Archives for posts with tag: Destutt de Tracy

Attempts to summarize all morality into a simple principle are ancient. Long before Kant’s categorical imperative we were blessed with the Silver and Golden Rules. Indeed, there is a sort of progress in the development of these rules:

Silver: Do not do unto others that which you do not want done to yourself.

Golden: Do unto others that which you want done unto you.

Cat. Imp.: Act only in such a manner that you can at the same time will that your act should become a universal law.

But the progress may be illusory. The Silver standard may be best. The negative formulation does not entail perversities that can develop from very particular values. Under the Golden Rule,  my preferences could be so “out there” as to cause disharmony, not increase it. For example, I might prefer to greet strangers with impromptu opera arias. After all, I would prefer it if everyone sung to me. So, taking my strange preference for improvised singing, I inflict upon society a mad barrage of baritone assaults.

Kant’s categorical imperative is, if not more dangerous, at least far murkier. It requires that we figure out which features of an act should be universalizable. Further, as one philosopher noted with some perspicacity, universalizability is easily trivializable.

But, courtesy of John Stossel, I am now thinking of the “wisdom” of Michael Medved:

“You can only make a profit in this country by giving people a product or a service that they want,” [Medved] says. “It’s the golden rule in action.”

Is it, though? Is trade really an instantiation of the Golden Rule?

When I offer a good on the market, am I “doing unto others that which I want done unto me”?

Rarely. Or: Not quite.

As in Kant’s Categorical Imperative, it depends on which features you identify as pertinent and which features you ignore as not.

Say I offer a book on the market, from my large personal library. Am I giving unto others that which I want myself? No. I don’t want the book.

Or, I could redefine the situation (and boy, do philosophers and normal rationalizers know how to redefine situations!) to say that I am offering something on the market that someone else wants, and that’s what I want from them: Something I want more than they want.

This is an added complexity. It recognizes value diversity and value subjectivity — something the ancient maxims do not do (though, of course, the commentaries on them often do, of necessity).

Further, to call it the Golden Rule is to take from that rule its element of charity. And charity does seem to have been Jesus’ intention, at least if dozens of preachers I’ve heard expound on the subject can be believed. Trade, on the other hand, withholds desired items until terms for exchange can be met. It’s not about charity. Not at all. Any act of trade increases the advantages of both traders. And both sets are generally out for themselves, thinking of the other only instrumentally, so to achieve greater returns for each’s own interests.

Market activity implies another rule, a rather different formulation: Offer unto others that which you suspect they want; accept from others only what you want more than what you give.

As a positive imperative, this turns out to be far more effective than the Golden Rule. It does so because it demands reciprocal advantages. In the words of Destutt De Tracy,

exchange is an admirable transaction, in which the two contracting parties always both gain

What the Golden Rule aims for, but — because it mentions no element of contract and terms, and is usually promoted in the context of unilateral charity — fails to deliver, exchanges actually accomplish. The rule that exchanges follow is about reciprocity — which the Golden Rule touches on only by imagining it: The reciprocity is all one-sided, in the imagination and motivation of the actor. In exchanges, the reciprocity is an explicit condition of the transaction.

Further, while the Golden Rule apparently demands that one act to others unilaterally to their betterment by your standards, thus implying a huge element of altruism, trades (exchanges of goods and services) appeal to a stronger motivating force (one’s own perceived interests, whatever they may be) and builds the altruism (the mutual advantage) into the very structure of the transaction.

Traditional moralists and critics of capitalism often decry the horror of people aiming to satisfy their separate, horrid egos, but err in two ways, when criticizing trade:

1. Though both parties to any transaction are seeking their own interest, that interest can incorporate (and often does, perhaps usually does) many elements of altruism. For instance, I may be trading to get the best deal on a First Aid kit for my family or church or fraternal organization. My very aim is to serve others. And that First Aid kit may end up serving strangers or visitors. But in seeking out the best price or the highest-quality merchandise, I am likely to be quite diligent in serving my interest, no matter how broadly my interest may be. This is why Wicksteed coined the term “non-tuism.” It’s not egoism that is served by markets, but all sorts of interests. But each transaction itself, by serving the separate interests of those involved, seems egoistic.

