Morality and its values – worthless!
Hard work – Frugality – Modesty – Honesty – Altruism – Politeness
[Translated and adapted from a talk by an editor of GegenStandpunkt]
Morality is held in very high esteem. It counts as an absolute supreme value, distinguishing humans – if one follow the professors – from the animal kingdom. In fact, it is primarily morality that ennobles humanity as the crown of creation. That’s one side of it. The other is a rather more sober diagnosis that moralists come to, because they make it known that the morality which is supposed to characterize humanity never really exists. When moralists turn their eyes to the world, they discover greedy managers who are not at all modest, corrupt politicians, selfish single people who think only of themselves and do not want to raise children for the community, lazy unemployed people, not to forget rude children who don’t greet you. So the balance sheet for a moralist adds up to a sad diagnosis: morality, the core essence of humanity, really does not properly exist and one is surrounded by nothing but assholes.
In a sense, there is a truth in this way of thinking about morality, and it even shines a light on what morality really is. It is probably brought home to most of us here by the famous moralistic pointed finger. The moralistic finger pointed at the other person’s nose holds up to them a should. One says to the others with this finger: a person should be humble – not greedy. He should be considerate – not selfish. In other words: morality – as shown by this famous index finger – reveals itself as an imperative, as a demand. And one only has to demand what does not count – otherwise one would not have to demand it. Morality is therefore a demand.
What is the substance of the demand? People demand moral behavior if they want people to follow – alongside the real interests that people follow day in and day out at work, in the family, in business – an additional interest, namely: to practice consideration, to do good. They should stick to this in addition to the interests they pursue. And if I have not yet said much in detail about the moral values, this actually still already includes a scathing indictment of the world we live in. Because if one must demand “good” as an almost additional feat, as an additional human behavior required next to the interests that are pursued, then good is not inherent in the interests people are pursuing. Then good is not included in the interests that people have and realize, but the opposite. Good may happen only because it is demanded.
This must be a society in which the interests people pursue are brought into conflict, where one harms the other and is damaged; where antagonism prevails, not harmony. Morality does not want to erase these conflicts, but constrain them. A moralist does not care about the content of the interests that bring people into conflict. He wants to constrain these conflicts by an additional feat of good behavior, just so that everyone adds an additional moral attitude to what they do or must do – at work or in the family – that leads to good works instead of evil deeds. This is the idea.
This is how it shows up in the everyday vocabulary of people who argue morally: they are always against profit greed, but never criticize profit. They are always against rack rent, but have never criticized rent. Profit greed – in the view of morally minded people: bad. Profit itself: okay. That would prod me to ask: how can that be, is that then okay, is that reasonable, that profit is good and more of it is bad? Because greed actually only expresses the excess. How then can a good thing become a bad one by more of it being placed on the scales? That defies logic. Wages and profits are kept in mind. They stand on every level in conflict. That is known. That’s why the wages of people in this society are treated so shabbily, are calculated so cheaply, must constantly sink. Yes, because every dollar less in wages is a dollar more in profit. Because the constraint of one interest is the advantage of the other interest. This is so at every level, so there is no optimal point at which one could say: here, if the profit remains at this percent, both interests are in some way covered. The wage interest can never be low enough for profit and the interest in profit. It is not correct in any way, but the idea is that greediness for profit is bad, but profit itself is good.
And thinking in this schema is not only a mistake, but it produces a theoretical reversal in a certain literal sense. People experience the economic system and the interests that exist in it as a conflict, as an injury. And they do not hold this experience against this system, but against themselves: their bad behavior. Because that is indeed the moral imperative that wants to point the way out, that wants to say: if everyone would act morally, would behave well, desist from greed, surely then all interests would not only get their turn, but social harmony would also prevail. Because public spirit and private benefit would correspond. That’s the thought.
Moralists did not simply invent this way of thinking out of their ass. This way of thinking has an origin and a model in the state and its laws. Moralists look into the world and check everything done by their fellow men: is it good or is it bad? And they have their standards for that, which we will talk about. Everything people do is compared to a measuring rod of good or bad. This way of examining the actions of one’s fellow men, which no longer aims to look at the content of their intentions but has a pure comparison in mind, is the logic of the law. Because lawyers proceed formally exactly like moralists. “May he do that?” is the question that is aimed at everyone and which they all also put to themselves in a society where the state grants rights and makes laws which hold universally, which apply to all people. And they are continually measured by this standard of law in everything they do. Hence the question: “may he do that?” If that is in accordance with the law, then it is ok; if it breaks the law, then it will be punished.
The state does this and does not do it disinterestedly, but has its own reasons and purposes for it. It subjects everyone to the same law. The substance, the core element is what in a modern constitutional state is called the “freedom of the individual.” We do not have slaves because no one belongs to anyone else, like in an earlier era. Today people are free, their will is acknowledged; in order to strive for his success, however, someone also must strive for his success, because this society does not organize a division of labor that supports its members. Everyone must strive for his own success by acquiring money, but he also may do this. The people are free.
And the state also protects the objective means: property. It does this because this is how a productive economic relation comes into being which the state attaches great importance to. It does not distribute property, but protects property; for those who have some, of course, but also for those who have none, meaning they have little to protect except a few consumer goods in their home. And in this way, if all are obligated to acquire money as free persons, but are also entitled to, then those who do not command over property must perform the service of increasing the property others have. Then they must report to the entrepreneur as a wage earner and increase his money so that they have something to live on. In other words, with the sanctioning of this elementary right, the state establishes not only the antagonistic classes of property owners, but also forces them to cooperate for an economic growth from which it takes something for itself; it helps itself to the earnings. That’s what a state does and how and why it does this is a scientific task to figure out and there are many details to relate here.
