Materialism (Vers. 2.0, Part 4)

Money! Well get back….  /  I’m alright Jack keep your hands off my stack! Money! It’s a hit. Don’t give me that do goody-good bullshit….

Money! It’s a crime. Share it fairly but don’t take a slice of my pie.

Money! So they say, is the root of all evil today. But if you ask for a raise it’s no surprise they’re giving none away….

Pink Floyd, “Money” (from The Dark Side of the Moon, 1973) 

I’ve always enjoyed old progressive rock. You may have noticed. It raises my Christian friends’ brows sometimes. But much of it was well done, and sounds like some thought went into it.

As implied by my referencing Madonna at the outset of Part 1, popular music is often a good guide to the zeitgeist of a culture. Many rock groups / singers / songwriters are sensitive to this in ways academics are not.

Our prevailing worldview, as I’ve emphasized, is fundamentally materialist, and even those uninterested in the philosophical specifics we outlined in Part 3 will find themselves encircled by its consequences, one of which is the preoccupation with material goods in our culture, amidst a great deal of ethical ambiguity and pressures to conform to whatever is trendy.

What is trendy is constantly changing, of course. One of the questions underwriting the ambiguity was best put by one of the first philosophy professors I worked for as a teaching assistant back in the early 1980s.

Are there any absolute values? she asked students. Needless to say, she did not supply an answer.

Materialism has implied the relentless secularization of Third Stage civilization, the secularism of which called forth attempts at secular moralities, or moral theories. All, however, have struggled against relativistic and nihilistic tendencies — and, as we have seen, against the tendencies of those who are fascinated with power and couldn’t care less about philosophical justifications. The latter include, one might call it, the power of the sword: of those at the helm of the state, able to hand down decrees and rule as they see fit as they answer to no one.

What have major philosophers said on the subject?

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) believed we could deduce absolute duties from Pure Reason. Kant’s ethics were just one component of his transcendental turn, one of the pivotal moves in the history of philosophy — Kant’s gallant effort to save the subject from the determinism he perceived coming from physics and also from the skeptical overtones of Hume’s critique of causal inference. Isolating Kant’s ethics of deontology (Gr. study of duty) from his larger systematic philosophy is hard to do. What is interesting is that Kant’s turn posits, on grounds of logical necessity, noumenal “realm” of reason and rational action outside the phenomenal “realm” of causality shaped by categories of the understanding. So as not to get taken off track, we will confine ourselves to Kant’s ethics, its immediate requirements, and what follows.

Kantian duties apply to all rational beings. He called his main principle the categorical imperative: distinguished from hypothetical imperatives which are situation specific. In other words, the categorical imperative is absolute. Kant gave it three formulations. Paraphrasing: (1) Always act as if the maxim or principle guiding your actions could be a universal law (apply to everyone). That is (this is Steven Yates speaking now, not Kant), if x is morally acceptable for me to do, it must be morally acceptable for anyone to do. (2) Treat all rational beings as ends in themselves and never exclusively as a means to one’s own ends. For all rational beings have moral agency and are due respect on grounds of this and their capacity for reason alone. (3) Act as if legislating for all rational beings, oneself and all others, in a kingdom of ends: the community of rational beings, all conscious of the moral law within.

Examples: always tell the truth out of respect for the truth and respect for others as moral agents. For if it is acceptable for me to lie, then it is acceptable for anyone to lie, and the very idea of respect for truth-telling breaks down. For the same reasons, always keep your promises. Honor your contracts. Obviously, no rational being should end the life of another, or his/her own life.

Superficially, Kant’s ethics looks like a sophisticated form of the familiar Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you, adding: respect your own rational agency. It is more than that. Kant tells us: act always for the sake of duty and never in mere accordance with duty: for one actions to be done from inclination and merely accord with duty, they are caused externally instead of resulting from one’s rational will, and morally valueless. Thus acting morally may mean going against one’s inclinations, as when telling the truth when it would be far more convenient to lie, or to keep a promise when it would be far easier to break it.

For Kant, the moral community consists of all rational agents who are transcendental subjects, not empirically-perceived objects. Only subjects can be conceived as having the capacity to act for the sake of a duty that applies to all. The bottom line is that the path to immorality is making exceptions for oneself, or treating oneself as a special case. Morality is universal and applies the same way to all, or it is useless. The path to immorality is treating another rational agent as an object in order to get one’s way. A rational agent — a person — is not an object.

