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Discourse ethics, the imperative of dissent and ethiconomics


Published in the magazine Nolens Volens nº 6, Universidad Europea de Madrid, 2012.

Indignation: A passionate feeling of discontent provoked by something

that wounds one’s sense of justice or moral.*


Every public uprising in defence of individual or group rights is based on demand a moral nature. The global Indignad@s/Occupy movement basically arose against the «greed» of the financial markets, calling for an ethical —and, by extension, political— revolution with the objective of attaining a participative or direct democracy, crying out for «real democracy now». We shall review some key aspects of the philosophical debate about ethical conduct in order to try to provisionally delimit the «ethics of indignation» and attempt to fit them within a discursive tradition, with the intention of throwing some light on their operating organization procedures and arguing the legitimacy of their actions. We will also review the problems of maintaining the separation of fields characteristic of modernity in the application ethics to economics, in order to, finally, imagine the potential substantive applications of ethics integrated in the logic of economics.

There are two conflicting tendencies in philosophical ethics: teleological ethics, which refer to the aims [telos], represented by Aristotle and the hedonists; and the deontological ethics, based on duty [deon], with the illustrated rationality of Kant as its flagship. For Aristotle, every human being acts in order to attain an end, and that final end is happiness [eudemonia]. In the case of Epicurean hedonism, the end is ataraxia —peace of the soul—, and in that of utilitarianism, attaining the «greatest good for the greatest number». Teleological ethics have the idea of good as the central point. They focus on leading a good life, a virtuous life. Aristotle considers phronesis —a calculating prudence— to be the greatest virtue. Ultimately, the education of virtuous citizens in classical Greece had the objective of positive participation in the public life of the polis. Ethics is thus the preamble to Politics. However, belonging to the polis understood as a natural bond —man is a «political animal», as the Stagirite would say— fades with the arrival of modernity and the need to establish an argumentation and rationalization of moral behaviour based on the ideal of the individual, the modern subject, that is notoriously different from the classical citizen. In the modern state, that natural bond of the individual with the city-state is distorted, and the community bond becomes understood as a «social contract» between the individual and the group. The aim of politics is no longer happiness —of the citizen, of the state— but rather, its mission will be the struggle for individual rights. On the other hand, the gradual secularization of society will lead to going from the old monotheistic systems —with moral precepts which must be obeyed under the threat of divine sanction— to new polytheistic societies, as Weber calls them, with plural values. That is to say, the external frame of reference is lost, and all the responsibility for one’s acts is reserved for the individual. The human being is free to act. Or, as Sartre said, is «condemned to be free».

Kant went deeper into the consequences of Hume’s «naturalist fallacy», which warns us that we cannot confuse what is with would should be. That is to say, the need to mark a clear difference between the fields of study of science and of ethics. Newtonian mechanics, dominated by causal determinism that explains and predicts natural phenomena, are very far from being applicable to the social sciences, as the social actors act with freedom and are therefore unpredictable. Because, as Muguerza points out, the human world is a world of «intentions» and not only of «causes». When someone says «circumstances obliged me to act as I did», he is giving himself the benefit of causality, reifying himself, justifying his action as if there were no other option; eluding his responsibility as a human being, becoming another thing among things.

The individual’s responsibility and autonomy are the central aspects in Kant’s practical reason, which extols the dignity of the human being, already proclaimed in the fifteenth century by Pico della Mirandola [Oration on the Dignity of Man]. We are not things, we are not means, we are ends in ourselves. With this ideal of the human being, moral conduct requires a stable guide and, therefore, a frame of reference; a moral mandate that overcomes the specificities of subjectivity, a principle of universality. «Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law», the categorical Kantian imperative. Act according to a rule that you impose on yourself, but that is valid for everyone, that is just if it is applied to all the others. In a certain measure, this categorical imperative secularizes the famous golden rule «do unto others as you would have them do unto you». Or, if you prefer, «put yourself in the other’s place».



