143: Buying and Selling: Moral Matters

Unto this Last, published first in serial form in 1860 and then as a small book in 1862, was a watershed work, making it indubitable for the first time in elegant English that every economic transaction was, in addition to being an interaction where money was given to gain some service or product, a moral act.

Moral in this way: anything which you buy or consume, Ruskin said, inevitably does you  either some good or some harm (or some combination of each). It either makes you stronger or weaker. The principle was, he said, as eternal as the sun’s rise or the night’s fall.

Think of it from a purchaser’s point-of-view using a stark, not-to-say discomfiting, example (an example which, of course, has no relevance to anyone reading this post): the pornography you buy or spend time with on the internet may titillate for some period of time, but, on a more profound level, it harms you, specifically by reducing sexuality, which at its best can be a sacred, heaven-blessed, interpersonal experience as well as something intensely pleasurable, into mere lust, a transformation which eliminates all the just-mentioned delighting elements. To say it another way: pornographic sexuality banishes the possibility of experiencing some of the most wonderful and beneficent aspects of being human; it, in short, impoverishes you.

But this unhappy effect does not simply visit you, the consumer of something pornographic; it enters the door of everyone who is involved in the industry (for such, alas, it is).

Again, Ruskin: any thing you purchase or consume was produced by some one. During that creative process, depending on what the thing was that was produced and how everyone involved in the process was treated, every action that led to the final product had either salutary or desultory effects on all who were involved. To return to our unsettling example: those who have chosen to create pornography for public consumption–that is, those who have decided to find a way or seducing you into repeated consuming of varying scenes of performed sex, have had to turn their own ideas of sexuality away from any thought of the possible sanctity or emotionally uplifting elements which might attend its expression so that they can view it as a mere act, or series of acts, which, tantalizingly depicted, will pander to their “clients'” salacious impulses and tempt them into opening their pockets.

But there is yet more: the producers and consumers of porn are only two players in the sorry story. Because, if producers are going to make their desired profits, they must bring their product to the market and, in order to do that, they must hire other human beings to perform the erotic acts they have imagined, a hiring and performing which, in the same manner as noted above, degrades the humanity of all those hired. In short, the entire pornographic enterprise damages, weakens, everyone involved in it. As in all economic transactions, money is exchanged for a product, but, Ruskin argues, such coin is forever tainted, money made by willfully harming humanity.

The argument regarding the harm perpetrated is seen even more clearly if we consider two additional elements: the evidence (xtensively documented) which details the mental anguish and anxiety which devolve on many participants in the pornographic enterprise and if we imagine for a moment that those performing or being performed upon in this unpleasant business are children (as, I have been told, is not uncommonly the case)! To thicken the distasteful stew even further, consider one more element of Ruskin’s argument: to wit, that the purchase of any product acts as an unambiguous signal to its producers that they should make more of the product, because if you bought it surely someone else out there can be convinced to buy it too.

Ruskin made his most detailed case for the morality of economic transactions in the second of the four essays that comprise Unto this Last, “The Veins of Wealth,” a marvelous metaphor, pointing to the living and breathing consequences of all exchange. For an excerpt from that source, see Post 106: Getting and Spending .

But the argument Ruskin made in Unto this Last concerning the eternally moral nature of exchange was not the first time he had visited the issue. More than a half decade before, in 1854, in the second of his “Lectures on Architecture and Painting” delivered in Edinburgh, he shared the following thoughts, which, arriving as they did in the midst of a lecture on architecture (as was so often was the case in his talks), must have surely startled the ears of those sitting in the chairs in front of him. The last sentence pertains not merely to money matters, but to anything of import:

You know how often it is difficult to be wisely charitable, to do good without multiplying the sources of evil. You know that to give alms is nothing unless you give thought also, and that [is why] it is written not “Blessed is he that feedeth the poor,” but “Blessed is he that considereth the poor” [Psalm 41: 1]. And you know, in addition, that a little thought and a little kindness are often worth more than a great deal of money.

Now this charity of thought is not merely to be exercised towards the poor. It is to be exercised towards all… There is assuredly no action in our social life, however unimportant, which by kindly thought may not be made to have a beneficial influence upon others. And it is impossible to spend the smallest sum of money for any not absolutely necessary purpose without a grave responsibility attaching to the manner of spending it.

Any object we covet may, indeed, be desirable and harmless so far as we are concerned, but providing us with it may, perhaps, be a very prejudicial occupation to someone else. And then it becomes instantly a moral question–whether we are to indulge ourselves or not. [Succinctly, whatever] we wish to buy, we ought first to consider not only if the thing be fit for us, but if the manufacture of it be a happy and wholesome one, and if, on the whole, the sum we are going to spend will do as much good spent in this way as it would in any other way. 

It may be said that we have not time to consider all this before we make a purchase. But no time could be spent in a more important duty… Let us only acknowledge the principle: Once make up your mind to allow the consideration of the effect of your purchases to regulate the kind of your purchases and you will soon easily find grounds enough to decide upon. 

The plea of ignorance will never take away our responsibilities. 

Enough for today. However, given the importance of this moral matter in trading, I will come back to it, if only because, between that later moment and this, we will have gone to the store or logged onto Amazon.com many times.

Be well out there!


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