Commercial Life

Whoever commits a fraud is guilty not only of the particular injury to him who he deceives, but of the diminution of that confidence which constitutes not only the ease but the existence of society.
-Johnson, Rambler #79 (December 18, 1750)

That this is one of the book's longest chapters is unsurprising: It takes up the ethics of commercial transactions, our culture's most common sort of human interaction. One way or another, these questions involve money. In particular, they deal with shopping and with the essential conflict between buyer and seller. The former wants to pay the lowest price, the latter wants to receive the highest; the temptations of deceit are powerful. That is why the used-car dealer has long been depicted as a reviled and tormented soul. If the car had been invented one hundred years earlier, Verdi would no doubt have written an opera about a used-car dealer. (And he would have taken very different sorts of vacations, perhaps driving along the seacoast with a backseat full of kids singing "Are We There Yet?")

There is an entire body of ethics and a great deal of law designed to keep the wheels of commerce turning smoothly, and that's not entirely a bad thing. It's nice to be able to buy groceries knowing that your pound of coffee is an actual pound. And actual coffee. And it makes the shopkeeper's job more relaxing if he can be confident that you'll pay for it, rather than slip it down your trousers. (And it makes your guests happier, knowing they won't be drinking trouser coffee.)

Commercial codes are ancient and nearly universal; laws touching on business practices can be found among Roman law, and farther back among the Egyptians and Babylonians. The earliest such provisions were little more than caveat emptor, but we have made a kind of moral progress. In America, there has been something of a revival of such codes under the rubric of consumerism. Most Americans appreciate measures to ensure that today even the unwary are unlikely to buy tainted pork or a cardboard sedan.

But an uneasy tension persists between consumerism and commerce. We are, after all, a country that both discourages the sale of tobacco, a toxic product, and subsidizes its cultivation. Were you to introduce some other new product that killed off its users at so impressive a rate--some kind of exploding hat, perhaps--one suspects that Congress would take more vigorous steps to discourage its sale (at least to minors).

Health and safety are not the only factors in the creation of consumer law. Tradition and self-interest also play their parts. Philip Morris is reluctant to give up its enormous profits; tobacco farmers find a sentimental comfort (and a hardscrabble livelihood) in the family farm. Of course, similar arguments have been made by Colombian cocaine cartels and small coca growers. Someday, perhaps, a satisfyingly ironic solution to our tobacco problem will be found when the Colombian government sends us a billion dollars in foreign aid so we can attack the big tobacco traffickers and shift the small farmers to alternative crops, something less deadly and less addictive. Marijuana?

There are broad ethical implications in what is sometimes referred to as the "consumer movement." Its virtues are those of our democracy itself, high among them being truthfulness and the free flow of information that enables consumers (and citizens) to make informed choices, albeit when choosing breakfast cereal rather than a congressman (although, come to think of it, lately there may be less of a distinction here than the Founding Fathers could have anticipated).

And yet, conceding the righteousness of this crusading zeal, there is something in me that does not wish to be referred to as a "consumer." It smacks of the French Revolution somehow, only instead of being addressed as Citizen Cohen, I'm now Consumer Cohen, an honorific that rather overemphasizes a single sphere of existence. The problem is not so much that commerce dominates public life, it is that commerce is public life. It is often noted that too few of us vote, but we turn out in impressive numbers to any event that includes the phrase "10 percent Off!" We spend less time in the town square than we do at the mall, where there is, for example, no guarantee of free speech (although there is occasionally a nice free sample of cheese at that snack shop). All too often, shopping is what we have instead of civic activity.

The centrality of shopping is seen in the clash between those who cherish "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" and the "life, liberty, and property" crowd. Indeed, the sanctification of property "rights" by the latter group has contributed much to human misery. It is difficult to make an ethical case for those whose worship of property has led them to challenge, for example, the very idea of environmental protection laws.

Such private property extremists dwell in a fantasyland of the rugged farmer living in isolation, on his autonomous homestead, out in the wilderness, where his actions affect no other person; except, perhaps, in the case of Jefferson and his slaves. But here on Earth, a more powerful case could be made that this solitary farmer is not so solitary, that his fertilizer washes off his field into the stream from which, many miles away, others must drink; that his produce is brought to market on roads others must pay for, in a truck that spews fumes others must breathe. He learned to do his crop calculations at a public school; he follows crop prices on-line, using the Internet created by government researchers.

It is environmentalism that provides a counterargument to the worship of private property, and it is a morally superior argument, not because it proposes a more austere lifestyle, but because it recognizes that we each live among others, affecting and being affected by one another. While honorable people may differ about any particular policy, this much seems unarguable. Those private property fanatics (to whom the current Supreme Court is increasingly and distressingly sympathetic) act unethically, not just because they espouse greed and relentless self-interest, but because their assertion of autonomy is intellectually dishonest. That is to say, that there can be no meaningful ethics that does not consider human beings as social creatures.

It must also be noted that profit is not the loftiest goal to which we can aspire, nor are commercial exchanges the most deeply satisfying human encounters. Much as one enjoys the mall, there is something to be said for the library or the school, the theater or the park, or indeed for the bedroom. Even in nineteenth-century London, that proud capital of a mercantile empire, the English dreamed of traveling to Italy; one reads so few novels where a woman from Tuscany yearns to live nearer the London Stock Exchange. A society where all human interaction is a form of commerce is hardly a society at all. In other words, if I ran my life the way I ran my business, it would barely be a life at all. Although I'd give more of my friend's coffee mugs with my picture on them. And I'd have a jaunty and memorable catchphrase to sum myself up. And my name would be written in an instantly recognizable typeface.

This is not to decry commerce, but to assign it a more reasonable place in human affairs. Johnson himself was not averse to commerce, which he knew improves the condition of humanity in manifold ways. After the death of his friend Henry Thrale, Johnson pitched in enthusiastically to help Thrale's widow sell her husband's brewery, showing an understanding of the buyer-seller relationship that presaged modern advertising's awareness that it must sell the sizzle, not the steak:

. . . When the sale of Thrale's brewery was going forward, Johnson appeared bustling about with an ink-horn and pen in his button-hole, like an excise-man; and on being asked what he really considered to be the value of the property which was to be disposed of, answered, "We are not here to sell a parcel of boilers and vats, but the potentiality of growing rich, beyond the dreams of avarice."

But Johnson did not let his commercial zeal compromise his integrity, nor did this most sociable of men lose his awareness of himself as a person living among others.

How to Tell Right From Wrong in Everyday Situations
By: RANDY COHEN - "The Ethicist" from The New York Times Magazine.

Special thanks to illustrator Christoph Niemann.


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