I don't often have the presumption to take on a topic of this scope, but having been invited by Hisham, who is known as both a frequent contributor to Global Voices and as co-administrator of Talk Morocco, to respond to his essay on the topic, I figured I would briefly give it a go.
As I read it, Hisham's essay is really divided into two parts. The first is a philosophical inquiry into the nature of individual good from the point of view of a crumbling religious faith. The second, illustrated through a series of three videos showing discourses by Slavoj Zizek, Milton Friedman, and Michael Albert, poses three questions respectively: 1) Is there any such thing as a benevolent capitalist? 2) Is greed ultimately good? and 3) Are there any credible and viable alternatives? My quick riff on both inquiries follows:
In the spirit of Voltaire, I distrust systems. "Good" is such a polymorphic and elusive idea that it resolutely eludes any particular attempt to pin it down. The one positive conclusion I come to is that if any person tells me that he has definitively defined "the good," at the end of our conversation I am going to check my pockets to be sure my wallet is still there. I guess the best guide I know, in the spirit of distrusting systems, is that a little kindness goes a long way.
Sex, Drugs & Rock 'n Roll
"Living well is the best revenge" F. Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald's quotation is perhaps a little inapt for the present topic, since quite a few people would dispute that he had hedonism in mind. Hedonism may be underrated, however, particularly in its Epicurean incarnation. If one could live surrounded always by comfort and beauty, knowledge and pleasure, excitation of the palate, gratification of appetite, and stimulation of the intellect, who is to say that would be so bad? The knock on hedonism is usually twofold: it is self indulgent and it is selfish. In response to the former criticism, I suppose we could always have boot camp vacations. Alas, the latter criticism anticipates the critique of economic good; it is not that hedonism is so bad, but that we have not found the means to achieve it for everybody.
The Straight and Narrow
"What is moral
is what you feel good after, and what is immoral is what you feel bad after." Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway is not bad when it comes to epigrams, but when it comes to morals, it is really Immanuel Kant who most earns my admiration, for two reasons. First, Kant made the bold move of attempting to construct an ethics independent of religion. His project, as I understand, was not anti-religious, but universality requires dispensing with differences of creed. Second, the idea that one's conduct should be guided by the precept that one should only take actions what one could wish were formulated as universal laws strikes me as a profound insight. Of course, "do as you would be done by" goes back at least as far as Jesus, but I admire Kant's attempts to systematize the notion. For those interested purely in the pursuit of pleasure, Kant may be a bit of a spoilsport, not to mention Jesus.
Truth is Beauty, Beauty Truth
"History pardons him for writing well." W.H. Auden
Equally at odds with moral good (sometimes) is the aesthetic good. Let's face it, for all the artists who have been pillars of rectitude, there are any number who have been rotten, selfish bastards. Unfortunately perhaps, there does not appear to much correlation between humane treatment of one's fellows and the ability to produce awe-inspiring works of timeless beauty and insight. And yet, would we really wish that artists were nicer people if it meant we had to live without their art?
"There is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will." Shakespeare.
The second part of Hisham's essay -- the series of video quotations about capitalism -- raises the question of how individual "good" affects social good. Not being a social theorist or economist, I feel that I have a limited amount to say in response to this section. However, I might observe that many of the evils ascribed to "capitalism" are perhaps more aptly ascribed to "corporatism." Adam Smith had in mind a level playing field in which small, similarly situated economic actors with perfect information strove to better each other. In the pursuit of individual benefits, they generated benefits for society. It is not that "greed is good" but that individual self-interest can have beneficial collateral effects. This does not negate the benefit of charity; it merely touts the virtues of efficiency through individual self-interest. Our present system is a gross distortion of Smithian capitalism in which gargantuan corporate monsters hoard information, distort the market, suppress competition, subvert governments, and create poisonous externalities. That these monsters have been dubbed "persons" by our legal system grotesquely expands their anti-social tendencies. If is probably fair to say that we do not really know if capitalism works, because it has never been tried. But the drawbacks of our failure to tame the giant corporation, from Enron to BP, are clear.
I do think that the "greed is good" crowd has it wrong, however. Just because there may be unintended benefits to our baser nature, does not mean that there is anything amiss about trying to achieve individual "goodness"