Tools v. Machines

1) Schumacher’s economic ideals, and his views on mechanization, are intertwined with principles taken from, or inspired by Buddhist ideas. He states that “[t]he choice of Buddhism for this purpose is purely incidental; the teachings of Christianity, Islam, or Judaism could have been used just as well as those of any other of the great Eastern traditions.” Is religion just one means of getting to Schumacher’s end or is it necessary? Could atheist principles lead us there too, or does atheism lack something? Certainly Schumacher’s economics relies on a form of mild asceticism that is consistent with certain religious teachings, but what about his views on mechanization and the distinction between a tool and a machine?

2) Some of Schumacher’s arguments start to appear like they rely on a form of technological determinism. See for example this paragraph at page 101:
<blockquote cite=””>Strange to say, technology, although of course the product of man, tends to develop by its own laws and principles, and these are very different from those of human nature or of living nature in general. Nature always, so to speak, knows where and when to stop. … [T]he system of nature, of which man is a part, tends to be self- balancing, self- adjusting, self-cleansing. Not so with technology, or perhaps I should say: not so with man dominated by technology and specialisation. Technology recognises no self-limiting principle – in terms, for instance, of size, speed, or violence. It therefore does not possess the virtues of being self-balancing, self- adjusting, and self-cleansing. In the subtle system of nature, technology, and in particular the super-technology of the modern world, acts like a foreign body, and there are now numerous signs of rejection.</blockquote>

Yet underlying Schumacher’s main thesis and main prescription for the future is an assumption that we do, in fact, have control over the development of technology and a normative conclusion that we should aim to develop it in a certain way. How can this apparent contradiction be resolved?

4 thoughts on “Tools v. Machines

  1. I’d be really interested in what people think about your first question. I think whether or not the existence of deities is taken for true is not helpful for understanding these economic ideals. Some religions are helpful frames for this conversation as a collection of moral standards. If you accept the teachings of the Buddha, or Jesus, (or both!?) it follows that you will probably accept this view of how economies should work.

    I skimmed the Wikipedia page for a sense of atheist principles, and I think it just depends – some ethical system will lead you to these conclusions and others won’t.

    Morality aside, Schumacher’s explanation of prioritizing employment is logical. He cites Western “5 year development plans” in Buddhist countries as not uncommonly resulting in higher unemployment than before they started.

  2. I too wonder if Buddhism can be replaced with any of the other religions he mentions, and still have the same qualities as “Buddhist Economics”. If Schumacher truly believes this is the case, then perhaps that belief is contradictory. He mentions various examples of Buddhist economics that are grounded in very uniquely Buddhist principles. A variety of them stress the importance of absolute minimalism; minimum consumption for maximum well-being, which I believe is the essence (simplicity) of Buddhism. This quote sums it up quite nicely:

    “From an economist’s point of view, the marvel of the Buddhist way of life is the utter rationality of its pattern – amazingly small means leading to extraordinarily satisfactory results.”

    I wonder if the same can be said of, say, a “Christian Economics”?

  3. Your first question is the classic question of moral philosophers. Can the benefits of religion be had without all the hassle? Or, taken as a hypothetical, would we still have a sense of morality if we had never been exposed to religion. It’s also worth noting that most contemporary religious scholars view atheism as a religion. Its attempts to answer what happens after death mean that most lay people would consider it a religion as well.

    Much has been written on this subject so I’m not even going to attempt and answer it. However, I do firmly think that we can never know the answer to this question. We can’t turn back the clock and rewrite civilization without all the holy books and messiahs.

    Can you conceptualize how morality would be different had the Jews not given western society the concept of time going in a straight line towards the future? These are the kinds of questions we need to ask ourselves to answer this question.

    I personally lean more towards a Jungian interpretation of religious belief and the self. Really basically, that belief satisfies some need of our psyche, and religion is primarily an extension of our need to understand our selves. This causes me to also believe that we could NOT have morality without religion. Since religion, morality and the psyche are all so terribly intertwined. These are my beliefs. There is no way to prove any of this.

  4. Both great questions. To the second, I wonder if Schumacher’s prescriptions were an attempt to recalibrate both the expectations and the creation of technology. As I’ve understood intermediate / appropriate technology, it attempts to offer an less intrusive (culturally, socially, environmentally) path to development. That’s not without its perils — I think Schumacher would acknowledge those dangers — but it does offer a ‘middle path.’

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