Thursday, May 9, 2013

Supererogatory Euvoluntarity

Got a five-year-old in the house? Have him try to pronounce the title of this post. Post it on YouTube.

The title may be mouthy, but the idea is pretty simple. "Supererogatory" means an act exceeding or not enjoined by requirement. If you're a strong swimmer and you see a kid drowning in a still pool, you're bound by ordinary pedestrian morality (at least in the Western cultures most of my readers {according to Google analytics} hail from) to jump in and save him. A supererogatory feat would be to do the same thing except in swiftly-flowing floodwaters where the risk of death to both parties is non-negligible.

Now think about our old pal Jorge, piloting his taco truck across the burning sands. Munger argues convincingly that selling our weary, lost traveler (does he have a name? I can't recall) a 16-oz bottle of water for $10,000 is not euvoluntary since it impinges on a lousy BATNA. Munger also shows that even if it's a non-euvoluntary exchange, the result of not making the trade, regardless of the terms, is yet worse. Jorge has a moral imperative to sell to our wanderer, and an ethical obligation to refrain from taking excessive advantage of an awful situation.

Notice though that Jorge's ethical obligation is entirely conditional on him tooling around the dusty dunes in the first place. Jorge could have done lots of other things with his life. he could have moved to LA and bummed around in Winona's bungalow overlooking Pismo or taken that ski vacation with Kevin Costner and Gary Oldman up in Whistler. But no, Jorge chose to chop that secondhand jitney and set up a kitchen with the finest carnitas y flan in all Oaxaca.


Was this initial decision supererogatory? If so, what does it imply about a subsequent decision to junk the taco truck and retire to Tierra del Fuego? Can it be that there are three stages in a firm's life (pre-formation, existence, post-destruction) only one of which imposes moral obligations on owners?

If we accept that existing firms really do bear some responsibilities over their terms of trade (and Munger's critique of Locke is difficult to gainsay in this regard), it seems to follow that there's an instrumental benefit to supporting those qualities, institutions, and sentiments that support and affirm firm creation.

Right? The more opportunities for trade that exist, the fewer skeletons of feckless desert travelers should litter the arroyo.

If firm creation is supererogatory, then bourgeois dignity and low barriers to entry are super-duper-erogatory.

Up up and away.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?