Blog Debate: On the Morality of Capitalism
I had a very interesting blog discussion with an American blogger named Oscar Rivera who described himself as an “enduring” fourth year undergraduate student of B.A. Philosophy at the University of Chicago. Our discussion primarily focused on ethics and politics, and it started with his comment on my blog article titled Capitalism Defined, wherein I discussed the ethical justification of free market capitalism.
In that article I wrote the following: “The very reason why statism or collectivism (translation: any form of collectivist socio-economic system such as socialism, fascism, communism, corporatism, Nazism, nationalism, etc.) is gaining ground the world over and why capitalism is being despised and discredited in the academe, media institutions, churches, intellectual hubs, entertainment centers, among others is NOT because of the passion, determination and intellectual readiness of the enemies of the free market system, but mainly because of the confusion of its defenders, including its alleged ‘advocates’.”
Oscar Rivera commented on the statement that “[t]he moral justification of capitalism does not lie in the altruist claim that it represents the best way to achieve “the common good.” That particular line was actually made by American novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand, who said that “[t]he moral justification of capitalism lies in the fact that it is the only system consonant with man’s rational nature, that it protects man’s survival qua man, and that its ruling principle is: justice.”
In his comment, Rivera did not actually respond to the statement above, but instead claimed that it shows the fundamental error of one’s understanding of the Marxist political theory and a misunderstanding of human condition. Rivera wrote:
“I think this shows a fundamental error in not only one’s understanding of Marx’s many critiques of capitalism, but also a misunderstanding of the human condition. The problem inherent in this system is precisely what the “Randian” would hail it to be its redeeming moral principle. Contrary to what Rousseau may assert, man is a social creature, a being evolved from social creatures. Man’s intuit rationality is not one of mere self-preservation, but one of preservation for oneself along with the survival of the herd, the group. This rationality of protecting one’s own survival qua man is bred out of the capitalist paradigm, not out of the inherent ontos of man. While I certainly advocate for the libertarian approach to individual rights, one must understand that when these rights are based in a system predicated on the drive for fetishised commodities, when the ‘capitalist’ is more concerned with value of its products over his laborers, we see a system that is ostensibly contradictory to justice; unless, of course, one defines ‘justice’ as the betterment of oneself even if at the expense of others.
“Of course, all this is not even to address Marx’s other moral concerns with the capitalistic structure. But one thing at a time…”
In my response I asked him to be “more precise” in explaining the alleged “misunderstanding of Marx’s critiques and of human condition”. I’d like to know whether what he meant to say is that “it is moral to abolish private property, to nationalize industries, to centrally plan the economy, to destroy individual rights, to make the government the source of rights and almost everything the people need, to abolish free speech, etc.”
Oscar Rivera replied by saying that he didn’t “believe that I said that I believed in any of the aforementioned concepts were just, so I’m a bit confused as to why you are eager to paint a picture of my beliefs, especially one that’s based off of some bastardized version of communism.” He also hastened to clarify that he’s “not a communist if that puts your mind at ease, but you should also know that Marx didn’t consider most of the things you listed to be just either.” Nevertheless, he asked me to respond to “the fact [actually his claim] that man is not inherently a self-centered being, but is evolved from and is a social being, thus rendering the notion of merely being concerned with oneself, even if at the expense of others, as unjust.”
In my response I said the following:
Well, it’s because you claimed that that Ayn Rand quotation “shows a fundamental error in not only one’s understanding of Marx’s many critiques of capitalism, but also a misunderstanding of the human condition.”
That’s why I’d like you to clarify that statement of yours. You mean to say it is moral to abolish private property, to nationalize industries, to centrally plan the economy, to destroy individual rights, to make the government the source of rights and almost everything the people need, to abolish free speech, etc?
As to your statement: “I would still like you to respond to the fact that man is not inherently a self-centered being, but is evolved from and is a social being, thus rendering the notion of merely being concerned with oneself, even if at the expense of others, as unjust.”
Do you want to live on earth? What would you do to achieve that purpose: of living on earth? Your answer to this question is the answer to your question. May I know your answer please.
Plus, define “self-interest”. I’d like to know how you understand this concept. Do you think that self-interest is inherently evil? Is that what you think of it?
