Saturday, October 6, 2012

Free will and morality

This is a tale of how the brightness of neuroscience is being misused by the dark side of Rationalism. Let me explain.

Rationalism, the reigning philosophy of the Enlightenment and the modern age, is a topic to which we will have to return. For the time being suffice it to say that, for all its strengths, there is a dark side to Rationalism. Its inherent weakness—its nemesis—is its tendency to linearity, reductionism, and imperialism.

Today I would like to make this case specifically in relation to the misuse of one tentative conclusion of neuroscience. Given time and need, I might be able to discuss concrete cases in many other sciences—such as biology in fisheries development or agribusiness and even physics at the service of nuclear power plants. The general case of course is economics, where all three forms of the decease are so rampant and blatant that they do not need to be restated.  

Rationalism explores everything possible that stands in its line of investigation, and many times it goes back and forth because it discovers new—even contradictory—explications of the phenomenon under investigation. While Rationalism is engaged in the noble pursuit of trying to ascertain the truth of any proposition, at times it does not realize that it has become blind to the reality of everything that surrounds its line of analysis. If we conceive of life as a sphere, we realize how Rationalism, by its method of analysis, can become naturally blinded to the richness of life.

This is not a set of hypothetical propositions. The mortal combat between the forces of life and death—good and evil—into which Rationalism is unavoidably and irresistibly locked becomes evident in the small example of its sorry fall at Compiègne, where, allying itself with the fury of French Revolutionaries, it justified bringing Carmelite nuns under the guillotine; the stated goal was to give the nuns freedom to leave the convent. In the large picture, we have seen this combat in the rationalizations of Communism and Fascism: Both the right and the left of the political spectrum equally fall victim to the rationalizations of Rationalism. The middle of the political spectrum does not eschew the trap either: We saw it in the American behavior in Vietnam, when a town was destroyed “to save the town”—for democracy!

Rationalism is not always consistent in recognizing all that it encounters on its line of investigation either. Due to the natural narrowness of human nature, some rationalists are liable to reduce their investigation to one point: their own point of view, their own position—no matter how wrong either by themselves or by others were they proved to be. That is the meaning of reductionism; that is the reduction of the line to one point.

Just consider that the head of a pin becomes blinding as you bring it closer and closer to the pupil of your eye. Evidently, the worst—and all too frequent—case of reductionism is that controlled by ideology. Then the minions come out of the woodwork to flood and confuse the discussion.

Let us meet the other half of our topic: the brightness of science. Whatever true science touches, it illuminates. We have been able to send a man to the moon and return him safely to earth, because of the prodigies of science—science married to technology.

If that is somewhat removed and remote science by now, let me extol the praise of the Internet. So long as its operations remain mostly free and democratic, this marvel is going to make our lives easier and richer in a myriad ways. I cannot imagine life without it; I can no longer live without it.

Lest these be seen as highfalutin cases, let me mention Clarence Birdseye’s development of the frozen food industry right here in Gloucester, Massachusetts. He extended the life of fresh fish and meat and vegetables. Thanks to his successful mixture of science and technology, today the whole world can have healthier and cheaper foods.

However, just because of its extraordinary power, science—as the privileged daughter of Rationalism—is often tempted and at times falls prey to misuse. The temptation is an old one: the desire to please power. Then science degenerates into any of the variegated forms of scientism. Upon careful consideration as we shall see in a moment, it appears that the fantastic tools of neuroscience, our newly discovered ability to look into the behavior of the brain, might be misused in a particularly important case.

Let us start at the beginning. The understanding of morality today is in a sorry state of confusion. The latest nail in the attempt to seal the casket of morality comes from a misuse of neuroscience. The attempt is one of the latest unexpected consequences of the urge to reduce everything to science, the urge to accept anything only when put under the microscope of scientific investigation.
In this state of mind, the dark side of Rationalism pretends “to elevate” morality to the status of science and expects morality to produce steady and immediate results. Rationalism fails to find such results; hence, it properly declares morality “unscientific,” and goes to the deep end of declaring morality worthless as a guide to action.

What is going on? Much of the discussion hinges on the confusion determined by the unwarranted leaning of Rationalism toward imperialism. As a counterbalance to reductionism, this type of corrupted science wants to cover the whole of life! To use Goya’s expression, this is a dream of reason that produces monsters.

True science always recognizes its limits: Science is the master of matter and energy; it knows nothing of matters of the spirit—unless we get into the esoteric world ofscience of the spirit.

Matter and energy behave in predictable patterns; spirit is free, creative, unpredictable.

No freedom; no morality. It is here that the issues of free will and morality are joined at the hip. It is here that some neuroscientists as well as some interpreters of neuroscience try to interject themselves into the discussion and allow themselves to build a wedge between consciousness and free will.

The 300 millisecond controversy. A modern cannonade from the assault brigade against morality and the virtues comes from the base of a discovery of neuroscience. For some, the understanding that there is such a thing as free will has been destroyed by the scientific discovery that there is a 300 ms delay between activity in the brain and our awareness of this activity.

The brain rules; the material brain rules. Free will does not exist. Case closed—at least in the more or less firm imagination of some people like Benjamin Libet, Susan Blackmore, and Sam Harris.

One moment of attention, please. I would like to repeat a number of well-known alternative explanations for this gap that, if singly or jointly, are finally and unquestionably proved valid will restore free will to its ancient glory (admittedly, an unlikely event since there are always people who like to go over well trodden ground to stir up old controversies).