2. Though one typically considers a transaction in terms of its advantage to oneself, the good one offers in exchange for what one really prefers is done so in hope that it pleases the opposite party more than what they would trade to you. Though one can certainly imagine this prospect in as cold a calculation as any, often this goes about in the standard human way, through empathy. And even altruism — direct concern for another — plays a part. After all, we offer things that others want.

3. Then there is the element of the very opposite of “moral hazard.” Call it moral assurance, or moral support. By acting to help another on condition that they help you, you further instill in that other the status of independent, autonomous being. Though the goods you exchange are unequal in value — reciprocally unequal, so to speak (in that I prefer what I get to what I give, and you prefer what you get to what you give me) — a sort of equality between the actors is assumed. Each can walk away before the transaction is made. Or each can gain (if each has not engaged in fraud, and each has calculated the returns from the transaction correctly). Such transactions do not impart a sense of communal solidarity. But they do impart a sense of respect. It may be a grudging respect. But each act implies that each participant to a trade is master of their own values, own decisions. Thus each transaction is a form of moral support to moral autonomy. And this is no small cultural contribution.

The Golden Rule is addressed to unilateral action. Further, it prescribes motive. As such, it limits the purview of the analysis of action. By concentrating on it — as many moralistic folk do — one loses track of the actual chains of causation in the social world. Emphasizing the Golden Rule unfits a person from understanding modern society and its ubiquitous element of trade.

It is no wonder, then, that many moralistic critics of capitalism err in economics — seeing only a fraction of the fractal universe engendered by voluntary trades — for they have been trained not only to not see the full reciprocity in exchanges, but they also have been trained to treat others as less than themselves.

That is, the Golden Rule, by focusing on unilateral action and altruistic motive, itself sets up a moral hazard. It encourages those who attempt to follow the rule to view others as beneficiaries of their acts of kindness, not as independent beings to be consulted before acting. And moralists become arrogant, pharisaical pests rather than helpful guides to action. In politics they add to the rot that the Leviathan state so easily sets into society.

This moral hazard element of a key maxim in traditional morality is, in part, a result of its misuse.

But it is a characteristic misuse. Quite understandable.

I remain convinced that the Silver Rule is superior. (There has been a lot of debate about this.) The rule’s “negative element” of discouraging bad acts undergirds the possibility of reciprocal action through trade . . . and other forms of co-operation. It provides the foundation for Destutt de Tracy’s “admirable transaction.” The Golden Rule, on the other hand, encourages the very kind of over-reaching, over-weening moralism that can corrupt a large society, preventing its full flowering in the vast diversity of mutual reciprocity of trade.

April 22, 2010


The Ruins, a book by C.F. Volney, was widely read and very influential in its day. Now it is scarcely known. Subtitled “Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires,” Volney’s once much-admired work may, today, seem out of style — its method of presentation is truly odd — but its subject and theme are far from irrelevant. This is especially the case since Americans now prepare to vote for one of two imperialists, incumbent President Barack Obama or Mormon millionaire Mitt Romney.

The story Volney tells is a moral one. That is, he fixes his history of the rise and fall of great empires on the moral element, restating social contract theory in a rather poetic manner:

Men, fatigued with the evils they reciprocally inflicted, began to sigh for peace; and reflecting on their misfortunes and the causes of them, they said:

“We are mutually injuring each other by our passions; and, aiming to grasp every thing, we hold nothing. What one seizes to-day, another takes to-morrow, and our cupidity reacts upon ourselves. Let us establish judges, who shall arbitrate our rights, and settle our differences! When the strong shall rise against the weak, the judge shall restrain him, and dispose of our force to suppress violence; and the life and property of each shall be under the guarantee and protection of all; and all shall enjoy the good things of nature.”