In his reply, Oscar Rivera said already responded to my earlier statement, saying: “If you wish to continue painting me as a nationalistic Stalinist when I explicitly said that I wasn’t, then there’s really no point in continuing.”
As to my question of whether he wants to live on earth he said he didn’t “understand the parameters of this question.” In regard to his definition of self-interest and whether he considers self-interest inherently evil, he Oscar Rivera said: “No, of course I don’t consider self-interest inherently evil. I would consider self-interest to be immoral if it were to come at the intentional disinterest of others, though.”
My reply is as follows:
You said: “I’ve already responded to this and won’t do it again. If you wish to continue painting me as a nationalistic Stalinist when I explicitly said that I wasn’t, then there’s really no point in continuing.”
– Where’s your response? I’d like to see it. I’d like you to elaborate on your alleged response. I am not trying to paint you as a “nationalistic Stalinist”. I am just trying to point out that if you don’t see anything wrong with Marxism, then you somehow believe that it is moral to abolish private property, to nationalize industries, to centrally plan the economy, to destroy individual rights, to make the government the source of rights and almost everything the people need, to abolish free speech, etc. in the name of the greater good or common good. That’s why I’d like to know where you’re coming from.
You said: “I’m not sure I understand the parameters of this question…”
The point is, MAN IS A SELF-INTERESTED BEING. If you want to use another term like “self-centered” then so be it. But the term used is “self-interested” being. Take note the word SELF-INTEREST.
I asked: “Do you want to live on earth? What would you do to achieve that purpose: of living on earth?”
If you want to live on earth, then you must know how to achieve that purpose of living or survival. That process of acting on your survival is motivated by SELF-INTEREST. Self-preservation is motivated by self-interest. Why do you have to earn a living, to keep the products of your labor, to create value that others want and need, to put up a business, to join organizations that represent your beliefs and values, etc.? It’s because of self-interest.
What I am trying to point out is that self-interest, as against the philosophical convention spread by Kant, Compte, Marx, etc., is NOT inherently evil. It is not inherently immoral. You have to understand the concept of “self-interest”. I advise that you read Ayn Rand’s “The Virtue of Selfishness” to properly argue against her ethical system. Otherwise, you’d only misrepresent her views and philosophy.
You said: “No, of course I don’t consider self-interest inherently evil. I would consider self-interest to be immoral if it were to come at the intentional disinterest of others, though.”
That’s the reason why you need to consciously understand the concept of self-interest. Is it in your “self-interest” to take advantage of others?
He then clarified his sympathy for the political philosophy of Karl Marx, saying he’s not a defender of Marxism. Oscar Rivera made the following reply:
First, the reason why I stated that there was an ostensible lack of understanding in, “Marx’s many critiques of capitalism, but also a misunderstanding of the human condition,” was not because I am a defender of Marxism, but because of exactly what I said: I think there lies here a misunderstanding of Marx’s many critiques of capitalism, as well as a misunderstanding of the human condition. As can be substantiated from just this thread alone, there is a perverse tendency to conflate Marx’s works on economics into one subject when, in fact, there are two aspects: his actual critiques of capitalism (which can be further subdivided into either moral and economical) and his implementation of a new system (i.e. Communism) (Note: I would like to once again point out that many of the things which you listed is not what was envisioned by Marx. For example, Marx would never condone the abolition of free speech. That came when communism was bastardized by the likes of Stalin, et. al.) My comment to you was intended to point out that I think that there is a misunderstanding of the former (which was not even my biggest contention with the post). Your unfounded critiques of myself is predicated on a false assumption that I am defending the latter. I’m not. I say that there is a misunderstanding of Marx’s critiques of capitalism inherent in this post because of this conflation found throughout the OP.
” I advise that you read Ayn Rand’s “The Virtue of Selfishness” to properly argue against her ethical system. Otherwise, you’d only misrepresent her views and philosophy.”
