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Moral Relativism and the Bottom Line

· 12 min read
Moral Relativism and the Bottom Line

A surgeon, an engineer, and an economist all die around the same time and are met at the Pearly Gates by St. Peter. “Welcome good souls! Welcome! You’re in the right place,” he informs them. “But, unfortunately, we have a shortage of mansions so two of you will need to spend some time in Purgatory while yours are finished. In the interests of fairness, we have devised a competition to see who gets in first.” After receiving assurances that they would be staying in one of the nicer parts of Purgatory, they all agreed and St. Peter began, “Okay then. Top answer moves in today. What is the oldest profession known to man?”

The doctor shot up a hand and stepped forward. “Oh! I know, I know! Surgeon! God extracted a rib from Adam to make Eve. That’s surgery.”

The engineer stepped forward and said, “Before God made Adam and Eve, he created Heaven and Earth and that’s engineering. So engineer is the oldest profession, I do believe.”

They all turned to the economist, who paused for dramatic effect, then answered, “Before the creation of Heaven and Earth, all was chaos. And who do you think created that?”

This is the only joke I remember my father ever telling…around the dinner table one evening, upon his return from an economics conference in St. Louis. He taught economics at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest, practiced what he preached, made all the right choices, and maximized the utility of his time and money. Some of the earliest clashes we had were over his attempts to control how I spent my allowance. He did not like me “blowing it” on soda and candy at the first chance I got and then asking him for more later in the week. But I would go ahead, even if he told me not to and suggested better uses. Better for him maybe. As far as I was concerned, the next best use of my dollar was pure speculation.

In the spring of 1983, I graduated with a BA in Economics from a small liberal arts college, almost by default; I took a class or two every semester because it was easy. The fundamental principles seemed obvious but honestly? I always thought economics was a scam science. Something like inventing laws people live by and then devising ways to manipulate them. The equations with their held constants and rational agents seemed to vastly oversimplify things.

Classical Economics is the study of competition for scarce resources, as allocated through the relative balance of supply and demand in a free market, with each pursuing their own interests without consideration for others. As Adam Smith, the godfather of capitalist economics put it in The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

The rich … consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand [emphasis added] to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.

This is still the standard market equation—everyone pursues their own self interest in competition with others and the aggregate of these actions comprises the market, the outcomes of which will be directed by an invisible hand towards the good of all.

Sometime towards the end of my senior year in college, I realized that I was not well educated. I’m unsure why exactly—I knew only that my education was just beginning, not ending. All I had acquired theretofore were some valuable tools and a tantalizing glimpse of how enlivening and beneficial intellectual exploration can be. But “How now to educate myself after college and for what?” became a question I lived day to day. Answers came when, a short while after graduation, my uncle gave me his copy of The Will To Power, a collection of Nietzsche’s writings. “I don’t know what this guy’s up to,” he said, “but he’s up to something.”

I read it cover to cover, and then everything else by Nietzsche I could find over the next few years, stunned by the degree to which he foresaw our contemporary circumstances. He predicted that the death of God (or the collapse of hierarchical authority) would result in nihilism—individualized morality calculated only as “Is it good or bad for me?” This, he said, would trigger a reassessment of all values, which is now well underway. This encounter with Nietzsche and his encouragement to engage with what enlivens and affirms life (amor fati) and to eschew the spirit of resentment, led me to pursue a graduate degree in philosophy.

One semester of prerequisites disabused me of that desire. I did, however, have a profound intellectual engagement in most of my courses. One such encounter bore a peculiar intensity from the outset. We studied Kant’s Categorical Imperative in Moral Philosophy and, moved by an uncanny aversion to it, I wrote a spirited critique. In the process, I realized that my resistance to Kant’s absolute moral law looked a lot like the understanding of capitalism we were taught in Econ 101, as put forth by Kant’s contemporary Adam Smith. I merely wished to pursue my self-interest within an amoral exchange system—amoral insofar as the only requirement for entry is legality.

Kant’s Categorical Imperative instructs us to behave as if every action could be made into universal law and not treat others as means to an end. It seemed to be the opposite of Smith’s injunction to act with total disregard for the consequences of your actions upon anyone but yourself. However “vain and insatiable” your aim, the universal tendency or law that results from the totality of such acts will be directed by the invisible hand to the good of all. Kant said do unto others as you would have them do unto you, more or less. Smith—do what you want, don’t worry about others, and you will advance the interests of society without intending to and without knowing it.