But that’s not how this circumstance appears to a normal citizen who does not pose the question “what is the law, why does the state do that?” – but an entirely different question: “What can I use that for?” Yes, what can I use that for: the protection of property has the catch that a distribution of property does not take place. If someone has it, then it will be protected; for example, stealing is prohibited. Rent laws do not gives anybody an apartment to move into. However, if that is the case, a renter does not have to put up with the arrogance of a landlord who does not fix a defective heater. Vice versa: a landlord does not have to put up with a tenant who does not pay on time; then he can throw him out.
In other words, the citizen discovers that every aspect of life in this society – housing, work, health care, all the way down to the private sphere – is legally regulated and asks himself: what is it good for? What can I use that for? What does this do for me? With this thought, people take the standpoint that, because the law is a condition they have to meet in everything they do in life, it is also a useful means for them. One does not have to, for example, put up with everything from the landlord; he must fix the heater. But: one is also subject to duties oneself, so one must pay rent on time.
This way of answering a state’s forcible act of lawmaking is an acceptance of what has been imposed by force. That’s what we call the “subjectivization of law.” It means making it into an inner vested right of my thoughts and feelings that the law is a good, useful thing for me. People do that because they affirm it as a useful means for them; in the core of their inner beliefs, they hold that the law, because it is a condition for their way of life, is also a useful thing for them. They do that, of course, because they expect a benefit; that’s what they speculate on. This is actually a purely negative kind of benefit. Because the law does not deliver benefits – and people are not at all spared from experiencing this: the law does not guarantee anybody that their interests will be fulfilled; that’s not what the law does. But the service, which is nonetheless inherent in the thing, which is speculated on, is the constraint of the interests of others. To explain the content again: what use then is the right to a free career choice if there are no jobs? No one gets a job and a salary from the right to a job. The law certainly does not provide that. What use then is a legal protection from unlawful dismissal if one gets the sack? It does not prevent termination. It sets certain limits, terms that must be met.
That is what people have in mind as a kind of negative benefit: the constraint of others. The positive benefit on which they speculate remains a speculation which is disappointed in their lives. And morally minded people react to this disappointment. They think this way because they candy coat the law, which they are subject to and treat as a means for themselves without it really delivering any services, and take this to a whole new level. They do not stop hoping for benefits because they think the law owes them the expected benefits, and they explain the missing benefits as a deviation from the law, as actually a violation the law commits against itself. To make this idea clear, it can be heard in the normal forms of complaining, such as when workers are laid off – and this happens quite often these days – they say, for example: “we have worked hard, we have even conceded wages and now we are kicked out the door. This is our thanks! This is unfair!”
Let’s take this thought. “This is unfair!” Taken literally, the sentence is simply contrafactual. When one grasps “unfair” as if the layoff should have broken the law, then the sentence is simply untrue, because lay offs in the free market economy are not a crime, so they are also not punished. No truly valid article of the law has been violated. In this sense, it is not “unfair.”
Nevertheless, the man maintains that it is unfair that he has been let go. How does he arrive at this idea, although the real letter of the law did not have to be bent in order to damage him? He arrives at it because he ascribes to the law a content that must actually include his own benefit. He thinks: “a really well-made law must include my advantage. But if it is now missing, then the law in this well-understood sense must have been bent. The law violates itself, because it actually does not deliver the good stuff that I really expected, which also includes my advantage.” This is the train of thought that can perhaps be called a further form of subjectivizing. Because – in order to state the difference to the first act – the normal people in our society have all mastered the question “may one do this or that or may one not?” Here they have made the law in its immediately true form their own. They take this over; that one may not steal is part of the stock of beliefs maintained. That’s why people also read in the newspapers about burglaries or a rapes, although they were not the victims. They are interested in whether it is treated according to the scale of justice.
The next step to justice is in imagining a fabricated scale in which the law and their own benefit must balance out when that is no longer found in reality. In reality, there is the law and its precedents. But anyone who says “I want justice” fabricates a new standard which does not exist in the world, but which corresponds to his subjective imagination, his notion, his inner wish. Justice is a law which not only includes the restriction of others, but also my benefit equally.
And if one is at it, if one thinks that the standards of good in the world would (if they were valid) give everyone success and even foster a sense of community, then this subjective fantasy really no longer has any limit. Someone who says “justice” imagines the really good standard which must be valid here; in order to achieve this, there must be a law that includes everybody’s benefit.
One can, however, also walk away and say: that really would be a good standard, that all people show a sense of community, think not only of themselves and let honesty or charity prevail. Objectively, morality is the human longing for a standard that corresponds with success and harmony overall. But what they hope for never happens; that is the pure fiction in moral sentiments. But because it is not so – namely, what moralists think – the morally minded person does not stop making moral commandments. It does not happen that, after all, people are seized by a real harmony. They are not, after all, on the same wavelength. This stems from the antagonism of interests in which they operate. But they refer to morality itself: the moralist’s idea that there would be harmony if everyone would keep within moral bounds is fundamentally mistaken.
Morality is something that can not at all be the content of an act. Let’s take two great titles, such as humanism or the good. What then is that? The words come easily to the lips: the lay offs that I see over there are inhumane. People lose their jobs and incomes: I call that inhumane. I do not infer the purpose that the company pursues with the layoff, but I think of it is a breach of the high standard that I call humanity. The company’s executive can respond with the same law: it was not easy for me to do these layoffs. The people out there, yes, that’s unfortunate. But it is humane because I have saved the remaining jobs with the layoffs; otherwise, I would have had to close the whole shop. Something that is inhumane for one person is humane for the other. Look at the controversy over weapons and war. One faction says, morally minded: bombs are bad, these are a means to kill other people. Then there is another faction that says: bombs are good, because these protect our own people from evil aggressors.
