Lorenzo & his humble friends

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool

Tag: michael sandel


A few days ago I made a reference to some of the main differences that distinguish modern liberals and communitarian thinkers. This is an old debate which still fascinates me. To put it very simply, I would say that this is a conversation between those who believe we have only voluntary obligations and those who believe we have moral obligations of membership and loyalty.

This latter set of obligations does not exclusively refer to universal moral duties that we owe to every human being, such as the duty to avoid harming people unnecessarily, but also to obligations towards the communities we are part of, even though we haven’t assumed the obligation voluntarily. For instance, as communitarians point out, obligations of membership and loyalty can arise from shared identities because we’re someone’s son or daughter, someone’s friend, a member of a particular community, or a citizen of a particular country.

Of course, this is such a big debate that it would be impossible to wrap it up in a couple of short messages. However, as most of the intriguing conversations we can have, this is an argument for further questions and not for definitive answers. As a matter of fact, the best way to think about it is through a few dilemmas which are proposed on Michael Sandel’s Justice website.

  1. If you caught your brother shoplifting, would you call the police? Should you call the police? Many people would hesitate to report their own brother. Is this evidence of a special moral obligation that competes a universal duty of justice, or is it mere prejudice?
  2. Do parents have greater obligations to their own children than to other people’s children? Suppose your child is drowning next to the child of a stranger. Do you have a greater moral obligation to save your own child than to save the stranger’s child? Why?
  3. Do children have a greater obligation to help their own parents when they are in need than to help other needy people?
  4. Do Americans who live in El Paso, Texas, have greater moral obligations to people who live in Alaska than to people who live right across the river in Mexico? Why? What is the source of this obligation?
  5. Is patriotism a virtue? Or is it merely prejudice for one’s own? Most people do not get to choose what country they will live in, and no one chooses where they’re born. Why are we obligated to the people of our own country more than to the people of any other?

Indeed, these are fascinating questions. Thinking about the answers is not only an exercise for its own sake. These big moral issues are one of the reasons why one would be motivated to carry on a long Phd in politics. Meanwhile, you can watch episode 11 of Sandel’s Justice, which is pretty much all about this philosophical dilemma.

What is the common good?

Modern-day communitarianism began in the upper reaches of Anglo-American academia in the form of a critical reaction to John Rawls’ landmark 1971 book A Theory of Justice (Rawls 1971). Drawing primarily upon the insights of Aristotle and Hegel, political philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor and Michael Walzer disputed Rawls’ assumption that the principal task of government is to secure and distribute fairly the liberties and economic resources individuals need to lead freely chosen lives. They argue that civil society should serve to produce citizens who care, at least occasionally, about the common good. By doing so, they switched the focus of the philosophical thought from the individual (and critics may say “from the individual freedom”) to the community and its sense as a whole. Of course, this is a tricky perspective, perhaps even dangerous; and the debate between communitarian and liberal thinkers is now old fashion. But I still think it is a fascinating one.

Il festival dell’economia

Every time I talk with people abroad I have the feeling they really do not know the place where I come from. Trento is famous only because the Council of Trento, one of the most important events in the modern history of Europe. But not many people know the modern history of Europe well, so they have no reason to know Trento. Of course, Trento has beautiful lakes and mountains, but we probably prefer to keep them hidden to avoid massive tourism.

Now Trento is trying to become famous through a Festival. Il Festival dell’Economia was created in 2006 and this year it features its 8th edition. Economists, politicians and academics from the most varied disciplines will discuss the question of “Sovereignty in Conflict” from 30 May to 2 June. The Festival opens and closes with two Nobel Economics Prize-winners: Michael Spence returns for the inauguration on 30 May to discuss “Government of the global manufacturing chain”, while in the closing session on 2 June James Mirrlees will consider the viability of abandoning the Euro. Other notable speakers are George Papaconstantinou, former Greek Minister of Finance, Angel Gurria, Secretary General of the OECD, Nemat Shafik, Deputy Director of the International Monetary Fund, Michael Sandel, Colin Crouch, Roberto Escobar, Sylvie Goulard,Eric Jozsef, Andrew Moravcsik, Mario Monti, Piero Giarda, Giuliano Amato, Lucia Annunziata, Lorenzo Bini Smaghi, Laura Boldrini, Stefano Rodotà, Chiara Saraceno, and of course Sergio Fabbrini, my former professor,

These are great names. But think about the contents too. In fact, the main strength of the Festival lies in the capacity of the organizers to identify fascinating topics and to stimulate discussions by creating the right atmosphere. I love the fact that most of the talks are held in the most fascinating places of the city in a very relaxed and informal setting, during what I consider to be the best period of the year.

Let us be clear: I am very sorry I will not be able to attend the festival this year, as I am in Brussels. I will follow the event through the twitter hashtag #FestivalEconomia. You might consider doing the same and attending the Festival next year. I will be happy to provide you a place to sleep.