Dimitar Lilkov Digital Ethics Technology
The Facebook Files and Algorithmic Decision-Making with Angela Müller, Ph.D.
Brussels Bytes - Multimedia
27 Jan 2022
Political correctness is becoming one of the most unpopular things on the planet. A cursory look at public debates and internet pages reveals political correctness high on the list of public menaces, somewhere between terrorism and George Soros.
An article of the Czech conservative historian Aleš Valenta in the Aspen Review Central Europe is an articulate expression of this prevailing mood. Valenta, a former anti-communist dissident and fellow political traveller of mine, now works for the Institute of Vaclav Klaus in Prague.
In his article, Valenta argues that the EU is dominated by neo-Marxist tendencies, whose common denominator is equality. Equality has many faces, with feminism and multiculturalism being the ‘deadliest’. The EU’s principle of gender equality then amounts to ‘degenerated liberalism.’
A cursory look at public debates and internet pages reveals political correctness high on the list of public menaces, somewhere between terrorism and Soros.
Apart from the Czech exit from the EU, Valenta calls for an end to political correctness. He hints that the Central European countries, ‘sandwiched between autocratic Russia and the West that is enslaved by feminism, political correctness, and drenched in guilt’ could become bearers of this return to ‘common sense, rooted in human nature’.
Valenta’s linking of Marxism to ‘leftist liberalism’ is bizarre, and so is the attribution of these philosophies to the EU.
But apart from these factual mishaps, Valenta’s article embodies a wider political trend of the last decade, exploiting excesses in the politically correct language to discredit the liberal notion of tolerance and the European project as such. These trends, although probably strongest in the Visegrad Four, are present across Europe and the West.
Limits to political correctness
One definition of political correctness is ‘language, policies, or measures that are intended to avoid offense or disadvantage to members of particular groups in society’. The concept gained wider acceptance in the US in the 1970s, where it was used, often in a self-deprecating manner, by the American left. Since then, the term has become a derogatory one, an argumentative tool against someone who refuses to give things their proper name.
There is no doubt that political correctness can stifle debate and even turn innocent people into victims. US academia is a prime example here. During my studies in the US in the 1990s, I witnessed a student gathering organised to protest moves towards abolishing affirmative action at universities. Two speakers, a white male professor and a black businessman, expressed support for doing away with the affirmative action. Several student speakers subsequently called them names and even cast doubt on the professor’s ability to teach.
One year later, another professor at the same university, a poet, was severely disciplined by his department. He had pinned his slightly erotic poem on the departmental board. A complaint from several female students followed, alleging being ‘intimidated’ about the poem’s content and demanding punishment.
There is no doubt that political correctness can stifle debate and even turn innocent people into victims.
Closer to home in Europe, debates on political correctness often concentrate around Christmas, a Christian festival which tends to evoke strong emotions at both personal and societal levels. Many accusations of European Muslim communities protesting against Christmas celebrations have been urban myths.
However, we cannot close our eyes to the disturbing occurrences when this is real. One example is that of calls currently spread, among others, by the youth branch of Ditib, a large association of Turkish Germans. The call for Muslims not to celebrate Christmas is powerfully expressed by a picture of a Muslim man hitting Father Christmas, see here.
Limits to common sense
There is a different side to this story. We should realise that some responses to the excesses of political correctness are as sinister as the original phenomenon.
Critics usually do not provide an alternative to the notion of political correctness but when probed, they tend to simply reply that ‘common sense’ should be restored. This is often a legitimate and logical stance.
We need to be more careful when political correctness becomes the tool of new discoverers of Europe’s religious traditions, such as the German Pegida movement (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident) and like-minded movements in other European countries.
We should realise that some responses to the excesses of political correctness are as sinister as the original phenomenon.
Europe’s new Christians are not people who have undergone a religious awakening in the evangelical sense. Instead, they appeal to an exclusively collectivist notion of shared Christian roots to polarise society. As one observer has put it, they have become Christians because they do not like Muslims. In today’s secular society, their return to Christianity gets expressed as fighting for a political cause through demonstrations and Facebook pages.
