Thursday, September 30, 2021

A Buying-and-Selling World

 Some people argue that capitalism has distorted our thought processes. A lot of what is said in this line is obvious nonsense and based on taking 'capitalism' to mean things they don't like, but I think it's worth noting that there are some plausible candidates for this actually happening, in which we've mostly moved from thinking about something in general to thinking about it only insofar as it is relevant to buying and selling.

(1) Property. I was reading up on some of what people say about Kant's sexual ethics. Kant takes there to be a fundamental ethical problem in sexual matters that has to be faced: namely, that in sex you are using another person and/or letting yourself be used by another person. By the End in Itself formulation of the Categorical Imperative, you cannot merely use someone; you must treat every person as having a value in and of themselves; you must treat everyone's nature as a rational being as an end in itself, not simply as a means. Kant's solution to this is an agreed formal arrangement in which you give yourself wholly as a person to another person, thereby giving them rights over what concerns your happiness, but the other person gives themselves wholly to you, thereby giving you rights over what concerns their happiness, i.e., a marriage. As Kant puts it, "But if I yield myself completely to another and obtain the person of the other in return, I win myself back; I have given myself up as the property of another, but in turn I take that other as my property, and so win myself back again in winning the person whose property I have become." 

Needless to say, this talk of becoming another person's property has distressed those of delicate sensibilities. But, whatever might be said about the substance of Kant's position on marriage, a lot of the distress is due to not understanding that in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the term 'property' is much broader than it is now. We think of property as real possessed commodities, the things you buy and sell. But they, unlike us, still heard the actual roots in the word, property or ownership, i.e., own-ness. And everything that you could identify as your own, in any sense, is something to which the word could apply in some context. The problem sex is dealing with is that in sex your body and yourself are being treated as someone else's to use; that is, as property. Not necessarily as commodity (Kant makes this clear), but as belonging to another for their use. Now, the End in Itself does not say that people can't be used; it says that people can't be just used. So in a sexual situation when aren't you being just used? If the other person lends themselves for your use as well. So in sex you are taken as another's "mine"; that is acceptable only if it is done in such a way that they give themselves as a "yours". We literally write love songs on this principle. Now it's a little bit trickier than that; you actually need a guarantee, and you need to give a guarantee to another, and it has to be one in which you both at least potentially and in principle have a means of recourse if something goes wrong; and that is the point of the institution of marriage for Kant, and why he thinks sex outside of marriage is always morally wrong -- in every other situation, you are failing to establish reasonable safeguards for yourself against being treated as a mere thing, and you are failing to give the other person reasonable safeguards against being treated as a mere thing. In any case, it has nothing to do with being 'owned' in the sense that we own land or cars. But people have come to think of ownership or property almost entirely in terms of property-for-buying-and-selling. 

(This causes immense confusion in other areas as well; for instance, in the libertarian doctrine of self-ownership.)

(2) Corporation. What do you think of when you think of the term 'corporation'? Chances are very good that you think of a corporate firm for buying and selling, i.e., a for-profit business corporation. In reality, a corporation was (and in many contexts still is) an organization that can act as one for the purposes of obligation and responsibility. Now, corporate firms are a very common kind of corporation. But, as Roger Scruton pointed out in his paper on corporate persons, corporate firms are not only not the only kind of corporation, they are not even the most fundamental kind. Corporate firms are almost entirely artificial corporations, existing as corporate only by law. But the fundamental corporations are natural corporations: churches, religious orders, unions, families, states, certain kinds of cooperative voluntary associations. These are corporate even if they aren't recognized as such by law. In fact, the central forms of corporation are churches, religious orders, and charitable fraternities; the artificial corporateness of corporate firms is an extension by law to firms of certain features that had already had to be recognized in churches, religious orders, and charitable fraternities. We, however, have come to take the derivative buying-and-selling sense of corporation as the paradigmatic and primary sense. And I don't think it's unfair to say that, in our first glances, at least, we don't really see churches and the like as unified agencies, despite the fact that they still do often function this way, but we do see, immediately, business corporations as unified entities.