Problems and Possibilities; Money and Morality

Disclaimer: This post is from the archives, and may not represent the current views of the author. It also may not be at all interesting to read. Continue at your own peril!

As I’m sure is obvious from some of my recent posts, I’ve been thinking a lot about moral obligations as well as economic systems. Right now, I’m very dissatisfied with capitalism as it stands today. It has turned our culture into an obsessive consumerism. It does much to perpetuate poverty and oppression. It forces people to, in effect, continually sell themselves and their labour in order to feed their family. Somehow this has become “normal” and accepted, and I’m not sure why. So I’ve been doing some research on alternative forms of economic systems. I have looked into communism and various forms of socialism. I have also read up on participatory economics; I’m not sure that I like it, but I think it’s an interesting form of economics that has some promise. Right now, the system I like best is free market socialism, which avoids the central government planning that was used in areas like the Soviet Union and instead keeps the market structure, but uses worker cooperatives to allow workers to own the means of production. In essence, it gives ownership of the business to the workers themselves. I find this a fairly satisfying alternative to traditional corporate capitalism, but right now all my conclusions in this are tentative. I want to do more research, especially since I’m not an economic expert.

But I wanted to write a little more on the subject of morality and economics. I think morality in general is an important topic. It seems to get frequently forgotten. People don’t talk much about morality anymore. I mean, there are the hot-button issues like abortion and same-sex marriage and racism and such, but I’m talking about more mundane morality. Stuff like, is it ethical for me to buy luxury goods while others face poverty? Is it right for me to eat meat if eating less of it can help fight against hunger? What changes do we need to make to society to make it more moral and just? I don’t hear these sorts of things talked about much – not in the general population, anyway. How can we talk for so long about American Idol or the latest episode of Lost, and not talk about the critical issues of morality that affect us all? It doesn’t make sense to me. We are so hung up on meaningless trivialities that the important things, the things that need to be discussed, are left unsaid. It’s a tragedy.

But I want to change that. Unfortunately, I have only one mouth that I can operate, but I must do my part to operate it well. I trust that others will begin to do the same. We need to stop our banal chatter and small talk and start talking about things that really matter. It’s the only way a society can truly grow and flourish.

There has been a lot said in the past year about “the economy.” Politicians have been so intensely focused on fixing “the economy,” and I have to stop and ask myself, “Why?” I mean, I know, the economy matters to a lot of people in very real ways. If the economy goes down, unemployment goes up, and people lose their ability to feed their families. That’s a problem. But I have to wonder if the politicians are more concerned with people feeding their families, or with making sure that the ethereal concept of “the economy” starts growing again so that they look favourable to the voters. It lends itself well to hard numbers that one can point to and say, “Look what I’ve done!” But I don’t think that we should be concerned about numbers. We need to be concerned about people. And the truth is that there are many solutions to solve the problem of feeding families. Fixing the economy is not the only way. But somehow, they’ve convinced us that it is, and that we should all be worried about this man-made concept that the general population doesn’t quite entirely grasp, but likes to talk about a lot because it makes them feel smart. Somehow, fixing the economy is seen as the only solution to “the problem” – and here the problem gets left undefined as some vague terror that never quite comes into focus.

So I ask, why should we care about the economy? Why should I care whether Canada produces more wealth this year than it did last year? Really, why? I don’t care. What I do care about (or should care about) is whether Canadians – and others – can fulfill their most basic needs and live with dignity. If somehow the solution to world poverty was destroying the economy, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Of course, it’s not that simple, but this is where our priorities should lie – with people, not with concepts. And we need to remember that, because it’s all to easy to set up “the economy” as the grand be-all-end-all that deserves prime importance. And when you think of it in those terms, it seems pretty ridiculous. We should only value the economy so long as it leads to an improvement to the human condition – and no more. And in particular, we should only value it so long as it leads to improvement to the condition of the poor. Because let’s face it, most of the economic growth that we so treasure goes straight into the pockets of those who are already rich. It’s how the model is set up. And why should we care about making the rich richer?

