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Alcune riflessioni di Stefano Gorini

di - 16 Luglio 2010
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The Economics of Ethics and the Ethics of Economics. Values, Markets and the State, Cheltenham, UK, Northampton, USA, Edward Elgar, 2009, a cura di Geoffrey Brennan e Giuseppe Eusepi.

Producing exhausting answers to all questions, critiques, comments and further arguments raised in the discussion of the book would require the writing of a new book altogether. I set myself the more limited task of using some of those questions and comments as signposts for clarifying a number of central propositions contained in my chapter of the book.

  1. Adam Smith on the commercial society
  2. Benedetto Croce on the place of morality in economics
  3. ‘Don’t do to others what you don’t want that others do to you’. Is this the meaning of secular morality?
  4. ‘Should the seller of used cars tell customers the truth?’. What do we mean by profit in the commercial society?
  5. The immorality of millionaire bonuses in the wake of the current banking and financial crisis
  6. Jürgen Habermas on embryo manipulation and abortion

1. Adam Smith on the commercial society

‘…«This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean conditions…is…the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments». Those are not my words. They were written by Adam Smith, who regarded the likelihood that we would come to admire wealth and despise poverty, admire success and scorn failure, as the greatest risk facing us in the commercial society whose advent he predicted. It is now upon us…’ (quoted from Tony Judt, ‘What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy?’, The New York Review of Books, December 17, 2009)

‘…[Amartya Sen’s] hero is Adam Smith: not the Smith of free market legend, but the father of political economy who grasped the force of moral constraint and the value of sociability. To encapsulate the shift in attitude that Mr Sen has sought to bring about, ethics and economics are to be seen as Smith saw them: not two subjects, but one…’ (quoted from The Economist, August 8th 2009, review of Amartya Sen’s book The Idea of Justice)

In the first part of my chapter I’ve tried to provide a philosophically rigorous demonstration that economics and ethics are distinct and must not be confused, because they are concerned with different stages – or aspects – of human conscious behaviour: the pursuit of the useful (economics) and the pursuit of the good (ethics). From a strict philosophical point of view I’m therefore in disagreement with Judt, Sen, and Smith. However I use these quotations to add authority to one of my further claims, that though economics and ethics are conceptually distinct, they are also inextricably intertwined at the level of both individual behaviour and social developments. At the individual level, possessing morality means possessing the capacity to distinguish between the useful and the good, and to realize that the good lies above the useful. The useful is not a standard of morality. The individual’s pursuit of the useful must be logically and practically consistent with his standard of morality, that is, his concept of the good. If it is not, then it becomes immoral (or non-moral, which is the same). At the social level, the absence of a standard of morality governing the individual pursuit of the useful is ‘the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments’, and ‘the greatest risk facing us in the commercial society’ (to use, with a harmless touch of tautology, Smith’s words as reported above by Judt). In later sections of my chapter I continue along a logical path that further reinforces and specifies Smith’s judgement, and leads to one of my central claims: the special public role of the unique secular morality of individual freedom-independence in opposition not only to the non-morality of the useful, but also to all sorts of non-secular (religious or ideological) moralities.

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