Rebirth of Reason


What's Wrong with a Little Injustice?
by Joseph Rowlands

In my recent article, "Those Tough Choices," I gave an example of lending money to a friend.  I suggested that if the money is lent without formal agreement, it can be abused by the borrower, who may delay repayment, even when he has enough to pay back.  By setting terms such as interest, collateral, and a schedule of repayment, you can more easily define and enforce justice.  You avoid the damage in the first place.

It may seem like a lot of hassle.  Isn't it reasonable to ask why someone should go through such hurdles?  If the borrower does take advantage of them, you've learned something valuable, and it may be a small price to pay to find out that they don't consider your friendship that important.  And besides, if he is a friend, isn't it rude to act so untrusting towards him?

The scenario was presented as if the borrower were immoral, and a lousy friend who would take advantage of your generosity.  But I didn't explore the other possibility.  What happens when you're dealing with a moral person?  What happens when he isn't the type to take advantage of you?  So let's imagine it.

The borrower takes the money, and knows he has to pay it back, but say it'll take a few months.  He gets money every two weeks from his job, but now he has to figure out how much he should set aside for repayment.  Should he go three months eating Ramen (note: very inexpensive food - college students often eat this) and never going out or doing anything?  Or should he eat normally, still go see movies as he usually does, and so forth, but save a bit of the money for repayment?

The responsible friend is going to feel guilty about every non-essential expense.  He doesn't want to take advantage of his friend's generosity, or even appear to do so.  And he knows that every "luxury" purchase he makes is money that could be going to paying off his debt.  Without a clear notion of what's an acceptable level spending while he's in debt, he'll try to err on the side of responsibility.  He'll spend less than he normally would.  The ambiguity is actually hurting the responsible friend.

What happens if the lender had decided to set terms like repayment and interest?  The responsible friend no longer has the problems.  He knows when he's expected to pay the money back, and he can choose what to do with the rest of his income.  He can make his own choices, and have room to optimize his values.  Without this clarity, any optimization would appear to be at the expense of the lender.  So having specified rules actually helps the responsible friend.

When the rules are specified, we have a win-win situation as far as justice goes.  The responsible person is allowed to optimize his own life without fear of guilt.  The irresponsible person is not allowed to take advantage of the lender.  When the rules are vague, we have a lose-lose situation.  Immorality is not protected against, and the moral is punished.

Let me provide some other examples of this.  Imagine going to lunch with a friend.  You offer, at the beginning of lunch, to pay for the meal.  Once again, the irresponsible person might take advantage of your generosity, ordering a 3-lb lobster.  What about the responsible person?  While he may normally decide to order himself a beverage and a dessert, he'll want to be careful not to take advantage of your generosity.  He'll look at the prices more than he might normally do, and choose a less optimal meal.  What he might consider fine with his own money seems a bit too luxurious when it's a friend who's paying.

Again, the irresponsible person is gaining, and the responsible person is losing.  Justice is inverted.  How could it be fixed?  What if you offered to pay after the meal was over?  Then the other person would choose his meal based on what he's willing to pay.  There would be no thought of taking advantage of you.  Again, a win-win situation for justice.

In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand gave an example of a motor company that implemented a system of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need."  What was the results?  As just one example, the irresponsible people took advantage of the system, had babies, had illnesses, and otherwise generated new "needs."  The responsible people felt guilty about every "need" of theirs, since it was at the expense of other people.  The immoral benefited, while the moral was punished.  What would fix this?  Paying people based on what they earned.

There are countless examples of unjust systems that reward the immoral and punish the good.  Under a system of joint property, one person can spend irresponsibly while the other holds back and ends up paying for it.  Or one may work hard to get a raise while the other one doesn't bother and just spends the results.  Private property fixes these problems.

All of these examples invert justice, punishing the good while rewarding the evil.  Is it a coincidence?  I don't think so.  Generalizing the situations, we see someone creating a situation where an immoral person is allowed to benefit from his immorality, at least in the short term.  He's given the opportunity to benefit at the expense of another, and without having to resort to force.  Someone has voluntarily set himself up to be taken advantage of.

The moral person in these scenarios is given the same opportunity, but declines because he knows there are larger costs down the road.  But declining is not so simple.  By being in a situation where his gain is another man's loss, he's not able to optimize his own set of values.  Any optimization is at the expense of other people.

In the wider context of life, Objectivists know there is no conflict of interests.  We know that one man's gain is not another man's loss.  We know that we don't have to choose between sacrificing others to ourselves, or sacrificing ourselves to others.  There is a harmony of interests.

But in these scenarios, that harmony of interests disappears, at least in the smaller context.  One man's gain is suddenly another man's loss.  Being in that situation means choosing between sacrificing the other, or sacrificing yourself.

Look at the examples in this light.  The borrower of the money feels guilty for spending anything more than absolutely necessary because it is at the expense of the lender.  His gain is the other man's loss.  The only way to avoid it is eating Ramen for three months.

The lunch guest has the same problem.  Every dollar he spends for lunch is at the expense of his friend.  He can't have more than the minimum without hurting his generous friend.  It doesn't matter that the friend probably doesn't mind.  The lunch guest knows it is at his expense, knows that one man's gain is the other's loss, and he has to choose who to sacrifice.  The other scenarios are the same.

To avoid these unjust situation, you need to focus on the fact that a conflict of interests is created.  Whenever you have that, injustice follows.  By putting a little thought into things, you can maintain that harmony of interests, and support justice while you're at it.
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