As more and more of daily life is marketized, this unending calculation of competitive personal utility distorts reason. It becomes difficult for calculations of self-interest to reach the level of complexity necessary to see how interdependent we are—how what I consume affects you and vice versa, particularly when the origins of commodities are opaque. Of what is done unto others (and even ourselves) we are ignorant and very often ignorant of our ignorance. It is impossible to invoke the categorical imperative because what is universally willed by our actions is hidden. There is little if any reward in an amoral market for being virtuous or delaying self-gratification.

Market decisions are made in competition with others, who are under no obligation to consider anything other than whether or not what they want is available for purchase. I am not condemning this, only trying to present a clear picture of how the categorical imperative gets inverted by self-interest into something like “Do unto others before they can do unto you; get yours because someone else will if you don’t.” The particular (me getting what I want) is elevated to universality—everyone should accept it and/or it’s none of their business. When conflict arises because truth is disregarded in favor of staying on brand, the critical response is often a version of the Categorical Imperative and accusations of hypocrisy.

An instructive example of this trend was Daryl Morey’s tweet on October 4th, 2019, in support of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

At the time, Morey was general manager of the Houston Rockets basketball team, and his tweet cost the NBA upwards of $400m, as China promptly cancelled a TV contract and all games the NBA was scheduled to play there. Players lamented the money lost on shoe sales and an icy silence descended. All parties—the league, players, agents, executives, media—self-censored, afraid to antagonize and bleed the Chinese cash cow. This crisis ought to have been a terrible moral dilemma, given the “NBA Cares” marketing campaign on behalf of marginalized communities. The hypocrisy was obvious, and yet everyone decided to keep quiet and protect the money.

If we apply Kant’s Categorical Imperative—act as if you are willing your action be a universal law—it appears that the NBA was willing that slavery, genocide, the silencing and crushing of dissent, and mass surveillance become universal law should condemnation of any of these things threaten the bottom line. This of course is the norm. We ignore, repress, and deny the consequences of our actions because it is in everybody’s interest to do so. There is constant pressure to act in a selfish manner and choose profit over morality because someone else will if you won’t. Competition is relentless. If a competitor bends the rules, abandons integrity and morality and finds success, there is inevitable pressure on everyone else to do the same. If you criticize China for human rights abuses, you won’t make any money from shoe sales, but if you keep quiet and go along … well, you may make millions.

I am talking about a fundamental shift in the way we calculate value of all kinds, due to the near-universality of (self-centered) cost-benefit analyses within an amoral market framework. We see it in the taglines and slogans of various movements—Believe All Women and Black Lives Matter, for example, are brands, not rational arguments. It is obvious to most people that women can be as dishonest as men and that lives ought to matter irrespective of race. The ostensible claims these slogans make are absurd when considered through the lens of reason, but as instruments intended to raise brand awareness they are brilliant. You don’t overcome discrimination with special pleading unless you are trapped in a zero-sum game. But in a competitive marketplace, that’s precisely what one does—cultivate desire for your product (or in-group) and aversion to others.

Colleges and universities are also caught in this disjunction and, costing as much as they do, tend towards the market maxim that the customer is always right. Amoral fidelity to the bottom line is rationalized, of course. Something like: “Colleges do a lot of good and if they stand up for truth and freedom of speech, they will lose market share and maybe fail altogether, sacrificing all the other good things they might do in the future.” This is subjective and self-serving reasoning of a kind that pervades calculations in a competitive market, where consumers are targeted with the most sophisticated manipulation techniques. Reason is warped by emotion, and it is often shaped by the desire to get what I want and to feel good about it.

Which brings me back to my confrontations with my father. It wasn’t like I was motivated only by desire, and he by the voice of objective reason. I wanted soda and candy now even though I understood that this would mean conflict with my father and a lack of money to spend on other things in the future. My father, meanwhile, was angry that he had been lied to and disregarded as an authority figure, and so his actions became irrational—he confronted me in a parking lot in front of my friend. I just went on lying, knowing that in the market my father and I are equals because a dollar is a dollar in anyone’s hand. As wise as my father’s counsel may have been, I had insufficient experience to arrive at his position as my own. Therefore, my only choices were subservience or resistance to his authority.

This is the postmodern dilemma—who has the authority to influence, demand and/or curb my action/consumption? Given how long it takes reason to mature and the degree to which it is repeatedly suspended or pushed aside by self-interest along the way, the answer seems to be the invisible hand. It is not surprising that morality surfaces in the marketplace (cancel culture, corporate virtue-signaling, public shaming) and behaves like a commodity in competition with others. Companies calculate the utility of this or that bit of moralizing. Mobs form and support or attempt to cancel those they find objectionable. Reasonable debate is avoided or subverted if it contradicts the brand or stands between the consumer and what they want or feel they deserve to have.

