Capitalist ethics?

Capitalists, as I understand it, are people whose goal is to realize the greatest profit, for the least risk and smallest investment.

The equivalent for workers, then, would be to work as little as possible, for as much as they can.

The “work ethic”, however, says there’s an moral obligation for employees to work hard:


“Achieving its goals” and “functioning at its peak,” I presume, mean creating the greatest possible profits for the company, and therefore it’s owners.

Is there any such thing as a capitalist ethic, beyond self-interest?

In my experience, capitalism is the best economic system for promoting charitable concern for others, while communism is the one that most promotes selfishness. Everywhere you look in a communist country you see people being self-centered, from the world famous selfishness of the North Korean Kims to the East German workers who just didn’t bother to work.

The United States is certainly the nation that’s been the most capitalistic for the greatest length of time. It’s also the nation that’s produced the largest number of charitable organizations and the greatest variety.

Americans give a lot, too. I’m not sure the best way to measure it. A lot of sites I see like percent of GDP.

Nope. There cannot be. If someone practiced such an ethic, his competitor, by ignoring it, would obtain an advantage over him and drive him squat out of business.

This is why we have to have government regulations against even the most massive and egregious pollution and dumping of toxic chemicals. The companies that do that sort of crap save money, and the companies that dispose of chemicals responsibly are at a competitive disadvantage.

Corporate CEOs don’t like pollution. They have kids too. But their companies cannot have ethics, because if they do, they fail in competition.


Companies don’t have ethics because they are not human, not because of some rule of competition.

CEOs may or may not hate pollution. Most hate it in their own backyard, but don’t care about someone else’s backyard.

Really? You’re quite sure no profit-seeking company has ever done something ethical at the expense of profit.

Let’s look at environmental issues, since you mentioned them. There are many companies that have done things for the environment, such as installing energy-efficient equipment, buying power from renewable sources, or purchasing carbon offsets, even when the government didn’t require them to do so.

There are also government regulations that increase pollution, such as the corn ethanol mandate. But that’s another thread.

It’s worth noting that the grand majority of Americans are capitalists. Most of us think that it’s perfectly reasonable to be paid in accordance with our labor, to be able to have private property and possessions, and to allow the market to determine the optimal way to create and distribute the things that society needs. So overall, I’m a bit curious about the way the OP is written. It seems to be implying that there’s only a small percentage of the population practicing capitalism.

But yes, capitalist thought was first codified by Adam Smith, a philosopher. He noticed that nations could war for territory and view everything on it as a limited resource which, the more you had, the better off you were; or nations could trust to technology and specialization to trade with each other, preferring to better the world rather than trying to better their own position. He suggested the latter. Overall, when individuals were allowed to own their own business and they could profit from it, those owners would figure out how to make their business offer more to the public, consequently making them develop new and more efficient ways to create the things that the public wanted. Greater freedom of economic activity, overall, caused a social good, without the need of preaching to them, threatening them with damnation, nor commanding them from a central location.

So basically the whole core of capitalism comes from one philosophers goal to make the world a better place, where instead of figuring out how to split the pie best, we make more pies.

Now, technically, this sort of works regardless of ethics. Good people work hard to make things that society needs because they are good people. Bad people, in a capitalist economy, will still work hard to make things that society needs because they can get rich doing it and one day retire to their own personal island, with a twenty year old trophy wife/husband.

And it’s always cheaper for a country to trade for the things it wants, rather than to spend a whole bunch of money to invade, conquer, subjugate, occupy, and manage a second country. So, again, simple economics plays into the hands of ethics, regardless of the motives of the actors.

Capitalism results in ethical behavior while never imposing any concept of ethics on people. It basically just tells people to live as they want and to trade with others, with the assumption that people will of their own act in a mutually beneficial way, regardless of their personality.

Others, for example Ayn Rand, have suggested a pattern of ethics to go with capitalist thought. But that’s probably just as silly as Christian or Confucian philosophy, which try to tell people to act like someone who they aren’t, and consequently fall apart. We’re not good, we’re not bad, we’re not selfish, nor are we selfless. We’re just human.

Capitalism was noticed, by Smith, to play into human nature and push it in a positive direction. There was no grand underlying theory. Rather, he noticed what actually happened in the real world, pointed it out, and wrote why he thought that it had that result and suggested that others try it to see if they saw the same thing happen.

