The Economy and Meaningfulness. A Utopia?

With a foreword by Herman Van Rompuy, former President of the European Council and an afterword by Ludo Abicht, philosopher

by Hendrik Opdebeeck (Author)
©2019 Monographs 148 Pages


It is utopian to represent the economy as a place in which human happiness is as paramount as profit. That is the opinion of many who might pick up this book. This truism, analogous to the argument that Gross National Happiness is utopian, is, however, confronted by the actual situation of our economy today. Our globalized society, with its Gross National Product, turns out to be a dystopia. Our globe has indeed become a place where it is no longer that pleasant to live. From burned-out people at the workplace, via the gap between the northern and the southern hemisphere, to our threatened environment: there is not much left of the utopia of the free market. The aim of at least the last fifty years, since the Club of Rome, of transforming it into a sustainable economy is failing. In this book, we find a plea for economic practices as elaborated in the Social Economy, the Purpose Economy and the Economy of Communion. Time and again, these are manifestations of an economic transition which, to a greater or lesser degree, no longer focuses exclusively on principles such as scarcity, individualism or utility. Responsibility, the interpersonal and authenticity are at least as central. Each time, they are concrete challenges that are the pertinent responses to the tension between utopia and dystopia. It is not a matter of fanatically reversing all economic activity in our globalized society in the direction of an economy of meaningfulness. But the unmistakably obvious challenge for our economy that the alternatives represent has something of an appealing urgency.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Foreword by Herman Van Rompuy
  • Preface
  • 1. A Letter to the Reader, by way of Introduction
  • 2. Dystopia vs Utopia
  • The Economy is Sinking, Long Live the Economy
  • Realized Instead of Imaginary
  • Fear vs Hope
  • Trust as Meaningfulness in the Economy
  • An Actively Pluralistic Economy of Meaningfulness
  • Utopia and Dystopia in the Novel
  • Ecological Capital – the Achilles Heel
  • Economy, Ethics and Justice
  • 3. Economics vs Ethics, Compassion and Equality
  • The Separation of Economics and Ethics
  • The Compatibility of Economics and Ethics
  • From Reason to Instrumental Rationality
  • Ethical Economy
  • Embedding
  • Separation
  • Dialogue
  • Compassion as Meaningfulness in the Economy
  • Equality and Democracy
  • 4. Philosophers of Contract and the Paradoxical Context of the Economy
  • With Hans Achterhuis in Mind
  • The Necessity of a Just Contract
  • Movement as the natural foundation of the economy
  • Power and equality
  • Fear and desire in justly observed laws
  • Transcending the ego
  • The Paradox of Scarcity
  • Mimetic Desire and Compassion
  • Economy as Religion
  • The Paradox of Christianity
  • Freedom
  • Freedom vs Order
  • The Third Way
  • 5. From Philosophers of Contract to Philosophers of Responsibility
  • Agnostic and Atheistic Philosophers of Responsibility
  • From justice to responsibility
  • From communality to responsibility
  • From fear to responsibility
  • Theistic Philosophers of Responsibility
  • Religious existentialism
  • Mystical responsibility
  • The Face of the other
  • A Bridge Between Atheistic and Theistic Responsibility
  • Paul Ricœur as a Philosopher of Bridges
  • The desire for happiness more original than suffering
  • The invitation to responsibility
  • Responsibility via an institution such as the economy
  • A Buddhist Philosophy of Responsibility
  • Responsibility in Buddhist terms
  • Guanyin, or Buddhist compassion, in the economy
  • Beyond sustainability
  • Gross National Happiness
  • Beyond the Gross National Product
  • A globalized phenomenon
  • Linking values to responsibility and meaningfulness
  • Measuring Gross National Happiness
  • The economy in search of meaningfulness
  • 6. Economic Responsibility
  • Interim Review: The Core of Today’s Economy
  • The economy as a box of blocks
  • The individual first
  • Scarcity in itself
  • The end justifies the means
  • The centrality of utility
  • And finally, prices
  • Justice and Transcending the Tension between Dystopia and Utopia
  • Merits versus needs
  • The enterprise versus the state
  • Efficiency versus equity
  • The shared economy versus the economy of meaningfulness
  • Economic Justice Inspired by Levinas
  • From egology to otherness
  • From self-interest towards the face of the other
  • From desire to longing
  • From social morality to authentic ethics
  • From parity to equality
  • From goodness to universal responsibility
  • A Responsible Economy
  • Responsible, as in Responsible Economics
  • Inter-human, as in the Social Economy
  • Enough, as in the Circular Economy
  • Balanced, as in Happiness Economics
  • Authentic, as in the Purpose Economy
  • Meaningful, as in the Economy of Communion
  • 7. Conclusion
  • Afterword by Ludo Abicht
  • Bibliography
  • Series Titles

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Foreword by Herman Van Rompuy