  1.  Shoot first, ask questions later: Are we sure that our jungle instincts do not fire up the brain automatically so that our consciousness can become operative? I mean, as an action that is wholly automatic and systemic, which wholly avoids the post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, because of this) fallacy. In other words, are we sure that the reality is not the reverse, namely that our consciousness does give a stand-by order to the brain to start functioning ahead of its specific intervention?
  2. Another possibility. Are we sure that our consciousness does not give an ad hoc order to the brain that is physically imperceptible? In this case, the chain of actions might be this: a. consciousness gives a physically imperceptible order to the brain (an order, which would re-establish the primacy of the will); b. the brain obeys; c. consciousness visibly responds;
  3. Conversely, are we sure of the content of the automatic action of the brain? I mean, is the firing of the brain leading us to an action that is systematically either in agreement or disagreement with our will?
  4. Also, if there is such a thing are we sure of the direction of the automatic action of the brain? I mean, is the firing of the brain leading us to an action that is systematically either in agreement or disagreement with our will?
  5. Is the action taken by the brain immutable?
  6. Conversely again, can consciousness trump the automatic action of the brain?
  7. Remain within the world of physics. You start the engine of a car, and the engine takes more than 300 milliseconds to start moving the car. Equate engine with will, and you end up postulating the primacy of the will as against the automatic action (=moving) of the brain. Briefly put, is our consciousness simply too slow, sly, and sluggish (this certainly seems to be a good description of “my” consciousness); and, if it is, what does that mean?

Assume that all these and likely other objections are proven to be scientifically wrong, what then? Assume that neuroscience establishes—not just in a few persons, but in everyone on earth—the primacy of the brain, then what? Are we all going to behave like robots, whether or not willfully injected with some form of socially conforming drug? Are we all going to become zombies?

That is a distinctive possibility. However, I like to believe in the possibility of alternative outcomes. Once we are controlled by the brain, rather than free will, we will give some serious attention to the brain. Surely we cannot be so simplistic as to assume that the brain will make us all commit immoral acts—about which we shall rejoice and not feel culpable.

No, so long as we are left with a scintilla of intelligence—read brain redux—there is no such thing as a morally neutral action. No, there is no such thing as a psychologically neutral action. Vegans have accustomed us to believe in the pain inflicted to animals. I am in full agreement with them. In the age of brain-controlled actions, we will not be able to eschew pain; hence, we will not be able to eschew morality.

But I am an ultra vegan. I tell you, if you hurt a stock of wheat, the whole field of wheat feels pain.

And I have deep reasons to believe that through the equivalence of matter to energy and to spirit even if you consciously hurt a stone, the whole universe feels pain.


That is a whole area to explore: Will we ever integrate feelings and thoughts?


Re: Theology. I am not a theologian and I am not going to attempt to resolve the Pelagian controversy in a few strokes. I sympathize with the attachment that secular humanists have for the preeminence of free will in our human nature.

As a believer, I do not see the exercise of human free will as a necessary denial of God’s will; I see interdependence.

Thus, I am free to say no to God; and when I say yes, I do not destroy either the independence of my free will or the preeminence of God’s will. To understand it, is a process of discovery—at times a very hard process. God’s will is there for the asking; it is available every time to everyone everywhere.

Mr. Gorga would like to acknowledge the invaluable editorial assistance received from Peter J. Bearse and David S. Wise.

Carmine Gorga, a former Fulbright Scholar, is president of The Somist Institute, a research organization in Gloucester, Mass. Through The Economic Process, To My Polis, and numerous other publications in economic theory and policy, he has transformed economics from a linear to a relational discipline. Dr. Gorga blogs at and

Originally published at

A Fundamental Question to the Protest Movement Can these Possibly Be our 3 Demands?

Can these Possibly Be our 3 Demands?

  1. Give us our money back: Large corporations that are hoarding cash give us stockholders and bondholders our money back.

  1. Give us our money back: Federal Reserve System stop lending our money to financial corporations and lend it to us entrepreneurs, business people, and inventors.

  1. Give us our money back: Treasury Department and Federal Reserve System recover the money you gave to large corporations and give it back to us taxpayers.

Three brief notes on politics

First: These three demands have to be read in the historical context of the 2011 Iceland revolution carried out by Horður Torfason.

Second: These three demands will be carried into action only if The Center of the political spectrum will take hold of them: The Protest Movement has to become a Coalition of the Center!

Third: All too briefly, these three demands will be carried into action only if—in a coordinated or uncoordinated fashion—the People’s Congress will join forces with organizations run by Independents and the Occupy Movement and the Tea Party and the Greens and the majority of the Democrats and some Republicans, whose members will have to be approached, not as representatives of specific political parties, but, more fundamentally, as human beings and citizens of our nation.

I owe the last specification to the clear-mindedness of Gina McGill, who also provided inspiration for the formulation of these three demands.

Be Good out of the Goodness of the Virtues

Be good out of the goodness of the virtues, not out of the fickle goodness of the heart.

Be humble

Be good, but be humble. Do not boast within yourself or with others about how good you are. Remember that only God is good. We will never be able to be perfectly good; we can only try to be as good as we can.

Is God good?

Of course God is good. He, she, it cannot be otherwise, otherwise he would be an evil prankster, since all the cards are on his side: He knows the present and the past as well as the future.

But God is also just; he must be just, otherwise he would be either a fool or a buffoon.

Here follows a simple rule, be doubly humble: Do not judge God.

Be triply humble

In relation to yourself, be triply humble: You do not know God (and you will never know him, except through the goodness of your heart. God, as the mystics know, wants nothing else of you). You do not know the other person, toward whom you are expected to be good. And if you are really humble, you have to admit that you do not really know yourself either.

It is for all the uncertainties that surround our existence that we need the sustenance of the virtues—as we will see, all the virtues.

The virtues

The cardinal virtues, the virtues around which the whole of human life revolves, as the classical antiquity discovered, are prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. To the cardinal virtues we need to add the three intellectual virtues, namely wisdom, science, and understanding. The list is crowned by the three theological virtues, namely hope, faith, and, last but most, love.

There are no more virtues.

The confusion as to the number of the virtues arises from the inner structure of the virtues. Each virtue is a mountain peak; each virtue is surrounded by a well linked series of ascending and descending hills; but these are ancillary, supporting virtues (that descend into vices).

