Tag Archives: morality

Errors in Politics: An analysis of the concept of political error

What is a political error? How can we distinguish a political error from other kinds of error? Is there any specificity of the kind of errors that can be made in politics? More precisely, if emotions and affects play a key role in politics, one shall suspect that they may also play a role in political errors. Is it possible to define more clearly the nature of this role and, hence, the nature of political error? Is it possible to depict phenomenologically the way through which rational arguments interfere with emotional motives and, conversely, the way through which emotions shape rationality in politics? A better knowledge of what is specific in political errors might thus help to understand the relationships between reason and emotions, concepts of rationality and “structures of feelings”.

Although political errors are likely to be as old as politics itself, it is only in modern times – and I will suggest that it is only with Machiavelli – that the notion of political error clearly emerged on the background of other kinds of errors with which it has long been mingled. In an article entitled Morality and the social sciences, Albert Hirschman analysed the connection between morality and politics[1]. He shows that there is a durable tension between the two. He writes: “modern political science owes a great deal to Machiavelli’s shocking claim that ordinary notions of moral behaviour for individual may not be suitable as rules for conduct for states.” Such an analysis invites to go back to the distinction between the different kinds of errors that can be done by humans with the goal of identifying the nature of those that can be specifically called “political errors”.


Outline of the article

I will proceed as follow: I will first make a brief “history of error”, if one can say so. More precisely, I will try to identify a few steps that have been gone through in the thinking about what an error can be in general. I will show that one can distinguish four kinds of error. Namely the perceptual error, the conceptual error, the moral error and, finally, the political error. The distinction is not controversial for the three first groups. The fourth kind of errors, however, is a controversial issue. Indeed, when it comes to political error, some commentators claim that it does not has to be confused with moral errors; others claim right the opposite, thus that political errors are only a certain variety of moral error. This is showing, at least, that the notion of political error is still not well characterized.

In a second moment, and in order to shed some light on the question, I will assume that the distinction between moral and political error is relevant and I will thus try to define more precisely what a political error is as opposed to other varieties of errors and, more specifically, as opposed to moral errors. Thus, I will try to assess the nature of political errors. I will exhibit a few distinctive features of political errors showing that their difference with other kinds of errors is not of a speculative sort but that it actually corresponds to facts.

Finally, I will turn to the question of why assessing the nature of political error can be helpful if one wonder to find ways of modifying affects. Narrating stories is, I will show, a powerful way of intervening into political issues. This is where phenomenology comes about: it will show how narratives matter when it comes to political passions. I will thus try to analyse how narratives and, more generally, history, can change the shape of affects of political significance and, in some cases, avoid political errors.


A history of error

So let me with the history of the notion of error. I speak here of notion of error as it has been conceptualized which I distinguish from the fact of simply making an error, the latter being probably as old as humanity itself. Identifying and expressing what is at stake in the making of an error is something different than making an error. It supposes to conceptualize accurately what an error is.

As far back as the fourth century BC, Heraclitus of Ephesus, the Ionian Greek philosopher, would claim that “those who are awake have a world one and common, but those who are asleep each turn aside into their private world”[2]. He seems to mean that humans can live either in illusion or in truth. Here, thus, error is taken as an equivalent of illusion; an interpretation that is confirmed by other fragments from Heraclitus. Under every error, one should be able to identify a corresponding illusion. Illusion, in turn, is conceived in a way that is very similar to what happens when one perceive something and interpret as something that does not correspond to what is actually perceived. The square tower that is perceived as a round tower from a distance would later become the canonical example that encapsulates this notion of perceptual error. Perceptual errors, however, are not be confused with conceptual errors, as Plato would show, a few decades after Heraclitus.

Indeed, the distinction between perceptual and conceptual errors can be traced back at least to Plato. In the Socratic dialogue entitled Meno, Socrates famously show how a young slave can be led to correct by himself his own errors by being guided only by questions[3]. When the young slave says that a square the side of which has been doubled will also have its surface doubled, he makes an error that is clearly not of a perceptual kind. One can thus distinguish at least two kinds of errors which can be called perceptual errors and conceptual errors. If a distinction has to be made between these two kinds of errors, other kinds of errors might have to be recognized as well.

Aristotle, in Nicomachean ethics and in the Politics would precisely identify a third kind of error which deals specifically, he would explain, with the consequence of having incorrectly anticipated the future. Someone who, by his attitude, provoke consequences that he was not expecting is making an error which cannot be qualified as perceptual. It cannot be qualified as a conceptual error either. Rather, it is again a new sort of error that is to be found both in moral and in politics, Aristotle would claim.

When I do something that I later regret, I make a moral error. When a politician or group of people decide something that would later lead to a catastrophe (a war for instance), one can call it a “political error”. At a first sight, such an error does not have a structure that differ from the moral error since it results from the failure to foresee the consequences of our actions. And that will be what Aristotle would conclude. In moral error, as well as in political error, the failure lie in the fact that the future has been incorrectly foreseen. In other terms, from Aristotle on, moral error and political will be characterised as being of the same sort.

Aristotle would, for instance write, in the Politics, that “governing is being able to see what the future will be”[4]. Therefore, not being able to see correctly what the future will be is making a political error. By the same token, not being able to anticipate the consequence of an act would constitute the basis of the moral error as it is analysed in the Nicomachean ethics. Thus, political and moral errors are here analysed in the same way. In fact, the two categories are considered as only one category.

This link between moral and political errors will have an enduring life. It will be reaffirmed from century to century up to Machiavelli who would disentangle the two notions, probably because he is more concerned with practical thinking (which he famously call verità effettuale de la cosa) than by conceptual analysis. In so doing, he is introducing a distinction into the third category of errors which would thus have, at least for those who accept the notions provided by Machiavelli, to be now split into moral errors and political errors instead of being grouped into a single category.

Although the nature of the difference between the two remains obscure at this stage, it appears clearly that the two notions of moral and political should be distinguished when Machiavelli exhorts, for instance, the Prince to keep giving the impression that he is acting with equanimity while he shall, occasionally, have to act otherwise[5]. Equanimity is thus, for Machiavelli, a moral notion that should not be confused with the political usefulness of having the reputation of being so. Being unjust could be a moral mistake, but it can also, sometimes, help to avoid a political mistake.

It is not before the twentieth century that what is at stake under the distinction between moral and political error will begin to be clarified. Hence the fact that from its first publication in 1532, The Prince has been considered as a sulphurous reading. Even Leo Strauss, in its Thoughts on Machiavelli, first published in 1958, considers that reading Machiavelli exposes to dangerous drawbacks. He would write, for instance: “We do not hesitate to assert, as very many have asserted before us, and we shall later on try to prove, that Machiavelli’s teaching is immoral and irreligious”[6]. By this he means that, at the end of the Middle Ages, claiming that moral and politics can be disentangled is, in itself, a moral error. This might be the reason that make the issue so controversial. Let’s turn back, for a minute, to the arguments that lead Machiavelli to separate the two notions.

The Prince is composed as advices to Lorenzo de Medici the second and is supposed to help him stay in power. The advises provided by Machiavelli are mainly, if not exclusively, oriented through one goal which is to answer a question that could be summed up as follow: “how should the Prince, the sovereign, act in order to avoid that his former friends turn into enemies?” Therefore, turning friend into enemies is also what would characterize a political error according to Machiavelli. One discovers that one has made a political mistake when someone who used to be a friend turn to be an enemy. Let us take this as a first definition of the political error.

Such a definition does not apply to moral error since in moral error, one possibly become the enemy of oneself, but one does not necessarily turn someone against oneself. Thus, although, as Aristotle already noticed, both moral and political errors share the failure to foresee the future, they do it in quiet different ways. In political errors, what is at stake is the risk, for any action, to make friends become enemies while in moral error, what is at stake is, so to say, the risk to become its own enemy by having to judge oneself with poor favour. A political error has to deal with the anticipation of how others would react to our initiatives.

From there on, two schools of thought would appear. One of them will stick to the Aristotelian idea that a political error is a kind of moral error. The other one, following Machiavelli, will try to identify more clearly what is specific in a political error.


Assessing political errors

By turning to two examples, I will try to define the specificity of political error more clearly, thus assuming that this last opinion makes sense.

The first example will deal with a stunning episode of the recent French political live. The former French president François Hollande, who was then finishing what would turn to be his unique mandate, published a book, that in fact had been written by two journalists, which title was: A president shouldn’t say this[7]. Indeed, the book could not have a better title since it was, as it would be mentioned by many observers as well as by policy makers including a large number of members of its own party, a great political mistake. In this book, he was, quite honestly, explaining what he did all along its mandate. Honesty could hardly be depicted as a moral mistake. But it could easily generate political mistakes. That was what happened in this occasion. The mistake was so great that his own first minister decided to run for presidency and that, finally, he himself, although President, would decide even not to try to run for presidency because, he declared “XXX”. That will open an avenue for his former minister of economy, a person whose name was Emmanuel Macron (who, by the way, did validate, a few years earlier, a degree on political sciences with a memoir on Machiavelli).

So what was the political mistake that François Hollande did with this book? The answer has been anticipated by Machiavelli: he turned many of his former friends into enemies. One should note that the nature of politics entailed by this notion of error is not the same as the one proposed by Carl Schmitt who, as it is well known, focuses on the distinction between friends and enemies[8]. Here, what is at stake is not to distinguish friends from enemies but rather to anticipate what would make the former turn into the latter. It is a different sort of distinction that also opens different perspectives.

Since affects circulate in friends in a way different than they circulate in enemies, turning friends into enemies is the equivalent of turning supporting feelings into destroying feelings. As one can see on the example of François Hollande, the effect that he obtained with his book turned to be right the opposite to what he was looking for. It was supposed to enhance the number of its supporters; it turned out that it decreased this number.

Similar mechanisms operate, although at a much higher rate, in the burst of a revolution. This is what happened, and this is the second example, in Iran a few decades ago leading to the resignation, in 1979, of the King of Iran, the so-called Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Palavhi[9].

A few years before the revolution, the Shah of Iran decided to organize a sumptuous celebration of its regime. The goal was to deepens its power by appearing at the top of an unchallenged legitimacy. He obtained, however, the directly opposite effect: his opponents infuriate while his proponents did not agree with such magnificent and expensive celebrations. The result was that the Islamic revolution, that arose a few years later, would push him away with the help of the citizen of Iran. He had accumulated a vast number of haters by the ways that, he thought, would be appropriate to consolidate his power.

Thus, we can now define more clearly what a political error is: it is an error made on evaluating the consequences of what others think about what one do or say. If I do or say something, I have also to deal with what people think about it. A political error will arise if I fail to anticipate correctly that reaction. Although it can be helpful to provide criteria to distinguish what a political error can be, it is again more helpful to provide some clue that could help to prevent political mistakes.


Correcting political error

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in his Note on Machiavelli, published in Signes in 1960, did notice rightly that what exposes The Prince to error is that what he does or say is always seen in a plurality of ways[10]. Since the Prince is exposed to the judgment of a variety of persons, his action will also be judged in a variety of ways. Anticipating the reaction of a crowd must thus depend on a specific sense of evaluation which is not the same as the one that one can have in front of a single or of a few well identified persons. The politician is judged by a crowd of ways of seeing instead of by only a few. And each of them is affected differently by what he is doing. How to anticipate the variations that could arise in such a crowd?

To answer this question, Machiavelli uses essentially one a tool. This tool is history. He would provide advises to the Prince by looking back to what happened to others in various situation, as I just did with the example of François Hollande and of the Shah of Iran. This manner of reasoning is pointing to the nature not so much of history than of politics. Machiavelli was not an historian and did not pretend to be one. What he was doing with history is of a different kind.

Indeed, he is attempting to shape the affects of Lorenzo de Medici the second to help him avoiding some mistakes that would lead his reign to a catastrophe. That is the way through which, pragmatically, Machiavelli is seeing history. History, in other word, is, for him, a tool that is efficient to shape politically meaningful affects. And, as such, history can be useful to prevent political errors.

This is suggesting ways of using history to reshape the affects that are significant for politics which are love or, at least, respect and hate or, at least, disrespect. As I tried to show, there are ways to turn someone from respect to disrespect as with the case of Hollande) or, in the opposite way, from disrespect to respect. A political error can thus be analysed in terms of lack of historical culture. The historical culture, as Machiavelli means it, is a tool suitable to avoid political errors.

But is it possible to correct a political mistake with history and how does such a correction work? Most of the time, when one speaks about the use of history for political purposes, one has in mind the way through which one can learn things from the past by avoiding errors that were previously done.

For instance, in the financial crisis, in 2008, many commentators did suggest looking back at the Great Depression crisis of 1929 to avoid the mistakes that were then made. Policy makers claimed that they have “learned the lessons from the past”. Such examples can explain why people would act differently when similar circumstances arise. Of course, the circumstances are never exactly the same. Therefore, the historical relevance of a given reference will generally be subject to a critical evaluation. The American historian of economy Barry Eichengreen has shown convincingly, in a book on use and misuse of history, that although the lessons of 1929 have been taken into account, new errors were also made, presumably because the model of the 1929 crisis served too much as a basis for thinking about what should be decided[11]. This represent a conventional use of history in politics. It represents a part of what Machiavelli suggests when he turns to history. But only a part of it.

Machiavelli would indeed go one step farther in its investigation of the power of history and narration because he is not only concerned by right actions but also by affects. Could turning hatred into more pacific affects be achieved by history and by narration, as it should be expected if the analysis of Machiavelli turned out to be correct? I will give a single example showing how political affects, i.e. mainly hate and disrespect, can be modified through narration. A narration can therefore reshape affects and turn disrespect into respect.

To show this, I would like to narrate a story that took place in the XIXth century in the city of La Rochelle, on the Atlantic seaside in France. It shows the connections between narrating a story and triggering a change in the way affects are circulating. La Rochelle then harboured an important military place which was located right in the middle of the city. As it is usually the case for official buildings, one could find a national flag, thus a blue white and red flag, floating on the roof. A friend of the French historian Edgar Quinet who was living in the neighbourhood had an apartment the windows of which opened right in front of the flag in such a way that he was seeing the flag every time he was looking through its windows. He did not like this view because, he said, the flag has a military flavour he was disliking. Edgar Quinet told him the meaning of the flag, explaining that the French flag has its own history and meaning: his three colours, blue, white and red, were chosen to symbolized the people from Paris surrounding the king. Indeed, the colour of the king’s flag was the white, while the colour of the city of Paris is the blue and the red.

Once Edgar Quinet told the story to his friend, who was of Parisian origins, the feelings of the latter changed dramatically: “how nice, he said, I will love this flag now!” This is showing what narrating a story could do in political affects. Narrating a story is not something neutral which would only give information from the past. It is something that act in a much deeper fashion. It affects the way we are related to things. It should be noticed that it is not achieving this goal by preaching the goal it intends to reach but rather by exposing facts that are, in a sense, much more than simple facts. A story is made by the narration of facts, but it conveys affects (and effects) of political significance since it can turn hate into love.

This phenomenological analysis, provided by an historian, shows what can be achieved with the simple narration of an history. Narrating an history could, at a first sight, seem to be a very neutral process which deals with transmitting facts. But when one looks more phenomenologically at what is it at stake in narration and in the process of hearing a narration, one discovers that the it conveys the power to trigger new regimen of affects that can, in certain cases, make them useful to avoid political errors. Here, arguments and affects interact in such a way that they are tightly intertwined.



Since there are ways to shape political affects, it is still more important to distinguish political error from other kind of errors. Political affects can be efficiently changed by the narration of history, as I have tried to show. It means that beside history, there is another topic that deserve a close attention which the usage of history in politics. This should constitute a sub-discipline as such since it is an essential topic when it comes to political errors. In other terms, to investigate more thoroughly what a political error is, one should look carefully at how history is working when one listen to it.



Aristotle, The Politics, tr. en. T. Sinclair, Penguin classics, London, 1981.

Heraclitus of Ephesus, Fragments, Penguin classics, London, 2003.

Hirschman, Albert, Morality and the social sciences : a durable tension, in The essential Hirschman, ed. J. Adelman, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2013.

Hollande, François, Un président ne devrait pas dire ça…, avec G. Davet and F. Lhomme, Stock, Paris, 2016.

Machiavelli, Niccolò, The Prince, tr. en. T. Parks, Penguin classics, London, 2014.

Milani, Mohsen, The Making Of Iran’s Islamic Revolution: From Monarchy To Islamic Republic, Second Edition, Routledge, London, 2018.

Plato, The collected dialogues of Plato including letters, ed. E. Hamilton and H. Cairns, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1982.

Schmitt, Carl, The concept of the political, tr. en. by G. Schwab, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2007.

Strauss, Leo, Thoughts on Machiavelli, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2014.



[1] Albert Hirschman, Morality and the social sciences: a durable tension in The essential Hirschman, ed. J. Adelman, Princeton University Press, 2013.

[2] Heraclitus of Ephesus, Fragments, fragment B89, Penguin classics, London, 2003.

[3] Plato, Meno, in The collected dialogues of Plato including letters, ed. E. Hamilton and H. Cairns, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1982.

[4] Aristotle, The Politics, tr. en. T. Sinclair, Penguin classics, London, 1981.

[5] Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, tr. en. T. Parks, Penguin classics, London, 2014.

[6] Leo Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2014.

[7] François Hollande, Un président ne devrait pas dire ça…, avec G. Davet and F. Lhomme, Stock, Paris, 2016.

[8] Carl Schmitt, The concept of the political, tr. en. by G. Schwab, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2007.

[9] Mohsen Milani, The Making Of Iran’s Islamic Revolution: From Monarchy To Islamic Republic, Second Edition, Routledge, London, 2018.

[10] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Signes, Gallimard, Paris, 1960.

[11] Barry Eichengreen, Hall of Mirrors: The Great Depression, the Great Recession, and the Uses-and Misuses-of History, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2014.

The Paradigmatic Struggle for Legitimacy of the Danish Welfare State regarding the Provision of Welfare Services – Taking care of vulnerable children and youths as a core problem



1. The present challenges to the modern welfare state

Today, the welfare state in Denmark is a good example of the legitimate struggle of the modern welfare state. The Danish welfare state, like most other welfare states, is confronted with the following challenges in particular:


  • The demand for public welfare services and growth stimulus cannot be met due to the present public debts and fiscal crisis.
  • The neoliberal critique of the welfare state for being too big and too inefficient.
  • Globalization which weakens the national welfare state.  
  • Migration which threatens national labor markets.


These challenges confront the modern welfare state with its ideology of ‘doing good’ for its citizens. These challenges as a result create a gap between the welfare state´s ideology of ‘doing good’ for its citizens and ‘doing good’ in practice in real life. In Denmark, this gap constitutes a paradigmatic case of the struggle of modern welfare states which can be defined as a struggle to close the gap by replacing the old deployed paradigm with a new one.   


The Danish welfare state´s care program for vulnerable children and youths is used to point out and define the core problems, which together create the gap between the ideology of the welfare state´s ‘doing good’ for its citizens and ‘doing good’ in practical terms. Furthermore, the case illustrates why a paradigm, which can close the gap, cannot be evolved from the neoliberal vision of less state and/or more market/charity. Finally, it is shown why a hybrid mix of public management paradigms is the most appropriate strategy to close the gap.


It is important to emphasize that the Danish state´s care program for vulnerable children and youths does not illustrate the welfare state´s crisis of legitimacy in general caused by the four challenges listed above. The ambition in this article is only to show the core problems causing a gap between the ideology of the state and its practice regarding the provision of welfare services to a core group of citizens which is essential for the modern welfare state´s legitimacy. Besides, our case is considered a critical one (Flyvbjerg, 2006, pp. 229-230). That is, the conclusions in our case can – with caution – be generalized to other sectors in the modern welfare state, which provide citizens with public welfare services. 


2. The case

Our case is presented in the next three subsections. In subsection 2.1 we show why and how the Danish welfare state acquires necessary and profound legitimacy by taking care of vulnerable children and youths. The paradigm of the provision of the services to vulnerable children and youths is presented and discussed in section 2.2. Some major consequences of this paradigm are shown in section 2.3. In addition, it is shown how the consequences have opened up for neoliberal criticism of the dominant paradigm of the provision of the services.


2.1. Vulnerable children and youths and the legitimacy of the welfare state

The principal ideology of the Danish welfare state is that it is obliged to take care of citizens who are sick, disabled and vulnerable (for example, children, youths, single mothers, unemployed and indigent citizens) (Mogensen, 2010; Bonfils, 2010). The sicker and more disabled and vulnerable citizens are, the more public welfare services should be offered to and provided for its citizens, with the aim to (re)integrate them truly into society and its norms and institutions. The most vulnerable citizens are almost by definition children and youths who are abused or at risk of being abused by their parents or other adults, the church and care taking institutions. In other words: vulnerable children and youths constitute a key group for the welfare state and its legitimacy. This is why the welfare state´s care program for vulnerable children and youths is used here as case.


2.1.1. The paradigm of the provision of the services to vulnerable children and youths  

Vulnerable children and youths are provided with services from a subsector within the Danish welfare state called the Sector for Specialized Social Problems (SSSP) [Det Specialiserede Socialområde].


Resources – tax money – have generously been allocated to the SSSP for decades. The growth rate of public spending on services within the SSSP has historically exceeded both the growth rate of the GNP and that of the public sector’s general spending (Bengtsson, 2011). Besides, public spending on services continued to increase up until 2010, or after the emergence of the economic recession. Finally, public spending within SSSP has not been cut during the current economic crisis in contrast to almost all other public sectors. However, present austerity measures mean that the growth rate is now, generally speaking, zero (Gregersen, 2013). This indicates that vulnerable children and youths constitute a key group for the Danish welfare state.


The paradigm of the provision of such services to vulnerable children and youths also indicates that these citizens constitute a key group for and in the welfare state. Since a ‘wave’ of decentralization in the 1970s within the SSSP, the provision of services has been increasingly handed over to street-level bureaucrats, in efforts to ensure that services of the highest quality are seen professionally  (Pedersen & Hammer, 2012). Consequently, the norm was developed that street-level bureaucrats assess and judge the single case in accordance with their professions´ standards (norms, traditions, values and ethics) as defined, described and analyzed by Lipsky (Lipsky, 1980; 2010).


This approach to the provision of the services was institutionalized in 1998 by the Service Law [Serviceloven] which regulates the provision of the services to vulnerable children and youths. The law prescribes that the services offered and provided for these children and youths had to be based on an assessment and a judgment of the single case carried out by street-level bureaucrats. Besides, the assessment and the judgment had to be done by dialogue with the individual child, youth and family (if possible), because it is assumed that the services will have the highest positive impact factor if they are co-designed and co-tailored with children, youths and parents (Kirkebæk, 2010).


The main reason behind the approach mentioned to the provision of these services is the perception that the problems and needs of children and youths are both complex and individual. Therefore, the problems cannot be solved and the needs not met by the well-defined standardized services associated with statutory rights within a universalistic welfare state like the Danish one. The services have to be designed, produced and delivered individually by street-level bureaucrats in co-operation with the individual child, youth and family. 


In particular, the core of the paradigm of street-level bureaucrats is defined as the combination of de-centralized control with the provision of communal, or common, and individualized services. In other words: the more control of service provision in the hands of street-level bureaucrats, the more discretion and autonomy characterize their work-field. In addition, the more services designed, produced and delivered individually on the basis of the bureaucrats´ professions´ standards in co-operation with the individual child, youth and family, the stronger the position of the paradigm of the street-level bureaucrat is. As a result, the paradigm of street-level bureaucrats has been very dominant in the provision of services to vulnerable children and youths in Denmark since the 70´s.


2.2. Some consequences of the paradigm of the street-level bureaucrats

The dominant position of the paradigm of street-level bureaucrats in the provision of services to vulnerable children and youths has some major consequences.


First, vulnerable children and youths have no statutory rights to services if they live up to certain objective criteria in the Danish universalistic welfare state. Consequently, children and youths, by and large, are dependent on the street-level bureaucrats´ discretion in their assessments and judgment concerning the individual case. However, according to the Service Law, street-level bureaucrats must provide children and youths with what they themselves consider to be the best possible services. These are typically defined as services which truly can (re)integrate vulnerable children and youths into society, its institutions and norms.


Second, because street-level bureaucrats are only expected to pay little attention to the costs of these services provided up until 2012, soft budget constraint (Kornai, 1980; Kornai, Maskin & Roland, 2003) became the norm regarding public spending on services before the current economic crisis (Gregersen, 2013). Furthermore, because the services have to be provided, produced and delivered individually, like in modern service production in private service firms, the costs of the services is not easy to predict and control. In fact, the costs of the services, and accordingly the public spending on these, have been considered unmanageable (Bonfils & Berger, 2010; Svanholdt, 2013). As a result of this, huge budget deficits emerged in the municipalities in 2007, 2008 and 2009 regarding the provision of services. The municipalities in Denmark have full responsibility for the provision, production, delivery and financing of services for vulnerable children and youths. Furthermore, the church and charities have historically only played a marginal role in taking care of vulnerable children and youths. No intentions to change this have appeared in the general public for decades.


Third, the services provided within the SSSP are, by and large, not evidence based (Vickery, 2010). A comprehensive study of institutions for replacement of children and youths (Hansen, 2009) showed clearly that street-level bureaucrats, authorized by the welfare state to design, produce and deliver the services directly to children and youths, had developed an extreme individualistic approach to the assessment and judgment of the problems and needs of the single child and youth. Street-level bureaucrats had, and still have, a culture and tradition in which a strong institutionalized norm were, and still are, that methods are optional. In practice, this norm resulted in a situation where the individual street-level bureaucrat or a group of street-level bureaucrats at a certain institution had developed its own method how to assess and judge individual cases and how to produce and deliver the best possible services. The study showed that the individual street-level bureaucrat/group of street-level bureaucrats developed her/his/its own rules of thumb (Hansen, 2009). Consequently, the provided services were not and are still not evidence based.


