A Man’s Gotta Eat

I’m kind of a pinko commie nutjob. I can’t really call myself a communist or socialist or any of that; I’ve never read Marx or researched what was and what wasn’t real attempts at such philosophies in history (a capitalist will ridicule a communist for saying Soviet Russia “wasn’t real communism” but no one seems to mind that bailing out industries and financial institutions to save the economy “isn’t real capitalism,” nor were the elements that led to their failures), so it’s possible there are some essential parts of the parties or philosophies that I don’t click with. That said, I do believe that with the inevitable increase in automation, we don’t have a future that includes both capitalism and everyone eating. I think a future with everyone eating is possible, from a certain point of view it in fact requires a hell of an effort to avoid, but we’re putting the work in.

I’m just elaborating on all that to describe my general gripes with capitalism, I suppose. Like fossil fuels, it was an amazing tool and we couldn’t have gotten here without it, but I believe it has outlived its usefulness. Basically I’m kind of a pinko commie nutjob. The second thing about me is I’m kind of a video game fanboy. Less than I used to be in spirit, but thanks to more disposable income, I do find myself going for the collectors’ edition more often. I must admit, capitalism feels really good when you’re doing it. So as a vaguely anti-capitalist lover of collector’s items, I get really wound up about scalpers. If I want some special edition of something, I have to be ready online with my finger on the button or waiting outside a store for hours, and why? Because of the rarity compared to how many people want to have it? No. Because of the rarity compared to how many people want to buy it. I’m not competing primarily with other fans. I’m racing against someone who wants to buy it, turn around, and sell it to me ten seconds later for a few hundred bucks extra. What a service they have provided! Anyone who says capitalism allocates resources efficiently ought to have their teeth reallocated. Dammit. This is the exact kind of attitude I’m trying not to have.

The thing about capitalism is it’s not just an economic policy, it’s an ethical philosophy. It’s like utilitarianism, but the nebulous ‘happiness’ is replaced for the concrete dollar, and ‘greatest’ is replaced with ‘greatest for you.’ It’s not that it doesn’t make perfect sense: it’s an imperative baked into us by evolution. Evolution is determined by who survives, and who survives is often whomever takes without giving. A man’s gotta eat, right? And so a man’s gotta do his best to guarantee he eats, today and tomorrow and the next day. I truly believe that this, like fossil fuels, has run its course. We still have to eat, but each day we move further into an age where one man eating does not mean another man starving (other than extreme examples, I’m not sure it’s a common issue in hominid history anyway).

The ethical philosophy of capitalism claims it is wrong to devote any of your resources to external causes (define as you see fit. It is common, for example, not to consider one’s children ‘external,’ as per evolutionary guidance), unless you anticipate a greater return. If you have ever volunteered at a soup kitchen or donated to a shelter, you either expected a net gain for yourself, or you are frankly doing capitalism wrong.

All of this serves to basically contextualize my thoughts on a conversation I had recently. A few friends and I want to see Dave Chapelle, so we get in a group text to see who wants to go so we can try to get all the tickets at once. He’s a popular guy, they’ll probably sell out quick, and we want good tickets. One fellow says he doesn’t want to go, but he’s going to try to “buy the best seats and flip em” on his own. I eventually made a joke expressing my disapproval and another friend rationalized “A man’s gotta eat” to which I replied “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell people”.

It got me thinking about that phrase. That’s what this post is about, really, how it changes based on who is saying it. If you were of a capitalist persuasion, a sort of libertarian outlook, then you would look at a scalper and say “a man’s gotta eat” and mean that the scalper’s actions cannot be unethical because they are profitable. On the other hand, a more socialist individual could look at the same situation and say the same words as a disparagement of capitalism in general. Why should someone devote such effort to scalping, which is basically like pulling a magic, unavoidable, service-less toll bridge out of your pocket whenever you see people want to go somewhere, when it provides no utility to anyone barring giving me something to be angry about? Why should there be such absurd artificial conventions forged around pulling profit from someone you don’t know while offering no recompense except a fuck-you and a receipt?

