The Third Sector’s worth and value(s)

The Third Sector Research Centre are hosting an excellent series of dialogues on the future of the Third Sector. They’re asking some really important questions which, I think, amidst the usual bun-fight for resources, rarely get asked or adequately discussed.

The latest dialogue is entitled Is the third sector so special? What is it worth? In response to their discussion paper, I’ve just posted the following comment:

Many thanks for an interesting and thought-provoking discussion paper.

I was particularly struck by the challenge to think about the ‘worth’ of the sector in ways that are not simply monetary. And this has got me onto thinking about what role questions of ethics and morality play in understandings of the third sector.

It seems to me that a preoccupation with measuring economic ‘contribution’ and ‘usefulness’ (whether of individual organisations or the sector as a whole) reflects an essentially utilitarian outlook. It’s all about calculating benefits in order to ensure ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number.’

The language of ‘values’, in contrast, may be seen as a corrective to the limitations of a purely utilitarian approach. Yet while it may be possible to unite around (somewhat vague) statements like “values are the key”, agreeing on the values that characterise an incredibly diverse sector is another matter entirely.

I’m reminded of what the moral philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre writes about living amidst an ‘epistemological crisis’ – a time in which there “seems to be no rational way of securing moral agreement in our culture” (After Virtue, Chapter 2). This makes me wonder, amidst all rhetoric of ‘third sector values’ that sometimes prevails, how much serious thought has gone into considering the various philosophical, ethical and religious underpinnings of third sector  activity?Does anyone know of anything helpful that’s been written (or indeed done practically) around this?

Maybe slightly abstract – but the main point I’m getting at is that discussions of worth and value within any sector can’t (or at least shouldn’t) be dominated by monetary considerations alone. Deeper ethical questions also need to be raised.


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