Friday, July 28, 2006

capitalism and morality

The other day I went on a rather embarrassing wild goose chase. I spent ages looking for disc 5 of the second season of 24. About half of the stores I visited didn't have 24 at all, some stores had one complete season and some had the second season but not the particular disc I wanted (which was the most frustrating of all). When I finally found the dvd, I was very, very happy and I enjoyed it very much. So in the end I had a reasonable day, but it would have been better if I had found the dvd at the first store I went to.

While I was charging around miserably I wondered what a saint would have done to ease my suffering. Some people will probably suggest that she would have kindly explained how stupid I was for doing what I was doing, but I'm pretty sure that would have just made me angry as well as miserable. It would have been better if she whipped out a copy of the dvd and given it to me, or directed me to a store that she knew would have it; in other words provided the good (dvd) or service (directions) I wanted. An altruist could have done many other well meaning things like giving me a sandwich or something. but those other interventions would probably be superficial or wasteful.

Doing this seems more capitalist than saintly but that's what would have made me happy and if you take a rule utilitarian approach to morality then that would been the good thing to do. It doesn't stop being good because I'm charged for what I'm getting. At the very worst the price could have been higher than I was willing, or able to pay, but that would have just meant I was in the same state as when I started, without dvd.

At the stores that stocked 24, most of the dvd's were out and when I asked about 24 at the others, it was clear that I wasn't the first person to ask (one assistant remarked to a friend, "we really should get 24 in stock"). If the stores wanted to make more money, they would probably stock 24 and everybody concerned would be better off.

Of course, we are not at the end of the moral road once people start stocking 24. A good capitalist may still spend his money in more or less good ways. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are giving away billions of dollars, but other rich people spent vast amount cloning their pets. There are two things to say about this; firstly running a successful business is a good thing to start with and secondly, for genuine altruists, the more money your business makes the more resources you can devote to good causes.

Rule utilitarianism assumes that we don't have knowledge about the long run effects of our actions and moral rules like, "don't tell lies" or "keep promises" are usually effective in having good consequences. It's easy to think of cases where these rules should be broken though; a famous example is the crazed ax murderer who asks a parent where her children are, in this case, its best to lie. The more information we have about the definite effects of our actions the better we can judge the effects of our actions. So, just as with the parent who gives her children away to ax murderer, businessmen can be judged immoral if their search for profit has easily foreseeable negative consequences.

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