Secondly: I am usually quite patient, but I would suggest that you carefully read what I write and not just assume what it is I am saying, or take a quick perusal. The fact that you took so much space in your reply back to me to defend self-interest tells me that you have not carefully read my responses, especially when I explicitly stated that I did not think self-interest is inherently evil (which is a bit weird since you actually acknowledged that I did this by quoting me…). Now, I have some issues with saying that there is not, at least to a certain extent, an element of self-interest inherent in corruption, but that is not the issue at hand (though, I would like to return to this subject, because that would be interesting to talk about. Maybe later?) My criticism of any ideology, like certain tendencies found in Objectivism, is that it does not recognize that man is not this monolithic creature who is solely relegated to have merely one inherent characteristic. “Occurrences like this astonish because they conflict with the image we have of man in harmony with himself, coherent, monolithic; and they should not astonish because that is not how man is. Compassion and brutality can coexist in the same individual and in the same moment, despite all logic; and for all that, compassion itself eludes logic.” (Primo Levi) I saw some glimmers of hope when you began discussing altruism, but they were mere glimmers. You, and other Randians that I have discussions with, write and talk (even if not consciously) as if there is this Cartesian dichotomy with respect to the ontos of man: we are either evil or compassionate, sane or insane, self-interested or altruistic. (Note: I did misspeak earlier when I said that man is not inherently self-interested. I meant to say that man is not inherently merely self-interested. I sincerely apologize because that is an important distinction.) Whenever I have these types of discussions, there is always this tendency to put into separate categories the “altruists” and the “self-interested”. But the fact of the matter is that man is fully capable of being both self-interested and altruistic, of showing compassion, and that most people do indeed exhibit both altruism and self-interest without one having to necessarily affect the other. You said:
“If you want to live on earth, then you must know how to achieve that purpose of living or survival. That process of acting on your survival is motivated by SELF-INTEREST. Self-preservation is motivated by self-interest.”
While I certainly want to live and survive, and self-interest is perhaps the best means to achieve that end, I would not – and most people would agree with me on this matter – employ this self-interest in all scenarios. For example: I would unabashedly, and without hesitation, sacrifice myself for the sake of my family. Yet, this act of self-sacrifice does not in any way negate my self-interest in my own survival. I am merely able to recognize that there are more important things than myself – whether this is objectively true is besides the point. This is why I originally brought up the fact that we are evolved from social creatures, and thus are social creatures ourselves. In addition to our inherent self-interest, we also have inherent within us the, for the momentary lack of a better word, “knowledge” that the needs of the group, and of the next generation, are usually greater than ourselves.
Lastly, I would just like to briefly mention that it seems as if many of your examples demonstrating the inherent self-interest of man (e.g. “In biological terms, SELF-INTEREST is evidenced by any human beings’ willingness to survive by going to work…”) seems to be showing self-interest as predicated upon a capitalist paradigm, rather than actual man. I’ll be clear, I do agree that self-interest is an inherent characteristic of man, but a lot of your examples are not founded on man, but on the capitalistic structure. But, this would be delving into the second aspect of Marx’s critique, which would be straying too far off-topic. Although, we could certainly discuss it if you like.
Thanks for the discussion! I haven’t really had a robust discussion on economic philosophy in awhile and I appreciate your time!
Also, I’ll have to re-read Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness as it’s been awhile…
For my final reply, I wrote the following:
Thanks for your reply.
I believe there are a lot of issues that I need to address here.
You said: “I think there lies here a misunderstanding of Marx’s many critiques of capitalism, as well as a misunderstanding of the human condition.”
This is the reason why I asked you to clarify your point. Please do not forget that you’re dealing with a “student” of Objectivism. I value facts and logical reasoning. You should have presented those “misunderstanding of Marx’s many critiques of capitalism”, including a “misunderstanding of the human condition” POINT BY POINT. This is what you should have done:
1. Cite those misunderstandings, or give particular examples.
2. Explain why you believe they are “misunderstandings”.
3. Present your own arguments or counter-arguments.
This is how a logical discussion is done.
You said: “there is a perverse tendency to conflate Marx’s works on economics into one subject when, in fact, there are two aspects: his actual critiques of capitalism (which can be further subdivided into either moral and economical) and his implementation of a new system (i.e. Communism) (Note: I would like to once again point out that many of the things which you listed is not what was envisioned by Marx.”
Marx’s economic arguments against capitalism was motivated by his anti-self interest morality or morality of altruism. While he believed that the bourgeoisie system uplifted human conditions in the past, he rejected the same because of its morality of self-interest. This is why Marx was a collectivist. His works prove that he regarded human beings as not sovereign entities, possessing inalienable rights to the products or fruits of their labor. Instead, he believed that property “is theft” and that self-interest is evil, or the root of all evil.