Fourth. Let us present an example: For many decades a little more than one percent of all children and youths in Denmark – approximately 12.000 children and youths in 2012  – has not lived with their parents, but rather with foster families or institutions (Andersen, 2010, p.182; Bengtsson, 2011, p. 28). The intention of bringing children and youths to foster parents or institutions has, of course, been to give children and youths better future lives when compared to the expected future lives they would have had they remained with their parents. It is, however, impossible to conclude scientifically that children and youths in general have had better lives due to foster families and institutions (Andersen et al., 2010; Egelund et al., 2009; Hansen, 2009; Olsen et al., 2011). To put it differently: the population of replaced children and youths has been rather stable for decades; the causes of replacement have been stable for decades; and, the offered and provided services (foster families and institutions) for children and youths have been stable. In spite of this, the effects of the services have not been recorded scientifically. Furthermore, significantly positive effects of the services cannot be found in available statistics (Andersen, 2010). Consequently, the effects of the services for the children and youth are widely unknown at present (Pedersen & Hammer, 2012).


However, we do know that 40 percent of the replaced children and youths have experienced ‘breakdowns’ in their relocation, which means that children and youths have had to move on to other foster families and/or institutions (Egelund et al., 2010, pp. 12-13). This has, of course, to be considered as a negative side-effect of the policy of replacement.


Fifth, maladministration of the provision of the services to vulnerable children and youths and of the provided services has been disclosed in recent years. An example is several recent Danish cases of very severe abuse of children and youths in foster families and institutions. A document study (1) has been carried out concerning a variety of these cases covered by the media. As a response to these cases, the Ministry of Social Affairs appointed a Task Force to complete thorough investigation of the quality of case work in the affected local authorities. The Task Force concluded that the legal requirements in Danish Service Law had been insufficiently followed by the affected local authorities. This conclusion further severely threatened the legitimacy of the local authorities, in addition to the professionals (the street-level bureaucrats). An outcome of this was the further bureaucratization of social work regarding children and youths in Denmark. An example was the implementation of reform initiatives, amongst others a reform of the supervision of social care institutions named ‘Tilsynsreformen’ centralizing the supervision authority, which had previously been the responsibility of the individual local authorities, in five large units. At the level of the local authorities, further supervision steps were generally implemented, in order to regain legitimacy and secure the quality of casework. Furthermore, in some of the cases, dismissals at the management levels were carried out (Nielsena, 2014).


A similar tendency seems to be noticeable in England where several severe cases of child abuse have previously resulted in processes of ‘scape-goating’ and thus dismissals at the managerial level in public welfare institutions along with professionals being heavily criticized. One of the cases that resulted in extensive government initiatives was the highly debated case of “Viktoria Climbié who died when she was eight years old in 2000 due to extreme abuse. Her great aunt was later convicted. Another example was the ‘Baby P’- case which concerned a 17-month-old toddler, Peter Connelly, who died in 2007. ‘Baby P’ had been severely injured, tormented and neglected by his mother, her partner and his brother who were all later convicted. A thorough report revealed that the abuse had continued, despite more than 60 visits by police, social workers, and doctors carried out in the last eight months of Peter’s life. The cases of both Baby P and Climbié did, as was the case in regards to the Danish examples, strongly challenge the legitimacy of the services provided by the local authorities, and thus put pressure upon the professionals engaged in child protection services (Spray & Jowett, 2012).


The Danish cases have revealed a lack of control of foster families, public institutions and especially private institutions authorized to ‘treat’ the children and youths. Maladministration of information about abuses of children and youths in ‘ordinary’ families has also been revealed. The previously mentioned Task Force appointed by the Ministry of Social Affairs concluded that appropriate actions had not been taken in (many) cases where knowledge about the abuse of children and youths was evident. Furthermore, investigations into the administration of the provision of services to vulnerable children, youths and their parents have shown that the administration in some major cases has been unacceptable and insufficient (The Ministry of Social Affairs, 2012).


To summarize:

  • The ministerial investigations into the local authorities’ handling of the previously mentioned Danish cases of abuse seem to have been predominantly focused on the level of observance to existing law.
  • Efforts to re-establish the legitimacy and quality of social work as a response to the aforementioned cases seem to lead to further bureaucratization of social work, including reform initiatives and further standardization of case work.
  • It appears that a gap exists between the intention of ‘doing good’ and ‘doing good’ in practice, which is proved scientifically regarding the replacement of children and youth in Denmark.


Because many of the cases of abuses and maladministration have been mentioned in the mass media, the general public has become very much aware of the problems and the lack of documented positive effects of the provided services. Public awareness of the problems has led to a legitimacy crisis of the administration, provision, production and delivery of services for vulnerable children and youths. This legitimacy crisis has been reinforced by the fact that the replacement of the children and youths is expensive – especially at institutions. The price of one replacement is often 10,000 Euros or more per month. Therefore, a strong demand to document the effects of the services scientifically and to spend the resources – the tax money – cost-effectively has emerged within the last few years. However, this demand is strongly challenged, due to the prevailing culture and tradition of freedom of method and lack of recorded documentation of the effects of the services. A case study concerning a selected high priority child-case in a Danish local authority concluded that four ‘breakdowns’ in the placement of the child at institutions had taken place caused by the child running away. The study showed that the breakdowns and lack of significant improvement in the child’s well-being did not fundamentally challenge the professional logic of replacement of the child as being the optimal solution, despite no apparent positive effects over a period of several years. The study also showed that an individualistic approach to case work and an objection to efforts of standardizations seem to characterize the social workers (Nielsenb, 2014).


To conclude:

The dominant position of the paradigm of street-level bureaucrats in the provision of services to vulnerable children and youths has caused two major problems:


1. The effects of the services are not documented scientifically.

2. In many cases the public administration no longer follows the ideals of a Weberian bureaucracy.


Due to this, the welfare state has to struggle for the legitimacy of the provision of services for vulnerable children and youths. To better understand this struggle, the main actors regarding and principal arguments behind the replacement of vulnerable children and youths, in addition to the ethics of the replacements, will be presented and analyzed in the next section. 



3. Main actors and principal arguments

The replacement of children and youths concerns the right of the welfare state to intervene into the citizens´ right to autonomy and self-determination, dignity, integrity and vulnerability (Rendtorff, 1999; 2011). Consequently, three types of interests are confronted: the rights and interests of the parents, the rights and lives of the children and youths, and the interest of society and its responsibility for its citizens.


The replacement of children and youths can be defined as a matter of taking away the children and youths from the family. Already in this context, the state puts pressure on the parents and the family in order to decide the future of the children and youths in society. The replacement of a child or a youth outside the family is legitimized by reference to the future life of the child or the youth. The replacement is considered the least damaging solution to this social problem. That is, the power monopoly of the state is used to promote the interests of the child or the youth in an open confrontation with the wrongdoing of the biological parents.


Replacement typically includes the most vulnerable and isolated groups of society: people with low income and high un-employment; single mothers; and, people with severe social problems, including problems of alcohol and drug addiction. The risk of replacement of children and youths outside the family is high when it comes to single mothers, immigrant families, people suffering from mental illness, families with alcohol problems, drug abuse and medical problems, violence, sexual harassment and crime within the family. That is, the group of citizens which the welfare state is supposed really to help. However, this seems not to have been the case thinking of how stable the population of replaced children and youths has been for decades, as shown in section 2.


It is, of course, the street-level social workers and street-level bureaucrats in the daily administration who, on behalf of the welfare state and authorized by the same welfare state, provide the analyses and arguments which lead to replacement of children and youths outside their families. In other words, the type of street-level bureaucrats whom Lipsky defines as the ultimate street-level bureaucrats (Lipsky, 2010, p. 233). However, although the service ‘replacement’ has been provided for decades by the intention of ‘doing good’, it has not been proved scientifically that this is actually the case, as shown in section 2. How is this possible? An answer to this question can be found in the ethics of the replacement.


The ethics of the replacement of children and youths is based on the value of the right of the person – the child and youth – to self-development. The child or youth is considered a citizen who is different from their parents with his/her own right to develop and become himself/herself. Therefore, the main aim of replacement is this development of the human person and his/her right to have a good and happy childhood.


However, this ideology and policy of replacement of children and youths sometimes overshadows the dark sides of replacement. Because many of the replaced children and youth never join their biological family again and because no major positive effects of replacement have been recorded scientifically, these two questions become important: Is replacement rational? And to which degree is it acceptable that street-level bureaucrats control families by deciding over children, youths and parents?


The ideology and policy of replacement can be perceived as rational, because replacement prevents children and youths from having a negative confrontation with, and being influenced by, the family and biological parents. However, by using the concept of biopower from the French philosopher Michel Foucault (Foucault, 1976), it can be said that what happens is that the welfare state forces its biopower on its citizens – families – by using the street-level bureaucrats as its agents. The institutional structures of the welfare state, including the children’s and youths´ homes, schools and institutions contribute to the disciplinary power of the state.  Here, it can been observed how the institutions through the street-level bureaucrats as state agents decide over the bodies and lives of the citizens – the families – in order to ensure that they can be an integrated part of the welfare state´s institutions.


Furthermore, biopower is associated with the moral blindness and banality of evil of the public welfare institutions conducted by the street-level bureaucrats, administrators and managers (Foucault, 1976). The street-level bureaucrats want, generally speaking, to replace as many children and youths as possible because they, thereby, both contribute to do the work as agents of the welfare state and what they themselves consider as best for the children and youths. However, this is a problem because the street-level bureaucrats often forget that they, as employees in the welfare state´s institutions, are directly placed in a political space. As a consequence, it might provide the children and youths with services that express totalitarian power and technological interventions in the lives of both children, youth and parents, with the aim of making them fit according to the welfare state´s ideology, policies and institutions (Ewald, 1986). It is in this context that the risk exists that the street-level bureaucrats, who replace children and youths, are captured by moral blindness: they are not aware that they serve the biopower of the welfare state, because they are captured by the ideology and policy of ‘doing good’ for the children and youths by replacing them. In other words: the risk exists that the street-level bureaucrats, with support from the administrators and the managers in the welfare state, impose an unacceptable amount of state power on children, youth and parents. 


In this context it is relevant to refer to the German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt who developed the concept of ‘The Banality of Evil’ (Arendt, 1963). Here one is not really aware that one commits an evil act because evil is a thoughtless action that is determined by the structures and contexts that are a part of daily life and daily operations in the welfare state. There is a risk that evil becomes a part of background mentality in the institutions involved in the replacement of children and youths. That is, a risk exists that the street-level bureaucrats involved in the replacement of children and youths, in the name of ‘doing good’ and with the heartfelt intention of ‘doing good’, actually do evil meaning that they do no good for or even in some cases harm the children and youths.


Can this concept of moral blindness leading to banal evil be defined in more details and be related to the replacement of children in Denmark? Efforts to answer this question are made in the next section. 




4. Moral blindness and banal evil in Denmark?

The essential content of the concept of moral blindness leading to banal evil can be said to include the 10 dimensions listed below (Rendtorff, 2012). To which degree these 10 dimensions are integrated into the paradigm of street-level bureaucrats, and thereby into the provision of the services to vulnerable children and youth in Denmark, are stated for each dimension. The statements are based on the description, in section 2, of the dominant position of the paradigm of the street-level bureaucrats in the provision of the services to vulnerable children and youths.


4.1. 10 dimensions of moral blindness leading to banal evil

The 10 dimensions of moral blindness leading to banal evil are the following:


1. Moral blindness implies that the street-level bureaucrats have no capacity of moral thinking. This is not the case. The essence of the paradigm of the street-level bureaucrats is that the single bureaucrat must help vulnerable children and youths in the best way possible.


2. The street-level bureaucrats only follow orders and justify this by reference to the technical-goal-rationality of the organization. This is not the case. The street-level bureaucrats do not represent a technical-goal-rationality. Instead they – in principle – represent a fresh judgment and assessment in each individual case based on the different professions´ norms as prescribed in the Service Law.


3. In many cases the moral blindness strangely enough is due to role identification. This includes collaboration, i.e. children, youths and parents cooperate with the street-level bureaucrats regarding replacement and by doing this (more or less) are content with the ideology and policy of the replacement. Besides, children, youths and parents follow the rationality of the system by identifying with their roles as co-operative clients. This is motivated by obedience or efforts to minimize the (bio) power imposed by the street-level bureaucrats, as Lipsky (Lipsky, 2010, p.16) also identified. This dimension in the moral blindness is, to some degree, integrated into the paradigm of street-level bureaucrats. Besides, the integration is rather sophisticated. The street-level bureaucrats´ ambitions are, as part of the paradigm, to create an environment of trust between the client and the individual street-level bureaucrats to facilitate co-design and co-production and delivery of the services to the children, youths and parents.


4. Moral blindness contains dehumanization, i.e. the families feel guilt and the children and youths are treated as mere objects. They are not considered as human beings, but as elements, things or functions of the system. This dimension is definitely not an element in the paradigm of the street-level bureaucrats.


5. Moral blindness relies on total obedience by the street-level bureaucrats to the system. The Service Law [Serviceloven] and other relevant laws, which regulate the provision of the services to vulnerable children and youths, make this impossible. The law(s) simply prescribe(s) that street-level bureaucrats should have an extensive discretion and autonomy which makes total obedience impossible.


6. Each member of the organization is accomplishing a specific work function with role identification and a specific task but he or she has no general overview of the organizational system. This dimension might be an integrated part of the paradigm of the street-level bureaucracy. Due to a strong division of labor among managers, administrators and street-level bureaucrats both in the administration and in the daily operations, administrators, managers and street-level bureaucrats might in some casestoo little overview of the organizational system leading to the maladministration of the provision of services and the provided services shown in section 2.


7. Top-administrators and managers may act irrationally beyond common human understanding of morality in order to serve the instrumental rationality of the organizational system. Even if this should be the case, it would have no or only little impact on the provision of the services to the children and youths due to the street-level bureaucrats’ discretion and autonomy.


8. Street-level bureaucrats are pressured to become increasingly irrational and arbitrarily role implementing. Again, this dimension is not an integrated part of the paradigm of the street-level bureaucrats and will, therefore, be rejected.


9. Obedience, role identification and task commitment remain the central and ultimate virtue of the commitment of members of the organization to the organizational system. As described previously, this dimension is impossible to integrate into the paradigm of the street-level bureaucrats.


    10. Each member of the organizational system commits themselves to the values of the organizational goal of the system without questioning the legitimacy of the system as a whole. It can be said that this dimension has, to a high degree, been integrated into the paradigm of the street-level bureaucrats. Because of the paradigm´s dominant position in the provision of the services to vulnerable children and youths, no open discussions of the values and ethics of the provision of the services including replacement were raised for decades. Besides, because the paradigm of the street-level bureaucrats is not based on scientific accountability for the provided services, it cannot be ruled out that some banal evil to vulnerable children and youths and their parents has happened in Denmark over a very long period of time.


To conclude:

The paradigm of the street-level bureaucrats, and thereby the paradigm of the provision of services to citizens, might have caused banal evil, because of moral blindness due to: 1) no scientific documentation/accountability of the effects of the provided services to vulnerable children and youth; and, 2) organisations which are too complex. The question becomes: How to eliminate or minimize these negative side effects of the paradigm? Before answering this question in section 5, we shall take a step deeper into the analysis of moral blindness leading to evil.



4.2. Unmasking administrative evil!

In the book Unmasking Administrative Evil (third edition 2009), Guy B. Adams and Daniel L. Balafour give some indications of a theory of evil and of the concept of moral blindness in public administration. Adams and Balafour propose the concept of administrative evil as an interpretation of Hannah Arendt’s concept of moral blindness.


According to Adams and Balafour, organizational evil may become even worse than moral blindness because it implies a moral inversion where something evil suddenly is defined as a good (Adams & Balafour, 2009, p. 4). The starting point for the argument is: the modern organizations are complex to such a degree that it is impossible for street-level bureaucrats, administrators and managers to have an overview. Complex organization may result in a situation where the street-level bureaucrats, administrators and managers cannot see the consequences of particular actions in the overall organizational processes. This might lead to results far from those intended. Therefore, a technological bureaucracy may be unforeseen evil, meaning actions with the intention of ‘doing good’ might result in doing evil.


Adams and Balafour argue that the main reason for the risk of doing unforeseen evil in administration is the scientific analytic mindset of the technical-rational approach to social and political problems. This type of approach has a built-in risk of creating a kind of administrative evil which is masked and, therefore, creates blindness which results in public servants such as street-level bureaucrats, administrators and managers who suddenly are doing evil although they do not intend to. They are, so to say, engaged in activities that lead to evil, but they are morally blind because they do not see that they contribute to the inversion of the moral situation and thereby create blindness.


Sometimes even ethical codes and other rules of conduct may be inefficient to prevent this because the technological analytical mindset is so powerful that the street-level bureaucrats, administrators and managers do not see that they participate in processes that lead to doing harm. Also compartmentalization of knowledge and creation of too narrow identities of street-level bureaucrats contribute to the masking of evil (Adams & Balafour, 2009, p. 30). It is this moral inversion Adams and Balafour call the ‘Mask of Evil’. This is, of course, a complication of moral blindness and in a sense a ‘double-blindness’. Evil wears a mask in addition to our blindness. The concept of moral blindness in administrative evil may be following Plato’s idea that one cannot, with knowledge of it, do evil.


The important point here is not to reveal the masks of evil in details in the provision of the services to vulnerable children and youths. The important point is: it is likely that masks of evil can be revealed in the provision of the services to vulnerable children and youths and in the administrative control with the provided services. Seen in this perspective, an important question is: How to provide services to vulnerable children and youths and how to control the provided services so masks of evil can be revealed?



5.  Which paradigm can ensure legitimacy?

Whether the issue is negative side-effects of the dominant position of the paradigm of street-level bureaucrats in the provision of services to vulnerable children and youths, ‘moral blindness’ in the provision of the services resulting in banal evil or masks of evil due to the complex organizations and top-managers mind-set, the key word is ‘blind spots’.


The gap between the welfare state´s ideology of ‘doing good’ for vulnerable children and youths and doing this in practice is caused by the consequences of ‘blind spots’.


The five ‘blind spots’ in our case are the following. The paradigm of the street-level bureaucrats has ‘blind spots’ when it comes to: 1) the management of the public spending on the services; 2) the administration of the provision of services and the provided services; and, 3) scientific documentation of the effects of the provided services. Furthermore, 4) the services are based on ethics that have a ‘blind spot’ regarding the downsides of the services. This ‘blind spot’ is reinforced by the ‘blind spot’ regarding scientific documentation of the effects of the services in the paradigm of the street level bureaucrats. Finally, 5) the organizations´ complexity and the top-managers´ mind-set, based on goal-instrument rationality, have a ‘blind spot’ regarding doing unforeseen evil in the name of ‘doing good’ for the citizens of the welfare state.      


The first ‘blind spot’, which results in unmanageable public spending on services, is to a high degree caused by the fact that within the paradigm of street-level bureaucrats ‘…values about being economical or even efficient seldom loom large…’ (Brunsson, 2009, p. 62).


The second ‘blind spot’, which results in maladministration, can be explained to a high degree by the street-level bureaucrats´ positions in the bureaucracies and their role in these. The street-level bureaucrats are, by definition, not in the center of the bureaucracies (Lipsky, 2010, p.12). Besides, the street-level bureaucrats´ roles are to exercise discretion regarding the bureaucracies´ rules and norms, on the one hand, and the citizens´ problems and needs, on the other hand (Lipsky, 2010, pp. 230-231). Thereby, the roles of the street-level bureaucrats are to greater extent to advocate for the citizens´ needs in the ‘system’, rather than to support the ideals of a Weberian bureaucracy in the ‘system’.  


The third ‘blind spot’ resulting in a lack of scientific documentation of the effects of the services can be explained by norms and traditions. Doctors have, as an example, integrated scientific documentation into their professions´ norms and traditions, and thereby in the paradigm of their profession. Doctors are requested to operate on the basis of the ‘gold standard’ for documentation: double blind randomized controlled studies. Although the ‘gold standard’ for various reason is neither simple nor appropriate in all cases (Lipsky, 2010, p. 220), it is important that a scientific standard for documentation is established and met partly to legitimize the street-level bureaucrats´ provision of the services and partly to make them accountable for the effects of the provided services. In Denmark, due to norms and traditions, the street-level bureaucrats are, as shown in section 2, far from meeting a scientific standard regarding documentation of the effects of the services and far from being held accountable for the effects of the services.


The fourth ‘blind spot‘, which results in moral blindness and accordingly banal evil might be explained by the dominant position – close to monopoly – of the street-level bureaucrats in the provision of services for decades. The paradigm´s position might have blocked or even oppressed an open and free discussion of the ethics of the provision of services and the consequences of ethics in the provision of services. Besides, the lack of scientific documentation of the effects of services has properly reinforced moral blindness and the accordingly banal evil.    


The fifth ‘blind spot’, which results in masks of evil, has neither a simple explanation nor a simple solution. Besides, it can be questioned to which degree the top-managers have or can have a technical-rational approach to the decisions about and the management of social and political problems. Almost endless cases and analyses show that top-managers neither have, nor can have, a technical-rational approach (March, 2008; Brunsson, 2009; Røvik, 2002 amongst others). However, we accept that the ideal for most top-managers is a technical-rational approach to decision-making processes and management simply because this type of rationality is the most common way to legitimize decisions-making processes and management (March, 2008; Røvik, 2002).


What cannot be questioned (any more) is that organizations are complex. In Denmark, one of the many reasons for this is the numerous changes in criteria of what determines success, which confront public organizations. In Denmark, the standard public organization is confronted with more than 25 general success criteria plus some specific sector and organizational success criteria (Pedersen, 2008). In the attempts and efforts to meet all these success criteria an organization becomes complex because the organization: ‘must be efficient today, while also adapting for tomorrow; it must produce at low cost, while also innovating; it must deploy the massed resources of a large corporation, while showing the entrepreneurial flair of a small startup; it must achieve high levels of reliability and consistency, while also being flexible in adapting to change’ (Grant, 2002, p. 519).  


The key question now is: Is it possible to eliminate or minimize the ‘blind spots’ just discussed and the consequences of the ‘blind spots’? Because all public management paradigms with reference to Kuhn (Kuhn, 1962) by definition and in practice have ‘blind spots’ (Lerborg, 2010), the answer to this question is another question: Is it possible to create a mix – a hybrid – of paradigms, which can eliminate or minimize the ‘blind spots’ discussed and, by doing this, close the gap between the welfare state´s ideology of ‘doing good’ and doing this in practice?


5.1. Efforts made to eliminate ‘blind spots’ via a new mix of paradigms

One strategy to eliminate the ‘blind spots’ of the paradigm of the street-level bureaucrats would be to reduce discretion and autonomy among the street-level bureaucrats radically. This is, however, not a wise strategy because the street-level bureaucrats legitimize the provision of the services in general (Lipsky, 1980; Lipsky, 2010) and in Denmark in the SSSP in particular (Pedersen & Aagaard, 2013). A more appropriate strategy to eliminate the ‘blind spots’ and the consequences of them is to impose some restrictions on the street-level bureaucrats’ discretion and autonomy combined with new demands addressed to the street-level bureaucrats. Efforts, and attempts to do this, have already been made, especially during the current austerity, by implementing core elements from a neoliberal paradigm and the paradigm of Weberian bureaucracy in the public management of the SSSP.


Core elements in a neoliberal paradigm have been implemented to eliminate or minimize the ‘blind spots’ of the paradigm of the street-level bureaucrats regarding the management of public spending on services and scientific documentation of the effects of these services.


The ‘blind spot’ regarding public spending has been eliminated successfully. Since 2010 public spending has not increased and budgets have, generally speaking, been kept in line (Gregersen, 2013). The main reasons for this are initiatives taken by the former liberal-conservative government (2001 to 2011). The former government introduced the policy of zero growth in public spending on services in the SSSP. This has put a cap on public spending, which was a key ambition of the former liberal-conservative government (Pedersen & Löfgren, 2012). Besides, the former government introduced and implemented the policy of hard budget constraint (Kornai, 1980; Kornai, Maskin & Roland, 2003). That is, budget deficits were (and are still) met with administrative cuts in the budgets (Ministry of Finance, 2010, p. 7).


As a result of the fact that the public management of public spending on services is based on central elements in a neoliberal paradigm, the street-level bureaucrats can no longer necessarily provide children and youths with services which the street-level bureaucrats themselves consider as the best possible provisions. Besides, to ensure that budgets are kept, it is no longer, in many cases, the individual street-level bureaucrat who makes the final assessment and judgment concerning the individual case and, accordingly, decides which services are to be provided. During these years, the trend has been that teams, involving both street-level bureaucrats coming from different professions and managers coming from the daily administration in addition to the top level, are established to make the final assessment and judgment of the individual case and to decide which services are to be provided. By doing this, the teams try to balance the quality of services and the overall budgets (Johansen & Pedersen, 2012). In sum, the street-level bureaucrats have to apply to some restrictions.


Furthermore, some public management and managerial performance tools have been introduced recently to make it possible to establish scientific standards for the documentation of the effects of services. Examples of such tools are ICS (Integrated Children System – developed in the UK) and DUBU (a database tool to register verdicts, services provided, costs of the services etc.). The problem is that none of these tools at present have provided scientific documentation of the effects of services at the level of segments of the gross group of vulnerable children and youths. 


To sum up, the ‘blind spot’ regarding public spending has been eliminated. In contrast to this, the ‘blind spot’ regarding scientific documentation of the effects of services has not been eliminated.


The core elements of the paradigm of a Weberian bureaucracy have also been promoted again to eliminate the ‘blind spot’ regarding the administration of the provision of services and of the provided services to vulnerable children and youths. That is, the administration has been re-centralized, to avoid future maladministration of the provision of services and of the provided services. Some examples can illustrate this. As mentioned in section 2, a national task force has been established to check the local authorities´ administration of the services to vulnerable children and youths and to advise the local authorities on how to implement correct administration. A reform called ‘The Child´s Reform’ [Barnets Reform], which was implemented in 2011, has the goal to ensure a correct administration of the provision of services to children and youths. An evaluation in 2012 of the national-wide organizational set-up regarding the provision of the services in SSSP has, as previously mentioned, resulted in more centralized control of the provision of services to small segments within the gross group of vulnerable children and youths. Once again, the result is that the street-level bureaucrats have imposed restrictions regarding their discretion and autonomy. Once again, in spite of these restrictions, the street-level bureaucrats are still essential in the provision of services and still legitimize the provided services.  


In sum, the core elements in the paradigm of a Weberian bureaucracy have been deployed to eliminate the ‘blind spots’ of the paradigm of the street-level bureaucrats.


