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Alcune riflessioni di Stefano Gorini

di - 16 Luglio 2010
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2. Benedetto Croce on the place of morality in economics

‘…The ethicization of politics and economics by the Church is in the order of things of a theocratic system…But in the world of business it is a contradiction in terms. The marginalist revolution…with the concept of utility has…theorized the role of choice and interest in the economy, distinguishing the «practical» will, coinciding with the individual end, from the «moral» will, which transcends into a universal end. «The economic fact – writes Croce – is the practical activity of man, considered in itself, independently from any moral or immoral determination»…’ (quoted from Piero Ostellino, ‘Il senso di colpa del capitalismo’, Corriere della Sera, 8.2.2010)

This quotation from Croce is formally correct, but to those who don’t know his thinking in depth – because of plain ignorance, or philosophical prejudice, or intrinsic lack of understanding capacity – it conveys a perception of his position which is, at best, misleading and reductive. Though the secular State, the liberal social order, and the role of ethics in the economy are currently much debated – they are after all at the heart of the European socio-cultural model in the globalized world – Croce is not exactly today on the bestseller list. And yet he should be. Two other quotations from Croce offer a deeper insight into his views on the subject. One is the text on freedom and morality quoted in my chapter (p. 39), to which I refer the audience. The other is a quotation from his opposition speech (the only one) on May 23rd 1929 in the Senate debate on the ratification of the Accordi Lateranensi regulating the relationship of the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican with the Italian State, signed two months earlier by Mussolini and the Vatican Secretary of State (the quotation is in the classic work Chiesa e Stato in Italia negli ultimi cento anni, by Arturo Carlo Jemolo, 3rd revised edition, Torino, Einaudi 1971, p. 496). In his Senate speech Croce recalls the famous saying attributed to King Henry the IV of France: ‘…nearby or in front of the people who believe that Paris is well worth a mass, there are others for whom to attend or not attend a mass is worth infinitely more than Paris, because it is a matter of conscience. Woe to society, to human history, if men possessed by such different sentiment, had failed them in the past or should fail them now!’. I know of no stronger statement than this on (i) the primacy of morality over economics at the level of individual conscience and behaviour, with its necessary subjection-consistency of the ‘practical’ volition of interests (the useful) to the ‘moral’ volition of universal values (the good), and (ii) the fateful risks facing a commercial society (in fact any society) where this indispensable subjection-consistency is removed from individual conscience.

Croce was a great twentieth century master of secular ethics, and of the distinction-relationship between economics and ethics. But in the context of the critical rationalist world-view one important caveat is in order. It must be remembered (as I do in my chapter, p. 39) that Croce was an idealistic philosopher. Strictly his freedom-morality is the freedom-morality not of the ‘physical’ individual, but of the universal mind. In idealistic philosophy it is the mind (the spirit) that is real, not the physical world, because, in his own much criticized words, ‘physical facts have no reality’. If his insight of the identity between consciousness, freedom and morality is to survive in the world-view of critical rationalism, then we must translate it in the terms of the personal identity, consisting in the personal experience of consciousness and self-consciousness as a fact of the ‘physical’ world. His freedom-morality of the mind must be converted into the freedom-morality of the ‘physical’ individual, and his statement that ‘…since freedom coincides in every respect with morality and contains in itself every moral obligation, there is no task of such nature lying outside its reach…’ must be unambiguously related to the individual consciousness as the only ‘physical’ source of morality.

3. ‘Don’t do to others what you don’t want that others do to you’. Is this the meaning of secular morality?

It has been suggested in the discussion that the secular morality upheld by some people in opposition-alternative to the morality of religion is nothing else than the above quoted principle. In general, though not always, those who reduce secular morality to this principle hold also, implicitly, the value judgement that it is a purely practical principle, with no higher meaning than that of pretending to ensure a viable and peaceful social coexistence. As such it is morally inferior to the spiritual morality of religion – specifically of the Christian religion. I’ve demonstrated in my chapter of the book that this view of secular morality is flawed, and shall here strengthen my case by concentrating on three points.

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