The COVID-19 pandemic represents the tragic symptom of our social structures. Stating that humanity produced the current health emergency would be considered by many disrespectful towards many human beings who are going through death and suffering in most countries of the planet. And one may also think that the concept would support the conspiracy theory about a man-made virus – which is a hoax, as argued by scientists.
However, WWF Italy has for instance highlighted the role of loss of biodiversity and deforestation in making it easier for these viruses to spread among humans. At a time when our impact on the planet has become almost unbearable, it is quite worrisome that in the USA the outbreak has lead the government to relax enforcement of environmental regulation.
But, beyond the actual causes of the pandemic, what we are going through is also very telling in terms of the more general reactions that have been undertaken.
The measures adopted in most countries, e.g. in China, Europe and the United States are to a large extent coercive, and aimed at fostering social distancing. In a country like Italy, someone has argued that the Parliament should have been more directly involved in the discussion of the initiatives of the government, that are however proving effective for the reduction of new cases. Other measures are monetary ones, and try – both at the national and at the EU level – to support the economies, in particular avoiding excessive disruption for firms and individuals.
In a situation of emergency, the two dominant media that coordinate human actions, administrative power and money, and more in general the spheres of politics and economics, are even more powerful in dictating what is right and desirable for society. Military metaphors of enemy and war are frequent in these days, and the analysis of the economic effects of the pandemic often prevails on the recognition of tragic human losses.
The analysis by Jürgen Habermas on the marginalisation in the public debate of other dimensions, namely norms, values and intersubjective understanding, becomes particularly relevant. Doing something just because it is compulsory to do so, or because it is convenient, is in plain contradiction with the notion of categorical imperative so fundamental in Immanuel Kant’s moral system.
The reduction of values to mere rhetorical expedients, deprived of any real connection with our daily choices and activities, was clearly highlighted by Max Weber with his analyses on capitalism and the iron cage of instrumental rationality. And, while avoiding job losses is totally understandable to prevent poverty and further economic damage, focusing predominantly on this issue is also consistent with the reduction of our active life to labour, which, as denounced by Hannah Arendt, enslaves us into our immediate needs. A public discourse on where we are and where we should go, as societies, nations and humanity, is simply absent in the mainstream media.
Many have said that nothing will remain the same after the pandemic. But a real change would only be possible if economics – whose paradigms shape every aspect of our lives – went back to its former ethical dimension, the one that it had for Aristotle and Adam Smith. Which, in the political domain, would turn democracy from a mere sequence of elections, where the votes simply express immediate needs, to a deliberative exercise where citizens can formulate and compare their worldviews and notions of a good life. This would create an alternative to both neoliberalism, i.e. the culture for which markets do not need values, and populism, that only refers to values held by who is excluded from the markets, imposing them to the rest of society.
Values are essential to define also the true meaning of individuality, and in particular what, in my book Exchanging Autonomy, I called functional autonomy. This is a condition whereby values are not merely instrumental to one’s role in the social fabric, but are rather able to shape such a role, as producer, worker, consumer or voter. This kind of autonomy is essential for the existence of authentic communities. Indeed, when individuals know that their convictions simply mirror their material interests, they will not compare their views with those held by the rest of society, or be ready to change them. Societies where only the prevailing interests shape law and institutions cannot be communities.
Against this backdrop, a market for values such as environmentalism, social justice, inclusivity would allow individuals, firms and local communities to exchange their experiences regarding the benefits of applying such principles. In this market there would be the exchange of documents, each of which would describe the experiences, certified on the basis of objective indicators decided by law. For instance, after acquiring a document referred to environmentalism, a local community may add its own experience after increasing green areas by a given percentage. Firms may do the same through a given reduction in CO2 emissions, or a certain level of investments in negative emissions technologies. As for individuals, they may produce experiences of environmentalism through a given amount of donations to green charities, or by using public transport with a certain frequency.
A market for values would provide an economic incentive to adopt values that are independent from one’s current immediate interests. This incentive would be the possibility to transfer a document at a price (in terms of goods or services or other documents, since they would not be exchangeable with money) higher than purchase price.
Welfare economics has given a great importance to Pareto optimality, the situation that cannot be modified so as to make any one individual or preference criterion better off without making at least one individual or preference criterion worse off. If one wants to go beyond this notion in order to improve social welfare, it becomes essential to know the value judgements of individuals, so that interpersonal comparison of utility is possible. Now, a market for values would not only give a public relevance to values, making it possible to assess how much the beliefs system held by individuals is consistent with their physical resources and with the allocation of goods across society. This market would also give an economic value to these principles, reconciling surplus extraction and functional autonomy, capitalism and democracy, individual and community.
Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 1996.
Immanuel Kant, Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, 1788 – English ed. Critique of Practical Reason.
Amartya Sen, On Ethics and Economics. Oxford and New York: Basil Blackwell; 1987.
Marco Senatore, Exchanging Autonomy. Inner Motivations As Resources for Tackling the Crises of Our Times, Xlibris 2014.
Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, T. Parsons (trans.), A. Giddens (intro), London: Routledge, 1905.
 See the report available at the link https://d24qi7hsckwe9l.cloudfront.net/downloads/pandemie_e_distruzione_degli_ecosistemi.pdf
Marco Senatore works for Ministry of Economy and Finance of Italy. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent those of his employer. Twitter: @MarcoSenatore75