Thursday, October 18, 2007

Earning admiration in today's world

There's more to the quest for riches than just gaining opportunities for more physical pleasure -- it's also a quest to be admired. Studying an interesting question or creating a thing of beauty is a pleasure unto itself, and it's one which can also lead to prestige and a sense of accomplishment. Leading a virtuous life is its own reward if you believe in the virtues you've chosen. In any case, there's a strong motivation to feel that you're doing something valuable in life, and to have others in your community agree with that assessment.

Virtue can be defined as placing others' needs above your own desires. Under this umbrella, the particular acts regarded as virtuous can change as the situation changes. Today conservation -- saving as much as possible for future generations instead of a short-sighted grab-and-gobble -- is rapidly rising in value to become perhaps the highest virtue as our environment-and-fuel situation becomes more and more terrifyingly urgent. Celibacy no longer ranks as a virtue in the eyes of the general population: with effective and readily available contraception, sexuality isn't equivalent to leaving more mouths to feed, so the self-denial of abstinence is no more admirable than self-flagellation. As the human race becomes more globally interconnected, rainbows of diversity take the virtue spotlight away from piety and faith (which can be used to bolster ethnocentrism and violence). It's no wonder the religious right is so desperately angry: nobody wants their own investments to lose value. In the middle, monks, nuns, and other ascetics retain a place of esteem as they can teach the faithful to admire leaving a small footprint.

Personal achievement is a beautiful way of earning esteem. Whether you're an artist or athlete, researcher, theorizer, philosopher, or whatever, flexing your talents typically costs little (in terms of Earth's resources) compared to the joy, satisfaction, and potential good that is produced.

Seeking status (and status symbols) seems like the opposite of virtue, yet as with virtue and personal achievement, vying for status is a typical human way of convincing yourself and others of your value. To me this is the biggest weakness of the communist idea "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." Leftist intellectuals notice that it's bad that the idle rich enjoy a lavish lifestyle while poor children go without food or medical care. Yet if everything were equalized economically, the rich man loses his prestige while the intellectual is still admired either for his personal accomplishments or for his position as a leader. So it's hard to see pure communism as a selfless (hence virtuous) position for an intellectual to take.

A more realistic goal than equalizing wealth would be to try to narrow the extremes and persuade the top dogs to desire and value items which are less wasteful.

"Finer, not more or bigger" should be held up as the measure of true luxury. A bottle of wine that costs three hundred euros on the table of a five-star restaurant doesn't take significantly more of the Earth's resources to produce than a three-euro bottle of table wine served in a modest home, yet is an impressive display of wealth. An apartment with a fantastic location in Manhattan -- filled with original artwork -- will probably set you back more than a giant McMansion filled to the brim with rarely-used manufactured goods and accessed via S.U.V., but guess which one sets the world back more. Similarly, expensive designer clothing might be made by skilled artisans earning a living wage (rather than in a sweatshop), and the luxury food industry today can support innovations and traditions (organic farms and traditional artisans) which are more Earth-friendly than industrial farming. I'm not saying wealth is a virtue, but changing values can limit its harm. And people who want to be trendsetters can do some good by encouraging others to aspire to forward-thinking eco-friendliness.

I was over in the expensive part of town the other day, and noticed a few shops displaying handbags in the 900 to 1500 euro price range (and, no, I did not mistakenly add some extra zeros there). To my fashion-uneducated eye, the expensive purses were all grotesquely ugly. My immediate reaction was that you would have to be completely out of your gourd to even want one of those. But of course the ladies who want those purses aren't trying to impress me. (I'm happy to oblige by not being impressed.) On the other hand, if you've got money to burn and want people to know it, there are worse choices you could make. At least "taste" items are small, represent spending money on ideas (designs), and show some value for something somewhere on the education spectrum.

