Is Benefiting At Someone Else’s Expense Wrong? (Montaigne)


Modern society places a positive emphasis on an individual’s determination to, ‘do good in one’s work‘. It is generally accepted that people, generally, try to do the best they can at what they do, while also trying to cause the least amount of damage to others around them. Doing ‘good‘ (morally and ethically) is a necessary prerequisite for the advancement of society. As a collective, humans progress faster when we help each other, rather than actively attempt to hinder progression. However, there is a fundamental problem with this concept because some areas of life require the expense of others, as a key ingredient for advancement.

In Montaigne’s Essays¹, part 1 at XXI, he draws attention to a narrative involving Demades the Athenian, who condemned a citizen, an occupation of which, was selling the necessities of funeral ceremonies. He denounced this occupation as wrong, as profit could not accrue to this man without the death of another. Montaigne suggests that this kind of judgement, ‘…appears to be ill grounded, forasmuch as no profit whatever can possibly be made but at the expense of another…’

The merchant only thrives by the debauchery of youth; the husbandman by the dearness of grain; the architect by the ruins of buildings; lawyers and officers of justice, by the suits and contentions of men; nay, even the honour and offices of divines are derived from our death and vices.

Montaigne’s Essays I, 21.  

As a principle, the expression, ‘do good in one’s work’ is contradictory. As Montaigne highlights, there is limited opportunity for progression and personal benefit without the equal and substantive loss, of another. A lawyer would find himself unemployed without the detriment of others. In law, the term, ‘Cause of Action’ means that someone has suffered a loss and seeks a legal remedy. A doctor would be hard-pressed staying employed without sickness, as would a soldier without war, or a police officer without crime. Even ostensibly mundane occupations benefit from loss, in one way or another. A shopkeeper benefits from a customer’s loss of money.

Benefiting at someone else’s expense is deemed morally wrong, but is there is a clear distinction between causing someone else’s loss, and benefiting from it? Isn’t causing someone else’s loss actually benefiting another down the chain?

Is not the criminal who steals, benefiting the lawyer in defending them, or the police in employment, or indeed, the shopkeeper who must resupply the goods?

Nam quodcumque suis mutatum finibus exit, Continuo hoc mors est illius, quod fuit ante…

For, whatever from its own confines passes changed, this is at once death of that which before it was. 

Lecretius, ii. 752.

Suffice to say, everyone has their role to play in the game of life.





¹ Montaigne, Michel de, Hazlitt, William Carew, 1834-1913, (ed.), Cotton, Charles, 1630-1687, (tr.), Montaigne, Michel de, 1533-1592, Hazlitt, William Carew, 1834-1913 et al. The Essays of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne : translated by Charles Cotton ; edited by W. Carew Hazlitt. Encyclopædia Britannica, Chicago [etc], 1952.


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