Overall, I think that human nature makes us all want the world to become a better place. None of us want to have our children die when they are young, nor do we wish that on others. None of us want to live in a windy shack with no heating, nor wish it on others. We’d all like to have a computer and, overall, we’re quite happy if everyone else does as well. On the whole, humanity is a fairly benevolent force when allowed and, subsequently, once exposed to a functioning capitalist market, societies tend to stick with it.

Slavery and child labor flourish whenever they aren’t aggressively prosecuted, even in capitalist societies.

The Capitalist and the worker in the OP could arguably be said to be doing the same thing: maximizing productivity. Which will tend to be a good thing for society.

It would be detrimental (if it would make any sense at all) to define moral behaviour as taking the biggest risk with the biggest investment for the smallest possible gain.

I think you’re grossly overestimating human nature, and there are whole swathes of people who wish people they hate (for whatever reason), their families and their entire communities would just die, or never have been born.

The one failing I see in Capitalism is the one I used to hear old people complaining about; only now its younger people too. The so called epithet “They don’t make em like they used to”. Capitalism used to make products better, via the incentive of competition. Now, that incentive seems to make them worse. Giant multicorps don’t seem to compete with each other the same way that small companies have too; to a big corp, its easier to make more profit by convincing folks their stuff is the same quality it always has been while actually they have made them crappier, cutting costs while maintaining the selling price. Who here thinks their current car, truck, boat etc would last forty years, even given excellent service? I don’t. Not for a car, not for a tractor, not for a washing machine or a newly built home, not for a lot of stuff. Even old style electronics seem to be better! Ten years seems to be the magic number now, with two years warranties worth less than the paper they are written on.

A companies goals used to be make the best you can. Now its make people believe its the best you can make, skimp on quality as most you can, and then sell up.

I meant “humanity” as a whole (i.e., the average of the group). Of course, at the individual level, that doesn’t hold.

Companies respond to the market, and the market has strongly shown a demand for cheap junk. It sucks for everyone who likes quality products, because they’re now comparably more expensive than they once were (relative to their low quality alternatives), but that’s just life. It is still possible to buy nearly every product either made in the USA or in another first world country, and most people don’t care. And some products, namely cars, are substantially higher quality than they ever were in the past.

So did I. if it were otherwise, Anarchism and pure Socialism would be viable alternative government strategies because we wouldn’t screw each other over at the slightest provocation.

The “work ethic” isn’t presumed to spring from nowhere. Read, at the same page and linked under “related articles”, How to Increase Employee Work Ethic, which describes a system of recognition, monetary awards, and other managerial practices, the sum of which is “Don’t be shitty to your employees, or they won’t work hard”. Sounds pretty ethical to me, it’s basic reciprocity.

Is there any ethic that’s not fundamentally derived from self-interest?

Well, the ones that don’t poison rivers aren’t really the problem, are they?

Actually a very good explanation. The flip side of the coin is capitalism turns people into commodities and that a lot of hard working people are just one or two or three steps away from homelessness. A couple weeks laid off from work and they are finished. If the don’t have family to help or money saved or a friends couch to sleep on they are homeless. Capitalism is hardly fair to the children of poor people. I’m not sure you can blame it on capitalism directly but it is largely our disregard that allows us leave old people to waste away in the nursing home. People are simply too busy to visit or moved halfway across the country for work. I think racism and sexism are aggravated by sexism since it is a competition and those with power are by definition going to seek to consolidate their power. I think capitalism puts us into a frenzy of consumerism and teaches us to value the wrong things. Life is superficial. We live too fast. We consume too much. Capitalism has polluted the planet to the extent that it will have effects for thousands of years and has given far far too many people diseases like leukemia and cancer. If I tired hard I could probably think of other complaints but that is enough to get us started.

No one can say your post is false. Only that it is not the whole story.

People respond to the market? That almost sounds as if you are saying people want cheap crap that is going to fall apart in two years…


I disagree. I think that my 2007 Ford Focus is a much better car than anything that Ford made in the 70’s. Competition lead Ford to improve its cars.

I think that the Kindle I’m using right now is a better device than the first computer I had, which used 5-and-a-quarter inch disks and had no hard drive. I think 60-inch TVs with satellite are better than 6-inch black and white TVs. I think almost everything is better today than it was 40 years ago, at least where consumer goods are concerned.