The guy who says "I already have four houses and ten cars, so I guess the next item on my rich-guy agenda is a yacht..." deserves more pity than envy because he's displaying his lack of imagination even more than he's displaying his wealth. America fervently believes in the Horatio Alger story, that unlimited opportunity exists for everyone in the U.S., and that it's one great, big meritocracy where your wealth is a measure of your merits. As a consequence -- since showing off good taste smells of "old money" -- obscenely wasteful over-consumption has long been the ultimate status symbol. But the connection between Horatio Alger's reward and the resulting values of "money = good, culture = bad" gets lost somewhere along the way, and we get leaders like George W. Bush: a wealthy heir who failed at the business opportunities that were handed him, and who is too elitist to show any kind of consideration for the growing ranks of the working poor, yet can still pretend to be salt-of-the-Earth by wearing his lack of culture on his sleeve. Fortunately his hypocritical example may nudge people's opinions in a positive direction. If you're going to be rich, at least make some sort of effort to demonstrate it's not wasted on you -- try to be a philanthropist or patron of the arts or something, sheesh!

So while capitalist theory holds that some economic disparity is necessary to inspire ambition and innovation, I'll quietly add that some economic disparity is not necessarily harmful. The key word, however, is some. People will work day and night to be just a little bit better off then their fellows, but it's all relative and values-based. If the Joneses don't have a swimming pool, there's a good chance you won't care that you don't have one either. If the Joneses just put up these fab new solar panels that power their house and their electric car, you might just need some too. But even if there's benefit to having a little room for economic advancement, that doesn't mean there's any benefit to extremes of wealth and poverty. It's not like the entrepreneur will give up and not bother to try to become rich if he hears that his capital gains or his children's inheritance might be a little less on an absolute scale -- being richer than others is just as rewarding even if it doesn't mean owning every resource on the entire planet. On the other end of the spectrum, no one benefits from seeing children lack basics like nutrition, education, and healthcare, particularly if the country can afford to do something about it. It's merely a question of choosing to invest in the future rather than choosing the instant gratification of gorging on pork today. In other words, choosing virtue.

The human desire to earn esteem and admiration can be what ultimately saves our species -- as long as we value forward-thinking and an eye for the future.


Aerin said...

I agree. This middle of the way philosphy doesn't seem to go to unreasonable extremes - providing for the typical downsides to communism or unregulated capitalism.

What's sad is that some of these philosphies (in the past) were automatically labeled and dismissed by politicians and pundits. It's unfortunate, because I think people listened to the sound bytes instead of really thinking about what they value.

With that said, safety and education are also important factors in status - particularly when children are involved. Both are in the eye of the beholder - is an SUV really safer than a sedan? Who gets to decide this? Does a parent put their child "at risk" by driving something like other than an SUV because it's better for the environment?

I think it all depends on choices - do you stay in the city where the education may not be as good (if you don't live in France :))? Do you move to the suburbs where you have to drive everywhere but the schools are better?

Not that I'm a big fan of tax cuts or rebates for everything, but it seems like recently that's been the US government's way of encouraging citizens to make better, more sustainable choices. I think the more of that, the better.

Unknown said...

I like where your head's at. I don't disagree with capitalism at all; in fact, I thrive because I work in an industry that supports it.

I also like your ideas on finer versus bigger. It used to be (or so it seems to me) that people had some "class" in the way that they presented their best. You brought out that great old bottle of wine to celebrate something. It seems now that a whole county's worth of ecology has to suffer in order to celebrate a sweet sixteen.

There is also, I believe, a ludicrous obsession with luxury lately. Everyone, it seems, is a connoisseur. Even about chocolate. Now the chocolate percentage has to be printed on the front of a fine chocolate in order to sell. I don't want to measure the chocolate, I just want to f***ing eat the chocolate! It'll taste good because I looked for what I like, not because it's 80% cacao (which I think is horrendously bitter, but I'm deviating from the point).

I think that disparity today comes in a large way from waste, and like you said, luxury by numbers. We really don't need to use up so much just because we can.

Speaking of SUV's and safety, I read somewhere that SUV's are safer for the driver, but not necessarily for the operator of a compact that collides with it. The glut of SUV's has raised the bar of safety (almost literally) because you have to have an SUV to survive a collision with one.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Aerin!!!

