Monday, January 28, 2013

Morals is hard! Confusions About Morality And Commerce

Remember when Barbie said, "Morals is hard!"  Oh, wait -- that was math.  Maybe next time Ken can model some of the difficulties we seem to be having about morality.  Wouldn't that be fun, to dress up Ken in a Wall Street banker suit, pull the string, and have him say "Morals is hard!" 

Confusions about morality and commerce:  we have them.  Some seem to me like genuine confusions; others are more like fake-outs.  Here are a few.  

1.  There's confusion in the false idea there's some magic harmony between the individual pursuit of self-interest and the collective good. 

The idea of magic harmony seems to me an elementary confusion that tries to dissolve one of the deepest problems in morality by just assuming that two completely different things are actually the same -- that doing what's best for you is also, in some sense, doing what's best for everyone. 

It's not true, but I think it gets a foothold because people take the metaphor of the "invisible hand" and run with it -- all the way to the end of rationality.   Yes, in commerce there is an idea that if people, under certain particular circumstances, following particular rules, make exchanges with one another to get what they want, some good things can happen. 

But A) that is commerce, not life in general; B) it's only in particular circumstances when people follow particular rules and C) in real life there are sometimes things like arms races where the pursuit of self-interest leads everyone down a rabbit-hole.

2.  There's confusion about the role of morality in explaining the obligations of agreements in commerce. 

Sometimes people talk as if individual people ought to keep their agreements in commerce for the same moral reasons that individuals ought to keep their personal agreements -- so that when they fail they are morally blameworthy.

One troubling manifestation that you see all the time is a real fake-out:  when a company is considered "crafty" when they declare bankruptcy to avoid paying debts while a homeowner is an immoral "deadbeat" if they do the same with their mortgage.  That's bizarre.  I mean, it's supposed to be the lender's job to decide if the loan is a good business proposition.  Banks aren't charities, as I'm sure they'd be the first to remind us.

I will say, however, that once you get into the fabric of life, the relationship of duty to playing by the rules of commerce seems to be genuinely confusing.  In 2008 the Freakonomics blog observed that if you send mail in the US without a stamp, it will often get mailed, because the automated sorters don't catch it.  The author notes that this is efficient, since most mail has stamps, and catching outliers would be costly.

Having noted this, would it be OK to start sending all your mail without stamps?  It seems to me the answer is no:  if only you do it, you're free-riding, and if everyone does it, the Post Office has to pay a fortune to start catching people.

The blog post asks readers to test out the system by mailing lots of mail without stamps and monitoring the results.  One commentator said, "Are you using your blog to call for theft of service? I’m not against it, I was just curious."  The matter seems to me genuinely confusing.

3.  There's confusion about the limits of behavioral constraints in commerce. 

I think there's a feeling out there that the appropriate pursuit of self-interest in commerce means doing what's needed to get ahead, where if that means lying, manipulating, and concealing uncomfortable facts, that's part of making a "good deal." 

And since the appropriate pursuit of self-interest in commerce can, in certain particular situations and contexts, lead to the collective good, this leads to a feeling that the more the better, so constraining your actions to tell the truth and so on are "morals" -- or silly and unfair brakes on the process. 

But any connection between the pursuit of self-interest and the collective good exists only in the presence of certain assumptions that people refrain from coercion, fraud, and -- duh -- theft. 

So either you need some worked out set of rules in commerce that people actually follow, or your "commerce" quickly becomes the mafia. 

Maybe some people are genuinely confused.  But probably this is often a fake-out on the part of the perpetrators.

I'm sure there are also massive fake-outs when companies decide to "work together" or "cooperate" -- which every kindergardener knows are morally praiseworthy activities! -- when really what they're doing is "colluding."  But I assume that's just a fake-out, and doesn't rise to the level of confusion.

By the way, it turns out Barbie said "Math class is tough."  As Wikipedia explains, it's often misquoted as "Math is hard."  God Bless the Internet. 


Daniel said...

Hi Patricia,

Your post has me thinking:

1. An observation

One of the things I like (and really dislike) about philosophy are big ideas like "all" and "best." Big old claims! We've talked about this, I think. In this post, I see it in the second and third paragraphs of your number 1. The claim is "doing what's best for you is...doing what's best for everyone." Followed by my other philosophy favorite, "That's not true."

And then, to show how it's not true, the idea of "life in general" comes up.

It seems as if there are SO many concepts here that defy understanding- in fact they may be impossible concepts - that arguments like this are hard to follow. How can "best for everyone" or "life in general" be sufficiently understood so that something could fail or succeed in meeting these concepts (or be false or true)? Ah, philosophy!

2. A Question

I'm not so upset with the idea of the "invisible hand," if that's what the "best for oneself - best for everyone" idea is. Mostly, because I don't read it as existing in a vaccuum (as such, of course it's crazy), but it is a statement that exists AMONG OTHER POSSIBLE options. What I mean to say is that I imagine that the people who say it aren't starting from zero, but from a different proposition: like, "Compared to central planning, doing what's best for you will make everyone better off," or something like that. The comparison is crucial. The scope of the claim is more limited in my reading of it, I think, than in yours. The claim is already existing in a context of other options. Do you think I might be getting it wrong?

Patricia Marino said...

Hi Daniel,
I'm sure there are people who have the more limited, comparative, contextual belief you describe at the end of your comment. But I believe there are also people who haven't thought very much about the issues and have a vague sense that something allows them to consider morality, and the question of their obligations toward others in the broadest sense, just irrelevant and not worthy of their time or consideration. To some extent I am conjecturing about their beliefs because often what I hear said is a vague gesture toward the idea of morality's irrelevance.

Daniel said...

Makes sense. I hear that too.