Selling your soul

(featured image: wikimedia)

The trade-offs we don’t want to make (but believe others should)

Not much is known with any certainty about Johann Georg Faust. Wikipedia describes him as an alchemist, astrologer and magician, who was born in either 1466 or 1480, and who may even have been two different people. However, after his death in 1541, he became the subject of legend, immortalized by numerous writers including Christopher Marlowe and Goethe. Even the cartoon show Futurama had an episode that was based on the Faustian legend.

Faust’s claim to fame was that he is assumed have sold his soul in exchange for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. And his name lives on in the term Faustian pact. The different versions of the legend vary somewhat in their depiction of the hero, but he is essentially a tragic figure who makes a morally wrong choice. You should not trade in spiritual values.

No spiritual economics

Neoclassical economics has little interest in spiritual matters, otherwise someone would surely have come up with a price discovery mechanism to establish the correct sale price for a soul. (Arguably repugnant markets get close, but even those tend to involve the trading of tangible goods like organs, and not ethereal souls.)


A tragic figure (image: wikimedia)

Behavioural economics may not deal directly with the buying and selling of souls, but at least it recognizes the existence of distinctive mental accounts for different kinds of economic transactions (a concept first named by the recent Nobel laureate, Richard Thaler). It also distinguishes between transactions in the market domain and those in the social domain. This explains why we are sometimes willing to do something for free, but refuse to do the same for a very small sum of money.

Yet even that doesn’t really cover the tension that can arise when a choice needs to be made between money and moral values.

A few months ago, Amazon got some bad press for not pulling its advertising from the Breitbart website unlike some 2,600 other companies, from car company Audi to social games developer Zynga. (Breitbart is the brainchild of alt-right political activist Steve Bannon, who for a short while was Donald Trump’s Chief Strategist.)

We can only speculate as to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ reasoning, but it is not unreasonable to assume that economics play a part in some way. Breitbart attracts around 75 million unique visitors per month, and it would be very strange if cutting off all advertising on the site did not have an impact on Amazon’s sales. Does the man have no moral principles? Or is he a closet alt-right supporter?

In a similar vein, the recent allegations of sexual harassment and worse concerning movie director Harvey Weinstein have led to extra indignation from Republicans in the US. Weinstein has donated more than 1 million dollar to the Democratic party since 2000, and they now demand that the recipients of his generosity pledge that money to charitable causes rather than to funding the party.


Weinstein’s money: as clean as his manners? image: wikimedia

There are differences between the two cases. Amazon is well aware of the role of Breitbart in the spread of fake news, and so can be said to make a deliberate decision to continue advertising. The Democrats (mostly) were not, and could not have been aware of Weinstein’s debauchery, so whatever they accepted, they accepted in good faith.

But they share the same fundamental question: is it morally acceptable to benefit materially from sources of dubious moral standing? The calls to companies to stop funding Breitbart through ads, and the calls to Democratic politicians to give over Weinstein’s donations would suggest it is not. It is seen as tantamount to selling out one’s morality – selling one’s soul, if you like.

However, there is one important common aspect to this kind of calls: it is people who have not personally benefited who want others to give up their gains, or forego future benefits. Demanding that others put their money where your own mouth is, is easy to do, and not a particularly clear sign of moral rectitude.

Trading of our own morals

Would we act with such purity if we had to choose between morals and material advantage? Experiments on this theme would be ethically tricky to set up. However, an interesting thought experiment, known as the Heinz Dilemma * (nicely described here) shows how hard it is to maintain pure moral standards.

Some people choose to invest only in ethical funds, refuse to work for organizations involved in practices that go against their morals (like arms manufacturers), or boycott the products of companies that make use of child labour. But is this more than superficial virtue signalling? It is the sacrifices we make that indicate what is truly important to us, and the cost of such choices is small.

Would we in general really be as pure as we expect others to be if it were costing us real money? If we ran a shop, would we choose not to serve people who act in conflict with our own morals? And as a customer, would we choose not to buy things from a shop whose owner has an attitude that we find reprehensible… also if the nearest alternative was half an hour away, and 20% more expensive?

Maybe we are not in a position to make that choice – we’re not a shopkeeper, or we are ignorant of the morals of the owners of the places where we shop. But do we always act entirely in accordance with our own morals and values? We could choose to live a carbon-neutral life, but that would mean foregoing some precious material benefits: no car, not flying to distant holiday destinations and so on. We could choose to alleviate poverty and child mortality by donating more money to famine relief and medical charities. But that would mean less (or if you want to be really pure, no) money for pleasant frivolities like going to the cinema, eating out or even a drink in the pub.

Whenever we fall short of our own professed moral norms, we sell a little bit of our soul to the devil. And in the real world with its more than 150 shades of grey, were purity is an unattainable ideal, maybe that is OK.

But perhaps we should be less demanding of others when they do so too.


About koenfucius

Wisdom or koenfusion? Maybe the difference is not that big.
This entry was posted in Behavioural economics, Economics, Ethics, Morality and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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