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Production of Bads Not Goods

Production of Bads Not Goods

4 Mins
January 26, 2011

Question: Ayn Rand holds that the virtue of productivity entails the creation of objectively valuable (life-furthering) creations. As per her definition of value, she is claiming that only the production of these objects is in one's rational self-interest. How is it inimical to one's self-interest to produce and sell an object that has a reliable market value but no or negative objective value (life-hindering)?

An example would be producing and selling mind-inhibiting drugs with a high market price, ignoring potential problems with illegality.

Answer: In a society that is basically Objectivist in its beliefs and laws, the only actions that would be illegal would be those that impose harm on others through physical force. Selling mind-inhibiting drugs would not be illegal in such a society, because drug abuse causes physical harm only to the abuser and it does so by the abuser’s choice. Nevertheless, you raise a good point: is it moral to produce and sell products that it would be immoral to use?

Yes, it would be immoral to produce a product that only serves to promote suffering and vice, one’s own or those of others. Rational selfishness seeks first and foremost to live in a manner that is life-supporting, independent, and that affirms one’s self-esteem. If one creates a harmful product for one’s own consumption, one is obviously acting in a self-destructive manner. But what about producing harmful products for sale to others? After all, a crack dealer’s dollars buy just as good stuff as a grocer’s do. In a developed market society, any income can be used in life-supporting ways. So  your question really comes to ground in the issues of maintaining independence and pride.

It would be immoral to produce a product that only serves to promote suffering and vice.

One aspect of independence is thinking for oneself. But there is an existential aspect too: being able to pursue one’s values on one’s own terms, with one’s own life and happiness as the basic guideline. A lady-in-waiting in a medieval court may have dressed  sumptuously, eaten well, and met the most eligible bachelors, but she devoted her hours to the caprices of the Queen and lived on the Queen’s sufferance. That’s short-term success without the independence needed for long-term success.

To live independently, one needs to live in harmony with the life-needs of others and one needs to be connected to any given profession only insofar as it serves one’s own values. The latter point means that one needs to be able to do work one values and enjoys, and that fits with one’s goals and needs, in a range of possible economic and social situations. The former point means that one needs to create value for others—if one is going to live by trade, then to do so positively and healthily is to provide others with goods: products that serve their lives and happiness.

Dealing in bads—products that play to vices and enhance suffering—puts one at odds with the people one is counting on for one’s livelihood. This can’t be good. It means one’s customers are likely to be irrational and self-destructive. It means one probably has to lie to them, becoming complicit in their evasions. It means one has to fear any moment when their vices slip over into crimes—given how self-destructive these folks are, how might they act? And it means one has to fear any moment when they see the truth—how might they react?

In addition, dealing in “bads” is harmful to one’s long-term self-improvement and self-motivation. To be objectively proud, one must be able to base one’s self-esteem on the facts about one’s life and actions. And one must be able to project a future of ongoing self-improvement—what Ayn Rand called “moral ambitiousness.” But conflicts with the needs of others, and dishonesty too, aren’t the kinds of acts on which to base a healthy self-esteem.

So Objectivism does view dealing in “bads” as contrary to one’s own interests. In other words, it’s immoral.

This principle is difficult to apply however. In the first place, we are all individuals. What may or may not be in one’s interest is personal and can be complicated. So we should respect the decisions of others, so long as they are not plainly immoral.

An additional complication is the fact that few products are simply “good” or “bad” to all people in all contexts. A small amount of product X can be good, while a lot is bad, and vice versa. A little water in the air makes it easy to breathe. In fact, we add water to dry air with humidifiers. But a lot is stuffy and oppressive; too much, and you’re drowning! And one person may need what another person dare not touch.

Ethanol is a water-soluble drug that in moderate doses—say, the much-ballyhooed glass of red wine—confers some health benefits as well as relaxation and a loosening of emotional repression. But alcoholism is a terrible vice, destroying livers and lives, and every year a few fools poison themselves chugging vodka. Is it wrong to produce alcohol or run a liquor store? Only to the degree that doing so requires deception and manipulation of the vices of others. But one could say the same thing about as innocuous a job as selling cars.

Furthermore, most of the transactions in a developed, capitalist economy are isolated and relatively anonymous. Sellers don’t need to know much about their buyers’ habits and reasons, and often can’t know. So there is a tendency in modern market dealings to stick to a cash-and-carry transaction model that is open to a very wide range of customers, whatever their intentions or habits.

Still, if there is a vice or danger associated with a product, the producer can advert to it and ask purchasers to formally affirm their intentions for use, just as one signs a user agreement when buying computer software. Within the bounds of justice and prudent business practice (which go hand-in-hand), producers can and should do what they can to make sure their dealing with their customers are based on the principle of win-win, of mutual benefit for all parties in the trade.

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