About a year ago, a thread I had started rather innocently ended up into a heated debate. The initial message started as a desire to share a couple of pro-reason images with some of the objectivists on my Facebook friends lists. It ended up with a couple of the more ‘fundamentalists’ members of the list taking issue with some of the things I was trying to hash out about a particular moral issue.
By the end of the discussion I ended up conceding one point but said there was still some conflict buried in there that still seemed to me to revolve around a fundamental morals issue.
Well, I have good news and bad news for my detractors from that thread. The good news is, I need to concede one more point – that being that you were in fact right. (but I rather said as much at the time anyway) The bad news is that in fact, I was right also.
The discussion revolved around some examples that I raised in regards to exploiting the ignorance of others in a business transaction. (mind you, I do not by default define ‘exploit’ as a negative) The contrary responses to my supposition generally revolved around notions of ‘Caveat Emptor’ (buyer beware). But I still saw a problem in someone that holds ‘virtuous’ the notion of an ‘equal exchange of value’ and an exchange that involved an obvious inequality of value that only results from the one party being ignorant of the commonly accepted value of one or more of the things exchanged in the transaction.
One such example I brought up was in relation to when I used to buy used computer items to resell on eBay. I would occasionally find people listing items in the local paper for well below what they might be easily able to get for the item. Although I generally did not correct their price specifically, I felt inclined to either throw them a few extra dollars or to at least to suggest the possibility that they might be able to get more for it if they tried harder and asked for more money.
The concession I made at the time was that it was my choice and that to do so wasn’t an ‘absolute’ moral condition for every exchange – and I still hold to that concession. One party in the transaction with knowledge is not necessarily morally obligated to fill a void in the knowledge of the other. (only if the other party has made clear they are coming to said person specifically ‘because’ of their knowledge would that be an obligation – which I also pointed out in the original argument)
But what I ultimately settled upon was that I found it ‘wise’ for me to behave thus in such transactions as it served as a demonstration of integrity to the person selling the used item. In turn this demonstration would often translate to them contacting me again and/or offering me other goods they were willing to sell, thus increasing my chance to profit from the relationship.
This concept became clearer to me today when the following concept hit me after turning around the anti-altruistic principle that ‘no one should be obligated to provide charity‘:
“You are under no obligation or duty to accept any form of charity offered to you.”
Before I go on, I would strongly suggest at this point to review my posting on The Nature of Value. More specifically, you might refer to this ‘Nature of Value’ concept as ‘relative value’ – as the title of this post suggests.
In that prior post, I used the example of the penny, which to the world at large is worth it’s face value – one cent – but which (relative) to it’s possessor could be priceless based on the sentimental value they place upon it.
In that example, regardless of the ‘market’ value of the item, the holder of it should by no means be duty bound to exchange it for less than the value they perceive of it. By that same token, regardless of the sentimental value that one person places upon it, no other person should be obligated or forced to offer them a ridiculous amount to possess it. This is a moral exchange of value. And the nature of such a moral exchange is a key tenet of Objectivist philosophy.
But consider for a moment another fundamental pillar of Objectivism. That being ‘rational egoism‘. Rational egoism, (sometimes referred to as ‘rational selfishness’) as described accurately by Wikipedia is the principle that an action is rational if and only if it maximizes one’s self-interest.
The way I like to describe egoism (both the rational and irrational) is that “everyone, everywhere, always does everything they do for either maximum self gain or minimum self loss.” In the case of the Objectivist, they will always try to take the most ‘rational’ course that maximizes self gain or minimizes self loss.
Now let’s go back to the example and my corresponding conclusion above. My preference was to at least acknowledge to the other party in what I ‘knew’ to be an unequal exchange that they at least were aware of the fact they were potentially missing an opportunity to get more for their part. I dubbed this as ‘wise’. But what is wisdom in this case?
In my particular business at the time, my reputation as a buyer made a difference in my future ability to do more business. If I found a source for items to sell, it was in my ‘best interest’ to try to encourage that person to offer me more items from which I could profit. In short, it had ‘value’ to me to do maintain a good reputation.
As a ‘rational egoist’, can it not be said that to take a course of action that is contrary to my ‘best interest’ is not only irrational but could be dubbed immoral? With that said, is it absolutely necessary for every type of business involved in trade to place an emphasis of ‘value’ upon their ongoing reputation in regards to making a ‘fair’ deal?
One of my own concerns in regards to my reputation was based on the fact that I had heard stories from people who felt ‘cheated’ by others that had offered them a given dollar amount only to find out later that it was less than they could have gotten for it. They ultimately resented the person that they felt took advantage of them. Rational thinking says they were in no way obliged to accept the offer from a position of ignorance. Rational thinking says if they were in no way obliged to do the exchange, they are irrational for resenting the other party when they themselves accepted the terms.
In my particular business, it was worthwhile to me to avoid upsetting people who might behave irrationally if I could afford to do so. I could still make a profit, for example, on an item I would normally pay $50 for that someone was selling for $25 if I threw them an extra $10 for the sake of demonstrating an (non-obligated) admission of my own non-ignorance as to the market value of the item. In said case, I could still make a considerable profit and would often profit further by way not risking them leaping to the irrational notion later that I ‘cheated them’.
In short, it was of value to me to make such admissions or concessions, therefore it was in my best interest for me to do it. And since it was in my best interest to do it in that particular industry, it was in fact the ‘moral’ choice for me to make. For another person or business with different concepts of what is of value to them in their particular industry, making such un-obligated gestures may not hold as much value and thus ‘not doing so’ could in fact be their most moral option.
Initially when I looked upon this (before running through the thought process demonstrated above) I considered this to be a ‘relative’ moral system. Such a concept is a contradiction from an objectivist perspective. In fact, the moral issue isn’t over the options itself but over the (relative) value of various practices to the individual involved.
The moral decision is absolute – the moral choice is maximizing one’s self interest.
“Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises.” – Ayn Rand