In effect, Marx’s works were based on an utterly flawed concept of human nature. In the words of Ludwig von Mises, Marxism is an attack on logic and REASON. His class warfare principle or ideology proves it. Marx was actually one of the first proponents of the zero-sum game, a belief or concept that one individual’s gains result only from another individual’s equivalent losses. This is, in fact, the conceptual basis of his collectivist ideology. That is why he advocated the abrogation of private property, central planning, abolition of individual rights, etc.
You said: “For example, Marx would never condone the abolition of free speech. That came when communism was bastardized by the likes of Stalin, et. al.)”
This is funny. But even those leftist dictators NEVER thought their collectivist systems or ideologies would lead to mass murder, mass starvation, abrogation of free speech and other rights, slavery, and many forms of social and political evils. Stalin, Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot were all motivated by their desire to SERVE THE POOR, THE LESS PRIVILEGED, THE LEAST ADVANTAGED, THE WORKING CLASS, THE LITTLE MEN. They didn’t start by killing people. They started by preaching the gospel COMMON GOOD OR GREATER GOOD and the POWER OF THE PROLETARIAT. However as well all know, these guys ended up burning books and bodies. That’s the tragic history of socialism.
Death, slavery and extreme poverty are the only LOGICAL result of any form of collectivist ideology. Marx did not invent socialism or collectivism or communism. He merely formed or conceptualized his own version of socialism. Ever heard of the term “Utopian Socialism” that preceded Marx? Ever heard of the story of the Pilgrims who first settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts in the early 1600s? The Pilgrims established a collective system that very similar to Marx’s socialism. But that was about 200 years before the birth of Marx.
A society that regards private property as “theft” and individualism or self-interest as “evil” would ultimately end up limiting free speech, violating the residual rights of the people, and establishing a system of slavery.
Collectivism is the opposite of individualism. Individualism is a concept that “regards man—every man—as an independent, sovereign entity who possesses an inalienable right to his own life, a right derived from his nature as a rational being. Individualism holds that a civilized society, or any form of association, cooperation or peaceful coexistence among men, can be achieved only on the basis of the recognition of individual rights—and that a group, as such, has no rights other than the individual rights of its members.”
Individualism simply means man is an end himself, NOT the means to the ends of others. In an individualist society, the powers of the state or government are strictly limited by the constitution or by the rule of law. The government cannot sacrifice or violate the rights of any individual without due process.
You should know that this discussion REQUIRES critical thinking skills. It requires LOGIC, and logic is the art of non-contradictory identification.
Of course, Marx would not have condoned the limitation of free speech, but his system, which grants all political and economic powers to a single entity, would ultimately lead to abuse of power.
From what country are you? Do you own property? Do you own your salary or savings? Are you not required to submit all your earnings to the state? Do you own your house, your car, your computer, and everything you have? Just imagine if the state owns everything you have. Also, try to imagine what would happen if you criticize or attack that entity that owns everything, including perhaps your life. Why are there no free speech in collectivist, property right-less societies? It’s because their governments own everything, including their own citizens. Central planning simply treats people as slaves or non-sovereign entities.
You still don’t get it? Logic, sir, is what you need.
As to self-interest, what is your understanding of this term? How do you understand self-interest? Is it in your self-interest to commit crimes? Is it in your self-interest to destroy your name, your life, your health, your future? Perhaps you’re confusing self-destruction with self-interest. Try to re-read my reply and try to use LOGIC.
You said: “My criticism of any ideology, like certain tendencies found in Objectivism, is that it does not recognize that man is not this monolithic creature who is solely relegated to have merely one inherent characteristic.”
What made you say that? What do you mean by “it does not recognize that man is not this monolithic creature who is solely relegated to have merely one inherent characteristic”? Kindly support your claim with actual passages or citation? What is this “one inherent characteristic”? Kindly clarify your statements, please.
Please read the works of Ayn Rand to have a clear, objective understanding of her philosophy. I tell you, I was a critic before I came to understand her philosophy. Before I was a mini-Marxist and an admirer of Chomsky, Foucault, Barthes, and other post-structuralist thinkers.
