The Morality of Profit

In my last consideration of morality and ethics, I supposed that being good presumes an engagement with reality and not just with principle and abstractions. Then, I saw a report that for the first nine months of 2019, Airbnb experienced losses, in other words, no profit. This development caught the attention of many who were open to buying Airbnb stock once it was sold to the public. Now, however, warned by the fact of the company making losses and not profits, there are questions about how much a share of Airbnb might be worth in a public offering.

Now, for 200 years, profit has been touted as evidence of inherent immorality in capitalism. Capitalism, with its private property, cash nexus and the rights of owners to net profits, has been criticized by moralists from Christians like Charles Dickens to Karl Marx as misguided and an abuse of human potential. Because of profit, capitalism is said to draw out the worst in people; that it is sin institutionalized; that one can’t serve both mammon and God and since profit sits at the feet of mammon, to choose capitalism is to reject God.

And yet, as we see in the Airbnb case, profit ties our aspirations to reality. It is the reality principle operating to check the pleasure principle, to use Freudian terms. Where there is no profit, there is a mismatch in reality between supply and demand. Simply put, losses reveal that there is insufficient demand for the company’s goods or services at the price needed by the company to remain a going concern. Losses are not sustainable over time.

Profit links Airbnb to others. Thus, it functions as a moral presence in the working of the mind, directing our attention to the needs and situations of others. Lack of profit causes us to question Airbnb’s ability to relate to the needs of others.

I would then suggest that anything which works to ground our self-centered romanticism or hubristic self-conceits externally in relationships with others, who are an important reality, is both a public and a private good. It is morality in action.