I recently purchased an excellent book by Vladimir Solovyov (1853-1900), one of Russia’s towering figures of philosophy, entitled The Justification of the Good. Solovyov is the perfect example of a thinker whose tough philosophical mumbo jumbo actually has real effects for thinking about practical problems. In the first part of the book. Solovyov goes through all the hard work of proving why our ideas of the Good must be rooted in God, and why our freedom must be rooted, also, in God. The second part, however, works out these insights in a variety of public domains. One of these is economics. Skipping ahead, I was quickly interested in his comments on economics (any Russian prior to the Bolshevik revolution is interesting on economics). He writes:
To regard man as merely an economic agent–a producer, owner, and consumer of material goods–is a wrong and immoral point of view. These functions have in themselves no significance for man, and do not in any way express his essential nature and worth. Productive labour, possession and enjoyment of its results, is one of the aspects of human life or one of the spheres of human activity. The truly human interest lies only in the fact as to how and with what object man acts in this particular domain.
Allow a brief comment, because it’s about to get really good. Solovyov has just made a pretty important claim, one that cuts through both capitalist and Marxist philosophy of his day. With the interest of being “scientific,” many 19th century economists tried to boil down the human being into a series of exchanges. They attempted to use objective language, discussing humans as fundamentally involved in economic actions. In other words, biology, philosophy, theology, morality, etc. all become economics, so to speak. Economics becomes the Value by which all other things have value. Solovyov wants to put economics in its place, suggesting a good economics can only be housed under good ethics–an investigation of the how. Without ethics, a theory of what is Good, economics is not pointless but immoral. He goes on to say:
Free play of chemical processes can take place only in a corpse; in a living body these processes are connected and determined by organic purposes. Similarly, free play of economic factors and laws is possible only in a community that is dead and is decomposing, while in a living community that has a future, economic elements are correlated with and determined by moral ends. To proclaim laissez faire, laissez passer is to say to society ‘die and decompose.’
Following Solovyov’s claim that without ethics economics is immoral, he suggests that to assume economics can, on its own, sustain common life is to pronounce a death sentence to society. Solovyov has an appreciation for obligations to God, the world, fellow humans–economics, on its own, does not contain such obligations. Humans are more than their economic exchanges.