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Guns, Derivatives And Character

(image: seier+seier via Flickr)

Eric Thompson and Jamie Dimon have something in common. Thompson runs TGSCOM,Inc., an on-line gun selling business. He sold guns to George Sodini, who killed three and wounded 9, then committed suicide in 2009 near Pittsburg; Steven Kazmierczak, who killed 6 and wounded 21 at Northern Illinois University in 2008; and Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 and wounded others, and committed suicide at Virginia Tech in 2007. In the wake of the Sodini shooting, he issued a statement, reading in part:

This event underscores the need for people to realize two important facts. The first is that no matter how responsive law enforcement is or can be, it is not good enough to rely upon for the safety of yourself or your family. The second fact is that you are legally responsible for your own protection.

They could have bought the guns anywhere, said Thompson, according to the New York Times.

“The firearms industry and firearms dealers are lambasted by the media and by politicians all the time, and very often nobody stands up and says, ‘Hey, we didn’t do anything wrong,’ ” Mr. Thompson said. He said he was “being penalized by doing a good job and employing a lot of people and selling sporting goods.”

Jamie Dimon is really upset about the abuse heaped on banksters. Dakine01 writes about a Reuters special report titled “Jamie Dimon wants some R-E-S-P-E-C-T”. The article says he is worried about his reputation. Dimon’s main claim to fame is steely determination to grab fee income for his bank. Dimon’s bank was deeply involved in mortgage securitization and derivatives, both of which played a big role in the Great Crash of 2008 according to the Final Report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission.

In fact, in spending $5 million on lobbying firms last year, JPMorgan was far more aggressive than most financial firms in opposing several major elements of the financial reform bill, even as Dimon voiced his support for a system to wind down large banks and clear derivatives.

I’m sure Dimon and Thompson think they are fine upstanding people, men of character and morals, deserving of respect. Somehow, these personal characteristics aren’t enough to keep either of them from exalting money over the misery they cause.

By the standards of traditional ethics and morals, maybe they are. We are taught that there are eternal moral precepts, valid at all times and in all circumstances. In any situation, there is a single controlling principle, and the goal is to determine which principle, and how it should be applied. What is the eternal value applicable to the gun seller pushing guns or the banker pushing loaded derivatives?

In his book Dewey, A Beginner’s Guide, David Hildebrand discusses John Dewey’s view of morality. The assumption that a single moral precept governs every situation conflicts with what Dewey saw around him: change, conflict, and uncertainty. Dewey does not deny the existence of moral principles, or of moral values. He says that these principles come into conflict. In our case, I might see a conflict between the very moral goals of making money versus not causing huge damage to the rest of society.

Dewey teaches us to resolve these conflicts through moral inquiry, a process like the scientific process. We look at every aspect of the concrete situation, consider the responses of our predecessors, think about the nature of the moral precepts, and decide how to proceed. It is a slow and cautious process, because much is at stake.

Through the process of moral inquiry, we grow as humans. We learn to take more facts and people into account. We learn to take a more nuanced view of moral precepts. We learn about more complex ways to judge. We change and adapt our habits to a deeper awareness of the moral conflicts that situations present. The process changes us, because our choices influence our character, just as our character influences our choices. The process of forming these choices and creating new habits leads to growth of the self.

The alternative is to select one value and cling to it at the expense of all others. People refuse to look at competing moral principles and refuse to consider the demands other principles make on them. They ignore the factual complexities of the world around them, and focus more and tightly on a single goal. The result is that they do not grow as humans. Their choices lead to a narrowing self; they become crabbed versions of themselves. Hildebrand offers this example:

The arms dealer makes the world a more violent place in part by selling guns, and in part by becoming the kind of person willing to profit by the perpetuation of violence and war. His actions have bad consequences, but his character, too, can be denounced. Judged by his tendencies, he is marked by a deteriorating character, one whose actions and tendencies are increasingly in conflict with one another, or one whose conduct diminishes flexible interaction with others.

P. 92. Thompson and Dimon want respect, but they don’t deserve it. They lack character.

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I read a lot of books.