In “The Matrix: Reloaded,” there’s a line that has always stuck out to me. There’s a discussion going on in Zion, the last human stronghold against the machines, between a commander in the army and a governing councillor. The commander is furious that the councillor allowed Morpheus to take one of their ships on (what seems like) a ridiculous mission when he knew that a huge swarm of machines was coming to attack them. The commander says, “I believe I’m going to need every ship we have if we’re going to survive this attack.” The councillor replies, “I understand that, Commander.” The commander angrily asks back, “Then why did you allow the Nebuchadnezzer [the ship] to leave?”And the councillor calmly speaks, “Because I believe our survival depends on more than how many ships we have.” I’m not quite sure why I’ve always loved this line, but it came to me as I thought about this issue with the economy. It shows how the commander has a single focus: more ships = greater likelihood of success. But in the process, he has made “getting more ships” his goal and lost sight (to some extent, anyway) of the ultimate goal: success. The councillor, on the other hand, was willing to take one of these valuable ships away because he felt that it would be better served elsewhere. He was able to see the big picture and keep focused on the real goal.

I’m sure everyone is sick of hearing about the recession and about the economy. It’s been all over the news. But the incredible urgency of getting the economy back on track has tended to drown out all other potential goals. Why should we be so concerned with having a prosperous society if all that wealth is held in the hands of a few? Why should we be putting so much time and effort into that? I am arguing here that we need to look for a far loftier goal: we want to have a society built on ethics, justice, freedom, and human dignity. And that goal is not realized by a blind pursuit of profit. It is built on the foundation of cooperation, of generosity, and a reorientation of our values away from money and towards something much more worthy. We cannot continue to support the status quo, because the status quo is not getting us to where we should want to go. And it never will. I don’t argue for social change lightly. I wish it was as simple as meeting with public leaders at the G-20 and getting them to make a simple change and fix everything. I wish that a moral and just society could be built on the foundation of what we already have. But I fear that’s not possible.

Capitalism has led to incredible growth, wealth, and innovation. But why are these the measures of the success of a society? Why do I care whether our society is innovative if it is achieved with greed, corruption, and borne on the backs of the poor? Our economic system has institutionalized a form of slavery (albeit mild) that we see as perfectly natural and normal. (Think about it: how does one feed one’s family without selling their labour to others? Well, I guess everyone could own their own farms, and build their own houses, and sew their own clothes. But where does one get the raw materials for this with no money, and when most materials have already been claimed by others? It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to avoid selling your labour for the profit of others. And that’s what it is: they may pay you $10 for your work, but they’ve made $100 for it.) If growth, prosperity, and innovation comes at the cost of our own morality, then I want no part of it. Morality is primary here. Without it, what are we? Well, I guess we’re just money-hungry consumers who are only concerned with one person: ourselves. But that’s pathetic.

I offer my words here not to start a revolution, or to offer a solution, or even be a detailed critique of our current system. No, my point here is that morality must be our primary concern. We must keep our focus on the real goal of improving the fate of humanity as a whole, of doing good to our fellow man. All else comes second. And though I think that’s something that most people would agree with, somehow we tend to be able to push it out of our minds. We vocalize support for something we put no effort toward improving. But those are empty words if we have no intention of disrupting the status quo. Whatever should be done, we must do. There is no other option. If we truly, actually believe that morality comes before money, then we should be willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish that. But somehow…I think most of us (myself included) are secretly content to pay lip service but nothing else. And speaking morality with no intention of moral action is the saddest poverty of all.

11 responses to “Problems and Possibilities; Money and Morality”

feeno

W'dup Jeffery

When I read your posts I really like it when we can agree. I feel sometime tho you probably think I'm trying to start a fight. But I'm really not, I just have a hard time with what morality is and where it comes from?

I truly am in almost total agreement with your post. All except the Morality part.

In your opinion, is there a absolute when it comes to morality?

Who gets to decide what that is?

Do we legislate it?

What if I think your idea of morality is bogus?

If 75% of the "group" thinks it's morale to do X, then do you think X is then OK?

