The Dord of Darien

Musings from the Mayor of the Internet

On the morality of exchange

I posted a throwaway snark earlier on the Tweeter that’s earned me some questions. Part of the trouble (most of the trouble, probably) is the data I had to elide to get it into 140 characters, so I’m going to expand it (with context, yet) here. And because I want to, I’m going to delve into the idea a bit. Not my standard bill of fare on this blog, but, hey, if you’re not interested, here’s a very round cat you can pass the time with instead.

Let’s define some terms. A "transaction" refers to any exchange made between two (or more) people, whether successful or not. If I give you a dollar for your widget, that’s a transaction. If I just give you a dollar, that’s a transaction. If I offer you a dollar for your widget and you tell me to get bent, that’s a transaction. If I punch you in the face and take your widget, that’s a transaction.

We then define "violence" as the intentional violation of another person’s natural rights without that person’s consent. Therefore, for our purposes, if I punch you and take your widget, I have used violence against you. However, in these terms, a boxer punching his opponent during a boxing match would not be construed as violence, since both boxers have agreed to accept being punched as a condition of the match. (If you would like me to define "natural rights," I’m willing to do so, but a thorough exploration of the concept really demands its own blog post rather than an aside here.)

Now, it is intuitively obvious to most people that there are some transactions that are wrong. Very few people, I’ll wager, would disagree that it’s wrong to kill someone and take his wallet. So clearly there must be some quality that separates the "wrong" transactions from the "non-wrong" transactions. Can we identify that quality? I say we can: that quality is violence. Any transaction involving violence is wrong, and that includes not only violence done (such as punching you and taking your widget) but also violence threatened (such as telling you to give me your widget or else I’ll punch you). Those are the "wrong" transactions. Everything else is in the "not wrong" transaction pile.

This seems simple, but is made complicated because many people do not want to believe that violence is always wrong. There is significant impetus (some natural, some conditioned) to accept that, sometimes, doing violence is okay; that, in the right circumstances, it is okay to harm another human being.* These people cannot accept that violence is itself the problem — that violence is what separates right from wrong — but they still recognise that some transactions are wrong. So they end up inventing arbitrary categories to place transactions in; we’re told that "exploitative" or "unfair" transactions are wrong, but neither of these qualities is objectively obvious. They’re really just synonyms for "wrong," and the whole argument becomes circular.

The impetus for my tweet was seeing a tweet by another person (who shall remain nameless; this is not an "attack" on that person, so his identity is unimportant) claiming that the "freemium" business model is exploitative, and thus morally wrong. I contend that this is absurd. No maker of a freemium product has ever committed violence against me — not even the subtle violence of fraud. They offer me a set of products or services at a stated range of prices, and I am free to purchase any, all, or none of them at my discretion. How is this "wrong?"

Aren’t you all proud of me? I wrote this whole post without using the words "state," "taxation," or "conscription" even one time!

Self-defense is a complicated issue, and one on which there is significant disagreement among thinkers greater than myself. I’ve come to believe that self-defense is permissible in a certain set of narrowly-defined circumstances because the initiator of violence, by initiating violence, tacitly accepts that the transaction will be conducted with violence (much as in the example of the boxers above, except that the agreement is rarely mutual). As such, one has the right to defend onesself, or to come to the aid of others, in the following circumstances:

  • There must be an actual threat of violence. It is not legitimate to "defend yourself" against inconvenience or disadvantage. You cannot use violence to defend yourself against not getting a seat on the bus, or against other people not giving you something you want, or against people not buying your product.
  • The threat must be imminent. If I get into a fight with a co-worker, and I’m sitting in a bar stewing about it after work, and I’m saying to a buddy "I should just kick that guy’s ass," there is no imminent threat, and no violent response is justified. Similarly, if I punched you in the face last week, there’s no justification for you to attack me today, since the threat is long past.
  • The force employed must be proportionate to the threat. If the threat is that a jilted lover will slap you, shooting her is not justified. If she’s trying to knife you, that’s a different story.
  • The use of violence must end when the threat ends. If I break into your house, and you shoot me in the leg, and I’m down and no longer a threat, there is no justification for you to execute me.

In those limited circumstances I believe self-defense to be permissible. I am hardly the guru on the mountain, however, and there are far more capable thinkers than I who disagree.

February 9th, 2012 Posted by | Bullshit | 6 comments