The luxury of moral choices

So.  Like a lot of people, I have been watching the whole Greg Smith thing with great interest.  Like a lot of people, I am impressed that he made a moral decision so boldly and so publicly.  But.  But, of course, I cannot entirely ignore the disgruntled critics who say that it sure is easy to have an epiphany once you’ve padded your exit with a nice plush bank account of ill-gotten gains.  Does this somehow taint the morality of his decision?  Maybe.  Also, for me, it highlights the fact that moral choices are, to a certain extent, a luxury–and, more importantly, that our society’s incentive structure is totally fucked.

No matter what Smith does now, it cannot be denied that Goldman Sachs built his life, and to a certain extent gave him the ability to make the choice he did (moral stickiness ahoy!).  His column in the New York Times, which will bring him a lot of attention, lucre, and almost inevitably a book deal, could not have happened had he not had a career there.  Consider this: at the same time Smith was at Stanford, there was another kid there who was faced with the same choice: I can leverage this education to make a shitload of money on Wall Street.  But this kid looked at the lay of the world and said, nah, Wall Street is full of scumbags, I’m going to follow my passion and give my life to literature instead, even if my career prospects are laughably poor.  Where is this kid’s op-ed in the New York Times?

Not that said kid necessarily wants an op-ed in the NYT.  Said kid is impressed by the institutional weight of said paper but also frightened by and suspicious of it.  Said kid will probably spend a lifetime having distant and conflicted relationships with powerful institutions.  Said kid does not mind, even if sometimes said kid is like, where the fuck is my money for being awesome?  But.  Said kid acknowledges that even she had a certain amount of luxury to make the decisions that she did.  Said kid married young to a wonderful man with a steady, if not grand, salary.  If said kid had graduated from university and been out in the world struggling totally on her own without health insurance, eating instant ramen in her studio apartment every night, it is quite possible that at some point she would have said, fuck this noise, I am getting an MBA.

We live in a world where moral choices are a often luxury, and it would be so lovely if they could be an innate right.

Also.  Why did Greg Smith choose to have his poor soul sodomized for cash for twelve years when he could have joined the Peace Corps or some shit?  I will tell you.  Because our incentive structure is totally fucked.  Because a young, intelligent person with lots of options, unless they have the structural integrity of a fucking diamond or some kind of guiding passion welling from deep within, will choose the career path that will give them the most positive reinforcement.  The fact that making more money for rich people is the most lucrative and prestigious career available to said young person is bullshit.  Our priorities are fucked; our institutions are sick.  What do we do about it?

Beats the shit out of me.  I’m just in this life game to tell dirty stories and eat way too many bacon cheeseburgers.

Ooooooh yes. Thank you to whoever decided that an appropriate topping for a meat patty was... MORE MEAT. You have made the world a better place.


6 responses to “The luxury of moral choices

  1. Exactly what would “said kid” have preferred Mr Smith do: keep quiet about what he saw and heard? Do you dislike that fact that he received a salary during his twelve years working for Goldman or would you have felt better if he’d returned say the last five years of compensation or worked for free? Its no good saying he could have should have left earlier, he obviously decided to leave when his internal ethics barometer said it was time. By the way, did I detect a bit of jealousy in the kid’s comments?

    • What Smith chooses to do with the money is not really my concern. He will doubtlessly do what his conscience dictates, as he did when he quit Goldman Sachs and wrote the NYT piece. I did not say anything about what he “should have/could have” done, but rather than the path he took was to a great extent a default route for a clever person with a prestigious degree. Essentially, the bind the he found himself in was symptomatic of a systemic problem. I am glad and impressed that he made the decision he did, but in an ideal world, he wouldn’t have gotten himself in this particular tight spot in the first place. And no, said kid does not feel any jealousy towards Smith. Said kid wanted to be an author her whole life and is exactly what she wants to be. Said kid wishes Smith godspeed and hopes that he can figure out what he wants to be in a messed up society that valorizes the wrong things.

  2. If making moral choices is a luxury, then a poor people immoral? Once basic needs are met (as Aristotle points out), we are always making moral choices. These can either be good or bad choices but choices nevertheless.
    Having an easy life can make moral choices easier, but they also make it harder for others. Once you have something, you don’t want to lose it, so you rationalize. The allure of more luxuries often corrodes moral sensitivities.

    • Nope, I am not insinuating that poor people are immoral. I do believe, however, that moral choices–at least the ones that involve money/subsistence–are made more difficult by their lack. Having an easy life does make moral choices easier. Those whose values are corroded by ease suffer from a lack of integrity; I would argue that it wasn’t the luxury itself that turned them into buttheads, but rather that it brought out their innate butthead tendencies. Thanks for stopping by my blog!

      • The environment does play a great role in ethical decision-making. You’ve put the emphasis on those whose material sources as limited as having a hard time in being ethical (you have to survive, after all). I am pointing to other social forces that cloud one’s moral being. Success often becomes a greater value than ethics and there is a great deal of experimental studies that show the ways in which people fool themselves into thinking they are decent people when in fact they have become blind to the kinds of people they have become.

  3. Sure, and that is sad when it happens. The success brought out some inner weakness that was not visible beforehand. That reminds me of a great show that was on PBS about ten years ago, in which a bunch of ordinary English people were put in a manor house and cast into the various roles of its inhabitants during the Edwardian era. It took like twelve seconds for the guy who was cast in the lucky position of the patriarch to turn into a complete ass who said stuff like, “educating women is a waste of money.” It was hilarious and horrifying. I recommend the DVDs. The website:

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