In the medieval list of deadly sins, lust and greed were the two characterized by an excessive appetite for worldly pleasure. After the Renaissance and Enlightenment, attachment to this world was no longer considered sinful, but it took time for the guilt-ridden morality to wear off. By the 19th century, the pursuit of profit and wealth had become respectable, but sex was still encrusted with Victorian morality. The 20th century brought sexual liberation, especially since the '60s, but it also brought anti-capitalism.

So we now have the inverted situation in which sexual desire is fine and open, but the profit motive is the dirty secret: everyone does it but no one wants to say so. Perhaps you will find this “Facts of Life” conversation a helpful guide for navigating this sensitive topic.

"Son, I think it's time you and I had a man-to-man talk about something. About…well, sometimes they're called the facts of life."

"You mean sex, Dad?"

"No, no, they've told you all about that at school. They have, haven't they?"

"Yeah, sure."

"Right. No, what I mean is something different. Let me put it this way. Do you know where money comes from? The money your mother and I use to buy food and clothes and things?"

"Um… from the cash register? At the deli?"

"Well, yes. But now, do you know why there's money in the cash register, enough for us to bring home and live on?"

"Oh. That's because when someone comes in and wants, like, pastrami on rye, they pay you for it."

"Good. That what I want to talk about—about buying, and selling, and…about profit."

"Profit! What does profit have to do with us? Dad, you don't mean…Capitalists make profits. You're not a capitalist, are you, Dad?"

"No…well, yes, I am. Not a big one or a rich one, but yes, I am a capitalist. And I make a profit, most weeks, anyway. That's where our money comes from."

"I don't believe this! You mean, you and Mom…?  Dad, I thought profits are dirty. They're always saying in school…"

"What do they tell you in school?"

"Well, the teachers say that people who make profits are taking money from people and making them poor. Mr. Wright-Lyttleton, he's my social studies teacher, he says the profit motive is evil and if we do it we'll get…I mean, we'll be a wart on society."

"Good heavens. I didn't think anyone was still telling boys those old wives' tales. Son, I want you to forget all that. Profit is a perfectly natural and healthy thing."

"It is?"

"Sure it is. Let me ask you: do you ever find yourself feeling a propensity to barter and truck?"

"To what?!"

"Do you ever feel like trading things, you know, like with your friends?"

"Yeah..., sometimes, maybe."

"That's all right, son. You're at the age when most boys start to have these feelings. Girls too. Now let's suppose you go to the school cafeteria for lunch, and your friend Jimmy has a sandwich you want, and you've got one he wants. You'd trade, wouldn't you? And after you trade, you're better off, because you like the sandwich you got better than the one you gave Jimmy. That's profit."

"I don't know, Dad. That doesn't sound much like…

"I know it doesn't sound like what your teachers are talking about.  Okay, but now let's look at what happens in the deli. Someone comes in for a pastrami sandwich, and I charge him $3.75. I'm better off, since the guy's $3.75 is worth more to me than the sandwich, because the sandwich only costs me $3.00 to make."

"But that's just it, Dad, like the teachers said, aren't you taking extra money from him?"

"No, you see…I know it's part of the old wives' tale that sellers are the only ones who really like making profits, and buyers don't enjoy it, they just go along to be popular. But that's not true. They like it, same as us. Look, the guy in my store wouldn't buy the sandwich unless it was worth more than $3.75 to him. Otherwise he'd go next door to Johnson's place, or go home and make his own. So he's getting a profit, too, only he doesn't put it in a cash register, he puts it in his stomach."

"The profit goes…he puts it…in his stomach? Are you kidding me, Dad?"

"Well, I didn't exactly mean that literally. I mean he's better off. Plus, if he had to make the sandwich himself, and buy the meat and steam the thing and everything, it'd end up costing him a lot more than $3.75. And remember, I'm the one taking the risk here,opening the place every morning so he can walk in any time he feels like it."

"I kinda see what you mean…but…"

"I know, all this may still seem a little distasteful to you. It's going to take a while before you get used to it. That's part of growing up. But believe me, when a buyer and a seller meet each other, and they both honestly like what the other has, and they trade—well, it can be a very beautiful experience."

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David Kelley

About The Author:

Author: David Kelley
David Kelley is the founder and executive director of The Atlas Society. A professional philosopher, teacher, and best-selling author, he has been a leading proponent of Objectivism for more than 25 years.

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