Thursday, 2 October 2008

Gaining ‘respect’ through consumerism has landed us in a Moral Maze

I try really hard NOT to listen to The Moral Maze (Radio 4, 8pm Wednesdays) – some of the panelists drive me nuts (esp. Melanie Philips) – but I caught a few moments of it last night that were worth listening to. (Catch the repeat on Saturday at 22.15-23.00)

The questions posed by chair, Michael Buerk include: “What’s wrong with self-interest? … What’s wrong with being rich? … How can we reconcile our loftier ideals with the realities of human nature?”

Prof John Milbank put his finger on the issue, though we didn’t hear nearly enough of his thoughts, which included: “Capitalism has an inherent tendency to monopoly… towards huge divisions in society … [we are currently seeing] systemic immoral behaviour …”

Most significantly, he wondered why people are behaving in this way (purchasing goods they can’t really afford); then answered his own question:

“… People are motivated by respect and the avoidance of shame, so they go by whatever is regarded as 'excellent' in the society in which they live. It’s only since the 18th century that we’ve seen it as ‘excellent’ and ‘acceptable’ to earn as much money as possible in any way you like. … [as a society] we are telling people how to get ‘respect’ [i.e. by being good consumers].”

RESPECT; a little word that comes with a cart-load of baggage. (Isn’t that what the knife-wielding teenage gang-leaders are after too?)

A powerful analysis, I think, especially for the UK/USA, where “keeping up with the Joneses” is deeply ingrained in our society, and where only the very strong (and eccentric?) manage to buck consumerist trends. (Even being a vegetarian is regarded as ‘cranky’ in a society where meat-eating is synonymous with wealth and status.)

As you might expect, evolutionary psychologist, Michael Price, stated that humans are capable of both competing AND cooperating; and we’re now seeing a situation where long-term cooperative initiatives are being undermined by a few uber-competitive individuals. But he failed to volunteer a ‘solution’ (fair enough; he’s a scientist – he tells us what the situation is, not what to do about it).

Meanwhile, the guy from the Adam Smith Institute twisted and turned and got up everyone’s noses.

Thoughts for the day:

Will Self: “Economics is the pseudo-science that describes a set of magical relations.”

Michael Buerk’s final point summed up: “I’m self-interested; you’re greedy.”

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