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Ana Marta González, Scientific Coordinator of Institute for Culture and Society. Professor of Philosophy Moral

Humanizing the Economics

Sat, 25 Oct 2014 11:09:00 +0000 Published in Navarra Newspaper

In a pharmaceutical establishment near my home, they have put up a sign indicating that they offer counseling services (I have not been able to find out what) and, as an incentive to enter, they eloquently add: "We smile for free". This little thing has given me food for thought, because it assumes that in an intensely commercialized culture such as ours we no longer have the right to even hope that such a spontaneous gesture as a smile can take place without receiving a monetary benefit in return: a deeply discouraging thought for anyone who hopes that commercial relationships bring into play other human dimensions, beyond the legitimate interests involved in any commercial transaction. In Kantian terms we would say that this mania for pricing everything in money overlooks not only the distinction between "market value" and "affective value", but also the further distinction, underlined by Kant, between value and dignity.  

Do not attribute my discouragement to naive or utopian romanticism. I do not aspire to a bucolic and pastoral culture where human beings develop their personality apart from all commercial interests. However, to think that smiling is simply a means to attract customers and increase profits is to forget that economic transactions are human relationships and, as such, are subject not only to the rules of the market but also to the rules of good Education and ethics.

It is these, rather than those, that recommend smiling, not only as a means for commercial purposes, but as a valuable act in itself, because it is an expression of welcome to the person, whether it is followed by a sale or not. For if the only relevant aspect of this human exchange were the mere economic transaction, the usual internship of thanking the person who has sold us a product for which we have paid the right price would not be understood either: if everything was settled with the price, it would be superfluous to say thank you. However, the fact that we thank the person who has just sold us a product is an indication that, in this brief commercial exchange , not everything is reduced to interested calculation; there is also an explicit recognition of the person who has given us his time and attention, something that, unlike the materiality of the product, is not paid simply with money, but with courtesy and, ultimately, good Education.

In fact, it should be added that not even the product can be paid for with money alone: for in this apparently banal product is concentrated the work of several people; a work that, if we look at it carefully, implies more dimensions than those that can be captured by the market price. We are before what Marx called "the limits of the commodity". Not everything has a market price; nor only an affective price: insofar as there are people at stake, relations with them must be governed by higher principles than utility or taste. For a long time, the remuneration of medical professionals was called "honorarium", and not simply "salary", because it was understood that the service they rendered could not properly be paid with money, but with honor. Certainly this is an increasingly foreign notion in our culture; however, this must be said of all work: that it can never be paid with money alone.

More generally, the humanization of economic life involves realizing that even in the context of market relations, where it so often seems that people go to the marketplace at work as if they were commodities themselves, human beings cannot simply treat each other as means. The famous Kantian formula "always treat humanity in yourself and in others as an end and never merely as a means" had something to do with this. It is obvious that, because we live in a web of functional interdependencies, we treat each other as means. The ethical point, however, lies in not treating each other exclusively as means, but always, at the same time, as ends; on internship this translates into respecting relationships of justice; but also in dispensing the respect and honor due to people, in the context of daily interactions. In fact: to notice the difference between people and things constitutes the most elementary ethical skill .

But to develop it and materialize it in the internship, with words and gestures appropriate to each context, is the content of the good Education. Following Plato, Aristotle dared to define good Education as "learning to please oneself and to hurt oneself properly". Unlike politeness, good Education is not simply a matter of external formalities, but is accompanied by an inner disposition, which lends it depth and authenticity. refund this content to our usual transactions is a way of humanizing Economics from within, without which any attempt to "humanize" it from the outside would be hopelessly discussion between sterility and coercion.