Leaders of these new Christian movements and the associated crowd who invoke the alleged golden past of the European nation state, exploit the current crisis of Western democratic institutions to attack indigenous and new ethnic minorities and non-Christian religions, all that while trying to wipe out Europe’s political pluralism as well. ‘Common sense’ and ‘the voice of the people’ serve as their battering rams to destroy what they portray as the rotten castle of checks and balances.
The protection of minorities of any kind – ethnic, religious, political and others – is an essential element of any constitutional democracy. Political correctness, when properly applied and when not limiting effective policy interventions, can be a useful tool to achieve this constitutional objective.
A decision by a country deciding to leave the EU will solve nothing. Our societies are changing irrespective of the views of anyone in Brussels and minorities of any kind deserve protection for the sake of all of us.
Europe’s centre-right and all mainstream parties have work cut out for them to develop language that fosters respect and tolerance but does not sweep problems under the carpet. Being hateful and deliberately offensive is not an alternative, if we want to preserve our democracies.Vít Novotný Ethics Society Values
Political correctness in the age of nativism
Blog - Other News
05 Dec 2018
Itʹs official. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has started to apply directly in all member states with the aim of safeguarding the processing of personal data of all natural persons within the European Union. The Regulation is seen as the most comprehensive ‘upgrade’ of data protection rules over the last two decades as it repeals Directive 95/46/EC enacted in the distant 1995. GDPR standardises and strengthens citizensʹ rights when it comes to collecting and processing personal data while also empowering national data protection authorities to supervise this new ambitious framework, by enhancing their responsibilities and ensuring the possibility of heavy fines at their disposal. European and global businesses (big and small) had two years to adapt to the new onerous requirements which demanded administrative, technical and even strategic changes in the way they operate. The following In Brief aims to highlight the essence of the Regulationʹs 99 Articles and analyse the potential impact of GDPR on both users and business.Business Ethics Internet Technology
The Impact of GDPR on Users and Business: The Good, The Bad and the Uncertain
05 Jun 2018
My fingers are shivering under the bitingly-cold Brussels weather as I check my phone on my way to work. It’s a text message from a former colleague and journalist, and it freezes me in my tracks. Investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová have been murdered in Slovakia. A premeditated murder, execution style, apparently related to his work.
In one winter morning Slovakia has been set back to where it had once been: to the dismal nineteen nineties. I suddenly feel the same feeling of nausea that overwhelmed me in 1996 when, after a forceful abduction abroad of the then-President’s son, ex-police officer Robert Remiáš was assassinated just as he prepared to give a deposition about the matter on which he possessed vital information.
They planted a car bomb in his vehicle. They. Although it has never been proven who was behind his murder, from the very beginning the evidence pointed to the involvement of the Slovak Secret Service.
These murders share a common story: both journalists vigorously explored the signs of corruption, for which they paid the ultimate price.
I did not know Ján Kuciak personally. According to the media, he was a young investigative journalist who probed into and reported on tax frauds involving senior business figures with links to the representatives of the current government, especially the Minister of the Interior. He wrote about corruption cases associated with the use of EU funds, scandals of the party in power, and covered the Panama Papers case.
That he had filed a criminal complaint in September alleging threats indicates that he was on the right track. However, the police repeatedly failed to act on his concerns before finally playing them down. Had they acted differently, it is likely that this young couple would be alive today. His violent death makes me look at and perceive the work of investigative journalists, several of whom were my university classmates, in an altogether different light.
In the space of a few months, Ján Kuciak became the second journalist to be murdered in the EU, following the murder of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. These murders share a common story: both journalists vigorously explored the signs of corruption, for which they paid the ultimate price.
According to a Journalists without Borders report, Slovakia is ranked as a country with a high degree of press freedom. However, in recent years, that freedom as well as the state of democracy in Slovakia and neighbouring countries has been jeopardised. In November 2016, when the media questioned Slovak Prime Minster Robert Fico about the state of corruption and its links to government, he had no qualms about publicly labelling them as “dirty Slovak prostitutes”.
This official denigration of the status of journalists was repeated in the Czech Republic when President Zeman spoke about the need to “liquidate” journalists. This was said in public during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, although his spokesman did later claim that it was “just a joke”.
These paragraphs offer just a brief outline into the decreasing press freedoms in this region, a region where the politicians in power seek to build a New Europe.