The overall conclusion regarding the efforts and attempts to eliminate the three ‘blind spots’ associated with the paradigm of the street-level bureaucrats must be a mix of – a hybrid – three paradigms which have been developed to manage the SSSP: the paradigm of the street-level bureaucrats, a neoliberal paradigm and a Weberian paradigm. This mix of paradigms has the potential to eliminate or minimize the two first of the three ‘blind spots’ associated with the paradigm of street-level bureaucrats. However, more research is needed to design the most appropriate mix to eliminate or minimize these two ‘blind spots’. Besides, we still have to eliminate the ‘blind spot’ of scientific documentation of the effects of the services.


Furthermore, we still have two more ‘blind spots’ to eliminate or minimize. The one spot is the ethics of the provision of services, which results in moral blindness and accordingly banal evil. The second spot is the combination of organizational complexity and the top-managers technical-rational approach to the solutions of social and political problems which results in masks of evil. To our knowledge, no steps have been taken to eliminate or minimize these two ‘blind spots’ and their inherent consequences.

In sum, we are left with three ‘blind spots’ remembering that the ‘blind spot’ of scientific documentation of the effects of the services reinforces moral blindness and consequently banal evil.


To eliminate or minimize these three ‘blind spots’ and the consequences of them, we shall propose the development of a fourth paradigm: the paradigm of scientific documentation and ethics. This paradigm has, of course, to be integrated into the mix of three paradigms already mentioned.


5.2. A new paradigm and a new mix of paradigms!

To eliminate the ‘blind spot’ regarding scientific documentation of the effects of services, to make the street-level bureaucrats´ more accountable for the services and to help reduce moral blindness resulting in banal evil, society must require scientific documentation of the effects of the services the street-level bureaucrats provide directly to vulnerable children and youths.


It is, of course, impossible to implement the ‘gold-standard’ mentioned for scientific documentation overnight. It is, however, possible to move towards the ‘gold-standard’ stepwise vis-a-vis increasing requirements to the documentation of the effects of services. By doing this, the ‘blind spot’ regarding documentation will be reduced over time. It will, however, result in a movement towards a technical-instrument rationality towards the provision of services. If this technical-instrument rationality is coupled with an economic rationality, the result will be that the provision of services is done on the basis of cost-effective analyses. That is, the provision of services will be based on objective criteria. As a consequence of this, the mind-set of a technical-economical-instrument rationality will be promoted among street-level bureaucrats, administrators and managers. This will increase the risk of double moral blindness and accordingly masks of evil as discussed previously. In other words, we are confronted with wicked problems which are well demonstrated in the Danish SSSP (Gregersen, 2013).


To eliminate or minimize the risk of both banal evil and masks of evil associated with moral blindness, organizational complexity and a technical-economical-instrumental rationality, we would like to propose an improvement of organizational ethics and awareness of social responsibility made transparent to the public. One idea would be to establish a system of ethical and legal review of the decision-making processes of the provision of services, the administration of the provided services and the effects of the services provided. This approach would emphasize the importance of the ethics in the provision of the services and in the services provided, as well as the ethics of the effects of the provided services. This concern can further be situated at the level of management and leadership of public organizations via value-driven management or total quality management. Besides, we will propose to emphasize the communicative dimensions by making the review of the provision of services and the effects of services more transparent. Many different stakeholders should be involved in the proposed review to ensure transparent reviews.


To develop this fourth paradigm of scientific documentation and ethics and to integrate this new paradigm into the mix of the three paradigms discussed previously, more research is needed.



6. Conclusion

In this article we have analyzed the Danish welfare state´s struggle for legitimacy as a paradigmatic and critical case, based on the case of the provision and the management of services to vulnerable children and youths. In particular, we have demonstrated a gap between the welfare state´s ideology of ‘doing good’ for its citizens and this in practice – in real life. Besides, we have analyzed insufficient problem solutions to the gap. Finally, we have pointed out ‘blind spots’ linked to the existing paradigms of the provision and the management of services to vulnerable children and youths, which support the creation and maintenance of the gap of the welfare state´s ideology of ‘doing good’ and doing this in real life.


We have argued that we need a new mix – a new hybrid – of paradigms of the provision and the management of the services to vulnerable children and youths to eliminate or minimize the ‘blind spots’ and, consequently, the gap between the welfare state´s ideology of ‘doing good’ and doing this in practice. That is, we need to introduce a new paradigm in the provision and the management of public services, based partly on the scientific documentation of the effects of the provided services and partly on a new ethics in the provision and the management of these services. Moreover, this new paradigm has to be integrated into the already existing mix – combination – of three paradigms regarding the provision and the management of services to vulnerable children and youths.




1. The included overall account of the Danish media-covered cases of abuse and maltreatment of children and youths is based on an in-depth document study of a selection of six of the most media-covered cases from 2011 to the present (Nielsena, 2014).




Adams, G., Balfour, D. (2009), Unmasking Administrative Evil, 3rd Edition, M.E.Sharpe, New York.


Andersen, S. H. (2010), Efter anbringelsen [After the replacement], in Andersen, S. H. (2010), Når man anbringer et barn: Årsager, stabilitet i anbringelsen og det videre liv [When a child is replaced: causes, stability in the replacement and the further life], University Press Southern Denmark.


Arendt, H. (1963), Eichmann in Jerusalem: a Report on the Banality of Evil, Faber & Faber, London.


Bengtsson, S. (2011), Vækstfaktorer på det specialiserede socialområde [Growth enhancers in the sector of citizens with disabilities and socially disadvantaged people], SFI – Det Nationale Forskningscenter for Velfærd [The Danish National Centre for Social Research], Copenhagen.


Bonfils, I. S., Berger, N. P. (2010), Specialiserede tilbud til borgere med handicap – efter reformen [Services in the sector of citizens with disabilities and socially disadvantaged people after the structural reform], AKF- Det Nationale Institut for Kommuners og Regioners Analyse og Forskning [The national institute for analysis and research of regions and local authorities], Copenhagen.


Bonfils, I. S. (2010), Disability meta-organizations and policy-making under new forms of governance, Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research, Volume 13, Issue 1.


Brunsson, N. (2009), Reforms as Routine, Oxford University Press, Oxford.


Egelund, T., Christensen, P.S., Jakobsen, T.B., Jensen, T.G., Olsen, R.F. (2009), Anbragte børn og unge, en forskningsoversigt, [Replaced children and youth – a research review], SFI – Det Nationale Forskningscenter for Velfærd [The Danish National Centre for Social Research], Copenhagen.


Egelund, T., Jakobsen, T.B, Hammen, I., Olsson, M., Høst, A. (2010), Sammenbrud i anbringelser af unge. Erfaringer, forklaringer og årsagerne bag, [“Break-downs” in the replacement of youths. Experience, explanations and the causes behind them], SFI – Det Nationale Forskningscenter for Velfærd, [The Danish National Centre for Social Research], Copenhagen. http://www.slvidensbank.dk/da/Articles/ChildrenAndYoung/Anbragte%20Socialpaedagogiske%20indsatser/Sammenbrud%20i%20anbringelser%20af%20unge.aspx


Ewald, F. (1986), L’État-Providence, Paris.


Flyvbjerg, B. (2006), Five Misunderstandings About Case-Study Research, Qualitative Inquiry, 12(2).


Foucault, M. (1998), The History of Sexuality Vol. 1: The Will to Knowledge, Penguin, London.


Grant, R.M. (2002), Contemporary Strategy Analysis, Bleckwell Publishers, Oxford.


Gregersen, J. E. (2013), Politik og økonomi på det eksterne kvasimarked, [Politics and economics on the external quasi-market], PhD dissertation, Politica, Aarhus.


Hansen, S. J. (2009), Bureaukrati, faglige metoder eller tommelfingerregler, [Bureaucracy, professional methods or rules of thumb], Politica, Aarhus.


Johansen, M., Pedersen, J. S. (2012), Politisk vedtagne serviceniveauer og visitationsudvalg på området for udsatte børn og unge – det bør man da ha´! – En analyse af styringsinstrumenternes rejse på det kommunale felt, [Political quality standards and visitation committees in the sector of citizens with disability and socially disadvantaged people], Master thesis, Roskilde University, Roskilde.


Kirkebæk, B. (2010), Almagt og afmagt. Specialpædagogikkens holdninger, handlinger og dilemmaer, [Omnipotence and powerlessness. The positions, actions and dilemmas of the specialized pedagogy], Akademisk Forlag, Copenhagen.


Kornai, J. (1980), The Economics of Shortage, North-Holland, Amsterdam.


Kornai, J., Maskin, E. & Roland, G. (2003), Understanding the Soft Budget Constraint, Journal of Economic Literature, XLI.


Kuhn, T. S. (1962), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, The University of Chicago Press, London.


Lerborg, L. (2010), Styringsparadigmer i den offentlige sektor, [Public management paradigms within the public sector], Jurist- og Økonomforbundets Forlag, Copenhagen.


Lipsky, M. (1980), Street-Level Bureaucracy. Dilemmas of the individual in Public Services, Russell Sage Foundation, New York.


Lipsky, M., 2010, Street-Level Bureaucracy. Dilemmas of the individual in Public Services – Expanded Edition, Russell Sage Foundation, New York.


March, G. J. (2008), Fornuft og forandring, [Reason and Change], Samfundslitteratur, Frederiksberg.


Mogensen, G. V. (2010), Det danske velfærdssamfunds historie. Tiden efter 1979 [The history of the Danish welfare state. The time after 1979], Gyldendal, Copenhagen.


Nielsen, A. L. (2014) (Nielsena): Enkeltsagerne- En kortlægning af de såkaldte enkeltsager på området for udsatte børn og unge, [The high profile cases- A mapping of the so-called high profile cases concerning children and youth at risk], work in progress, University of Southern Denmark, Esbjerg.


Nielsen, A. L., 2014 (Nielsenb): Dilemmaer i socialfaglig ledelse og praksis. Rapport på baggrund af analyse af en udvalgt særligt vanskelig sag på børne- og ungeområdet, [The dilemmas of social work management – an analysis of a selected high profile case concerning the field of children and youth at risk], Work in progress, University of Southern Denmark, Esbjerg.


Olsen, R. F., Egelund, T. Lausten, M. (2011), Tidligere anbragte unge som voksne [Formerly replaced youth as young adults], SFI – Det Nationale Forskningscenter for Velfærd, [The Danish National Centre for Social Research], Copenhagen.


Pedersen, J. S., Aagaard, P. (2013), Fra åben konflikt til symbiotisk evolution: Hvordan offentlige ledere forener fagprofessionel autonomi og hård budgetdisciplin, [From conflict to symbiotic evolution: How public managers combine professional autonomy and hard budget discipline], Økonomistyring & Informatik, Fagtidsskrift for nye ledelsesformer og ledelseskoncepter, 29. årgang, Jurist- og Økonomforbundets Forlag, Copenhagen. 

Pedersen, J. S. & Löfgren, K. (2012), Public Sector Reforms: New Public Management without Marketization? The Danish Case, International Journal of Public Administration, 35, 7.


Pedersen, J. S., 2008, Changing Success Criteria for Public Sector Institutions: Squaring the Circle? / The Anatomy of Change: A Neo-Institutionalist Perspective. eds. /Scheuer, S., Copenhagen Business School Press, Copenhagen.


Pedersen, J. S. & Hammer, S. (2012), Nogle konsekvenser af Strukturreformen for medarbejdere, ledere og borgere – Det specialiserede område [Consequences of the structural reform regarding employees, managers and citizens – the specialized social area], Tidsskrift for Arbejdsliv, 14. Årgang, nr. 4.


Rendtorff, J. D. (2011), Etik for psykologer, [Ethics for psychologists], Jurist- og Økonomforbundet, Copenhagen.


Rendtorff, J. D., (1999), Bioetik og ret. Kroppen mellem person og ting, [Bioethics and right. The body between person and thing], Gyldendal, Copenhagen.


Rendtorff, J. D. (2012), Hannah Arendt and the law and ethics of administration: Bureaucratic evil, political thinking and reflective judgment, 25th IVR World Congress, Law, Science and Technology: Frankfurt am Main 15-20 August 2011. Vol. 112, Series B Frankfurt am Main: Goethe Universität, (25th IVR World Congress: Law, Science and Technology Paper Series; No.112).


Røvik, K. A. (2002), The Secrets of the Winners – Management Ideas that Flow, in Sahlin-Andersson, K., Engwall, L.,The Expansion of Management Knowledge, Carriers, Ideas and Sources (ed.), Stanford Business Books, Stanford University Press, Stanford.


Serviceloven, [The Service Law], 4th February 2011.


Spray, C. & Jowett, B. (2012), Social Work Practice with Children and Families, University of Sheffield, SAGE Publications Ltd.  


Svanholdt, A. K. (2013), Økonomistyring på handicapområdet [Public budget management of the public sector of disabilities], in eds. Bonfils, I.S., Kirkebæk, L. O., Tetler, S., Handicapforståelse mellem teori, erfaring og virkelighed, [The understanding of disability between theory, experience and reality], Akademisk Forlag, Copenhagen.


The Ministry of Social Affairs (2012), Rapport fra Ekspertpanel om overgreb mod børn, [Report from panel of experts concerning abuse of children],


The Ministry of Finance (2010a), Aftale om kommunernes økonomi for 2011, [Agreement regarding the economy of the Danish local authorities in 2011], Copenhagen.


The Ministry of Finance, The Ministry of Internal and Health Affairs, Local Government Denmark, The Ministry of Social Affairs (2011), Det specialiserede socialområde – en analyse af den statslige regulering og ankesystemet [The specialized social area – an analysis of state regulation and the appeal system], Copenhagen,


Vickery, R. (2010), Evidensbasering af det sociale område – en analyse af systematiske forskningsoversigter fra Campbell Collaboration, Roskilde Universitet, Master thesis, Roskilde.


Weber, M. (1968), Economy and Society, University of California Press, Berkeley.


Stjórnmál og vísindi: eða af hverju er stundum bullað svona mikið?

English-language synopsis of the paper

Politics and science: Or why there is sometimes so much bullshit?

Science and politics as fields of human communication have many things in common. The following six statements apply to both:

  1. People present their believes and make statements.
  2. The statements that people make are about the world.
  3. People criticize the statements that are made about the world.
  4. People use various kinds of data and evidence to support what they say.
  5. Very few of the statements that are made are immune to criticism.
  6. People use general principles or rules to understand and explain what the statements are about.

Harry Frankfurt has written an essay called On Bullshit (Frankfurt, 2005) in which he offers an analysis of what bullshit is and also tries to answer the questions why there is so much of it. Frankfurt writes:

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. (Frankfurt, 2005, p. 1)

Frankfurt notes that bullshit is typically unconnected to a concern with the truth. This can take several different forms. Furthermore, although bullshit is generally unconnected to a concern with the truth, it is different from lying.

What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs. Those are what lies misrepresent, by virtue of being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to. (Frankfurt, 2005, p. 54)

Turning to the question why there is so much bullshit in politics, the ideas of Georg Orwell are illuminating. He argues that accepting political responsibility means that one must obey a kind of political authority which makes it impossible to discuss certain things with full sincerity.

But unfortunately, to accept political responsibility now means yielding oneself over to orthodoxies and ‘party lines’, with all the timidity and dishonesty that that implies. As against the Victorian writers, we have the disadvantage of living among clear-cut political ideologies and of usually knowing at a glance what thoughts are heretical. (Orwell, Writers and leviathan)

Both in “Writers and leviathan“ and in “Politics and the English language“ does Orwell discusses why the political culture tends to encourage people to misuse the language.

In a recent talk, Mikael M. Karlsson suggests that the subject matter of ethics could be demarcated as the preconditions of willful human communication. This raises interesting questions about moral status of politics. Should one expect that a field of communication, which is characterized by lack of concern for truth, be willful human communication?




Ég vil byrja á að velta fyrir mér spurningunni: Hvernig hafa málin þróast hjá okkur? Og mig langar að hafa efnistökin hálf leibnizísk, þ.e. einskorða mig ekki við lítinn hóp fólks á afmörkuðum tíma heldur gjörvalt mannkyn frá upphafi vega. Einhvers staðar aftur í fornöld finnum við fyrir mannskepnur sem hafa mjög frumstætt mál og mjög frumstæð tjáskipti. Svo líður tíminn, tungumálin þróast og fólk fer að eiga flókin samskipti. Loks rekumst við á samskipti sem einkennast af eftirfarandi atriðum.

(1) Fólk setur fram skoðanir eða staðhæfingar.

(2) Þær staðhæfingar sem fólk setur fram eru um veruleikann.

(3) Fólk gagnrýnir þær staðhæfingar sem settar eru fram um veruleikann.

(4) Fólk notar margvísleg gögn til að styðja það sem það heldur fram.

(5) Mjög fáar staðhæfingar, sem settar eru fram, eru ónæmar fyrir gagnrýni.

(6) Fólk beitir almennum lögmálum eða reglum til að skilja og rökstyðja það sem staðhæfingarnar eru um.

Samskipti sem einkennast af þessum sex atriðum eru að sönnu mjög háþróuð og komu kannski ekki fram fyrr en fyrir nokkur þúsund árum. En hvaða svið mannlegra samskipta gæti þetta verið? Einhverjum virðist kannski augljóst að hér sé um að ræða vísindin. Einkennast þau ekki af þessum sex þáttum? Í skemmtilegri grein sem Mikael M. Karlsson hefur hvergi birt leggur hann til eftirfarandi skilgreiningu á vísindum:

Vísindi eru kerfisbundin og gagnrýnin leit að viðeigandi skilningi á lögmálsbundnum fyrirbærum sem á sér stað innan ramma viðurkenndra almennra viðmiða um hvað telst sönnunargögn og hvernig skuli fara með slík gögn.[1]

Þessi skilgreining hefur meðal annars þann kost að vera stutt og hnitmiðuð. Auðvitað segir hún samt ekki mjög mikið nema maður útskýri frekar hvað átt sé við með orðum og orðasamböndum eins og „gagnrýnin leit“, „viðeigandi skilningur“, „lögmálsbundin fyrirbæri“, „viðurkennd almenn viðmið“ og „sönnunargögn“. Margt er óljóst og það væri kannski hæfilegt viðfangsefni fyrir meðal námskeið í vísindaheimspeki að útskýra þessi atriði. Ég ætla að láta þau standa óútskýrð þannig að við ættum kannski að líta á þessa skilgreiningu sem einhvers konar skema frekar en efnislega skilgreiningu. Ég mun þó koma að seinasta liðnum síðar í þessari grein.

Nú vil ég benda á að þessi sex atriði sem einkenna vísindin sem vettvang samskipta eiga líka við um stjórnmálin. Stjórnmálaumræða einkennist af því að menn setja fram skoðanir, þessar skoðanir eru gagnrýndar og fátt er ónæmt fyrir gagnrýni á þeim vettvangi. Stjórnmálaumræða er líka um veruleikann og er stútfull af allskyns vísunum í gögn; tölfræði, reynslusögur og rannsóknir eru meðal þess sem fólk dregur fram máli sínu til stuðnings. Fólk styðst líka við margvísleg almenn lögmál, bæði í hagfræði og félagsvísindum, til að skilja og rökstyðja mál sitt. Samt eru stjórnmál og vísindi mjög ólík svið og eitt af því sem gerir þau svo ólík er allt bullið sem einkennir stjórnmálin en ekki vísindin. Hvernig skyldi standa á þessu?

Hvað er bull?

Það er ekki ný tesa að stjórnmálaumræða sé full af bulli. Heimspekingar hafa samt ekki skrifað mikið um hvað bull sé þótt þeir hafi annars skrifað ókjörin öll um stjórnmál og tungumál. Á þessu eru reyndar undantekningar. Fyrir nokkrum árum gaf heimspekingurinn Harry Frankfurt út lítið kver sem heitir einfaldlega On Bullshit (Frankfurt, 2005) og myndi vísast heita á íslensku Um bull. Í þessari bók leitast Frankfurt við að skilgreina hugtakið „bullshit“ og jafnframt leita skýringa á því hvers vegna samtíminn einkennist jafn mikið af bulli og raunin er. Annar höfundur sem skiptir máli í þessu sambandi er George Orwell, en í greinunum „Stjórnmál og ensk tunga“ og „Rithöfundar og levíatan“ fjallar hann um tungumálið, hvernig því er misbeitt og hvernig þeir sem leggja sig fram um að nota það með trúverðugum hætti, t.d. rithöfundar, verða að forðast vettvanga þar sem beinlínis er gert ráð fyrir að fólk noti málið með vafasömum hætti.[2] En víkjum fyrst að Frankfurt. Hann byrjar bókina On Bullshit á eftirfarandi orðum:

Eitt af því sem einkennir menningu okkar er hversu mikið er af bulli. Allir vita þetta. Hvert og eitt okkar leggur til sinn skerf. En við virðumst taka ástandinu sem gefnu. (Frankfurt, 2005, bls. 1)

Eftir að hafa skoðað skilgreiningu Max Black á orðinu „humbug“ sem Ensk-íslensk orðabók þýðir m.a. sem þvætting, vitleysu, uppgerðarlæti og sýndarmennsku, snýr Frankfurt sér að eiginlegri greiningu á hugtakinu „bull“.

Bull og vanvirðing við þekkingarfræðilegar forsendur

Í þessu litla kveri um bull segir Frankfurt m.a. sögu sem hann hefur eftir Faniu Pascal, sem var vinkona Wittgensteins á fjórða áratuginum í Cambridge. Pascal hefur orðið:

Ég fór í hálskirtlatöku og var á Evelyn hjúkrunarheimilnu að vorkenna sjálfri mér. Wittgenstein hringdi. Ég umlaði full sjálfsvorkunnar: „Mér líður eins og hundi sem ekið hefur verið yfir.“ Hann sagði með þjósti: „Þú veist ekkert um það hvernig hundi sem ekið hefur verið yfir líður.“ (Frankfurt, 2005, bls. 24)

Frankfurt getur sér þess til að það sem hafi farið fyrir brjóstið á Wittgenstein, og einmitt það sem skiptir máli fyrir skilning okkar á bulli, er að það sem Pascal hafði sagt var „ótengt umhyggju fyrir sannleikanum“ („unconnected to a concern with the truth“). Það má vel segja að viðbragð Wittgensteins hafi verið næsta fráleitt og einkum til merkis um að hann hafi ekki skilið að Pascal hafi bara verið að nota litríkt mál til að lýsa líðan sinni. Það skiptir ekki máli hér því okkur varðar ekki um samskiptahæfileika Wittgensteins heldur skilning á bulli. Og það sem skiptir máli í því sambandi er að Wittgenstein virðist líta svo á að Pascal hafi verið að taka þátt í málleik þar sem greinarmunurinn á því sem er satt og hinu sem er ósatt skiptir máli en án þess að taka alvarlega hvort það sem hún sagði hafi heldur verið satt eða ósatt.

Hér birtist skortur á umhyggju fyrir sannleikanum í því að eitthvað er sagt, sem lítur út eins og lýsing á staðreynd en er í raun alltof ítarlegt til að geta verið slík lýsing. Þar fyrir utan gerir lýsing eins sú sem Pascal notaði ráð fyrir að hún hafi haft upplýsingar sem hún sannarlega hafði ekki og gat raunar alls ekki haft. Pascal gat vissulega getið sér til um að hundi, sem ekið hefur verið yfir, liði ekki vel, en það er örugglega svo miklu meira um líðan slíkst hunds að segja en einfaldlega það að honum líði ekki vel, og hún hafði engar forsendur til að ætla að hennar eigin líðan væri einhvern veginn eins og líðan slíkst hunds. Hér birtist skortur á umhyggju fyrir sannleika í skorti á því að málnotandinn taki alvarlega þekkingarfræðilegar forsendur þess sem hann segir.

Bull og óljós orð

Aðra birtingarmynd á skorti á umhyggju fyrir sannleika má lesa í grein Orwells, „Stjórnmál og ensk tunga“. Í þessari grein beinir Orwell athygli sinni að tilteknum orðum þar sem einhvers konar tilfinningarlegt yfirbragð þeirra hefur rutt í burtu eiginlegri merkinu.

Þar sem um er að tefla orð einsog lýðræði, þá er ekki nóg með að ekki sé til nein viður­kennd skilgreining, heldur hefur sú tilraun að búa hana til mætt mótstöðu úr öllum áttum. Það er nánast undantekningarlaust litið svo á að þegar við segjum að ríki sé lýðræðislegt, þá séum við að lofa það; þar af leiðir að málsvarar hvaða stjórnarfyrirkomulags sem er halda því fram að það sé lýðræði … (Orwell, 2009, bls. 220-221)

Þau dæmi sem Orwell tekur eru gjörólík dæminu af Pascal, en áhrifin eru á vissan hátt þau sömu. Sannleikurinn víkur, en hann víkur ekki fyrir alltof ítarlegum lýsingum sem sniðganga þekkingarfræðilegar forsendur tungumálsins, og heldur ekki fyrir lygi eða hreinum ósannindum, heldur fyrir einhverju sem er hvorki satt né ósatt. Calep Thompson lýsir þessu á eftirfarandi hátt í greininni „Philosophy and the corruption of language“.

Að nota orðið „hetja“ í tilviki þar sem maður vill að einhver birtist í jákvæðu ljósi, algjörlega óháð því hvað viðkomandi hefur gert, er að afmá allt nema tilfinningalegt inntak þess. Orðið fer þá að merkja í senn ekkert og hvað sem er. (Thompson, 1992, bls. 20)

Áður en lengra er haldið með greiningu á bulli, er rétt að skoða nokkur raunveruleg dæmi. Lítum fyrst á nokkur tilvik úr dæmigerðri pólitískri orðræðu. Hér talar formaður stjórnmálaflokks í setningarræðu á landsfundi flokksins í upphafi árs 2013:

Ef við ímyndum okkur að framfarir komi af sjálfum sér munum við ekki aðeins standa í stað heldur færast aftur á bak. Staða okkar nú er lík þeirri sem Roosevelt Bandaríkjaforseti lýsti þegar hann tók við embætti í heimskreppunni miklu, að því leyti að við höfum ekkert að óttast nema óttann sjálfan. Tækifæri Íslendinga hafa aldrei verið jafnmikil og nú, en við nýtum þau ekki, nema við trúum á okkur sjálf, trúum á landið og þjóðina og framtíð hennar. Það er ekki langt síðan Íslendingar voru bláfátæk þjóð. En eftir áratuga baráttu hefur Ísland skipað sér á bekk meðal farsælustu þjóða heims. (Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, 2013)

Í þessum texta eru nokkur orð eða orðasambönd sem eiga að bera hitann og þungann af því sem sagt er, t.d. „framfarir“, „tækifæri“, „trú á landið og þjóðina“ og „farsæld“. Þessi ræða er ekki ólík mörgum öðrum ræðum og raunar er vart hægt að ráða af þessum orðum hver talar eða í hvaða flokki hann er. En er það sem sagt er satt eða ósatt, trúlegt eða ótrúlegt, raunhæft eða óraunhæft? Um þetta verður ekkert sagt vegna þess að þó svo að ræðan hafi yfirbragð staðreyndabundinnar orðræðu, þá skortir hana alla umhyggju fyrir sannleika. Pósitífistarnir á fyrri hluta 20. aldar, með mælikvarðann um sannreynslu að vopni, myndu eflaust dæma þessi orð merkingarlaus rétt eins og hverja aðra skólafrumspeki (Ayer, 1946, Ólafur Páll Jónsson, 2012). Með því að dæma ræðu stjórnmálamannsins merkingarlausa hefðu pósitífistarnir þó gengið of langt, orðin eru ekki merkingarlaus. Það sem er sagt er einhverskonar bull, en vissulega merkingarbært bull, því það er bull jafnan.