How can we be good?

It is really this simple to be good: We need to exercise all the virtues. The reward is immense. As St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out, “Virtue is the peak of power”. The deeper we respect the dictates of each virtue, the more powerful we feel and indeed we become. We are in control; we do not allow outside events or even other people to push us around.

The unity of the virtues

The unity of the virtues is such that one cannot truly exercise one virtue without assistance from them all. Pick a virtue, any virtue, and observe it in its depth. Adam Smith reduced the virtues to one, prudence. What happens when prudence is exercised by itself, as if it were the first and last word, as if it were an absolute?

Then you would have no answer to the question: How much prudence is necessary? The sky would be the limit; but then, as a consequence of exercising this virtue, you would foster greed. This is not a virtue, but a fall from a virtuous action.

To be prudent in the right measure, you need to be just. You cannot take everything for yourself; you need to give the other person his due.

There are many reasons to be just. Here is the most compelling one. You need to be just to assure for yourself a tranquil life. Injustice breeds revenge—you can stave off revenge for a while committing even greater injustice by protecting your unjust action with force and even violence. But this negative chain of protection is eventually going to be broken and you or your descendants are likely to pay dearly.

To be prudent in the right measure, you need to be assisted, not only by justice, but also by temperance. From greed you easily slide into hoarding, whereby you no longer hurt just yourself, but other human beings as well. As it can be easily demonstrated, from hoarding arise poverty, inflation, and lack of economic growth.

To be prudent in the right measure, you need to be assisted, not only by justice and by temperance. You also need courage. What does it mean to be brave? To be brave means many things. To be brave in the economic world, for instance, means making the right investment decision at the right time; it means investing billions of dollars without assurances of a safe return on the investment; it means hiring people who have limited experience, but tremendous potential. With brave “Just In Time” practices, Japanese firms achieved great savings and beat the competition worldwide.

It is easy to see that, to be prudent, one ultimately needs full assistance from the three intellectual virtues of knowledge, science and understanding as well.

The pivotal role of justice

One can go through the many necessary iterations of this chain of causation and discover always new, and perhaps unsuspected, wrinkles. Here I would like to focus on the pivotal role of justice in relation to prudence.

In order to be just, you need to be prudent and even brave. You especially need assistance from knowledge, science, and understanding. You need to know that the virtue of justice has been investigated to extraordinary depth from the ancient Greeks to the most modern of scholars. Just pick up any catalogue of publications in political science and you are likely to be buried under an avalanche of books extolling the advantages that even the most deficient system of political democracy has over any of its competitive autocratic systems. And why are the claims of political scientists mostly validated in the field? The fundamental reason is that democracy has explored the theoretical limits of political justice. The search for improvements in democratic practices has not ended and it will never end. For a large variety of reasons, I would like to recommend the work of my friend and colleague, Dr. Peter J. Bearse, for an exploration into the depths still to plumb for political justice. See especially his 2012 Amazon ebook titled A NEW AMERICAN REVOLUTION: How "We the People" can truly "take back" our government. 

The abandonment of the economic justice project

Up to Adam Smith, it was well understood that political justice is empty without economic justice. The understanding of this indivisible union has been lost to civilization, and we see the destructive effects growing more dismal at every turn of the business cycle. The dismemberment of the body politic cannot be permitted to proceed any further. The economic justice project must be restored to its full splendor.

In order to recover the economic justice project, we need to call for assistance from knowledge, science, and understanding.

The knowledge of economic justice is well preserved in the annals of the economic history of the world. I have researched only a minute part of it, and what I have found is astoundingly encouraging. If we were to recover only a part of the experience, the modern world would be in much better shape. Start from Moses and end with the Islamic world of Muhammad Yunus, the 2006 Nobel laureate in economics. The rear guard fight against usury is fought in the Islamic world and fought intelligently through microfinancing and equity investments.

Nor is economic justice a set of scatter brain propositions. The whole structure of economic justice hangs around three fundamental principles of participative, distributive, and commutative justice. Since these principles are universal, meaning that they ought to be applied every time, everywhere, and in every case, we can succinctly say that economic justice constitutes a science.

And the science is neither cold nor stagnant. Once you add a touch of understanding to the entire structure, you realize that economic justice is the mirror image of the description of the economic process: The economic process is the integration of production of real wealth (= participative justice), distribution of ownership rights (= distributive justice), and consumption or exchange of financial instruments (= commutative justice).

The reason why the study of economic justice is essential is that it provides the rudder to economic policy.

A link to a higher order of understanding

Nor is the understanding of economic justice restricted to the understanding of the pedestrian world of economics alone. Once you insert the discussion into the issue of the indivisibility of the practice of the virtues, the recovery of the economic justice project through the integral application of all the virtues organically links us up with the world of hope, faith, and love.

You cannot have justice without the hope that the world of justice does indeed yield better fruits than the world of injustice. And the first fruit to hope for is peace. As Pope Paul V stressed in 1972, work for justice if you want peace.

But there is no assurance. There is no assurance, especially in the world of economics, especially in the modern world. So you must march forward hoping that peace will follow.

Peace will indeed follow if you have faith in the better instincts of human nature. If you do not keep this faith very much alive, human nature is such that “bad” people, the wicked people singled out in the bible, will overwhelm you. Even if their power is minuscule power, they can hoodwink the majority of the people and thus enslave you. There is a great deal of evidence, unfortunately, that the power of the wicked is far from slight.

So you need to persist among the worst odds, and if you keep faith in your heart you will eventually prevail. That has traditionally been the history of the world. Just look at the positive aspects of the French revolution; look at Gandhi; look at Martin Luther King. They won.

And you will surely win if you march with love in your heart, love especially for your enemies. Without love, all your efforts to be just, all your efforts to have hope, all your efforts to have faith will all be in vain.

