Forests, Trees, and the Limits of Moral Reasoning from the Belly of Capitalism

By Jonathan Donald Jenner

Capitalism is all around us. And because of that, we easily forget about it, in the way that a squirrel might be thrown by the concept of ‘forest.’ Of course, if prompted, we know it’s there (it’s on our citizenship exam!). It’s one of the amazing things about capitalism: as it lives in our minds, it’s both everywhere and nowhere at the same time. We contribute to this omnipresence/invisibility when we posit the capitalist process as natural, or as the inevitable end of history, or collapse the particular social institutions of capitalism into the generic and universal term ‘the economy.’ That is, we push capitalism into the background and inhibit our ability to use capitalism as an analytical category in our moral reasoning. This erasure, then, weakens our moral reasoning and hinders our ability to liberate ourselves.

When we look around the world, we see things we don’t like: poverty in the midst of plenty, persistent unemployment, long standing and widening disparities between groups, and environmental ruin. To engage in adequate moral reasoning about the things we don’t like, we need to understand what their causes are. Here by way of assertion, but worked out elsewhere in detail: many of the things we don’t like are caused by capitalism. But since the culprit – capitalism – is pushed from our field of view, our moral reasoning is rendered inadequate by extension. Here, some of the well-worn rhetorical mechanisms that come from this phenomena:

  • There Is No Alternative (TINA): This claim concedes that bad things might come from capitalism, but appeals to the ubiquity of capitalism to compel obedience from those who are hurt by capitalist processes.
    • Example 1: Claims like “workers in country x must accept wage cuts and cutbacks in social programs or industries will move to country y, because there is no alternative.”
    • Example 2: Claims like “inequality might be bad, but it’s necessary for growth”
  • Confusion of Symptoms & Causes: When capitalism fades to background noise, we continue to seek causes for things we don’t like, and often attribute causality to other symptoms of a broken system.
    • Example 1: Claims like “Addiction to substances causes unemployment, so temperance will be accompanied by economic well-beinga.”
    • Example 2: Countries pushed into poverty first by colonialism and later by structural adjustment policies have often sought to nationalize key industries as a way of growing and maintaining wealth for all citizens. But pundits love to erase the international political dimensions to poverty, and choose to focus on response strategies of countries like nationalization, and positing claims like “nationalization causes poverty, so everything must be privatized.”
  • Obfuscation of Deeper Moral Questions: By naturalizing capitalism, the scope of moral questions is limited to moral tiddlywinks while missing moral tidal waves.
    • Example 1: As a child, and pondering moral questions with my playmates, we wondered if it would be morally acceptable to steal food if your family was hungry. We never wondered that it might be morally unacceptable that families could be hungry in the first place.
    • Example 2: Raising drug prices for sick people by 5,500% is perfectly legal, but you’ll get done up if you deceive investors.
  • Foothold for False Narratives: When capitalism causes something we don’t like but is not a suspect, easy narratives that allow people to focus responsibility for their ills, either by charlatans or well-meaning-but-misinformed narrators:
    • Example 1: Claims like “Your dollars don’t stretch as far as they used to, but a return to the gold standard would solve that by curbing inflation,” and other goldbug talking points.
    • Example 2: Claims like “Immigrants blah blah blah…”

Enter Freakonomics Radio, who in a recent episode took on payday lending for moral consideration, in their podcast “Are Payday Loans Really as Evil as People Say?” Their narrative hook begins with Sebastian McKamey, who was ticketed $150 by policemen for smoking a cigarette too close to a bus stop [possible moral objection #1b], and who, with a job making $8.45 and a few normal bills to pay [possible moral objection #2c], needed to take out a loan of $200, for which he paid back the principal plus $50 in interest and fees [possible moral objection #3d].

For 49 minutes of a 52-minute show, the Freakonomics team explores the minutiae of possible moral objection #3, and we hear a whole range of rhetorical mechanisms listed above. They ask if payday loans actually help or hurt people and several experts and a president weigh in on the topic. It’s here where we hear that There Is No Alternative: if payday lenders are required to lower interest rates, they won’t be able to offer loans, and poor people will lose financial services they so desperately need. They ask if payday borrowers understand the terms of loans? It’s here where deeper moral questions are obfuscated by sidestepping questions. The episode finds that most borrowers (60%) understand the terms of the loans (except for those who don’t), and so the loans shouldn’t be called predatory. Moral considerations are conflated to trickery instead of, say, using power to extract value, and the relative non-trickery of payday loans stands in for its morality. The moral terrain of the debate implicitly assumes that the background context of capitalism is neutral, and this framing is key, as it situates the moral conversation as one about x or y interest rate (e.g. check out the debate in the comments) and not as one about the morality of a system that produces payday loans.

But then, at 49:33, catharsis:

The payday-loan industry is, in a lot of ways, an easy target. But the more I think about it, the more it seems like a symptom of a much larger problem, which is this: remember, in order to get a payday loan, you need to have a job and a bank account. So what does it say about an economy in which millions of working people make so little money that they can’t pay their phone bills, that they can’t absorb one hit like a ticket for smoking in public?

Finally, the Freakonomics team shifts the terrain of moral consideration to systemic, structural questions about capitalism, and acknowledges that for moral reasoning we should look not just at some trees, but at the forest. Unfortunately, the show doesn’t explore this question in depth (though it does use the question to plug its next episode on guaranteed basic income). But it seems an important gesture, so maybe the economists are getting better.

Like forests to squirrels, capitalism affects us. And so it’s critically important that we consider systemic and structural questions about capitalism when we ask questions about the morality of mechanisms that operate from within capitalism. We need to avoid, and push back upon, a way of understanding problems by focusing too narrowly on specific mechanisms and ignoring the context in which those phenomena operate. Our understanding of the world will be better, and our possibilities for liberation will be greater.



a Here, I don’t want to imply that the reverse claim, that unemployment causes addiction, captures the totality, complexity, and hardship of addiction. I only want to point out that when the sources of unemployment are obscured, it’s easy and tempting to find them elsewhere.

b This would seem like a good time to ponder the morality of generating city revenue from ticketing poor people. This angle was not considered in the show.

c Median market rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Chicago is $1,970. If Mr. McKamey works 40 hours a week at his above minimum wage job, he’ll make $1,513 a month. He would need to work 52 hours a week just to pay rent, with $0 left over for food, insurance, phone, transport, entertainment, municipal fines for smoking, and miscellany. These numbers strike me as morally outrageous; these numbers were not the focus of the show.

d The show only mentioned he paid back the loan ‘quickly,’ so the interest rate is unknown, but payday lenders often charge up to 400% annual interest rates for short term loans