In Poland, the government recently put forward a bill that aims to limit foreign ownership of Polish media, a move that has been viewed as an attempt to hinder the work of media outlets that dare to criticise the government. As well as his plan to “reform” the Polish judiciary, Kaczyński has made no secret of his desire to deconcentrate the ownership of Polish media.
This regional trend of curtailing press freedoms has potentially been most visible in Hungary. By establishing a “Commission” of select journalists (really a guild), Viktor Orbán has taken actions to make his dream of a compliant media a reality. Here journalists are given significant tax reliefs to encourage them to join this Commission and many publishers feel pressured to join in order to safeguard their operations.
This means that journalists favours will be purchased by granting them certain privileges while existential challenges and threats will be created for those reluctant to adhere to the policy of uncritical commentary of the work of Viktor Orbán.
These paragraphs offer just a brief outline into the decreasing press freedoms in this region, a region where the politicians in power seek to build a New Europe. The murder of a young journalist and his fiancée paint a stark picture of a democracy that is moving towards crisis point. I feel saddened and frightened, but also ashamed.
I am ashamed because, in recent years, the leaders of these countries have acted strategically to diminish the space of democracy and weaken society’s sensitivity to corruption scandals. Freedom of speech and an independent police, judiciary, and prosecution are fundamental pillars of democracy and in this region they are being eroded.
While these post-communist countries are still experiencing the early days of democracy, the response to these developments will tell a lot about the direction of their democratic trajectory. If these countries are to one day become mature democracies these limitations on press freedoms must be stopped and those behind the murder of Ján Kuciak must be brought to justice in a courtroom free from political interference by independent jurors.Viktória Jančošeková Democracy Ethics EU Member States
A chilling morning: the Ján Kuciak case and press freedom in the Visegrad countries
27 Feb 2018
Social media are becoming the dominant source of information for significant parts of our societies. There are numerous positive aspects of these media, such as their ability to mobilise for a political cause and how they enable greater and quicker flows of ideas across societies.
This paper focuses on those aspects of social media that negatively affect the public debate, such as the spreading of fake news and the creation of ‘echo chambers’ of like-minded users who become isolated from alternative opinions. The paper proposes that social media platforms should be considered media companies and that they should be regulated by modified versions of existing press laws, adapted to suit the new technology.
The creation of a ‘notice and correct’ procedure, as it is tentatively called, would provide an effective tool to stop lies from spreading, allowing affected parties, public or private, to protect their rights. By making the social media platforms jointly responsible for the content they publish, governments would create the right incentives for companies to adapt their business models and modify the construction of their algorithms and policies.
The paper outlines how such a procedure could function without constricting the freedom of speech. Finally, the paper stresses the improvement of e-literacy as an additional, viable and long-term solution to the problem of fake news.Ethics Industry Internet Technology Values
Weeding out Fake News: An Approach to Social Media Regulation
11 Jul 2017
Despite the EU’s official motto ‘United in Diversity’, the bloc is experiencing a profound crisis in which diversity is threatening to dispel unity. Instead of harmony, diversity increasingly spells conflict. A variety of factors are behind this strife, including terrorism, the uncertain position of religion in public life, the unclear situation of minority groups (including autochthonous minorities and the Roma), radical Islamism, insufficient integration of immigrants and a loss of personal status and identity due to globalisation.
These phenomena are occurring against the backdrop of the recent economic crisis, instability in Europe’s neighbourhood, and the uncontrolled influx of migrants and refugees in 2015–16. All these developments are feeding conflicts both among the member states and between the EU institutions and national governments, as well as a cultural war between globalists and identitarians that cuts across European societies.
The European People’s Party, and governments at all levels, need to engage with the ‘forgotten part’ of society without compromising on pluralism and personal freedoms. They need to promote a concept of state which allows different religious and secular opinions to thrive. They should combat extremism and, in cooperation with civil society, encourage a public culture that defends tolerance and liberty. They should promote a critical reading of the Koran.
