Sunday, October 04, 2020

The Ethics of Salesmanship

In yesterday's post I compared Stefan Molyneux's ethical worldview (hereafter simply philosophy), as expressed in his novel The God of Atheists, to the Old Testament Law. On reflection, this isn't really fair to the Old Testament. Whatever its demands, the Old Testament provided a set of bright-line rules such that you could be pretty sure whether or not you had broken one. But it was often difficult for me to predict which of the characters would be judged guilty of ethical lapses by philosophy. (Short answer: most of them.) Spoilers follow.

The early pleasure in reading TGoA was the depth of Molyneux's entry into the interior lives of his characters, the rich detail with which he describes both their internal motivations and the complexity of the personal and professional situations in which they live and work. His description of Middle School politics was spot-on, for instance, his revelation of the utter cynicism with which the project of starting a "boy band" is undertaken was laugh-out-loud funny, and his characterization of the upper-middle-class economy was biting and incisive. Molyneux writes with real insight, I believe, into the ways people behave and then deceive themselves about it. More prosaically, I learned a lot from him about the mundane worlds he writes about, such as investing, finance and commercial software development. Even the sex scene, which I earlier described as paint-by-numbers, had I will freely admit those numbers exactly right. This, for once, is in favorable contrast to Ayn Rand, whose novels I have been informed are populated by caricatures.

The problem is that all the richness of his characters starts to recede as they turn to philosophy. The three children -- Stephen, Sarah, and Alice -- the description of whose peer culture and their roles within it had me nodding in recognition, slowly become something with which I completely lost any identification. Stephen, the professor's son, begins his descent into philosophy by asking, "Are my parents happy?" What child does this? I didn't. I don't even do it now, not in any existential sense; I am content to accept everyone's presentation at face value. Come to think of it, I don't really stop to ask myself whether I am happy, only thanking God every day for such blessings I have. That is enough. Similarly, all the children demand to know why their mothers stay married to their fathers. Short of what must be an extremely high threshold of domestic violence, what child sniffs at her parents' marriage, "not ethical", and believe divorce would improve anyone's happiness?

As I mentioned in the last post, it was Stephen's father's crime, undertaken with malice aforethought, of driving Gordon to drop out of college and then writing up Gordon's thesis proposal as his own, that struck me as the most obvious. But the second most obvious crime was when Justin, the elder son of another of the families, willfully destroys the prospects of his incipient boy band with a profanity-laced tirade during its first live television appearance. This occurs in the middle of what the reader will recognize as a bout of depression, but which Molyneux attributes to a troubled conscience.* Fair enough. But the consequences were devastating, taking with them the fortunes of the third family, whose elder son Ian was also a member of the band and whose father Al was its producer and agent. Justin is the one character in the novel given something of a redemption arc by his embrace of philosophy, yet in the final chapter, while he admits to Ian that Ian may be justified in hating him, Justin never actually repents, nor even apologizes. It is not at all clear that Molyneux even recognizes Justin's action, betraying the trust and hope of everyone who had invested their money, time, and energy into the project, as even wrong.

At the other extreme, Molyneux presents Terry, the lead programmer hired fresh-out-of-college by Dave, a tech entrepreneur and Justin's father. Terry labors heroically at low pay** to meet the commitments his boss makes to their customers. He's the one character who presents as fundamentally decent, yet even he comes under the children's judgment for (and I'm half-guessing here) learning on the job? Not knowing that most of Dave's previous ventures had failed? Not quitting when a parent company bungled the stock options? Not appreciating the extent to which that stock was overvalued? That's a lot of expectation to lay at the feet of any one person, as he himself says when the children confront him. Like I said, Molyneux doesn't straw-man his counter-arguments.

Dave and Al represent middle cases. Dave is guilty of a range of petty graft as he struggles to maintain his family's upper-middle-class facade, but his primary failure is being out of his management depth, making promises to investors and clients both that, while not bald-faced lies exactly, are backed up more by hope and wishful thinking than experienced, hard-headed realism. Al, the talent agent for musical groups, seldom shepherds them to wild success. Both of them are in a sense salesmen whose primary product is neither music nor software but risk. They offer investors/musicians the opportunity of wealth/fame at the risk of loss. Both of them share in that risk (in Dave's case, more than he knew), but that is not enough. Molyneux to his credit, is trying to make a valid ethical point about how such opportunities should be offered appropriately, but on the strength of the novel I can't say I know where the ethical line actually is. Dave is clearly over it, but Al? His son Ian says at the end, "My dad f*cks people for a living." I read nothing that justifies that assessment. I expect most musicians are eager for any shot they might have to get paid for doing what they love. Al provides them that shot.

Professional ethics are a serious subject, and most professions take it seriously. The engineering department at which I taught covered it, as does the FE exam. But I'm not sure that philosophy is any help. Towards the end, Gordon-the-sock-puppet sneers at the prospect of developing an "Ethics in Accounting" course: "the basics", he calls it, "what people should already know." Maybe. But maybe not.

* I think. There were a few passages that, while I admired them for their florid prose style, were substantively incomprehensible. Justin's depression was described for an entire chapter in clinical detail, yet at the end I still couldn't summarize what it was all about.

** I'm not sure when the novel is set, but it was published in 2007. Justin's salary is given at $40K, which hasn't been the median starting salary for a tech professional since the mid-nineties.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I can believe that some children ask whether their parents are happy. When I was a child, my father made great public gestures of happiness, but I did not believe that he was happy. My question was not, "Is my father happy?" but rather "I am pretty sure Dad is lying when he says he is happy, but how do I prove it to my idiotic siblings?"