Moral Economy Essay

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The moral economy is an extremely powerful and influential concept that has far-reaching analytical, but also normative, implications. The term is difficult to define precisely, and continues to be used in a wide variety of contexts across multiple disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, geography, history, development studies, and political ecology. The gist of the moral economy is to point to the myriad ways in which economic behavior and institutions are constituted by and embedded within cultural and political norms, often with a high degree of historical and geographical specificity. This can be a primarily theoretical conceptualization drawing attention to the ways in which particular norms, values, traditions, and social relations constrain (and motivate) economic activities (broadly defined). But it can also be used in a more normative manner, advocating for particular regulations and constraints based on overt or implicit moral principles. In both its analytical and more overtly normative connotations, the concept has wide purchase in scholarship and policy discussions concerning the politics of environmental change, not least in terms of how political and cultural sensibilities about environmental transformations and their implications inform the social regulation of economic activities.

Many locate the idea of the moral economy in Aristotle’s distinction between production for use and production for exchange. Aristotle was quite critical of the latter, arguing that economic production purely for gain was immoral. This anticipates Karl Marx’s more formal distinctions between use value and exchange value under capitalism, and his excoriation of capitalism as a political economy founded on greed and accumulation for accumulation’s sake. However, Aristotle also anticipates and is invoked explicitly by Karl Polanyi who similarly criticized what he called market society, i.e., one in which the market is the main institution governing allocation and social distribution. Polanyi argues in The Great Trans]ormation and elsewhere that only in a market society do we find the pretense of exchange unmediated by social and cultural constraints. Other (in Polanyi’s view prior) societies were characterized by economies embedded within and conditioned by social norms and mores-hence the moral economy.

There is some inconsistency in Polanyi with regard to whether or not he actually thought market society itself, even in the minds of its liberal advocates, was truly disembedded, or whether free market orthodoxy itself necessarily turns on moral arguments, e.g., that the pursuit of self-interest unmediated by state interference is an inherent good. What is clear is that Polanyi felt that the “economy” should be conditioned by social and cultural norms other than greed, since a truly market-centered society featuring unchecked production for exchange would tear itself apart by destroying the social and environmental conditions of its own reproduction.

The moral economy idea was developed and deployed by James Scott in his study of the politics of resistance to colonialism in Southeast Asia. Why, Scott asks, did peasants not rise up more often against their colonial oppressors, given evident political and economic exploitation? His answer, in part, relies on the notion that justice is historical and relational, not objective and absolute, particularly vis-a-vis access rights to natural resources and land. He argues that many peasant communities were motivated by the right to subsistence and by attempts to minimize the risk of starvation, rather than to accumulate surplus. According to Scott, only close attention to the particular, localized material conditions and cultural meanings of food production could reveal this ethic and its influence on political action.

Similar notions of a prevailing moral economy order that shapes historically and geographically specific politics and social movements animate E.P Thompson’s work, including his widely influential study of Britain’s Black Act. Thompson examines the ways in which complex, specific, and overlapping rights of forest access distributed across complex social strata came under threat by changing political and economic conditions in England after the Hanoverian ascension. He argues that only by looking at the world through the eyes of those involved (to the extent this is possible), particularly those who resisted what they perceived as forest enclosures, could the sometimes violent resistance of the “Blacks” (as they were known) be understood. Among the implications, Thompson shows powerfully that various property rights to forests were not only material economic assets, but also powerful rights in a moral and symbolic sense of the term, the maintenance of which underpinned notions of justice, identity, and a morally acceptable economic order.

These ideas continue to have wide influence in political ecology, and at the intersection of development and environment. This is because the concept points to the need for understanding locally specific social relations, institutions, and cultural constructs prevailing over resource access and resource use. For instance, the idea of moral economy has been a powerful influence on attempts to understand and critique so-called coercive conservation, wherein traditional rights of access considered integral to subsistence among local peoples have been violated by attempts to institutionalize parks and protected areas. Considerable NGO and scholarly effort is also being invested in the positive formulation of moral codes and standards by which to govern the global economy, hopefully to steer it toward more socially and environmentally sustainable outcomes based on notions of fairness, equity, and ecological viability. This requires overt discussion of what principles of economic and environmental justice can be institutionalized at international scales of interaction in pursuit of a moral economy in a positive sense of the term. This is no mean feat, and begs a question that goes all the way back to Aristotle: if greed is not acceptable as the moral foundation of economic relations and institutions, what is?


  1. F. Block, “Karl Polanyi and the Writing of the Great Transformation,” Theory and Society (v.32, 2003);
  2. W.J. Booth, “On the Idea of the Moral Economy,” The American Political Science Review (v.88/3, 1994);
  3. D. Goodman, “Reading Fair Trade: Political Ecological Imaginary and the Moral Economy of Fair Trade Foods,” Political Geography (v.23, 2004);
  4. T. Mutersbaugh, “Fighting Standards with Standards: Harmonization, Rents, and Social Accountability in Certified Agro-Food Networks,” Environment and Planning A (v.37, 2005);
  5. P. Neumann, Imposing Wilderness: Struggles over Livelihood and Nature Preservation in Africa (University of California Press, 1998);
  6. K. Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Beacon Press, 1944);
  7. A. Sayer, “(De)Commodification, Consumer Culture, and Moral Economy,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space (v.21, 2003);
  8. J.C. Scott, The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Subsistence and Rebellion in Southeast Asia, (Yale University Press, 1976);
  9. P. Thompson, Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act (Pantheon, 1975);
  10. D. Turner, “Political Ecology and the Moral Dimensions of ‘Resource Conflicts’: The Case of Farmer-Herder Conflicts in the Sahel,” Political Geography (v.23, 2004).

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