Robert Chrisman: Putting ethics on trial
While composing this response to a recent article in these pages (“Toward an Ethical Economy,” Dec. 13), I could not help but notice once again that most efforts at intellectual dialogue from the left are largely characterized by little more than a string of assertions, unsupported by corresponding arguments.
Simply a diatribe against capitalism, it features the following assertions: (1) “Ethics arise from natural compassion;” (2) “Corporate capitalism embodies an incentive system that squelches compassion;” (3) “… capitalism tends to concentrate wealth into fewer and fewer hands. And consolidation (concentration?) puts free enterprise out of business … that concentration causes the majority of the population to become poorer.”
Regarding (1) above, ethical systems historically have had a number of theoretical bases, including Platonic-Aristotelian ideas, altruistic notions, and Lockean natural law, among others. Compassion is not a good candidate for an ethical theory; it is, rather a feeling of sympathy, which may also impel one to helpful actions. Compassion can also be contingent on circumstances and a lack thereof certainly does not, for most people, signal an ethical lapse.
This assertion also attempts to substitute the author’s notions about human relationships for what is arguably the case for most people, namely that one cares for oneself first and foremost (and reasonably so), then one cares for an inner circle of family and friends, then for countrymen, and finally and least of all for those of other cultures and far away, so it is unlikely that “ … the human sphere of compassion grows ever outward to encompass more people.”
So therefore, assertion (2) is not meaningful, since capitalism as an economic system is not destined to either promote or diminish certain clearly optional feeling-states, like compassion; instead it promotes the highest and best use of capital resources in order to satisfy consumer needs and desires; it is moral only to the extent that it relies on voluntary exchanges and is fostered by non-intervention into the affairs of all the actors involved.
Assertions in (3) above are all totally unsupported by arguments. To the extent that concentration of wealth into fewer hands can and will result in a more productive economy, people in all socioeconomic groups will benefit from more choices and lower costs; historical analysis bears this out. If I could but show you the graph (at Wikipedia – Extreme Poverty) which depicts the exponentially upward rise of per capita income in the period 1820-present, you would see how extreme poverty in the world has come close to extinction. During this period, the rise of capitalism, the worldwide free market, and the opportunity, through markets, to specialize are the largest part by far of the explanation for this remarkable phenomenon. To prove that either economic concentration or income inequality is somehow bad, one would have to show that the average person has suffered over time during the period in question; the author has not undertaken to do so, probably because the data do not support the conclusion.
I disagree vehemently with what the author seems to want from an economic system — “[to] maximize fulfillment and avoid undeserved loss and grief …” If “fulfillment” refers to consumer satisfaction with goods and services, then it could make sense, but I think the author is referring to satisfaction with life goals and other personal issues. But it is clearly not the goal of an economic system to determine who deserves what or assuage personal grief. This goal implies interventions of a totally redistributionist nature. If ever there were a moral issue, it is the forcible redistribution of wealth.
The balance of the article largely departs from economics into the realm of the climate crisis, “… the biggest ethical issue ever to confront humankind(!)” Harking back to the definition of ethics as compassion, is it our lack of sympathy and concern that is the problem? My issue with this overblown assertion is that the political left wants to mix climate concerns with all their other pet projects, to wit — a “legislative plan that appears most likely to reduce pollution and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, while (also) reducing gross economic injustice.”
The author clearly missed her chance to read my article of Dec. 16 entitled “Five Reasons it’s not a Climate Emergency” because she ignores most of them.
My parting advice to readers is to compare the sentiments of the subject article to those of the various presidential aspirants on the left, noting that virtually all of them subscribe to the same kind on nonsense. Then vote accordingly.
Rob Chrisman lives in Nevada City.
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