The ethics of IOPS


[This blog was also posted on the IOPS website, generating a quite extensive discussion. What is IOPS? Watch a short introductory video here].

“The most fatal error that ever happened in the world was the separation of political and ethical science” Percy Bysshe Shelley

I’ve been meaning to write this piece for some time and was in part spurred into doing it by something IOPS member Peter-Lach Newinsky wrote on the EARTH forums a while back:

“IOPS also has an ethics that motivates its core values and vision. That ethics (all ultimately ‘spiritual’ if you think about it) should be discussed and made more explicit, I reckon, because it’s what motivates all of us in the end.”

While there are quite a lot of specific commitments outlined on the mission and vision statements that new members check a box to say they agree with, like Peter I think that these more specific commitments ultimately derive from a more concise shared ethical foundation. If this ethical foundation were to be spelled out some more, it could perhaps broaden our appeal significantly without compromising on any of our commitments.

My own personal preference would be for  IOPS to think of itself as a broadly (but not shallowly!) focused libertarian socialist “umbrella” type organisation, with the potential to welcome, appeal to and unite many diverse activist groups struggling to make an impact within such an atomised society as ours (as well as many more people not currently engaged in activism at all) under a shared ethical framework (such as is outlined here, thought I hope other members will contribute their own suggestions). I worry that we have not so far been explicit enough here, and that perhaps non-members sharing our ethics will instead mistake us for yet another narrowly focused effort providing yet another set of inflexible solutions to social problems. You may disagree though, and that is fine – I am posting this in part to gauge the feelings of other IOPS members.

When new members first join IOPS they are asked to check a box saying that they agree to the IOPS organisational description. I think it is useful at this point to identify three broad tiers of IOPS organisational commitments:

1 –  ethical values: what fundamental value principles is IOPS based upon?

2 –  organisational principles: what “rules of thumb” then suggest themselves given the IOPS ethics?

3 –  institutions: what forms of organization could consistently incorporate these “rules of thumb”?

Our founding documents at the moment read as a a sort of “laundry list” of jumbled ethical values and organisational principles (and one or two suggested “institutions” e.g. workers and consumers councils). They do not really identify which of many statements are more foundational than others and which ethical values lead to which organisational principles. There is not much said about institutions or alternative political/economic/cultural/kinship models in the founding documents – this is left more to discussions amongst the members. This last point is as it should be, I think, but the other points could do with addressing.

So now I’d like to try and sketch out what an ethical basis for IOPS could constitute and which of our founding statements I see as more foundational than others. Nothing said here is intended to be definitive and I hope people will have their own take on IOPS ethics and discuss this in the comments. But I’ll take a stab at it anyway.

I said earlier that I see IOPS as a broad libertarian (or anti-authoritarian) organisation. What is meant by “freedom” though? John Stuart Mill in his famous essay On Liberty gave a definition I rather like:

“The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good, in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”

I contend that if we really think it through, we can derive more or less the entire IOPS founding documents from the implication of the above statement by Mill. Let me give examples from each of the different IOPS “spheres”:


Let’s first take the example of IOPS’ stance on property rights. Pro-capitalist “libertarians” confuse the issue (I think…) by identifying freedom as the freedom of a property owning elite to do whatever they wish with their property, regardless of its impacts upon the capacity of others to pursue their own good in their own way. They are ignoring Mill’s very important caveat about the effects of their freedoms upon others.  What about the IOPS position then? In our founding documents it is stated that:

“No individuals or groups own productive assets such as natural resources, factories, etc., so ownership doesn’t affect anyone’s decision making influence or share of income.”

I suggest that the above is an example of an organisational principle which follows on from a more foundational ethical principle – the idea that as a proto- libertarian socialist movement we strive towards a society characterised by greater aggregate freedom (as Mill defines it). As Noam Chomsky has pointed out in his book Profit over People:

“There are no rights of property, only rights to property that is, rights of persons with property. Perhaps I have a right to my car, but my car has no rights. The right to property also differs from others in that one person’s possession of property deprives another of that right: if I own my car, you do not; but in a just and free society, my freedom of speech would not limit yours.”

The individual may require a certain amount of non-productive personal property in order to pursue their own good in their own way, but when private property rights are extended to ownership of “productive assets” this can deprive many others of these same rights. We (IOPS) want to avoid this, so our economics is socialist – we reject the private ownership of productive assets. People’s self-actualisation is our aim, but beyond a certain base level this is not actually helped by material acquisition and may in fact be harmed by it, as Oscar Wilde has pointed out in The Soul of Man Under Socialism:

“For the recognition of private property has really harmed Individualism, and obscured it, by confusing a man with what he possesses. It has led Individualism entirely astray. It has made gain not growth its aim. So that man thought that the important thing was to have, and did not know that the important thing is to be. The true perfection of man lies not in what man has, but in what man is.

