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Moralising Commerce in a Globalising World

Multidisciplinary Approaches to a History of Economic Conscience, 1600-1900


22–24 June 2017

Conveners: Felix Brahm (GHIL) and Eve Rosenhaft (University of Liverpool)
Venue: German Historical Institute London
Co-funded by the GHIL, the Economic History Society and the University of Liverpool


In the 21st century, the principles and practices of ethical investment and fair trade, the politics of boycott as well as corporate ‘greenwashing’ are well established in the repertoire of corporate and individual action and public debate. The history of transatlantic slavery and its opponents in the 18th century, and of the opposition against colonial exploitation in the 19th century, remind us that this repertoire has a history; neither moral indifference nor ethical engagement is ‘natural’ or self-evident. When and how do (and did) people with a measurable material interest, but who are not already embedded in long-standing maritime-mercantile networks, come to see themselves as participants in global businesses? How and when does (and did) awareness of one’s material stake in an aspect of global trade prompt awareness of ethical implication and/or moral-political engagement? How and when have those who benefited from business enterprises with human or environmental costs indirectly, at second hand, or as subaltern agents come to reflect on the nature of the business?

This conference aims to provide a focus for discussion of how we might historicise economic conscience, investigating the means and processes by which individuals and collective actors have learned to see their own economic choices as contributing to a global system and to reflect on the impacts of their choices on other people and places, both near and far. Accordingly, our interest is less in critical characterisations of global systems – colonialism, imperialism, capitalism for example – or the social movements that inscribed those critiques on their banners than in the structures of sentiment and knowledge that made possible new articulations between understandings of moral obligation, locality, the spaces of humanity and the ‘economic’. Based on that, we furthermore ask about respective individual expressions and collective actions like criticism of greed for profits from global commerce, voluntary self-restrictions, consumer boycotts and responding corporate strategies.


Call for papers (PDF file)

Conference programme (PDF file)

Conference report (PDF file), published in: GHIL Bulletin 39 (2017), Vol 2