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The rich life or the good life?

How does wealth encourage true human flourishing? Might there be a point where more riches do not necessarily encourage more contentment? Why does joy not follow from material abundance?

These were some of the questions raised by a recent international conference held at the University of Aberdeen entitled ‘Joy and Prosperity’. Organised by Dr Kevin Hargaden, the Social Theologian at the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, along with Emily Hill, a PhD candidate in Theological Ethics at Aberdeen, the conference drew together economists, social scientists, marketing researchers, philosophers, finance consultants and theologians to consider how wealth encourages or hinders joy.

The conference began on Wednesday May 10th with a public lecture by Prof. Philip Goodchild of the University of Nottingham. His paper considered the question “What is true wealth?” and argued that we needed a wholesale transformation of how we think of our economic system, giving primacy to credit over debt and directing us to the many ways we can share good things without reference to the market.

On Thursday May 11th, a full schedule of papers and responses were delivered by Professor Ioannis Theodossiou, an economist from the University of Aberdeen, Dr. Eve Poole, lecturer in Leadership at Ashridge Business School, and Dr. Brian Brock, Reader in Theological Ethics at the University of Aberdeen (see photo, Prof Theodossiou on left).

Prof. Theodossiou fore-grounded the problems facing the academic study of economics by exposing the tragic social consequences of austerity policies in Europe. He advocated a return to strong government intervention in the economy, for the sake of society, directed towards long-term sustainable goods.

Dr. Poole examined seven “toxic” assumptions behind capitalism, considering how our beliefs about competition or the motivation of workers feed into the problems we consistently face as booms are followed by busts and the cycle resumes. She counselled that we seek to locate sites in the economy where we can make a difference.

Dr. Brock offered a theological consideration of joy in the light of contemporary capitalism. While the shopping mall tries to recreate the peace of Eden and internet shopping promises a private haven of satisfied desire, Dr. Brock drew on the work of the twentieth century theologian Karl Barth to articulate a much more robust account of joy from Christian terms. The experience of joy both reveals the paucity of consumerism’s true offerings and drives the enjoyer to consider alternative ways to live.

The day closed with a group discussion led by the main speakers which sought to draw together the different contributions offered from within different disciplines into a cohesive whole. The overwhelming sense within the room, largely populated by early-career academics, was that research into economic topics demands this sort of inter-disciplinary and ethical examination. One delegate reported “I can only say that the conference was intellectually stimulating and the discussions throughout were thought-provoking and fruitful.” Another said, “It was a really engaging event. The unusual combination of mixing voices from economics, management, philosophy and theology enabled each of us to encounter different ways of thinking about these issues.”

The conference was part of a larger multi-year investigation into ‘Joy and the Good Life’ being run by Yale Divinity School in conjunction with the Templeton Foundation. It was the first conference of its kind run in Britain and Ireland, seeking to put these particular disciplines into dialogue.

Reflecting on it in its aftermath, conference organiser, Kevin Hargaden suggested, “As the consequences of Brexit become clear, it is evident that Irish and British societies both have an opportunity and a need to begin thinking about economics and economic growth in a more three-dimensional fashion. Considering the holistic outcome of economic growth doesn’t just have relevance for people’s well-being, but gives us a new angle from which to consider environmental care. This conference is one small step towards developing an academic culture that makes that kind of analysis possible, but small steps matter.”