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Solovyov on Economic Morality

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Vladimir Solovyov

Towards the end of his life, the 19th century Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov published his “On the Justification of the Good: An Essay on Moral Philosophy” (1897). In this book, wrote historian Paul Valliere, Solovyov abandonded his vision of a “worldwide theocratic order” in favor of the more concrete demands of building a just society. With “Justification of the Good,” Solovyov (1853-1900) presented a general theory of economic and social welfare based on the idea that all human beings have “a right to a dignified existence.”

The following excerpt is from the chapter, “The Economic Question from the Moral Point of View” in Solovyov’s “On the Justification of the Good.” Translated by Nathalie A. Duddington; annotated and edited by Boris Jakim; foreword by David Bentley Hart. Wm. B. Eerdmans (2005). Cross posted from The Observer.

For the true solution of the so-called ‘social question’ it must in the first place be recognized that economic relations contain no special norm of their own, but are subject to the universal moral norm as a special realm in which they find their application. The triple moral principle which determines our due relation towards God, men, and the material nature is wholly and entirely applicable in the domain of economics. The peculiar character of economic relations gives a special importance to the last member of the moral trinity, namely, the relation to the material nature or earth (in the wide sense of the term). This third relation can have a moral character only if it is not isolated from the first two but is conditioned by them in the normal position.

The realm of economic relations is exhaustively described by the general ideas of production (labor and capital), distribution of property, and exchange of values. Let us consider these fundamental ideas from the moral point of view, beginning with the most fundamental of them — the idea of labor. We know that the first impulse of labor is given by material necessity. But for a man who recognizes above himself the absolutely perfect principle or reality, or the will of God, all necessity is an expression of that will.

From this point of view, labor is a commandment of God. This commandment requires us to work hard (‘in the sweat of thy face’) to cultivate the ground, i.e. to perfect material nature. For whose sake? In the first place for our own and that of our neighbors. This answer, clear at the most elementary stages of moral development, no doubt remains in force as humanity progresses, the only change being that the denotation of the term ‘neighbor’ becomes more and more wide. Originally my neighbors were only those to whom I was related by the blood tie or by the personal feeling; finally it is all mankind.

When Bastiat, the most gifted representative of economic individualism, advocated the principle ‘each for himself’ he defended himself against the charge of selfishness by pointing to the economic harmony in virtue of which each man in working solely for himself (and his family), unconsciously, from the very nature of social relations, works also for the benefit of all, so that the interest of each harmonizes in truth with the interest of all. In any case, however, this would be merely a natural harmony, similar to that which obtains in the non-human world where certain insects, seeking nothing but sweet food for themselves, unconsciously bring about the fertilization of plants by transferring the pollen from one flower to another. Such harmony testifies, of course, to the wisdom of the Creator, but does not make insects into moral beings.

Man, however, is a moral being and natural solidarity is not sufficient for him; he ought not merely to labor for all and participate in the common work, but to know that he does so and to wish to do it. Those who refuse to acknowledge this truth as a matter of principle will feel its force as a matter of fact in financial crashes and economic crises. Men who are the cause of such anomalies and men who are the victims of them, both belong to the class of poeople who work for themselves, and yet the natural harmony neither reconciles their interest nor secures their prosperity.

The merely natural unity of economic interests is not sufficient to secure the result that each, in working for himself, should also work for all. To bring this about economic relations must be consciously directed towards the common good.

John Couretas John Couretas is Director of Communications, responsible for marketing and advertising, media relations, and print and online communications at the Acton Institute. He has more than 20 years of experience in the news, events and corporate communications fields. He has worked as a staff writer on newspapers and magazines, covering business and government. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.