Grey Room

Introduction to François Ewald’s “The Values of Insurance”

Michael C. Behrent


When reading François Ewald’s “The Values of Insurance,” it is hard not to be struck by its extraordinary confidence. It is a triumphalist account of insurance’s history, in which the present—the text was first published in 1998—appears as an apotheosis. “Today,” Ewald writes, “insurance stands as a pillar of our economic and social order.” Though Ewald’s tale emphasizes the intellectual and technical achievements that made insurance possible, notably the discovery of probability and the actuarial sciences, a deeper source of his optimism is the moral victory that insurance, in his eyes, has achieved. Once upon a time, insurance was viewed with suspicion: it encouraged reckless conduct and cushioned the consequences of immoral behavior. Since then, Ewald argues, insurance has successfully occupied a higher moral plane: it promotes a morality of personal responsibility that also fulfills important obligations to society. The piece ends with a frank declaration of insurance’s moral superiority: “Far from being a society without values, a society founded on insurance is a … terribly virtuous society.” Whoever truly understands insurance shall see that it is good.