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The Good Life in Common: Europe beyond the crisis of instrumental reason

Pabst, Adrian, ed. (2011) The Good Life in Common: Europe beyond the crisis of instrumental reason. Marcianum Press, Venice, 144 pp. ISBN 978-88-6512-083-5. (KAR id:37664)

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This book is the outcome of a project launched by ASSET, the School for Advanced Studies on Society, Economy and Theology based at the Studium Generale Marcianum in Venice. Entitled ‘Beyond the Crisis: Political and Economic Reason in European Politics’, this project analyses the complex links between rationality, politics and economics in Europe following the crisis of 2008-9. One of the key objectives is to explore how to develop and foster reasonable practices in Europe’s economy and political system – with a special focus on debates and policy-making in the European Parliament.

Why reason? The current crisis is a crisis of ‘economic reason’. There was too much reliance on supposedly ‘rational expectations’ or ‘efficient markets’ and too little consideration for the intrinsic value of reason as a whole – not just the sort of instrumental rationality that dominated politics and the economy for much of the twentieth century. That is why Cardinal Angelo Scola has rightly remarked that “[t]he 2008 global financial crisis came after a long period of "slumbering reason": agents, pressed by the aim of reaching extraordinary results in the short term, neglected to consider the proper dimensions of finance”. Seen in this light, the aftermath of the crisis raises fundamental questions about what reason is and what can be said to be reasonable.

As Pope Benedict XVI – in the address he intended to give during a visit to La Sapienza University in Rome on 17 January 2008 – reminds us, reason is inextricably intertwined to the desire for knowledge and the search for truth: “Man desires to know – he wants truth”. This statement has important implications for economic and political decisions, which should surely be taken in a reasonable manner. According to Benedict, such a “reasonable manner” in society involves a “process of argumentation sensitive to the truth”. As such, the ‘dictatorship of relativism’ that the Pope has rightly condemned is in fact a denial of reasonableness. Reason in politics, the economy and society requires notions of truth.

Questions like “What is reasonable?” or “How is reason shown to be true?” are not matters for philosophical speculation alone but ultimately concern the entire citizenry. Now that all the ideologies of instrumental reason have so manifestly failed, politicians and economic agents can no longer evade other fundamental queries, including “what makes a policy reasonable?”, “what is a proper understanding of political and economic reason?” or “when is a political action truly just?”.

Such and similar questions concern politics and society at all levels – local, regional, national, European and global. Growing economic interdependence around the world has mostly disembedded states and markets from the social bonds and civic virtues of civil society, but it also offers new opportunities for reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity among communities and nations. Post-1945 European integration and enlargement are grounded in a sense that the intermediary institutions of civil society within and across countries are more primary than either national states or transnational markets.

However, the EU – in its current configuration – has abandoned this vision in favour of political elites, market cooperation and bureaucratic regulation. As such, it has contributed to the centralisation of power and the concentration of wealth that is undermining democracies and market economies across Europe. In this process, abstract economic values linked to instrumental reason and procedural fairness have supplanted civic virtues related to notions of reasonableness and substantive justice.

To promote an ethos of responsible and virtuous action, what is required is the full breadth of political and economic reason. Christian social teaching offers conceptual and practical resources that are indispensable to the search for broader notions of rationality. Among these resources are non-instrumental conceptions of justice and the common good in the social doctrine of the Catholic Church and cognate traditions in Anglicanism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Closely connected to this is the idea of ‘civil economy’. As Pope Benedict XVI has suggested in his encyclical Caritas in veritate, ‘civil economy’ embeds state-guaranteed rights and market contracts in the social bonds and civic virtues that bind together the intermediary institutions of civil society. In this manner, it binds the ‘logic of contract’ to the ‘logic of gratuitous gift exchange’. The logic of gift exchange translates into concrete practices of reciprocal trust and mutual assistance that underpin virtues such as solidarity and the pursuit of the public good in which all can share. As such, ‘civil economy’ reconnects activities that are primarily for state-administrative or economic-commercial purposes to practices that pursue social purposes.

So by which means can the EU possibly help broaden political and economic reason? This challenge is at the heart of ASSET’s project on political and economic reason. As one of the key institutions of the EU, the European Parliament is uniquely positioned to shed light on the ways in which ideas translate into policy-making and how reasonable practices can be fostered.

Unlike other work on the crisis, this publication seeks to offer an overarching account of the nature of the ongoing economic turmoil, its political implications and concrete alternatives to hitherto dominant ideologies. Specifically, the various contributions explore in different ways how the idea of reasonable practices shape the debates and policy-making of the European Parliament.

The book has three particular angles. First of all, it draws on Christian social teaching to raise fundamental questions about the crisis – in particular the writings of Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Scola. For example, various contributors link the financial and economic causes that triggered the ‘credit crunch’ to the wider “anthropological and cultural origins” of the current crisis.

Second, the book focuses on broader forms of reason than the instrumental rationality that has been dominant in both politics and economics. Narrow notions of reason seem to be connected with to the short-term maximisation of private profit which, in turn, undermines long-term growth and sustained prosperity for society as a whole. The emphasis of this project is therefore on reasonable practices that blend individual interest with a clear commitment to the common good.

Third, the publication seeks to link high-level ideas and academic research to political debates and concrete policy alternatives. Interviews with Members of the European Parliament from different political groups eschew conventional questions in favour of reflections on alternative policies that are grounded in reasonable practices. These interviews provide fascinating insights into the discussions at the heart of the wider EU political system and they also offer ideas for future policy initiatives.

Item Type: Edited book
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BR Christianity
H Social Sciences > HC Economic History and Conditions
J Political Science > JN Political institutions and public administration (Europe)
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Human and Social Sciences > School of Politics and International Relations
Depositing User: Adrian Pabst
Date Deposited: 19 Dec 2013 11:46 UTC
Last Modified: 16 Nov 2021 10:14 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

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