Monday, February 24, 2014

How Modern Capitalism Perverts The Moral Law, Or, "Can Implies Ought?"

Dividend Day at the Bank of England, By George Elgar Hicks, via Wikimedia Commons

It seems like every morning you wake up and read about some new sinister, awful, or just plain stupid thing happening in the worlds of employment, business, and finance.

Why so awful, Modern Capitalism?

Seems to me that in addition to the usual suspects, there's a quieter one lurking around, which is that the structure of modern capitalism is such that any possible awful thing, if it's likely to make a profit, has to become an actual awful thing.

That is, because of the nature of capitalist competition, obligations to "shareholders," and so on, anything you can do to maximize profit becomes something you "ought to do." That is, if you can do it, you ought to do it. Can implies ought.

This turns on its head the familiar Kantian dictum "ought implies can." This principle (confusingly expressed IMHO, but whatever) just means that you can't be morally obligated to something that is impossible to do. Like, a doctor can't be blamed for not saving someone's life if there's no known medical treatment for the illness.

We could argue 'til the cows come home about whether "ought implies can" is a foundational principle of ethical behavior or a spandrel of Protestantism but it doesn't matter here, because no matter what you think about "ought implies can," its opposite, "can implies ought," is nuts.

Example 1: Worker Surveillance. You can read here about "Businesses Going Into All Surveillance All the Time Mode" -- but really the title says it all. With the new technology, you can watch and record and analyze every single thing your employees are doing, how they're doing it, and even what emotions are revealed by tone of voice. The company described in the post offers ways to monitor "stress in your voice," and "changes in your relationships with your peers," and how long it takes you to commute to and from work.

At first you might think, as I so often do these days, "weren't these people made to read any dystopian fiction in high school?"

But you can see how these things get off the ground. In a world in which intense competition is considered a hallmark of a well-functioning market, you really can't afford not to exploit any available technique for increasing productivity, even if it's a small increase at the cost of treating people like human beings.

If you don't maximize profit for shareholders, they will get rid of you. If your competitors do it, and you don't, then you're out of business. So you have to do it. Can implies ought.

Example 2: Suicidal Financial Risk Taking. Remember back in 2008 when the financial system imploded? In the years since, it's been frequently said that banks and others systematically underestimated risks and tried to mislead the purchasers of both new economic products and old ones like mortgages.

Shenanigans? Sure. But so what? If other banks are making massive returns on investments by pursuing short-term instead of long-term interests, everyone has to, or they'll disappear.

Example 3: Environmental Damage. Suppose your company has a production mechanism that pollutes the environment. Suppose your company discovers a new way of producing energy that has potential for great environmental harm, like fracking. What should you do?

We already know the answer. It doesn't matter how much any particular person at the company cares about the environment, because in the logic of modern capitalism, the obligation to use the new techniques is embedded at every level.

Through these examples we see that "can implies ought" can create obligations to do awful things in several categories. You have to be awful to other individuals you employ, dangerous to the global financial system you're part of, and you have to help break the planet.

So now, when you do something awful, you don't even have to say you were just following orders. You can say you you were just following the logic of modern capitalism. Can implies ought! What could I do?!

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