Developing concepts of citizenship with a focus on immigrants is crucial, as is effective participation of autochthonous minorities and the Roma in public life. Taking such steps would ensure that internal and external adversity does not destroy European unity.Ethics EU Member States Immigration Religion
Unity in Adversity: Immigration, Minorities and Religion in Europe
08 Jun 2017
Wikileaks, Cablegate, Offshore Leaks, Lux Leaks, Swiss Leaks, Panama Papers…the last few years have witnessed a spectacular surge in scandals sparked by journalistic leaks of confidential information. With the exception of the first, all others exposed elaborate systems of tax avoidance used by firms and prominent individuals to deflate their tax bills by taking advantage of low tax jurisdictions.
Invariably, revelations provoked outbursts of indignation on all sides of the political spectrum and increased popular anger against ‘privileged’ elites. The occasion was seized by law-makers, international organisations and regulators to vow once more to ‘do something’ about this, to assault the last fortresses of bank secrecy and to move to a world of total transparency in people’s wealth and income.
I confess that I would not like to live in such a world. And I suspect that it would be a far less free and ultimately less prosperous world than the one we know. I am no friend of tax evasion and not even a defender of tax elusion. But there are aspects of the mainstream opinion on tax avoidance and fiscal transparency that any person believing in the sanctity of individual and economic freedom should be deeply uncomfortable with. I would like to signal two of them.
First, there is the ideological option in favour of total transparency – and therefore potential total control – that is implicitly adopted in this debate. It is the red line connecting the more political revelations of Wikileaks with the tax-related leaks of the Panama papers. At the root of it there is a radical breed of ‘democratism’ that treats power and wealth with suspicion – as somewhat fraudulent and illegitimate – and struggles to tear apart the veil of secrecy often protecting their holders. The objective is exposing them nakedly in the limelight, where they will stand defenceless against the conforming attacks of people’s anger and indignation. They will be stigmatised as the morally corrupt and undeserving citizens they are.
This form of staged pressure with strong moral overtones is frankly scary to conservative and liberal eyes. Secrecy and freedom are historically intertwined in the most diverse realms. There is no voting freedom without secret ballot, and freedom of correspondence is a fiction unless one’s letters are inviolable. Can there be real economic freedom if not a cent of one’s wealth can elude the public eye?
There is a second unspoken assumption I detect in the common discourse on tax avoidance. It is the belief that all wealth ultimately belongs to ‘society’, not to those who created it. The implication is that the latter are left the enjoyment of part of it to the extent agreeable to society, as represented by its democratic authorities; but there is no upper limit to the proportion of private wealth society, i.e. the progressive State, can legitimately decide to confiscate to its owners for its own purposes. This is well illustrated by a declaration of Sergei Stanishev, President of the Party of European Socialists, with reference to the Panama papers: ‘The money that these people were hiding’, he said, ‘does not belong to them — it should have been redistributed for the benefit of all.’
How much of it should be redistributed? Perhaps all of it? Is there no limit beyond which society’s claim on its people’s wealth stops being a legitimate demand to promote the public good and becomes instead an odious act of oppression? For those of us who believe in economic freedom, such a limit should exist. This means that, when we discuss tax avoidance, we should, at the very least, be indignant of the exorbitant fiscal demands of modern states as much as we are of the creative tricks used to circumvent them. Such balance is hard to find in the commentaries I hear around, including many coming from the centre-right and the right wing of the political spectrum.
I am familiar with the socialist argument that the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer and the middle class is disappearing. This, we are told, would intensify the urgency to close up all available opportunities for tax avoidance. However, from Marx to Piketty, socialists have been making this point for well over a century. Each time they were proven wrong in the long run. Do we really have solid evidence to argue that ‘this time is different’? I have my doubts.
Finally, there is a most important issue that casts the whole debate on tax avoidance in a completely different light. Historically, tax avoidance was one of the major drivers of Europe’s economic development in the modern era. In ‘The European Miracle’, his classic work on the subject, notable economic historian Eric Jones clearly showed that crucial to laying the foundations for Europe’s economic rise was the ‘curtailment of predatory government tax behaviour’. But what made it possible? The fact is that, at the beginning of the modern era, Europe was a hodgepodge of kingdoms, principalities, and city-states constantly eroding each other’s ‘tax base’ – as modern technocrats put it – through remorseless tax competition. In other words, early modern and modern Europe was a paradise of tax avoidance in which the confiscatory fiscal instincts of rulers were held in check by numberless ‘exit options’ for merchants and bankers. In all likelihood, we owe the rise of a modern competitive economy in Europe – and ultimately our very prosperity – to this fact.
