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Thread: The Morality of Trading

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    Default The Morality of Trading

    The following article was originally posted to the Spec List in July, 2005 and was subsequently posted on the excellent site hosted by Victor Niederhoffer and Laurel Kenner: www.dailyspeculations.com.


    I recently made the decision to step down to a part-time role at my trading firm to make time for the writing of my next book. One of the traders I had worked with graciously treated me to dinner to celebrate my year at Kingstree. This trader personally accounts for several percent of the daily trading volume in the Mercs ES contract and has made millions of dollars (after all expenses) during each of the past several years.

    Over dinner, he made an interesting statement. He indicated that he was proud of his trading success, but was looking for more. I dont produce anything, he explained. Others like me, he said, produced books or provided beneficial services. All he created, he felt, were profits.

    My philosophical hair began to crawl when he said this; his statement suggested that he had unconsciously accepted an altruistic standard of ethics. Ones value, such a standard implies, is measured by his or her contribution to society. By that standard, we should admire a philanthropist-heir, who distributes the money he never earned, more than Robinson Crusoe, whoby his intelligence and creativitythrives on a remote island. Ive heard this standard espoused in other ways by traders who justify their activity by claiming that they contribute to liquidity in the marketplaceonce again seeking a sanction in the good provided to others.

    Now heres whats interesting: Despite my traders evident angst, he had no intention whatsoever of giving up trading. Indeed, he indicated that trading alone gave him the sense of meaningful activity that he hadnt found since his days as a boyhood athlete.

    This, Im sure our Federal Reserve chair would say, is a conundrum. Here he tells me that trading produces nothing of transcendent worth, and yet he finds it supremely meaningful. Why would someone find an empty activity meaningful?

    Thomas Kuhn, the historian of science, offers a key insight in his book The Essential Tension:


    When reading the works of an important thinker, look first for the apparent absurdities in the text and ask yourself how a sensible person could have written them. When you find an answerwhen those passages make sense, then you may find that more central passages, ones you previously thought you understood, have changed their meaning. (p. xii).

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    Kuhn’s observation is closely akin to Ayn Rand’s dictum that contradictions do not occur in nature. If you find a contradiction, check your premises; you’ll inevitably find that one of them is wrong. When an important thinker writes something absurd, the chances are good that the absurdity is a function of the reader’s frame of reference. Upon checking the premises of that frame of reference, you may discover meanings in the writer’s work that, to that point, had been unappreciated.

    A psychologist’s restatement of this idea is that, when sane people say or do things that make no sense, the odds are good that their sense is different from yours. A while back I met a bemused foreign exchange student from Iceland who could not understand why Americans ask, “How are you?” and then don’t stick around for a reply. Clearly the meaning of what he heard was not the meaning intended.

    So it is, I believe, with our successful trader. His doubts about his productivity reveal an altruistic standard of ethics. His actions, however, driving him to continue to trade well after his financial need for income has been met, suggest that another standard of ethics is lurking in the background.

    Here again we turn to Miss Rand and her published journals:


    An animal cannot act against his instinct nor suspend it. He enjoys a safety man can never have—the invariable operation of his means of survival…A flea does not have the responsibility of remaining a flea. It can be nothing else…Man must remain man through his own choice. Nature guarantees him nothing, not even his own nature. Such is the penalty and the honor of being a rational creature (p. 254).

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    Later, she emphasizes:


    The first, most earnest, most crucial question man asks of himself is: Am I right? An animal cannot conceive of such a question. Man cannot escape it. In one form or another, it rings through his whole life. It sets the leitmotif of his existence—the style of his soul (p. 254).


    Happiness (as opposed to pleasure), I would argue, derives from the experienced sense of answering Rand’s question in the affirmative. Happiness is experiencing oneself as being right. Each of our activities—relationships, productive work, athletic achievement, art—is a potential mirror in which we experience ourselves. These mirrors either affirm for us that we are right or reflect an image that is cloudy or negative.

    The ability to derive pleasure from action that affirms our right-ness as rational beings is evolutionarily adaptive. If we consistently experienced happiness by being wrong—by acting in a manner contrary to the needs of our survival—we would not be long for this earth. To the degree that we are hard-wired to respond to affirming mirrors in a positive way (a baby’s response to a mother’s smile; a child’s satisfaction in mastering a new skill; our joy in finding love), we operate with a biologically-based, implicit set of ethics that may well contradict those that we’ve learned over the years.

    So it is with our trader. He knows damned well—and shows it in his actions—that he is producing something more than profitable trades. He is producing the sense of rightness that powers his soul. The fact that he also contributes to liquidity, provides for the material comfort of his family, utilizes his wealth to invest and create jobs—all of this is secondary: a happy consequence of his acting upon his happiness. What is important is that to be happy is to be ethical, because true happiness derives from action in support of life itself. An unhappy person is not necessarily evil—life’s circumstances, from slavery to depression, can rob one of the options needed to “be right”—but to be consistently and radiantly happy requires a will directed toward values. The markets tell us each day if we are right or if we are wrong. Each day we, as traders, can live as human beings—armed only with our rational faculties—or abdicate that penalty and honor.

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    Success and happiness—the conditions needed to thrive on this earth—are reflections of the choices we make. What greater productivity can there be? What greater good?


    Brett N. Steenbarger, Ph.D. is Director of Trader Development for Kingstree Trading, LLC in Chicago and Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, NY. He is also an active trader and writes occasional feature articles on market psychology for a variety of publications. The author of The Psychology of Trading (Wiley; January, 2003), Dr. Steenbarger has published over 50 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters on short-term approaches to behavioral change. His new, co-edited book The Art and Science of Brief Therapy is a core curricular text in psychiatry training programs. Many of Dr. Steenbarger’s articles and trading strategies are archived on his website, www.brettsteenbarger.com

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