Love wins all. Not in some distant future. Not in some after life. Love wins your heart now and gives you peace.

Did we lose our way along the way? Did we start talking about prudence and ended up talking about justice? No, not really. To be really, truly prudent, you truly, deeply have to love yourself—and the person next to you.

Mr. Gorga would like to acknowledge the invaluable editorial assistance received from Peter J. Bearse and David S. Wise.

Carmine Gorga, a former Fulbright Scholar, is president of The Somist Institute, a research organization in Gloucester, Mass. Through The Economic Process, To My Polis, and numerous other publications in economic theory and policy, he has transformed economics from a linear to a relational discipline. Dr. Gorga blogs at and

Be Good: Getting rid of interferences

“Be good, for goodness sake” admonishes a splendid Christmas carol. But that is not good enough. The confusion on moral issues is so deep and wide that simple admonitions are not good enough. In order to try to bring some clarity to the field, I will touch upon two issues. First, what does the injunction to be good mean? Second, how can we be good? The first issue is addressed here; the second in a next essay.

What does it mean to be good?

To be good is a consequence of exercising all the virtues. The virtuous man or woman is a good person. It is really that simple.

Yet, complications arise at every step of the way. What are the virtues? Adam Smith succeeded in reducing them to one: prudence, which dovetailed with his predilection for economic affairs and his penchant for reducing the entire economic problem to saving and not squandering one’s inherited fortune. He was, after all, the tutor of sons of rich landowners.

Others, like Benjamin Franklin (sorry to say, since he is one of the few heroes I still have), erred on the other side: He elongated the list of virtues to such an extent that only mish-mash is left.

We have not simply inherited a basic confusion about the classification of the virtues; we have lodged the confusion in very high places. Theologians and practitioners at every level of this discipline have found it easier to live with the dichotomy between God the Good and God the Just than to resolve it.

Who dares blame the various branches of philosophy and sociology for sporting a supercilious attitude toward the virtues—and for imbedding this attitude deeply into our daily life? “Who are you to talk about the virtues?” “I am Number One; therefore, I know it all; and no one dare tell me anything, especially anything about morality. My ethics are at least as good as yours, if not better. And do not tell me of absolute truths: There is no such thing. Only people who want to boss other people around believe in absolute truths. Did not Einstein tell us that everything is relative?”

To unpack this widespread attitude would take more than a few pages. But let us go as far as we can, taking up the last misconception first. Einstein was the master of relativity, not moral relativism. The two have nothing in common with each other.

Individualism of the “I am Number One syndrome” is the bane of our age. It is an unfounded assumption: We all live in a social context. And the social context requires that moral issues be clearly understood before they can be effectively practiced.

The elephant in the room is the assertion that there are no absolute truths, and we shall leave this well enough alone.

The fear that people who assert absolute truths tend to boss people around is a misconstruction of the social and historical reality: Absolute truths, once established and practiced, serve the interests of the many, because they put constraint upon the few.

Some implications of the separation of goodness from the virtues

Since these are too many and too complex considerations to be pursued, it is far easier to live in the state of confusion engendered by the separation of goodness from the virtues.

Yet, we have to be aware of the dangers lurking in our cultural condition. In its key function, this confusion leads us to believe that to exercise any of the virtues is a presumptuous act. It is commonly repeated that only people who are self-righteous believe they are virtuous; and since to be virtuous is an impossibility given the natural state of the human condition as self-conceited and sinful, we are all fallen people. Hence, the righteous person is soon accused of being a hypocrite.

Given this cultural overhang, who dares to pursue the virtues any longer?

To separate goodness from the virtues is the easy way out; but that does not solve any of the difficulties with which we are faced. Let us start again. Let us start from rock bottom.

The absoluteness of the virtuous action

The virtuous action is absolute. One action cannot be more virtuous than another virtuous action; one cannot be more virtuous than another person. Indeed, the virtuous man or woman does not invite comparisons; the virtuous person does not feel inferior to another person who might feel more virtuous. This is the bedrock on which we can attempt to reconstruct the value of the virtues. Here follow some of the basics.

Why goodness has to be guided by the virtues

The good person is insecure and always tries to do better. This is the classic case in which the better is the enemy of the good. The virtuous person knows that he cannot do better than he is doing; that he normally does the best he can.

The good person’s sense of self is shattered if he discovers or is discovered doing a less than honorable act; if he believes in the doctrine of incorrigibility of sin—as Father Merton magisterially demonstrated about this practice by the Nazis—he is liable to fall victim to malevolent people who will try to divert his actions to their advantage. The virtuous person shakes the sand off his sandals and proceeds along his way; he is ready to learn from his mistakes.

Goodness by itself invites comparisons. We thus, being somehow unaware, accept the self-deceit of goodness. We cannot tolerate being surpassed in anything, so we believe that we are always better than someone else.

The chain of these insecurities intertwined with self-conceits constitutes the slippery slope of goodness that inveigles us in a worrisome trend, a race to the bottom. The evidence of this race—involving, not the entire world, but most of the activities that are reported in the media and some literature—is so clearly part of our daily life that we tend to accept it as an inevitability and avert our eyes from it. Crimes become more and more heinous; description of these crimes is less and less inhibited; visualization of these crimes becomes more and more evident; sensationalism is rampant; cruelty and embarrassment are lionized; mediocrity is exalted in our culture.

And these are petty crimes that yet hold our attention and capture our imagination. Real serious crimes, crimes that affect the lives of billions of people, are taking place in the field of economics and finance. Thanks to the confusing status of mainstream economic theory, they are barely understood and discussed. Mostly they are taken like natural disasters, caused by impersonal laws of supply and demand, rather than consequences of purposeful human action.

Civilians mangled in warfare and forced mass migrations are just happenings; destruction of Indigenous People’s life is taken for granted; genocides are barely talked about.