It is no surprise that the leftist ideal should not be the decentralised and competitive Europe of the early modern era, but early modern China, a formidable centralised empire whose bureaucracy of mandarins always managed to squeeze the most out of rich and poor Chinese alike. It was enough to ensure that the country missed out on modern economic growth until the 1980s. But the urge of many centre-right politicians and commentators to embrace the crusade against tax avoidance and for tax harmonisation – instead of focusing on reducing taxes for everyone, rich and poor, so as to make tax avoidance unnecessary – will forever puzzle me.Federico Ottavio Reho Economy Ethics Globalisation Values
Federico Ottavio Reho
Panama papers: on tax avoidance we take too much for granted!
25 Apr 2016
Following the financial meltdown of 2007–8 and during the ensuing ‘Great Recession’, a chorus of recriminations against the evils of capitalism was heard. To many who had always distrusted the liberal shift in economic policy initiated in the 1980s, the turmoil on the financial markets was the long-awaited confirmation of their fears. Unbridled capitalism, they concluded, was unstable and unfair. The deregulation in recent decades had put the finances of whole nations at the mercy of financiers’ greed and bankers’ profits.
Unethical behaviour was rampant in the banking industry. Therefore, tighter regulations were urgently needed to protect the public interest and rein in the forces of globalised capitalism. These convictions provided the moral high ground from which to advocate re-regulation, stimulus packages and ultra-loose monetary policy on both sides of the Atlantic.
This paper considers the case for ‘moralising capitalism’ from a centre–right perspective. After defining capitalism and briefly explaining how it works, it illustrates some of its moral achievements and casts some doubts on the responsibility of the capitalist system for the 2008 financial crisis. It then tries to sketch the contours of a specifically centre–right approach to moralising capitalism, also drawing on the rich insights offered by Wilhelm Röpke, one of the fathers of the Social Market Economy.Centre-Right Economy Ethics
Humane Capitalism: Towards a Centre-Right Approach
14 Apr 2016
In 1819 the French intellectual Benjamin Constant pronounced his famous speech on ‘The liberty of the ancients compared with that of the moderns’. He argued that ancient men had no freedom as individuals, but only as members of the body politic. On the contrary, modern men living under representative government had limited political sovereignty, but many more individual freedoms.
His speech hinted at a profound difference between the ancients and the moderns. But what would he say if he could observe western societies now, after almost two centuries during which the liberty of the moderns revealed all its potential?
At the time of Constant’s writing, personal freedom was embedded in an intricate structure of family, community and church ties that mitigated it with ‘natural’ duties towards one’s elderlies, relatives, children, neighbours and ancestors. In a word, one’s community. These duties were not enforced by the external coercion of the law, but by the inner force of moral upbringing and by the external force of social conformity.
As a result, the freedom of the moderns was not exactly equivalent to the liberal principle of non-interference: it flourished within a complex ecosystem of moral obligations towards specific people; it was therefore as much about our negative obligations not to interfere with other people’s lives as about our positive duties towards them, which often compel us to restrain our natural desires and leanings for a higher good.
Under this conception, the emphasis was on self-mastery, moral discipline and social duties, not on leaving other people alone. In the Anglo-Saxon conservative tradition, this concept is referred to as ‘ordered freedom’, but it existed, with slightly different variants, in pretty much all traditional societies across the Western world, and it owed much to Christian moral teachings.
On the contrary, the contemporary conception of freedom tolerates little in the form of specific duties towards specific people. It tends to replace them with abstract duties towards abstract entities that do not require our direct effort as individuals but require us to call on politicians and bureaucrats to do something about it, to plan things better at the highest possible level, often the world level. That’s one root of the modern obsession with global poverty, while charity at home stagnates or is comfortably delegated to inefficient welfare bureaucracies, or with the environment and global warming.
The fashionable moral causes of our age have all in common that we do not have to take direct responsibility for their solution, our moral obligation is discharged by the mere preaching and campaigning. They are the kind of causes you can comfortably support from your sofa, writing tweets full of moral indignation during the break of the movie you are watching, and getting plenty of likes on them.