It's true each person has a lot of complex decisions to make even after choosing to make planning for the future a priority. That's one reason to reject simplistic sound-byte thinking (such as the fall of communism demonstrating that the most extreme form of unregulated capitalism must be the best).

Hey John!!!

I'm not a huge fan of choosing wealth as a goal, but I wouldn't begrudge people some luxury -- and even the pleasure of being snobbish about it -- if it's not wasteful. If being a chocolate conisseur is the "in" thing, then good. I don't want to eat a bar of 80% cacao either ;^) but to each his own. It's actually possible to buy 80% cacao gourmet chocolate with the stamp of approval from a "fair trade" organization on it (eg. purchased from farmers' organizations that assure a living wage and sustainable farming techniques). If that's how you're showing off your class, then more power to you.

Regarding S.U.V.s: I don't have a link handy, but I've seen research that shows that -- counterintuitively -- they're less safe statistically than many smaller cars even for their own drivers and passengers. A sporty small car typically has better handling, so even though the sporty car is the loser if the two have a head-on collision, a more common collision scenario is that the sporty car is able to maneuver out of danger while the S.U.V. ends up careening into something bigger, such as another S.U.V. So everyone is less safe with those things on the road.

Freckle Face Girl said...

I agree & would love to follow your suggestions when I win the next HUGE lottery. :)

C. L. Hanson said...

That's the spirit!!! ;^)

mathmom said...

This is a very interesting article, and I'm still trying to work out how I feel about it. Some makes very good sense, like encouraging choice of things that are finer instead of bigger.

I think I am reading that you say that people choose to be virtuous in order to be admired (I may have misunderstood your argument). I think that it is useful to try to capitalize on the "virtue of the moment" (in this case, conservation) but I don't think that this technique is helpful for the long run. Some of the changes we need to make for survival involve what we choose to do when no one can see us, for instance, and seeking status won't change those choices. Also, who knows what the next status-giving fad will bring? North Carolina's motto, "Esse quam videri" (to be, rather than to seem) has some bearing on this, I think.

On the other hand, expecting people to seek virtue for virtue's sake hasn't exactly given great results. However, it is still what I expect from myself and what I am teaching my children.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Mathmom!!!

I don't mean to say that virtue should be inspired by desire to be admired. Sometimes it is, and sometimes a virtuous person (who is necessarily seeking admiration) is nonetheless admired and inspires virtue in others. I meant that virtue is ideally inspired by the (internal) sentiment that virtuous actions are inherently valuable and useful.

It's not surprising I was less than clear, though, since I was trying to make a parallel with personal achievement as well as with wealth status, while making a whole bunch of other points. Actually I'd been planning this essay for months (years, really), and it has taken me this long to get it even as clearly expressed as it is... ;^)

Lynet said...

There are some really sharp points in this. Thank you :)

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Lynet!!! :D

Anonymous said...

Good post timing, I was in LA & surrounding again last week, and my boss & I were talking about how the entire place is a characterless shithole.

I'd like to think it's a CA thing, but every cookie cutter housing plan is no different, whether they're McMansions or $100k units.

Most Americans just don't have taste, period.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey MXRacer652!!!

L.A. is well known as an extreme case of sprawl. I think one of the problems for Americans is that they've never even seen -- much less lived in -- a walkable urban area with interesting character-filled public spaces. So they don't miss what they've never had. If all you know is cookie-cutter, then unfortunately your ideas for improvement start to run in directions like "bigger cookie-cutter"...

beatdad said...

Forgive me if I missed your whole point. I think that frugality is its own status symbol.

There are plenty of people who admire those who have kitchen gardens, use bi-cycles to get around and shop at thrift stores. Even people who can afford to just buy everything are frugal.

Great Article about western (U.S.) water conservation In the New York Times Sunday magazine. I would have provided a link but can't figure it out.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Wayne!!!

I think so too. It's not surprising you missed my point if you already think that frugality (demonstrating you can get by on less) is a quality to be admired. That's basically the point.

There was some amusing (LDS-interest) discussion in the comments of this post about how bragging about frugality is a good response to people who brag about money and connections... :D