Kant had problems, however, when universal duties appeared to conflict in practice, as they sometimes did. It is easy to conceive of the necessity of choosing between telling the truth and protecting a life, as with the standard example of the German citizen living under the Nazis who meant well but harbored Jewish neighbors. When asked by the Stormtroopers if he is doing so, what does he tell them? Later Kantians thus tried to prioritize some duties such as preserving life over others such as always telling the truth or keeping one’s promises. But what neither they nor anyone else could tell us: given the intellectual tendencies we’ve noted, was there really any substance behind these appeals to seemingly free-floating rational agency that Kant places at the center of our moral universe? Absent the transcendental rational will, morality is a fiction. Kant must posit its existence a priori. He cannot prove that it does; the most he can say is that the very concept of proof presupposes it.

Let’s cross the English Channel. Great Britain’s Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873), utilitarians, argued the quite different thesis that morality is a matter of consequences, not pure reasoning, and of creating a greater balance of pleasure over pain in society. As the latter would put it, acting morally means following the greatest happiness principle: your action ought to create a greater balance of happiness over unhappiness in the world. Mill never fully separated happiness from pleasure, but unlike Bentham, he prioritized certain pleasures as superior. Those of the mind, such as scientific knowledge or appreciation of the arts, take precedence over those of the body, involving sensuality and appetites.

This kind of position logically permits the sacrifice of some if it brings about a greater balance of happiness for everyone else, via greater knowledge and social benefits for the rest to enjoy. Consider the old adage about not being able to make a truly spectacular omelet without breaking a few eggs! Mill, aware of this, supplemented his basic statement with a harm principle: again paraphrasing, the only justification for the exercise of force against another against the other’s will is to prevent harm to others or to the person himself.

The utilitarian moral community is thus the community of all who experience pleasure and avoid pain and suffering. This would include higher animals, and Bentham became the first philosopher to speak of higher animals as having moral properties human beings ought to acknowledge and respect.

These are clearly not idle games played by intellectuals locked away in academic cubicles. Mill’s two major works in moral philosophy, On Liberty (1859) and Utilitarianism (1863), were widely read in British society. The former became one of the founding documents of classical liberalism. The latter was utilitarianism’s definitive statement. Utilitarian ideas were absorbed into governing bodies and the political economy of the English-speaking world. They affected policy decisions in a variety of arenas, furthered by people who’d not even heard of Mill himself.

So-called scientific medicine became one of those arenas. Here the weaknesses of utilitarianism became evident. Mill’s harm principle was quietly set aside. The knowing sacrifice of black men in Macon Co., Ala., during the Tuskegee syphilis experiment is otherwise consistent with utilitarian thought. The medical community acquired knowledge about syphilis, from tracking its progress in sufferers. The men were not told the truth about their condition, and in the meantime, they infected innocent others such as their wives who sometimes had children born with the disease.

The public health community got away with this for decades!

Also compatible with utilitarianism is every decision by members of a political elite to send the children of the masses to fight wars of choice! The latter will never, after all, enjoy the same educational opportunities or likelihood of rising to influence! Some may be sacrificed so that the rest will prosper!

Kant’s deontology and Mill’s utilitarianism (or variants on them) became the two most prevalent secular moral philosophies in intellectual centers. Not surprisingly, utilitarianism became the leading ethical theory among English-speaking philosophers who debated its nuances and variants instead of its founding premise: that our primary motive in life both is, and should be, increasing human happiness identified as pleasure of various sorts — that in a business or consumer setting, we both are, and should be, utility-maximizers.

We do, of course, seek pleasure and to maximize utility in a variety of ways. As the marketplace developed, utilitarianism seemed to provide a good foundation for mass-consumerism. Some of Mill’s other distinctions, such as between the “higher” pleasures of the intellect and those of “mere” sensuality and appetite, diminished in influence if the former proved unprofitable. The power of the purse — of money — assured this!

