply to rational calculation, about who gets what, but attention to and valuing of the different people involved in the enterprise.

As for the ‘big society’, part of its problem is that the debate was focused in resource allocation rather than the care itself, economic value rather than relational. Matthew Gill, who recently was made honorary fellow of the Centre for Governance, Leadership and Global Responsibility, underlines the challenge with respect to social care,

To restrict ourselves to debates over resource allocation and budgets with respect to care work would be to accept a tragic flaw in our reasoning about priorities. Insofar as we accord only economic value to people, even as a useful fiction for budgetary purposes, we are left with a paradox. How can care of the dependent elderly ever be provided efficiently, if the most economically efficient option is not to care for them at all? Elder care is only valuable insofar as the lives of the dependent elderly are valued, if not by society then at least by the elderly themselves’ (Gill, M., 2012, ‘Care and value at the end of life’ Poetics 40, 118–132).

We cannot start the debate about social care with questions about how we can afford it. To do that will take our attention away from the care we want, but also from the honest attention to accepting the limitations around growing old and dying. And it may be that acceptance of those limitations might cause us to look again at what is feasible.

The thrust of this is, start with value and then move to questions of allocation. And business is directly involved in all this, partly because the market is becoming more concerned with care (for example, taking on over 90% of social care in the UK. But business, and business studies, is also focused too often on the so called ‘business case’ for justice or service. The idea behind that is that if we practice justice in the workplace, or develop service foci such as CSR, then this will lead to good outcomes, not least because it will lead to happiness in the workforce, which will in turn lead to better performance and greater productivity. There are two dangers with that. First, once more market value becomes the priority. Second, justice is not instrumental. To be just in order to achieve another end, however noble or good, is to misunderstand justice as a principle. In a negative example, it is simply wrong to allow the injustice of modern slavery in one’s workplace or supply chain. In a positive example, justice should be pursued in the work place precisely because it is a core principle of human relations, along with equal respect.  Of course, justice in all this is not simplistic. On the contrary, the practice of justice demands careful attention to what it means to be just and how one can give an account of just practice. What we do not need is a business case for justice or responsibility in business…injustice is all too profitable.