Monday, October 25, 2010

Means to an End (Part II)

In a recent post I described the contention I felt in reading some of Gene Callahan's comments as of late. I wanted to (briefly) elaborate on my final point just to illustrate it further.

Gene laments the idea of people worshiping "tools" (and by that he means "stuff") as ends in and of them self. This is generally comparable to the the off-used criticism that we, modern society, are too materialistic...too focussed on this "stuff" that shouldn't constitute the whole of what we are about or what we should strive for. I parried with the notion that a view of people worshiping such tools is really not an accurate description of reality; rather that people value tools as ends (as they do with any tool) generally to the extent that the serve to facilitate even greater ends. I value money because I know it can afford me X. And, if I highly value X (although "stuff" it may very well be), it's only to the extent that it is a means to personal happiness.

I feel that this explanation is somewhat incomplete, or at least that it doesn't incorporate the more explicit notion I was trying to put forward. It would seem that maybe leaving it at X (cars, phones, houses, TVs, etc.) doesn't really resolve the question of why "stuff" makes us happy - it nearly explains that since stuff makes us happy, it serves as a means to the end of happiness, and thus you aren't valuing the item insomuch as the happiness it brings. But I did not mean to imply that objects simply bring value de facto. There are perfectly good reasons we value the things we do (even if someone objects).

My central thrust is that larger means/ends frameworks are (in most cases) composed of a network of further means/ends frameworks; a lattice which can be small and simple or large and very complex. In the example of "stuff" it's not so much that "stuff" directly makes people happy. Even this is part of a more explicit framework. What brings happiness is the product of having "stuff." You value a TV because you enjoy being entertained. You value a house because it provides shelter; larger houses because they may support a family; and even larger houses still could have a social signalling value. Likewise you may value a particular type of phone for its social signalling value; and/or you could value it simply as a way to keep in touch with your friends and family (as a tool of communication). You might value your car, also, as a tool of social signalling; you may value you it as an excellent tool to get from point A to point B as well. I think the question we should be asking is - Why is it really surprising that we would value these things?

It's true that to some degree I'm sure there is a point of excess (as there may be for everything). But I don't find it particularly peculiar that people would value "stuff" a whole hell of a lot in a tangible world where tangible people need tangible things. And what, per se, is even wrong about that? Is there some Malthusian underlay to that kind of critique of modern society? When did me wanting "stuff" and then wanting even more "stuff" for my children become such a terrible thing? I'm not sure I see anything particularly upright in being anti-"stuff" to be honest.

It seems like, in this particular context, he finds it disheartening that his students only value things (which are tools for happiness) - but that there is much more to life! Well of course there is. And your students are well aware of that unless you found yourself being robbed after class. There's nothing mutually exclusive about wanting lots of things (in this very, truly material world in which we exist) and still abiding by certain basic ethical principles. In fact, it occurs to me that several of those precious ethical notions derive from the fact that we live in a world of scarcity - it's not really detached from materialism.

If people are undervaluing the "non-stuff" in the world, I think we can have a discussion about that. But I'm not under the impression that it shares and inverse relationship with our want for things. I wanted to really sympathize with Callahan's point - because I do think the world of ethics (in our personal lives) is in disrepair...but I don't think wanting material goods is to blame. In fact, trying to cast out such demons almost immediately reeks of some progressively slavish (in the Nietzschian sense) mentality. As if a shifting purpose towards the greater good requires us to give up our personal quest to amass wealth.

I just don't happen to see it that way. And I see an attack on that want of wealth (which brings us, in many cases, some of the best and most important tools for happily living our lives) as a throwback to a kind of moralizing that I think is responsible for many terrible things. Please, feel free to try to fix what is broken. We certainly aren't perfect. But don't throw the baby out with the bath-water.

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