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Interview with Dr Flavio Comim, Coordinator of the SEE Research Group

21/10/2021
“Our research, on measures of vulnerability or the fragility of social structures, can help to fulfil an objective that is very important for our university, which is supporting our social mission.”
New Social Ethics & Economy research group

You’re a professor of Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability at IQS. Tell us about the new Social Ethics & Economy (SEE) research group that you’re leading.

We’re really pleased about this recognition from Ramon Llull University. I believe that it is a necessary group in terms the philosophy and culture of IQS as it is important for us to realize that there is always an ethical foundation when addressing economic issues. And ethical issues need materiality in order to be measured. It’s an essential complement.

We could define this type of work as “applied ethics” with the aim of addressing what are essentially ethical problems through measurement and evaluation instruments.

Who belongs to the Social Ethics & Economy (SEE) group?

The creation of this group came about through a suggestion from Professor Moslares, Dean of the IQS School of Management, about four years ago, initially to address issues of poverty and inequality. Dr Octasiano Valerio, Dr Mihály Borsi, and I began work on this research line. Our first project was with the team led by University of Valencia professor Adela Cortina who coined the term “aporophobia.”

Over time, we have welcomed eight IQS researchers and professors including Llorenç Puig, Oriol Quintana, Cristina Montañola, Francesc Prior, Xavi Casanova, and two doctoral students. Then we created the Social Ethics & Economy (SEE) group, a new research group recognized by Ramon Llull University. This is a significant advance for us in a relatively short period of time.

What is the aim of your research? What are your goals?

We work on relevant social issues and ethical questions such as inequality, poverty, aporophobia (rejection of the poor), and sustainability, among others. The idea behind our group’s scope, both social and ethical at the same time, also enables us to collaborate with other IQS groups with a very open vision. This is the case with ASISTEMBE (Analytics, Simulation and Inquiry in STEM and Business Education), a project to analyse aporophobia and sentiments, and we look forward to working with other groups in neuromarketing areas in the future. We also have an important partnership with the University of Deusto.

Now we’re launching a series of “SEEminars,” based on the group’s name, that are open to the entire IQS research community. We believe that it’s essential not only to speak about economics, but also to apply ethical and social aspects to our daily activities. That’s our primary objective.

How would you define applied ethics?

We always have to question what we’re doing, what contributions we can make to society as a whole, and where we can add value.

We have great tools for data processing and econometrics, not to mention excellent professionals and specialists in these areas as well as ethics experts who work on specific issues. But we want to go further, to be able to make concrete measurements and contributions to our reality, and this is where this group and applied ethics issues arise.

We believe that the subject of aporophobia and understanding it is important for society. We often talk about race, gender, sexuality, and xenophobia, all of which are terms that are widely used to discuss discrimination. But we don’t talk about rejection when an individual is poor. We treat people differently when we know that they lack resources: at schools, in the business and labour world, and in society itself, denying their rights simply due to the fact of their humble status.

The official statistics in these areas are quite simple and essentially focus on people who are homeless and/or who suffer violence on the streets. But the concept of aporophobia is not limited just to this: it is broader and much more ingrained.

Our group is working hard in terms of measuring ethical concepts. Part of our work is based on a better understanding of inequality and poverty, creating measurement instruments, and monitoring indicators.

Can you describe these ethical measurement tools?

We are developing an implicit association test for aporophobia, funded by the IgnitEd network, based on previous developments of implicit association test methodologies. When we think badly of the poor, we develop neural pathways that lead us to negative associations with the poor and positive associations with the rich, something we should not do ethically. For example, we might think that a poor man is lazier than a rich man, an association that is erroneous.

No one can recognize whether or not they are aporophobic. Therefore, what the implicit association test does is measure the speed of our reactions and responses in tenths of a second, during which time we associate something good with a rich person and something bad with a poor person, for example, and vice versa. The difference in time that it takes us to make one association or another indicates our level of discrimination. Last June, we did a pilot trial of this test with IQS students to study their reaction to the questions.

Another example of the SEE group’s work is the project “The future of the future,” which we are able to do thanks to support from the IQS Business Foundation and the La Caixa Foundation. This project aims to study issues such as youth unemployment and their lack of ambition. We have received requests from people across various countries who are interested in coming to work on this project.

Within Aristos Campus Mundus, we worked alongside a group from the University of Deusto with expertise in Artificial Intelligence on another project to analyse the structures of aporophobia that exist, such as word associations, in network and digital media news. Once again, this is yet another instrument for measuring rejection.