And so one notices: the good – we take this as the essence of the moral standard – good or evil is not a thing from which a specific purpose follows, but is a positive or negative attitude towards a purpose. Good: whether I set up missiles or not does not follow from it. “Good” is what I say subsequently of a purpose that I think is good and I say “bad” if I think it’s bad. That’s the assessment of a purpose, not a purpose itself. And so it happens that moralists, when they assign “good” and “evil,” really very freehandedly judge according to their taste, because, depending on the perspective, one can find layoffs inhumane or humane, bombs good or bad. So in the sense that morality is practical and is converted into action and then leads to success in terms of harmony and benefits, in this sense, morality is not at all practical because it is simply not something that can be pursued, because it does not indicate a purpose, but higher standards that don’t specify any purpose at all.
However, it also can’t be said that it therefore loses nothing, nothing happens in the real practice of this society in which we look around. Morality happens and in a sense is the day to day operation of the intellectual life of the nation whenever it is a question of legitimizing one’s own interests as justifiable in regard to others. When companies announce they are cutting wages, they never do it without adding: this is for the preservation of jobs; we can only keep jobs if we take money away from the workers. In other words: they do not invoke the company’s benefit, the increase of profit, their interest, as the reason for their measure, but they invoke a higher reason, a service to something universal, to a duty that benefits all: jobs. Students do the same. If students are against tuition hikes, then they never simply say: we will not pay the money. They say: this is how the state’s educated resources dry up and we will lag behind internationally in a globalized world if academics are squeezed. They do not simply argue with their interest, but with a universal benefit which justifies their interest: the whole country, the economy, growth, the state depends on it.
This is what is called public hypocrisy and here morality has a very practical effect. It is used to justify one’s own interest in the name of a higher cause which one serves. It’s just hypocrisy. And it works according to the logic that a moralist says: “I am taking into consideration the common good, which I have just documented. I am striving for jobs or the competitiveness of the region and because I deliver my service to the common good, I now have in return the right that another interest should not stand in the way of mine.” This way of thinking is a tough nut to crack and it is nothing to sneeze at. People who have settled on looking at the world in this way have in fact a very fundamental reconciliation with this community in their hearts and minds: they want to reconcile with a world full of antagonisms, they want to assert something like the compatibility of incompatible interests and believe that it then works out when everyone abides by the rules of good moral behavior. And the only offense that the moralist knows is people’s bad behavior.
So it’s not surprising that politicians in their New Year speeches and priests constantly preach morality because it is a politically productive force for them that every damage that this economic system inflicts on people is never ever taken any differently than the bad behavior of a roommate. Yes, the moralist has a very good opinion of this system and a worse one of the people. Generally, he has a bad opinion of people and a good opinion of capitalism and the rule of law. It is thus a politically productive force, so it is no mystery why politics, science and religion have such a high regard for morality. But it is nothing useful and beneficial for the little people who go to the dogs in this society, even if it is constantly preached to them.
II. The moral values
And now I want to illustrate this in the following, in a few great maxims that count for moral people almost like guidelines for living, as tips on how to get through life well and keep society in order and harmony. So I will deal with hard work, frugality, humility, honesty, altruism or religiously expressed charity, and politeness. And when I criticize these values, I do not want it to be misunderstood in one respect. My criticism of these values is not a plea for the reverse of these values. So if I criticize hard work this is not the same as a plea for laziness. If I criticize honesty, this is not a plea for lying. How it is meant can hopefully be gathered from the arguments.
The achievement that everyone attaches to hard work, that celebrates it as a great moral maxim, is clear: if everyone was industrious and did their work, then everyone would make their living and not live off others and the community – success and universal prosperity go hand in hand. Good hard work counts simply as an all around good, so I am raising the question: is hard work really good?
1. Hard work as an abstraction
And as I have posed the question and taken a look at the real world, it has occurred to me that it’s not so easy to say. Three examples from the world in which we live: the child who works hard at practicing the drums – what does the tenant say? The government industriously cuts Medicare – what do the elderly say? Workers strike industriously for a wage – what do the business owners say? One notices that it is not so easy to decide, because an appreciation of hard work obviously depends on the purpose for which someone works hard. Yes, if the purpose is approved and good, then one would like to say: it is nice that you do it with such industriousness. But when it is bad and harmful?
Moralists do not make these distinctions. A morally minded person does not want to hear that a person always works hard for a specific purpose and that whether hard work deserves encouragement or not depends on this purpose and its content. Industriousness is not working hard for a purpose, but hard work is considered to be a purpose. It is independent of what is being done.
And this version, which already represents a shift, fits very well in the market economy hustle in which people complete their efforts. This fits in very well because in this world the purpose one intends to take up is not at all freely chosen. Here one’s path in life is very much sketched out with the means one has, and unless one has a real fortune on his side, then one belongs to the category of the “non-independent.” Then one just becomes an employee or a worker. And if one has respectable funds on hand, then one is independent. The purpose is not at all chosen – it is given by this economic system and by what means one has. Now, if people are stuck in opposing positions – one is a wage worker and the other is a manager – then it is tangible that if both diligently pursue their work, the general benefit that is spoken of can’t be the result. Because the hard work of the manager who wants to get as much labor as possible for as little money as possible from the worker in order to increase profit goes hand in hand with the damage of the other. If he must thus crop their hard work from the result – then that makes impossible the good that a moralist thinks comes from hard work: success for all positions.
