Constructing promissory futures to defer moral scrutiny: the dilemma of healthcare austerity

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How can actors use the future to politically navigate moral disputes today? This paper examines how projected futures are constructed and mobilised to suspend present-day moral dilemmas. Utilising the Economies of Worth and Barbara Adam’s sociology of time, we discursively analyse the moral dilemma between civic virtues and financial savings in UK healthcare austerity (2010–18). This reveals how the pro-austerity government avoided moral scrutiny of their posited solutions to apparently intractable moral dilemmas using future projections we term ‘promissory futures’. Promissory futures project desirable futures that ambiguously seem both secured enough to be reliable, and open enough to escape today’s moral dilemmas. Thus, government could use them to shift the temporal focus away from present-day moral criticism of how they were balancing austerity’s financial savings against civic virtues, and into a future where savings and civic virtues were compatible. However, promissory futures contain a contradiction: the future cannot be both already-secured and still-open. Thus critics could eventually deconstruct promissory futures, requiring government to repeatedly reconstruct them. There thus emerges less a definitive moral settle-ment and more a continual process of moral settl-ing whereby a series of promissory futures together forestall critique of underlying settlements, thus delaying moral struggles’ denouements.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 31 May 2024


  • Controversy
  • Economies of Worth
  • Future
  • Moral struggles
  • Normativity
  • Orders of worth
  • Settlements
  • Temporality
  • Values


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