Private property has crushed true Individualism, and set up an Individualism that is false. It has debarred one part of the community [the poor] from being individual by starving them. It has debarred the other part of the community [the rich] from being individual by putting them on the wrong road [materialism], and encumbering them.”

I’d also argue that our principle of economic justice, that “there is no payment according to property, bargaining power, or the value of personal output” but rather there is payment for effort and sacrifice at socially valued work, should be seen as an additional founding ethical principle. To the extent that we wish to emphasise it as a membership condition it is an important ethical difference between IOPS members and, say, market socialists.


Similarly our political organizational principle of self-management – to “convey to all citizens a self managing say in legislative decisions proportionate to effects on them” is seen to result from people’s right to self-determination – “pursuing our own good in our own way”, because the individual is an end in him or herself and not a means to another’s ends – and the right to object when people “deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it” in proportion to the degree that this happens.

Likewise, an organisational principle like IOPS “seeks to incorporate seeds of the future in its present projects” (and our commitment to prefigurative politics in general) makes perfect sense for an organisation striving towards a free society, since as Bakunin (for example) argued, one does not expect to liberate a people by first enslaving them, since:

“All dictatorship has no objective other than self-perpetuation … slavery is all it can generate and instill in the people who suffer it. Freedom can be created only by freedom”


You can more or less “derive” our feminist kinship principles from Mill’s conception of individual freedom and self-determination – which of course should apply equally to women and men – as Mill himself went on to do, very radically for his time, with his essay The Subjugation of Women, which opens with the decleration that:

“The legal subordination of one sex to another — is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a system of perfect equality, admitting no power and privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.”

And, of course, one can substitute the word “sex” above for the word “race”, “sexuality”, “religion”,  etc.


As an example of the cultural life IOPS ethics might imply, take the following from our vision statement:

“IOPS seeks a new cultural and commuinity system that ensures that people can have multiple cultural and social identities, including providing the space and resources necessary for people to positively express their identities, while recognizing as well that which identity is most important to any particular person at any particular time will depend on that person’s situation and assessments.”

Again, one could see that as applying the notion of “pursuing our own good in our own way” to the notion of being enabled to pusue the development of diverse cultural spaces within our society.  In today’s capitalist world the demand for such “public goods”  goes greatly under-supplied: markets merely minimise transaction costs for individual consumption, not collective consumption, and production for profit creates major biases towards both extensive waste (such as forms of “planned obsolescence” meaning essentially the same commodities are needlessly resold many times over, perhaps at great environmental cost) and harmful acts of psychological manipulation.

I would argue that there is nothing natural or inevitable about the domination of our public spaces by leering corporate billboards, or indeed the entire existence of a multi-billion dollar advertising “industry” which squanders the time and talents of many creative individuals upon acts of crass manipulation and deception. What if our public spaces weren’t sold to the highest bidder? What message would you deliver to the world with your own billboard – would it be something more worthy than: Mcdonalds is better than Burger King; Pepsi is better than Coke; nobody will like/respect you if you don’t buy commodity X; or anything similarly vile/ inane? What would a diverse public space created by its participants be like? What messages would it choose to share?


Here I think we can identify an additional foundational ethical principle as the idea that “We do not inherit the planet from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children” and so we ought to explicitly take into account their right to a future life not to be fatally compromised by any unwise decisions we might make today (whilst you might argue that Mill’s “others” could refer to unborn future generations this isn’t by any means obvious and probably ought to be spelled out explicitly given what is at stake). This idea is referred to in the founding documents as the precautionary principle and Robin Hahnel has recently given a very nice, concise discussion of it in his latest book Of the People, By the People (and also in Green Economics) :

“WHEREAS the natural environment provides valuable services both as the source of resources and as sinks to process wastes,

WHEREAS the regenerative capacity of different components of the natural environment and ecosystems contained therein are limited,

WHEREAS ecosystems are complex, contain self-reinforcing feedback dynamics that can accelerate their decline, and often have thresholds that are difficult to pinpoint,

WHEREAS passing important environmental thresholds can be irreversible,

WE, the present generation, now understand that while striving to meet our economic needs fairly, democratically and efficiently, we must not impair the ability of future generations to meet their particular needs and continue to progress.

