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Neoliberal ‘ethics’

from Lars Syll

As we all know, neoliberalism is nothing but a self-serving con endorsing pernicious moral cynicism. But it’s still sickening to read its gobsmacking trash, maintaining that unregulated capitalism is a ‘superlatively moral system’:

neoThe rich man may feast on caviar and champagne, while the poor woman starves at his gate. And she may not even take the crumbs from his table, if that would deprive him of his pleasure in feeding them to his birds.
David Gauthier Morals by Agreement

Now, compare that unashamed neoliberal apologetics with what two truly great economists and liberals — John Maynard Keynes and Robert Solow — have to say:

The outstanding faults of the economic society in which we live are its failure to provide for full employment and its arbitrary and inequitable distribution of wealth and incomes … I believe that there is social and psychological justification for significant inequalities of income and wealth, but not for such large disparities as exist to-day.

John Maynard Keynes General Theory (1936)

4703325Who could be against allowing people their ‘just deserts?’ But there is that matter of what is ‘just.’ Most serious ethical thinkers distinguish between deservingness and happenstance. Deservingness has to be rigorously earned. You do not ‘deserve’ that part of your income that comes from your parents’ wealth or connections or, for that matter, their DNA. You may be born just plain gorgeous or smart or tall, and those characteristics add to the market value of your marginal product, but not to your deserts. It may be impractical to separate effort from happenstance numerically, but that is no reason to confound them, especially when you are thinking about taxation and redistribution. That is why we want to temper the wind to the shorn lamb, and let it blow on the sable coat.

Robert Solow Journal of Economic Perspect

  1. September 30, 2017 at 2:28 pm

    Gauthier’s tortured thesis re: moral constraints on rational choice is yet another example of a theory being constructed on a collection of assumptions re: human motivation which—incredibly—omit any reference to one of the most powerful motivators in human experience: the fundamental and intrinsic emotional need all humans possess for the approval of other human beings.

    The failure of economic and moral theories to acknowledge the reality of this fundamental, non-material, mental need renders them all bereft of practical usefulness, for they ignore what it means to experience life as a human being.

    We are talking about an emotional need which causing a human being to experience emotional “pain” when it is dissatisfied and emotional “pleasure” when it is satisfied.

    It is an open-ended need in that there is no point of homeostasis at which the need if finally satisfied. We can be exposed to abundant expressions of approval all day long and then be hurt deeply by an expression of disapproval heard at the end of the day.

    It is THE foundational attribute of our mental life which encourages us to avoid behaving immorally, to act in morally virtuous ways. So important is this need, we can only describe an economic activity as “rational” if it is behavior which will earn the host the approval of other humans (or at least not earn them their disapproval).

    It is from this POV that I define moral behavior as any act, or decision to not act, that would undoubtedly make everyone better off if everyone were to act, or decide not to act, in the same way.

    Immoral behavior is any act, or decision to not act, that would make everyone worse off if everyone were to act, or not act, in the same way.

    If you behave in a way that is truly moral, you quite naturally deserve the approval of all other members of the tribe because everyone would be better off if everyone behaved the same way. If, however, you behave in a way that is truly immoral, then you will quite naturally deserve to experience the disapproval of all other members of the tribe because everyone would be worse off if everyone else were to behave the same way…

    That’s a start…

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