What other lines of research do you conduct?

The field of aporophobia occupies around 60% of our research. But we carry out other lines of work within the group as well, such as the one addressing poverty, inequality, and education in China, financed by Dr Octasiano Valerio’s Marie Curie grant for the ChineQualJustice project. Along the same lines, we are working on convergence models led by Dr Mihály Borsi.

Another important line that we have now started working on with Dr Cristina Montañola is simulating aporophobia models. We’re also working on another project to start a research line with Dr Francesc Prior, a finance professor who has experience on education issues in Africa, to achieve an international development dimension in our research, which is also very interesting.

In the area of ethics, we’re currently working on a project led by Dr Oriol Quintana and Dr Llorenç Puig on the “Logic of Aporophobia” and opening a research line on sustainability.

The topics are all very interesting and we have created an important partnership network, both internally at IQS and externally (with the University of Deusto, the University of Valencia, and other URL schools such as ESADE and the Borja Institute of Bioethics).

What would you say is the greatest challenge you face in the group?

I remember the Vice-Rector of the URL’s welcome speech from when I started at the university four years ago as if it were yesterday. In particular, I recall him mentioning the stereotype that society had about how private universities really went “their own way” and that they didn’t more effectively contribute good to society. To me, this is our greatest challenge: we are an elite school with a privileged segment of the population representing our student body, and with them we should make a better and broader contribution to society’s needs.

I believe that our research, on measures of vulnerability or the fragility of social structures, can help to fulfil an objective that is very important for our university, which is supporting our social mission.

The aim is to make it clear that we’re producing a social contribution. To reach this end, various means are available to us such as this research group, or European projects and national plans could be as well, elements that would give us recognition and visibility.

If we consider sustainability and preserving the planet, what’s your approach through the lens of Pope Francis’s Laudato Si on care for our common home?

There are many researchers at IQS who work towards sustainability in the School of Engineering (environmental sustainability) as well as in the School of Management (financial and ethical sustainability). Our approach involves the ethics of sustainability, focusing on a point that is not readily visible to us: one thing is knowing the correct action we have to take, another thing is having the motivation to do it, which oftentimes has complex ethical components. A person can hear about the impacts of climate change, but if their personal situation is comfortable, do they care what happens to others or to themselves later on? Talking about such matters on an ethical basis is crucial.
I don’t think that environmental issues are the only sustainability issues. Social sustainability and its implications are also very important. To give an example, within the great change that industrial revolution 4.0 implies, with automation and changes that involve the use of technologies such as Machine Learning, Deep Learning, and so on, social forecasts tend to be ambiguous. In the US, a drastic decrease in traditional jobs as we know them today is expected, which will imply a potential social and employment crisis that could be the groundwork for a lack of social sustainability.

We need a broader vision guided towards social and ethical sustainability with transparency, responsibility, and no prejudice. A sustainable ecosystem, of course: energy uses, protecting the planet, and so forth. But also resource and economic structure management. Let’s not forget that there is vast inequality: a United Nations (UN) publication in 2006 stated that more than 1 billion people in the world lacked access to 20 litres of water per day.

It’s essential for us not to forget the ethical dimension of issues, that’s where we add value. We aren’t talking about climate change, we’re talking about climate injustice: a person in Florida has higher individual CO2 emissions in one year than a person in Afghanistan does over their entire life. That’s unbelievable!

In December 2020, the UN published a human development indicator adjusted for planetary pressures: in the last 30 years it marks the first time they have created this type of indicator with an environmental correction, which has generated pressure on the most developed countries. If the environment is a common good, the most privileged people are making use of this common good that is being denied to the most disadvantaged.

The vast majority of the social and environmental challenges that lie ahead have an ethical structure, as seen in “the tragedy of the commons.” In fact, this was the main topic of a course last summer on “The Economy of Francesco,” in which I gave a guest lecture called “Moral sentiments, social choice and the commons.” We can no longer look at economic issues as if they are not also deeply defined by ethical values and principles. That’s what we’re working on in our new research group.

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Flavio Comim, PhD

Head of SEE Group - Associate Professor
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RESEARCH GROUP

SEE

Social Economics and Ethics

Schools of Management & Engineering

Social Economics & Ethics Group

Advanced interdisciplinary research on the interface of social economy and ethics in three fields: reduction of inequality, sustainability, and human development.