2. What hard work should accomplish
The moralist even admits this in his own way. However, with eye glasses which carry out an interpretation: the moralist takes note of the fact that the vast majority of people do not attain much success, that there are socially disadvantaged who never get by on their money, when he says: “Yes, no pain, no gain.” He wants to say: well, this situation, that many people are not successful, I will explain to myself with my maxim that hard work guarantees success, by inverting the argument: these people have not yet worked hard. And so he say to them, yes: no pain (I have not seen it from you), no gain.
Let’s take this phrase. The great majority that are concerned with this phrase – you probably know it from your past, I also know it from my youth and it rings in my ears – this phrase, no pain, no gain – has in its, let’s say, banal version, even its own moment of truth. If the phrase “no pain, no gain” should mean that no one gets results without making an effort to get them, then I would let it stand. If one really wants to enjoy the view of a beautiful mountain peak, you just have to make the effort of hiking up the mountain. If someone has undertaken this pain, then he gets its gain. Yes, in this sense, one has to say that the phrase is correct, but it’s not a great insight. Only, this banal connection does not apply to capitalism. Look at the millions of unemployed: they were hard working. According to official policy, they previously earned a wage for themselves, but there are millions who can no longer make a living. Hard work for these people has obviously not registered a gain, and nobody alleges that they were not hard working. They simply have no chance in this world because they are compared to other creatures in the globalized world that do the same thing for half the pay, in Asia and elsewhere.
For modern factory workers who are told to take note of this phrase – no pain, no gain – hard work is not an option they can choose. Just think back to the old days when one could still read the words in the newspapers: what shape is our work ethic in? Yes, that was a saying: the work ethic. How eagerly does the worker embrace straining himself for the company’s success? How hard working is he? That phrase had its basis in that there were companies and factories where the work was not so thoroughly organized that the modern machine stamped people to the rhythms of its functioning in the measure and duration of their output – yes, one could still goad industriousness by arguing the work ethic. In a modern factory, it is simply a foreign word, and it is not even used any more, because the tempo, volume and stamina are predefined by the machinery. So the phrase “pain guarantees gain,” considered in its essentially banal connection, is not a true phrase that matters in a capitalist economic system. And the reason is, as I said, very simple: because the company’s profit, which it is all about, does all the better, the less the worker gets from the labor performance they render for the company. It depends on the spread of these quantities: as much performance as possible – for as little money as possible. Because it’s about separating effort from success. Effort is preached, success is withheld.
Moralists do not despair about this, but stick to their requirement that hard work be praised as a virtue. Even in plain sight of the fact that among the great masses, there is no gain. They put the virtue of hard work higher than the purpose and its result. I have a funny story, which pertains to our own ranks, for how they put hard work higher than its purpose and show a certain consistency in this question: there are morally minded citizens who also praise the hard work of people whose purpose they actually disapprove of. So if, for example, we distribute leaflets to announce an event like this and write a Marxist magazine which is published every three months and people see that we are busy publicizing such a thing, then I have heard the sigh: one has to hand it to them, they are hardworking. They put the virtue above the specific purpose and its result. Hence, the conclusion from my observation is that hard work does not guarantee gain, and is recommended for the sheer sake of it, and this gives me the step to the next virtue, which admits this fact.
Many hard working people apparently spend their whole lives in a condition that could be sociologically called “precarious.” Frugality, the next recommended virtue, at least has the starting point that people have an insufficient means to eke out a living, to realize certain interests.
1. Why one has to be frugal
Looking at it soberly and apart from capitalism: sure, it can happen that one is snowed in in a mountain hut and then the wine and the spaghetti are scarce, so one must start economizing ever sparingly with the increasingly scarce resources, because one bets that by the weekend the lift will be running again and then more resources can be procured. Yes, there is such a thing as scarce resources to characterize the situation of need you are in, so that one must attend to a sparing use of these resources until one nears the solution. The solution is always: procure more resources. Because frugality is surely not conducive to the satisfaction of needs. The solution, if this is the starting point, is to procure more means.
Now to get back to the curiosity of the world in which we live. In capitalism, the scarcity that drives people to frugality is not the starting point, but here scarcity is the result of their eternal efforts to procure more resources. I do not want to explain the reason again because it is always the same: when people work for the increase of profit, wages can’t be low enough. Scarcity in capitalism therefore also has a double face. Because there is a strange doubling in the world in which we live. The scarcity exists as a forced shortage in the wallets of the wage workers. Yes, its hard to make ends meet with one’s money. But this scarcity that is enforced on the wallet by the calculation of the companies stands next to an abundance – these days clearly visible – of available material commodity wealth. Here there are overfull stockpiles of cars; there is an enormous capacity of housing that is not rentable. Right next to people whose wallets are too tight to be able to procure these goods.
And here one notices: the scarcity that is talked about in this country does not have the innocent face of a Robinson Crusoe where nature yields too few fruits and the soil too little harvest for one to be able to live well, where one is constantly required to be thrifty. It is the economically produced scarcity of those who increase the wealth, which in the form of capital today has even grown so big that it is too big for its own augmentation. It suffers from an abundance of wealth, too many cars for being sold as a profit-making business. Think about how insane this is: suffering from an “excess” of wealth, too much for capitalist augmentation, not for needs. That's why people are treated badly: part-time work, layoffs, wage cuts.
2. How is frugality put into practice?
So frugality, which is celebrated as a virtue, in our market society is not something like my example of a mountain cabin, a stopgap for a temporary bottleneck, but here thriftiness is something like an ongoing life strategy. So that one could nevertheless devote oneself to the question: how is frugality actually to be practiced? And here it is similar to hard work: it’s not at all so easy. How is it done, frugality? The first answer I come up with is: this is not done at all. Because one can’t just be frugal. Rent, taxes, electricity, water – there are landowners or legislators who dictate prices which do not allow it. Try it with taxes. So, first, frugality is not possible.