Profitability, though, is no guarantee of health. Unhealthy foods, beverages, drugs, etc., are very profitable! Cigarettes were (still are) profitable! The likely causal connection between cigarettes and both lung cancer and heart disease had become clear by the 1950s. So-called fast food is also manifestly unhealthy. Processed foods contain a multitude of ingredients that increase risk of diabetes, heart disease, and other conditions; some contain flavor-enhancers that are known to be mildly addictive, so that consumers will return for more, not quite knowing why. Corporations continue to produce these goods, most of which now contain nutritional information and even warning labels, because they sell.

One suspects that in materialist civilization, this becomes the only ultimate criteria of valuation in “free” societies. Within constantly shifting limits, what sells is permitted.

So is it the case that, as Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky’s (1821 – 1881) character Ivan Karamazov put it (I am paraphrasing, obviously), “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted”?

Modern secular ethical theory has been, in one way or another, a struggle against this wretched conclusion, as well as against the relativism of anthropologists such as Benedict. Thus far, the results are less than promising!

A few major thinkers of the later twentieth century weighed in with fresh proposals. Among the best known is John Rawls (1921 – 2002), who pursued a theory of social justice as fairness. He sought to identify rules that would be adopted by rational persons from behind a veil of ignorance: that is, from the ideal vantage point of an abstract intellect (a legacy of Descartes), which does not know its (?) race/ethnicity or class standing or other particulars. What principles would be most worth embracing by the rational and fair-minded intellect?

The answer, as Rawls saw it: every person should have basic liberties no government can take away, to the extent compatible with equal liberties for all (the liberty principle). And, “offices and positions” should be open to all persons regardless of race and sex (an equality of opportunity principle). Finally: inequalities, to be acceptable, must work to the advantage of the worst off (the difference principle).

Rawls’s was an ingenious effort. His critics noted, however, that his original position (behind the veil of ignorance) works under the assumption that most people are risk averse. They would not want to risk the results of principles that left disadvantaged groups to fend for themselves, as they might be in one such group. Saying this is a bit strange, however, and others wondered if the thought experiment was realistic. Can anyone truly imagine himself behind a “veil of ignorance”? Rawls’s thought experiment certainly doesn’t comport with the identity-politics that has come about since his major work A Theory of Justice (1971). For whatever it is worth, critics from that quarter of academia would denounce his disembodied intellect as no less white and male (and probably straight and Christian) as, well, Descartes.

Rawls, finally, did not see any necessary connection between morality and justice on the one hand and metaphysics or worldviews on the other. The idea that these areas can be completely decoupled from one another is part of secular ethics in the material world. Morality becomes a free-floating abstraction.

Speaking of free-floating abstractions….

There are doubtless readers who have been bursting to argue that I have completely (and surprisingly!) neglected the other side of the classical liberal tradition, that of libertarians who developed individualist ethical theories (or, ethical egoism). One of Rawls’s Harvard colleagues, Robert Nozick (1938 – 2002), developed an individualist ethic, as have other notable libertarian luminaries such as Tibor R. Machan (1939 – 2016). Some, such as Machan, were influenced by Ayn Rand (1905 – 1982). They focused instead on negative rights of individuals, rights to be left alone in ways that imply no duties to others except to leave them alone. These they contrasted with alleged positive rights to specific goods someone is obligated to supply.

Their view, a descendent of the classical liberalism of Mill, and occasionally of Frederic Bastiat (1801 – 1850) usually minus the latter’s Christianity, was that all individuals have the right to act freely, pursue their own goals, and keep the fruits of their labors (private property) so long as they do not interfere with the same negative rights of others. All should deal voluntarily with one another in the free market. According to the non-aggression principle (NAP) central in the libertarian ethos, what is forbidden is physical aggression or coercion against others. Since fulfilling demands based on positive rights cannot be accomplished without state intervention violating the NAP, libertarians reject the validity of the concept of positive rights.

This view appeals to defenders of freedom and Constitutionally limited government, obviously, since to the libertarian, government (the state) is the primary aggressor against individuals’ rights. It must be kept very small (minarchism, what Nozick called the night watchman state) or eliminated altogether (anarcho-capitalism). Shrink the power of the sword to insignificance, or eliminate it. Those who would eliminate the state questioning its legitimacy, just as we rejected the legitimacy of chattel slavery 170 years ago.