Hér er svo önnur tilvitnun sem gengur jafn vel enn lengra í bullinu en sú fyrri:

Framsóknarflokkurinn er flokkur róttækrar rökhyggju. Þegar okkur þykir blasa við að eitthvað sé óréttlátt eða skaðlegt berjumst við gegn því af öllu afli og þegar við höfum komið auga á tækifæri til að láta gott af okkur leiða beitum við okkur af einurð fyrir því að þau tækifæri verði nýtt. (Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, 2012)

Orðasambandið sem höfundurinn beitir sérstaklega fyrir sig og ber uppi bulleinkenni efnisgreinarinnar er orðasambandið „róttæk rökhyggja“. Þessu orðasambandi er ætlað að senda þau skilaboð að sá sem talar sé einmitt maður sem talar merkingarþrungið mál en það er samt mjög erfitt að festa hendur á hvað átt er við.

Frankfurt veltir talsvert fyrir sér muninum á bulli og lygum. Í fyrri tilvitnunni í stjórnmálaorðræðuna, þar sem ræðumaðurinn segir „við höfum ekkert að óttast nema óttann sjálfan“, þá er það að vissu leyti augljóslega ósatt. Auðvitað er margt sem við ættum að óttast, sjálft hrunið sýndi okkur það. Við ættum til dæmis að óttast að gráðugir og almennt siðlausir menn taki fjármál þjóðarinnar í sínar hendur. Við ættum líka að óttast að óábyrgir og skammsýnir stjórnmálamenn vaði um náttúruna eins og naut í flagi og virkji og spilli, eins og ýmsir þeirra hafa reyndar lagt til að verði gert. En það er ekki þannig sem orðunum er tekið. Svipað má segja um setninguna „Framsóknar­flokkurinn er flokkur rótttækrar rökhyggju“ í seinni tilvitnunni. Hún er beinlínis ósönn, a.m.k. ef við skiljum orðið „rökhyggja“ viðteknum skilningi heimspekinnar. Og ég veit ekki til þess að það sé til nein önnur viðtekin merking þess orðs. Alltjent reynir mælandinn ekki að útskýra það nánar. Þannig virðist bullið oft vera lyginni líkt, en samt án þess að vera beinlínis lygi. Frankfurt lýsir muninum svona:

Það sem bull lýsir ranglega er í rauninni hvorki kringumstæðurnar sem það vísar til né skoðanir mælandans á þessum kringumstæðum. Þetta er það sem lygi lýsir ranglega í krafti þess að vera ósönn. Þar sem bull þarf ekki að vera ósatt þá er það ólíkt lyginni hvað varðar þá ætlun að lýsa ranglega. Bullarinn þarf ekki endilega að blekkja okkur, og það þarf ekki að hafa verið ætlun hans, hvorki um staðreyndirnar sjálfar eða um það hverjar hann telur staðreyndirnar vera. Það sem hann ætlar sér nauðsynlega að blekkja okkur um er fyrirætlun hans. Það eina sem ófrávíkjanlega einkennir hann er að hann lýsir ranglega hvað hann hyggst fyrir. (Frankfurt, 2005, bls. 54)

Frankfurt bendir á að í venjulegri lygi er villt til um tvennt. Sá sem lýgur því á þriðjudegi að það sé miðvikudagur, hann lýsir ranglega því hvaða dagur er og villir einnig um fyrir áheyrendum sínum um hvaða dagur hann heldur að sé. Frankfurt bendir síðan á að bullarinn geri þetta ekki og því sé hans fyrirætlun önnur en lygarans. Við sjáum þetta vel ef við skoðum dæmin að ofan, hvort heldur dæmið frá Pascal eða ræður stjórnmálamannsins. Pascal var augljóslega ekki að reyna að telja Wittgenstein trú um að henni liði eins og hundi sem ekið hefði verið yfir, og stjórnmála­maðurinn er heldur ekki að reyna að telja fólki trú um að ekkert sé að óttast eða að flokkurinn aðhyllist sérstaka tegund af rökhyggju.

Bull og skeytingarleysi um gögn

Stjórnmálaumræða er einnig morandi af bulli sem er til komið af enn öðrum ástæðum. Eftirfarandi dæmi um þetta er úr kosningaumræðu fyrir Alþingiskosningarnar 2013. Hér er frétt af vef Ríkisútvarpsins:

Bjarni Benediktsson formaður Sjálfstæðisflokksins segir að þriggja þrepa skattkerfið ekki ganga upp. Lækka þurfi tekjuskattinn og einfalda skattþrepin. Lyfta þurfi launamarkaðinum upp frá botninum og hafa hvetjandi skattkerfi en ekki letjandi eins og nú er. (RUV, 2013)

Fjölþrepa skattkerfi var tekið upp á Íslandi árið 2009 og í umræðunni þá skrifaði Jón Steinsson hagfræðingur við Columbia háskólann í New York grein í Fréttablaðið undir yfirskriftinni „Er fjölþrepaskattkerfi okkur ofviða?“. Í greininni segir hann m.a.:

Að þessu leyti er umræða um skattamál á Íslandi afskaplega frábrugðin umræðu um skattamál í öðrum efnuðum ríkjum. Það vill nefnilega svo til að öll önnur efnuð OECD-ríki búa við fjölþrepaskattkerfi. Ísland er bókstaflega eina ríkið í Vestur-Evrópu sem ekki starfrækir slíkt skattkerfi. Í flestum OECD-ríkjum eru fleiri en þrjú skattþrep. Í Bandaríkjunum eru til dæmis sex skattþrep. Og pólitísk umræða þar í landi er þannig að meira að segja George W. Bush vogaði sér aldrei að leggja til veigamiklar breytingar á fjölda þrepa. Þar í landi teljast rökin um aukið flækjustig fjölþrepaskattkerfis léttvæg í samanburði við önnur rök (bæði með og á móti). (Jón Steinsson, 2009)

Hvað sem um fjölþrepa skattkerfi má segja þá er alveg ljóst að slík kerfi ganga vel upp. Það er meira að segja svo augljóst að Bjarni Benediktsson gat alls ekki búist við því að nokkur tæki orð hans bókstaflega, þ.e. sem staðhæfingu um mögulegar útfærslur á skattkerfi. Það er því hvorki hægt að líta svo á að Bjarni hafi lýst eigin sannfæringu né að hann farið með hefðbundnar lygar, því lygar gera ráð fyrir því að það sem sagt er sé trúanlegt.

Í orðum Bjarna Benediktssonar um að þriggja þrepa skattkerfi gangi ekki upp höfum því dæmi um staðhæfingu sem er skýr og gerir ráð fyrir þekkingarfræðilegum forsendum sem eru alls ekki óhóflegar en samt er það sem sagt er ónæmt fyrir þeim gögnum sem til staðar eru. Taki einhver orðin bókstaflega og bendi á að um augljós ósannindi sé að ræða, eins og t.d. Jóns Steinsson hafði gert þegar samskonar staðhæfingar voru settar fram nokkrum árum fyrr, þá er staðhæfingin ekki dregin til baka heldur látið sem ekkert sé og staðhæfingin jafnvel endurtekin við næsta tækifæri.

Bullið í stjórnmálunum

Greining Frankfurts á bulli er bæði vönduð og skemmtileg – og gagnleg að auki. En af hverju skyldi samt vera svona mikið bull í stjórnmálum? Undir lok bókarinnar tilgreinir Frankfurt þrennskonar ástæður fyrir því að það skuli vera jafn mikið af bulli í samtím­anum og raun ber vitni. (1) Fyrsta ástæðan er sú, að mjög oft koma upp kringumstæður þar sem einhver neyðist til að tala um hluti sem hann hefur ekki vit á hvetji til bulls. (2) Önnur ástæðan, sem er reyndar skyld þeirri fyrri, er sú að það er viðtekin skoðun að á borgurunum hvíli sú lýðræðislega ábyrgð að tjá sig um málefni þjóðarinnar. (3) Þriðja ástæðan liggur í efahyggju sem neitar því að við höfum aðgang að hlutlægum veruleika og hafna þar af leiðandi þeirri hugmynd að við getum vitað hvernig hlutirnir eru í raun og veru.

Önnur ástæðan sem Frankfurt nefnir, sú að fólki finnist það nánst knúið til að tjá sig um pólitísk málefni án þess þó að hafa vit á þeim, skýrir auðvitað hluta af bullinu. En þessi ástæða skýrir ekki hvers vegna atvinnustjórnmálamenn ganga jafnvel lengst í bullinu, þrátt fyrir að hafa helgað sig stjórnmálunum, hafa jafnvel unnið á þeim vettvangi í fjölda ára, og hafa aðgang að margvíslegum sérfræðingum og upplýsingaveitum. Hvers vegna er bullið ekki bara leikmannsgaman, heldur alvara atvinnumannanna? Hér sleppir greiningu Frankfurts, en innsæi Orwells tekur við.

Í greininni „Rithöfundar og levíatan“ veltir Orwell fyrir sér ritskoðun og því hvort og hvernig rithöfundar geta tekið pólitíska ábyrgð. Framarlega í greininni segir hann m.a.:

En að gangast við pólitískri ábyrgð nú á dögum þýðir því miður að maður beygir sig undir bókstafskreddur og „flokkslínur“, með öllu því hugleysi og þeirri óráðvendni sem það felur í sér. Andstætt rithöfundum Viktoríutímans er okkur það til óhagræðis að búa við klippta og skorna pólitíska hugmyndafræði af ýmsu tagi og að vita yfirleitt undireins hvaða hugsanir eru villutrúarhugsanir. (Orwell, 2009, bls. 288)

Þessi hugmyndafræði sem er svo klippt og skorin afmarkar í raun hvað hægt er að ræða um. Þessi afmörkun byggist ekki á því að þeir sem aðhyllast annarskonar hugmyndafræði vaði fram með gagnrýni og geri manni lífið óbærilegt, heldur að einmitt þeir sem henni tilheyra afmarka hvað er tækt til umræðu og hvaða skoðanir er leyfilegt að setja fram. Um þetta tekur hann m.a. dæmi af bresku heimsvaldastefnunni, dæmi sem má heimfæra uppá samtímann með því að skipta breska heimsveldinu út fyrir Vesturlönd og nýlendu­kúguninni út fyrir arðrán á náttúrunni. Gefum Orwell aftur orðið:

Allar götur frá því á nítjándu öld höfðu þjóðartekjur okkar, sem að hluta ultu á ávöxtun af erlendum fjárfestingum, og á öruggum mörkuðum og ódýrum hráefnum í nýlendum, verið gífurlega ótryggar. Það var áreiðanlegt að fyrr eða síðar færi eitthvað úrskeiðis og við yrðum knúin til að koma á jafnvægi í útflutningi okkar og innflutningi: og þegar af því yrði hlytu lífskjör Breta, þar á meðal lífskjör verkalýðsins, að verða lakari, að minnsta kosti um tíma. Samt lögðu vinstrisinnuðu stjórnmálaflokkarnir þessar staðreyndir aldrei á borðið, jafnvel ekki meðan þeir gengu hvað háværast fram gegn heimsvaldastefnunni. (Orwell, 2009, bls. 292)

Orwell heldur svo áfram:

Nú virðist það nokkuð ljóst að svo er komið að ekki er hægt að viðhalda lífskjörum verkalýðsins, hvað þá bæta þau. Jafnvel þótt við kreistum hina ríku til ólífis, verður allur fjöldinn annaðhvort að draga úr neyslunni eða framleiða meira. Eða er ég að ýkja klandrið sem við erum í? Það kann að vera, og hafi ég á röngu að standa, mun ég taka því fagnandi. En það sem ég vil leggja áherslu á er að meðal þess fólks sem sýnir vinstrihreyfingunni hollustu er ekki hægt að ræða þetta mál af hreinskilni. (Orwell, 2009, bls. 293)

Hér er komið að kjarnanum í því sem mig langar að ræða: Í stjórnmálum er ekki hægt að ræða um sum mál af hreinskilni. Þeir sem taka þátt í stjórnmálum gangast við þessu, ekki bara vinstrimenn heldur allir. Calep Thomspon segir að í stjórnmálum víki sannleikurinn fyrir metorðum.

Almennt talað þá er orðræðu stjórnmálanna ætlað að stýra skynjun fólks á aðstæðum á þann hátt sem samrýmist hagsmunum stjórnmálamannsins og flokki hans, hagsmunum sem þurfa ekki að vera samrýmanlegir hagsmunum áheyrenda. Slíkri orðræðu er ekki ætlað að kveikja hugleiðingar um mál, heldur frekar að losa þau undan þeirri kvöð að vera tekin til athugunar. Þegar verst gegnir er lítil eða engin áhugi á tengslum á milli þess sem talar og hvað hann segir, eða þess sem sagt er og þess hvernig hlutirnir eru. Nákvæmni tungumálsins er kastað fyrir áhrifamátt þess; sannleikurinn víkur fyrir metorðagirnd. (Thompson, 1992, bls. 19)

Lýsing Thomspons á orðræðu stjórnmálanna, sem hann rökstyður að verulegu leyti með vísun til hugmynda Orwells, er síður en svo jákvæð þótt hún sé kannski ofur hversdags­leg. Rifjum nú sem snöggvast upp skilgreininguna á vísindum sem ég hafði eftir Mikael M. Karlssyni í upphafi greinarinnar:

Vísindi eru kerfisbundin og gagnrýnin leit að viðeigandi skilningi á lögmálsbundnum fyrirbærum sem á sér stað innan ramma viðurkenndra almennra viðmiða um hvað telst sönnunargögn og hvernig skuli fara með slík gögn.

Hvernig gæti viðlíka skilgreining á stjórnmálum verið? Ég veit það ekki, en þó virðist mér að þar sem vísindin tala um „ramma viðurkenndra almennra viðmiða um hvað telst sönnungargögn og hvernig skuli fara með slík gögn“ þá einkannast stjórnmálin af annarskonar ramma um hvernig skuli fara með gögn og staðreyndir. Í stjórnmálaumræðu er til staðar einhverskonar rammi viðurkenndra almennra viðmiða um hvernig megi tala, hvað megi nefna og hvernig sé viðeigandi að bregðast við. Lykilatriði er að meðal þeirra sem aðhyllast eina eða aðra hugmyndafræði, styðja einn eða annan flokk eða fylkingu, þá eru alltaf einhver mál sem ekki er hægt að ræða um af hreinskilni. Orwell lýsir þessu vel þegar hann veltir því fyrir sér hvað sé bókmenntalegt viðbragð við bók. Hann segir:

Raunveruleg viðbrögð manns við bók, ef hún yfirleitt vekur einhver viðbrögð hjá manni, eru alla jafna á þessa leið: „Mér líkar þessi bók“ eða „Mér líkar hún ekki“, og það sem á eftir kemur er réttlæting. En að segja „Mér líkar þessi bók“ er ekki, að ég held, óbókmenntalegt viðbragð; hið óbókmenntalega viðbragð er: „Þessi bók er mér hliðholl, og þess vegna verð ég að sjá kosti á henni.“ (Orwell, 2009, bls. 286–287)

Þótt vísindi og stjórnmál séu að mörgu leyti sambærleg svið mannlegra samskipta, eins og staðhæfingarnar sex sem ég setti fram í upphafi greinarinnar bera með sér, þá er samt sá munur á þessum tveimur sviðum sem Orwell dregur fram. Í vísindum er hægt að ræða af hreinskilni og spurningin um hvort eitthvað sé manni hliðhollt er ekki ríkjandi (þótt hún sé vissulega til staðar). Í stjórnmálum verður aðalatriðið hins vegar hvað sé manni hliðhollt og fyrir því verður hreinskilnin að víkja. Það má því kannski segja sem svo, að á meðan hið almenna samkomulag sem vísindin byggjast á feli í sér viðurkenningu á aðferðafræðilegum viðmiðum og reglum sem eiga að stuðla að hlutlægni, þá einkennist stjórnmálin af almennu samkomulagi um að gera sannleikann bitlausan.

Stjórnmál og siðleysi

Í fyrirlestri Mikaels M. Karlssonar, „Siðasúpan: Skilaboð til þeirra sem sitja í súpunni“, setti hann fram hugmynd um það hvernig mætti afmarka svið siðferðisins, eða m.ö.o. hvernig mætti afmarka viðfangsefni siðfræðinnar. Í fyrirlestrinum sagði Mikael m.a.:

Ég legg til að siðferði í þeim skilningi sem leitað er að hér lúti að grundvallar­skilyrðum viljugra mannlegra samskipta eins og ég kýs að kalla þau. (Mikael M. Karlsson, 2013)

Nú langar mig að nota þetta viðmið Mikaels til að greina það svið mannlegra samskipta sem við köllum stjórnmál. Spurningin sem hann leggur til að við spyrjum er þessi: Hver eru grundvallar­skilyrði viljugra mannlegra samskipta? Hér er raunar tvennt til skoðunar. Annars vegar hvað viljug samskipti séu og hins vegar hvað séu grundvallarskilyrði slíkra samskipta. Um hið fyrra sagði hann m.a.:

Viljug samskipti eru samskipti sem hver og einn mögulegur þátttakandi myndi fallast á að vera aðili að, af frjálsum og fúsum vilja, þrátt fyrir fyrirsjánlega ókosti, óþægindi, eða ójöfnuð, þótt hann vissi ekki hvaða þátt hann myndi taka í þeim. Hann er sumsé að fallast á það að hvar sem hann lenti í þessum samskiptum myndi hann fara með aðra eins og hann væri sáttur við að aðrir fari með hann. (Mikael M. Karlsson, 2013)

Spurningin sem mig langar að spyrja er þessi: Getur verið að samskipti, þar sem sannleikur­inn er bitlaust og hreinskilni er vikið til hliðar, séu viljug mannleg samskipti í þessum skilningi? Ef við svörum þessari spurningu neitandi en föllumst jafnframt á afmörkun Mikaels á siðferðinu, þá höfum við komist að þeirri niðurstöðu að stjórnmálin séu siðlaus. Og þau eru þá siðlaus ekki bara vegna þess að tilteknir stjórnmálamenn séu siðlausir heldur vegna þess það er byggt inn í hvaða stjórnmálamenningu sem er, sem lýtur þeim samskipta­hefðum sem Orwell lýsir, að stjórnmálin hljóti að vera siðlaus. Og stjórnmálin eru ekki bara siðlaus, þau eru líka vitlaus og byggða á bulli.

En kannski ættum við að svara spurningunni játandi, þ.e. játa því að samskipti þar sem sannleikurinn er bitlaus og hreinskilni hefur verið vikið til hliðar, geti verið viljug mannleg samskipti. Við vitum jú vel að margvísleg bullsamskipti eru dæmi um samskipti sem fólk fellst á að vera aðili að af frjálsum og fúsum vilja, þrátt fyrir fyrirsjánlega ókosti. Stjórnmálin eru þá kannski ekki utan við siðferðið heldur hluti af því, en kannski ekki hluti af þesskonar siðferði sem við hefðum kosið.


Ayer, Alfred J. (1946). Language, Truth and Logic, önnur útg. New York: Dver Publications.

Frankfurt, Harry G. (2005). On Bullshit. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Jón Steinsson. (2009). Er fjölþrepaskattkerfi okkur ofviða? Fréttablaðið, 03.12.2013. http://www.visir.is/er-fjolthrepaskattkerfi-okkur-ofvida-/article/2009571345613 (Sótt 25.04.2013).

Mikael M. Karlsson. (án dagsetningar). Siðasúpan: Skilaboða til þeirra sem sitja í súpunni. Fyrirlestur á vegum Siðfræðistofnunar og Heimspekistofnunar, 1. mars 2013.

Mikael M. Karlsson. (án dagsetningar). Science and social science. Óprentað handrit.

Orwell, George. (2009). Stjórnmál og bókmenntir, Uggi Jónsson þýddi. Reykjavík: Hið íslenzka bókmenntafélag.

Ólafur Páll Jónsson. (2012). Fyrirlestrar um frumspeki. Reykjavík: Háskólaútgáfan.

Róbert H. Haraldsson. (2004). Frjálsir andar: Ótímabærar hugleiðingar um sannleika, siðferði og trú. Reykjavík: Háskólaútgáfan.

RUV. (2013). Þriggja þrepa skattkerfi gangi ekki upp. ruv.is 02.04.2013. ruv.is/frett/thriggja-threpa-skattkerfi-gangi-ekki-upp (Sótt 29. apríl 2013)

Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson. (2013). Horfum til framtíðar, horfum til framfara! Ræða við setningu 32. flokksþings framsóknarmanna. sigmundurdavid.is/horfum-til-framtidar-horfum-til-framfara-raeda-vid-setningu-32-flokksthings-framsoknarmanna/ (Sótt. 29. apríl 2013).

Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson. (2012). Verkefni framtíðarinnar: Ræða á miðstjórnarfundi 17. nóvember 2012. http://sigmundurdavid.is/verkefni-framtidarinnar-raeda-a-midstjornarfundi-17-november-2012/ (Sótt 29. apríl 2013).

Thompson, Calep. (1992). Philosophy and the corruption of language. Philosophy, 67, (259), bls. 19-31.

[1]           Mikaels M. Karlssonar, „Science and social science“, óprentað handrit.

[2]           Aðrir höfundar hafa vitaskuld fjallað um það sem kallað hefur verið spilling tungumálsins (e. corruption of language) og má þar nefna Simone Weil, Calep Thompson (Thompson, 1992) og svo auðvitað ýmsa heimspekinga sem kalla má sporgöngumenn Wittgensteins með einum eða öðrum hætti. Af íslenskum heimspekingum hefur Róbert H. Haraldsson einkum gert þetta að sérstöku viðfangsefni (Róbert H. Haraldsson, 2004).





On Justice. Equal Rights (jafnrétti), Equal Position (jafnræði) and Equality (jöfnuður)

The first subject of my very first discussions with Mike in September 1973 was “what is philosophy?” That discussion is still going on. Occasionally we discuss other subjects, like today’s subject, which is “what is morality?” What I find fascinating in discussing with Mike is that he concentrates on understanding what I am trying to say and quite often helps me to formulate my owns thoughts better than I have been able to do by myself.  I am certain he will do the same today.

Now if I had all day to discuss with Mike I would turn to the first subject of our discussion, namely what is philosophy. I would start by reminding him that for me philosophy is an attempt to see and to present everything as being part of a totality of ideas which englobe reality. The question then arises about the status and nature of the ideas themselves. This is for me the philosophical question. Mike would then point out that we would need good examples of ideas if our discussion were to take off and bring some fruits. I would say, well, mention an example you would like to discuss. And that is what he did and I am very pleased that Mike should propose the idea of morality as the philosophical topic of this conference in his honor. What is the status and the nature of this idea compared to other basic ideas which make reality intelligible for us?

In this short paper I will try to explain some thoughts concerning what I take to be the basic aspect of morality, namely justice. These thoughts are expressed in the subtitle of my paper where I put Icelandic words in bracket (this paper was originally planned to be in Icelandic). These three words refer to the main aspects of the concept of justice when we apply it to what I believe to be the three basic dimensions of human society, namely the spiritual or cultural, the political or public, and the economic or technical dimension.

The main topic of our discussion today being morality, the question is of course how to define it. When I gave my first lecture on ethics in Icelandic many years ago I fell upon a division that I have used ever since to present morality as the subject matter of ethical studies. Morality is composed of a specific set of values, of virtues, and of rules – of values that make life worth living, of virtues that increase the quality of our relationships, of rules that guard the basic values and guide us to the road of virtues. Then I set out in my Icelandic writings on ethics to explain these values, virtues and rules that together make the internal structure of morality as such, according to my view. In so far as we recognize ourselves as moral beings we attempt to respect the basic values, to develop the virtues and to follow the rules of morality as such. We may fail, and if we recognize our moral failure it is because we have a genuine and common understanding of morality, although it may be very limited and even superficial. Just as we have a certain understanding of language, of economics, of mathematics, of the Earth, and of the forces that may be found in the universe. And this common understanding is expressed in words that refer to ideas concerning some aspects of reality as object of our thoughts.

In the world of history and human society (or simply in the reality of our experience) there is an infinity of moralities, each human group, each family, each individual developing his or her imperfect morality. In daily life people are constantly telling stories about the morality of other people, about their actions, behaviour, their values, their vices and so on. The reason for this is that we are preoccupied with morality all the time – our own and that of others. We want our relationships, our families, our societies to improve – we want values and virtues to flourish in the human world, and our children to be guided by sound moral rules.

Perhaps the main question that common sense people all over the world are facing is simply how the morality of mankind could develop for the benefit of all nations, all human beings, and finally for the good of life itself on Earth. This is the practical question that motivates the philosophical one about the status and nature of morality.

Let us first look at the question about the status of morality. Is morality an independent part of society and thus intelligible by itself or does it depend upon other aspects of reality, say the economic or political domain? In practice, we are always relating morality to the other domains of society, but at the same time I think we would like to see morality function more as an independent structure. In academic circles we have in a similar way theories about morality as being fundamental to human society and other theories that explain it as a result of the play of other forces.

