middle brow \ citizen how /

over outcomes.

so. SO. ... one of our staff. she's a manager sort of. she's got terrific service instincts. and has been doing it for a long time. mostly at big star in chicago. but also she volunteers at the field museum. and is aiming to study botany. to get a degree in it, in fact. and she just got into chem 102! ... so she was talking to a botanist. a major prof at the school she's interested (maybe?) in attending. or wait, is he just a major advisor of the field museum? anyway. he told her that most of the botanists he knows work in the pharmaceutical industry. and that, i could tell, kinda bummed her out. and got her to thinking: "in a capitalist society", she said, "do you think it's true that in order to make more money you have to do unethical things?" and of course, right away, i disagreed. like she knew i would. (we gave away piles of money! and grew!)

but let's step back a tic. an inch. a hundredth of a peter-meter. the better question is: can you make any money at all without being unethical?

that's actually a very hard question to answer. of course, it depends on your ethics. are you a utilitarian? cuz i reckon you could make ethical money in many, many ways if so. or are you a kanty deontologist? or are virtues your t-bag?

ok. none of that probably matters. i've not eaten enough this morning and am already drunk on dovetail's breakfast lager. it might seem to matter. but there's very likely one ethical truth. and we're just not smart enough to have uncovered it yet. and it'll likely tell us that money isn't ethical at all. but in the meantime. we need money. to achieve many of the things we're either conditioned to want. or we've evolved to want. (the latter is more believable to me, as people, including marketers and salesman, are lazy, and it's far easier to condition someone to want something that they've already evolved to want.)

so we need this unethical thing to get the other things we've evolved to want. because of how some rich and powerful people awhile back decided to organize a society. this thing, though, requires us to act unethically in the world. in order to get it. and then our getting it allows us to increase our comfort. but there's the rub, shakespeare! there it is. how much comfort do we want? how much do we need? that ultimately determines our ethics. if we're perfectly comfortable with an above average meal, a hot bath and 15-20 days off of work per year, we probably don't have to behave that unethically. we could probably, dare i say it, give a reasonably large portion of our money away every year and still live the life we want to live.

so maybe the whole question is a matter of degree and not nature. when you're speaking about money and ethics at all. you can minimize the ethical harm you do by minimizing the money you make. maybe she's right! or... maybe not.


i want to talk about a very basic transaction. the one with the car mechanic. (to be clear: this ain't a friends episode.) so... your car is broken. specifically: your tail light is out. you're a bit stressed about it cuz you've heard that it's illegal to drive without a functioning tail light. it's fine only to have one headlight that works. but a bum tail-light? that's a big ticket. so you're nervous constantly about driving your car. you never drive it. but you have a kid in kindergarten and it's like 6 miles away! and you work til 3 and he gets out at 330 and you could never walk or take the bus there in time! and if he learns that he can't rely on you to be there when he needs you, he'll end up super unhappy his whole life. and so you decide that you desperately need to get your tail light fixed. you can't watch a youtube video on it. and send away to the internet for a new one. and wait for it to arrive. and then send away to homedepot.com for the tools you need to fix it now that you've actually tried and failed. and your nut driver requires and socket and ratchet. it turns out. so you go to a car mechanic. and she's got all those tools. and she rips off the cover. switches the light bulb. which she happened to have in stock from another recent honda repair. and off you go. $100 poorer. but so much happier.

now. the question is: should she have simply given that to you for free? arguably, until society is reorganized quite handedly. it would be unethical not to pay her the $100. she's got a family to feed! she just gave you her labor! her time! her expertise! why shouldn't you pay her?

but it's a bit muddier than that still. because both parties likely believe they're taking advantage of the other party. consider that the man with the busted tail light is desperate for someone to fix his car. he's got a super easy $200 in his pocket. designated to nothing else at all. and he's ready to give it all away for a fixed tail light. shit... will this even be enough? could i afford $250? yeah. yeah yeah yeah i bet i could. yeah, you know what? i'd spend $500 to get this done right now. and i wouldn't even blanch. i'd have to write a check for the second $250 but i could easily afford it. just don't have the cash on me right now...

and the woman fixing car after car at her shop? she's got this tail light in her tool box. it's been sitting there for, like, 2 years. it's almost expired. and she hasn't had a customer in 2.5 days. cuz everyone is watching the car-repair youtube channel and shopping at autozone now cuz they also sell sour punch straws there in the check-out line. and so she's desperate. for anyone to come in. honestly, she'd do the work for $20. she just wants to get a new customer to trust her. to want to bring her their car when something goes wrong. shit... she'd even do the labor for free! for that matter, this tail light is about to expire. so she'd be fine not even charging for the part!

clearly there's an overlap here. she could charge him $100 for the work and he'd be over the moon happy and she'd be over the moon happy. but why would they be happy? not simply because they both got what they want. they'd also be happy cuz they'd both think they were getting a total steal. they both think they're sooooorta ripping the other person off. they both actually value the work much, much differently than the $100 would suggest: the man thinks he's indirectly stealing from the mechanic. and the mechanic thinks she's indirectly stealing money from the sad man.

so: if two people make each other happy in a transaction, is that enough to make the transaction ethical? else, if their intentions and motivations aren't ethical, does that dirty the whole thing up? if you intend to do evil, but your actions have an effect opposite from the one you intended, did you act unethically? for instance, if you intend to murder Person A for eating your entenman's raspberry-cheese coffee cake. by shooting him with a gun. and Person B is about to be abducted for rape by Person C. and you mistakenly hit Person C cuz you've actually never fired a gun before. thereby saving Person B's life, potentially. but at the very least saving her from rape. did you perform a purely *good* action? no way. you intended to kill a man for eating your coffee cake.

actions are not judged only by their outcomes. and so making money at all is suboptimally ethical. it's true.

i reckon we all just have to try to minimize ethical violations by getting comfortable with less. by walking more. by reading more. by talking more to our friends. and to our strange neighbors. you don't need a new bag. the one you got with the oil stain on it works just fine.

now go listen to a story from your mailman.

erin hooley/chicago tribune caught marissa.... working for money! but also for love.

erin hooley/chicago tribune caught marissa.... working for money! but also for love.