Centre for Continuing Education

Philosophy Course: Philosophy of Money, Debt and Trust

Philosophy. Study the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence.

COVID-19 update: arrangement of our courses

We are now delivering courses online and in-person. Please check the delivery format of each class before enrolling.

Please note that course materials (excluding prescribed texts) are shared electronically within 48 hours of course commencement. Printing is not available.

This course examines the connection between money, debt and trust as the three foundations upon which human society is constructed. Join us as we explore the history of economic systems – as influenced by and also influencing – anthropology, human nature and religious social structures. For us to understand humanity, we must also understand how we secure and value things that we need and want.

We will start with David Graeber and his his ground-breaking book Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011), arguing that debt/credit systems are the foundation of most modern social groups, relying on ethically agreed principles. Money, however, can break free of trust systems and become an object without any allegiance to a social group.

In the latter part of this course we will contemporise these concepts in relation to the present economic situation. We will explore topics such as Modern Monetary Theory, Bitcoin, post COVID-19 debt and social trust.

We will also discuss 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 course aims to provide you an understanding of money, debt and trust as the foundations of human society.


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

  • provide an overview of the origins and complexities of the philosophy of economics
  • deconstruct the concepts of trust and debt
  • consider the mechanisms involved in how economics depends on concepts such as trust and debt
  • demonstrate the role economics plays in the foundations of society and our understanding of human nature
  • provide an understanding of the complex structure and the internal workings of exchange systems in making the political landscape
  • consider new forms of economic theories as they relate to our post COVID-19 world.



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 (2008), 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.


Who do you trust and why do you trust them? Trust may be 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.


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 his arguments against barter being the first economic system, which led to the invention of money. Graeber’s theory is that credit/debt systems arose 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 dehumanisation. We might also consider whether it still functions as a form of ‘slavery’.


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 has changed throughout history, and 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.


By 1776, Adam Smith was able to declare that the stability of the Bank of England (1694) was ‘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 in this area.

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 could lead to economic disaster. We will discuss some of these views as well as Bitcoin, post COVID-19 debt and social trust.

Intended audience

Anyone with a general interest in philosophy and the course themes.

Delivery style



Course notes are provided electronically.


  • Expert trainers
  • Central locations
  • Course materials – yours to keep
  • CCE Statement of Completion

Philosophy Course: Philosophy of Money, Debt and Trust

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