The Cost of Doing Wrong

It seems that many people have a vested interest in publicly proclaiming that there is no such thing as right and wrong.  Some of them even anticipate making profits out of advertising aimed to convince an audience that doing wrong is fun or in some other way inherently rewarding.  Yet even if morality is a merely human invention (a viewpoint I do not hold), so is language.  So are computers.  That does not make them any less real.  I have been struck recently by noticing the very real cost – in terms of money, time, quality of life, and general happiness – of doing wrong.

Consider greed.  Some things are inherently expensive, but the quest for higher profits  leads to artificially inflated prices.  Capitalism’s defenders are quick to postulate that higher prices will lead to other brands being preferred, and this is why monopolies must be busted.  But this is also why pharmaceuticals are so profitable, because upon FDA approval their manufacturers have a few years of monopoly before competition intervenes.  In the interim, the developers are of course attempting to recuperate the (potentially large) costs of research and experimentation, but they are also looking to rake in large profits, and they often do.  Pharmaceutical company leaders are often very wealthy people.  Who is their wealth coming from?  Some of it is coming from the people who need the medication, but whose insurance won’t cover it.  Sick people, perhaps in a poor financial condition, are made poorer so that the wealthy can become wealthier.  But much of the cost of medications is coming from insurance companies, who spread the costs among the rest of society.  So Pharmaceutical company leaders seeking to maximize profits become wealthier at the expense of the rest of us, and some of the people hardest hit are the poorest.  If company leaders did not seek to maximize profits, but only to make enough to live on, then most people in society would have more money as a result.

Or consider insurance companies, which also consistently make profits.  If they were not attempting to make profits, but only attempting to pay their administrators’ salaries so that they can conduct business, insurance premiums would be lower.  Since insurance is required by law, the rest of society would benefit from insurance companies becoming formally non-profit.  Greed harms society as a whole.

Dishonesty also costs society.  The reason Americans have government regulatory bodies like the FDA and the USDA is because manufacturers of food and medicines cannot be trusted to maintain adequate quality control themselves.  Before the FDA, purveyors of patent medicine (sometimes labeled “snake oil salesmen“) sold all kinds of fraudulent (and sometimes actually harmful) ingestible concoctions for whatever profits they could scam out of the gullible, before they skipped town ahead of complaints.  If food and medicine producers, out of a sense of honesty, did their own quality control, the FDA and much of the USDA could be disbanded and taxes could be lowered.  Some might worry that that would mean lost jobs, but what it would really mean is that society would have more surplus to pay those people to do something else, such as paying for more art, or public services.

It’s not just the food producers, of course.  Our ability to function as a society is dependent on our ability to interact with people in ways that we can trust.  We use debit cards because we trust that people won’t take the numbers we enter, record them elsewhere, and then drain our bank accounts.  Fraudulent charges on a credit card can be contested, of course, but that takes time away from people who were not themselves dishonest, and who may have spent that time doing their job better for the rest of society (or more enjoyably on vacation).  Dealing with someone else’s wrongdoing is time-consuming, sometimes expensive (paying for security systems or fees to deal with the situation), and usually frustrating.  If we could trust all the people in society, computers would have no end-user license agreements (EULAs) gobbling the time of the honest few who read them before clicking “I have read and agree,” and if there were no EULAs it would not be possible for companies to sneak in there statements about opt-out “memberships” with recurring charges.

But trust can only be preserved by people who believe they are not being deceived.  When people are lied to or cheated (for example by an unfaithful spouse), they learn not to trust so much, or certain types of people, or in certain ways.  This means that in the future, they may be suspicious even when they are not in fact being lied to, causing additional headaches to everyone involved in order to confirm that the suspicions are not borne out.  This causes a breakdown in smooth social functioning.

Doing wrong operates like sand in the machinery of society.  I am not saying that that is what makes wrong things wrong; I am merely observing that what we otherwise know to be wrong indeed causes broad-based social harm.  I have emphasized the category of wrongdoing, because many (though not all) of the practices described are perfectly legal.  I have used primarily financial wrongdoing because it makes the monetary cost straightforward to see, but the cost to healthy relationships and to happiness caused by envy, unreasonable anger, laziness, sexual misconduct, and pride are perhaps even more severe.  We’re often told that as long as you don’t harm anyone else, you can do whatever you like, even if it has traditionally been considered “wrong.”  Good luck with that.  If what you are doing is wrong, it is harming someone, and quite possibly harming society in general.  This is what Christians call “sin,” and why Christians historically have emphasized that it is a very big deal.  It affects all of us, it spoils everything, and it makes life harder for everyone.

Perhaps the government should levy a “social maintenance” fine against advertisers who put forward a message that doing wrong is fun.

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