I mention this not in order to enter that debate but to draw attention to some facts concerning the status of morality in reality. We are animals struggling for survival. What distinguishes us most clearly from other animals seems to be the capacity to understand better than they what is harmful to life and how we can in general change our life conditions for the better. This capacity clearly depends upon our ideas of what gives value to our lives and relationships. Truth, justice, love, friendship, freedom, beauty, knowledge, art, science and even sport are among these things that we value. And, of course, worldly values like money, power and fame are of importance along with food and wine, sex and shelter, clothes and cars. Life itself is valuable in so far as it makes it possible for us to take part in the values expressed by the ideas I just enumerated. A life deprived of some of these values may not be worth living at all. And good health may also be a condition for enjoying many of these values. In so far as we understand these values our efforts become intentionally oriented toward improving our life-conditions and especially our relationships where the most important values, like justice, love and freedom are at stake.

This, I take it, is the origin of morality and of ethical thinking. It is directly related to the fact that we realize that our life-conditions and relationships can be improved – that we have to concentrate on developing good relations for the benefit of ourselves and other living beings. Of course, we act like this only in so far as it is in our power to do so. Because we also realize that we are not the inventors of life and that life is disappearing all the time, death being what every living being has to face sooner or later.

So the practical moral question is simply this: What can we do to improve life and our life-conditions in the light of what we understand as the basic values, virtues, and rules at stake in our relationships? The theoretical moral question is simply: What are these basic values, virtues and rules that we take to be essential for the improvement of our lives and life-conditions?

The practical moral question is always asked within a specific context where there are other values, virtues and rules than the moral ones. There may be technical, scientific, aesthetic, even religious, political, and economic values, virtues and rules involved that we cannot overlook. Our moral thinking never develops in a social or natural vacuum. All these other values, virtues and rules are also important in life; and without them it would not even make sense to talk about moral values, virtues and rules.

Now the question must be asked – and that is Mike’s question today – how morality stands in relation to all the other value domains of our reality. I take the idea of justice to be the best guide to deal with this question. In all our possible relationships – be they economic, political, educational or whatever – justice is the most important value.

What does this mean? For me the meaning of justice is to be explained in two interconnected ways. First, justice means that whatever relationship we are developing among ourselves or with other beings, that relationship should be for the benefit of all parties involved. Second, justice means that everybody is to get what he or she deserves. In both cases what is required is respect for the beings we are relating to and for the beings we are ourselves.

In practice, we concentrate on the second aspect of justice, namely that people get what they deserve, because we take it for granted that the relationship itself is in the interest of all parties. It is usually when one or many of those involved do not respect the interests of the others that the question of justice arises. But – as Plato rightly pointed out – justice is not only about the decisions and behaviour of individuals, but about the harmony of the various forces that are at work in our souls and societies. His powerful theory of justice is precisely about these forces and how they must work together in harmony if we are to succeed in our search for the good life. Corruption and wrongdoings happen when these different forces are not kept within their natural boundaries, but take on forms that are destructive of our relationships and harmful to our life-conditions.

What are these forces? And how can they be kept within their limits? Now you are all familiar with Plato’s theory. The soul is composed of a rational part, a feeling or emotional part, and the appetitive part. In a similar way society is also made of three parts: the ruling class that makes the law, the protective class that executes and defends the laws, and the economic class that provides the material necessities of life. In these three dimensions of the soul and of society there are different forces – first, the intellectual, spiritual or ideological ones – second, the political, controlling or dominant ones – and third, the economic, physical or technical forces.

These three forces obey different logics or laws that should guide and limit each other. Plato is preoccupied with the soul – not the material conditions of our life. And his main interest was the development of reason that makes us discover truth, justice, beauty and other ideas that make reality understandable for us to a certain extent. Reason should rule in the world.

This means that the intellectual dimension should guide the political dimension. And the political domain should give guidance and limits to the economic and technological forces at work in our societies.  But none of these spheres or domains should introduce its standards or criteria into the others and push out the standards or criteria that belong to the other domains. When that happens corruption is inevitable with all the injustice and wrong-doings that it leads to.

To take an example, if the standard of economic profitability is made the fundamental criteria for decision-making in the political realm, we would soon ruin the public healthcare system as well as the educational system. The juridical system with the police force and the courts is also likely to suffer great damage. And if intellectual achievements and scientific theories are to be evaluated on the basis of the economic profitability, basic research in several fields is likely to disappear. The examples can be multiplied just by looking at what has happened in Icelandic society and the world in general for the last decades.

These examples remind us that the world seems to have developed in exactly the opposite way to what Plato thought it should do. Why has that happened and how are we to change the course of history in the direction of the Platonic idea of justice?

Since I have only a short time to answer these questions I will move directly to what I take to be the central issues. The intellectual and the political domains have been subordinated to the logic of the economic appetite of the human soul. The forces that produce economic and material goods have taken over the world – pushing other forces aside or using them for economic purposes, not for their inherent or proper goals. Politics and science are not fulfilling the role they should perform in order to bring justice into human affairs.

Now all this is familiar to you. The question is how justice and morality can become effective in the world today. And I see Mike’s question and reflections as being an attempt to deal with this issue in philosophical terms. The rest of my paper is a contribution to this attempt by using three Icelandic words to provide a kind of interpretation of the idea of justice as it was introduced by Plato.

My hypothesis is that justice is to be understood differently depending on the three different dimensions of human society and the relationships that are involved in each of these dimension. (Although Plato is the first to explain the basic characteristics of these dimensions, I think he may not have provided the understanding that we need in order to develop them properly. But I will not be concerned here with that scholarly issue.)

More precisely, when our relationships are developing in what I called the intellectual or cultural dimension, justice is the equal respect we should pay to people as thinking beings in so far as they refer to arguments, reasons, laws, and whatever authorities that help us determine the truth or validity of our beliefs in general. This is what we call in Icelandic “jafnrétti” – equality as beings with a soul capable of discovering the truth and who are all in the same position in respect to the law, God or whatever higher authorities.

When our relationship is developing in what I called the political dimension, justice is the respect we owe to people as having equal power in decision-making concerning our common good. This is what we call “jafnræði” in Icelandic – equality as members of the same community and having in that respect the same position with regard to our common interests or common good.

When our relationship is developing in what I called the economic dimension, justice is the respect we owe to people as living beings with basic needs, desires and capacities. This is what we call “jöfnuður” in Icelandic – equality as living beings depending upon other living beings for assisting us in meeting our needs, satisfying our desires, and developing our capacities as human beings.

Let me illustrate these different logics of justice by taking examples of three institutions: The university, the city, and the family.

In the university “jafnrétti” (or “equal rights”) is the basic meaning of justice. It means that everybody is to be respected as a being capable of knowledge and understanding and has an equal right to express him- or herself concerning the ideas or the arguments at stake. Teachers and students are equals in that respect. But the academic community is also a hierarchical society: Full professors, associate professors, assistant professors, doctoral students, masters students, and undergraduate students indicate a society full of “ójafnræði” or “unequal position” and “ójöfnuður” or “unequal access” to the goods of life.

In the city “jafnræði” or “equal position” is the basic meaning of justice. It means that we are all as equal citizens concerning the city as our common good enabling us to organize our lives together. But that does not imply that we all have “equal right” to take part in the discussion as we do in academic circles where we are seeking understanding and truth. A political debate is not an academic discussion. One of the greatest weaknesses of our communities is that we have not been able to organize political debates in a way that is really democratic as we do in the academia. And although the city provides “equal access” to certain goods of life, like the road system and schools, the city as a decision-making body is not concerned with “jöfnuður” or “equal access”, but with “jafnræði” or “equal position” of its citizens.

In the family, by contrast, “jöfnuður” or “equal access” is the basic meaning of justice. It means that all family members should be assisted in developing their own life and thus getting the goods they need for their survival and growth. But families are not essentially preoccupied with  “jafnrétti” (“equal rights”) or “jafnræði” (“equal position”). They concentrate on providing shelter for us as living beings and are promoting the individual life as the ultimate value.

Now the main lesson that is to be drawn from this analysis is that justice requires different standards and criteria depending on the context within which our relationship is being developed. And this means that we need to recognize and develop different types of discussions or debates when we are dealing with moral issues within the various situations of our relations. That is why ethical studies and ethical teaching are of fundamental importance, if we are to improve our morality and fight against injustice – that is to say against ójafnrétti, ójafnræði and ójöfnuður – that is to be found in all communities. The task is to identify in the light of the different meanings of justice, the various moral issues or problems we may be facing.

To take again the same examples, in the academia “unequal position”, “ójafnræði”, of the people involved may in fact influence the discussion; and “unequal access” to the goods of life may also in several ways harm the academic community. In the city, the “equal right” to express arguments or what one takes to be true is to be respected in so far as understanding and knowledge of the issues that are debated in the political sphere is needed. And the main issues that are debated do in fact concern “equal or unequal access” to the goods of life that we share in our community. But that does not change the fact that “jafnræði”, the “equal position” of the citizens, is to be respected if we are going to make “just decisions”, i.e. decisions which we take together in matters that concern the public good. In the family, although “equal access” to the goods of life is fundamental, “equal right” and “equal position” are also to be taken into account if the family is to develop as the original moral institution of our relationships.

I would like to end this paper with an hypothesis on why human society has not developed in the way Plato thought it should do to enhance justice, i.e. a proper harmony between the dimensions and forces that are at play in our communities. The hypothesis is that justice has been more or less identified with what I have called “equal access” to what they need to live. This implies that life itself has been emphasized as the ultimate value since all other goods are seen as enriching our individual lives.  This also implies that we look at family relations as basic to all other communities or societies. We may even dream of the whole community – or even all mankind – as being a sort of one family.

I believe this is a serious mistake that has to be rectified. The family has always been basically an economic unity providing the goods of life to its members as individual living beings. Business companies and political parties – these two prominent institutions of modern societies – have in fact been formed as extensions of familial relationships. And today there are close ties worldwide between the business sector and the political parties. In contrast, schools, courts, several NGO or associations who have been created in order to defend some public goods, are not conceived on this familial model. And these institutions created for the public good do usually not have any ties with the political parties, which do usually not show any interest in these institutions. (I know this from decades of experience!)

In my view something wrong is going on in our societies. The question is how we, who are engaged by public authorities to do philosophy, can provide some assistance to the intellectual, political and economic revolution that should be underway. I am convinced that conceptual clarity and conceptual depth is the condition sine qua non for a successful contribution of philosophers to the public debate. I am also convinced that philosophy should concentrate on presenting to the world new versions of the ideas that have been guiding mankind since it started to think. Among them are truth and justice – despite all the lies and wrongdoings we are as humanity guilty of committing.

Perhaps our big mistake is an intellectual one. Philosophers like Hobbes and Hume, Schelling and Nietzsche could be accused of it; and of course several others. But not Hegel nor Sartre. The mistake is to take Life itself as a fundamental value. Life as such has no value in itself except as an experiment for its future development.  For individual beings it may easily become an evil thing they could better be without. Of course, it may matter to go on living, but other things may matter more. Friends for example, as Aristotle told us, and truth and justice are things without which life has become a hell for millions of people and not worth living. Indeed the connection between justice and truth is a key question for discussion. For our late friend, Þorsteinn Gylfason, justice meant fundamentally the access to truth. Perhaps he was right. But we still have to find out.

On the Range or Scope of [Moral] Action


St Thomas Aquinas (ST IaIIæ.1.3 & ad 3) distinguishes deliberate from non-deliberate actions. Non-deliberate – to take his examples – are such automatic or semi-automatic gestures as the stroking of the beard or involuntary movements of hands or feet. We can add the involuntary and non-conscious dilation of one’s pupils in response to increased interest, the spontaneous effort to regain one’s balance or one’s instantaneous response to another’s stumble. Suchlike actions as do not “proceed from reasonable deliberation which is properly the principle of human action” he calls “acts of a man” because they occur in humans but are not chosen (note that it is possible by training to override some spontaneous responses as, for instance, trainee circus clowns train themselves to override their spontaneous effort to regain their balance.) The acts that proceed from reasonable deliberation and decision he calls “human acts.” We deliberate and decide in order to attain an end or goal. There are practical questions as to how an envisaged end is to be achieved but whether or not to choose the means, that is, the set actions judged likely to achieve the envisaged end, is not itself a practical question. Theft or embezzlement are well known means of attaining the envisaged end of gaining money; whether or not to employ them is a moral not a practical question. Whether or not, given the available technical and physical resources, one can build a bridge across a gorge is a practical question; if one cannot build the bridge the question as to whether or not to build one does not arise; if one can build the bridge that question may arise and is within the moral realm..

What I suggest here is that only and all human acts so defined constitute the moral realm. Correspondingly, the range or scope of [moral] action is the range or scope of deliberate action. A deliberate action is chosen. Some choices are, for various reasons, considerably more important than others – most will agree that the decision whether or not to get married is more important than whether or not or where to go on holiday – but no choice is outside the moral realm, and no choice, as Aristotle already made clear, is made in the abstract. All actual choices are made in the prevailing circumstances as they are understood by the person choosing. There are no abstract and no non-moral choices.


We are born unable to speak; we are potential but not yet actual speakers. We are infants – etymologically non-speakers. To become actual speakers we need to learn from those who can already speak. We learn our language from others – and notice that in learning our mother-tongue, we learn not only that particular language but also language; language exists only as particular languages just as birds exist only as particular species of bird. Puffins and geese are birds; but no bird is not a type or species of bird.

The twentieth century French linguist, Jean Gagnepain, in a lecture that I heard in Rennes thirty-six years ago, remarked that we learn our morals as we learn our language. As we learn our language from others, so we learn from others the moral views, the ethical code, prevailing in our community. And as we learn the prevailing code we also learn to become actually moral beings. We learn not only a particular code (a particular language) but also morality (language). We learn our morals while we learn our language and like the way we learn our language.

As we learn to speak we learn that speech can be correct or incorrect and we are coercively persuaded to speak correctly, and dissuaded from speaking incorrectly. “Correct” and “incorrect” are defined by what our teachers think. The child, however, does not know that. The child simply accepts what is taught. Think of these verbs in modern English: to sing, to bring, to fling. In the first person singular in the present tense, they are similar: I sing, I bring, I fling. In the simple or uncomposed past they not: I sang, I brought, I flung. Why those differences have emerged is a question within historical linguistics and young speakers incline to impose on their language a non-existent regularity and often say, for example, I bring, I brang, I have brung. They are taught that those regularities are mistakes but not why they are, and the young speakers are required to adopt the prevailing usage in their community. The present task is not to discuss the many and enjoyable vagaries of the very many ‘standard’ and ‘non-standard’ forms and changes in modern English, but to illustrate that in learning language, the infant learns what is correct and what is incorrect, what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, what is good and what is bad. What is good is what he ought to say and do; what is bad is what ought not say or do. (Notice that to speak is to do something.) He is taught that he ought to do what he is told to do, and to refrain from doing what he is told not to do; he is told that what is to be said is “cow” and “bovine”, “pig” and “porcine”, “bird” and “avian”, “horse” and “equine” but “elephant” and “elephantine”…and the answer to the question as to why that is so is commonly simply “that is what is said” as the rules of etiquette, what Hobbes called small morals, state “what is done”. The child is an hierarchical animal and, as other hierarchical animals, accepts the authority of those who impose it upon him. (In adulthood we remain to a greater or lesser extent hierarchical animals.)

Underlying the command to do or not do, is the assumption that the child is able to do or not do what he is told. It is useless to tell someone that he ought to do or not do something that quite literally he cannot do or avoid doing. It is useless to tell someone who has been pushed out a window not to fall, or who cannot read to tell what it says is in the paper. We do not deliberate, as Aristotle already noticed, about what we think cannot be otherwise.

As the child learns to speak he also learns, through word and gesture, a large set of actions that, like speech, are distinguished into correct and incorrect; he learns the moral code of his community. He learns through persuasion and coercion so that it is easy, perhaps even inevitable, for him to learn to think of the code both as what is to be obeyed and as what defines morality. As the child grows he learns not only the code itself but also how the code is thought of. For many centuries in European culture important rules of the prevailing code were given in the Ten Commandments which, in turn, were thought of as given to Moses by God who was accepted as authorized to impose them. In the early Hebrew tradition the Law was given by God but freely and explicitly accepted by the people: “So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. The people all answered as one: ‘everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.’ Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord.” (The Second Book of Moses or Exodus 19:7-8) As Christianity developed in Europe from its Hebrew roots the image of Law as covenant faded and the rhetoric of command, already prominent in the Torah, perhaps particularly in the Third Book of Mosts or Leviticus, became more prominent, and the idea of morality as obedience became widespread.

The Decalogue is in two parts; the first part sets out the rules governing how the people should be with their God; the second part sets out how they should deal with one another. Reflection on the second part reveals the rules to be very ordinary rules upon the reasonably common observance of which the enduring peace of the everyday life of a community depends. Considered in that way, they are functional. But, because they were thought to be imposed by God, the rhetoric of command tended to predominate and the rules began to be thought of by some – William of Occam being the prime and influential example – to be good because commanded. So, in the Occamian tradition, the rule that one should not bear false witness against one’s neighbour is thought to be good because God had so commanded, whereas for St Thomas’ , as later for Thomas Hobbes, not to bear false witness was intrinsically good, that is, intrinsic to the character or nature of the activity, and could be discovered to be good. It was, St Thomas thought, commanded by God in the Decalogue to teach us that it was good lest we corruptly overlook or repudiate it. (The question as to whether an action was good because commanded or commanded because good was not new but, as was well known, had been raised in Plato’s Eutyphro; it is Occam’s answer and its influence that is important as it is one of the roots of modern positivism where the ruler, “that great Leviathan, that Mortall God” takes the place of the immortal God.)


The child who learns the moral code of his community learns that what is commanded is good but why it is thought good is not often concentrated upon and two associated ideas begin to dominate. The first is the idea of moral action as obedience to authority. The second is the idea that the the range or scope of moral action is defined by what is commanded.

As we develop into adulthood we learn more or less clearly three unsettling truths. The first is that we cannot in the end always be compelled to obey; we cannot, for example, be compelled to believe what we hold to be false, although we may be more or less successfully coerced into pretending to believe. Coercive power is great but limited. The second truth is that we begin, or may begin, to question the goodness of at least some features of the prevailing ethical code. The third and incomparably the most important is that we discover that, in the detailed circumstances of our lives, we must ask– that is, we cannot but ask– what we ought to do, and decide whether or not to do what we think we ought to do, and that while we may choose in the light of the prevailing rules but even if they have contributed greatly to our personal moral context or background they do not determine our answer, for the good is always concrete and particular; it is what is to be done now in these circumstances. We ask what we ought to do and we decide, or fail to decide, to do it. We do not choose to be, we already are, moral beings.

One who reflects on those unsettling truths may, again more or less clearly, begin to grasp, in practice more than in theory, that the range or scope of [moral] action is not defined by a code, however good, but by the question: what in the present circumstances ought I now to do? That shift in attitude is a shift to an autonomous morality that does not necessarily, indeed does not usually, and perhaps cannot utterly, repudiate the prevailing code in all respects; it is a personal and responsible attitude to it. Morality is no longer obedience to another.

Whenever I do something, I bring into the world a situation that would not otherwise have existed. The question as to what I ought to do now may, therefore, be recast: what situation ought to be brought about in the present circumstances and what contribution ought I make to bringing it about? The situation that I judge that I ought to contribute to bringing about is what St Thomas, in the question referred to, calls “the [envisaged] end”. I act in order to bring about a situation which is the “end” of my decision. Whenever I judge that I ought to bring about a situation, I give myself a moral rule; whenever I decide and act in accord with my judgment, I obey the rule that I have given myself.

The situation that I conclude ought to be brought about is what I have judged to be good. But my judgment as to what is good is not merely fallible, as are all human judgements; it may well be corrupt. Moral judgment is neither more nor less certain than factual judgment but corruption is more likely as I may allow my own perceived benefit trump others’ entitlements. Nor does my moral judgement that I to do X determine that I shall choose to do X.


I end with two illustrations. The first is imaginary: I find myself in a situation in which there exists both the relevance and possibility of bearing false witness against my neighbour. I may be tempted to do so because it seems to me to be to my immediate benefit. I know that if I am successful I shall bring about a situation in which those concerned will believe the world to be other than it is. That is precisely what I intend; it is my envisaged end. Because to bear false witness is disapproved of, I can hardly avoid wondering if that is a situation that I ought to bring about but when it becomes habitual for me to lie whenever it is in my interest to do so that question fades. There is no axiom that I cannot repudiate even if sometimes, by avoiding squarely to face the question, I repudiate it only in corrupted practice. How I answer that question in the immediate and concrete circumstances, and how I habitually answer it, contributes to my developing construction of myself. How I habitually answer the question shows the kind of person that I have made myself. It becomes as it were the fragile existential moral context and axiom which is myself within which and from which I move. There exists a rule that, as St Paul wrote in Romans (13:8-10) sums up the entire Law: love your neighbour as yourself: Kærleikurinn gjörir ekki náunganum mein. Þess vegna er kærleikurinn fylling lögmálsins. (? ????? ?? ??????? ????? ??? ?????????. ??????? ??? ????? ? ?????. Love does no harm to another, therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.) But why one judges and decides to treat one’s neighbour as oneself derives not from some unavoidable axiom but from an attitude, a feeling, a way of being with others. Morality is not like a geometry where from an initial set of axioms one tries to discover the nature of an implied imagined world. A person’s fragile moral axiom is how he or she has chosen and chooses to be. Love may well do no harm to another and so fulfill the law – in Roman law (Institutes I.1.3 from Ulpian recalling Cicero) the second of the three traditional principles of justice is alterum non lædere (do not harm another). But why choose it as one’s originating moral attitude, as one’s way of being with others? The basic moral principle is not a rule however good; it is the human person him or herself who cannot avoid moral questions. The basic principle is oneself and we are present to ourselves as beings who must choose. To recall Pascal of whom Giorgio Baruchello writes in his paper at this seminar: what Pascal called the heart, the person as he or she now concretely is, is the source of choice.

The second illustration is existential; it is the situation in which we all now find ourselves. I presume that we have come here to honour and to thank Mikael as I now have the opportunity to do for over twenty years of generous friendship. there may well be other reasons that I do not know. What I do know is that each of us has some reason or reasons for being here rather than elsewhere; I do know – on the presumption that no-one has been physically coerced – that each of us has, for whatever reason, chosen to be here. The judgment that each of us individually made that it was good for him or her to come rather than to stay away is a moral judgment. The decision to act on that judgment is a [moral] choice.

The scope or range of [moral] action is, then, the scope or range of the moral questions: what ought I to do now? what kind of person ought I to be? What kind of person do I choose to be? What will I do now? My specific choices are limited to what is now possible for me; those human acts for which I can now be responsible. The range of morality is the range of responsibility.

What is Morality? Pascal’s Heartfelt Answer




I had the good fortune and privilege of meeting Mike when I was a student, back in 1995, and I owe him so much in so many ways, both as a man and as a scholar, that no words of mine will ever be able to convey my gratitude, my admiration and my friendship. A bottle of red wine might do instead. Also, as a humble token of recognition and a heartfelt recollection of the times when we first met, I decided to answer the question that he has chosen for this symposium by going back to an author, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), who was influential in making me interested in philosophy as a boy, but whose work I have not dealt with as a scholar. Thus, what follows is both old and new, being a first step into a terrain which I have not trodden for many years.

In effect, had I been asked to give an immediate answer to the question ‘what is morality?’ I would have said: ‘an instance of civil commons’, that is, an instance of “social constructs which enable universal access to human life goods without which people’s capacities are always reduced or destroyed.” (John McMurtry, “Human Rights versus Corporate Rights: Life Value, the Civil Commons and Social Justice” Studies in Social Justice 5(1): 11-61, 2011, p.17) In line with my academic studies over the past decade, I would have placed myself in the ideal position of an external observer and determined what role morality has been playing vis-à-vis the most regular aim displayed by human beings, both individually and collectively: to lead a tolerable life. Now, referring to the civil commons would give a description of morality that focuses upon its life-enhancing function. It would be a description of morality from the outside. Another description is also possible, however, that focuses upon the feelings of outrage, remorse, shame, distress, empathy, pleasure, pain, as well as the calls of duty and the spontaneous sense of what is right and what is wrong that populate at least my experience of morality—inside. All these emotions, the related beliefs, the reasoning processes that they set in motion, the subsequent acts of will and the corresponding physical actions that one imagines and hopes to materialise constitute the domain of morality as felt being, or lived personal experience.

It is primarily within this domain that Blaise Pascal develops his reflections on morality, which, despite his enduring fame as a scientist and a thinker, have received very little attention by modern Anglophone ethicists, who have written instead endless volumes on the epistemology of his wager or le pari (“the machine”, 680)[1]—itself a piece of apologetics and an early example of game theory. They have labelled Pascal a ‘philosopher of religion’ and pretty much left him there, as marginal as religion itself seems to be these days.[2] Yet, Pascal did have a moral philosophy of his own and one that can help us answer the question ‘what is morality?’ from the perspective of lived personal experience.[3] It is not an easy one to detect, for it is scattered across his unsystematic maxims, short reflections and aphorisms, themselves scattered across a number of differing manuscripts. Reconstructing and outlining it here today is the chief aim of my paper.[4] Knowing that some of today’s participants are greatly interested in French philosophy, literature and culture at large, Mike himself included, I hope you will appreciate my effort.