Of the many existing socialist institutions in the United States, from healthcare to food stamps, the detractors of these policies argue that their capital should not be diverted to others because they haven’t ‘earned’ it. Of course I’ve shown that I don’t believe having money correlates with earning it in cases such as scalpers, but I think it extends beyond that. Does a man gotta eat, or does he not? The ethos of capitalism extends to this concept of ‘earning’ and ‘deserving,’ which concerns whether someone ought to get capital from someone else, most commonly demonstrated in the employer/employee relationship. If this is the crux of capitalism, then a man does not gotta eat, a man only does or does not deserve to eat and should act accordingly. A man does or does not deserve to eat depending on the capital he has, and the capital he has depends on whether he’s earned it, and so in a capitalism-as-ethics system, everything neatly works out to the poorest being the least good and the most financially stable being the most good. Nice and symmetrical, and it reinforces itself!

Now I don’t believe most people treat capitalism so religiously, but I do believe this exists as the basic judgmental heuristic with which an American would operate. For example, in a recent stackexchance post, and the reddit thread discussing it, a programmer asks if it is unethical for them to conceal the fact that they have automated their week’s worth of work into a couple hours. Now as a vaguely-socialist-whatever guy, I totally get that his effort would immediately be consumed by the employer and he’d get a new load of work to do, and that his contribution would not benefit him at all. I think it totally sucks to abuse your employees by leeching from them in this way; the fact is, though, it is the most virtuous of acts in the ethos of capitalism.

I’m going to take a brief aside here to mention that this employee says he goes out of his way to fudge the data to appear to be created by hand, working small errors in here and there. No doubt that will be automated soon as well. From my perspective, this clear deception is a nail in the coffin on the matter, but others still disagree with me. They say it is still ethical. The reason for this, I’ll get to, but I intend to focus on the dynamics involving capitalism and making a deal banking on the fact that the other party is uninformed, and not primarily the fact that this person is actively lying.

A big disconnect I found in the thread was between an act being described as ‘ethical’ and something less strict: the actor didn’t feel bad about it; it was acceptable, forgiveable; okay, even. A friend said, concerning reversing the situation so that they lost money, “Well yeah, it’s not about that I noticed, it’s about how much it actually affected me.” I completely understand how this is going to be the practical rule by which we run our lives, but the point I make, which I think is fair given the title of the post specifically asked about it, is about whether it is ethical or not. This is, I assure you, a different question. Otherwise the answer we’d arrive at is something like this:


I hope it’s self-evident the issues I have with a system in which you look at some act and say “This act is bad. I wonder if it is bad?” Yes, I’m afraid bad things are bad. Honestly, looking into this thread, there is a fair bit of “Yes, X is wrong, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.” What meaning could ‘wrong,’ ‘bad,’ or ‘unethical’ even have in this case? To be clear, I don’t think all this stems from some kind of sociopathic hyper-relativist amorality, though it may well be the case for some of the commenters. It does show that there is a communication issue between those who consider ethics to be indistinguishable from attitudes about what decisions have already been made, rather than an attempt to define what one should do.

Commenters in the thread largely encourage him. The primary argument is that the company would do the same, so it’s okay:

Of course it’s okay to fuck someone else, they’d do the same in your shoes!

Why would they do that?

Well, because you’d do the same in their shoes.

Why would they assume that?

Well, they’d do the same in… their shoes.

Yes, of course, doing anything to anyone is always justified in any ethical system based on treating others in kind. Anything you do is by definition what they would do to you, because the fact that you’re doing it means you would do it to them, and they should therefore do it to you. Wow. Ethics is even easier than I thought! The problem with such tautological systems as this is that there is no primary motivator. Doing good is good, doing bad is good. So what should one do? If the very question ethics seeks to answer is fundamentally asked by your ethical system, it’s not actually an ethical system. It’s nothing.

Capitalism does give answers though, and it shines through in these comments. It is good for the employee to continue because it is profitable for them. It would be bad for them to reveal the truth because it would be unprofitable. The curious part here is the disdain the commenters exhibit concerning the employer. One commenter says “Your employer would screw you over in a second if it meant a bigger bonus for the CEO. You don’t owe them shit.” Why such negative language? It would be the same act: pursuit of profit. The employer would be a veritable saint to ‘screw someone over’ in this manner.

If your ethics say it’s okay for you to benefit at the expense of another, but the same act in reverse would not be true, you don’t have ethics. You have an operating philosophy which does not concern itself with ethics, only yourself. At least a capitalist would applaud being screwed over by a corporation, or at least not bemoan it. “A man’s gotta eat” is just a meaningless platitude in capitalism akin to pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps. It’s not just untrue, it violates the reality.

My conclusion: if you’re unwilling to feed anyone, don’t say a man’s gotta eat. You don’t believe it.

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