Transacting, as Sam Wilson noted, has its uses and its abuses. Transacting, it seems, is essential. If it is true that transacting is essential to the human experience—and I think it is of the essence: almost nothing is human unless a transaction has occurred—then moral questions apply. Am I transacting with virtue, or am I transacting evilly?
It calls to mind the ancient question of evil, its quelle, that is, within the human breast. For the question, let’s add one more component to Sam’s taxonomy (Action, Transaction, Exchange): Interaction. Human interaction is much about transaction and exchange, which, of course, is all actionable, trying to manipulate the natural world into serving human needs and wants, yea, even that unquenchable desire to progress. For this activity to continue unabated to the benefit of many, including myself, virtuous behavior is required, and included in this behavior must be the notion of posterity. In other words, I measure my virtue versus my evil by my interaction with the other human(s) near to me. Was my interacting and transacting interacting and transacting I’d like done to me?
Ah! But evil lurks in there somewhere; otherwise I would not be measuring myself and those around me. We are constantly measuring each other by the consequences of our behavior. Consequences, as we all know, might not manifest themselves terribly quickly, sometimes not within the lifetime of the actor, and the wise have taught since time immemorial that considering posterity is of the essence to the survival of our institutions, which are necessary for acting, interacting, transacting, and, most importantly for progress, exchanging. It is the age old collapse of the distinction between little white lies and lies for deceiving one’s enemy to his death.
Consider theft, for example: civilized persons are quick to intervene when a child helps himself to a stick of gum from the corner convenience store; the act itself is inconsequential, but the evil which drove the act might have terrible consequences in posterity.
Put another way: a pickpocket engages in manifest thievery, which, when analyzed by justice, is 2 + 2 = 4. Judgment is easy and should be swift. A stock broker, on the other hand, may charge $25 for a transaction when $21 will do. Is the $4 theft? Or is it rightful profit for additional labor incurred in the transaction (I’m looking at you, Valued Client #xxx-07249)? Or should it have been $23.75? The market gives us freedom to steal/profit; it does not judge, not immediately, anyway; at best, it looks for patterns of bad behavior. The conscience, however, begins to judge immediately, usually commencing before the transaction. Then the conscience goes about the hard labor, thereafter, to justify the padded transaction fee or to accuse the self. What about posterity? What equation will posterity employ when it analyzes the slightly pudgy transaction fee? How will posterity apply justice when the self is pushing up daisies? What if posterity misjudges theft, because it was justified, as virtue?
Isn’t it fair to say that thievery leeches through virtue?
5 thoughts on “The Opposite of Virtue: A Volley”
Do you see a tension (between legitimate profit and charitable virtue, say) in the case of the stock broker or a moral ambiguity?
I don’t know about a tension, but I’m trying to collapse the ambiguity. The point, obtusely made, is that it’s hard to be virtuous for a reason.
For a reason as opposed to for its own sake, you mean?
Well, Adam Gurri, I must be road-weary, for this is the second reply to which I shall confess that I’m not confident I know what you’re asking.
In other words, I feel a story coming on.
Oh I misread you. I thought you meant “it’s hard to be virtuous for a reason” as in, it’s hard to choose virtue based on some external criteria. But you actually meant “it is hard to be virtuous, and there is a reason for that.” OK. Sorry. Overthinking and overcomplicating over here.