Ibbotson-Sindelar: Escape capitalist morality

We rely on capitalism to organize nearly every facet of our social and economic lives. But despite the enormous influence of this dizzying ideology, it can be hard to know how we influence it. We can’t make sense of capitalism because the system’s complexity surpasses the comprehension of any single individual. E examples of command economies throughout history point to the difficulty of creating good economic systems. Thus we have to reckon with capitalism as doctors do the human body: They can’t build a human from scratch, they can only tinker with the organs. But while doctors have years of training, we operate in the economy with limited understanding.

Fortunately, the invisible hand works things out for us. Simply by acting in our own self-interest, we seem to act in everyone’s interests. Yet leaving everything to the invisible hand is also deeply troubling. At its best, capitalism efficiently satisfies our economic demands. However, demands cannot be equated with human wants. Demand feeds from the hand of whoever has the deepest pockets. And in America, the wealthiest 20 percent earn 40 percent of the income nationwide. So if we hope to address human wants, instead of demands, we can’t rely solely on the invisible hand. Unfortunately for us, the simplicity of the invisible-hand theory becomes tangled when we try untangle the complicated strings of right and wrong.

Thus, in capitalism, moral action can be intellectually paralyzing. Capitalism robs us of our moral intuition. Economists repeatedly remind us that actions, which seem undoubtedly moral, often actually cause hardship. For example, we may think the government has a moral imperative to rescue homeowners and our failing financial system. And yet any good economist warns not to subsidize people’s bad decisions.

Our personal economic responsibility, like the government’s, is also hazy. People waver between supporting local shops or big-box retailers like Wal-Mart. On the one hand, purchasing goods from local stores bolsters the community and create longstanding personal relationships with retailers. On the other hand, buying at big-box stores is usually cheaper and more convenient.Moreover, large retail chains invest in sophisticated research that allows them to supply the products we consumers want. Therefore, every time we make a purchase — local or not — we have to wonder: Are we stifling natural progress, or undermining the local community?

Capitalism turns us into amoral beings. Although, in principle, we desire to advance the public good, we have to continually question whether we even know what that is. Are we upset about famine in Africa? It’s hard to know whether food provisioning won’t just swell populations and create more poverty in the process. Or perhaps we want to create unemployment benefits for people who can’t find a job? Yet we can’t deny that President Clinton’s 1996 welfare reforms not only cut down on the number of welfare recipients, and increased employment, but actually reduced poverty nationwide.

All this moral uncertainty too often causes us to give up on the public good altogether. We let our self-interest become our entire economic expression of ethics. Consequently, we direct our moral thoughts to the few places over which we do have some control — family life, for example. The needs of the family extend beyond the economy; the market, no matter how efficient, cannot supply a personal relationship. And most good deeds done in such a close and personal setting have tangible effects; it shouldn’t be surprising that so much of what people want in life is a good job and a loving family. These are our primary manifestations of morality.

Democracy is another sphere that escapes the economic. Watching the moral zeal with which we get informed and vote once every four years, I can’t help but think we are compensating for our typical lack of civic interest; this way, we get all our public responsibility of the way in one fell swoop. The ideal of the good citizen is a thing of the past.

The amoralizing uncertainty of capitalism is so detrimental because it teaches us to forget our natural morality. Yes, we have a great number of personal desires and ambitions, but so many of these are tied into our broader ethical and social desires. We hold doors and pick up litter not just because we want to impress others, but because we have a social vision. Though we may not know entirely how to enact this vision, we can still contribute to it. Even our economic goals tend to serve our social and moral vision: The desire for financial success is tied to providing for loved ones — and financial success would seem less important if it weren’t also linked to social status and respectability.

For most of us, our moral desires remain subconscious, subjugated by economic impulses. While capitalist drives are fundamental to our social and economic lives, they should not dictate the private and personal morality by which we live each day.

Tyler Ibbotson-sindelar is a senior in Branford College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.


  • Wingnut

    Generally, I agree with your comments, but man, that's sure a bucketload of "we", "us", and "our"! Please don't include "us" anti-capitalism folks in YOUR use of we, us, and our. SOME of "us" never joined, condoned, or promoted the church of competers. SOME of "us" know better than to use servitude-infested pyramid schemes for OUR survival system. SOME of "us" stayed Christian cooperators instead of capitalism competers. SOME of "us" know that economies are illegal and stupid, and that they cause rat-racing (cookieplate chasing) and that leads to felony pyramid schemes such as capitalism. Hell, the pyramid scheme symbol is right there on the back of the USA dollar bill (do a google IMAGE search for 'pyramid of capitalist' to see better pictures).

    SOME of "us" easily see the parental policy reversal from share share share, to fight fight fight… when the kids turn 18 and get sharktanked into "out there". Forced to get a "job" aboard the free marketeers, OR STARVE! That's forced religion and felony extortion, baby. Disgusting, illegal, and immoral. There's LOTS of forcing going-on in capitalism. There's LOTS of orders/ordering and lots of "do it or else"…. going on in the Free Mason/illuminati pyramid scheme of herd control con/sham. Why so many bought into it is beyond me. Lots of morals-less folk around, I guess.

    SOME of "us" easily see the rampant Chicago mob-like "pay up or lose your wellbeing" within the free marketeers. SOME of "us" know that pyramids like capitalism… are EXACTLY LIKE the childhood pyramids we failed-at building in the farmyards. "We" anti-inequality folks can easily see that… when using servitude-infested pyramids, the children on the pyramid's upper 1/3 are "heads in the clouds" while the children on the bottom ALWAYS GET HURT from having the weight of the world's knees in their backs. Its apparently a childhood lesson that the capitalists never learned. They'll answer-up for it later.

    Be careful slinging-around the "we", "us", and "our" words, as not all of "us" are members of the capitalism church of competers. Some of "us" know the difference between competing (capitalism/economies) and cooperating (Christian communes, potlucks, barnraisings)… and "we" know better than to buy into pyramid schemes of servitude infestation.

    Larry "Wingnut" Wendlandt
    MaStars - Mothers Against Stuff That Ain't Right
    Bessemer MI USA

  • Anonymous

    I'd hoped some alternatives to capitalism were going to be mentioned in this article when I read the header(or wait; maybe there aren't any promising ones around at the moment, since none of us seem capable of thinking outside of capitalism anymore, though we're plenty good at criticizing it).

    Our inability to imagine any alternative system and our habits of obliterating and demonizing any system that stands in opposition or as an alternative to capitalism scares me the most though.

    Some people seem to think that there is room in capitalism for significant change for the better; which I seriously doubt. All the resources for it are available; if it was in capitalism's plan to make things better, or more sustainable, then it would already have happened.

    Why would capitalism like sustainability anyway, when it's rarity that keeps the prices up?

    Why would drug companies sell you cures and shrink their own market?

    Why would employers pay you any more than the very least amount of money they can get away paying you?

    Why, in good times, are profits privatized while in bad times the public is called to step up and support the very companies that have been ripping them off?

    And why the hell do people still have such faith in capitalism, when all change that does not involve profits is a change that will not happen?

    Further it sickens me to see how our advanced technology; the same that could offer us so much more freedom; has to bow to the barriers capitalism lays upon it and is only put to use as far as capitalism 'allows' it to be.