Well, I ended up typing my notebook up much faster than I had anticipated. Circumstances ended up making it convenient for me to do a weekend-long marathon to just get it out of the way.
I couldn’t resist putting out some pieces of it into the world.
- Here’s one on faith.
- Here’s one where I tried to ask “how do we learn from experience?” and ended up tangling myself in knots about the relationship between ethics, politics, and rhetoric.
- Here’s one on how we need a minimum of general decency to work together towards shared goals.
- Here’s one on the much-maligned consumer.
Putting that last one out, in particular, has been valuable in terms of drawing feedback. I have a pretty good idea how I’m going to revise it now, though I think some of people’s critiques apply less when the piece is situated within the context of the rest of the book, where it acts more as a balance than as a euphoric ode to consumption.
Anyway, going through everything all at once to type it up was a nice exercise. I’m feeling quite good about this project right now, which probably just means I’m in for another humbling.
At the end of the day, though I can describe what I’m aiming for with the book, it’s important not to lose sight of the “so what?”
Below are two fragmentary, somewhat redundant stabs at that. There will only end up being one of them in the end, probably something much longer and drawing on elements of each, but show your work, right? These fragments were produced as part of the process.
What Does This Book Offer?
People find it important to have a story, a story which gives them reasons for what they do. What I want to do is provide a story of what it means to make an honest living while remaining a decent person. A story about commerce and business and why these are activities we should largely be proud of rather than ashamed. I think that most working people know this on some level, but the stories they have available to them are pretty bad.
I want to demonstrate that making a living is an important part of who you are, for any moral adult. The story begins with the seven classic virtues from Christianity and antiquity, inspired in particular by Deirdre McCloskey’s The Bourgeois Virtues. McCloskey wanted to make the case to academics that the typical person in a developed nation leads a morally rich life, contra the academic consensus of the past century and a half.
I want to take this case outside of the ivory tower, to my fellow employees as well as our managers, and executives, and founders, and investors, freelancers and sole proprietors. I want us to be proud of what we do and to feel confident defending it. There is nothing illicit about business and commerce. The slave trade is evil, but so is slavery without trade—the German labor camps were no more moral for lack of trade, though no less. Evil is evil, in the market, in public office, and in the gulag. Contra many enthusiasts on behalf of the market, evil does pose a real problem there, and must be resisted. People have done terrible things to one another in pursuit of personal gain.
But the culture of commerce which fostered the Great Enrichment of the past 200 years, give or take, is not a culture of evil or exploitation by and large. Instead, it is a culture of mutual respect, of individual dignity regardless of station, of polite trade in lieu of conquest or coercion. Of creative energy and problem solving, deal-making and promise honoring. The worst of humanity will always be on display wherever humanity is present at all. But the enemies of commerce miss how often in business we see the very best of humanity and what we can accomplish together. This is both the reality on the ground and what we should be continually striving for, lest we lose it for lack of understanding what we have.
So that is what I hope to offer—an ode to our very best selves in the working world, and a call to redouble our efforts to be at our best.
Moreover, I would like to persuade you that, contrary to the theories of many economists, while commerce and trade may not require all of us to be our very best selves every single day, it does require most of us to be quite good more often than not. If we cannot trust each other, if we expect cynical opportunism and no better, then we will not be able to work together or trade. Simple as that.
The gains of the modern world rest on a foundation of decency that is surprisingly hardy, but still quite fragile. We owe it to our ancestors who got us here, and our descendants who will inherit our contributions to that legacy, to continue reinforcing that foundation.
Intro (Second Stab)
The classical virtues are prudence, justice, courage, and temperance—from ancient Greece and Rome—and charity, hope, and faith from the Christian era. Thinking in terms of these virtues can help shine a light on just what a good life is by thinking about the kind of person we must be to live it. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but useful. I will focus on these seven but will often refer to others, or use more familiar synonyms—like willpower, patience, and discipline instead of temperance, or generosity and love instead of charity. I do this because some of the classic seven can sound stodgy to the modern ear, and I want you to feel comfortable using the language of virtues in everyday conversation and in defense of enterprise.
While there are seven in this list, and many more we could speak of, in a sense they’re all united; you can’t have one without the others. It all boils down to being the kind of person who understands the right thing to do in a given situation, and wants to do it for the right reasons. Prudence is the skill of reading the situation and understanding what to do and why; and temperance the skill to do it just the right way without excess or deficiency. Moreover, courage in the pursuit of injustice is no virtue, but being both courageous and just is.
What will follow will be a look at each of the virtues, and their place in the world of business. I will argue, in each case, that there is much more to employer, employee, managers, contractors, and clients than greed and power. I don’t think this should really surprise anyone in the working world, but I’d like to help provide a better language for talking about it than defenders of free markets have offered in recent history.
After making this argument, the second part will attempt to “show” that it is correct. I will draw on examples from Julia Child to a small local theater, from grocery stores to tech startups, from big corporations to painters and novelists.
All of us must answer for ourselves the question posed by Socrates thousands of years ago: “how are we to live?” I am not going to try to answer that for you, but the virtues have helped me find my own way. So while I primarily want to give you the tools to defend our way of life, I also hope that you will find them helpful in answering this question for yourself. That it will help to develop an image of the kind of person we should all strive to become, and the sort of life worth living.