The downside of eliminating positive rights, though, and state mechanisms to bring them about, is that individuals rendered helpless or infirm, e.g., by illness or injury late in life, would have no inherent right to be cared for. While libertarians might respond, So what? let us just point out that there are many such individuals for which an absence of care by others would mean the end of their lives within a matter of a few excruciating days, and in some cases within a few excruciating hours. Are libertarians sure they want this result? Negative rights do not do you much good if what they come down to is a “right” to die, helpless. Families are considered responsible for helping their own, but the reality of industrial capitalist civilization is that family members have had to spread everywhere in search of work, often leaving aging parents behind. Today’s nursing homes are filled with elderly people who have been all but abandoned by their “busy” offspring. Charities are often appealed to, as having been effective back in the days before the state got so large and usurped their social role. The problem today would be reaching out to them, getting their attention, not to mention that if such efforts succeeded charities would soon be completely overwhelmed. Need we point out that far more people would need their services today than needed them in the 1800s, if only because there are far more people! And they are far more dependent on the artificial systems advanced civilization has supplied them!

Of course, nothing in libertarianism forbids a person from acting on his own to help, e.g., an Alzheimer sufferer who has ended up alone in the world. It does reject the idea that you, or I, are morally compelled to do so, or that the state should do so as the agency of last resort. The upshot is that an ethic of purely negative rights seems neither realistic nor humane. One reason the Libertarian Party has garnered relatively few followers — even during an era when mainstream political candidates’ popularity has dropped like an avalanche of rocks — is that most people instinctively reject the idea that society consists merely of individuals going about on their own, left to their own devices. This does not reflect most people’s experience of the world outside academic abstractions and think tank cubicles.

Studies into the effects of prolonged isolation on persons, moreover, suggest that the rational individual of ideological libertarianism, no less than Kant’s rational will or Rawls’s intellect “behind the veil,” is an unreal abstraction. We should begin to see a pattern here, of appeals to abstractions which simply do not exist. They are modern secular intellectuals’ fictions. The pure utility-maximizer of utilitarian-grounded classical liberals does not exist. People are driven by many motivations. Most of us are creatures of habit, which means that our lives and actions are circumscribed by behavioral systems, products of expectation, conditioning, and reward. We are parts of larger systems: familial, communal, professional, etc. To isolate a human being conceptually from these in the name of an abstraction is to falsify who/what he is. Just as isolating him physically will eventually destroy him psychologically. This is why some scholars now believe that prolonged (weeks, months, years) solitary confinement in prisons should be classified as a form of torture and discontinued except in cases of real and present danger to someone’s life.

Libertarians assumed, finally, that free market dynamics emerging from individuals (abstractions) acting and transacting voluntarily, within the boundaries of Nozick’s night watchman state, would be sufficient to control corporate greed and malfeasance, or prevent the dominance of state machinery by corporations colluding in a joint hunger after power. In other words, the libertarian view of the marketplace is that it is an entirely self-regulating system. History suggests that this is wrong, as some of our health examples above suggest. What history suggests is that the locus of power in the actual globalized Third Stage world is not government per se (for we do not have a world government — not yet, anyway!) but well-networked corporate leviathans, with international financial institutions and central banks at the top. Corporations can buy political loyalty and will use economic necessity as an instrument of control: the power of the purse supervenes the power of the sword time and time again!

One need only read John Perkins’s (1945 – ) Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (2004) or the “upgraded” edition, The New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (2016) to see the role what he calls the corporatocracy has played in controlling governments of all sizes and kinds, bringing about regime changes and cultural catastrophes for those who resisted. The corporatocracy consists, he says, of international banks such as the World Bank, vast construction firms such as Bechtel and Halliburton, other global corporations including “consulting” firms such as the one he worked for, and governments that have been brought to heel, often betraying their own people.

For peoples in “developing” countries have found their local economies destroyed, their land and waterways ruined by pollution, and their lives ruined by poverty once all the local systems have been disrupted and they found themselves at the mercy of a money economy.

This, one might say, is materialism globalized! It is a far cry from a philosophy such as Kant’s, in which rational agents are deemed worthy of respect on grounds of their rationality alone. Or even Mill’s harm principle. Or even the idea that we should never exercise force against another. When the exercise of force is systemic and not direct, the NAP becomes meaningless verbiage. It might forbid the murderer or the thief, but not the two corporations whose voluntary trade deal just destroyed 100,000 jobs!