The issue of the deceits of goodness is topped off by the dumbing down of the political discourse. This race from reality is a result of two vicious circles: the control of the political process by the media, and the control of the media and academia by economic libertines.

Why has this race to the bottom happened during the last four to five hundred years of history? Some time ago it hit me as a ton of bricks the realization that, deep inside, we not only believe we are good, but even believe we are better than others. Hence the push to the bottom, so, no matter how bad we are, we all believe we remain just a bit above every one else.

The disconnect between goodness and the virtues

There are serious, not clearly understood, consequences of the disconnect between goodness and the virtues. Goodness alone is not enough. Goodness unguided by the virtues easily leads us astray.

Starkly stated, the two conditions are not symmetric: to be virtuous is to be good; but to be good is not necessarily to be virtuous. The self-conceit of goodness is such that some of the most heinous crimes have been undertaken under the mistaken assumption that they were “good”. Did not French, German, and Russian revolutionaries assume that it was good to eradicate religiosity from the world? Did not Communist fanatics the world over justify the slaughter of millions in the vain hope of eradicating poverty from the face of the earth? Is not the genocide of any race pursued in the name of eventually reaching the purity of some false ideal? Are not some of the most dangerous scientific experiments pursued in the light of fabulous mirages at the end of a dark tunnel?

From the tragic to the everyday banality there is a small gap; but how many fall into it! The gap is opened by a cracked culture. The “good” person can easily fall prey to sharpies and in turn pursue unjust actions as well as advocate unjust policies. The world today is ruled by little else. It should be sufficient to mention each and any policy of forced redistribution of wealth. All good men and women advocate policies of redistribution of wealth—provided it is not their wealth—or much of their wealth—that is called to be redistributed.

The injustices of this prescription are so numerous that they can be clarified only by pointing out that the person who calls for redistribution of wealth plays God. The policy falls apart upon innumerable practical decisions: from whom to redistribute, to whom, how much, how often. The issues multiply as one investigates them. The proof of the pudding is that the policy of redistribution is never satisfactorily applied.

The biggest shortcoming of this policy is that it lulls the good person into self-satisfaction for his good advocacy and shifts the attention from the real problem, the problem of just distribution of wealth as it is being created.

This is an issue that I plan to investigate in an upcoming essay.

Mr. Gorga would like to acknowledge the invaluable editorial assistance received from Peter J. Bearse and David S. Wise.

Carmine Gorga, a former Fulbright Scholar, is president of The Somist Institute, a research organization in Gloucester, Mass. Through The Economic Process, To My Polis, and numerous other publications in economic theory and policy, he has transformed economics from a linear to a relational discipline. Dr. Gorga blogs at and

Originally published at

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Some Libertarians Are Economic Libertines

Words have consequences because they influence our actions. A powerful word that today is paralyzing our public discourse is libertarianism. To free the discourse and eventually our political actions, I will attempt to make a distinction between libertarianism and libertinism.

If this distinction is accepted, we will be ready to peer into the performance of capitalism and realize that economic libertines, by reserving all freedoms to themselves, and especially by separating rights from responsibilities, pursue not pure, moral, and ideal capitalism, but a whole set of variegated forms of exploitative capitalism.

Once the public discourse is opened up, a floodgate of ideas will ensue to remedy the current crisis in economics and politics.

Some Libertarians Are Economic Libertines

With his contribution to the Guardian of 19 December 2011, George Monbiot has started a discussion that goes to the very core of our political discourse. It associates the libertarian position with the 1% megalo-plutocratic attempt to control everything. It is a very important discussion.

Its long title is worth repeating: “This bastardised libertarianism makes 'freedom' an instrument of oppression. It's the disguise used by those who wish to exploit without restraint, denying the need for the state to protect the 99%”.

The title says it all. It is clear, cogent, erudite, enlightening, and energizing. It is a joy to read.

So propelled, I would like to add a couple of points.

Originally, there was a clear distinction between liberalism and libertinism. The corruption of our current political discourse is evidenced by the obliteration of the word libertinism. Somehow, the word libertine offends our sense of tolerance and our superficial moral sensibilities. Resistance to this word is likely to come from those who relate the word to moral libertinism, and hence restrict it to private morality.

To reintroduce the word in our vocabulary, I would like to apply it to economic affairs. And then I would like to specify that there is no such thing as private morality: True morality is always a public affair. It always involves at least two people.

The freedom of using the word libertine, it seems to me, can be regained only if we realize how we have allowed it to slip from our hands.

How Did We Lose the Word Libertine

We must first realize that we all would love to be libertines. Life would be so much easier! (This is a wrong assumption, but that is another discussion altogether). Who loves restraints?

It takes great wisdom to realize the reality and the usefulness of restraint. My father used to say “Remember that the grass named ‘I want’ does not exist even in the garden of the King”.

The slippery slope that led to the abandonment of the word “libertine” started very early. The Enlightenment was supposed to espouse tolerance. Indeed, it openly did, and that is why it gained so much favor: People were tired of intolerance, particularly religious intolerance.

But the Enlightenment was in a hurry. It hoped to accomplish its aims in a few days, rather than—if the effort was worthy at all—hundreds of years.

The case of the martyrs of Compiègne is symptomatic. The nuns were brought under the guillotine because they did not want to accept the freedom that the Revolution was offering them, the freedom to be out of the convent.

It is almost funny, if it had not been tragic for the nuns. And if it were not ingrained into the presumption of the Enlightenment: a sense of superiority that makes the Enlightened One tolerant of the unsuspected weaknesses in one’s own opinions, yet intolerant of weaknesses in other peoples’ opinions. It is this sense of superficial superiority that supports economic libertinism.

Libertinism is unrestrained liberty.

A few words will not suffice to settle the case. The discussion has to be brought on to another level. During the last forty years, the economic liberal has been transformed into a libertarian; and now some libertarians, for various reasons, threaten to become economic libertines.

