A friend recently told me about a situation at work that could have turned out badly for her. She had scheduled a matter on behalf of her boss which required the services of an outside vendor. She got a call from her boss when the vendor didn’t show up at the appointed time. Fortunately she had made the necessary arrangements and was able to forward her boss an earlier email she had sent to the vendor confirming their phone conversation and the date and time of the event.
Having recently read several excellent essays on individualism and the value of self-interestedness to society in the economic context, my thoughts turned to my friend’s self-interested behavior with respect to making sure the responsibility for this scheduling mistake fell where it belonged – with the vendor rather than with her. It made me wonder, why does society seem to readily accept the contention that there is societal value, even rising to the level of a personal moral obligation, in selflessness in the financial or material context but not in others? If sacrificing for the benefit of others is an inherent good or even a personal moral obligation when it comes to money, why not other, less tangible things like credit for good work or blame for mistakes? Why doesn’t society expect my friend to selflessly accept the blame for the vendor’s mistake?
Some might argue that money and material goods are different than credit or blame and it is that difference which justifies a societal moral mandate that money should be sacrificed for the benefit of others but credit and blame need not. Let’s examine some of the potential bases for such an argument:
- The distinction lies in the severity of consequences of the unmet need. Some need money for the very necessities of life such as food, clothing or shelter. Because it’s potentially a matter of life and death, self-sacrifice of money is required where self-sacrifice by yielding unearned credit for good work or accepting blame which is the responsibility of another is not.
Such a response might be worthy of consideration if expectations of financial selflessness were limited to meeting only the most minimum needs of the most unfortunate among us, but that is not the case. Self-sacrifice for the benefit of numerous endeavors and causes is approved if not lauded by society at large.
- Credit or blame are often objectively earned by virtue of the actions of the persons involved. In the example of my friend, the responsibility for the scheduling mistake was clear and therefore should be attributed to the person who made it.
This argument fails in the financial context anytime the money involved is ‘objectively earned’ by the potential giver or the ‘responsibility for earning it’ is clear. Moreover, I have never heard or read that society’s endorsement of financial self-sacrifice is dependent upon how money was acquired, i.e., that financial altruism is a moral obligation only when the ‘giver’ came by his money by means other than his own effort, labor or inventiveness. To the contrary, financial self-sacrifice is most often supported on the basis of relative need, e.g., ‘those who have more than they need should give abundantly to those in need.’ This raises the second basis for the argument that money is just different than credit or blame…
- It makes no sense to attribute credit or blame on the basis of need. No one ‘needs’ unearned credit and no one ‘needs’ to avoid blame. Conversely, some people have more money than they need and some don’t have enough.
Setting aside for the purpose of this discussion the question of who is to determine the type and degree of ‘need’ required to trigger the moral obligation of self-sacrifice, the premise of the argument is faulty. It is every bit as ‘reasonable’ to attribute blame or credit based on need as to do so with money. It takes little effort to come up with hypotheticals to illustrate the point. For example – one new employee is on an initial probation period and has already made a few minor mistakes while a second has been employed for fifteen years during which he has built a record of top performance and near perfect accountability. If the second employee performs an important and difficult task without any assistance from the first and the employer asks who accomplished it, the ‘relative need’ argument would dictate that the second employee defer to the first because he ‘needs’ the credit more. Experience tells us that most of society would not accept this reasoning. Thus, ‘need’ does not explain why society has expectations of altruism as to money but not with respect to attributing credit or blame.
- Money is different than credit or blame on a fundamental level. Money is impersonal while getting credit and avoiding blame are very personal.
Money is no less ‘personal’ than getting credit for a job well done. Indeed, money is the ultimate ‘credit’ for a job well done. To an individual who works for three hours to earn $50, the loss of that $50 represents three hours of his life. The loss of three hours to a task for which he foregoes remuneration is at least as personal as losing the praise for doing it, arguably more so. If you work for three hours, which would you rather do without, the pay you earned, or the pat on the back?
- Money is very important to a comfortable life while getting credit and avoiding blame are not.