Then, a second attempt at the question how to properly practice a genuine frugality, one which one must be able to afford. Yes, if the price of gasoline climbs 1.50 and higher, then of course an eco-friendly car that consumes only four liters is an instrument for frugality. If heating prices explode, then insulating the home is a means to frugality. Only, one immediately notices, there is a catch to this kind of genuine frugality. To be frugal in these ways requires the possession of funds, the lack of which generally forces one to be frugal. And that is why the form this absurdity takes with the majority of humanity is clear: a person is really only allowed two ways to be frugal in this society. One must do without today so that one can consume tomorrow. Or one takes out a consumer loan today and has to do without tomorrow so that one can pay it back. And in this predicament, it is a universal popular sport for people to become bargain hunters. They spend their time seeking out special offers in junk mail and newspaper inserts, driving out to faraway shopping malls, comparing Target to Walmart, sacrificing time as well as money in order to save and to seek what their finely diced wallet is entitled to.
3. The false calculation of the frugal person
The oddity is merely that my characterization sounds a bit derogatory, criticizing. But among people who do this, this type of frugality is rated, unlike hard work, very highly. The victim, who is addicted to their saving mentality, takes the view that their labor effort and hard work are essentially dictated by their job since they have little wiggle room to change it. But the compulsion to be thrifty, which they are subjected to by the scarcity imposed on their wallet, is in their eyes something like an “El Dorado of freedom.” Because, after all, one is truly free to decide for oneself whether to invest one’s 19.50 dollars on a clock radio at Bargain Buy or maybe on a cell phone at Target. Nothing is taken away from this consciousness by the fact that one purchase excludes the other, that the alternative is between what to do without: I am, after all, the subject who makes the decision freely. In this respect, it makes things fun.
So much so, that there is even a sophisticated technique in the society for displaying how one shops under the auspices of renunciation as an achievement which one is entitled to be proud of. By that I mean the strange institution of price-performance comparison. Do you know this thing? One looks online or in magazines and discovers everything under the sun: there is a price-performance comparison. One can, for example, buy a perfect stereo system for 2000 dollars, which in the price-performance comparison is rated comparatively poorly. It’s an excellent system, but it costs 2000 dollars. For 250 dollars, one can acquire a stereo system with a distortion factor, but in exchange for just 250 dollars, the cut in the price-performance comparison is much better. So the person who opts for the smaller system is able to say to himself: it does not sound as good, but what is that worth? I have optimally decided the price-performance comparison. This type of thing is done. But one should not forget what an absurdity is being done here – if, under the banner of frugality, renunciation looks like an advantage, then that is what one does in the end. One puts, as it were, next to the use value features of a stereo system – the design, the sound, the frequency, the bandwidth it transmits – one puts the price next to the technical use value characteristics of a system like an additional part of use value. The price, the sum that excludes the use value, appears in a series with the use value characteristics of a thing. So that in the bottom line, one must, unfortunately, include a penalty in the calculation of the better system, which is the high price, and discover a pleasing advantage in the worse system, which is the low price.
But these amounts, which one maintains have been compared in the price-performance comparison, are not at all comparable. One can not compare 2000 dollars with 80 decibels. It is not possible. These are completely incomparable amounts – the one is a sum of money, the other is a technically measurable amount. Price and performance are not what is compared in reality; they are lying to themselves with this price-performance test. In reality, they are comparing the price of the item with their pocketbooks. Yes, that can be compared. But that would also require enough honesty – not easily found among moralists – to admit to one’s tight budget and say: the only reason I bought the small system is because I did not have the money for the other thing. Instead, one says: I am second to none when it comes to a price-performance comparison.
This fits perfectly well with the first two moral values we have considered. Hard work, which is supposed to guarantee gains, does not at all lead to success. Frugality responds and says: yes, the means are scarce. But frugality never overcomes the condition of a scarce supply of means. Modesty answers these two premises: if hard work does not bring success and frugality never leads out of the condition of scarce means, then one must just lower the standard of wants.
Want less, be modest, that would be a solution – which admittedly suffers from a certain contradiction. After all, even the eye of the moralist notices that needs and reality collide in this world. What I want from life, that which gives me pleasure in life, I can not have. Desire and reality collide. But the moralist does not criticize the reality for not permitting the deed, but criticizes the need and downgrades it: modesty. He not only wants to live modestly, thus provide himself with fewer means, but wants to be modest, thus cultivate something like a diminished attitude of entitlement. So that he copes – in a life that falls short of the means – in a consciousness of successful living.
Of course: they are contradicting the interest they have by holding this idea that modesty would be a path to success and harmony, if they simply demand less. The interest does not therefore go away because one accepts its restriction. And that’s why people in this field take the very familiar next step of cultivating modesty in a calculating way. So one goes to one’s first job interview and demonstrates modesty. What does one calculate on? It is already there in the records of coaches. One, of course, wants to have one’s modesty rewarded. Either because one gets favored over the others or because one ups the ante on the salary. Workers know the strange complaints they make: our modesty in wages has not been rewarded. Thus they also announce that they – like the moralist who I criticized at the beginning – speculate on a return which, with this modesty that aims against their interest, may then nevertheless serve the interest.
And it is even known by moralists themselves, sometimes in irony and jokes, how much modesty is the tool for the pursuit of interests. Hence the old rhyme for children at the table: “Modesty, modesty, do not leave me at the table and grant my wish that I get the biggest piece.”
Honesty divides into two sections. First, the demand for honesty in relation to practical life issues. And next, the demand for truthfulness in judgments and the expression of ideas.
