Buying and selling has always had a negative association among intellectuals and moralists, who will cite Jesus chasing the money-changers from the temple, or Shylock — the despised and unreasonable money-lender of The Merchant of Venice — to demonstrate that certain human virtues must be valued well above any rate that is negotiable. But, while that is undeniably true, the experience of life shows how simplistic is that explanation. Individuals may be virtuous, of course, or dishonorable, but commerce in itself — buying and selling — is certainly good. The difference between satisfying or fulfilling others’ needs (food, clothing, shelter, illness) and exploiting those needs can be a matter of kind (selling stolen goods, or addictive substances); or a matter of degrees (price-gouging), but the ingenuity and initiative that seeks to fill a need in general brings progress. The virtue, if there is any to be ascribed in such activities, will precede and guide the action.
We should all accept that at this point in human history commerce may be the only thing that unifies us, and that I suspect is the reason we now see businesses and business leaders seeking the distinction and nobility that virtue confers.
For example, Apple CEO Tim Cook recently told the New York Times, “I think we have a moral responsibility to help grow the economy, to help grow jobs, to contribute to this country, and to contribute to the other countries that we do business in”. This observation follows Cook’s discursion on a range of Apple initiatives (all corporate facilities are powered by renewable energy sources; an Apple curriculum for app development has been defined and provided to community colleges), but by indirectly laying claim to moral rectitude he also achieves some commercial exaltation: Apple shareholders can absolve their consciences of any guilt over their extraordinary gains, or soothe their frustrations if they begrudge any dividends that are slow to materialize. Legislators can absolve themselves for conferring tax breaks a new Apple data center. And, of course, consumers can be elevated by the good being done with their “contributions” to the cause of digitalizing and entertaining their fellow humans. The virtue Cook claims is not limited, you see, “like the gentle rain from heaven.”
And he is not alone among business and commercial figures now seeking moral virtue as a new aspect of their public identity. Amid much controversy last month, several high-profile CEOs quit their positions on the president’s Manufacturing Jobs Initiative and Strategy and Policy Forum, resulting in the dissolution of both of those dubious entities. They didn’t want to be associated with him or his positions, which is their right, but their scruples did not preclude them from accepting invitations to these business cabals just a few months back — when as often as not the justification for joining involved some dilation about representing the interests of colleagues and shareholders. They’re serving the public coming and going.
Consumer advertising has been signaling virtue for decades, so it’s not surprising to see it gain new prominence now, when promoting one’s personal brand is a mission for upright souls in the chaotic market that has supplanted civil society. What else can one offer as proof of one’s goodness in an age when every traditional value has been discarded, dishonored, or degraded.
So, will commerce bring us back to virtue? The question of whether virtue is acquired by faith or actions has lingered over civilization for more than a millennium now, and it does so because the question is more enlightening than the answer. In the strange morality play of our age there are heroes, victims, survivors, fighters, and we presume to play these roles to amuse ourselves. But they are caricatures of behavior in a time when character is called for.