Pascal’s Moral Philosophy

According to Pascal, morality is behaviour consistent with the correct apprehension of moral value, i.e. goodness, through “the heart, which perceive[s] wisdom” (339). The heart [coeur] is the faculty that feels or senses good and bad or, in other words, it is the moral sense, perhaps an organ of perception, analogous to hearing (41) or seeing—hence Pascal’s writing in the same passage about “the eyes of the heart” (cf. also 804 [from the Manuscript Guerrier, not Copy B]). And if the eyes can see many things, so does the heart deliver much more than just the immediate apprehension of moral truths or values, whether ‘explicitable’ (e.g. “homicide is wrong”, 450) or not, since all forms of knowledge rely upon first principles that cannot be rationally demonstrated, but only intuited:

We know the truth not only through our reason but also through our heart. It is through the latter that we know first principles, and reason, which has no part in it, tries in vain to challenge them. The skeptics, who have only this for their object, labor uselessly. We know we are not dreaming, however powerless we are to prove it by reason. This inability demonstrates only the weakness of our reason, and not, as they claim, the uncertainty of all knowledge. For knowledge of first principles, such as space, time, motion, number is as firm as any we derive from reasoning. Reason must use this knowledge from the heart and instinct, and base all its arguments on it. The heart feels that there are three dimensions in space… Principles are felt, propositions are proved; all with certainty, though in different ways (142).[5]

Analogous remarks appear in his 1658 Art of Persuasion (Harvard: Harvard Classics, 1993-2013 [1909-14]), where Pascal distinguishes between knowledge that enters the heart through the spirit, and knowledge that enters the spirit through the heart.[6] Perhaps the heart should be better described as a skill than a faculty, indeed one relying upon long-internalised skills, such as seeing or hearing; this is certainly a difficult issue to resolve, given the ambiguity of many passages in Pascal’s work. However, the actual crux of Pascal’s emphasis is the following: sane human beings grasp and believe in the existence of, say, space, time, extended bodies, moral wrongfulness, and upon them build their sciences, whether these eventually reflect adequately the original intuition or not.[7] “Ethics” itself, albeit “special”, is, for Pascal, a “universal science” (598).[8] What is important in it, is to rely upon correct intuited principles, which we may have experienced in childhood if we had good enough a natural disposition (157-9, 527), and before education, local customs[9] or excessive faith in discursive or demonstrative reason could lead us astray (97-8, 132, 171): “Wisdom leads us back to childhood” (116).[10]

It is important to highlight that the heart’s sentiments combine emotional, intellectual and volitional elements. We may separate them in abstracto, but they are joined in actual experience.[11] These sentiments are “internal and immediate feeling[s]” (360; emphasis in the original), but they are also forms of comprehension, insofar as they engender certain beliefs and interpretations (287), and they prompt us into action, including successive discursive or demonstrative rational processes (662). As Pascal famously asserted: “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” (680; emphasis added) Typically, philosophers have emphasised the negative part of this statement. However, the positive is at least as important. Pascal was an intuitionist and believed sentiments to be the springboard of morality, but he was no sentimentalist or, to use a 20th-century label, no emotivist. “Religion”, as he writes, “is not contrary to reason” (46). Echoing old scholastic wisdom on this matter, Pascal states that “[t]he principle of morality” is “to think well” (232; cf. also 106, 117). Pascal does not posit an impassable contradiction between blind subjective bodily passion on the one end, and cognising objective disembodied reason on the other. Rather, he tries to reveal how different types or levels of belief, certainty and knowledge, wisdom included, can be acquired through our different faculties, one of which, the heart, also characterisd as “instinct” (187), can grasp fundamental truths that discursive or demonstrative reason cannot grasp.[12] Indeed, science itself would not be possible if we were not trustful enough in our intuitions (cf. also 455). Thus, Pascal condemns “Two excesses. Excluding reason, admitting only reason.” (214).[13]

True to his intellectual hero, Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430), and to Augustine’s motto “credo ut intelligam”,[14] Pascal sees the limits of human reasoning and believes our sentiments to be able to spur (142 cited above), integrate (e.g. 287) and, when necessary, substitute our discursive or demonstrative reason (e.g. 662). A famous mathematician and physicist, Pascal reminds himself nonetheless to “write against those who delve too deeply in the sciences. Descartes” in primis (462). There are much more important subjects than the scientific ones, such as “the study of man” (566), to which science can contribute nothing, for it cannot address the ultimate questions of our existence (57). The strictly rational conceptual tools of science are inadequate: “The heart has its order; the mind has its own, which consists of principle and demonstration. The heart has another. We do not prove that we should be loved by displaying in order the causes of love. That would be absurd.” (329).[15] Thus, gifted with intuition, a humble child may attain moral truths that an adult, even the keenest scientist or theologian, fail regularly to grasp (13). As Pascal puts it: “The greatness of wisdom… is invisible to carnal or intelligent men. These are three different orders. Of kind.” (339). The most intelligent philosopher’s reason may demonstrate, while the libertine’s embodied will may desire; but the sage’s heart loves, allowing for forms of understanding that escape reason. After all, to expect that one faculty or one mode of reasoning suffices for all possible domains of experience and investigation is a foolish form of “tyranny” (92).[16] For Pascal, there are “different kinds of right thinking: some in a certain order of things, and not in other orders, where they talk nonsense” (669).[17]

Let me emphasise once more that Pascal is not advocating irrationalism, rather a form of understanding that does not rely primarily upon abstract conceptual expression (e.g. Descartes’ ethically “useless” rationalism, e.g. 445), logical reasoning (e.g. the “corrupt” Jesuits’ casuistry attacked also in his Provincial Letters, e.g. 498; 770 [from the Manuscript Périer, not Copy B], 800 [from the Recueil Original, not Copy B]) and algorithmic computation (e.g. his own calculations of utility for the libertine’s sake, 680). As difficult to pinpoint as it may be–for he never offers more than a sketchy phenomenology of the heart in action (cf. 87, 544)–Pascal’s account of moral experience entails an embodied rationality that is intuitive rather than discursive or syllogistic, as well concomitant and intertwined with emotions and willfulness, and capable of grasping objective truths about the world. As Pascal writes, “We know this in a thousand things” (680).[18]

Immediate, intuitive apprehensions of good and bad are not the end of Pascal’s moral philosophy. Rather, they are its beginning. In primis, there is the issue that we might be mistaken in our apprehensions, which may then require correction, as when we hear ‘cabbage’ instead of ‘baggage’ inside a noisy place, or claim to have seen Woody Allen when in fact we had seen Mike. Yet this is not an issue that Pascal is interested in as such. His focus is moral and apologetic, not epistemological. As Richard Rorty would possibly put it, it is relevance, not rigour, that which guides Pascal’s endeavour (cf. Objectivity, Relativism and Truth Cambridge: CUP, 1990). Pascal wants to help his fellows to lead a better life, not to get entangled into technical debates. Indeed, Pascal cautions us against over-rationalisation as a path leading away from our intuitions’ potential clarity: “Reason acts slowly, and with so many perspectives, on so many principles, which must be always present, that it constantly falls asleep or wanders, when it fails to have its principles present. Feeling does not act in this way; it acts instantaneously, and is always ready to act. We must then put our faith in feeling, or it will always be vacillating” (661). Consistently, he warns his readers against people who no longer have any “common sense”, such as “academics, students, and that is the nastiest type of man I know.” (662)

Pascal is much more intrigued by the fact that despite our possible immediate grasp of moral value, human behaviour is all but consistent with it. Even moral philosophers, who might be inclined to making morality an important feature in their lives, fall prey of professional pride, pettiness and resentment. A devout Catholic, Pascal was well aware of the endless list of sins that human beings are capable of. How can we sense what is good and bad and, between the two, opt for the latter? Pascal’s penultimate answer to this crucial ethical question lies in his account of imagination, which reshapes and reinterprets the immediate givens of the heart. And this is bad. Far from extolling the virtues of this faculty, which Romantic and post-modern philosophers have done aplenty in later centuries, Pascal worries about the imagination’s “dominant” role within the human psyche (78) and its ability to distort in self-serving fashions the data of sentiment, which is particularly prone to being twisted in over-intellectualising minds: “I am not speaking of fools; I am speaking of the wisest, and they are those whom imagination is best entitled to persuade. Reason may well protest; it cannot determine the price of things.” (Id.)

Reason does not fix values within and around us; imagination does. Appealing to our “proud” and selfish thirst for power, knowledge and pleasure, “imagination… has established a second nature in man” and “disposes of everything. It creates beauty, justice, and happiness, which are the whole of the world.” (Id.) Instead of allowing the humble acknowledgment of our helplessness and imperfection, which is grounded in our feelings (689) and is rationally as undeniable as our mortality (e.g. 195-8, 686), imagination leads each person to attribute an overwhelming amount of value upon herself and “makes [her]self the center of everything” (494), when it is quite obvious that she is not (cf. also 509-10). Far from the exaltation of amour-propre or “self-love” that will characterise much French and Scottish Enlightenment moral philosophy, Pascal writes:

The nature of self-love and of this human self is to love only self and consider only self. But what will it do? It cannot prevent the object it loves from being full of faults and wretchedness. It wants to be great and sees itself small; it wants to be happy, and sees itself wretched; it wants to be perfect and sees itself full of imperfections; it wants to be the object of men’s love and esteem and sees that its defects deserve only their dislike and contempt… No doubt it is an evil to be full of faults; but it is a still greater evil to be full of them and to be unwilling to recognize them, since this adds the further evil of a deliberate illusion. (743).

The power of imagination can be so deep-reaching that we may no longer be able to distinguish between sentiment and the fantasies that imagination—also called “fancy”—delivers in order to please our self-love:

All our reasoning reduces to giving in to feeling. But fancy is similar and opposite to feeling, so that we cannot distinguish between these two opposites. One person says that my feeling is fancy, another that his fancy is feeling. We should have a rule. Reason is proposed, but it is pliable in every direction. And so there is no rule (455)… It is a nothing that our imagination enlarges into a mountain: another turn of the imagination makes us discover this without difficulty (456)… We need a fixed point in order to judge… The harbour decides for those who are on a ship. But where will we find a harbour in morals? (576)

In the midst of such uncertainty and confusion, which are epitomised by the madness of human love affairs (cf. “Cleopatra’s nose”, 31-2, 228), given that intuition itself can become as unreliable a source of belief as reason is, tradition can come of use and help us. When something is not “demonstrable” and “doubting” leads nowhere, “submission” becomes reasonable (201; cf. 203-13). In Pascal’s case, that means submission to religious tradition, and specifically to the Catholic one (cf. “Luther: everything outside the truth.” [791] {from the Recueil Original, not Copy B}); in this sense, then, “all morality is concupiscence and grace” (258).[19] “Religion is such a great thing”, as Pascal writes, also because it grants “[c]omprehension of the words ‘good’ and ‘evil’.” (709-10). Submission to religious tradition means, in essence, to follow “[t]wo laws” that “suffice to rule the whole Christian Republic better than all political laws” i.e. to love God and to love one’s neighbour, as per Matthew 22:35 (408); “charity” or love “in morals” being able “to produce fruits against concupiscence” (458) and turn the energy of potentially sinful “passions” into “virtues” (500; cf. 759 [from the Manuscript Périer, not Copy B]).[20]

Still, even within religion does imagination make moral life difficult: “Men often take their imagination for their heart, and they believe they are converted as soon as they think of being converted.” (739); they can therefore remain “duplicitous in heart… neither fish nor fowl” (451); their “blinded” minds leading to quarrels, schisms and sectarianism that “destroy… morals” (447-8); their misplaced self-confidence making them “sinners, who believe themselves righteous” (469; cf. 753 [from the Manuscript Périer, not Copy B]), “corrupt the laws” of “the Church” (558), and “do evil… completely and cheerfully… out of conscience” (658). Consistent with his picture of the human being as an erring wanderer prone to error yet also capable of greatness, Pascal offers no easy path to wisdom, which may be perceived at times, even patently exemplified in saints and sages, yet still eludes us in spite of our best efforts to grasp it and make it truly ours.

Furthermore, according to Pascal, imagination is the first step in a process of moral self-deception, which reasoning can take farther by: (A) adding the uncertainty of sceptical considerations to the distortions of the imagination; and (B) making religious self-correction ineffective. We may even be most thoughtful and honestly good-willed, but without divine grace there is little likelihood of success. The good may still escape us—even the brightest and most celebrated minds among us can fail. As Pascal remarks, there are “[t]wo hundred eighty kinds of supreme good in Montaigne” (27; cf. also 16, 714).[21] Starting a theme that will play an important role in the moral philosophy of 20th-century French existentialists, Pascal deems self-deception the main springboard of immorality, not our inability to perceive what is right or wrong, or our incapacity to comprehend what is good and what is bad. Quite the opposite, according to Pascal, we would appear to have the faculties needed to perceive and understand all this; but we also possess another, imagination, which, combined with our passions and with self-love in particular (e.g. 699; 744 [from the Manuscript Périer, not Copy B]), distorts our perceptions and understanding to the utmost degree.[22] More than religion itself, then, we need God’s help: His grace alone can save us, “enlighten” us, and help us make proper use of the faculties that we are endowed with, and upon which we rely in order to lead a good life, religious life (335).



Reading a classic is always a worthy endeavour, especially if it offers opportunities for genuine philosophical meditation. However, there are some more specific reasons why I think that rediscovering Pascal may be advisable for today’s Anglophone ethicists.

First of all, his moral conceptions and his celebrated literary style highlight the importance in human morality of sentiments. This is no minor issue, for the impact of sentiments upon people’s actual behaviour tends to be much stronger than that of abstractions or complex reasoning.[23] And yet philosophers have been pursuing relentlessly the path of abstraction and complex reasoning, leaving that of sentiment to others. Now, if we wish to engage in meta-ethics alone, such a division of labour may be fine. But if we want to change the world a little, whether as educators or public intellectuals, then some familiarity with the realm of sentiments may be a boon, since we may aim at “impassioning” rather than just “instructing”, as Pascal would word it (329; cf. also 496, 702).

Secondly, moral intuitionism has been on the rise over recent decades because of its recurrent empirical substantiation in psychology (e.g. J. Haidt (2001), “The Emotional Dog and its Rational TailPsychological Review 108:8, 14-34). Still, as far as I know, the only philosopher who has taken seriously Pascal’s notion of a different, heartfelt understanding—embedded, embodied, united with sentiments—and built an ethics upon it was Max Scheler (1874-1928). Amongst contemporary Anglophone intuitionists, Pascal is as absent as Scheler himself, who has long lost the enormous popularity that he enjoyed in the early 20th century. Yet Pascal’s moral philosophy is based upon the notion of intuition and constitutes an attempt that treads upon the tight rope set between rationalism and sentimentalism, and one that could be mined for insights and for the enduring rhetorical power of his writings.

Thirdly, Pascal’s approach is relevant because it makes the ground of moral value independent of the individual, who can only apprehend it for what it is, lest her imagination is so corrupt as to distort apprehension. In that case, Jesus Christ, that is, revealed religion is the fixed point of equilibrium that Pascal opts for (e.g. 570). Since the global affirmation of industrial society, we live in the first age in human history in which our species has become a threat to its own survival, as another religious-minded ethicist, Hans Jonas (1903-1993) underscored repeatedly in the 20th century (cf. The Imperative Responsibility Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984 [1979]). Pascal’s moral philosophy is relevant in this respect because, like Jonas’, it reminds us of the possibility that the ground of moral value may not be individualistic, relativistic, or even anthropocentric. The risk of species-wide annihilation may reveal something much more objective, such as planet-wide life-conditions and eco-system-wide life-needs, which we can only acknowledge and comply with, lest we prefer perishing to living, hence destroying the fundamental precondition for all preferences. As such a reminder, Pascal’s moral philosophy can then serve as a token of civil commons. And there I am, again: civil


[1] All references are by fragment number as they appear in the latest complete English translation of the 1976 Sellier edition of the so-called “Copy B” of Pascal’s thoughts, that is, the second copy prepared for his sister and least likely of having undergone third-person reordering (Pensées, edited and translated by Roger Ariew, Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett, 2005). When preparing this paper, I have also made use of the original French and related Italian translation of Pascal’s thoughts by Adriano Bausola contained in Pensieri (Milan: Rusconi, 1993).

[2] A valuable and possibly unique recent exception is constituted by: William D. Wood (2009), “Axiology, Self-deception, and Moral Wrongdoing in Blaise Pascal’s PenséesJournal of Religious Ethics 37(2): 355-84; the first footnote in Wood’s essay contains also a brief account of the negligible record of Pascal studies in modern Anglophone ethics.

[3] Pascal’s religious focus is as much a result of his moral philosophy as his moral philosophy is the result of his religious focus: “Man’s true nature, his true good, true virtue, and true religion, are things that cannot be known separately” (12).

[4] The main difference with regard to Wood’s own commendable 2009 attempt is my further avoidance of strictly epistemological and theological considerations, to either of which Pascal’s moral philosophy is regularly reduced. Also, I attempt hereby to provide more numerous references to relevant fragments in Pascal’s Pensées.

[5] Pascal’s emphasis upon intuition vis-à-vis first principles is analogous to Aristotle’s epagoge in connection with the fundamental laws of thought that cannot be obtained through any set of syllogisms but that underpin them all nevertheless (Anal. Post. II, 99b-100b; Meta. 980a-981a).

[6] This is not to be confused with Descartes’ distinction between empirical and innate knowledge. Rather, Pascal wishes to separate knowledge that we can reach through explicit reasoning processes of demonstration, whether deductive or inductive, and the indemonstrable fundamental principles that make them possible.

[7] Henri Bergson, probably, would be sceptical that they do so (cf. Time and Free Will London: Allen, 1910 [1889]).

[8] Given the regular use of “wisdom” rather than “knowledge” in connection with the moral considerations expressed in his Pensées, I would venture to argue that this different object is one of the reasons why “ethics” is said to be a “special” science.

[9] Customs, for Pascal, are very powerful, to the point of establishing causality itself (661), though theyr are neither absolute (e.g. 527) nor certain (e.g. 94-6).

[10] Some human beings, according to Pascal, are fortunate enough as to be able to attain religious faith through the same mode of apprehension: “As if reason alone were capable of teaching us! Would to God, on the contrary, that we never had need of it, and that we knew everything by instinct and intuition. But nature has refused us this good, giving us instead very little knowledge of this kind… That is why those to whom God has given religion by intuition of the heart are very fortunate and, in fact, properly convinced” (142). The least fortunate, instead, who are devoid of a piously “incline[d] heart” (412; cf. also 443, 448, 450, 646, 717) or have been hardened (580) or corrupted to the extreme point of cynical disinterest for the most important things, such as the fate of our immortal soul (2, 5), may have to think through Pascal’s wager or “machine” and determine whether it is advantageous to lead a pious life rather than a selfish one (680).

[11] Pascal’s account is reminiscent of Mihail Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge (London: Routledge, 2002 [1958]); perhaps morality is an eminent example of tacit knowledge that is difficult to make explicit and cannot be turned into a neat system of axioms, theorems and corollaries.

[12] On repeated occasions (e.g. Gesammelte Werke, Bern: Francke Verlag, 1971-97, volume V, p.104) did Max Scheler praise Pascal and his spiritual mentor Augustine for attempting to overcome Western thought’s long-standing prejudice that grants epistemic objectivity and evidential value to rational proofs alone, ignoring sentiment and religious revelation or, worse, condemning them as subjective and dangerously irrational.

[13] The notion of a golden mean between too much and too little of something is a recurrent theme in Pascal’s thoughts and it applies, inter alia, to the effect of age on judgment (25), thinking (25), the distance from an object of observation (25), the speed of one’s reading (75, 601) and the constitution of virtue (645). Whether it can be attained, however, is doubtful, given the dual nature of man (cf. especially 145-67, 230-4, 690, 707-8; 753 [from the Manuscript Périer, not Copy B]), who is a “thinking reed” cast between two opposed infinities (i.e. meaninglessness and all-embracing thought), experiencing opposed tendencies (e.g. fear and courage, pain and pleasure) and possessing two opposed natures (i.e. animal and angelic). Jesus Christ alone seems capable of embodying opposites successfully (e.g. 736; 749 & 771 [from the Manuscript Périer, not Copy B]).

[14] “I believe in order to understand”; cited in Perry Cahall, “The Value of St Augustine’s Use/Enjoyment Distinction to Conjugal LoveLogos (8)1: 117-28, 2005, p.117; under this perspective, Pascal’s heart can be seen as opening a hermeneutical horizon, which embraces much more than just the knowledge that can be rationally demonstrated.

[15] This is another notion that Pascal derives from Augustine, i.e. the “order of love” [ordo amoris].

[16] One generation after Pascal, Vico would describe reason’s hypertrophic disregard of bodily and emotional components of life and related understanding the “barbarism of reflection” (The New Science, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1948[1744]). Today, faced with the notion of a particular mode of reasoning (e.g. scientific ‘Method’, homo oeconomicus‘ self-maximisation) being regarded as the only one possible, we would speak of cultural or disciplinary imperialism.

[17] There is no lack of vagueness and ambiguity in Pascal’s writings. For one, “heart” itself is not used only as the term denoting our faculty of intuition, but also more loosely as referring to will or desire (182, 536, 681-2; cf. also 544 in which “the will” is said to be the human faculty that “loves”), mere feeling (210), and a person’s soul or character (especially in connection with the Old Testament’s use of it, e.g. 309, 311, 378, 504; cf. also 707). Furthermore, it does not help that Pascal stresses so often the opposition between heart and reason, as though they were irreconcilable enemies at “war” with each other (29; cf. also 144, 164, 203, 414, 503, 514)—and here we get truly to the negative part of the cited famous statement about heart’s “reasons”.

[18] Whether in matters of mathematics, love, or religion, intuition anticipates, grounds and eludes whatever subsequent reasoning we may attempt to build upon it. As morals are concerned, Pascal believes logical reflection to be inadequate within the domain of the intuitive spirit for fine things, or “ésprit de finesse”, as opposed to the logical spirit of geometry, the “ésprit de géometrie”. Whilst the former is subtly acute, delicately nuanced, highly personal, and mixed in its being both cognitive and affective, the latter is forcefully trenchant, rigorously explicit, methodically interpersonal and allegedly purely rational. These two forms of comprehension are not mutually exclusive in absolute terms. For example, a mathematician may sense analogies or truths and conjure thereof new hypotheses, which he can test according to standard geometric methodology. Moreover, explicit knowledge may be internalised to the point of becoming intuitive, as with the acquisition of a skill (531; cf. Polayi, supra). Still, Pascal knew that these two forms of comprehension could subsist separately. A mystic, for one, could cultivate the former to the point of becoming unfamiliar with the latter: “Those who are accustomed to judge by feeling do not understand matters involving reasoning. For they want first to penetrate at a glance, and are not used to looking for principles.” (622) On their part, persons relying upon logical reasoning can become so removed from their own heart and the realm of intuition that they end up quite ignorant of them both and incapable of ascribing any order or intelligibility to them: “And others, on the contrary, who are accustomed to reason from principles and being unable to see at a glance” (Id.)–one is reminded here of hardcore orthodox economists, who no longer perceive the blatant immorality or ugliness of the self-maximising conduct that they deem rational and commendable.

[19] Pascal does seem to allow for cases of commendable moral virtue in non-Catholic and non-Christian settings, e.g. “the Jewish religion” (276; cf. 692-6, 715).

[20] Christ’s two laws go to the very heart of human behaviour towards oneself and others, hence they can make the eradication of vice fairly effective, since “[t]here are vices that take hold of us through other ones, and that, when the trunk is removed, are carried away like branches”. (457)

[21] Humbly, Pascal remarks: “It is not in Montaigne, but in myself, that I find everything I see in him.” (568)

[22] Wood (2009) argues convincingly that the imagination’s detrimental deceptions are, for Pascal, one of the consequences of the Biblical fall, i.e. the ultimate cause of immorality. For Pascal, having tasted perfection before the fall, we are condemned to sense and seek truths that, however, escape us (e.g. 25, 62, 90-1, 165-6, 180-1).

[23] Abstraction and complex reasoning are relied upon in somewhat particular circumstances, such as bioethical committee’s deliberations about technology-driven dilemmas and adjudications by courts of justice. Under normal circumstances, mothers, teachers, priests, novelists and TV stars affect people’s sentiments to a much greater degree than any ethicist or judge, shaping a fortiori people’s moral and immoral behaviours. As Richard Rorty noted in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (Cambridge: CUP, 1989), Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin did much more to let Americans see the true horror of slavery than all liberal philosophers since John Locke’s day were ever capable of.

After the Financial Crisis: The Ethics and Economics Debate Revisited




In this sense the problem of the relation between ethics and economics in business concerns the concept of economic action and the role of ethical responsibility in economics.[i] The debate about economic rationality and political philosophy depends on the problem whether there can be something like a common good or social justice for all members of society. From the standpoint of mainstream economics we can say that this problem is a problem about how to deal efficiently with limited resources. In this sense we may argue that neoclassical economic theory is a system of thought that seeks to deal  rationally with the problem of sacrifice, that is the problem of who, how or what society should sacrifice in order to seek optimal and efficient use of resources.[ii] With the separation of economics from political philosophy, economics has become the rational use of resources based on the principle of the rational profit maximization of homo œconomics.

Accordingly, the idea of economic rationality depends on the concept of economic action.[iii] This concept is marked by interplay between individualism and altruism and personal responsibility for economic actions. The idea of an ethical correction of economic action implies a critical attitude to the concept of self-interest as the basis for economic action. It is argued that economic calculation should exclusively be based on individual utility maximization but include an altruistic concern for the common good and for other human individuals. In the perspective of such an ethical correction of economics we think of the economic actor as an individual, who makes an economic calculation which is extended to include the responsibility for other human beings and society integrating economic calculation in well-founded moral norms and ethical customs of society. In the following, I want to address this issue in five parts 1) Ethics in economic history 2) The neoliberal concept of economics 3) Welfare economics and the criticism of neo-classical concepts of rationality 4) Ethics within economics 5) Economic anthropology and the foundations of rationality. 

1. Ethics in economic history

Looking at the relation between business and ethics in the perspective of economic history, we can see that the idea of the rational profit-maximizing individual based on self-interest is a newcomer for understanding economics.[iv] Although we find preliminaries of the concept in the classical materialist philosophy of Epicurus, it is only with the modern economic thinkers of the 16th and 17th century, in combination with the emergence of an autonomous capitalist economy based on efficiency and utility, that this view of economic actors becomes predominant. The concept of the political and social neutrality of the market has emerged in this context of independent economic markets. In classical political economy market action was conceived in the perspective of political community. Aristotle argued, for example, that wealth and money are not goods that man seeks for their own value but rather as a means to obtain the good life in community.[v] And Thomas Aquinas developed the doctrine of the “just price” in which economic exchange relations were based on respect for the natural law and political justice in society.[vi]

Even though he was the founder of the modern economic doctrines of self-interests and the invisible hand, a similar conception of economy as science of the good for community can be found in the works of Adam Smith.[vii] In the Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) Smith seems to argue that the relation between persons and other mutual moral sentiments are the basis for economic action. Self-interest is only one among the human virtues and of the natural inclinations of human nature. Therefore, even Smith argued that utility maximization has to be seen in the perspective of other virtues like generosity and justice.[viii] And therefore rational economic calculation is founded on a broader view of human nature than the idea of “economic man”, which has become predominant in neoclassical economics.

