The Horror of Commerce

Why do our moral intuitions recoil at the prospect of commercial transactions? One answer: the norm of sincerity governing mundane social interactions (a norm that likely emerged as a paradoxical byproduct of commercial society itself).

Take a typical example. Everyone hates shopping for cars. The most obvious reason is the massive information asymmetry characterizing such transactions; the salesperson knows a good deal more about both the quality of the product and the profit margin than does the buyer. In addition, the dealership system minimizes competitive pressure, dramatically reducing the buyer’s bargaining power.

But beyond such mundane practicalities lurks a more intimidating force: cynicism. When I enter a car lot, I know that the salesperson will lie to me. This is not a matter of probability or speculation; the entire process is normatively governed by strategic motives that mandate mutual deception. And as uncomfortable as I may be departing from the relative candor or tactful pretense pervading everyday life, the real problem here is that I am supposed to endorse and even prefer deception as a norm. A fairly sophisticated bit of ethical reasoning is presupposed by this otherwise odious activity, such that I am effectively obliged to treat its prima facie immorality as a manifestation of higher virtue.

Standard accounts of market logic mobilize forms of structural functionalism to explain the benefits produced by social systems. This is the import of the Invisible Hand: social systems convert our “private” motives (I use scare quotes to underscore the irreducibly social character of these motives, insofar as they obey or mediate moral imperatives aimed fundamentally at securing reciprocal cooperation) into outputs that serve our ends by violating the rules governing means. Thus lawyers and judges must bracket their “personal” interest in justice and instead pursue “cynical,” “partial” goals (winning, status, career advancement, remuneration) so that the legal system can generate fair, impartial, valid, and legitimate outcomes that serve as its proxy for ever-elusive “justice.” Politicians, parties and branches of government function in the same way. And so does the market economy, where selfish competition, normally curbed by ethical strictures, is encouraged in order to minimize the profits it promises—to the collective benefit of all.

In Freudian terms, my pro-social impulse to behave honestly is prohibited and must be sublimated into what appears to be its opposite in order to serve the same pro-social aim. It now becomes my social obligation to behave selfishly and dishonestly, and to treat the other as a means to my own ends. Stranger still, I know very well that the promise of private benefit is a ruse, a lure into competitive behavior, and a promise expressly designed to be broken by the very effort to fulfill it.

The result is a highly counter-intuitive moral universe. When I enter a car lot, I expect, and am expected to endorse, the salesperson’s dishonesty, because I know that if we both submit to the game of mutual deception, and if all others do so as well, the outcome will be lower prices and higher quality of the car over which we are bargaining. We must do our part to facilitate a distributed, trans-personal system to function in such a way that it may produce the very result motivating our mandatory selfishness (and indeed the situation in which we find ourselves). The entire procedure is fundamentally structured by a bizarre sort of presumptively self-annulling cynicism in which lies become true and good becomes evil in order to produce itself as good.

This, of course, is a concise definition of monstrosity, or horror.


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