Implicitly, the libertarian is given permission to become an economic libertine, because s/he talks of liberty in the abstract—but not as an abstract idea; rather, liberty as restricted to my liberty rather than being extended to liberty for all.

I am not creating an arbitrary interpretation; it is the original interpretation of liberty.

The Original Interpretation of Liberty

Libertinism neglects the other half of J. S. Mill definition of liberty: “The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”

The true libertarian, faithful to the glorious tradition of extending the range of liberty to all, in every aspect of life, will never fall into the abyss of libertinism: the abyss of capturing all economic liberty for oneself and—automatically—denying economic liberty to the multitudes. The true libertarian will battle to the death for the liberty of all.

The true libertarian will do that much not because s/he is an “idealist” ready to go on quixotic quests at any hint of movement in the air. The true libertarian will fight for the liberty of all in full recognition of self-preservation, a thing that used to be called enlightened self-interest. The true libertarian will struggle for the liberty of all because freedom is a seamless web: Liberty for all is liberty for one, and vice versa.

The untoward libertarian, instead, the libertarian of the Me Generation—the libertine—could not care less about the extrinsic reality of freedom. In fact, all of his/her actions are aimed at the decoupling of freedom from morality. The final action is the decoupling of rights from responsibilities. There you have it, freedom to the utmost for me—“libertinism". And no responsibility whatsoever.

Ultimately, this conception of freedom becomes ugly and hurtful because it lives in a vacuum. Freedom is supposed to be the freedom of the individual person—individualism, as we assume it to be. And it is rarely realized that the “individual person” is such an abstraction conception that in the end it does not exist in real life.

If you were born of a mother, or even of a beaker manipulated by men and women in a lab coat, you were not born alone. You were born of The Other, from The Other. You are bonded with The Other; you are bound up with society. You are stuck with responsibilities.

The person in the social context is the total reality.

Both the Individual alone and Society alone are abstractions that lead to wrong ends.
If we want to free ourselves of the clutches of libertinism, we have to let the narcissistic self unfold—à la Professor Unger—into a mature person that fits into the needs and hopes and aspirations of the community: the community of family, the community of friends, the community of coworkers, the community of citizens—civilized citizens.

Mr. Gorga would like to acknowledge the invaluable editorial assistance received from Peter J. Bearse and David S. Wise.

Carmine Gorga, a former Fulbright Scholar, is president of The Somist Institute, a research organization in Gloucester, Mass. Through The Economic Process, To My Polis, and numerous other publications in economic theory and policy, he has transformed economics from a linear to a relational discipline. Dr. Gorga blogs at and

Friday, June 1, 2012

A Call to 99.99% of the Population

Some time ago I wrote a piece on “The Creators of Poverty”. Time has come to reissue that piece and to draw some novel conclusions from it. Here it is. 
I can hardly contain myself. After years of studying the issue at a not-inconsiderable depth, I have found in an unsuspected source an insight that clears up the issue of the cause of poverty in a definitive and powerful way. The source of this insight is neither a treatise in economics, nor a work in sociology, nor a tome in the theory of justice. The source is a paper published in “Spiritual Life”, a periodical of Carmelite spirituality, in the Fall of 1997. The author is Suzanne Mayer. The title is: "Songs of the City of God: Merton, Social Justice, And the Psalms".

The author prefaces her essay with this quote from Thomas Merton's "Bread in the Wilderness": "The Psalms are the songs of (the) City of God.... Singing them, we become more fully incorporated into the mystery of God's action in human history". Recalling that the Psalms are the "ancient prayers of Israel" ascending "like incense before the altar of God", she proposes to "explore 'the mystery of God's action in human history' through the vision the Psalms give of divine justice and through the covenant call to all humanity to enter into this process".

These are some of the Psalms she quotes. Ps. 10:2: "In arrogance the wicked hotly pursue the poor..."  Ps. 37:14: "The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows, to bring down the poor and the needy..."

How do you read these Psalms? I read them in this way: Poverty is created, not by the rich, but by the wicked.  What a liberating thesis.  

So often repeated, most of us have assumed it to be true. We have assumed that poverty is caused by the rich. Even I have almost fallen into this trap, even though, as those who have worked with me know, I have never used one word against the rich.

In fact, most of my efforts were unfocused and must have seemed quixotic to many, just because I have always refused to point the finger at "the rich".

Let us be honest. We have all assumed that poverty exists because of the rich. Indeed, have not many rich people themselves assumed that to be true? Certainly, society as a whole in its organized political effort has trained all its guns in that direction—and the reaction from the rich has, of course, been to resist that effort.  

That most political discourse and action has for centuries been dominated by that assumption is not worth discussing at length. Much more interesting is another question. What is a fair assessment of the result of all that effort?  

Do we not find that while the rich win most of the battles and the poor win a few pitiful ones in the short term, the war is constantly lost by all?  

Are we not, generation after generation, faced with the same age-old problem of poverty? There are times when we become so exhausted by this burden that we refuse even to discuss it further. But the problem remains stubbornly there. And it gnarls our soul. Not much joy, not much enjoyment of what we possess can be had, if we somehow keep in the back of our minds the suspicion that we have not done nearly enough to alleviate the pain and suffering of men and women who unwillingly live in poverty.  

How can we tackle such an endemic condition? Is the situation hopeless? I believe that the first ray of light, and hope, can be grasped if we really try to learn about poverty, starting with splitting the problem into absolute and relative poverty. This is an important distinction. Relative poverty is the existential condition for which there will always be someone richer than others. The feast is a movable feast, indeed.  That does not matter at all. Not one iota.

What matters is that those who have less be not deprived of the conditions for a dignified and free life. When poverty of material conditions impinges on our freedom and our dignity, then we are suffering from absolute poverty. Then the quality of life of society as a whole is impoverished. Freedom and dignity are absolute qualities. No one can be deprived of them or we are all deprived of them—to say the least, we are all deprived of the joys of a guiltless life.