In the first half of the twentieth century, all the currents of thought are shaken by what Rortry called the «linguistic turn». The structuralism of Saussure and Lévi-Strauss, the hermeneutics of Heidegger and his disciple Gadamer, or the analytical philosophy of  Moore and Wittgenstein are deeply involved with language, but other currents such as all the various Marxisms, existentialism, phenomenology or psychoanalysis, will also be invaded by the «empire of the signs». As a critical continuation of that linguistic turn, in the second part of the last century there is a «turn to practice». The view of reality as permeated with the symbolic is maintained, but interest is now directed towards processes and the subject as an agent who, although conditioned by the social structures, can also transgress and modify them. Authors such as Bourdieu and Otner provide a response to the lack of dynamism of the rigid structures of Lévi-Strauss’ anthropology. Conflict and consensus, the diachronic study of societies as a process. The excessively formal nature of the logical games of analytical philosophy was also insufficient, and the Wittgenstein of the Investigations already privileged the view of «language as use». In ethical thought, Apel, taking as a base the pragmatic semiotics of the American Pierce, who makes reference to acts of speech and understands the study of semiotics as a set of «signic processes», proposes an ideal community of communication to substitute Kant’s transcendental Subject: a superior intersubjective instance taken a priori that legislates behaviour. Still keeping within the transcendental sphere of Kant, Apel proposes pragmatic hermeneutics of a procedural type. Habermas’ discourse ethics [Diskursethik] follow in this line, although they abandon any transcendental intention. The last bastion of the Frankfurt School, he transforms Kant’s first categorical imperative, «act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law», of a  purely monological nature, into a dialogical formulation: «Rather than ascribing as valid to all others any maxim that I can will to be universal law, I must submit my maxim to the consideration of all others for purposes of discursively testing its claim to universality». The nucleus of universal validity is displaced from being subjective to being intersubjetive through a consensus reached in communication. Two prior conditions must exist in order to attain that consensus, which Habermas calls the ideal speech situation, and which can be summed up in «the symmetrical distribution of the opportunities to choose and to carry out speech acts». A symmetry, or equality, to which Rawls also appeals, that must occur in a state of freedom, with no coercion of the individuals. Anyone who has passed by Puerta del Sol on the days that followed 15 May 2011 knows that these conditions were fulfilled there, and in the rest of the squares occupied by the citizens in the whole country, in an exercise of direct or participative democracy without precedent. However, this practice is an exception, which is furthermore about to be outlawed, according to the latest news that reach us from Mariano Rajoy’s new government, which intends to criminalize and «legally»  —although, as we will see, not legitimately— punish passive and pacific disobedience.

The process of making decisions by assembly put into practice by the indignados movement fits in very well with this form of establishing discursive —read democratic—  procedures under the protection of an intersubjective moral standard. The possibility of consensus has a direct influence on the attitude of the actors. It is true that the existence of that possibility does not imply a de facto consensus, but in the very practice of assemblies, there is always a desire for understanding; the revolution takes place in the speaking. But this consensus may only be successful if it is not reached through engaging in a negotiation, but rather through a debate in which the power of the best argument is that it defends not what is good for an individual or a part, but the common good, what is just for everyone. Tackling the problem of justice from the perspective of politics and not that of metaphysics, Rawls’ Theory of Justice proposes to endow the plural societies characteristic of our liberal democracies with equitable procedural ethics. The Kantian roots of this moral philosophy reject the pursuit of good brought about by the ethics of the ends, considering it an interested, selfish action. Kant understood the calculative nature of Aristotelian phronesis as cleverness, as instrumental reason, and he was convinced that the will is not good for its results, but in and of itself. Rawls expresses it as follows: «Selfish interest does not allow to guarantee more than a modus vivendi in a society, based on selfish interests and the result of a negotiation. […] He who enters into an agreement for an interest other than its value in and of itself, violates it when it is of interest and benefits from others fulfilling it» (See Cortina, 2007: 387). The correct, the just, is what demands universal fulfilment, while the good is the concern only of those who prefer it.


The right to say «no»

Javier Muguerza opposes conflict to the consensus of the contractualist and consensualist positions of Habermas and Rawls. Rawls places legitimacy in the democratic institutions. Moral demands would become institutionalized and materialize in a constitution, by means of a contractual consensus, becoming laws. A constitutional, judicial power that must prevail over the executive and the legislative. However, as Muguerza argues, many human rights were not attained through a constitution, but by coming in conflict with it. This is the case of the abolitionist demands that had to come against precisely with an American constitution that did not include the rights of Afro-Americans. This debate between ethics and law —the moral demand and the de facto institutionalization of that demand— divides the «consensualists» and the «conflictualists». In the nineteenth century, Rudolf von Ihering published the treatise The Struggle for Law, where he presented a story of law that shows that the changes have almost always been brought about by a revolution. «By struggling shalt thou obtain thy rights».

Thus, a clear difference must be established between that which is legal and that which is legitimate. Legality may not be just, and legitimacy, based on the idea of full justice, shall always be a utopia and not a fact. Political legitimacy is a type of support that derives not so much from force or the threat of force, but from the values of the individuals, it is «a form of evaluation applied to a future, awaited and desired behaviour» (Parsons,1963: 238). That is to say, it corresponds to the field of study of political ethics, which deal with what should be and not with what already is, a territory of the law and legality. Here we should recall the comparison made by Aranguren between «democracy as an institution» and «democracy as moral». The former would be the established democracy, only an imperfect materialization of the social and democratic rule of law which must be accompanied by a critical authority, the «democracy as moral». The demand for a «Real democracy now!» is a demand for the utopia to become real, and to become real «Now!» Perhaps in the conviction that utopias serve only to be pursued, but also conscious that on the path to this politically horizontal horizon, social rights will be won or at least consciousnesses awakened.