Our societies and economies have never been as shaken as they have been in recent decades by globalization, digitization and vast migration flows, by the commercialization of every human activity – even the most intimate and exalted. The concepts of financial and monetary stability stand in diametric opposition to the rampant changeability and instability of working life. The multiple crises of the past decade have made people feel like pawns of financial powers, of large multinational companies and of uncontrolled migration movements, and have further heightened feelings of alienation and impotence. People need stability, anchors and certainties. ‘Disruption’ has become a buzzword. For many people, this has resulted in a great deal of confusion and anxiety. The simple question that is often posed is, ‘Where are we heading?’. Underlying this simple question is another age-old question, drawn from a once-famous Flemish book: Moeder, waarom leven wij? (Mother, Why Are We Alive?). The directions taken in society and in our personal lives are closely connected to each other. Both involve a search. But technology is not the only force up-ending all of our values and certainties. Climate change and the potential exhaustion of natural resources and raw materials have raised questions of meaningfulness. In times of confusion, we must once again go in search of the essence – the meaningfulness behind everything that we do. Have we forgotten that the ultimate aim of an economy and a societal framework is to benefit individual people? Nothing but this should be an end unto itself. For Professor Opdebeeck, everything revolves around personalism. How many people do we bring into fruition through everything that we do? There is a Mozart in all of us but we must not murder him, as Saint-Exupéry ← 13 | 14 → once said. Sustainability is more than simply a matter of justice here and elsewhere in the world, or of ecological awareness. Without love for people, there can be no sufficient motivation to turn the tide, and nothing sustainable can emerge. People will resist injustice and self-destruction. Sometimes, they will even seek solace in false prophets, as well as in dangerous ideas and those who herald them. These are the extremes to which despair can bring us. We must therefore provide a response to the greatest deficit of all: the ethical and affective deficit. We must restore the true humanism to which personalism is such a strong testimony. It must permeate our economy. In addition to social and ecological corrections, the market economy is in need of a human correction. Only then will we be able to restore hope and faith in society. European societies are being consumed by negative feelings and anxiety. This is also why they have become so volatile. Only love in all of its forms can provide an injection of hope. There is a need for new leadership, too, which can embody these values. Authenticity could bring back credibility and trust. Professor Opdebeeck clearly demonstrates that meaningfulness is indispensable to the economy.

Herman Van Rompuy

Former President of the European Council

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In 1985, the Jesuit rector of the University of Antwerp, Louis Van Bladel, appointed me to supervise a research project to explore the cultural and philosophical aspects of the economic crisis. From then on, I have been teaching philosophy and ethics to future philosophers, economists, sociologists, business engineers, communications experts, film professionals, politicians and, last but not least, specialists in environmental science. Time and again, the economic and social activities I observe remind me of the topicality of the personalist philosophy of thinkers such as Paul Ricœur and Emanuel Levinas. This philosophy has shaped the basis of my research and teaching. Rephrasing Joseph Amato (2002), to me, a personalist is anyone who, out of respect for the human person, aspires to defend man against individualism as well as collectivism. As I am regularly asked about my personalist foundations, both as chairman of the pluralistic SPES (Spirituality in Economics and Society) think tank, which explores meaningfulness in the economy and society, and by my students and colleagues, I felt compelled to explore the core of this philosophy, related to the economy, in a relatively accessible book.

While I was inspired by a great number of past and present philosophers and economists, I do not intend this book to be an encyclopaedic guide to economic philosophy. On the other hand, I wanted to mark the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia. For me, this was a dream opportunity to test my personalist background against the well-known vision on utopia and economy of the Dutch philosopher Hans Achterhuis. So Hans Achterhuis is the first person I would like to thank on the occasion of the publication of this book. I also want to thank Bob Goudzwaard ← 15 | 16 → of the Free University of Amsterdam, who was the supervisor of my PhD and who continued to stimulate me to develop my research on economy and meaningfulness. Thanks also to my first colleagues at the university of Antwerp such as Koen Boey, Wim Thijs, Louis van Bladel, Antoon Vandevelde, Jef Van Gerwen and Philippe Verbeeck, who constantly encouraged me to combine my economic insights with philosophy. I would also like to thank Luk Bouckaert and Laszlo Zsolnai, who invited me to include my personalist approach when we founded the SPES think tank that developed into the European SPES Institute. Warm words of thanks to Herman Van Rompuy, former President of the European Council, who wrote the Foreword to this book. I also, especially, thank Ludo Abicht who wrote the insightful Afterword, and his son Bart who translated this book from the Dutch original. And last but not least, I thank my dear partner Johanna-Maria, my children, parents, relatives and friends, and my current colleagues of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Antwerp, for their generous encouragement while I was working on the book.

An economic utopia carries the risk of degeneration into a catastrophe. I stated this thirty years ago in my doctoral dissertation. At that time, I was full of hope that we would be able to keep the frightening chaos at bay. Today, the negative impact of the economy on man, society and the environment has only grown worse. But economic paradigms with relevant answers that are taking root all over the world are restoring my trust. The utopian hope for spaces where a better future might be possible is giving ground, all over the world, to the confidence of taking concrete, economic responsibility.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2019 (March)
Bruxelles, Bern, Berlin, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2018, 148 p.

Biographical notes

Hendrik Opdebeeck (Author)

Hendrik Opdebeeck teaches philosophy in the faculties of Arts, Social Sciences, and Business and Economics at the University of Antwerp, Belgium. He studied economics and philosophy at the universities of Ghent and Leuven. He is chairman of the SPES-Forum for the search of meaningfulness in the economy and society.


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166 pages