Thus, in a strange twist of western values, what progressives usually consider supreme ‘moral engagements’ are in fact the end point of a complex process of moral irresponsibility. This process, in turn, finds one of its causes in our dis-embeddedness from the organic communities that were the traditional ecosystem of individual morality across the western world.
There is perhaps something we can do to revive this ecosystem in the 21st century, but it may require measures that many would consider too far-reaching. They imply a progressive but radical reversal of the 20th century trend that saw more and more personal and social responsibilities taken away from individuals and voluntary organisations and handed over to state bureaucracies.
Societies are complex, adaptive structures, and there is no doubt that their resilience and resourcefulness have been hugely damaged by over a century of servitude to the state. The disease is chronic in the old Europe, where the march towards centralisation was most radical and people have become accustomed to believe that, far from being themselves ‘society’, they have a claim on ‘society’ – to be enforced by the State – for all sorts of things that morally responsible individuals used to see as their main duties in life: providing for themselves and their families, educating their children, taking care of their elderlies, saving for their old age and, very importantly, getting organised to support the neediest in their community through charities and churches.
I would not be surprised if, in the political conditions of the coming decades, there arose a great scope for a virtuous revision of the tasks of government in order to de-bureaucratese our systems and reintroduce choice and ownership at the individual, family and community level. The concrete ways to do so will have to be studied in details.
But there certainly are interesting possibilities, such as the rigorous application of voucher systems in health and education, which would re-empower parents, private organisations and churches in educational choices as well as in the direct management of schools. Home schooling could also be encouraged under certain conditions.
The progressive withdrawal of the state from the universal provision of social security (most notably pensions) should also be envisaged. People could be gradually re-empowered to keep more of their incomes and save for themselves and their families privately and freely, with the state stepping in only in extreme circumstances of need. In a nutshell, people could be encouraged to re-take control of their lives as responsible moral beings with specific social duties that cannot be delegated or outsourced because they are the essence of community life.
A strong intellectual commitment to shifting public opinions on these issues will surely be needed. But I believe we can convince people that this societal model is the healthiest, as it is based on the principles of freedom and genuine moral responsibility, not on the realities of bureaucratic coercion and that grotesque caricature of moral solidarity that is the modern welfare state.
These developments would no doubt be very challenging. But in times of economic stagnation, overblown public debts and social disintegration we may soon come to regard them as ultimately beneficial. It is not implausible that even Benjamin Constant would give us a like on this.Federico Ottavio Reho Ethics Social Policy Society Values
Federico Ottavio Reho
Give me a like, not a duty! Reflections on postmodern freedom
05 Feb 2016
The European People’s Party (EPP) examined its values at the Bucharest Congress in October 2012. The result of this reassessment, the Bucharest Party Platform, affirmed the six core values of the EPP: the dignity of human life in every stage of its existence, freedom and responsibility, equality and justice, truth, solidarity and subsidiarity. These values are inspired by the Christian Democratic philosophy. Although today’s EPP includes also parties that do not consider themselves Christian Democratic, all member parties of the EPP draw inspiration from these values. After an exploration of the foundation of the EPP, this paper examines the party’s core values, tracing their origins to religious writings. The paper outlines how these values translate into the practical policies of the EPP: the party’s response to Europe’s economic crisis and addressing issues around free movement and access to social benefits in the EU. The paper demonstrates that values underpin the party’s policies but also that practical politics leaves room for interpretation.Christian Democracy Ethics European People's Party Religion Values
The Christian Democratic Origins of the European People’s Party
11 Dec 2014
In What Money Can’t Buy, world renowned American political philosopher and Harvard Professor, Michael J. Sandel bravely takes up the challenge of trying to answer one of the fundamental questions of human history: what money should and should not buy.
Skipping the usual elaborate introduction, Sandel begins by illustrating how modern society has become a global marketplace where nearly anything can be purchased for the right price. Sandel presents a collection of examples to strengthen his case. For instance, so called ‘concierge doctors’ in the US now offer their services for annual fees ranging from $1,500 to $25,000. A move made possible by the fact that standard doctor’s appointments in the US often have to be hurried affairs because of the low reimbursement rate offered by insurance companies to primary care doctors for routine appointments. Those who are willing to pay the amount can count on “absolute, unlimited and exclusive access to your personal physician.” The drawback, of course, is that it’s unfair to those who are not part of the happy (wealthy) few.
