MonoRealism Philosophy Site

Free Trade - Free Trade - Part B

In Part A, I developed the argument that the only moral relationships between human beings are those based on voluntary trade of value for value, and the most fundamental evil you can commit against a person is the initiation of physical force.

These principles follow from the nature of consciousness, namely we are free-willed beings who must live by the judgment of our own minds. This in turn follows from fundamental reality: the duality of physical reality and conscious life.

Now we will examine some of the implications of these principles for moral behaviour and common views of morality.

Win-Win or No Deal

Books on human relationships often support the principle of "win-win or no deal" in our personal and business dealings with others. This is a correct principle, following directly from the moral principle of voluntary trade.

"Win-win", meaning both parties gain from the transaction, is the essence of trade: it is why people trade. "No deal" means either party can walk away: the absence of force. Because "win-win or no deal" is simply a formulation of the principle of voluntary trade, any other type of transaction is immoral: whether exploitation (win-lose), self-sacrifice (lose-win) or destructiveness (lose-lose). Destructiveness is so clearly and fundamentally against both the value of life and all its derivative virtues that it needs no further discussion. However, the others are widely misunderstood and further analysis is desirable.

Exploitation

"Win-lose" is the essence of exploitation: the driving of an unjust bargain from a position of strength. Like all denials of justice, exploitation is against your interests on principle. This flows on to concrete effects, as all violations of rational principles must. At the least, exploitation leads to the loss of valuable people, who will cease dealing with you as soon as they can; and at the worst, to active sabotage by your victims.

It is important to note that trade is based on voluntary judgments of value by the traders. It is not exploitation to give someone less than they think they deserve: only to give them less than you think they deserve. From the other side of the fence, if you are offered less than you think your offer is worth, then you must decide if it is still in your interests to proceed with the deal: naturally, taking into account whether you think the other person is trying to exploit you or simply honestly disagreeing.

Slavery is the worst kind of exploitation: one achieved by physical force. However, it is very important to note that not all exploitation involves the initiation of force. Whenever I use the term "force", I mean physical force. Being "forced" to accept a bad deal because of desperation is not physical force. You are not being forced to act against your judgment: if you accept a bad deal because it is the best you can get, then it is because you value what is being offered enough that you prefer accepting it to walking away. It is still a trade, you are still voluntarily accepting value (albeit lesser) for value. The exploiter is acting immorally: but has not stooped to the evil of initiating force against you. We will return to the implications of this later.

Self-Sacrifice

Self-sacrifice was dismissed briefly in Part A. However, it needs more detailed treatment, because it is the essence of what most people wrongly regard as the highest moral ideal: altruism.

In previous articles I have attacked two other widely held "moral ideals", humility and mercy. These and altruism share a common essence.

Altruism and humility have in common the submergence of the self. Altruism tells you to sacrifice your selfish interests for the interests of others. Humility tells you that your self is unworthy. Altruism and mercy have in common the evasion of justice. Altruism tells you that people should be rewarded, not according to what they have earned and deserve, but according to their need. Mercy tells you to abstain from justice by not punishing the guilty.

How can the submergence of the self be regarded as good? How can evasion of justice be good? In a rational philosophy, such issues not only do not arise, but are absurd. The value of one's life and the good of the self are inextricably linked. The need for justice derives directly from duality: reality exists, and to live, life must be consistent with what exists.

The essence of altruism is that man has no right to live for his own sake, but only for the sake of others: that his justification for existence, his greatest virtue and highest value, is service to others, not his own life as a thinking being.

How could a claim so baseless gain such currency, when it is so alien to the supreme value of your own life, the foundation of ethics? What underlies altruism and its ilk is the ancient false dichotomy: that the moral good and the needs and wants of the self are opposites. And the deeper essence underpinning that is the belief that one's interests lie not in the good, but in the evil, which means: there is no rational basis for ethics.

Mercy can have a good name only when "justice" means the arbitrary exercise of power by the strong. When justice is rational, based on what a person deserves, on reality: then the only person who wants mercy not justice is he who wants to get away with evil unpunished, or wants to appropriate a value properly earned by someone else.

Humility can have a good name only when you accept that people are worthless in themselves, no matter what they are or have done: and so all pride is mere vanity and arrogance. Yet to live we need pride in the sense of self-esteem. And from that follows the virtue of pride, in the sense of an acceptance that self-esteem to be owned must be earned, and can be earned.

Altruism's good name also stems from a falsehood. When one's selfish interests are supposedly to rape, loot and kill, then "clearly" one must sacrifice one's own good to the good of others. For if we're all selfish, life becomes the law of the jungle: but if we altruistically suppress our selfish desires, we can live together in harmony. But implicit in that "clearly" is the truth of the matter: it is not good for life, therefore not selfish, for the ruling principle between men to be force and plunder.

The viciousness of that doctrine is apparent when you explicitly name its assumptions, and hence identify the message it gives to a thinking being. It tells you that your interests are to rob and kill. And if you love your life, and decide to be selfish, to value your own life: then there is no difference between living by justice, and living by plunder.