This argument is merely a modified version of the ‘necessities of life’ argument but it extends the contention beyond the necessities of life to ‘a comfortable life’. The argument can be extended even further to illustrate its ineffectiveness, e.g., ‘It might be argued that ‘money is very important in acquiring a major league baseball team while getting credit and avoiding blame is not’. Ultimately, the premise of this argument conflicts with the common understanding of society’s expectations with respect to self-sacrifice. Society at large would balk at the notion that some owe a moral obligation to provide a ‘comfortable lifestyle’ to others. Society’s acceptance of the concept of financial self-sacrifice does not go that far. So yes, money is different than credit or blame. In the abstract, most would acknowledge that money is more necessary to achieving a comfortable life style than obtaining credit or avoiding blame. However, since society generally does not acknowledge an obligation of some to provide a ‘comfortable lifestyle’ to others, this argument does nothing to answer our question.
Perhaps the reason society has come to view financial self-sacrifice as beneficial to society and a personal moral obligation but has not done so with respect to the attribution of credit or blame has little if anything to do with the differences between the two. Perhaps the answer lies in what the progressive movement has always sought to achieve in the realm of redistributive politics.
The original notion of a ‘safety net’ has greatly expanded beyond assuring the necessities of life because the government has acted in accordance with progressive principles of egalitarianism rather than classically liberal principles which permit individualism and personal responsibility to flourish. Over the decades, the progressive and collectivist notion that ‘we’ have an obligation to provide any number of goods and services to those who can’t afford them or won’t conduct their personal affairs or modify their spending priorities so that they might acquire them for themselves has only spread and become more prevalent. Thus, the safety net has morphed into a welfare state that imposes the rank redistribution of wealth upon society.
In order to dissuade the populace from outright rejection of this long term program of egalitarianism, leftist forces in government, academia and some religious institutions have systematically inculcated the people to accept the notion of an obligation toward financial self-sacrifice without any logical, well-reasoned support for the obligation itself and without any definition as to its limits. The lack of any defined limits in the societal context then extends to egalitarian policy making…government is not constrained by any limiting principles when redistributing wealth in advance of egalitarian goals. Accordingly, it is by this undefined but ever growing and widely accepted obligation of financial self-sacrifice that government is able to undertake its egalitarian wealth redistribution activities without so much societal push back and often with societal approbation. Society having been inculcated to accept the obligation in the abstract, is effectively conditioned to acquiesce when the government implements specific redistributive policies.
In contrast, inculcating society to the notion that credit or blame should be selflessly reattributed would do nothing to precondition society to accept wealth redistributing policies. To the contrary, as I hope I’ve demonstrated in this essay, inducing the populace to consider altruism with respect to the attribution of credit and blame would likely have the opposite effect by illustrating, rather than obfuscating, the lack of any rational basis for such an obligation. It is by comparing and examining the difference between society’s amorphous but seemingly ever widening expectations of financial self-sacrifice to society’s lack of such expectations with respect to other, less tangible things like credit for good work or blame for mistakes, that we can more readily see the lack of any well-reasoned basis for a moral obligation toward the financial altruism with undefined or nonexistent limits society seems to countenance.
Notwithstanding the counterproductive nature of such a program to progressive and collectivist egalitarian goals, we are seeing instances of redistributive policies taking effect with respect to credit and blame. Such policies are being manifested in public schools in the form of group work or working in teams. The group is graded as a group, regardless of the amount or quality of the contribution of the individual group members. The hardest working contributor gets the same grade as the laziest slacker. The ostensible reason for group work is often said to be an effort to teach students to work collaboratively since collaborative work is necessary in many jobs. But I fear there may be some who intend that group work lacking in individual accountability will be the next step in conditioning society to extreme collectivism. Such efforts could conceivably lead successive generations of students to accept that they will not be blamed for failure, nor credited for success, other than in a group context. It is hard to imagine a more successful intermediate step toward the ultimate societal acceptance of wholesale collectivism.
We should think more about the supposed moral obligation of self-sacrifice in any context. Is there a logical and well-reasoned basis for such a moral obligation? If so, what is it? What are its limits? If there are none, what should they be? Why should we accept that we have a general and undefined moral obligation to give away money and material items but no corollary obligation to reattribute anything else that might also be needed or helpful to others? Coming to grips with these issues is important to understanding and reversing our decades long trend toward bigger, more redistributive government and collectivism and away from first principles, individual liberty and personal responsibility.