You said: “You, and other Randians that I have discussions with, write and talk (even if not consciously) as if there is this Cartesian dichotomy with respect to the ontos of man: we are either evil or compassionate, sane or insane, self-interested or altruistic.”
– I don’t know about those “Randians” whom you had discussion with. What do you mean by “Cartesian dichotomy?” Well, I tell you, that’s not how I understand Objectivism. So in your next reply, be very clear and objective. Tell me what you understand by Objectivism by simply citing ACTUAL PASSAGES. I tell you, you have lots of misunderstanding and FALSE ASSUMPTIONS of Rand’s philosophy and ideas.
You said: ” Whenever I have these types of discussions, there is always this tendency to put into separate categories the “altruists” and the “self-interested”. But the fact of the matter is that man is fully capable of being both self-interested and altruistic, of showing compassion…”
HERE is the reason why I want to you be LOGICAL. What is your understanding of altruism? Very clearly, you’re equating ALTRUISM with COMPASSION. I think you’re wrong. I urge you to check your premise. I urge you to better understand the proper concept of altruism. Altruism is not the same as, or does not suggest, compassion or charity. In fact they are opposites.
Let me show you why.
Altruism, a form of morality or ethics coined by Auguste Compte, is “the principle or practice of unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others ( opposed to egoism).” Altruism is simply defined as a selfless concern for the welfare of others. The keyword here is “selfless.” Here’s the Wikipedia definition of altruism. “Altruism is an ethical doctrine that holds that individuals have a moral obligation to help, serve, or benefit others, if necessary at the sacrifice of self interest. Auguste Comte’s version of altruism calls for living for the sake of others. One who holds to either of these ethics is known as an ‘altruist.’”
Here what I said in a previous blog:
“This type of man-sacrificing ethical system conceptualized by Auguste Compte, states that it is the moral duty or obligation of individuals to serve the good and welfare of others and put their interests above their own.”[vi] Perhaps some of these people reject philosophy, but they cannot evade the fact that their altruistic statements and behavior are tied to a certain form of process of thought.
“What can be deduced from their statements and advocacies is that they are so loud in proclaiming that they care for the poor, the weak, and the have-nots. They deeply believe that it is the duty of those who have in life to provide welfares and goods to those who don’t. If Compte argues that man has the “moral obligation” to serve others, Immanuel Kant, another anti-reason philosopher, solidifies this claim by declaring that man has a special sense of “duty” to serve others.[vii] It is Kant’s subjectivist philosophy, meaning a philosophy that is detached from reality and determined only by the perceiver’s consciousness, that claims that an action is moral only if the individual performs it out of a sense of duty and obtains no benefit from it of any sort.”
That said, logic tells us that altruism obliterates compassion and charity. Why? Charity is supposed to be voluntary. There’s nothing wrong with helping other people so long as you can afford it.
I repeat what I said in my previous reply:
“Charity, as the term connotes, should be voluntary. Charity cannot be made possible by means of coercion, force or compulsion. You cannot force your neighbor to be charitable or to feed or help others. Forced charity is a contradiction in terms. Just as you don’t have the right to use force on others to render or perform charitable works, so you cannot urge the government to be charitable and generous with other people’s money.”
You still don’t understand? Altruism is a duty. It imposes duty. LOGIC!
Denouncing altruism does not mean you’re not compassionate or that you reject charity. In fact, charity is one of the ingredients of an individualist, capitalist society. Ayn Rand herself gave to charity. I give to charity. But I only want to help those who’re willing to help themselves. I support organizations that represent my beliefs. There’s nothing wrong with charity. There’s nothing wrong with helping people. What makes it wrong is when you sacrifice your life to others or ask others to sacrifice theirs. That’s EVIL.
You said: “While I certainly want to live and survive, and self-interest is perhaps the best means to achieve that end, I would not – and most people would agree with me on this matter – employ this self-interest in all scenarios. For example: I would unabashedly, and without hesitation, sacrifice myself for the sake of my family.”