While a lot of ink has been spilled debating the merits (or lack of) of the various secular ethical theories, at present no one position is truly dominant. Utilitarianism perhaps comes the closest. Peter Singer (1946 –      ) may be the best known bioethicist. His conclusions are that animals have moral properties because they can experience pleasure and avoid pain; but fetuses have no rights if the pregnancy was unplanned and they inconvenience the mother (they can experience pain, but never mind).

This is where contemporary bioethics stands, ever able to deem classes of entities as members of moral communities or exclude them, based in either case on political trendiness and expediency.

Richard Rorty (1931 – 2007), arguably the last major philosopher of the twentieth century (and possibly the last major philosopher the U.S. will produce), put it like this in his Consequences of Pragmatism (1982): again paraphrasing: in the actual world, people have the rights and obligations “society” says they have, no more and no less. With this, we are back to the anthropological view. Secular society, neither Rorty nor his predecessors quite tell us, devolves upon authority: especially the authority of those with the capacity to determine which habits are approved, and are able to enforce their will on others. They may use language in ways ensuring psychological conditioning and de facto control. One may study how words such as racist, sexist, misogynist, homophobic, fascist, conspiracy theorist, white supremacist, and others are used, to see how language can be used to demonize and discredit: what amounts to verbal club-swinging. Many other words and phrases are far more subtle in their effects: uses of words like moral, just (or social justice), right, rational, objective, etc., can be used to give linguistic “pats on the back” to ideological claims and stances that are popular and trendy, in the absence of truly sound reasoning for supporting them. Virtue-signaling helps, too.

All of the philosophers we have considered, incidentally, were or are atheists except for Kant who believed society benefited from a general belief in God. From a philosophical standpoint, Kant decoupled God from morality. His theory grounds morality on duties of the rational will, not commands from a deity. Kant did not believe our reason was capable of solving the problem of whether or not God exists. The categories of the understanding limited reason’s specific conclusions. If indeed our cognitive capacities are indeed designed to work, to acquire knowledge and solve problems in this world, quite apart from whether or not there is another, then Kant might well have been right.

This is just to say, however, that the first premises of your worldview are a priori: pre-rational and pre-empirical. They are starting points, not conclusions. Some will call them emotional commitments. Others will say they are based on comfort, familiarity, and habit — supporting their fundamentally emotional grounding.

Be that as it may, we cannot really evade the choice: believe in God and His commands, or not. To refuse to choose is to be an operational atheist, acting as if God does not exist while tailoring one’s “personal” ethics to whatever is intellectually and culturally fashionable, or to what one believes one can get away with.

To be an operational atheist living within one’s personal moral sphere, moreover, is essentially to cede the rest of the world to power. To silently concur, that is, that Dostoevsky went in the right direction: if God does not exist, then for those in power, everything is permitted; and for those not in power, everything is permitted except getting caught!

In sum: if materialism is true, then the most morality can be is a code of culturally approved habits and practices which are changeable over time. This might engender stability in somewhat enlightened societies whose thought leaders have convinced everyone else that there are reasons to care for each other strong enough to override convenience and expediency. Culturally approved habits and practices can be changed forcibly from the outside, however. There is, after all, the power of the sword as well as the power of the purse. No one’s morality has any decisive answer to superior might, whether exercised militarily or merely economically.

Thus Rorty’s implicit answer modifies Dostoevsky: “If God doesn’t exist, then everything is permitted that your fellows allow, the state permits, or that you can get away with if you have the bucks or are sufficiently clever and/or clandestine.”

In Western capitalist orders, money rules. The “other” Golden Rule had always held that “he who has the gold, make the rules.”

Founding neoliberal economist Milton Friedman once penned a revealing article entitled “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits” (1970). He accused those who spoke of responsibilities of corporations beyond their shareholders and consumers of their products as undermining a “free society.”

Ethical objections to the idea that billionaire-owned corporations may do virtually as they please and call it “the free market at work,” or “the liberal international order,” or whatever they want to call it, turn out in practice to be toothless.

About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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