Who gets to decide whats best for me? what say do I have? I would like to think I do?

This is just something to think about. I'm not saying it proves anything, but there is not one law in the USA that isn't covered some how by the 10 commandments. And mainly just the last 6.

I believe God has sanctioned or ordained Govt. And I like the idea of rules to prevent chaos. But ultimately we have to have a standard of right and wrong. To say we evolved to know such things seems silly to me. Kinda like I seem silly to many others because I believe God created the Earth in 6 literal days.

You have morals, and I have morals, when they clash, who's right?

I'm not trying to be a smart ass, I really do struggle when good and moral people try to explain morality in a world where there is no God. We can "sin" against one another, but when we do we sin against God too.

I'm not saying we need God to be good. I'm saying with out God we don't know what good is.

Later Holmes, feeno

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C-B

I look forward to your "insightful" comments as much as I anticipate Jeff's next post. Keep 'em coming.

peace, feeno

Jeff

Hey feeno,

I don't blame you for arguing with me on my basis for morality. I know plenty of atheists who don't believe in absolute morality – but I also know plenty who do. So it's certainly an important issue to deal with. I haven't mentioned it much because I'm trying to essentially use applied ethics to deal with the problem. In other words, "Given that morality exists, what can it tell us about how to do _______?" That's what I've been trying to do with these posts. But I don't mind talking about the foundation behind it.

In essence, my views (at the moment, anyway) are that morality comes from the structure of society itself. In other words, given that we humans must interact with each other, there are some "rules" that help us do that. Following the rules makes interaction possible, and breaking them destroys interaction.

So in this way, morality is an absolute. I find it hard to explain to people, but I am not trying to say that a group of humans (society) DECIDES what morality is. Instead, the structure of society itself provides the rules. Similar to, say, how certain atoms will bond with other ones to make molecules. They follow certain "rules" for bonding – the atoms don't choose which ones to bond with, but the structure of the atoms themselves and their chemical properties make some bonds possible.

So to answer your questions: nobody decides what morality is (although there is legitimate discussion to be had about what we conceive "morality" to be, since we may approach it in different ways), and no, we don't legislate it, although many of our laws are based in our ideas of morality.

If you think my idea of morality is bogus…too bad 😛 Haha, like I said, there's legitimate debate, but I think that providing good reasons and evidence to back up what your idea of morality is helps us to determine which idea is correct.

If 75% of the group thinks it's moral, well it likely is, but it's not moral because the majority thinks so. It's merely that people tend to have a pretty uniform idea of morality in most cases. There are certainly some areas where there is disagreement, but if you do a survey asking, "Which is more moral: helping an old lady across the street or kicking a dog?" I think you'd get pretty similar answers. We don't have a perfect idea of morality, but in most cases, our intuitions seem to be pretty good.

Jeff

And who gets to decide what's best for you? I suppose that if you are a mentally healthy adult, you do. Of course, if that decision of "what's best for you" only involves you and you alone, then that's fine, but if it starts involving others ("I think it's best for me to murder that guy over there"), then that's a different story. Morality takes into consideration the needs of all parties involved.

Anyway, I think it's kind of stretching it to say that all the laws in the US are covered by the Ten Commandments. I mean, sure, the commandments are pretty vague, but laws concerning, say, corporate ownership or taxation on food items aren't really in there. The Ten Commandments draws on general principles (as seen in the similar laws made by other cultures of the time), and those principles are still in effect today, but that doesn't mean that we could just replace the body of law we have today with the Ten Commandments and be no worse off. People complain about the interpretations of the courts as it is – imagine if all they had to go on was "Thou shalt not covet"!

So you say you think it's silly to think that we evolved to know right from wrong. But I don't think so. Humans have lived in groups for a long time, and that requires social interaction. If you need your tribe to help you take down a buffalo, then you will die if you can't interact with them. And society will die out quickly if you have no idea that eating your children (or your neighbour's children) is a bad thing to do. Humans are a social species, and as such, social rules have developed alongside us. If you're thinking of morality as some external rules coming down from heaven, then sure, it sounds silly to think that we'd evolve to just know these things. But if you're thinking of morality as a way of operating in a pro-social rather than an anti-social manner, is it hard to believe that people might be able to understand it? I don't think so.

