My last entry, Materialism and Spirituality, was a thought-provoking email from a friend. I haven’t received comments as I’d have liked, but what follows is how I responded.
This first excerpt was a preface to the original email that was not included in the aforementioned post.
The problem is the way you think. You think in a material fashion. I don’t mean that’s what you think about, I mean that’s how you think.
But here’s the real problem. While it is relatively easy to arrive at objective truth with regard to material reality, it’s not so easy with spiritual "reality," because that part is just subjective. Cultures are different; religions are different; beliefs of every sort are different.
Those beliefs come in conflict with individuals and groups who hold different beliefs. Nobody is arguing that such kind of beliefs (i.e., spiritual) should not be held. The question is: when there’s a conflict, who trumps whom? In matters of public policy, whose beliefs rule? Who gets their subjective values encoded into law, and who gets to be subject to it (and foot the bill)?
As an individualist, I am perfectly content to leave people to their beliefs, whatever they may be. But, in exercising their beliefs, they often work to impose on me certain things that I find spiritually objectionable. Not only that, but materially as well, since I have to pay for it.
So: have your beliefs, but pay for them and bear the costs of them yourselves.
The market economy is shaped upon a material template, in which every individual is a particle interacting with other particles out of self-interest, i.e. a trader. Here the central operating principle is me vs. you, i.e. competition.
Perhaps in a macro sense, to some extent. But you must realize that there is also lots of cooperation going on. In my industry, for example, I have helped form two trade associations, the primary objective of which was self-policing through the setting of standards, providing a forum for complaints to be aired by clients, and resolution of same.
It’s not all dog-eat-dog, and in fact, I’d say that of all the interactions between different competing firms, that’s the minor part of it all. And while we’re at it, let’s not forget the value of cut-throat competition in expanding markets, cutting costs, lowering prices, etc. In general, doing more with less.
For some, this self-regulation I speak of may be their moral compass. Their competitive aggression does not extend to cutting ethical corners. For others, ethics is not really a focus because it’s the dynamics of the marketplace itself that regulates behavior. These marketplace dynamics are implications of the behavior of customers, non-customers, and potential customers alike, who themselves have ethical codes, standards, and values. Consequently, these values and ethical standards are telegraphed via market dynamics. Thus, being overly focused on smashing the competition (or on any number of other distractions), rather than on serving customers and acquiring new ones, can be very bad for business. So, whether by ethical standards held by the company, or market dynamics, the result is often the same. In fact, free-market dynamics, which are wholly materialist, often outperform the reasonable person’s ethical compass in serving the sorts of ideals you wish to see served.
There are several philosophies that enable this natural system. Capitalism grants individuals property rights, thereby empowering them to participate in the system; the free market allows traders to interact freely with one another; market values encourage participation.
Not just market values. In my experience over 15 years, building a company from the ground-up to 30 employees, being in all sorts of business-networking situations, I almost never encounter anyone who’s in it for the money alone. It’s creative vision. It’s pride. It’s integrity. It’s healthy egoism. It’s doing a good job. It’s love. It’s lots of things; and lots of times, people’s motivations are very complex. The material is caught up in the spiritual and uplifting, and vice versa.
I think that to some extent, your experience with bond traders and venture capitalists was a very, very extreme side of the overall marketplace. In point of verifiable fact, the backbone of the economy is small businesses, and you’re going to be hard pressed to find many cut-throat competitors among them.
This economy is only one side of our social reality, however. It is the external, productive, material side, and no more. The other side of society is the internal, spiritual side, the culture. This is a very different template, in which the individual is not a self-contained, material particle, but part of a larger whole, us.
I think you’re taking a way simplistic view of it. I don’t believe dichotomies really exist. They may be good models for separating things out for better understanding, but humans are complex, whole, integrated beings.
Most people have significant bleed-over between their material life and spiritual life. Family businesses are a great example, and there are millions of them.
The central operating principle of this side is moral, not productive.
A productive person is a moral (good) person, and vice versa. It’s a whole; indivisible, not two-sided.
Material productivity is job one. It’s the first priority because the spirit cannot exist but that the body be fed, clothed, and sheltered. Such is a monumental task. What’s really, really good about individuals in society is that some of them are so super-productive that we can actually have a division-of-labor that feeds, clothes, shelters, and provides jobs for billions–not just so that they can survive, but so that they also have an opportunity to flourish and spend time cultivating their deeper spiritual fulfillment.
Egoist super-productivity is really the pinnacle of morality; of goodness. This way–this American way–is the foundation upon which people have the luxury of indulging their spiritual proclivities.
Instead of "productive becoming" (i.e. material progress) it is "good being."
No. "Productive becoming" is "good being;" and "good being" is "productive becoming." Your thesis, while advocating the balance, is premised upon the fact that you could have an extreme either way, with the implication being that America is just such an out-of-balance place.
Political communism was an attempt at an exclusively materialist society, divorced from spiritual belief. The middle east culture is somewhat exemplary of the reverse, i.e., societies that are nearly exclusively spiritual, whith as little reliance on material reality as possible. Both, of course, are abject disasters. Neither is likely to exist successfully or long term.
America and its American Dream is the quintessential marriage of all the good; i.e., it is in a great state of balance. We excel at material production because we have spirit; and our spirits are heightened by the fabulous achievement of our material goals.
It’s important to uphold Capitalism as morally good for the simple reason that it does go hand-in-hand with spiritual needs. It is evil to give Capitalism no moral standing, as if there’s no purpose to it other than to feed our bellies and pamper our flesh. Individuals exercise Capitalism to do those things, yes, but also to feed their spirits and egos in a myriad of ways that’s very healthy and uplifting for themselves, loved ones, and society–and that’s why Capitalism is the only moral political system.
Bill Gates is more effective than Mother Theresa, to be sure, but I would argue more virtuous as well. We can not ignore the fact that the tremendous material values he has built for himself, his colleagues, his loved ones and society, worldwide, have staggering moral significance and status. They have uplifted society, materially and spiritually, in myriad ways. That’s good. It’s virtuous. It’s every bit as spiritual as it is material.
This Good expresses itself in a variety of values, be they cultural, familial, aesthetic, institutional, or social. Here the individual is not acting as a trader, but as a person. It is this higher sensibility that dampens the aggression of pure competition, and lifts us above the beast. There is a lot more to being human than producing, trading, and consuming. Society is a balance of these two distinct and essential sides, the productive economy and the moral culture. They should not be confused.
The ideal person is an honest trader, which implies his continuing adherence to reality; implies his productivity; implies his benefit to himself, his loved ones, his trading partners, and society–through his efforts. If that is not spiritually uplifting, then frankly, your spiritualism should be of no interest to me or anyone.
I think you have taken dichotomies to a place beyond the laboratory and have split people in half, which cannot be done. They are whole, complex, and they pursue values–both material and spiritual–for a mix of reasons, both material and spiritual. There’s ebb and flow, yes, but mostly on an individual basis, and to large extent, self-correcting.
I still see as your underlying premise, here, that you and other enlightened know what values are best for the rest of us to uphold, and in what quantities. To the extent that you advocate imposing them on people is the extent to which all of this is just another in a long series of collectivist schemes.