What changes when we distinguish between relative and absolute poverty? What changes when we make the wicked culpable for the existence of absolute poverty? Everything changes—and the problem becomes abruptly soluble. Let us look at a few effects on the political stump and the religious pulpit.

Their aspirations have been separated; their actions split for way too long a time. While maintaining their autonomy and integrity, ways must be found for their actions to strategically overlap.

Hence, our political discourse changes. Our eyes are no longer focused on the behavior of the rich and the behavior of the poor. That polarization in our political life, with people taking sides between the two poles and making the other the enemy, vanishes. We all know the hatred generated by the "undeserving poor." How many pieces of legislation are passed on the strength of that hatred! How many punitive agencies exist in the vain attempt at enforcing those laws!

Though less spoken about, how much hatred is directed against "the undeserving rich"? One can attribute all sorts of purposes to the tax code, but is not much of it written on the assumption that the rich have taken something away from others? The wicked rich are most certainly engaged in those practices. But are all the rich wicked? And are there not poor people who are wicked?

Our political discourse is purged of many impurities, and our political action becomes much more pointed, if we keep those two basic distinctions in the back of our minds. Our finger is pointed in only one direction, the proper direction: the wicked who do damage to us all—and even to themselves in the long run.

The religious pulpit and the political stump can finally become allies—on an equal footing. The split that has plagued society, it seems forever, is healed. Ultimate goals remain different. One is concerned more with the metaphysical life and the other more with the physical life, but the struggle, in this life, on this earth, becomes one and the same: resistance against wicked actions.

Is it easy to identify the wicked? No. Absolutely not. As distinguished from the rich and the poor who can be easily identified, the wicked cannot be easily identified by others. But the wicked themselves know who they are. (At moments of deepest insight, we know that we are all wicked, at least sporadically, at least in part. In those moments we also know that some people do not know they are wicked: hence the need for moral and technical instruction, because without knowledge of good and evil, there is no "sin.")  

The root to the solution of the problem of poverty is no longer found in punishment of the rich or punishment of the poor, or both.  The solution can be found only in that eternal prescription for happiness: love your neighbor; love your God; and if you love them both, you will eventually cease to be wicked and you will even love yourself.   

Thus the schism within the very soul of the religious people as well as the soul of the political people and, ultimately, the soul of each citizen is healed. The religious can be concerned primarily with affairs of the moral life and the eternal life: They can eventually get out of "the social action". The politicians can be concerned primarily with providing a framework for the "good government", namely the just government, within which we can take care of all our earthly needs. And we will all succeed. The politicians will no longer be dealing with wicked people in sheep's skin coming out of churches, mosques, and synagogues. In normal times, the few—always few—vastly wicked people will no longer intermingle with the good people. Conceivably, they will isolate themselves; they will ostracize themselves. Only when self purged, will they come back. Without nearly insurmountable obstacles posed by the wicked, the majority of the people will satisfy all the needs that can and must be taken care of. (In abnormal times, the situation is completely changed; for a good illustration of abnormal times, see

The existence of poverty is a moral issue. As such it can be solved. But, then, just because poverty is a moral issue, do we not run against the assumption that wickedness is an intrinsic part of human nature? I was myself under this impression until recently when, in a discussion with Father John Hughes of Fitchburg, MA, the issue was clarified for me. I pushed him to admit the inevitability of wickedness. But the goodness that is in him, resisted my push. He declared himself optimistic that the human race will eventually shunt wickedness aside. It was then that it occurred to me. Yes, the potential for being wicked will always be with us. That is inherent in our human nature; otherwise we would not be free—free to choose between good and evil. But do we have to choose evil?  Do we have to destroy ourselves in the process? Not at all. Our struggle will be to resist wickedness.

Our millennium has committed more wicked acts than all other millenniums combined, perhaps. We have had our fill. We can now gain control of ourselves and mold ancient aspirations into a Movement Toward Goodness (MTG). This is a challenging task indeed. We need all our wits to succeed.

It seems to me that the Occupy Movement has somehow imbued the spirit of my peroration. Wisely, this is called the spirit of the time: I did not create this spirit; not one single person creates it; and somehow we (nearly) all share it.

The Occupy Movement is on the right path; but it does need to embrace many of the rich as well in its fold: It has to enlarge its ranks to included 99.99% of the population.

Who is left out is the .01% of the population that is composed of wicked people (with the lack of hard data, percentages are only symbolic. If this percentage seems to be abnormally low, it is because it attempts to represent the number of wicked people among the rich. To be more complete, one needs to add the number of wicked among the middle class and the poor. In any case, these percentages are liable to change over time, space, and with institutional arrangements prevalent in society).

Now that the issue is no longer philosophical, I can give a pointed answer to the question.

Who are the wicked? In 1998, I gave a generic answer. In today's political context, I can be much more specific. The wicked are members of the .01% of the population who consciously work against the 99.99%. These are the people who in the political sphere divide in order to conquer the 99.99%; in the economic sphere they are the ones who set their greed against the interests of the 99.99% of the population.

Activists in any field beware. Do not fall into the millennial trap. For this reason, for me the most important message I ever received was that on a sign at Occupy Boston that stated: "Stop being deceived".

The Ajax Dilemma -- Resolved Through Concordian Economics

There is an important book just out. It is titled “The Ajax Dilemma”. Its author, Paul Woodruff, is a professor of philosophy and dean at the University of Texas at Austin. Professor Woodruff has performed an invaluable and timely service in offering an in-depth examination of this two-thousand years old dilemma.

For Professor Woodruff, the Ajax Dilemma is a means to give us his evaluation of two thousand years of thought on the meaning of justice, from Plato to Aristotle, through J. S. Mill and Rawls to his contemporary brethren. I am not a lawyer, but I detect little legal jargon. And the presentation is much richer than pure legal scholarship; legalisms are bathed throughout in a complex psychological and sociological web of human relations. No serious reader should deprive himself of the joy of following the various arguments from start to finish.

