The Virtues of the Market: Fraternity

The market today is considered non-moral almost by nature. And the crisis has accented this perception. Instead, what prevails is a pathological version of the market. To get out of this trap, we need to rediscover an unexpected virtue – that of fraternity.

Beyond the crisis: from econo-my to econo-our

Individualism is off course

By Luigino Bruni

Published in the weekly Vita on December 3, 2010

Logo_Virtu_ENGWe concluded last week’s installment in front of a crossroads, one which historically has set peoples in front of the decision between fraternity and fratricide. The first community that the Judeo-Christian tradition – therefore, the Western tradition – tells us about is one which chooses fratricide when faced with this decision:

“So, man of the hour, your stone and catapult have gone high-tech. You were there in the cockpit - I saw you - with your wings striped with malice, your dials of death. Up inside the tank's turret, at the gibbet or manning torture's wheels. It was you: I saw you. … And the blood's a lingering stench as on the day brother beckoned brother into the fields” (S. Quasimodo). Other times, in front of that same crossroads, persons, communities and peoples have instead taken to the direction of fraternity. This had happened often after tragic experiences, like the Italians during post-facist reconstruction, in India with Gandhi and in South Africa with Mandela. Even today, if we want to get out of this great and profound crisis (much more than financial or economical, because it is a crisis of relationships: interpersonal, political, religious and with nature) we are finding ourselves faced with this same crossroads.

By now, we have decisively entered the era of common goods (even if the academic world has not yet realized this; in Economics departments throughout the world, just a few moments or whatever is left of the course is dedicated to the topic of common goods). Fraternity must become virtue in the market as well, as classic market virtues, individual virtues – prudence, innovation, responsibility, independence, etc. – are no longer enough. But in what way can and should fraternity become a virtue also in the market? There are many possible translations of the principle of fraternity in economy, and in fact, for some time now, the word fraternity is also beginning to be used in scientific magazines. But what kind of fraternity? Certainly not fraternity that refers to shared bloodlines, nor exclusively among family and clan ties. Neither is it the fraternity often used by closed and discriminating communities.

The use of the word fraternity that can and should become an economic principle is that which refers to the triptych used during the Enlightenment in Europe. It is the kind of fraternity grouped with freedom and equality, to be the pillars of a new Europe, of a new social pact, of which all three of these principles had previously been missing.  This kind of fraternity on the part of members of a community means feeling part of a common destiny, of being united by a link less exclusive and elective than friendship, but which is capable of generating feelings of reciprocal sympathy, and which can and should even be expressed in ordinary market transactions. Better said, the construction of a market economy was understood by Enlightenment economists, and Italians in particular (Genovesi, Dragonetti, Filangieri), as a pre-condition so that fraternity not remain an abstract principle but become a general, everyday praxis. But how does the vision of the economy and the market change if we take fraternity seriously? How can we reconcile the idea of the market envisioned as fraternity with price mechanisms? If we don’t answer these questions, it would be like saying that a civil economy of fraternity is possible only in small, pre-modern communities or at the margins of an ordinary market economy. This is a message we cannot accept. Therefore, I propose to call a market interaction fraternal if it is lived and represented as a relationship that makes all parties a collective agent, a team.


In the standard vision of economy, as we saw a few installments ago and going back to Smith, when A exchanges with B, A does not think of B’s advantage. Rather, A satisfies B’s needs only as a way of reaching his own goals. In such an approach, the common good and that of the other with whom I exchange something are non-intentional effects. On the other hand, and as a reaction to this vision which is not social or fraternal enough, there are people today who believe that genuine sociality or fraternity should instead be associated to some form of sacrifice on the part of someone or all subjects of an exchange – therefore, not being so compatible with ordinary market transactions.

Instead, I am convinced that fraternity translated into economic life should allow us to think that a market relationship can be both mutually advantageous and genuinely social. The virtue of fraternity allows people to overcome the dualistic vision that sees the market, on one side, as the kingdom of mutual advantage, and fraternity, on the other side, as the kingdom of sacrifice. This vision did not do the market well. In considering itself non-moral, the market has become always more so. This dualism did not help the non-market either, as the desire to associate family and friendship with pure gratuitousness often has hidden relationships of power and pathologies of every kind: just think of the role of women in traditional communities..

From the perspective of fraternity, the market contract commits each partner to carrying out their own part to reach a common goal. This common goal is the joined advantage deriving from the contract, obviously within the specific confines determined by that transaction. Each party, in fulfilling his own part of the task, behaves with the intention of participating in a combination of actions that benefit the whole “team”. Therefore, when Andrea (who we met a few installments ago) goes to the fish shop, he is not simply prudent and thinking of his own interest. Rather, from the perspective of fraternity, it is as if he says to Bruno, “I propose you with a joint action that benefits both of us. You help me to satisfy my need of fish, and I help you to satisfy your need of money. Let’s do this joint action together; let’s form this temporary team”. If the two reach an agreement, the client (Andrea) intentionally wants that the fish vendor (Bruno) benefits from the exchange, and viceversa. Therefore, each one has the conscious intention to be useful to the other. Mutual advantage (not only personal interest) is the intention and the content of the exchange. This is a way to make the concept of fraternity compatible with a market economy.

There is one condition though: the team and the intention to benefit the other must be created during the contract’s fulfillment and not as a criteria for choosing the contract partner. For example, fraternity does not require a client to choose a supplier in order to help him (for example, if the supplier is going through an economic crisis). The client becomes bound to follow a common objective only in the moment that the contract is drawn up. Therefore, for example, Genovesi (and I with him) would not normally advise an entrepreneur the following: “choose supplier A because he’s in economic difficulty, even if his prices are higher than B’s prices”. A fraternal vision does not lead to creating informal economies of “friends”, where people choose business partners for “friendship” reasons. I believe that the challenge of social economy experiences, like the Economy of Communion or fair trade or the ethical bank, is in keeping pricing signals combined with an authentic spirit of fraternity. If, instead, the two levels are confused, and one chooses a supplier only or primarily because he is a “friend” or because he is “part of the project”, then this kind of fraternity conflicts with the virtues of the market.

The vision of fraternity as a market paradigm also gives rise to a different idea of competition. The dominant vision today tends to see competition between business A and business B as a fight between the two. The non-intentional effect of such interaction reduces market prices and therefore works towards the advantage of clients C. Instead, competition seen from the perspective of fraternity leads one to see the market game centered on the axes A-C and B-C. Each business seeks to satisfy clients better than the other, and whoever does this worse leaves the market, as an unintentional effect. But the goal of A is cooperating with C, forming a team together, not “fighting” againt competitor B, and vice versa.

Social life is a set of opportunities to seize together. The market is a system that allows us to seize these opportunities to grow together with others, not against them. The market economy then becomes a set of many cooperative relationships, a world populated by temporary teams, where each one interprets himself in relationship with others, not thinking only of econo-my but of econo-our. Only an econo-our, with an “our” as big as the entire planet, can be up to the challenges that await us.

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