At the same time, with Adam Smith we can perceive the beginning of the emancipation of economics from moral philosophy. With the emergence of the modern individual it has been possible to find a concept of rational action with is totally based on individual self-love and egoism.[ix] Smith was inspired by the provocative work of the Bernard Mandeville who, with his book the Fable of the bees, announced the new foundations of the modern concept of economic rationality, based on the idea of “private vices, public benefits”.[x] Smith integrated this view as the foundation of his concept of economic action in the Wealth of Nations from 1776. With this point of view, we can argue that Smith was very important for the degradation of economic action to personal preferences and self-interests of homo œconomicus. Economics is a private affair and the state has only the very limited function to protect the liberty and rights to exercise personal choices of the individuals in society. Therefore, it is very enigmatic how Smith could combine the belief in self-interest with the analysis of morality and the possible sympathy of human beings with one another in the Theory of our Moral Sentiments.[xi] Smith seems to argue that the broader social relation between persons and other mutual moral sentiments can be the basis for economic action. However, we should remember that sympathy in the perspective of Smith is analyzed as a part of the sensibility of the individual.[xii] Sympathy does, however, not come from egoism or selfishness, for the subject feels an inclination towards another. Accordingly, self-interest seems to be only one among the human virtues and of the natural inclinations of human nature.

Therefore, as already stated, even Smith argued that utility maximization has to be seen in the perspective of other virtues like generosity and justice.[xiii] And therefore rational economic calculation is founded on a broader view of human nature than of the idea of “economic man”, which has become predominant in neoclassical economics. However, it may be argued that Smith did not solve the tensions between egoism and altruism implicit with his view of the economic subject. Because of his emphasis on self-interest Smith cannot really integrate the sympathy for the other in his theory and therein remains a tragic tension between homo œconomicus and sympathy for the other. Moral judgment is captured between egoistic economic rationality and the passions and emotions for the other.[xiv] In fact, the idea of the invisible hand shows the heart of the tension because the concern for community is removed from the individual to the mysterious divine force of the invisible hand.[xv] It is only through the sympathy of the others that the individual requires sympathy for his or her self as based on self-interest.

In the perspective of the history of political economy we can argue that economics originally was viewed as a moral science, not as a mechanical natural science, but as a part of the art of “good government”. According to Amartya Sen, among others, this view of economics has been forgotten in modern economics, which is more interested in the engineering problems of economic efficiency than in ethical and political problems of rights and social achievement.[xvi] This tradition includes classical authors like Ricardo and Malthus and is continued by the neoclassical tradition of Leon Walras and Jevons and developed by authors like Alfred Marshall in his Principles of Economics[xvii], which focuses exclusively on individual utility and seems to forget the importance of concerns for the common good in economic theory. Due to this concentration on self-interest, economic theory, the idea of economic rationality is exposed to a strong tension with deontological constraints on economic markets based on protection of rights, interest and freedoms of other human beings.[xviii] According to this view, the concepts of well-being and rationality in neoclassical economic thought must be considered in accordance with ethical principles. We should look more closely on the ethical aspect of human motivation and integrate questions of the good life in economics. Therefore, without disregarding all the important insights of descriptive positive economy, we may argue for a normative view of economic theory in saying that business ethics is providing us with the “missing link” between traditional “political economy” and micro-economic rationality.

In order to provide such a link between ethics and economic rationality, we have to look closer on the foundations of the neoclassical tradition in political economy, its view of economic rationality and its ethical implications. The neoclassical concept of rationality implies an unlimited conception of rationality according to which economic agents have unlimited competencies of decision making in order to maximize personal self-interest within an exogenous space of possibilities.[xix]

2. The neoliberal concept of economics

The conception of political economy within neoliberal thought can be conceived as a generalization of the economic concept of self-interest and economic rationality to be the basis for organizing society and social justice. According to a liberal like Hayek, free competition among individuals in the market within ethical custom is the best argument for human happiness and luck.[xx] It may be argued that economic equality cannot be viewed as important at competitive markets based on economic freedom. Neoclassical economic thought privileges the pursuit of self-interest and implies the view of human beings as competitive natures. Property rights liberalism does not imply any principles of equality as the basis for economic markets because economic freedom is essential to property rights. It is argued to be paternalistic to limit human freedom by rules of justice on economic markets. Radical libertarians and some liberals are indeed somewhat critical to the deontological perspective, because it implies moral restrictions on personal liberty.

Hayek links this argument for the unlimited economic rationality of the market with a criticism of the proposal to use the state actively to establish social justice in modern society. Such justice would be somewhat the same as socialism and Hayek thinks that there is no meaning in the idea of planned social justice.[xxi] Human beings do not have the perspective of the invisible hand but they are always situated in a culture and history where they live by the human capacity of learning by trail error and imitation. Hayek criticizes the idea of a planned social justice from an epistemological point of view. We cannot rationally construct social rules, we can only use our faculty of imitation. We can only follow specific patterns by tacit recognition of meaning and of imitation of others. Freedom is what the individual does with what society has done with him or her.[xxii] It is the freedom of the situated individual to act in a given social condition. Hayek approaches economic and ethics from the point of view of methodological individualism. Human beings are responsible for their society, but they cannot fully know what the result of their actions is and they have no control over the collective level of society, which is much more complex than the level of individual action.

The level of society can in this context be conceived as a complex cybernetic system that human beings cannot control. Society that is created by individuals is more complex than the individuals and we cannot conceive the system in its complexity. Human beings act in society but society goes beyond their reason and they cannot conceive society. Society is more complex and even contradictory. The social order is a spontaneous order that no-one really wanted to be like that. The spontaneous order can be conceived as a kind of reinterpretation of the idea of the invisible hand. Social order is established between a natural order and an artificial order. The abstract order is a result of the increasing complexity of cultural evolution. The social world is a result of a large evolutionary process like the process of evolution of the natural world described by Darwin. There are no general laws of evolution. We are in an open society, the society of individual freedom as proposed by Adam Smith. There is selection of the most efficient rules in evolution. They depend on information and efficiency. Utility and calculation of lives is the instrument of evolution. The market is the essence of the evolution of this spontaneous order. The market is the foundation of social organization, auto-development, division of work and efficiency in evolution. Hayek develops an information theory of price. They are signals not instruments of distribution of wealth. It is not possible to calculate price from the collective point of view. The market is becoming meta-tradition of all economic traditions. It is competition that makes progress in the economic market. Information is the essence of the economic development in the market. Competition makes people act rationally according to efficiency in the market.

We can observe such a utilitarian justification of liberty and justice in Hayek’s economic theory.[xxiii] Externalization and self-transcendence are a liberating alienation of the individual. You have to leave yourself to the forces of the market and to forget social justice, because you cannot control society anyway. The individual is requested to act in conformity with the rules of the spontaneous social order of which it is a part. Justice cannot be planned but it is a concept that is generated by the spontaneous social order. Property rights are the rights of personal freedom. And imitation is the basis for the personal development of individuals and for their social and economic self-regulation. Selection out of path-dependence plays an enormous role in social evolution. The markets results are without ethics. They are blind. Social politics breaks with the connection between individual and the market.[xxiv]

We also find this idea of the ethical consequences of self-interested individual action in Hayek’s philosophy of the “spontaneous order” of economic and social development. During evolution based on interaction among self-interested individuals those practices which are based on individual freedom and rational choice of the most efficient alternative will, in the long run, contribute to social betterment. And indeed better legal and moral systems will be a result of this spontaneous order. Fair competition and healthy economic institutions will, in an economic system based on fair competition, contribute to a better society. In this perspective the idea of competition includes an ethical dimension of fairness and transparency contributing to the spontaneous order of society. Social orders are spontaneous. No-one can control them. Hayek seems to want to establish the good and just society on the contingency of social spontaneity and social affairs.[xxv] But this is really an argument against any attempt to formulate a rational foundation of the political constraints of actions of individuals and corporations. According to the invisible hand and to the idea of the spontaneous order, the market should have the right to exist as a free human institution, because this is the guarantee of development of society. Thus, economic action should be based on the supremacy of free individual decision making and on open economic markets with as little government intervention as possible. It is the result of the liberal concept of economics that economic rationality should be liberated on its own and ethics should only be introduced as an external limitation of economics when it goes beyond the acceptable requirements of economic rationality, by, for example, not respecting the rules of fair competition on free and open markets. 

The ideal of perfect competition in Hayek’s thought and neoclassical economics presupposes the rights of individuals to make their own rational choices in economic markets. This view of economics can be argued to be based on the presuppositions of perfect competition, rational independent decision-making, a perfect market, a homogenous product, many competing sellers and free possibilities of entry/exit into economic markets. It is presupposed that the firm consists of one rational individual rather than a group or coalition of individuals. The firm is a category of the individual and a production unit in order to provide goods to be exchanged on economic markets.[xxvi]

In the view of neoclassical economy ethics is regarded as external limitations of the market. Ethics is not integrated in economic decision-making but useful to ensure free economic action in the markets. Economics refuses to integrate external values in economic rationality. Therefore I would argue that the only ethics present in this doctrine is the ethics of competition, which is to maximize self-interest and personal preference maximization. A promise of total opportunistic and selfish action is a handshake, as some has characterized this ethics of competition. In this way ethics seems to be an exogenous element of social action at the limits of economic rationality. However, a presupposition is that the conditions of fair competition and perfect markets should be accepted by all participants in economic competition, which is restricted by the rules of the game, for example property rights and contract law. A generous interpretation of the thought of Smith and Hayek may be that the ideas of the invisible hand and spontaneous order are attempts to integrate a concept of the common good in liberalism. From this optimistic perspective, liberalism always goes beyond pure egoism because self-interest is supposed to somehow serve the general interest. Although such an interpretation may be closer to the original moral intent of liberal philosophy, it is a point of view, which seems to have been more or less forgotten in the economic self-understanding of neoclassical economics that isolates the concern for the good from the concept of economic analysis.

Moreover, even though they heavily disagree with neoclassical economic theory, some other paradigms of economics – for example game-theory and agency theory – seem to share the same view of the separation between ethics and economics and the idea of egoistic rational utility-maximizing individuals as the ideal protagonist of economic action. They prioritize the individualistic approach as the basis for economic action rather than considering economics from the point of view of society as a totality in search for a common good.

Game theory contributes to solving an important problem in neoclassical economic theory – the problem about harmonious equilibrium leading to monopoly, which is contradictory to the ideal of perfect competition.[xxvii] In order to avoid static harmony, game theory operates with “non-cooperative games” as the ideal of economic interaction. According to the economic mathematician John Forbes Nash a situation of equilibrium is the case where every participant in the game chooses a strategy, which is the best response to compete with the strategies of the other. Perfect equilibrium in non-cooperative game theory is a combination of strategies, where no player has reasons to choose another strategy to improve pay-off.[xxviii] Indeed, this theory of competition presupposes external limitations on markets and firm behavior. The players have to play within certain rules and they have to share the same concept of rationality considering economic actors as self-interested utility maximizers.

A similar view of the economic man may be said to be present in agency-theory building on rational individual agents acting in firms in order to maximize their own interests. In agency theory corporations are primarily viewed as instruments and devices to maximize profits.[xxix] And we may even mention some views of the economic man in transaction cost economics, arguing that if we look at men “as they really are” we are likely to meet not only self-interested utility maximizers, but potentially opportunistic individuals, who, even though they are not rational in any ideal sense, in their daily actions, with limited knowledge, are likely to follow a non-ideal strategy of personal utility maximization.[xxx] Even though transaction cost theories argue for the importance of governance structures and agree that cooperation, personal honor and integrity matter,[xxxi] this institutional economics regards self-interest as the primary motive for action.

We can say that we are confronted with an instrumental concept of economic rationality, which is presupposed in the systems of neoliberal and neoclassical economics rather than explicitly argued for. But why consider self-interest as the only motive for economic action when we know that real people also are motivated by a plurality of values and ethical choices?[xxxii] A plausible answer could be that economics is viewed not as a science applied to a specific realm of being, but rather as a general set of assumptions and tools that can be applied as a fundamental method in all aspects of human life, including ethics, which is only justified insofar as it allows such an economic methodology to work as freely as possible. The foundation of this concept of economics is the anthropology of the individual as maximizing self-interest and individual preferences – even under conditions of bounded rationality and finitude of voluntary reflectivity. The concept of the common good does not play any important role in this concept of economic action where the drivers of economic activities are not social institutions with common values but the interests of individual utility maximers.

3. Welfare economics and the criticism of neo-classical concepts of rationality

In fact, looking closely on the concept of welfare economics we can criticize the focus on a pure economic concept of rationality as foundation of political economy, as it is the case in neoclassical and neoliberal thought. In contrast to the neoclassical liberal model focusing on individual maximization, welfare economics works with macro-economic choices in relation to society as a whole. Welfare economics works with the concept of personal preferences as foundation of economic theories and economic models. This concept of rationality emerged out of the separation of ethics and economics that developed with the emergence of modern economic sciences. Welfare economics constitutes a normative theory of maximizing of personal preferences.[xxxiii] Specifically, the rational theory of welfare economics in macro- and micro-economics is a normative theory of maximization of preferences in conditions of risk and uncertainty rather than a descriptive theory of factual economic conditions. In welfare economics this theory is used as the basis for economic action in order to determine results with the most efficient economic outcome. This economic theory of rationality does not operate with a substantial theory of rationality. We cannot determine the content of each individual preference and their may even be irrational preferences. Therefore economic theory is based on a formal theory of individual actions as basis for determining the outcome of economic action.

Within this context, Daniel M. Hausman and Michael S. MacPherson argue that there is not necessarily an absolute separation between economics and ethics. In fact rational decisions according to preferences are in the end tested according to moral concepts of minimal goodness. When economic actors like the World Bank develops economic plans or proposals like dumping waste from the Western world onto developing countries, such a proposal is in the end not only evaluated according to economic rationality, but also all other things being equal considered from the point of view of minimal goodness or ethical value. We may argue that it is a presupposition of economic theory that it should be a good thing to satisfy personal preferences of an individual. This concept of goodness behind the economic rationality of welfare economics can be illustrated by the concept of Pareto-optimality, which means that an economic situation has achieved Pareto-optimality when it is impossible to improve a condition of one individual without making others worse off. Dumping garbage in the developing countries may improve the situation in the Western world, but it is does not lead to any improvement of the living conditions in the developing world and it therefore does not fulfill the conditions of minimal goodness of ethical actions.

However, welfare economics shares the presuppositions of liberal economics by emphasizing that free competition is an important condition of free economic choices of individual actors. The ideal of free competition as the basis of efficient economic action is shared by most welfare economists. Moreover, welfare economics also shares with liberal economics the idea that satisfaction of rational preferences is the foundation of economic decision-making. Indeed, this is also based on the idea of minimal goodness or ethical evaluation of the economic choices as the basis for decisions in macro economics. This concept of preferences in national economics may be said to imply that individuals are supposed to be rational and well-informed and their preferences are also supposed not to be odd and totally un-ethical.[xxxiv] In this sense the idea of minimal goodness or ethical acceptability may be conceived to be a condition and a minimal presupposition in the welfare economic conception of individual preferences.[xxxv]

We may say that welfare economics must presuppose the ethical awareness of economists in order to be acceptable as an economic theory. The counterargument from neo-liberal or neoclassical points of view is sometimes that economists cannot be ethical because ethical constraints would destroy the requirements of free competition. It is falsely supposed that there is a close relation between free competition and immorality. But this may not be the case and it may even be better for a company or public authorities to be moral than immoral in order to ensure long term sustainability and cost limitation of the institution.[xxxvi] From this point of view the critical skeptics have not really demonstrated that there is a close connection between free competition and immorality. Still welfare economists cannot have their theory of rationality without looking at the possible moral limits and consequences of their actions. In this sense we can argue that ethical evaluation has to be an internal aspect of economic theory in welfare economics.

However, this does not mean that there is a clear relation between economic rationality and ethics. Rational action may in some cases be moral, but in other cases it cannot be said to be acceptable from the point of view of ethics. But, from another point of view, rational preferences in welfare economics may not always be individual preferences. The concept of rationality in welfare economics can be based on altruistic concerns and it is not necessary to exclude altruism a priori from economic models in welfare economics. Indeed, welfare economists have argued that moral norms and virtues have had positive impacts on economic development, for example a code of ethics in business makes economic action more reliable and it contributes to increase economic welfare.[xxxvii] However, there may also be moral norms that are inefficient from an economic point of view and in cases where they are not even justified from an ethical point of view, for example when we perceive discrimination or suppression of employees, it may be justified not to accept these norms within economic theory. So from the point of view of welfare economics moral norms of economic actors may have an impact on economics even though there may be no direct link between conceptions of moral deontology or moral duty and economic efficiency or rationality. This means that although individuals may have meta-preferences which outlaw actual supposed preferences, there is no direct link between economic rationality and ethics.[xxxviii]


4. Ethics within economics

Common to the ideas of neo-classical theory and welfare economics is the idea of a close connection between ethical rationality and economic rationality. Some even argue that there is an internal ethical dimension of economics and even that it is possible to define what can be considered as valid ethical behavior out of economic reason.[xxxix] The issue is what economics can help to say about the good life and how economics as a moral science may contribute to a better society. According to the Austrian economists like Karl Menger, Ludwig Von Mises and to some degree Hayek, economics may be considered as a kind of “praxeology”, a normative science of practical reason, based on universal categories of human action and helping to realize the human good.[xl] They proposed a rationalistic and interpretative paradigm of economics in which it was argued that economics could be based on synthetic a priori principles. Also there is much convergence between utilitarian ethics and traditional views of normative economics. Economics is viewed as the science of calculation of efficiency, profit and maximization of personal and common human preferences.

In so far as institutional organization theory is founded on ideas of self-interest and efficiency in maximization of profits it seems to presuppose some kind of utilitarian ethics. But this is utilitarianism with strong emphasis on personal and egoistic interests. Indeed this is the case with neoclassical economics and we have seen how the concept of human beings as self-interested and potentially opportunistic actors has been taken over by theories of economic organization like transaction costs economics and agency theory. Transaction cost economics considers firms as contractual relationships among individuals who seek to maximize self-interest and the fight against opportunism on the basis of lawful behavior within contracts can be considered as a defense of an ethics of good governance and high performance in efficient economizing market institutions.[xli] Agency theory focuses on economic property rights as the basis for economic behavior.[xlii] When we propose an ethics of welfare economics we are not only looking at the firm in the light of micro-economics but we also consider the organization as integrated in larger social and political systems.[xliii] We want to state that individual instrumental economic reason has significance only within the framework of ethics subordinating individual goals to the common interest of a community.

In opposition to this view we have to admit that there may be many important aspects of economic principles of self-interest and rational action that can help to shape ethics. Orthodox economists argue that efficient allocation of scarce resources is based on minimal governmental and legal intervention and that free actors are the best to know how to respect the norms of the market and ethical custom of society.[xliv] As mentioned, major economists like Adam Smith and Milton Friedman, but also John Stuart Mill believed that the economic rationality of seeking self-interest and profit maximization in economic markets contained on its own an important form of rationality whereby everyone who  seeks to fulfill his own interest will contribute to the common good. Business ethics cannot ignore this ethics of the market, which can contribute to an original form of ethics, given within the rules of market economy, yet sensitive to the common good of society.

According to what may be called the cost-benefit efficiency view of economic ethics, free economic action in economic markets is the best way to deal with scarce resources.[xlv] This view may have two formulations. The former stresses the role of the state in giving dynamics to economics, whereas the latter stresses that the autonomy of the private sector is the most efficient way to allocate scarce resources. Economic actors are characterized by responsible and conscious use of scarce resources. In essence, economics is about efficiency and the prudent use of resources. Moreover, organizational action should be profitable. According to economic rationality we cannot ignore the bottom-line of income and expenditures for the success of business action. Economics is about creating value and maximization of profits in terms of individual or social wealth and utility.  Economics is the science of efficiency and utility for society and economic action is about ensuring the most efficient way to deal with scarce resources.

Additionally, economics can also be regarded from the perspective of social development. Utility theory is based on Pareto-optimality (that is a situation of economic arrangements where a change of the situation cannot make the situation better for some without making it worse for others). [xlvi] Welfare-economists stress the role of the state in such situations while libertarians consider that the free market gives the best optimality.[xlvii] Thus economics is considered as the science of how to compare and weigh different goods of society and allocate scarce resources most efficiently. Economic action is about how to contribute to creating wealth on markets and thereby create wealth in society. It is advisable to contribute to economic goods within the basic rules and ethical principles of society. And it would not be just not to respect the laws and principles of economics when acting on economic markets. Economic action based on utility contributes to maximization of efficiency within limits of respect for basic rights.

An important aspect of such a concept of economic ethics is the already mentioned idea of the “invisible hand” from Adam Smith, stating that if everyone acts according to his own interest respecting the rules of fair competition on economic markets, society will flourish and individual self-interested action will be a contribution to the common good. As we have described, we also find this idea of the ethical consequences of individual self-interested action in Hayek’s philosophy of the “spontaneous order” of economic and social development. During evolution based on interaction among self-interested individuals those practices which are based on individual freedom and rational choice of the most efficient alternative, will in the long run contribute to social betterment.[xlviii] And indeed better legal and moral systems will be a result of this spontaneous order. Fair competition and healthy economic institutions will in an economic system based on fair competition contribute to a better society. In this perspective the idea of competition includes an ethical dimension of fairness and transparency contributing to the spontaneous order of society.

If we conceive economics as implying a particular ethical rationality we may therefore consider how economic institutions contribute to ethics. The ethics of economics in institutional arrangements is the promotion of rational self-interest and fair competition as an instrument for economic progress. As John Dienhart acknowledges, according to the institutional view of economics, markets are considered as “ethical engines”.[xlix] The aspect of economizing that we have discussed, may very well be considered as a part of economic institutions as ethical engines. However, the concept of economic rationality is broader and more pluralistic than the view of fair economic markets as exclusively based on the pursuit of self-interest.

Thus, we can distinguish between an internal and an external approach to ethics and economics. According to the external approach economic rationality is based on self-interest and there is complete separation between ethics and economics.[l] Economic engines can help us to attain ethical values, but economics as such is neutral. However, there seems to be an ethics implied in economic rationality. So we can argue for an internal approach according to which ethics is not only considered as external limitations to economics but rather as a part of economics. But the internal approach does not necessarily have to rely on a utilitarian and neo-classical concept of economic ethics. Rather we can have a pluralistic approach to the ethical values that have an impact on economic action. Thus, ethics is to be considered as an internal aspect of economic institutions, for there is an ethical dimension to economic concepts like property, risk-reward structures, information and competition. This implies that we should have an institutional approach to economics emphasizing that institutions determine economic action.[li] The constitutive rules and principles of economic markets based on property, risk-reward structures, information and competition include certain ethical ideas which are the conditions for development of economic systems. Douglass North has for example shown how the act of promising is a condition for good contracts that in turn conditions predictions of future economic action.[lii]

When we deal with the institutional aspects of property rights, risk-reward structures, information and competitive relationships we may say that the internal ethics of the economics of fair markets is about how to organize scarce resources in economic systems in a fair way. To respect property rights is viewed as the foundation of the economic system and a part of fair competition is not to question basic property rights. Adam Smith and after him most libertarian economists have for example always been saying that property rights should be considered as the foundation of the economic order.[liii] We may say that our use and definitions of property rights in the center of corporations are not only based on considerations about self-interest, but rather on a combination between consequentialist and teleological considerations. External intervention is necessary when basic rights are not respected in economic transactions on economic markets. This is the case when we encounter widespread corruption with regard to property rights in economic systems.

Concerning contracts we can emphasize some implicit ethical values that are required to be fulfilled in economic interactions. This is evident when some transaction cost theorists have stated that governance structures to avoid opportunism as well as confidence and promise-keeping matter for economic interaction.[liv] With regard to information we may also encounter certain ethical principles within economic interactions. Correct and reliable information is a condition for trustful relations of economic action on different economic markets. It is a requirement for good contracts that they are based on reliable information. 

The principles of fair and healthy competition may indeed also be an important aspect of the ethical principles of competitive markets.[lv] Norms about monopolistic practices constitute internal limitations of economic interactions. It is a widespread belief that monopolistic action is at the limits of economic systems and possibly of economic behavior as such in liberal economic markets.

If we analyze the ethics of transaction costs economics it may be argued that a contract view of the firm is not sufficient to conceptualize the ethical dimensions of organizations. Organizations are not only universes of micro-contracts but are based on values that function as organizational goals for corporate behavior. Transaction cost economics addresses ethical problems in organizations when it discusses problems of opportunistic behavior with regard to information, agency and liability of individuals, but it cannot explain loyal and altruistic behavior in organizations. It may be true that organizations try to control organizational behavior and ensure efficiency in competition by setting up institutional infrastructures based on contracts.[lvi] But the question is if this really is sufficient to understand cases of lack of opportunistic behavior in organizations?

With Herbert Simon we can argue that transaction cost economics cannot explain why people identify with organizations and feel much more committed that what is required from the perspective of self-interest.[lvii] Authority-employee relationships and motivation cannot be understood as incomplete contracts, but rather as based on the goals and values of the organization as implicit premises for decisions. Employee motivation is therefore not only based on economic incentives but also on loyalty to the goals of the organization. Moreover, organizations should not only be understood as micro-markets of competitive contracts, but rather as instruments for coordination of human action, which facilitate action on economic markets.[lviii] In such a goal-based view, the rationality of utility based on the “economic man” cannot be the only explanation of the function of organizations on economic markets but goal-oriented and community-based behavior is a much more important aspect of organizational action. However, within new institutional theory we can perceive an orientation towards integration of different aspects of rationality when dealing with economic institutions.[lix] Therefore it may be possible to find a sort of convergence between a goal-based and a contract-based view of organizations.

From this initiative to deduce ethics out of economics we may conclude that ethics is not always external but also sometimes implicit in economic rationality. We can say that ethical aspects of economics are based on the values of the basic concepts of economic systems. We can point to organization of market structures and the most important concepts of economic markets: “Property, risk-reward relationships, information and competition”.[lx] The system of these concepts is not neutral but cannot but implies ethical values. These values are not only based on economic efficiency but include a plurality of ethical rationality reflecting individual goals, organizational values and community values. Moreover, economic organizations are not only determined by self-interested individuals acting according to utility values but the ethical values of economic organizations are more complex and they also include personal values of individual members of organizations.[lxi] However, the plurality of values also implies great tension between traditional economic values of utility and self-interest with community values based on an ethical view of the economy.