The cosmopolitan individualism of Javier Muguerza, certainly of a libertarian nature, also resorts to Kant, but now to legitimate ethical —and as a result, civil— disobedience. If earlier, with Habermas, we made reference to the dialogical transformation of Kant’s first categorical imperative —that of universality—, Muguerza recovers for dissent the second categorical imperative —that of the ends—, which refers to the dignity of individuals. It says: «Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your person or in the person of any other, always as an end and never merely as a means». Do not use the other as a thing, as a means, but consider the other as an end in itself, as you consider yourself. Muguerza points to the primordially «negative» nature of this imperative «of the ends», as «rather than establishing the obligation to obey any rule, its task is that of authorizing to disobey any rule that the individual truly believes contradicts that principle» (Muguerza, 1986: 302). That is to say, a moral imperative that establishes the right to say «No». Muguerza calls this imperative of human dignity the imperative of dissident, but it might well be the imperative of indignation: the right to legitimate disobedience when overcome with that «passionate feeling of discontent provoked by something that wounds one’s sense of justice or moral».




What our moral conscience demands today is economic justice. In the midst of the current collapse, the result of neoliberal politics, there is a struggle against two systemic vices: the «greed» of the financial markets and the «corruption» of the politicians, who dance to the tune of  those markets. Thus it would seem that it is selfishness, a matter from the field of ethics, that is demolishing social stability. But on pointing to selfishness as the essential element of the economic motivation of the capitalist system, it seems necessary to reconsider the same economic rationality from a moral perspective. If formal economic theory accepts the law of maximum profit, a selfish behaviour, an immoral concept, as rational —and not reasonable, as Rawls warns—, then ethics have something to say about a question that it totally within its competence. We are not going to unfold a reflection on vices and virtues here, but we are going to briefly suggest the possibility of fusing ethical and economic values into a «new ethiconomic science».

Of late, the name of Adam Smith has come up fairly frequently. In The Wealth of Nations, the father of economic liberalism portrays the human being as a rational animal moved exclusively but his own interest. The homo oeconomicus, waging a war against all and aided by the invisible hand of the market that would permanently balance and self-regulate that struggle of egos, providing the highest levels of social welfare. Without a doubt, Smith was wrong. Nevertheless, we should recall this philosopher’s other great work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which humility, generosity and civic spirit are presented as the quality most useful to society. In a sort of Aristotelian intuitionism, Adam Smith identifies two fundamental dimensions of ethical conduct: sympathy —or empathy— and prudence —phronesis—. Empathy is an instinctive quality, prudence obeys the mandates of reason.

Amartya Sen, moral philosopher and Nobel Prize in economics (1998), maintains that modern scientific economics misinterpreted Smith’s thought in paying attention only to his economic theory, disregarding his ethics. We believe that Smith should have simply written a single book that would have considered motivations and values from both  perspectives, the economic and the moral. That would have sufficed to note that his theories of self-interest and the invisible hand are not easily reconciled with sympathy and prudence. The separation of the spheres characteristic of modernity, and the illustrated Scotsman is a paradigm in this sense, has resulted in the disassociation of economic theory from other spheres. With the separation of ethical thought and economic activity, by the very logic of the latter, an eminently scientific and technical economic model was configured, very much in accord with Bentham’s quantifiable and utilitarian ethics. However, separated as the science of economic was from the rest of the spheres of knowledge, the bourgeois concept of homo oeconomicus infected all the forms of social conduct like a virus, until it was fully adopted as natural. In a display of ethnocentrism, what is purely historical and contingent, such as the market system, was presented as an essential characteristic of the human being. But exchange should not be confused with the market.

Karl Polanyi (1957) distinguished the «formal definition» of economics from the «substantive definition». «Formal economics» is based on the idea that concepts such as scarcity and choice can be applied to any society. It is a variation of the theory of choice, based on the assumption of scarcity. On the other hand, «substantive economics» understand economics as the study of the forms that social relationships take for the production of the material conditions for human beings’ existence. There is a diversity of economic systems, there are no universal economic categories. Economics understood in this manner are an institutionalised process, that is to say, involved in institutions that are economic, but also political, religious, etc. Formal economics falls within the territory of logic; substantive economics, in that of reality. Thus Polanyi differentiates between three principles that orient the exchange: the «market principle», «redistribution» and «reciprocity». Building on this perspective, Sahlins’ economic anthropology distinguishes three degrees of reciprocity: generalised, balanced and negative. If we had to imagine a morally valid system of exchange, we should tend towards «balanced reciprocity», what is now called the win-win situation: everyone wins. And that is hardly attained with an economic logic that pursues the maximization of profit, but rather with an ethical rationality that uses economic relationships as a vehicle of socialization.