Here I call you attention on the CONCEPT OF VALUE. A value is that which you gain and/or keep. I hope this definition is clear. When you value something, you want to gain and/or keep it. When you value someone, you want to keep him/her. You show him/her love. You show him/her respect and affection. Why? Because it is in your SELF-INTEREST to keep, love, respect him/her. Do you love your parents? Do you love your wife or girlfriend? Do you love your child? Is it an act of sacrifice when you give something valuable (like your kidney) to the one you love who’s on the verge of death? IT’S NOT. Why? Because that person represents your value. Because it is in your SELF-INTEREST to keep him/her. You don’t want to lose him/her so you’re willing to give him/her your kidney or even your life.
Why are patriots or some people willing to die for their country? Is that an act of self-sacrifice or altruism? NO. It’s an act of self-interest. They fight for their country against an invading army because they don’t want to live as slaves, or because they care for their children.
However, certain wars in the past were motivated by altruism or self-sacrifice. Ayn Rand opposed the Vietnam war because it sacrificed the lives of American soldiers just to liberate the Vietnamese from communism. I opposed the Iraq war. I opposed the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
Here’s what Ayn Rand said about sacrifice:
In “The Ethics of Emergencies”:
“Sacrifice” is the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a nonvalue. Thus, altruism gauges a man’s virtue by the degree to which he surrenders, renounces or betrays his values (since help to a stranger or an enemy is regarded as more virtuous, less “selfish,” than help to those one loves). The rational principle of conduct is the exact opposite: always act in accordance with the hierarchy of your values, and never sacrifice a greater value to a lesser one.”
… “Sacrifice” does not mean the rejection of the worthless, but of the precious. “Sacrifice” does not mean the rejection of the evil for the sake of the good, but of the good for the sake of the evil. “Sacrifice” is the surrender of that which you value in favor of that which you don’t.
“If you exchange a penny for a dollar, it is not a sacrifice; if you exchange a dollar for a penny, it is. If you achieve the career you wanted, after years of struggle, it is not a sacrifice; if you then renounce it for the sake of a rival, it is. If you own a bottle of milk and give it to your starving child, it is not a sacrifice; if you give it to your neighbor’s child and let your own die, it is.
“If you give money to help a friend, it is not a sacrifice; if you give it to a worthless stranger, it is. If you give your friend a sum you can afford, it is not a sacrifice; if you give him money at the cost of your own discomfort, it is only a partial virtue, according to this sort of moral standard; if you give him money at the cost of disaster to yourself—that is the virtue of sacrifice in full.
“If you renounce all personal desires and dedicate your life to those you love, you do not achieve full virtue: you still retain a value of your own, which is your love. If you devote your life to random strangers, it is an act of greater virtue. If you devote your life to serving men you hate—that is the greatest of the virtues you can practice.
“A sacrifice is the surrender of a value. Full sacrifice is full surrender of all values. If you wish to achieve full virtue, you must seek no gratitude in return for your sacrifice, no praise, no love, no admiration, no self-esteem, not even the pride of being virtuous; the faintest trace of any gain dilutes your virtue. If you pursue a course of action that does not taint your life by any joy, that brings you no value in matter, no value in spirit, no gain, no profit, no reward—if you achieve this state of total zero, you have achieved the ideal of moral perfection.”
In “For the New Intellectual”:
“Concern for the welfare of those one loves is a rational part of one’s selfish interests. If a man who is passionately in love with his wife spends a fortune to cure her of a dangerous illness, it would be absurd to claim that he does it as a “sacrifice” for her sake, not his own, and that it makes no difference to him, personally and selfishly, whether she lives or dies.
“Any action that a man undertakes for the benefit of those he loves is not a sacrifice if, in the hierarchy of his values, in the total context of the choices open to him, it achieves that which is of greatest personal (and rational) importance to him. In the above example, his wife’s survival is of greater value to the husband than anything else that his money could buy, it is of greatest importance to his own happiness and, therefore, his action is not a sacrifice.
“But suppose he let her die in order to spend his money on saving the lives of ten other women, none of whom meant anything to him—as the ethics of altruism would require. That would be a sacrifice. Here the difference between Objectivism and altruism can be seen most clearly: if sacrifice is the moral principle of action, then that husband should sacrifice his wife for the sake of ten other women. What distinguishes the wife from the ten others? Nothing but her value to the husband who has to make the choice—nothing but the fact that his happiness requires her survival.
“The Objectivist ethics would tell him: your highest moral purpose is the achievement of your own happiness, your money is yours, use it to save your wife, that is your moral right and your rational, moral choice.”