Black Friday Special: The Morality of Profit
by Thomas M. Miovas, Jr.
On this “Black Friday” where retailers are expected to make a profit and being attacked for doing so, I thought it would be important to explain why making a profit is moral and necessary – and the root of living life the human way. “Economics in One Lesson” by Henry Hazlitt gives a good example of this process: If one plants ten potatoes in the ground and only gets ten potatoes out of the ground at harvest time, no profit is made. However, one has exerted energy and thought to plant those potatoes, basically wasting one’s time treading water – and one has not accomplished anything. More broadly speaking, the term “profit” is a teleological concept, as Ayn Rand explains in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, “In regard to the concepts pertaining to evaluation ("value," "emotion," "feeling," "desire," etc.), the hierarchy involved is of a different kind and requires an entirely different type of measurement. It is a type applicable only to the psychological process of evaluation, and may be designated as ‘teleological measurement.’” All things that live require taking action and gaining values to sustain their lives, and if this action takes up more time or energy to accomplish something than what is returned out of the action, then the living being dies due to not making a profit. In other words, if a bird chased down and ate bugs, but didn’t get more out of digesting the bugs than it took for it to chase them down and eat them, then the bird would die. In this regard, the life of the living being is the proper standard of evaluation, and the teleological measurement would be to relate the total action taken to acquire a good versus the extended life made possible by utilizing that good to further one’s own life. Profit is life – to not make a profit is to spend one’s time and energy not sustaining oneself, and in the long-run cannot support one’s life -- and one will suffer or die. By life as the standard of evaluation (a type of teleological measurement), doing this consistently would be anti-life and not of value to those treading water instead of making a profit.
The ability to get more out of an action than the effort one put into the action is the very root of the ability to live, and is moral according to the Objectivist Ethics. Hence, earning a profit in the marketplace is an act of living, and by the proper terms of evaluation, is extremely moral and just. To say that retailers earning a profit are wrong or immoral is to be anti-life, and is based on the premise that death is more important than life. Objectivism rejects this premise and celebrates the fact that a living being, and man in particular, can take the actions necessary to live its life by earning a profit.
Some might protest at this point and say, “Yes, that is all good and well for the retailer, but how am I making a profit by purchasing items? If Wal-Mart makes millions of dollars on Black Friday, but I only get that HD TV, how am I profiting? And how is this fair?” To take this attitude is to drop the context as to why one bought the item in the first place. When one works for a living, the profit the worker makes is the savings he can put aside that is above and beyond the immediate needs of the moment, so he can buy things of greater value further down the line. If one is rational, one spends one’s money on those things which further one’s own life; and this can be measured in terms of more time given to live (like eating food) or more enjoyment out of life (which is important since we have free will and must desire to live). So buying that HD TV or that iPad or that smartphone is all good and well for the consumer, given the value of that product to him for the purpose of sustaining or enjoying his life. In other words, both sides benefit if one is a smart retailer or a smart shopper. Such a trade is mutually beneficial and for the life of either side of the trade.
This is what makes capitalism good.
So, enjoy your Black Friday shopping spree, enjoy your values, and don’t spend all your profits on things that are not of value to you in the heat of the moment. Celebrate that fact that you live in a human society and can purchase things to sustain and to enjoy your life with just the effort of handing over some dollars that you earned by similarly trading value for value at the workplace (your time, effort, and expertise for his dollars).