Conventions were thus formed in society, sometimes express, sometimes tacit, which became the rule for the action of individuals, the measure of their rights, the law of their reciprocal relations; and persons were appointed to superintend their observance, to whom the people confided the balance to weigh rights, and the sword to punish transgressions.

Thus was established among individuals a happy equilibrium of force and action, which constituted the common security. The name of equity and of justice was recognized and revered over the earth; every one, assured of enjoying in peace, the fruits of his toil, pursued with energy the objects of his attention; and industry, excited and maintained by the reality or the hope of enjoyment, developed, all the riches of art and of nature. The fields were covered with harvests, the valleys with flocks, the hills with fruits, the sea with vessels, and man became happy and powerful on the earth. Thus did his own wisdom repair the disorder which his imprudence had occasioned; and that wisdom was only the effect of his own organization. He respected the enjoyments of others in order to secure his own; and cupidity found its corrective in the enlightened love of self.

But cupidity finds its fullest expression in the political realm, the realm of government, and there the great destruction proceeds:

Under the mask of union and civil peace, [cupidity] fomented in the bosom of every state an intestine war, in which the citizens, divided into contending corps of orders, classes, families, unremittingly struggled to appropriate to themselves, under the name of supreme power, the ability to plunder every thing, and render every thing subservient to the dictates of their passions; and this spirit of encroachment, disguised under all possible forms, but always the same in its object and motives, has never ceased to torment the nations.

This war of all against all takes place within the sphere of government. Thomas Hobbes may have envisioned the problem of internecine fighting as a feature of “the state of nature,” but Volney sees it as an integral part of political governance, and, in it, an explanation of why great states decline. And that they do it in a variety of ways:

Sometimes, opposing itself to all social compact, or breaking that which already existed, it committed the inhabitants of a country to the tumultuous shock of all their discords; and states thus dissolved, and reduced to the condition of anarchy, were tormented by the passions of all their members.

Sometimes a nation, jealous of its liberty, having appointed agents to administer its government, these agents appropriated the powers of which they had only the guardianship: they employed the public treasures in corrupting elections, gaining partisans, in dividing the people among themselves. By these means, from being temporary they became perpetual; from elective, hereditary; and the state, agitated by the intrigues of the ambitious, by largesses from the rich and factious, by the venality of the poor and idle, by the influence of orators, by the boldness of the wicked, and the weakness of the virtuous, was convulsed with all the inconveniences of democracy.

The chiefs of some countries, equal in strength and mutually fearing each other, formed impious pacts, nefarious associations; and, apportioning among themselves all power, rank, and honor, unjustly arrogated privileges and immunities; erected themselves into separate orders and distinct classes; reduced the people to their control; and, under the name of aristocracy, the state was tormented by the passions of the wealthy and the great.

Thus plutocracy, the strain underlying so many systems of governance.

I have only begun to read this work. I am no expert. But a correspondent places the book within the pantheon of classical liberalism:

Thomas Jefferson liked Volney’s Ruins so much he secretely translated it into English. He saw the book as a means to teach future generations about the Enlightenment-based principles upon which the United States was founded. According to evidence discovered by Gilbert Chinard (1923), Jefferson was responsible for translating the first 20 chapters of Volney’s Ruins, while Joel Barlow translated the final 4 chapters. Indeed, the first edition of the so-called Jefferson-Barlow translation, published in Paris by Levrault in 1802, is divided into two volumes: chapters 1-20 and chapters 21-24—an implicit recognition of the work done by two different translators.

Jefferson, an amazingly industrious intellectual, had given a similar attention to one of my favorite liberal economists of the late Enlightenment period, Destutt de Tracy. The French Liberal views of the time exerted a great influence on American thought. But that was a long time ago. This influence has now almost totally dissipated — alas.