Philosophy of Money, Debt and Trust

Examine the connection between money, debt and trust as the tripartite foundations upon which human society is constructed. Partly a history of economic systems, this course also argues that economic systems cannot be disconnected, and studied in isolation from the anthropology of human nature, or the philosophy of moral/religious social structures: To understand the human is to understand how we secure and value the things which we need and want. David Graeber in his ground-breaking book Debt: The First 5,000 Years, argues that the long held belief that barter proceeds the invention of money is anthropologically unsustainable and that debt/credit systems are the foundation of most social groups down to the present.

Debt/credit systems require trust to work, which means they rely on ethically agreed principles within the group. Money, however, can break free of trust systems and become an object without any allegiance to a social group. The later part of the course will contemporize these concepts in relation to our present economic situation. We will look at Modern Monetary Theory, Bitcoin, post covid debt and social trust. We will also look at the concept ‘debt’ in the broader contexts in which it is used, for example: When we use phrases such as ‘paying your debt to society’ where did that idea come from, and do you really have such a debt?

This class will be delivered online via the online platform Zoom. Enrolling students need to ensure they have an email, a reliable internet connection, microphone/speakers and access to a tablet, smartphone or computer.


  • Introduction: What is the connection between money, debt and trust. To open the topic we will define these terms; ask whether their meaning has changed over history, and make preliminary connections between them.
  • The Evolution of Economic Systems: Margaret Atwood’s book Payback: Debt and the Shadow side of Wealth, attempts to clarify the ideas of fairness and justice which she believes to be the “inner foundation stone without which debt could not exist”. She argues that this is an ‘Ancient balancing act’ which is connected to the cosmological/religious systems of early societies. We will examine this idea, and the various anthropological theories of early economic systems and how they operated.
  • Trust: Who do you trust and why do you trust them? Trust maybe a feeling which is fleeting or an attitude which lasts a lifetime. Some evolutionary psychologists believe that it is our ‘default’ disposition, and that if that were not so, we could not form societies at all. Trust is connected to hope, faith, expectation, openness, and accountability. We will examine these ideas in relation to economic history.
  • Debt: When we use phrases such as ‘paying your debt to society’ what do we mean and where did these ideas come from. Philosophically the idea that we actually ‘have’ such a debt can be critiqued. Friedrich Nietzsche challenges such an idea, believing it to be a cunning trick by the powerful to keep us in debt to them. We will also look at David Graeber’s evidence and arguments against barter being the first economic system, which then led to the invention of money. Graeber’s theory is that credit/debt systems arise first in human society, and remain crucial throughout history to the present day.
  • Reflections on Violence: The ‘dark side’ of Debt is that it facilitates the ‘right’ of violence, promotes ‘tit for tat’ revenge mechanisms; and is for some anthropologists the basis of ancient slavery. From a socialist point of view it establishes inequality, and for Marx it is a strategy for dehumanization. We might also consider whether it still functions as a form of ‘slavery’.
  • Money: Money needs to be a medium which is neither too rare nor too available; it also needs to be convenient to carry. Some Ancient forms of money were: shells, cloth, slaves, precious stones or metals. We will look at the origins of money and how it changes over history, but end with a discussion of the contemporary situation: Do we need it anymore?
  • Moral Metaphors: Fyodor Dostoevsky describes money as ‘minted freedom’. Contemporary economists speak about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ debt. History is filled with economic statements enmeshed with value terms connected to ideologies. We will take a range of examples here.
  • Banking: By 1776 Adam Smith was able to declare that the stability of the Bank of England (1694) is ‘equal to that of the British government’. But how stable were banks and are they a thing of the past.
  • Capitalism and Free Floating Currency: In 1971 Richard Nixon stripped away the last vestige of the international gold standard. We will look at developments from the
  • Contemporary Issues: Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is a hot topic at the moment: some theorists believe it could be our saving grace (moral metaphor) others that it would lead to economic disaster. We will look at some of these views and also Bitcoin, post covid debt and social trust.


By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Give the student an overview of the origins and complexities of the philosophy of Economics.
  2. Understand and deconstruct the concepts of trust and debt.
  3. Consider the mechanisms involved in how economics depends on concepts such as Trust and Debt.
  4. Show the important role played by economics in the foundations of society and our understanding of human nature.
  5. Give the student an understanding of the complex structure and the internal workings of exchange systems in making the political landscape.
  6. Consider new forms of economic theories as they relate to our post-covid world.

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