IN PARTICULAR, WE, the present generation, understand that inter-generational equity requires leaving future generations conditions at least as favourable as those we enjoy. These conditions include what have been commonly called produced,human and natural capital, ecosystem sink services and technical knowledge.

SINCE the degree to which different kinds of capital and sink services can or cannot be substituted for one another is uncertain, and SINCE some changes are irreversible, WE, the present generation, also understand that inter-generational equity requires us to apply the precautionary principle with regard to what is an adequate for some favourable part of overall conditions that we allow to deteriorate.

THEREFORE, the burden of proof must lie with those among us who argue that a natural resource or sink service that we permit to deteriorate on our watch, is fully and adequately substituted for by some other component of the inheritance we bequeath our heirs.”


Finally, the notion that “we do not inherit the planet from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children” also has particular relevance to international relations, given the ongoing and perhaps escalating danger of nuclear war. We are still to answer the question that Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russel put to us in 1955:

“Shall we put an end to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war?”

Given that the United States (with the help of my country, I should add) has recently announced, via its invasion of Iraq, that without a credible nuclear deterrant you run the risk of being bombed back to the stone age, there is the very real danger of an escalating nuclear arms race in the Middle East and the above question being given the wrong answer. It isn’t just me worrying about this either – the late Robert McNamara (who of all people had some insight into the dangers of nuclear war!) was worried too, writing back in 2005 that :

“If the United States continues its current nuclear stance, over time, substantial proliferation of nuclear weapons will almost surely follow. Some, or all, of such nations as Egypt, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Taiwan will very likely initiate nuclear weapons programs, increasing both the risk of use of the weapons and the diversion of weapons and fissile materials into the hands of rogue states or terrorists.”


So all in all we have three foundational “ethical values”: Mill’s notion of individual freedom and our right to self-actualization, the idea of planetary stewardship embodied in the ecological “precautionary principle” (as well as some notion of international/inter-generational equity/solidarity) and our notion of economic justice as remuneration for effort and sacrifice, not property or output. I’d see everything else in our founding documents as basically elaborations upon those three founding ethical principles. Necessary elaborations – I don’t mean to imply otherwise – I just think it’s nice to develop a sense of where our full body of commitments are coming from and useful for when we are trying to briefly explain the core of IOPS to somebody new. If you disagree with me, think I missed something important, or have a different notion of the ethics underlying IOPS, go ahead and say so in the comments below! Hopefully you’ll be able to go deeper than I have here.

I’d like to end by giving my more personal take on IOPS. What do I see as its ultimate aim? I’d say the point is to try and get closer to a world in which everyone is empowered develop their potentialities as human beings, where everyone is able to most fully realise their gifts, where each of is is able to become the best version of ourselves.

Taking this as the ultimate goal of an ideal society, I judge 21st century capitalism to be a fundamentally anti-human system, and would go as far as to call it an insult to human dignity. To me it seems that the extent to which we realise the best versions of ourselves is more in spite of this system than because of it. I refuse to believe that it is the pinnacle of humanity’s socio-economic development, as commentators like Francis Fukuyama have (in)famously implied. My refusal to accept that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds” is grounded in what Erich Fromm called faith in mankind:

“The faith in others has its culmination in the faith in mankind. In the western world this faith was expressed in religious term in the Judeo-Christian religion, and in secular language it has found its strongest expression in the progressive political and social ideas of the last 150 years. Like the faith in the child it is based on the idea that the potentialities of man are such that given the proper conditions they will be capable of building a social order governed by the principles of equality, justice and love. Man has not yet achieved the building of such an order, and therefore the conviction that he can requires faith. But like all rational faith this, too, is not wishful thinking but based upon the evidence of past achievements of the human race and on the inner experience of each individual, on his own experience of reason and love.”

The present social order is governed more by inequality, injustice and hate (or at least, by fear and greed, as Robin Hahnel likes to say of capitalism). Building a society governed by equality, justice and love where we each and all become the best versions of ourselves will require a great deal of productive striving to actualise, and it is my hope that IOPS will give some significant help here, once it is made clearer that this is what it seeks to do.


~ by freedomthistime on January 25, 2013.

3 Responses to “The ethics of IOPS”

  1. Like it David. Will print it off and read again. Did notice that the cultural/communal sphere got missed! Sorry to be a spoilsport! The Fromm quote is great. Gets to the heart of it. Good onya.

    • Fair cop! I’ll try to add an example from the cultural/communal sphere so that nobody feels left out! (and the international context too, which I also left out).

      Thanks for the feedback 🙂

  2. Must admit though David, it didn’t really worry me. The main points were enough.

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