"You have morals, and I have morals, when they clash, who's right?"

That's a good question. And it's a legitimate thing to ask. But I can fall back on the fact that, 9 times out of 10, we are actually going to agree on moral issues of everyday life. That we might not agree on abortion or on public education or same-sex marriage is really insignificant considering that we likely agree on murder, rape, genocide, sharing, kindness, friendship, cooperation……and the list goes on. I think that most people have a pretty good idea of what "good" is, regardless of whether God is in the picture or not.

Thanks for the comments, as always 🙂
Jeff

feeno

Jeff

I found this today in a book called "A Theological Miscellaney". I don't know how accurate these numbers are but this book was published in 2005? It doesn't even really prove anything, but when I came across it I thought of your post.

"In a recent poll, Americans declared the following to be morally wrong":

Polygamy……….91%
Married folk having affairs…91%
Suicide………..79%
Homosexual behavior…..54%
Abortion……….50%
Unweds having babies…45%
Sex between unmarrieds…..36%
Wearing animal fur…31%
Gambling….30%
Death Penalty….28%
Divorce….26%

So by this list we need Mormons, cheaters and those who commit suicide to be punished. The rest get a free pass?

Sorry I butchered your post and got off topic. But like I said earlier, I agree with everything else you said.

Peace brah, feeno

Gandolf

Hey Jeff,nice post once again.

Jeff –>"What changes do we need to make to society to make it more moral and just? I don't hear these sorts of things talked about much – not in the general population, anyway. "

Jeff i think maybe the focus of the heat of morality has been twisted away some how more towards the more trivial matters like adultery and sex issues and matters of man enabling himself to be faithfully controling of women and soceity in general.Or whether gay marriage or abortion should happen etc etc.

Faiths have long been running the show!, and quite conveniantly i think these other far more important moral matters like capitalism poverty and oppression and many of the other things you talk about, i think happen to get a bit of the old blind eye treatment and are often quietly and conveniantly swept under the carpet.

Infact i cant help feeling most faiths have simply just adopted ideas that arrived along the way that they liked often maybe those ideas thats enabled the selfrightious controling type lifestyles they enjoyed,rather than ever being so bothered thinking so much about any real moralities of the poverty surrounding capitalism.I mean can you really imagine the bible Jesus figure voting for capitalism Jeff?….Maybe im wrong but i find it hard to see as being likely.

I think the bible is often far to schizophrenic.Its got the very big problem of multiple personality type disorders running all through it, and this is what i believe proves how "relative" it is to the many differing thoughts of mere man.One moment on one hand yes there is this Jesus figure talked about being all kind and caring etc,though elsewhere in other places there is also lots of other suggestive scripture about all manner of harshness and domination and slavery and controling attitudes and masters rights to extract use and wealth from the blood of folks sweat and hardship.

There is really that many differing personalities appearing within the bible. That folks can almost translate it to read what ever they would like it to,and so naturally many folks of faith still argue the points today.

Its maybe not that hard to talk oneself into running with the system of capitalism,if one can also convince oneself of how supposedly wonderful one is being by following god and also being giving to a charity

Its great business Jeff you get to fleece folks,give to the poor and collect the fame and supposedly salvation.And also blame the devil for all the evil in the world.Great slight of hand trick, works a real treat!

Our good faithful friend Feeno often asks us with regards to formation of whats thought moral "Who gets to decide what that is?"

Im left thinking well who do you really think decided,obviously the same humans who still discuss the same matters now surely must have.How else do you (explain) it could ever be that it strangely seems in ancient times long ago it once was obviously thought quite moral to be stoning folks,yet now in the year 2009 it can be it is no longer thought a very moral thing at all.

Is it so very likely the gods really changed their minds Feeno?,or much much more likely the humans surely did.Surely if gods were involved in this moral thought of stoning,then in gods mind it would be no more likely to moral to stone folks back then in ancient times than it is now in year 2009.