The market does not require producers to be reasonable or moral, to reveal the origins of their products, or to account for damage done during production or transportation. Markets do not require anyone to care if a product is clean or not, or if your money is funding genocide in China. A conscience is a lot easier to manage if one remains ignorant of such things, and if producers and consumers alike understand that. However, with the advent of the Internet, ignorance has become both more difficult and easier to maintain. We are more likely than ever to find our views contradicted, ridiculed, and attacked, yet also more empowered than ever to screen out, censor, and fight back.

This all takes place within a market shaped by supply and demand, and it can be monetized on multiple levels. Morality battles are clickbait and big money. News doesn’t get a pass for telling the truth—market share trumps truth. Some will find the loss of standards disturbing, others won’t notice or don’t care, but all have equal standing in the market, unless morality can somehow be used to defund or exclude objectionable players. The cumulative anxiety, produced by moral ambiguity and obfuscation and present in all market dealings, is a growing source of unrest, mistrust, and irrational fear. There is blood on everyone’s hands and a profound sense of impotence at being manipulated from all directions in a culture of competition and deception. We are unable to change a system that we know does awful things on our behalf because we are so embedded in and dependent upon it for life, leisure, and wellbeing that non-participation is not an option.

So, there is relentless pressure to exploit and cheat and exaggerate, due in large part to the acceptance of ubiquitous deception as a market norm. The mandate is to sell you less for more, bypass parents and go straight for kids, sell what’s not good for anybody because you can, and so much the better if it is addictive. We all know this and face it every day and no producer has a moral obligation to reveal anything other than what makes us want their product. Origins and contradictions are hidden because it is in no one’s interest to assume unnecessary costs if they can be passed along to someone else instead.

Troubling as that all may seem, in reality, free market economies outperform planned economies by a long shot, in large part because they better reflect us as we actually are and include the irrational, the selfish, the greedy, the marginalized, and all the rest of it. It is impossible for rational planners to account for such things or for what happens when irrationality is excluded from the master plan—it doesn’t just disappear but often breaks out and must be suppressed in violent ways. Markets do a much better job of accounting for chance and satisfying desire’s ever-changing and restless demands.

And yet, because they are indifferent to character, markets reward the repugnant and the vicious as well as the noble and the virtuous. We are moral—or, at the very least, morally conflicted—beings, and there is ample evidence that reason, truth, and morality are inseparable bedfellows. Our history suggests this. Kant attempted to prove it. Yet markets are amoral, and serve all parts of us. Our transition from moral beings to amoral consumers has left us straddling a fence. On one side are lofty ideals from a past of inflated cosmological significance—truth, honesty, justice, and other categorical imperatives. And on the other side lies our present reality of relentless desire and anxious ignorance, in which everyone is implicated in horrible things we would rather not know about.

Simplistic ideologies, causes, and the identification of scapegoats all create morally tinged smokescreens, behind which we hide the ruthless amoral competition in markets and the fact that the greatest social injustice, by far, is income inequality. An impounded car, a speeding ticket, or the loss of a driving license can be catastrophic to a person on a low income and their family, while it is merely a nuisance to someone with higher earnings. This is true across the board—the quality of food, healthcare, market opportunities, education, and so on are all diminished at lower incomes. This basic disparity of means and the vulnerability of those not suited for, or willing to engage in, cutthroat competition in an amoral market has given rise to what has become known as “woke capitalism”—the feeling that the market is the only meaningful place to exercise power as a moral agent.

But the veil has worn thin and the ground has shifted. Ignorance and dissimulation quickly become Us vs. Them or paralyzing uncertainty. Somehow, we must reckon with this growing contradiction and rampant hypocrisy, whatever its flavor—decrying the looming disaster of climate change as we sprint towards it, extolling the evils of racism as we promote and practice allegedly progressive kinds of discrimination, speaking freely about why others should be silenced. Everywhere one turns today, this dilemma arises—how (or if) to be honest, truthful, and fair, when every interaction is mediated by an amoral market which allows no concern for my opponent unless it also provides me with a competitive advantage. Capitalism appropriates morality and turns it into cliché and commodity, with a moral compass always pointing towards the bottom line.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misattributed the quote from Adam Smith to The Wealth of Nations. Apologies for the error.

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