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Keynes's moral philosophy and theory of rational decisions

As regards moral good, Keynes adheres to Moore's idealism, which admits that ends, too, can be rationally established. Keynes's philosophical beliefs are expressed in his early philosophical writings (1904-6) and other writings such as 'The End of Laissez-faire' (1972b [1926]), 'My Early Beliefs' (1972e [1938]), The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1973b [1936]), 'Art and the State' (1982 [1936]), and 'The Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren' (1972d [1930]); while his theory of rational decisions is stated in A Treatise of Probability (1973a [1921]), where, as regards the consequences of a rational act, he also admits procedures different from those of MEU.

Keynes' view of moral value: the principle of organicism

As regards Moore's chapter on 'The Ideal', Keynes writes: 'I know no equal to it in literature since Plato. And it is better than Plato because it is quite free from fancy. ... I see no reason to shift from the fundamental intuitions of Principia Ethica (1972e [1938], p. 444). He considers economic science a moral science, and identifies moral goods with Moore's ideals, intended as organic wholes. In A Treatise of Probability (1973a [1921], p. 343) Keynes claims that there are different examples of organic good- ness,7 and in particular, 'we may suppose that the goodness of conscious persons is organic for each distinct and individual personality. Or we may suppose that, when [two] conscious units are in conscious relationship, then the whole which we must treat as organic includes both units.' In addition, 'the organic good of the whole is greater the more equally benefits are divided amongst individuals' (1973a [1921], pp. 353-4).

From the awareness that the structure of ethical action is organic, it follows that the structure of social and economic action also has an organic component. The importance of this conviction is also highlighted by Karl Popper (1957), who claims that a social group is something more than the simple sum total of its members, and is also something more than the simple sum total of the purely personal relations existing between the individual members at some given time.

Having established what moral good is, and having justified its organic nature, Keynes (1906, pp. 4-12) feels the need to give a convincing reply to the following question: If the duty to behave well is in conflict with the fact of being happy, 'ought I to sacrifice myself, my own goodness on the altar of humanity?' From the point of view of logic, nothing can prevent individual good and social good from competing: the duty of an agent as an individual is to acquire good states of mind for herself or himself, while as a citizen the duty is to help society to reach a good situation even if to her or his own detriment. In the awareness that both personal good and universal good have claims that are difficult to reduce to common terms, Keynes acknowledges that a personal sacrifice may be moralized by pursuing a social good. In 'Am I a Liberal?' he states: 'I am ready to sacrifice my local patriotisms to an important general purpose.' The objective nature of the ideal justifies, according to the situation, the sacrifice of the private interest for the pursuit of the social good (Keynes, 1972a [1925], p. 295; CW XXI, p. 375). Keynes' view about the relation between private interest and social good, by admitting situations in which someone has to sacrifice himself in order that others may benefit for social purposes without any compensation, not only denies the utilitarian harmony between private good and social good and the fact that no kind of loss is intrinsically more important than another, but it also conflicts with the Paretian criterion which is valid only if, because of a change, nobody suffers a loss. This view is, instead, shared by Harsanyi (1976), who admits that an individual can sacrifice his personal good in order to respect the moral rule that yields higher social utility.

By distinguishing between private good and collective good, Keynes also distinguishes between private action and public action. The link between ethics (which aims to determine what individuals ought to do) and politics (intended as art and science of government) is given by society, which establishes universal moral values. The organization of material welfare in order to attain the results of a good life requires actions by institutions that promote the public good as they interpret it, always 'subject in the last resort to the sovereignty of the democracy expressed through Parliament' (1972b [1926], p. 289). Following Edmund Burke, Keynes (1904b, p. 81) believes that politics deals with the doctrine of means, and not of ends. Therefore, political ends are not intrinsically good, but only instrumentally good. Government is an instrument whose aim is to satisfy the real needs of society. According to Keynes (1904b, p. 81), Burke provides a logically coherent political philosophy for justifying the intervention of the policymaker as means to promote the maximum good of the society, and the belief that the policymaker must pursue 'right aims by right methods' (1972b [1926], p. 294). In short, Keynes combines Moore's conception of moral good with Burke's practical ethics: the first conception states that ultimate ideals exist in heaven, while the second states that those ideals can be satisfied on earth through reason (Fitzgibbons, 1988, p. 62).

 
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