We can explain to these superstitious folks,that its highly unlikely we would ever expect folks in Canada to like being murdered, anymore than we would expect folks in NZ to like being murdered either …Hence universally worldwide its found folks generally dont really like being murdered!, so universally (naturally) morals conclude murder is thought to be thought immoral…..Its universal due to the (relativity of us all simply being Humans) who simply dont really like being murdered.

There is no god nipping around from country to country on a lear jet wispering in all the different natives lil ears and telling them these thoughts.

feeno

W'dup Guys

Gandarooski, You have a point about "religion running the show" but only because of politics. People think a certain way because of their religious beliefs. Then politicians cater to that audience because they want those votes. Most politicians will take a poll and see what's best for them personally before they will make a call.

I'm a weird dude that wishes the Church would stay out of politics altogether. I don't have a problem with Christians running for office if that's what they feel like doing, who am I to tell them they shouldn't. But personally do feel we should avoid it.

Johnny Mac (John MacArthur) once said (And I'm paraphrasing) "Americas morale decline can only
be fixed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not partisan politics".

The more the Church is involved in politics the less it's in spreading the Gospel message. And that should be our focus. Some might say that they go hand in hand. But I'd strongly disagree. When you mix politics and religion ultimately (imho) you end up with things like the crusades.

Peace, feeno

Jeff

feeno,

Those are interesting numbers. Obviously you're going to get some variation depending on the cultural/religious values of the area you're looking at – America tends to be fairly full of Christian evangelicals, so if you compared those numbers with people from, say, the Netherlands, you'd get pretty different results lol. I'm kind of surprised at the thing about "suicide", though. I mean, I'd obviously say that suicide is a bad thing, but those are people that need help, not moral condemnation. Anyway…interesting stats 🙂

Gandolf,

I suppose that religion/faith has played a role in what moral topics get discussed in society. And I think that you are right when you say that religion tends to adopt the ideas that they like. I took a course on "evil" in the summer, and one of the main topics was the issue of "social sin" – systemic evils (like slavery, for example) that get perpetuated in society without there being any real "culprit" for it. And one of the things the professor mentioned was the church's role in maintaining the status quo. The Catholic Church used to enjoy a great deal of power (and still does, though less so), and their best tactic is to encourage society to stay the same. That keeps their power intact. He also talked about liberation theology, which is almost Marxist in thought, that tries to emphasize a "preferential option for the poor" – in essence, bringing down the institutional structures that prevent the poor from escaping their situation. I like that type of thinking.

But to bring in another example, there was a very popular brand of Calvinism that essentially tried to answer the question of how people could know whether they were "predestined" or not. It was a big deal for people to be able to know this. And so this brand of Calvinism essentially claimed that material wealth was an outward sign of God's blessing on one's life. So, rich people were on God's good side, and poor people were not. It might not have been stated that blatantly, but such a mentality had a great effect on driving capitalism to the forefront (and developing the "Protestant work ethic" that people talk about).

It's interesting to see the huge effects that religion can have, not even directly through political action, but also through creating a certain mindset that people then apply to other areas of life. If we agree that there's a problem with this society, and that it needs to be changed, we need to address the underlying mindset that creates it rather than focusing on a surface-level treatment. Religion is one factor that leads to that, although there are certainly others. So it's definitely important to look at the effects religion can have on society – both directly and indirectly.

Gandolf

Fee –>"Gandarooski, You have a point about "religion running the show" but only because of politics"

Only because of Politics feeblonski?.

Ohhh come on.Pull my other leg its religiously faithful and with a bit of luck might faithfully just believe ya.

Religion has to have played a very big part in the divided selectively caring society we have today.

You really expect the attitude of exclusive divisive nature of religion can infest our world so much like it really did,and yet expect our societies we see should really somehow have ended up being so very caring and all inclusive of each other?

Fee—>"but only because of politics"

Say what ?????

Ohhh Mr Fib Feeno stop fibbing for Jesus

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