Tao 19

If we question established teachers, their curricula, and the shared assumptions that underlie them,
people will learn to think for themselves.

If we cease treating acts of benevolence and philanthropy as exceptions worthy of praise,
people might discover their own goodness.

If manufacture is not motivated by profit but by need,
debt and theft will all but disappear.

These three examples are misunderstandings of virtue:
Names without an understanding of what has been named.
If you would seek your true self,
Begin with simplicity,
Overcome your desire for these false adornments,
And embrace the nature of the uncarved block.

All 81 chapters of our version of the Tao Te Ching are available online for free here. If you are so inclined, an updated version of our translation is available as an e-book, here.

5 Responses to “Tao 19”
  1. Chris L says:

    “If manufacture is not motivated by profit but by need, debt and theft will all but disappear.”

    I always find this profit/needs (sometimes painted as wants versus need, or need versus greed) distinction problematic. When I labor, I need to make a profit or I can’t live. My need *is* to profit.

    But, it seems obvious to me that profit can’t come at all expense… at the cost of other workers’ lives, for example.

    How do we determine (or discover) what is enough profit and what is too much? What is good profit and what is bad?

  2. Dave says:

    I think maybe your issue with profit is definitional. Perhaps what you mean when you use the word profit (as in “I need to make a profit or I can’t live”) is what I mean when I say the word benefit. Of course your labour must benefit you or why would you bother?

    When I think of profit, I don’t think simply of a fair exchange (for example, a day’s pay for a day’s work is a fair exchange to me). Profit, to me, is a feature of exchanges where one of the participants gets more than they put in. Rather than a fair exchange, one participant has made a “profit” off of the other.

    Whether or not this is an accurate use of the word is up for argument, but it’s certainly how I think of the word — at least in the context of the above passage.

    From this perspective, I would call all “profit” bad, being sure to make the distinction between profit and mutual benefit. That is what I think was meant by making the distinction between manufacture motivated by profit as opposed to need. If your reason for creating something is personal gain rather than personal subsistence and mutual benefit, then situations of inequality will arise and theft will become more commonplace.

    Of course, this way of thinking is very out of place in a capitalist society.

    For an interesting talk on mutually beneficial exchange, check out this link.

  3. Chris L says:

    The problem remains no matter how you define the words. It seems like an easier conversation if you stick to the definition of profit that most people know, but both routes lead to the same conclusion.

    Although it’s not explicitly said, you’re making a moral judgment about when the return a person makes from a transaction is too much. When you talk about a day’s pay for a day’s work, the basic feature of any worthwhile endeavor is that it provides a greater return than what the person put into it that day. If your job only paid you enough for the food you ate that day, the electricity used to heat your home, the clothes on your back (averaged over the time they last, let’s say), and nothing else, you would move on to a higher paying job as quickly as possible. People always get more back than what they put in, on this we agree.

    Now as an aside, you might argue that all that extra return is really just the price of a person’s labor. So with an “honest day’s work” a person is not really getting more back than what they put into it, they’re getting back the appropriate “benefit” for whatever skills and labor they’ve supplied. In this case you’re just framing the same problem in a new light. If it indeed is the case that a person *can* get too much back for the effort they put in (i.e. they gain “profit”, according to your definition), on what basis do we decide that a certain rate of pay for a person’s labor is too much? What is the basis for saying “X dollars is a fair price for your day’s work, but Y dollars is not”?

    If we decide to steer clear of the idea that “all extra return is just the wages of labor”, the question of “how much extra return for a day’s work is too much” remains.

    This moral idea lurks in your distinction between “benefit” and “profit” (or in my Capitalist Robber-Baron language, between a fair profit and unfair profit with profit being “How much I received for a thing minus how much I paid for the thing”, and the word fair as equally nebulous as the distinction between your versions of benefit and profit). Your phrases:
    “a fair exchange”
    “exchanges where one of the participants gets more than they put in”
    “personal gain rather than personal subsistence and mutual benefit”
    “profit as opposed to need”
    all imply some already-known moral determination about what rate of pay a person should get for their work (taking into account the above assumption that all benefit in excess of a person’s cost to labor is really just what they’re paid for their time).

    Outside of caricature, I think you could find few people who would argue for “profits at any cost!”. Taking motivation into account presents yet another moral judgment that must be made. What is a good reason to seek an increased return for your labor, what is a bad one? This problem is implied when you say “personal gain rather than personal subsistence and mutual benefit”, and “profit as opposed to need”.