Victoria Camps and Adela Cortina, real authorities in applied ethics, surprise us with arguments such as those of «ethics is the better deal» or «the benefits of a moral life can be perceived in the profit and loss account, given that corporations able to connect with the public generate sympathy capital» (Camps and Cortina, 2007: 448). Cortina, whose contributions to discourse ethics are doubtlessly of great value, seems to overlook that this approach continues to be in the same teleological danger of the quest of profits. Something that, as Rawls reminded us, can easily lead to selfish behaviour and to the violation of the agreement. Doing business ethically to maximize profits is not sufficient, given that if another factor that guarantees greater earnings were to emerge in this economic process, the sympathy capital would be abandoned without any qualms. Business must be done where the ethical capital is a value in itself and not an instrument to attain another objective —the accumulation of material wealth— because, in the latter case, individuals would be treated as means and not as ends in themselves, denying the human being all dignity.

The hermeneutics that Amartya Sen makes of Adam Smith preserve the two dimensions of motivation. He keeps the «sympathy» —the interest in others as part of ones own welfare—, but substitutes Smith’s Aristotelian «prudence» with «commitment», of a clearly deontological nature. For Sen, ethical rationality must be introduced into the economic models. Values must be included in the economic processes in the form of «social capital» and «ethical capital», the essential elements of business ethics. Although  Sen’s proposal comes fairly close to the concept of «substantive economics», it is still based on the theory of choice. Without any doubt, although the concept of business ethics is a first step, it still differentiates between the two spheres. That is why we propose a real fusion of the two disciplines with the term ethiconomics. After all, ethics and economics have to do with «values», both disciplines study the processes and motivations through which actions and objects are given value. Because things have no value in themselves but, rather, they possess the value that we give them. That being so, the inclusion of ethical values into economic rationality does not seem such a preposterous idea: «ethiconomics» might be an attainable utopia.

The influence that an ethico-political movement such as Indignad@s/Occupy might have on political decisions in the short term is, unfortunately, questionable. But, in our opinion, their greatest potential must be seen over the long term: as a true originator of a «global awareness», as a great citizen drive in favour of a change for a truly just, free, egalitarian, moral society. Everything is yet to be done, but we have the pillars. It remains only to build with the struggle.



ARISTOTLE: Ética a Nicómaco [Nichomachean Ethics]. Alianza, Madrid, 2004.

CAMPS and A. CORTINA: “Las éticas aplicadas” [“Applied Ethics], 2007, in: C. GÓMEZ and J. MUGUERZA (ed.): La aventura de la moralidad (paradigmas, fronteras y problemas de la Ética) [The Adventure of Morality (the paradigms, boundaries and problems of Ethics)], Alianza, Madrid, 2009, p. 444-463.

CORTINA: “Lo justo y lo bueno” [“The Good and The Just”], 2007, in: C. GÓMEZ and J. MUGUERZA (ed.): La aventura de la moralidad (paradigmas, fronteras y problemas de la Ética) [The Adventure of Morality (the paradigms, boundaries and problems of Ethics)], Alianza, Madrid, 2009, p. 382-404.

HABERMAS: Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, The MIT Press, 2001.

KANT: Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, Cambridge University Press, 1998.

MUGUERZA: “La obediencia al Derecho y el imperativo de la disidencia” [“Obedience to Law and the Imperative of Dissent”], 1986, in: C. GÓMEZ (ed.): Doce textos fundamentales de la Ética del siglo XX [Twelve Essential Texts on Twentieth Century Ethics], Alianza, Madrid, 2011.

PARSONS: «On the concept of power», in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 1963, 107: 232-262.

PEDRAJAS: “La transformación ética de la racionalidad económica en Amartya Sen. Una recuperación de Adam Smith” [“The Ethical Transformation of Economic Rationality in Amartya Sen. A Recovery of Adam Smith”], in: Quaderns de filosofia i ciència, 36, 2006, p. 105-117.

POLANYI: “The economy as instituted process”, in K. POLANYI, C. W. ARENSBERG, H. W. PEARSON (ed.), Trade and Market in the Early Empires, Free Press, New York, 1957.

RAWLS: The Theory of Justice, Belknap Press, 1971.

SAHLINS: Stone Age Economics, Aldine Transaction, 1974.

*     Translator’s note: definition of the Spanish word, indignación, from: Diccionario Abreviado del Español Actual [Abridged Dictionary of Contemporary Spanish], Aguilar, Madrid, 2000.