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Alcune riflessioni di Stefano Gorini

di - 16 Luglio 2010
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5. The immorality of millionaire bonuses in the wake of the current banking and financial crisis

In the discussion, criticism has been raised against my radical distinction between moral and social justice, and my claim that issues of equity-equality in the interpersonal distribution of wealth are not as such issues of morality. It has been objected that the recent disproportionate compensations received by inept and/or greedy bankers and financial managers responsible for the bankruptcy of their own businesses, or of that of others, and of the ensuing misery of many people, should be, and are in fact widely, judged as immoral. I do not say that this judgement is wrong, but I suspect that it may be given a wrong meaning. Consider the logic underlying my claim that issues of commutative and distributive justice can have as such no moral content because they concern the distribution of well-being among people, that is, the ‘relative’ satisfaction of their interests, while issues of morality do not concern the satisfaction of interests, but the pursuit and protection of the absolute goodness in human life. I owe my understanding-appreciation of this fundamental point to Croce, but I found further support for it in Avishai Margalit. The proposition that the concept of justice does not possess a moral meaning of its own, because in so far as it does possess one this must be already contained in the (unique) moral concept of freedom, while in so far as it possesses a meaning not already contained in the moral concept of freedom then this cannot, for this very reason, be a moral one, this proposition – I say – has been beautifully argued in a classic article by Croce, quoted in my chapter (‘Revisione filosofica dei concetti di «libertà» e «giustizia»’, in La Critica, 1943, fascicolo V, pp. 276-84, reprinted in B.Croce-L.Einaudi, Liberismo e liberalismo, 2nd edition 1988, Milan-Naples, Riccardo Ricciardi Editore, pp. 85-97). Those who’ve personally known Sergio Steve may care to know that this remarkable article was pointed out to me by him, and I still remember the few dry words with which he rendered it to me.

One may subscribe to this proposition, but still consider it a fine philosophical point of little practical relevance. If so, he would be wrong. My claim in this context draws on Margalit and his ‘decent society’ (his choice of ‘decent’ to mean ‘morally just’ could not have been more unfortunate!). If we want to evaluate some objective social state or condition as morally unjust, then the test is whether it causes individuals to be – and feel – humiliated, that is, injured in their sentiment of self-respect (which I equate to the sentiment of their moral freedom-independence). Clearly, one such objective social condition would be there when people were forced to become beggars, or children to work day and night, in order to survive, or when someone’s identity were existentially determined by someone else (as in the case of embryo manipulation). But when there is no such objective social condition of individual humiliation, then the judgment of immorality can only be applied to the individual behaviour of individual people, not to establishing objective standards for deciding whether certain facts of wealth distribution are moral or immoral. If we did so we would place ourselves, perhaps unwillingly, onto the ideological course of giving to facts of the social world (in this case, wealth distribution) a moral status in their own right which they cannot possess, a path with potentially far-reaching political consequences. Would we be able to decide some range under which the compensations of unprofessional and/or irresponsible managers would be moral, and above which they would be immoral? We would not. Can we say that such compensations are, in themselves, the cause of someone’s humiliation? We can’t. The payment of disproportionate compensations to such people is a case of economic inequity, or, in a more general language, of (social) distributive injustice, not one of moral injustice. If we want to bring it under the category of morality, then we must leave the domain of objective social conditions of moral injustice, and move into that of the moral consistency of personal behaviour. In another part of this comment I’ve emphasized the secular civic moral imperative of absolute personal honesty. There is no doubt that the personal choices and actions of these reckless people, by which they caused the bankruptcy of their own business and/or of those of others, and then further managed to secure those compensations for themselves, and which were aimed not at creating wealth but at subtracting as much wealth as possible from others through their deception, have been not only unprofessional, but also as morally incompatible with that secular imperative as any immoral behaviour could ever be.

6. Jürgen Habermas on embryo manipulation and abortion

At the end of my chapter I report on a recent intervention by Habermas, in which he raises fundamental moral objections against a liberal regulation of the manipulation of the embryos’ genetic endowment for therapeutic purposes (positive eugenics). It has been observed in the discussion that if one subscribes to Habermas’ rejection of a therapeutic manipulation of embryos, he should even more strongly reject any type of abortion. I want to make clear that this proposition fully misses the point. Habermas rejects a liberal regulation of positive eugenics because he fears that it could eventually lead to an existentially imbalanced relationship between two otherwise comparable human beings: the manipulator of the embryo would act as a genetic designer, and the human being into which the embryo would subsequently develop would come to regard himself as genetically designed by the former. Cultural transmissions and educational processes unfold within a demand and supply medium, while genetic programmes do not allow the future human beings to participate in the exchange. The rejection of a liberal regulation of abortion is instead based on the non-secular dogma that an embryo has from the very first stage of his existence the same moral status as a fully developed human being. My claim is simple and clear. Rejecting a liberal regulation of positive eugenics on Habermas’ moral grounds is fully consistent with the secular world-view and morality (even though one may not want to carry the rejection as far as Habermas does). On the other hand, rejecting a liberal regulation of abortion on moral grounds may well be consistent with certain religious world-views, but it certainly is not consistent with the secular world-view and morality, nor is it implied by Habermas’ argument against positive eugenics.

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