Sandel continues by illustrating that as a result of this ‘marketisation’ of society, people are often happy to pay off the moral obligation to adjust to social norms if they can. For example, introducing a fine for parents who came late to pick up their children from a nursery school did not reduce the number of late-arriving parents, but actually doubled it. The parents treated the fine as a fee they were willing to pay. Picking up a child therefore becomes a market relationship with the teacher/school.
Market reasoning however, has no objections to these notions of unfairness and moral obligations. It relies on the thought that free markets contribute to societies’ well being by allocating the goods to the buyers who value them most highly, based on their willingness to pay. Sandel concurs to a certain point, but argues that market reasoning is incomplete without moral reasoning. He argues that when market reasoning is applied to more morally charged issues such as love, friendship, sex, education, health or environmental protection, it is not plausible to assume that everyone’s preferences are equally worthwhile. Some of these goods, he feels, should be excluded from the exchange-value logic or else they will eventually lose their value. The essence of this argument can be traced back as far as Aristotle. In that sense, Sandel’s analysis offers an easy-to-read update of some classical held ideas.
Although written in 2012, the topic remains relevant in the current ‘collaborative consumption’ society in which (private) people with limited resources connect to those with under-used assets in need of some extra cash. Virtually everything is up for sale and we all become small entrepreneurs on the side. Accordingly, society slowly transforms in a fully fledged business industry. Not that there’s anything wrong with entrepreneurship, the economy thrives on it, but the more extensive this ‘collaborative consumption’ becomes, social gatherings will more and more revolve exclusively around possible commercial transactions.
In an era of increased consumption, Sandel’s well written analysis of how money has infiltrated our lives offers a differing view. A point made especially relevant in the aftermath of arguably the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. His main argument that we should decide what values should govern the various domains of social and civic life is a strong one; market rationality has become dominant to a point where respecting social norms is at stake.
The main problem of the book is that the vast majority of the examples of commodification he presents, are American. This harms the universality of his argument. Another obstacle for the book to become an undisputed classic (like some of his previous works) is the sheer volume of these examples; it does not leave ample room for a thorough analysis.
Interesting, Professor Sandel is himself also for sale. For an extraordinary amount, he will show up for a lecture to talk about what money can’t buy!Barend Tensen Development Ethics Social Policy Society Values
What money should and should not buy
14 Nov 2014
This report surveys recent works in political economy showing that trust—and civic capital more generally—matter for various aspects of economic well-being and presents new evidence from European countries showing that trust has deteriorated considerably in those European countries that have been affected the most by the ongoing economic downturn. We also discuss policy recommendations. The key message is that because trust and social capital matter crucially for economic and institutional development, countries must both monitor developments closely and pursue policies that cultivate civic social capital. Given strong inertia, changing people’s beliefs and promoting civic engagement will not occur overnight. Targeted policies can increase civicness and promote social capital considerably. First, promoting education seems crucial as, a higher level of education cultivates social capital. Second, countries where primary and secondary education are based on lecturing and memorising, should alter the curriculum towards more group activities, team projects, and critical thinking based on a dialectic method. Third, policymakers should continue promoting the outward orientation of the economy and the removal of administrative barriers to entry that fuel corruption and impede competition.Crisis Economy Education Ethics Values
Trust(ing) in Europe? How increased social capital can contribute to economic development
10 Jun 2013
Current demographic changes are a major factor in the increasing societal interest in the contributions older generations can make to the development and cohesion of society. This Centre for European Studies study argues that the traditional view of ageing is gradually being replaced by a new perspective, one with increased focus on older people’s capabilities, resources and potentials. It suggests that population ageing does not imply inevitable declines in a society’s competitiveness or reduced intergenerational solidarity. Amongst other policy recommendations, the study proposes flexibility in age limits, to prevent exclusion of older people from areas of societal responsibility. The study encourages a stronger focus on the productive participation of older people in political and public discourse, and support for civil engagement of older people through mechanisms such as incentive systems.Economy Ethics Social Policy Society Values
Active Ageing: Solidarity and Responsibility in an Ageing Society
08 Apr 2013
Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty says (in a rather scornful tone): “When I use a word, it means exactly what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” In the debate about last weekend’s Swiss referendum on bonuses of top managers, we are all little Humpty Dumptys. We are ascribing a meaning to the outcome which it legally does not have. Let’s remember, the referendum was about whether managers’ salaries were to be determined by the boards of corporations, as up to now – or by the shareholders, as the “Initiative against corporate rip-offs” demanded. The decision now taken does not at all automatically mean that bonuses will be capped, or reduced in any significant way. Quite the contrary. Seeing that the majority of shares of a given corporation is usually held by one or several other big corporations and not by the proverbial small shareholders, one can easily imagine that the bonus decision will not exactly be taken from an anti-capitalist perspective – or from any other point of view hostile to top managers’ interests. In other words, we will only know in a year or so what the real effects of this vote are: in terms of the development of bonuses, and in terms of Swiss top managers’ reaction to this.
