In this series of articles Marco Senatore offers an analysis of the current state of economics and the proposal to establish a market for moral, organizational and cultural values. This instrument would reconcile surplus extraction and individual autonomy and therefore economics and ethics, with significant social and political implications.
The COVID-19 outbreak has undoubtedly been the greatest global challenge of the last years. The responses provided so far have been criticized or praised for their level of timeliness. However, the measures adopted are either coercive or monetary. Administrative power and money, already identified by Jürgen Habermas as the two dominant media for the systemic integration of society, confirm this role in our approach to such problems – a role that relieves social actors from the demand of strongly communicative actions.
Beyond dealing with the effects of the outbreak, little has been said on the origin of COVID-19 – apart from some conspiracy theory about a man-made virus. Even if media decided to devote a relevant space to the analysis of how COVID-19 may be strictly linked with the loss of biodiversity – as argued by WWF Italy – that would hardly have a significant impact on the activities that are detrimental for the environment.
This reflects a bigger issue, namely the marginalization of moral and cultural values in the public sphere. We tend to focus only on emergencies that have a direct impact on our daily lives, and we give little attention to the structural unbalances in our societies – even though in countries like Italy there is a debate on the damage to public health imposed by austerity and the consequent cuts to basic services. The relation between economics and ethics, that Amartya Sen considered crucial many years before the last financial crisis and the current outbreak, seems to be largely ignored.
The destruction of environment, global pandemics, uncertainty in politics are dangerous realities. But they also give us the opportunity to go back to what social scientists and philosophers told us last century. I refer, for instance, to the consideration by Max Weber that we live in the iron cage of instrumental rationality, that provides us with tools for a myriad of subjective, often unknown aims; the fact that, as highlighted by Theodor Adorno, we live in a system that considers also the supposed criticism towards it as a product for culture industry; the statement by Hannah Arendt that the monopoly of labor in our contribution to society implies that we are enslaved in activities deprived of any comprehensive relation with the world; and the observation by sociologist Niklas Luhmann that societies have no centre, because politics does not provide any synthesis of the different requests coming from other spheres, as it only offers binding decisions that stabilize the expectations of social actors.
Without taking into account these fundamental challenges, that involve the cultural essence of our capitalist societies, economics will not use its full potential.
Now, who remains faithful to orthodox economics will be content with the idea that it is sufficient to describe the factual behavior of agents and indicate the optimal use of scarce resources, embracing concepts such as methodological individualism. And even the most recent developments in this school of thought have not prevented it from considering environmental problems as an incorrect allocation of resources due to externalities. As for behavioral economics, its criticism towards the homo oeconomicus model is based on the observation that individual decision-making is influenced by asymmetry in the assessment of losses and gains, social judgement and fairness, short-termism and imperfect self-control, magnitudes and nominal values, the particular presentation of choices, bounded rationality and norms, routines, heuristics.
This stream of theory does not rely on a wider notion of rationality, including for instance a comprehensive and autonomous relation with oneself and the world, beyond the possession of money and consumption of goods: the presumed departure from orthodoxy is rather linked with irrationality and imperfection in pursuing those things.
On the other hand, according to Immanuel Kant and John Rawls, ethics implies autonomy, and in particular obedience to an imperative that is independent from inner or external conditionings, or the choice of principles under a veil of ignorance, i.e. without taking into account one’s future position in society. This means that economics, in respecting and even fostering the expression of morality, should be concerned with the procedural requisite of autonomy, rather than with the particular content of actions. In this regard, values are those criteria for judging reality, that only under lack of autonomy can be the outcome of one’s particular interests.
Against this backdrop, a market for values would be a powerful instrument to reconcile economics and ethics, as well as individual and community, capitalism and democracy.
This market would offer an economic incentive to exchange, adopt and apply values that are independent from one’s immediate interests and role in society. Individuals, companies and local communities would exchange experiences that highlight the benefits of applying moral, organizational and cultural values such as solidarity, respect for environment, propensity to innovation, inclusivity towards minorities, interdisciplinarity, social justice. The experiences would be described in some documents exchangeable on the market and added to them by each holder after he has undertaken some other relevant activity.
The experiences would be certified on the basis of objective indicators decided by law. For instance, it would be possible for a local community to add one experience referred to social justice, after reducing the Gini index by a given percentage; or, for companies, by reducing wage dispersion. Individuals may add one experience after donating a given amount of money to charities.
As for environmentalism, companies may certify it after curbing CO2 emissions by a given percentage, or by a certain level of investments in negative emissions technologies. Local communities may do so by increasing green areas, and individuals by spending a certain amount of time volunteering in a green charity.
Initially the price of the experiences referred to each value would be determined taking into account the average cost paid by agents to reach the quantitative indicators defined by law. After the first experiences, the price would be determined by demand and supply. The price of each document would be proportional to the number of experiences listed in it. However, it would be possible to exchange each document only with documents referred to other values, or with goods and services, not with money. Therefore, the price of each document would be defined in terms of other documents or as a monetary equivalent usable to purchase goods and services.
The economic incentive to take part in these transactions would be the possibility to transfer a document at a price higher than purchase price –due to the addition of new experiences or an increase in the price of the experiences. In the next article I will deal with the role of a market for values in fostering individual autonomy and, consequently, a sense of community at the level of society – the two dimensions being strictly interlinked.
 Jürgen Habermas, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2014, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/habermas/#TheComAct
Report available at https://d24qi7hsckwe9l.cloudfront.net/downloads/pandemie_e_distruzione_degli_ecosistemi.pdf
 For a reference to Amartya Sen, see “Why economics needs ethical theory” by John Broome, University of Oxford, available at http://users.ox.ac.uk/~sfop0060/pdf/Why%20economics%20needs%20ethical%20theory.pdf
Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), Stanford University Press (2002).
Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Second ed.). University of Chicago Press, 1958.
Jürgen Habermas, Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns. Vol. 1: Handlungsrationalität und gesellschaftliche Rationalisierung. Vol. 2: Zur Kritik der funktionalistischen Vernunft. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp [English The Theory of Communicative Action, Boston and Cambridge 1987], 1981.
Daniel Kahneman, Jack L. Knetsch, & Richard H. Thaler, Anomalies: The endowment effect, loss aversion, and status quo bias. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 5(1), 193-206, 1991.
Daniel Kahneman, & Amos Tversky, The psychology of preference. Scientific American, 246, 160-173, 1982.
Immanuel Kant, Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, 1788 – English ed. Critique of Practical Reason.
Niklas Luhmann, The Differentiation of Society, Canadian Journal of Sociology 2 (1): 29-53,
Niklas Luhmann, Social Systems, English translation, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.
John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Belknapp Press, 1971.
Amartya Sen, On Ethics and Economics. Oxford and New York: Basil Blackwell; 1987.
Marco Senatore, Exchanging Autonomy. Inner Motivations As Resources for Tackling the Crises of Our Times, Xlibris 2014.
Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, T. Parsons (trans.), A. Giddens (intro), London: Routledge, 1905.