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Alcune riflessioni di Stefano Gorini

di - 16 Luglio 2010
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4.‘Should the seller of used cars tell customers the truth?’. What do we mean by profit in commercial societies?

These questions, raised in the discussion, are unambiguously answered in my chapter, from which I quote: ‘Possessing social solidarity…has radical implications in terms of a person’s social responsibility and behaviour. First, an uncompromising commitment to personal honesty in one’s social life (absolute personal honesty is indeed the first and foremost expression of social generosity, but not surprisingly this is widely overlooked in non-secular cultures, which tend to identify generosity and altruism with ‘giving’ to others and ‘direct dedication’ to their needs). Second, a sense of the state, meaning the capacity of a person to perceive and value his public interests…shared in his political capacity with the other members of a political community, no less than his private interests’. The differences between the (unique) secular morality and the non-secular ones, in particular the religious ones, are many, and they run deep. One of them is especially relevant in the present context.

Under secular morality the greatest social virtue, that is, the foremost expression of social solidarity, is a commitment to absolute personal honesty in social relations. Non-secular cultures and moralities place no special emphasis on this commitment. In particular, under religious cultures and moralities the foremost expression of social solidarity is not absolute personal honesty in social relation, but the charity of giving, the identification of social altruism with one’s dedication to the needs of the others, and the individual pursuit of the so-called ‘common good’ (a concept which under the perspective of the secular world-view is at best meaningless, and at worst quite dangerous). The secular civic morality of personal honesty has unconditional implications in relation to the liberal commercial society. The seller of used cars must tell customers the truth. More generally, no profit, no economic benefit, can ever be pursued through market transactions based on the deception of other people, because such deception would be intrinsically incompatible with the social imperatives descending from secular morality. These are tall requirements, whose implementation in the commercial society may entail enormous personal and business costs, especially in the form of the renunciation to profits and benefits that could otherwise be secured. I quote from a report in the International Herald Tribune, February 18th 2008, on the German tax scandal of the time, involving the former highly successful and respected chief of Deutsche Post, Klaus Zumwinkel: ‘…Zumwinkel, who studied economics at Wharton Business School in Philadelphia in the 1970s, had set out his own ideas about a market economy in comments he made several years ago. «You cannot organize a market economy according to purely moral principles, it will go bankrupt», he said…«The international market knows no morality»…’. But – I claim – for those who grasp the full strength of the secular moral belief that ‘a mass is worth infinitely more than Paris’ there is no room for compromise.

The mind boggles at the thought of what would be the impact on the commercial society if the secular civic morality of absolute personal honesty were rooted, with its full ethical strength, in the individual conscience of man, and shared by a sufficiently large number of people. It is an easy guess that most of the evils, inequities and wastes of the commercial society would vanish. As a matter of fact, such secular morality is weak and shared by few. But this, far from relegating this reasoning into the fictional realm of a book of dreams, makes it all the more relevant in practice. Following Smith and Croce (and also Sen, but to a lesser extent) it must be recognized that morality and economics are inextricably entangled inside the human individual conscience, and that the moral sentiments (or the lack of them) inhabiting it are likely to affect the liberal commercial society more than any other single physical and social factor.

The difference between the secular civic morality of absolute personal honesty, and the religious morality of charity-giving and the individual pursuit of the so-called common good, is quite radical. It has been expressed in today’s discussion in a most effective way, which I want to recall. The former rests on an ex-ante approach to the systemic failures of an otherwise accepted liberal commercial society. The latter aims at repairing those failures ex post, under the untenable position of accepting the liberal commercial society in practice, while rejecting it in principle.

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