So much for the facts. And yet, the referendum was made out to be an outcry against managerial greed – some would even say against global capitalism – by the Left, whereas mighty employers’ federations and wealthy bankers spent record sums to convince voters that a Yes would mean the end of economic freedom. Both notions have little to do with the outcome of the referendum. But they say a lot about the current state of debate in Europe. Come Monday evening, many in Brussels, Berlin and Paris were enviously advocating that the EU (for once!) should learn from the Swiss, and there were already fears that today’s EU Finance Ministers’ meeting would much too hesitant in its conclusion that the Commission should make proposals for a bonus cap by the end of 2013.
Of course, it is legitimate to question bonuses of several million Euros, no matter what the track record of the recipient. And, yes, one may indeed ask whether anybody should make fifty or a hundred or two hundred times as much as the lowest income. But then one should also reflect upon the eminent question whether governments rightfully should intervene in the fixing of salaries – at least, on the upper end of the scale. Of course, a 75 % income tax may come in handy at this point. But ever since Socialist President Hollande introduced it, not only Gerard Depardieu has migrated: The upper echelons of the Brussels real estate market have been swept by new arrivals from the Paris’ 16th arrondissement. The point is that there are usually ways around any type of income limitation by the state. And, even more importantly, there are already a number of companies, or individual top managers, that have limited or decreased bonuses on their own, mindful of the shift of the public mood in Europe. As soon as some do this, others will feel more pressure to follow.
Which all goes to say that instead of screaming for more toughness against evil managers, we should all take a good long look through the looking glass, and check whether what we believe to see is really what we have in front of us. And we should learn from the Swiss in the true sense, that is wait and see what the result of Sunday’s Swiss referendum really will be, before we copy and paste.
[Picture source: teenbusinesscentral.com]Roland Freudenstein Business Democracy Ethics
Through the looking glass: greed, business and democracy
05 Mar 2013
The aim of this study is to explore the changes in the religious and ideological landscape of the Netherlands and how they impact on existing social relations. What place do religion and philosophy have in society and how should government relate to them? This theme is at the heart of Christian Democracy. The rationale for this is that Christian Democracy sees man as a rational being who seeks to find meaning in life. How people behave socially and politically cannot be considered separately from each individual’s inner calling. What is at stake is the deepest motivation of human beings to determine their identity at the deepest level. It can therefore be seen that the body of ideas of Christian Democracy and the movement’s legitimacy are closely linked to the right of citizens to organise themselves in social groups on the basis of their religion or faith. This report does indicate that the manifestations of religion and faith may well be subject to change, but for many people these convictions continue to represent an important source of inspiration. Tried and tested principles will therefore be revisited in this report taking into account the changes apparent in religion, society and government. It cannot be stressed enough that such values as freedom, pluriformity and tolerance are of crucial importance for a harmonious society.Christian Democracy Ethics Religion Society Values
Faith and Society: Christian Democratic reflections on the place of religion and ideology in the public domain
10 Dec 2012
At the heart of this study is the nexus between intercultural dialogue and religious peacebuilding in the policy-making of the European Union (EU). The paper attempts to analyse the possible benefits for political agencies of the EU from extending their cooperation with religious actors to the prevention and reconciliation of violent conflictsEthics European People's Party Religion
From Dialogue to Peacebuilding? Perspectives for the Engagement of Religious Actors by the EU and the EPP
01 Apr 2009