The answer to human evil is rationality, not self-sacrifice. Selfishness is not evil, but good: when properly understood. The selfish man or woman loves his or her own life, and that love and that life are best served by rationality. And the rational life is one of justice, honesty, integrity, productiveness, independence and pride, a life based on the trade of value for value. The highest morality between human beings is not altruism, but justice. Justice is acting in accordance with reality: it is treating people according to what they are. And trading value for value is no more and no less than the principle of justice in action.

A Helping Hand

Are there then no circumstances in which you should help anyone outside of the terms of an immediate trade? Does every act of kindness demand cash in advance? If we reject self-sacrifice and altruism, do relationships between people degenerate to coldness, meanness and strict accounting? The opposite is true.

True kindness and generosity rest not on self-sacrifice but on individual rights and the trade of value for value. That is the only sound foundation on which goodwill between people can be based. When you have an inalienable right to the products of your mind and hands; when you are the person with the absolute say in the disposal of your goods, with no-one having the right to demand them of you; when a stranger is not a potential looter or moocher, but someone from whom you can expect values; when the people you meet are productive individuals who can be expected to treat you with justice and be a benefit to your life; when friends are those who share your highest values of the spirit: then people are a value to you, productive beings whose lives enrich yours, and kindness and generosity become the default currency of human relationships. But when everyone shouts that their need gives them a moral claim on your time, your property and your life; when the extent of your success in life is the measure of your guilt for having more than your neighbour: then others become not a value to you but a drain on your life, and nothing can be expected to spring from such injustice but a guilty meanness of spirit.

The basic principle of helping others derives from the nature of trade: never sacrifice a higher value to a lower. Obviously, someone who is very precious to you -- who enriches your life immensely -- will be worth far more to you than many hours of your time or many dollars of your wealth. At the other end of the spectrum, to help someone who you know is morally worthless, especially to help them escape the consequences of their worthlessness, is thoroughly immoral. Then you are not only sacrificing a value (be it your time or money) to a disvalue, but are betraying justice itself by supporting evil.

The same principles apply to strangers. You should only help someone where the benefit you gain exceeds the cost. As noted above, where individual rights are respected, other people are a value to you: productive individuals whose existence benefits your life. Thus, if a man is down and out and you judge that he is a victim of circumstance who can become a productive person if you help him out, then it may well be moral to provide assistance. From the assumption of the positive value of others to your life, it also follows that your willingness to help should increase as the benefit to them increases and the cost to you decreases. For example, to refuse to save a drowning stranger at no risk to yourself is contemptible. And of course, it is always in your interests to fight injustice against others when feasible in the circumstances.

So who decides what level of assistance you should give, and to whom? As with all these things, philosophy can guide you but the final answer is: you. But whatever you decide, one thing is completely clear: you have no right to force your decision on anyone else.

Sticks and Stones

It cannot be stressed too strongly that it is the initiation of physical force which is the lowest evil. Many things are immoral but force is inappropriate in dealing with them except in response to force. Everyone has the right to do what they will, no matter how irrational it may seem to be, or indeed be in fact: provided that they are not initiating physical force.

Insults are not force. Verbal abuse is not force. Paying someone a lower wage than they deserve is not force. Discriminating against someone by refusing to deal with them for any reason including race, sex, religion or hair colour is not force.

The test of force is simple: Can you walk away? Thus, a slave is a victim of force: but a worker who is paid less than he wants, but stays on because he chooses to, for whatever reason, is not. A press-ganged sailor is a victim of force: a person who is treated like dirt at his place of work, but chooses not to leave, is not. Economic necessity does not equate to force. If I stay at a job I hate, or one that is underpaid, or one where my life is made a misery when I could leave if I decided to: then I am not a victim of force. It matters not that I stay because I need the money, or I can't get another job: that does not mean my employer is forcing me to stay. All it means is that I value his money more than I value escaping from the bad conditions. It is my value-judgments, my choice. I have the right to leave but no right to use force against my employer because I don't like the deal. That I so desperately need the money he pays me -- that I so desperately need him to live -- does not somehow grant me the right to force him to deal with me on my terms.

The moral response to a bad deal is to reject it. If I must accept a bad deal because of circumstances, then what that means is simply this: I am better off accepting the little that is offered me than walking away. Which means, the other person is still a net value to me! If he pays me too little, or makes offensive colourist jokes about my brown eyes: then I either put up with it as part of the terms of the trade, or leave. Nothing can justify the far greater evil of initiating force against someone to make him or her accept my preferred terms of trade.

The most basic principle of justice is that you cannot retaliate against the bad with the worse. Force is the most fundamental evil you can commit against a rational being. Therefore, all relationships between people must be by voluntary agreement, and nothing can justify the initiation of force.

I must stress that financial or emotional exploitation is wrong. Abusing, insulting or harassing people unjustly is wrong. But none of these are as great an evil as the initiation of force, and to use force in retaliation is morally outrageous. The principle of human relationships is win-win or no deal: not win-win or I'll get my gang to stick a gun in your face.

And that leads us to possibly the greatest influence of philosophy on our lives: politics. The type of government we live under, its powers and limitations, are all consequences of a philosophy: whether explicit or implicit, whether our philosophy or that of whoever controls the most guns. What a rational philosophy implies for the proper functions of government will be my next topic.

© 1994, 1996 Robin Craig: first published in TableAus.