5. Economic anthropology and the foundations of rationality 

The debate about the relation of economics to ethics and politics centers on the view of economic anthropology and on the motives for action of human individuals. With welfare economics, we already were able to propose a more complex view on concepts of preferences and economic rationality.  As mentioned common criticisms of the idea self-interest of economic actors argue that human beings are not egoistic utility maximizes but belong to human communities and social cultures where concerns for the common good cannot be excluded from understanding motives for economic action.[lxii] Moreover, neoclassical presuppositions of ideal situations of economic action are conceived to be very far from the conditions of action in concrete social contexts of economic life.

Arguments for a broader ethical foundation of economic action state that economic anthropology is characterized by a tension between egoism and altruism.[lxiii] Some authors argue that wise economic action implies reciprocity and concern for other human beings.[lxiv] Therefore, self-interest is never the only motive for economic agency. In opposition to such a social view on economic action economists like Gary Becker have defended altruism as an advanced form of individual utility maximization.[lxv] Becker advances the so called “Rotten Kid Theorem” stating that people acting altruistically do so in order to improve their self-interest – like the child who behaves nicely in order to get a great reward from his or her parents.[lxvi] In this perspective strategies of cooperation and sympathy are only forms of advanced self-interest recognizing the importance of truth-telling, promise and contract keeping for future collaboration and exchange. This argument has been fully developed by Axelrod who, in his book The Evolution of Cooperation (1984), states that cooperative behavior can be founded on individual maximization of utility because in cooperative strategies in the long run will benefit individuals more than opportunistic strategies.[lxvii]

As we saw in the discussion of welfare economics fundamental preferences are not always egoistic and maximization does not always have to be based on individual profit maximization. In fact, an important development of welfare economics in the direction of corporate citizenship, business ethics and corporate social responsibility is to show that the economic subject is not exclusively to be conceived as an atomistic preference maximizer, but can be said to have altruistic preferences at the fundamental level of economic anthropology. We may say that the “economic man” should be accomplished by a “social man” or rather that individuals are characterized by a structure of double preferences where individual preferences are also related to other persons. Christian Arnsperger gives us support for this argument by considering the French anthropological tradition coming from Marcel Mauss and the concept of responsibility in the phenomenology of Emmanuel Lévinas as possible criticisms of the liberal and neoliberal restriction of economic subjects to be “atomist monads” of individualist profit maximization.[lxviii]

With this approach we use the French tradition of anthropology to illuminate the concept of economic subjectivity. With his Essai sur le don. Forme et Raison de l’échange dans les sociétés archaiques from 1924 Mauss analyzes the anthropological foundations of the concept of exchange.[lxix] The main point is that the reduction of all exchange to economic exchange does not capture the anthropological basis of exchange which really is a condition of social integration. By doing an archeological analysis of the origins of exchange Mauss can help to understand the foundations of modern social institutions. By analyzing the concept of exchange Mauss shows that the original concept of the gift is in sharp contrast with the neoclassical concept of economic exchange. In fact by looking at the triadic structure of giving-receiving and giving back (donner-recevoir-rendre) we can see how exchange is a condition of social interaction indicating exchange as a form of social integration between human beings.[lxx] This is illustrated by the phenomenon of Potlatch that was practiced by Indians in Vancouver and Alaska.[lxxi] Potlatch was a form of aggressive gift leading to a fight of giving (prestations totales de type agonistiques) between adversaries, where the winner was the one who could contribute with the largest gift. In Polynesia, exchanges of gifts were a part of important and symbolic events in society, for example religious ceremonies. In this context the gift had a religious content and to receive something from other persons was to receive parts of a symbolic substance, for example as divine mediation between giver and receiver. Today, in contrast to economic exchange, the gift still has parts of such significance. However, in the metaphysics of the gift exchange is not reduced to an economic calculation of preferences but it is linked to spiritual relations between individuals, and even when we deal with economic transactions this spiritual dimension is a part of the exchange. A gift includes an obligation both from those who receive and give the gift and in some situations this also includes the obligation to return with expression of recognition and gratitude. In the ancient mythology of India, God is defined as divine generosity of giving the world to the human beings and in the archaic Germanic societies the gift was related to intimate social relations, a symbolic and sometimes spiritual instrument of integration between different groups of society

Mauss argues that modern society still contains elements of this original concept of the gift.[lxxii] In economics and trade the interactions are often characterized by expectations of mutual satisfaction between buyer and seller and it is presupposed that the relation of exchange is based on reciprocity and recognition. Moreover, our concepts of generosity are defined as a transgression of the ordinary concepts of exchange.. According to Mauss, the modern idea of the economic subject that has emerged with the neoclassical liberal traditions may be conceived as a sort of alienation of the original concept of the gift. Although we still live by the metaphysics of the gift in modern society, we have developed an economic system where the gift has been forgotten in favor of the concept of methodological individualism of individual profit maximizers.[lxxiii] However, there are many phenomena that show the limits of this concept of social interaction, for example social security in the welfare state, corporate philanthropy, charity movements, and also gift giving for different kinds of ceremonies. Mauss is regretting that the economic concept of exchange as personal maximization is replacing the spiritual and generosity-based aspects of the gift. In neoclassical economics the maxim of mutual exchange that is based on the idea that all give as much as they received, has been replaced by individual preference maximization.

Mauss’ anthropological concept of exchange helps us to question the liberal concept of economic maximization. This economic concept of exchange must be considered in the perspective of our social life and it is limited when we want to understand all relevant aspects of human motivation. Mauss helps us to formulate a more complex concept of economic exchange linking economics to altruistic motives as well as concepts of giving and receiving, thus linking economic markets to social life. From an ethical point of view, human subjects are not only “profit maximizers”, but in their giving and receiving they are always linked to logics of social integration, which is also an important aspect of economic interaction.

The central insight of Mauss is that economic anthropology cannot solely be based on the concept of individual preference maximizer, but that economic interaction presupposes a social concern of mutual social interdependence of economic actors. Moreover, this concept of society presupposes a broader conception of the human self than the one which is proposed by neoclassical economics.  In fact we can say that the mutual relations of giving-receiving-returning is not external to the market, but rather the real truth of the market, because the market presupposes mutual dependence and mutual relations between economic actors.[lxxiv] With Christian Arnsperger we may propose a “methodological altruism” to accomplish methodological individualism of profit maximization.[lxxv] In this context the concepts of altruism of Becker and Axelrod do not take account of what altruism really is.[lxxvi] They are begging the question of altruism because they only want to count for altruism in terms of enlightened egoism. Rather, altruism is based on the essentially social character of the market involving basic conditions for the exchange relation as described by Marcel Mauss. Instead of the foundation in the monadic subject of mathematical, axiomatic economics, we have to acknowledge the relation between economic theories to the moral sciences. Economic theory cannot abstract from the morality of exchange, because exchange after all is a social event. With the focus on anthropology we have learned that it is possible to accomplish methodological individualism with a methodological altruism that also accounts for possible altruistic preferences in the economic subject and furthermore acknowledges the importance of ethical evaluation of economic preferences and of economic motives.

Emmanuel Lévinas helps to enlarge the ethical foundation for this altruistic approach to economic anthropology. Lévinas proposes a phenomenology of the intimate encounter of the other human being as the basis for our view of human motivation.[lxxvii] The encounter of the other human being is an infinite demand of responsibility and self-sacrifice. This concern for the other is the basis for social relations. The reciprocity with the other should not be defined as a relation of “alter ego”, but rather the other is someone fundamentally different from me. In the perspective of Lévinas the fundamental respect for the other as other is the foundation of ethical relations and this concern for “the other as other” precedes the relation of economic egoistic exchange. The ethical relation is more fundamental than economic relations and this ethical ideal of respect for the other as other is the foundation and condition of possibility for economic exchange.[lxxviii] Therefore, Lévinas says that ethics precedes reciprocity as mutual recognition and altruism as enlarged self-interest.

The criticism of the atomistic economic subject that is revealed by the analysis of Mauss is supported by Lévinas’ ethical anthropology, which situates economic action as secondary to the fundamental human responsibility for “the otherness of the other” as revelation of what is the innermost purpose of human action.[lxxix] This implies that economic action is embedded in larger social structures and economic rationality cannot be separated from ethical and political rationality. Christian Arnspenger suggests that Lévinas’ phenomenological description of individual subjectivity as implying a fundamental responsibility for the other shows that the logic of the gift is a possibility of individual choice that precedes “every constitution of subjectivity as purely autonomous”.[lxxx] We may say that this ethics of otherness constitutes the fundamental openness for generosity that precedes the economic account for particular preferences. Lévinas emphasizes that responsibility is the most fundamental constitution of subjectivity and it this sense we may say that ethical subjectivity is more fundamental than the economic subject of neo-classical and neo-liberal economic theory. [lxxxi]

This view on the relation between economics and ethics helps us to understand that individual rational maximization can never be fully isolated from the idea of ethical subjectivity as fundamentally responsible for other human beings. The ontology of economics and the reach of economic method based upon sheer individual maximization cannot be conceived as all-encompassing and absolute, given that economic rationality is secondary to political and ethical reciprocity. From such a point of view economic decision-making should have external restrictions in the laws of political justice and the ethical principles based on fundamental principles of human existence. Economic reason is submitted to responsible subjectivity who, when evaluating economic preferences, cannot avoid asking questions about the ethical ideas of universal moral rules, the search for justice in the political community, and considerations of community welfare.

In the perspective of the philosophy of Lévinas we may say that responsibility for the other human being conditions the legitimacy of economic action.[lxxxii] Moreover, viewed from the ideals of political community, responsibility is not only an intimate relation with the other but should be extended in time and space to society as a whole. This is the argument of the German philosophy Hans Jonas, who thinks that responsibility does not only concern present human activities but should be extended globally in time and space and include the future of humanity.[lxxxiii]

However, such an integration of ethics and politics in economic rationality is not without a price, because basic economic considerations are considered as relative to ethical principles.[lxxxiv] Concepts of efficiency, utility, production, demand, consumption, accumulations of goods, property are not considered as intrinsic values, but as only valid insofar as they do not violate basic ethical principles or contradict our moral values. Ethical and political limitations of economic action propose an ethics of responsibility as the basis for social regulation of economic action.


What we can learn from this analysis of economic rationality as linked to social conditions of exchange and to the responsibilities of ethical subjectivity is not that business decisions are exclusively ethical or economic in any ideal sense, but rather that it is always possible that decision-making will be dependant on a kind of “mixed rationality” including elements from both economic and ethical rationality, as well as other fields like politics and law. But in a deeper sense, we can also conceive business ethics as the foundation of decision-making in corporations, because business ethics is not only about economic means and rationality but also about the social and political goals of economic behavior. Yet how to define this political and ethical rationality as basis for economic action?

We can emphasize the fact that it follows from subjective ethical responsibility that economic rationality can never be justified without good ethical reasons. In fact this is not only supported by economic anthropology, but also within welfare economics, which relies on the concept of individual preference maximization, i.e. the same homo œconomicus of the neoclassical tradition, but does not exclude ethical evaluation of proposals for maximization. Indeed, it is a great advantage of welfare economics, somewhat in contrast to neoclassical economics, that it does not separate ethics from economic rationality but rather recognizes that theory of economic rationality should always be justified from the point of view of ethics. It is very important that economists accept this ethical constraint on economic action even when they do not agree upon what ethical reasons should be used to justify particular economic actions.

We may say that such a kind of normativity implies that we conceive the concepts of wants, utility (pleasure), competition, freedom to consume in neoclassical economics in tension with social values like needs, self-actualization, cooperation, freedom to growth, and self-realization through work as a potential good. These ideas may be considered as what is necessary in order to promote of justice as the basic structure of society. It is, in the perspective of business ethics, the aim of business institutions to be founded on a close link between ethics and economics in the sense that economic rationality is based on good and well-founded ethical reasons and arguments.


[i] François-Régis Mahieu: Éthique économique, fondements anthropologiques, Bibliotheque du développement, L’Harmattan, Paris 2001.

[ii] Jean-Pierre Dupuy: Liberalisme et justice sociale, Paris, Pluriel, 1992, p. 39-40.

[iii] Amartya Sen: On Ethics and Economics, Blackwell Publishers, Massachusetts, USA, 1987.

[iv] Henri Dennis: Historie de la pensée économique, Thémis, PUF, Paris 1966, pp. 7-91.

[v] Aristotle: Politics, book 1, chap 9.

[vi] Thomas Aquinas : Somme Théologique II. Henri Dennis: Historie de la pensée économique, Thémis, PUF, Paris 1966, pp. 74-75 and p. 83.

[vii] Adam Smith: The Theory of the Moral Sentiments, (1759), Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2002. Patricia Werhane: Adam Smith and his Legacy for Modern Capitalism, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1991.

[viii] Amartya Sen: On Ethics and Economics, Blackwell Publishers, Massachusetts, USA, 1987, pp. 22-23.

[ix] Jean-Pierre Dupuy: Liberalisme et justice sociale, Paris, Pluriel, 1992, p. 77.

[x] Bernard Mandeville: The fable of the bees, Pelican classics, London 1970.

[xi] Adam Smith: The Theory of the Moral Sentiments, (1759), Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2002. Patricia Werhane: Adam Smith and his Legacy for Modern Capitalism, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1991. Werhane formulates the tension between benevolence and egoism in the following way “Rather in the Theory of moral sentiments Smith critizises any moral theory that derives its basis for moral judgments merely from self-interest and equally, questions any moral theory that derives these judgments solely from benevolence. Distinguishing passions from interests, Smith argues that human beings are not motivated merely by selfish passions, but that both prudence and benevolence are virtues of the self-directed and social interests, and the basic virtue is justice” (Werhane, 1991 p. 13).

[xii] Jean-Pierre Dupuy: Liberalisme et justice sociale, Paris, Pluriel, 1992, p. 84

[xiii] Amartya Sen: On Ethics and Economics, Blackwell Publishers, Massachusetts, USA, 1987, pp. 22-23.

[xiv] Jean-Pierre Dupuy: Liberalisme et justice sociale, Paris, Pluriel, 1992, p. 84.

[xv] Ibid. p. 94.

[xvi] Ibid. p. 6.

[xvii] Alfred Marshall: Principles of Economics, 8th ed. MacMillan, 1920.

[xviii] Amartya Sen: On Ethics and Economics, Blackwell Publishers, Massachusetts, USA, 1987, p.15.

[xix] Christian Knudsen: Økonomisk metodologi II, Jurist og Økonomforbundets forlag, København 1995.

[xx] F.A. Hayek: Law, legislation and liberty. A new statement of the liberal principles of justice and political economy, including Vol 1: Rules and order, Vol 2: The mirage of social justice, Vol 3: The political order of a free people, Routledge, (1983), London 1998.

[xxi] F.A. Hayek : The Road to Serfdom (1944), Routledge Paperbacks, London 1997, p. 66-69.

[xxii] Jean-Pierre Dupuy: Liberalisme et justice sociale, Paris, Pluriel, 1992, p 247.

[xxiii] F.A. Hayek: Law, legislation and liberty. A new statement of the liberal principles of justice and political economy, including Vol 1: Rules and order, Vol 2: The mirage of social justice, Vol 3: The political order of a free people, Routledge, (1983), London 1998.

[xxiv] F.A. Hayek: Law, legislation and liberty. A new statement of the liberal principles of justice and political economy, including Vol 1: Rules and order, Vol 2: The mirage of social justice, Vol 3: The political order of a free people, Routledge, (1983), London 1998. Jean-Pierre Dupy: Liberalisme et justice sociale, Paris, Pluriel, 1992, p. 284

[xxv] F.A. Hayek: Law, legislation and liberty. A new statement of the liberal principles of justice and political economy, including Vol 1: Rules and order, Vol 2: The mirage of social justice, Vol 3: The political order of a free people, Routledge, (1983), London 1998. Jean-Pierre Dupy: Liberalisme et justice sociale, Paris, Pluriel, 1992, p. 291.

[xxvi] Christian Knudsen: Økonomisk metodologi II, Jurist og Økonomforbundets forlag, København 1995, p. 66. Knudsen refers to David Kreps: A Course in Microeconomic Theory, Harvester Wheatsheaf, London and New York 1990.

[xxvii] Christian Knudsen: Økonomisk metodologi II, Jurist og Økonomforbundets forlag, København 1995, p. 88. Knudsen refers to the article about the theories of cooperative and non-cooperative game theory by Eric van Damme & J.W.: Weibull: “Equlibrium in strategic interaction: The contribution of J.C. Harsanyi, John F. Nash, and Reinhart Selten” in Scandinavian Journal of Economics, Vol. 97, pp. 15-40.

[xxviii] Christian Knudsen: Økonomisk metodologi II, Jurist og Økonomforbundets forlag, København 1995, 96.

[xxix] Michael Jensen: “A Theory of the Firm, governance, residual claims and organizational forms”, Harvard University Press, dec 2000 and The Journal of Financial Economics 1976.

[xxx] Oliver Williamson: The Economic Institutions of Capitalism, The Free Press, New York, 1989.

[xxxi] Ibid. p. 63.

[xxxii] Amartya Sen: On Ethics and Economics, Blackwell Publishers, Massachusetts, USA, 1987, pp. 19-20.

[xxxiii] Daniel M. Hausman and Michael S. MacPherson: Economic Analysis and Moral Philosophy, Cambridge University Press Cambridge 1996, Swedish Translation, Studenttliteratur, Lund 2001.

[xxxiv] Daniel M. Hausman and Michael S. MacPherson: Economic Analysis and Moral Philosophy, Cambridge University Press Cambridge 1996. Swedish Translation, Studenttliteratur, Lund 2001, p. 64.

[xxxv]Ibid., p. 66.

[xxxvi] Ibid, p. 68.

[xxxvii] Daniel M. Hausman and Michael S. MacPherson: refers to Kenneth Arrow (1974) for this point of view.

[xxxviii] Daniel M. Hausman and Michael S. MacPherson: Economic Analysis and Moral Philosophy, Cambridge University Press Cambridge 1996. Swedish Translation, Studenttliteratur, Lund 2001, p.  87.

[xxxix] See for example John Broom: Ethics out of Economics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1999. Broom even thinks that ethics and politics should learn a lot from economics. However, Broom seems to work within the utilitarian tradition of welfare economics and it is not clear whether he would speak for the neoclassical view of the necessity of a market without legal and political restrictions. Broom’s views seem to impose rather strict limitations on economic markets in comparison with the radical libertarianism of Robert Nozick and also with Milton Friedman, who both argue for an ethics implicit in economic markets.

[xl] François-Régis Mahieu: Éthique économique, fondements anthropologiques, Bibliotheque du développement, L’Harmattan, Paris 2001, p. 120.

[xli] Oliver Williamson: The Economic Institutions of Capitalism, The Free Press, New York 1989, p 129.

[xlii] Michael Jensen: “A Theory of the Firm, governance, residual claims and organizational forms”, Harvard University Press, dec 2000 and The Journal of Financial Economics 1976.

[xliii] Christian Knudsen: Økonomisk metodologi II, Jurist og Økonomforbundets forlag, København 1995., p. 262.

[xliv] Diane L. Swanson: ”Business Ethics and Economics” in A Companion to Business Ethics, Blackwell Companions to Philosophy, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford 2002. (pp. 207-217), p. 210.

[xlv] Ibid. p. 211.

[xlvi] Ibid. p. 210.

[xlvii] I.M.D Little: Ethics, economics and politics. Principles of public policy, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2002.

[xlviii] In fact, there are many arguments for corporate social responsibility and corporate citizenship that rely on economic concepts of self-interests. These arguments are based on the idea of the invisible hand and strategic action of self-interest as leading to the common good. This approach argues that it is possible to use concepts from game theory in order to justify action for corporate citizenship from a strategic perspective. Accordingly, altruistic action for the common good may be justified in terms of satisfaction of egoistic preferences.

[xlix] John W. Dienhart: Business, Institutions and Ethics. A Text with Cases and Readings, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 145.

[l] Ibid. p. 146.

[li] See Walter W. Powell and Paul J. DiMaggio:The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London 1991., p. 293ff.

[lii] John W. Dienhart: Business, Institutions and Ethics. A Text with Cases and Readings, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 149.

[liii] Ibid..

[liv] Oliver Williamson: The Economic Institutions of Capitalism, The Free Press, New York, 1989, p 63.

[lv] See for example Milton Friedman’s discussions of healty markets in Capitalism and Freedom, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1962.

[lvi] John W. Dienhart: Business, Institutions and Ethics. A Text with Cases and Readings, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 177.

[lvii] Herbert Simon: ”Organizations and markets”. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 5; 3 (1995), pp. 273-293.

[lviii] John W. Dienhart: Business, Institutions and Ethics. A Text with Cases and Readings, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 180.

[lix] Walter W. Powell and Paul J. DiMaggio: The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London 1991.

[lx] John W. Dienhart: Business, Institutions and Ethics. A Text with Cases and Readings, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 182.

[lxi] Ibid. p. 182

[lxii] François-Régis Mahieu: Éthique économique, fondements anthropologiques, Bibliotheque du développement, L’Harmattan, Paris 2001, p. 299.

[lxiii] Ibid. p. 152.

[lxiv] Amartya Etizioni: The Moral Dimension. Towards a New Economics, Collier Macmillan, New York 1988.

[lxv] Gary S. Becker: Human Capital: A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis, with Special Reference to Education, University of Chicago Press (1964), Chicago 1993.

[lxvi] Gary S. Becker: Human Capital: A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis, with Special Reference to Education, University of Chicago Press (1964), Chicago 1993. See also François-Régis Mahieu: Éthique économique, fondements anthropologiques, Bibliotheque du développement, L’Harmattan, Paris 2001.,p. 164.

[lxvii] Robert Axelrod: The Evolution of Cooperation, Basic Books, New York 1984.

[lxviii] Christian Arnsperger: “Mauss et l´éthique du don: Les enjeux d’un altruisme méthodologique” in Revue du Mauss, Éthique et économie. L’impossible (re) marriage? No. 15. La découverte/Mauss, Paris 2000. p. 99.

[lxix] Marcel Mauss: “Essai sur le don”, In Sociologie et Anthropologie, PUF, Paris 1950.

[lxx] Marcel Hénaff: Le prix de la vérité. Le don, l’argent, la philosophie, Le Seuil Paris 2002. In this book we find a very profound development of theme of the gift. The problem is whether it is possible to unite gift and exchange. Since Socrates a particular philosophical tradition has been reluctant to allowing this, arguing that a philosopher could not sell his knowledge without reducing the gift of truth to exchange and thereby making it illegitimate. However, there is also another current accepting a link between gift and exchange, which is for example expressed in the philosophy of Montesquieu, who argued that trade implied unification of nations and Max Weber who in a certain sense can be said to reply to the theme of the gift with his idea of the Protestant ethics. However, from our point of view these discussions emphasize that the economic exchange is not something isolated, but a case of general human exchange based on reciprocity and recognition. Economic exchange, therefore, cannot be isolated from general human practices and economics must indeed be treated and conceived as a social practice. Economics cannot be separated from the social exchange processes of gift and return even though money seems to neutralize the exchange relation.

[lxxi] Marcel Mauss: “Essai sur le don”, In Sociologie et Anthropologie, PUF, Paris 1950.

[lxxii] Marcel Mauss: “Essai sur le don”, In Sociologie et Anthropologie, PUF, Paris 1950.

[lxxiii] Marcel Mauss: “Essai sur le don”, In Sociologie et Anthropologie, PUF, Paris 1950.

[lxxiv] Christian Arnsperger: “Mauss et l´éthique du don: Les enjeux d’un altruisme méthodologique” in Revue du Mauss, Éthique et économie. L’impossible (re) marriage? No. 15. La découverte/Mauss, Paris 2000.

[lxxv] Christian Arnsperger: “Mauss et l´éthique du don: Les enjeux d’un altruisme méthodologique” in Revue du Mauss, Éthique et économie. L’impossible (re) marriage? No. 15. La découverte/Mauss, Paris 2000. p. 104

[lxxvi] François-Régis Mahieu: Éthique économique, fondements anthropologiques, Bibliotheque du développement, L’Harmattan, Paris 2001.,p. 164.

[lxxvii] Emmanuel Lévinas:. Totalité et infini, Essai sur l’extéorité, M. Nijhoff, La Haye, 1961. François-Régis Mahieu: Éthique économique, fondements ’anthropologique, Bibliotheque du développement, L’Harmattan, Paris 2001.,p. 159.

[lxxviii] Emmanuel Lévinas:. Totalité et infini, Essai sur l’extéorité, M. Nijhoff, La Haye, 1961.

[lxxix] Christian Arnsperger:  “Homo Oeconomicus, Social Order and the Ethics of Otherness“ in Ethical Perspectives, Vol 9.

[lxxx] Christian Arnsperger: “Mauss et l´éthique du don: Les enjeux d’un altruisme méthodologique” in Revue du Mauss, Éthique et économie. L’impossible (re) marriage? No. 15. La découverte/Mauss, Paris 2000. p. 113.

[lxxxi] The critical reader may insist that Lévinas cannot be used in such a way as to argue for the primacy of ethics over economics. Such an approach would state that the phenomenology of the other implies a negative reaction to the instrumentalism of economic exchange and an ethics of situational ethical demand on the individual that goes beyond economic exchange. I agree with that, but this is indeed also a good argument for the primacy of ethics in the reciprocal relation of social exchange between human beings. Accordingly, ethical responsibility is a primary constitutive element of human existence. See for exemple Emmanuel Lévinas: L’humanisme de l’autre homme, Paris Gallimard 1972, p. 82-83: ”Par cette susceptibilité, le sujet est responsable de sa responsabilité, incapable de s’y soustraire sans garder la trace de sa désertion. Il est responsabilité avant d’être intentionnalité. See Christian Arnsperger: “Mauss et l´éthique du don: Les enjeux d’un altruisme méthodologique” in Revue du Mauss, Éthique et économie. L’impossible (re) marriage? No. 15. La découverte/Mauss, Paris 2000. p. 114.

[lxxxii] Ibid.

[lxxxiii] Hans Jonas: Das Prinzip Verantwortung,  Insel Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1979.

[lxxxiv]François-Régis Mahieu: Éthique économique, fondements anthropologiques, Bibliotheque du développement, L’Harmattan, Paris 2001., p. 168.