The virtues corresponding to our economic relationships

I have been discussing three ways of making a living, which correspond also to three kinds of economic relationships. Cast as maxims, these ways are:

I. Use what you’ve got.

II. Exchange what’s in hand.

III. Offer what you can.

I. ‘Using what you’ve got’ is a territorial as well as a (for lack of a better word) practical claim. I own a home, and I use it to shelter family members and guests. Or I find some rosemary on my land, and I use it to flavor tonight’s dinner which is served to my wife. Historically, I believe the addressee of ‘use what you’ve got’ is me and mine (tribe, clan, family, community, etc.).

We surely have a basic intuition that whatever it is we have should be used properly. But what does ‘properly’ mean here? It means neither to the point of overuse (e.g., soil erosion, strip mining) nor to that of underuse (e.g., overripe apples rotting on the apple tree). Hence, ‘properly’ could mean, in the words of Wendell Berry, ‘kindly use’ or else ‘within measure.’ Whatever it is we relied upon, then, would require us to cultivate temperance above all but also care in maintenance, frugality, and simplicity.

II. ‘Exchanging what’s in hand’ brings us to a different set of people, these being strangers. Strangers are not enemies, but neither are they friends. What sort of virtue would we have to rely upon in this sort of scenario? It would have to be fair dealing. How we conducted ourselves procedurally, whether we started off uncoercedly and continued in this manner, and what equivalence we came to agree upon: these would denote fairness. The vices we would be most acutely aware of would be cheating in the process or rigging the scale so that two apparently equivalents were actually inequivalent.

III. ‘Offering what you can’ would be stated when one is around friends or within range of those with whom one is on friendly terms. One doesn’t think to offer what one can in the context of the marketplace (Category II). The virtue here is generosity, and the vices are stinginess and overgenerosity.

These categories clarify the question: ‘What is owed to whom in what arena?’ My thesis is that we tend to answer this question poorly by confusing these three categories with the result that we don’t do well at making a living, we don’t do well at keeping friends, we falsely expect the wrong sorts of things from the wrong sorts of people, we conduct ourselves improperly, and so on. For instance, a stranger with whom we negotiate is not stingy but unfair. A community member who uses too much water is not cheating but rather being wasteful. A friend who doesn’t chip in to help us complete the chores is indeed not a sponge but a slacker.

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