1. Practical honesty
Let’s start with the first: the need for honesty in practical issues of life. It is meant as an imperative, such as in the following: one should obey the law and not cheat. And one knows that the world is actually full of this practice. There are people who do work under the table or evade taxes who are dishonest in this practical sense. They work without reporting it or airbrush their tax return because they experience the state as a damage to their wallet. They want to avoid the IRS, not be taxed. This also exists in the relation between tenants and landlords and the way one finds an apartment in a tight housing market by using surreptitious means: one has to dress up when interviewing with the landlord or has to pretend to be married just so that one can move in with one’s girlfriend or boyfriend. Such things are done. One must fake something in order to realize an interest.
When facing this reality, that people circumvent existing laws, perpetrate fraud, or practice dishonesty, moralists maintain their predilection for honesty by claiming that the lie causes harm. A lie brings damage into the world – and indeed for those who are lied to and deceived in this practical sense. This turns the world from which I have taken my examples – and that’s the world we live in – upside down. In the world in which we live, the truth is exactly the opposite – the lie is the consequence of the fact that interests damage each other, so one looks for ways one can nevertheless still achieve one’s advantage against somebody else. A lie is the result of conflicts and not the reason antagonisms and damages come into the world. A lie constitutes, at most, another one on top of it.
The way a moralist thinks of lies, that fraud is how others organize their own success at the expense of another, can’t be permitted from this statement. Lying is not a strategy for success in this world. This world differs very much between rich and poor, but it is not the case that whoever can lie the most wins success. Rather: whoever has the most means wins success. And vice versa, that one could say: honesty would be the way to make sure of one’s own success without harming others – that is certainly not true in this world. The millions of unemployed are surely mostly honest people. And the people who are damaged, with her well known sighs, sometimes even have the idea that honesty is not what it’s cracked up to be. They say, for example: “at the end of the day, it’s the honest guy who is the idiot” – and that does not mean that he has a mental defect, but that he does not achieve the success which the moralist says could, however, be achieved in principle – and even without harm to others – if only everyone was honest.
It can also be gathered that this is not the truth about the virtue of honesty from the suspect praise with which it is advertised. If it is said that “honesty is the best policy” or “lies don’t make it very far,” then in truth an advantage is not promised, but the advantage is at best the avoidance of a disadvantage. What is promised to the honest guy? Only that he remains spared a harm that overtakes the other.
So in these practical questions it seems to me not true that honesty is something like a royal road to success and harmony among people who do not cheat. But this does not just apply to the practical field.
2. Theoretical honesty
Honesty in the theoretical sense is no better, in my opinion. Honesty in the theoretical sense arises as the demand: speak your mind and thoughts openly, unadulterated.
I am no fan of lying. But I have actually had bad experiences with honesty since childhood. If, for example, the lads come back from the soccer field, often the obligatory question was: “Have you been smoking?” In the first scenario, admit everything. Bang, slap. In the second scenario, say no. Bang, slap, “still lying” – it’s difficult to decide which is better. A few years later I often went to university seminars and tried to explain some of what one already knows as a little Marxist about the science that is taught in such buildings. For example, in a political science seminar, if someone shows up and says: Professor, democracy is in reality not a request program, but an instrument of rule – that is my honest opinion – he does not reap a standing ovation for his honesty! One is penalized because the opinion was not to their taste. One can’t say that honesty ennobles a person and his thoughts. Expand the field a bit wider. The employee who goes to the boss and says: honestly, my wage reminds me of exploitation ... he gets his papers, not a raise. So what should be said about the nonsense that someone who is committed to honesty, who always gives his opinion openly, earns the world’s respect – it’s completely not true!
Nevertheless, honesty is constantly demanded. Why, really, when nevertheless the honestly expressed statement is not at all simply respected because of its honesty. Why then is “be honest” constantly demanded? The disclosure of one’s own intention and opinion is required not because of their validity, but because of the control that someone wants to exercise over it. In asking someone to be honest, one wants to examine whether and how far his intentions and opinions are in compliance with the valid standards, customary rules and habits, and to what extent they aren’t. Is his will in harmony with decency or does this person dissent? That is what one wants to examine and that is the content of the demand “be honest.”
Of course, when people are confronted with an authority that can harm them, then everyone also knows, if a penalty is threatened, they prefer to hide something. The relation between a company man and an employee gives me another example for what I have outlined as the epitome of the demand for honesty, its actual content. If someone is chronically late to work and is sent to the boss and for the seventh time gives the same old story that he was stuck in a traffic jam, then if he is not thrown out or penalized and the boss takes him to his side on a different occasion (if there is a good relationship and the chemistry is right) and says: honestly now, Joe, was it really the traffic jam or was it the booze again? This “now let’s be honest” wants to say: now that the penalty isn’t threatened – I am speaking now as private man to private man – tell me for once openly how you really relate to customs and decency.
Therefore, because the need is for an opinion to be disclosed for the purpose of examining it according to the standards of decency, “open” always occurs as an added attribute of “honesty.” Be “open and honest,” do not hide what intentions and opinions one harbors.
3. The false calculation of liars
Because punishments are threatened, because people harm each other with their interests, because the world is constructed this way, people get the idea that the lie could be their means. And this way of dealing with the world of conflicts deserves criticism. Now in a strict sense, the lie deserves criticism. And because citizens can’t criticize such a thing at all, I do not want to fail to say how it is correctly criticized.
The lie must not be morally demonized, but it can be subjected to criticism. What is a lie then? A lie is more than a false statement. The “more” consists in that someone makes a false statement which is known to be false. Why does someone express a statement which he himself knows is not true? He does this only from the calculation that in this way he avoids a disadvantage or carries out an advantage to the disadvantage of another. This is the calculation. How does one criticize that? One does not have to reckon up the falsity of the statement for the liar, he knows that himself. But he does not know the error of his calculation. And the error of his calculation lies in the fact that the lie could substitute for a missing means – and it can’t do this.