    If there is indeed a distinction between “benefit” and “profit”, and one between personal gain and personal subsistence, how are these distinctions made? It seems to me that there is no difference between the two in either case, except according to a moral judgment regarding what is fair. And in making this moral judgment, your idea is indeed a very capitalist one, as people make this decision every day when they participate in commerce free of coercion.

    The line “If manufacture is not motivated by profit but by need” thus implies a moral distinction that only exists if “fair” is something other than “what people are willing to pay”, and which would need to be defined somewhere.

  4. Chris L says:

    There’s more moral stuff implied in free market capitalism too of course, which should be acknowledged. The idea of rights (property rights, civil rights) and the idea that all transactions are fair only if both parties are fully informed make the framework within which “what people agree to pay” is reasonable.

    If there is some other definition of fair that obtains, it’s not clear to me that theft and debt would be eliminated unless you could convince everyone involved that the moral prescription was indeed true and should be followed. Otherwise you’re just back to the usual might is right (or “might enforces morality).

  5. Dave says:

    I say this with love, Chris, but I think you’re missing the point.

    While your lengthy criticism of the terminology we’ve chosen to use is valid, it’s pretty clear that our fundamental disagreement lies somewhere other than in the defining of “profit” or “fair” or any other words we might dispute. I made a mistake in saying that our problem was definitional.

    To be clear from the outset, I’m making it my goal to explain myself — specifically with regards to the line in our translation that caused all this kerfuffle in the first place. As such, I hope you’ll forgive me if I focus on making my point rather than attempting to cut down yours.

    “If manufacture is not motivated by profit but by need, debt and theft will all but disappear.”

    As a starting point, I’m going to suggest that we stop trying to define “fair” in the terms we’ve been using (simple exchanges between people). If we’re talking about me building a fence for you and you paying me for it, fair is — and should be — completely subjective. If I want more money than you think is fair, you won’t agree to the exchange. If my wage is too low to make it worthwhile, I won’t bother. In simple cases like this, I have no problem with letting the participants define what is fair for them.

    Where the problem of “profit” being the sole motivator of exchange and manufacture becomes much more evident is at a much larger scale.

    Early on in your comment, you say: “People always get more back than what they put in, on this we agree.” Maybe this is where our problem lies because, no, Chris, I don’t agree. What is often the case in this sad world of ours is that people put in far more than should be asked of them and they get back next to nothing.

    You can call cliche on me if you want, but it’s a well-known statistic that the majority of the world’s wealth is controlled by a ridiculously small part of the population. Personally, I think millions and billions of dollars is too much for anyone to control while there are people starving on slave wages all around the world. I don’t give a damn how they made it, either. I think it’s excessive, obscene and wrong. I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon here, but if you disagree with me on that, then I don’t think we’re going to be able to come to an understanding on this one. If you don’t think that kind of excess is.. well… excessive, then we disagree in ways that no amount of discussion will be able to fix.

    But notice here that I am — to a certain extent — doing what you’ve asked of me. I am making a very definite statement regarding what I believe is “unfair.” Asking me to draw a specific line where fair becomes unfair is asking too much, perhaps, but I can say with great confidence that one person living in mind-boggling opulence while others struggle for the bare necessities is UNFAIR.

    And here, I think, is where the point I’m trying to make is made. You said: “Outside of caricature, I think you could find few people who would argue for “profits at any cost!”” I hate to tell you this, Chris, but — while they are perhaps walking caricatures — the profit-at-any-cost people DO exist. And while you’re right that there are only a few, those few control most of the world’s wealth.

    Reductive as it sounds, let’s use Nike or McDonald’s or Wal-Mart as our examples. Typically, these are some of the most massively profitable businesses in the world. The people in charge of them enjoy the ridiculous opulence I disapproved of earlier. The people who actually work at ground level making shoes and clothing, cooking and serving food, and ringing up sales and stocking shelves quite often live beneath the poverty line. I call this unfair, and while I can’t specifically define for you what “fair” is, I think it’s pretty obvious in which direction it lies.

    Now I know we’ve disagreed in the past about crime’s relationship to inequality, but I hope you would agree with me that people not having enough while others have more than they need is at least one source of crimes like theft. Is it not a fact that there are far more poor people in jail than rich or even middle-class? We never said that all crime would go away, we merely said that if human need came before profit debt and theft would all but disappear. Sure, some people would still steal out of greed, but I guarantee you that if that wealth was distributed more fairly there would be less crime.

    I’m anticipating some complaints from you, Chris, and i respect your right to make them. But try to understand where we’re coming from on this. I look forward to your response.

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