Ethics requires the most valuable to be the least expensive.
September 1, 2004
[If you are a new reader of this journal, you must be warned up front that it does not have a point of view to which its contributors conform in religion, politics, economics, and so on. If I understand our editor correctly, he wants us to write well, think clearly, to be tough without being nasty, and to sound as though what we have to say matters.]
The "Socreds" as they are called in Canada, governed Alberta successfully for thirty-five years, on either side of the fifties and sixties. They had the simple goal of seeing to it that that the enormous natural wealth of Alberta was directed to the welfare of its people as individuals, not as a corporate society. They consciously rejected socialism, and the socialists (who governed their neighboring province Saskatchewan in roughly the same time frame) in turn rejected the Socred style of dealing with their common problems. My point is, both the Socialists and the Socreds faced their common problems and dealt with them.
I bring them up not because Social Credit and Socialism are viable options in the United States, but to demonstrate American shallowness in trumpeting "values" while slavishly devoted to an economic system in which monetary prices, not ethical values, are in control. The more conservative among us act as though the stock market is a First Thing in creation, that when the light first shone on the universe the stock market was inherent in it. The more liberal act as though God gave it to Moses on Sinai. I suggested creation as the first option because there is more criticism of the Ten Commandments today than there is of the stock market.
I am not proposing the elimination of a stock market. The Canadians did not eliminate theirs. Structuring behavior around ethical values, however, requires adjustment in the market. Valuing our values means not allowing market prices determine what we are going to do. Let’s take a favorite punching bag, the starving of the world. It is a human value that starving people should be fed. (Ralph Waldo Emerson said "they are not my poor," thereby resigning from the human race. If you are determined to agree with him, stop reading now.)
We’ll begin with an old chestnut, Mother saying to her picky eater, "Think of the starving children in China," and the child retorting, "Name one." The child’s point is stronger than the mother’s. People die one at a time and we know by name the ones we care about.
Mother’s argument proceeds from the abstract premise of starvation in China to the equally abstract, and remote, conclusion that American children should clean their plates. But if you begin with actual starving kids, the only moral conclusion is to get food to them as quickly as possible. A clean plate in America will not feed a foreign child who is starving today. It’s more likely to overfeed an American child. Further, an American generation trained to stop wasting food is just as likely, as adults, to use the money they save to upgrade their home entertainment systems than to give it to the poor.
Values aren’t worth a tinker’s dam unless they define our goals and we devise an effective strategy to attain them.
So if you want to debate moral values, or even better to apply them, you must be willing to use inductive logic, which takes experiential facts into account. Deductive logic isn’t required to deal with experience, but allows you to proceed from abstract premises which may be devoid of moral implications. The result may be a morally neutral economic system and a political system shorn of social responsibility.
It is possible to begin at the other end, decide that our values require us to feed those children, and then structure our response accordingly. In ethics, the highest values address human need and express love of neighbor. To apply them successfully, we have to turn our view of the market upside down. The most valuable in ethical terms must become the least expensive in monetary terms.
In the richest nation of the world, disasters caused by systemic failures are not inevitable. If our values come first, it is within our capability to devise systems that reflect our values. It is hypocritical to claim that generosity is one of our high values and then rely on a system that runs on selfishness.
"Collateral damage" in warfare is a barely tolerably concept, because war is stinky business. Collateral damage in economics – as measured by a starving child anywhere in the world - is totally unnecessary. There are no acceptable levels of famine and epidemic.
(See Interests and Values)
About the Author:
Barnabas lived in western Canada for 12 years. They also furnished excellent medical care to the whole population, even if it was that danged socialized medicine.
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