The moral citizen attending to the same situation had also criticized the lie – but in a moral and utterly wrong way. The moral citizen tells a liar: that is a violation of the truth. These hypocrites! He reenforces the argument with the admonition: if everyone would do that ... – yeah, by the way: doesn’t everyone do it? And indeed they do it as a rule with a bullet-proof moral justification why it is necessary. Every tax cheat – thus everyone – knows a good, irrefutable reason why this is justified. Namely: the tax laws are unjust; too little is taken from the Haves and too much from the Have-Nots. A married man who has a mistress in another city, two-times as they say, tells his partner a pack of lies, but also has a good reason he does this. He does not want to hurt her. It’s a higher service to a universal humanism. Liars do it with a clear conscience. As if: what would happen if they all would do it – they all do it! But to meet someone who says: the error is that one violates the truth, that is completely out of left field. Because the liar wanted the advantage for the interest, not the truth. If he had wanted the truth, then he would not have lied. So this criticism approaches the lie with a completely external standard, with an idea that is completely alien to it.
So another virtue. Altruism is the Latin word for “other,” those who one should think of, the neighbors. It is seen as a positive counterpart to egoism. One should – everybody knows this – not serve the “ego,” but the “others.” And one has already learned in school that moral philosophy takes great pains to embellish the idea. We all have to learn at some point Kant’s categorical imperative, maybe in different versions. One that sticks in my mind says: one should never take the other as a mere means, but always as an end. The popular version says it well: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This is what we are taught: serve the “others,” not the “ego”! That is good; altruism is the maxim that matters.
1. Why the ego and the other need not rule each other out ...
Why is egoism actually so demonized? Why is egoism on everyone’s lips? Because one wants to reject it. This – the egoism accusation – is a false theory about the conflicts in which people in this real world stand with their interests. False because egoism maintains that the interest per se that a person has is a source of damage for others, insofar as it is his interest and not that of the others.
This is an idea that one can check at home with one’s roommates. Is it true that the interest per se is the source of harm because it is only mine? If I want an egg, and you want an egg, then we’ll make two. There are two interests declared and served without a damage occurring and two people stepping on each other’s toes. If I now follow the call for altruism, the following scene takes place at the kitchen table: one goes with the boiled eggs to the kitchen table and sits opposite the other. One has learned as an altruist that one does not think of himself, but the other. So I give you my egg, you give me your egg. Then everything is just as before. Then one could have ignored this exercise. And anyway, why is the other, who is nevertheless also an “ego,” better than my own ego?
So I want to say that from the mere fact that a person has an interest that is his, it may be only his, but a damage to other people does not follow that one would have to undo, as it were, by no longer thinking of his own interest, but the others’ interests. That is illogical. Something like this can only come about if the content of the interest entails harm to the other, perhaps even intentionally. The idea is no more tenable if it is underlined, as in Kant, with Latin words which have also entered the public domain. If one says: one should never make other people the object of his interest, not degrade women into the object of desire, but always view them at the same time as an end and a goal. This is a wrong idea because it states: being an object is sinister, bad, and it turns a harmless logical category into a moral one. I am right now making you – with this lecture – the object of my thoughts and reflections. Vice versa, everyone sitting here makes me and my thoughts the object of their scrutiny. And if I make a mistake and someone catches it and points it out, then I go home from this event sharper than I came, and that would not be a shame, but a gain. If I have a sexual relationship with a woman, then I make the other the object of my lust and, vice versa, I am the object of her lust – and everyone knows this is fun. To be an object is not demeaning or bad. That depends on what one is an object for. Yes, if one is an object for a company’s plan of profit maximization, then one gets a bad object-role. But that’s because of the purpose that makes me the object, because of its content, not because I am in the logical position of an object.
2. ... and why they do in this society
The antagonism which is thus maintained does not lie innately in egoism. Just because a person has an interest of his own does not mean he stands in opposition to other people. In capitalism, tt is the case that the interest of a worker and an entrepreneurs or a renter and a landlord collide. But not because it is an interest maintained by an “ego,” but because of its content. And the accusation that one should abstain from egoism and uphold altruism simply shifts the reason for the damage. That’s what I tried to characterize at the beginning by pointing to profit and greed. Someone who says that one should better foster altruism instead of egoism shifts the cause of the injury away from the content of the interest to the position of the person to the interest. He says: because he overdoes it with the interest, thinks too much of himself, a harmful relationship to his fellow man appears.
Egoism is therefore not the source of the damages from which so many suffer in this society. It is this economy’s type of calculation that damages people. But egoism is also not the source of the damages in a different version moralists have in mind. Morally minded people think the egoism of a private bank manager is the reason people aren’t doing well. That is a mistaken view of the whole economy we live in. And that’s why I want to make one more comment about the relation between egoism and capitalism. The consumption of the rich is surely very great; and indeed in a form and in an opulence that can’t be reached by ordinary mortals. There is this. The owners of big companies certainly do buy many villas and yachts from their portfolios. Only, this private consumption is not the reason nor the target of the growth that their companies calculate and pry from their workers. These billions are a capital factor whose growth requires the bad treatment of the workers. The private consumption of the rich spills from this easily, but consumer spending is neither the goal of this growth, nor are people treated badly because too much has flowed into this private consumption. Measured by the billions spent by these companies, this is a marginal amount.