The book consists of a fascinating evaluation of alternative points of view concerning the details of the Ajax dilemma case, whose barebones are these. In the middle of the Trojan War, Achilles, the most valuable Greek soldier, is felled; upon Agamemnon, the Greek King, falls the task of deciding whom to reward with the grant of Achilles’ armor.

Ajax or Odysseus? Ajax is an extraordinary doer; Odysseus is an extraordinary thinker. Grant the armor to Odysseus and you may dishonor the Army and lose the war; grant the armor to Ajax, Odysseus may defect and you lose the opportunity to win the war.

Agamemnon does not dare to announce openly his decision to give the armor to Odysseus. He hides behind the fig leaf of a committee to make the formal decision. He asks Nestor to devise procedures to do his bidding.

Ajax cannot accept any decision against him. In a delirium of pain, he decides to kill the king and believes to have done so, even though in reality he went temporarily out of his mind and killed, instead, a flock of sheep that had gotten in his way.

Coming back to his senses, he finds himself covered with blood. He cannot tolerate even having considered the possibility of killing the king. Deeply ashamed, he finds only one way to redeem himself.

He commits suicide.

A tragedy

Professor Woodruff does not find any better solution than to call the dilemma a tragedy.

Everyone lost.

Indeed, the lack of a solution to this dilemma continues to be a tragedy. Indeed, in these days of financial crisis that bursts its flames all around the world, it can clearly be seen that the winner-take-all solution leads only to tragedy: a vast tragedy that is revealed as soon as the terms of the discussion are enlarged to include the overreaching social mantels that today ultimately cloak the decision: individualism and capitalism.

An objective evaluation of the effects of Ajax dilemma

The winner-take-all solution was and is the direct result of the apotheosis of The Individual, the Me Generation, the Number One deception. All pushing morality away. All reducing morality to a private affair.

The Ajax Dilemma is no longer, if it has ever been, a matter of private morality affecting the life of a few people: Ajax’s son who is now fatherless, his wife who is now a widow, soldiers in his cohort who used to run for protection behind his huge shield along with, one must assume, the small legion of his friends and admirers.

Indeed, one also needs to add the indistinct and undefinable mixture of effects of the dilemma such as number of Greek soldiers who were killed because they were no longer protected by Ajax’s shield as well as the number of Trojan soldiers who were not killed because of the absence of Ajax from the battlefield.

The most indistinct and undefinable mixture of the effects of Ajax Dilemma is this: Did the death of Ajax speed up the resolution of the Trojan War? Did the presence of Ajax make the strategic thinkers in the Greek quarters rather lackadaisical? Did the absence of Ajax squeeze the creative juices in them somewhat harder?

The sheer weight of grievances caused by the dilemma makes it clear that there is no such thing as private morality. The effects of morality always affect at least two people. Hence, morality is never private; morality is always public morality.

No. Today the effects of Ajax Dilemma are not restricted to the field of private morality. .

If there ever was a doubt about the validity of these considerations, nowadays such doubts can be dispelled once and for all. When the winner of today’s economic “games” takes home billions—yes, no longer millions, but billions—of dollars, while millions of people go to bed hungry and homeless, the winner-take-all culture is no longer confined to private morality.

The winner-take-all culture fostered by unbridled Individualism and exploitative Capitalism is a public disgrace,

A solution must be found

Lack of solution to this dilemma constantly leads to unjust and unsustainable conditions.

After two thousand years of contemplating the consequences of our inability to resolve the dilemma, it is high time that a solution be found.

The new framework of analysis of Concordian economics offers the broad outline of a just and sustainable solution to the Ajax Dilemma.

A just and sustainable solution

At the core of Concordian economics there is the theory of economic justice. This theory is simply put. Rewards have to be given to all those who participate in the process of creation of whatever results one is engaged in creating; rewards are distributed in accordance with the degree of participation in the creation of the results; the apportioned shares have a value, not equal, but equivalent to each other in terms of justice: In other words, shares are recognized by the recipients as well as by the rest of community as being just.

By definition, just shares incorporate total and utter justice to all parties concerned. When obtained, a most difficult thing to achieve, justice is justice. Justice is the same for everyone; justice is always apportioned equally among all concerned. There is no such thing as more or less justice; were shares attempting to contain more or less justice, they would not be just. They would be unjust.

Justice, as Professor Woodruff wisely and deeply shows, is not the result of procedures and measures established once and for all. Procedures and measures have themselves to be just. Hence the search for justice is a creative, ever unfinished, process; it is the task of wise and responsible leaders. History helps.

Agamemnon, in other words, could have resolved the dilemma by making the following decisions: a) both Ajax and Odysseus need to be rewarded; b) they need to be rewarded in accordance with their contribution to the winning of the war; c) their reward must be equivalent to each other.

Were I Agamemnon, I would decide in this fashion: I would give Achilles’ armor to both Ajax and Odysseus; they would need to hold the amour for a determinate amount of time.

Thus would I decapitate the winner-take-all hydra.

Then I would ask for communal wisdom to help me decide whether the time ought to be 50/50; 60/40; or 40/60.

In other words I could see wisdom in giving the armor to hold for six, eight, or four months (per year?).

The first choice would imply that both Ajax and Odysseus are of equal value to the success of the war.

The second choice, looking at the issues retrospectively, calls for an attribution to Ajax of a greater share.

The third choice, looking at the issues prospectively, calls for an attribution to Odysseus of a greater share.


With the fungibility of money rather than an indivisible armor mostly at stake today, even the distribution of a penny would indicate the wisdom of being just: Multiply those pennies for each job and each purchase, owed through Consumer Stock Ownership Plans as practiced by the Harvard Coop for instance, and everyone is going to make a living.