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Economics and the Pursuit of Happiness

A defense of moral relativism.

by James Leroy Wilson
March 27, 2002

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Economics and the Pursuit of Happiness_James Leroy Wilson-A defense of moral relativism. Moral absolutists do not appreciate moral relativists and their supposed influence in the academy and left-wing politics. Conservatives see red when they hear "that may be true for you but not for me." Truth is truth, goodness is goodness, conservatives say. On the other hand, every individual in the world is different, and ultimately they do not act on what is truly right and wrong, but only what they believe to be so at the moment they decide to act. That is, I think moral relativism gets a bad rap.

The founder of the 20th century "Austrian school" of economics, Ludwig von Mises, had many profound insights and influential ideas, but for the purposes of this column one will suffice: values are always a matter of individual preference. The entire market economy, in fact the very concept of trade with or without money, decisively concludes the point. Trade is, at its essence, a disagreement about values. What I have is valued less by me than by you, and what you have is valued more by me than by you. If you agree that I should give up 20 hens for your cow, then what we have is, essentially, a happy example of "agreeing to disagree." You value my twenty hens more than the cow, I value the opposite. We both walk away giving up something in exchange for something we want more. Mises would say that if everyone had the same values, no trade would get done. A price set by a seller is the amount of money the seller values more than the product itself. The price the buyer is willing to pay is that which the product is more valuable than the money to be given up. Sellers and buyers, by definition, disagree as to the "real value" of the product.

This is because both the buyer and the seller are living what the U.S. Declaration of Independence called the "pursuit of happiness." We are each striving for a state of contentment, perhaps never fully realized within the bounds of human mortality, but which can be more efficiently pursued, and more closely attained, as life goes on. And living happily is what the good or moral life is all about. But the diversity of values, how people want to live, is as easily perceived as the diversity of life. To believe that every life is unique and important, yet at the same time assert that their economic and "moral" needs are identical, is to believe a lie. People, being physically unique, "need" different things for a healthy life. Also, they want different things according to their personalities, and they discern and prioritize according to their differing intellectual abilities. For example, some people might be better off not getting married, but marriage might be almost indispensable to someone else's ability to live happily.

Does this mean that there is no "universal morality" or "common good?" Practically speaking, this is correct. Neither law, nor the moral lessons taught by religious, educational, and parental authorities, can command universal agreement among the people. A Christian may believe in obeying the civil law in all cases except when it conflicts with God's law. Someone else may view law like a basketball player views fouls - risking a penalty is okay if it advances a desired end, especially if no one gets hurt and it is likely the crime will go undetected and unpunished. And in this sense the Christian has little intellectual ground for condemnation, since he, too, would break the law in order to achieve a more desired end.

People try to get what they want, as efficiently as they can, given the circumstances in which they live. If one sacrifices financial prosperity for more leisure time, that is not an irrational act. If the government provides a social "safety net" that frees people to take greater risks with their health and money than they might without such a net, or frees people to not work at all, it is difficult to accuse such people of foolishness or laziness. They are doing as they see fit.

The failures of communism, not just historically but in theory, are self-evident. To build a society based on "from each according to their ability, to each according to their need" assumes identical values among people, so that they are all working toward the same end. But as soon as one person who doesn't particularly enjoy work sees that he gains nothing personally from working hard, and will be "guaranteed" economic benefits regardless, the efficiency of the system will be far less than optimum. Combine that with the insight of F.A. von Hayek, that without money prices central planners wouldn't even know what the people really want or need, and we have a prescription for disaster.

In our society, communism is seen by most as unviable; we recognize that it is almost entirely incapable of helping anyone in the pursuit of happiness. But there are many whose own values make the actions of others quite bothersome. We judge that it is morally wrong to smoke pot, desire an SUV, watch Temptation Island, or play a violent video game. If one derives satisfaction in publicly condemning such things, or in preaching a gospel in the hope of persuading the people to adopt different values, then one's own time is not wasted - if that is how one wants to spend time.

But if that is not enough - if one wants to seize power and dominate other people by controlling their behavior and reducing their choices - then it is a fair warning that such legislation will be no more likely to eliminate the problem than Prohibition did with alcohol, and will likely create a host of other problems. All because people will do what they want to do anyway. At its essence, controlling or dominating other people is destructive, impeding each person's pursuit of happiness. It doesn't matter the intention behind such domination. It won't work if it is called liberal compassion, or conservative virtue, no more than it can work under Islamism, communism, or fascism.

It is therefore "true for me" at least, to not waste time and energy fretting about the non-violent, non-fraudulent pursuits of other people, nor to waste money supporting political causes that would abridge other people's freedom. It is an end that can not be achieved, an end whose pursuit won't make me happier. I lack the knowledge to effectively impose my values on others, and even if I could, I'd be doing all of us a disservice if I'm wrong about my values. Moral relativism as I perceive it comes down to this: judging other people is pointless.

Comments (2)

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Gadfly writes:
March 27, 2002
If trade must be non-fraudulent, is non-fraudulence an absolute value? By whose definition?

James Leroy Wilson writes:
March 27, 2002
From the original:

It is therefore true for me at least, to not waste time and energy fretting about the non-violent, non-fraudulent pursuits of other people, nor to waste money supporting political causes that would abridge other people's freedom.

Non-fraudulence is not an absolute value. The very existence of thieves and murderers proves the point that people will act according to their own values and desires, not somebody else's. And even those who condemn lying, stealing, and murder do not condemn such things equally - some will be more willing to resort to them more quickly than would others.

Fraud and violence differ fundamentally from other forms of immoral behavior in that their toleration would undermine the very social cooperation inherent in trade. Other forms of immoral behavior are either intangible value judgments of others, like greed or racism, or self-destructive, like drug use or gluttony. My pursuit of happiness is not undermined if the store clerk gets high after work, but it is undermined if the clerk uses my credit card information for personal use. It is sensible for me to try to stop that kind of behavior, but it is not sensible for me to try to dominate other people with my own judgments of their personal behavior.

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