3. The false calculation of the egoists
One last comment so that my criticism of egoism is not misunderstood. I have criticized the accusation of egoism because I consider it to be a false theory about the damages that are inflicted in this world. I have criticized the accusation of egoism, but not pleaded for egoism. Egoism is the bourgeois version of a false materialism. It’s false because someone who decides on egoism and says: I grab whenever possible, wants to seek his material gratification within the limits and conflicts that make life so difficult for most people. This is not a freely chosen materialism that says: I want to get rid of the existing barriers, but wants to indulge his “ego” within these limits. If one applies that to the private sphere of people, then someone who enacts egoism in this sense very quickly becomes sleazy.
The budget of a family is the dependent variable of the company’s calculation and as a rule is always tight. Someone who now adopts the position: I will rigorously carry out my interests, I consider egoism to be materialism, that can’t possibly be bad – someone does that under the conditions of this limited budget at the expense of the others, thus at the expense of his wife. Does one want to do this to a loved one? This is not a normal attitude. And if this is transferred to the bigger whole, what does this then means for the workers who fight for their wage interests? The workers in this society are the only owners of an interest that is simply not recognized; they are the dependent variable of a company calculation that can never be low enough. On punishment of outsourcing to other locations, wages are now reduced to a rate that can no longer support a family. This is also recognized in politics, so that a living wage is sometimes talked about.
This part of humanity must fight for their interest (or at least ought to) so that they can eke out a living at all. And if they once did (unfortunately they don’t), then it has to be said of this interest: it is not free from a contradiction if it doesn’t go any further than that. Because one then must fight – again and again – for the improvement of a life situation which is systematically denied by the way this life situation is determined by capital. So this part of humanity would have to come up with a plan to abolish this restriction of its materialism, to defend itself against this type of economy.
Politeness has many facets. The best known is probably the greeting that – especially if it is missing – may cause morally minded people a lot of frustration. Children who do not greet their neighbors signal the end of the world for a moral spirit. A boss who does not greet his staff when he comes into the office in the morning shows the watchful eye that something is up. If the employee takes the liberty of not greeting his boss, then one knows trouble is brewing.
1. The achievement of politeness
So the feeling which makes up the moral attitude attaches importance to the politeness of the greeting ritual because in each case – who greets or does not greet, the manner in which one awaits the etiquette – one obtains an announcement whether and how much someone exercises moderation and gives recognition to the other. The hierarchically ordered positions and their holders meet in the etiquette of politeness as formal equals; this is also a way of resolving and imagining the compatibility of incompatible interests. Even hierarchically very different positions are formally treated as equals. Someone is addressed, regardless of whether he is the owner of a company or merely the laborer. He is addressed and therein the other person accords recognition, which also expresses that, for all the hostility that I have at my disposal with my means, I will exercise moderation.
At the same time, one still notices in these rituals of politeness that the antagonistic figures who meet there as formal equals stamp these rituals with a seal which shows they are nevertheless a bit antagonistic and not equal. The polite man knows the rules; who must then greet first: the boss or the employee? Here one notices that equality contains a hierarchy and in practicing these equality rituals – everyone is addressed – the differences they are based on are still clear.
Not only greeting rituals are significant. Actually, the polite person does not let a moment slip by without sizing up their opposite by the etiquette which is displayed. How does this man treat decency and customs? Has he had morality drilled into his will and intentions or not? The holidays are always a heyday for such things, if one thinks of the many visits to relatives. How do things stand with courtesy? Especially with table manners; one can surely do a lot wrong there. If the relatives march in on Christmas and then again demonstrate the ability to sit still, at some point the transition is made to the hostess saying: now I’m making a pie. Then this pie is served. Here one can do a lot of things wrong: for example, not eating anything, in all modesty; well, this is obviously an insult to the cook. She then says: you have to try it, for decency’s sake. If someone now takes this as an invitation to scarf down, then he has done it all wrong. Then he has shown himself to be a pig who has no self-restraint. One must pay court to the cook, but not overindulge her ego. The indulgence must be somewhat thwarted in the end – a piece is left over. Then the hostess says: please, don’t let this piece go to waste. Then it is fair game.
2. Politeness as a means
This type of thing is done among adults and also not completely without calculation. A speculation on a benefit is attached even to the polite greeting, to etiquette. It is said: “with your hat in your hand, traveling the world is easy.” One gets something by being polite. This also must be put to the test in the laboratory of reality to find out how much it’s actually true. Of course, there is the modern business leader who, when he schedules an extra shift on the weekend, then has his department manager report and asks him: would overtime be an inconvenience? Here one notices: he faces an opponent – and he also calculates on it – and this polite speech is a lubricant to enforce a requirement. And in the modern times in which we live, it even is sometimes that. Because he who is merely a servant – thus actually bound by directives to work according to his contract – puts a lot of importance on the consciousness that in reality he is nevertheless master of the proceedings and a suitor. He is pleased to be addressed in such a way, as if what the boss requires of him were placed up to his free choice. This goes down like butter, because he cherishes the fantasy of not simply being a subordinate, but in control or at least equally in charge of the directive. But if this does not go down like butter, then the boss has other means at hand; he says: the overtime must be and you will report. And here one notices: for those who have the real means to enforce their interests, politeness may be a lubricant by which something is accomplished more elegantly, but it is a dispensable service, a dispensable virtue, and his goal can be reached in another way, because the real means of power bring resounding success.
And since it is this way, it is the same from the perspective of the subordinate. The person who enters the office, of course, can imitate his boss and say: would it be inconvenient to give me a pay raise? Yes, probably. As this is the situation, that does not fit the picture. And then the conversation is over, so one notices: here a vacancy sticks out; for the employee as opposed to the executive. While the boss still has the real means of pressure, that the other is dependent on the job, the other has in this case no means of pressure because he is dependent. And this then shows that politeness is not what it is praised as being, namely, a means of success. Politeness can not substitute for an available means; it can only accompany available means and that’s about the whole achievement.