Materialism As a Fundamental Mistake About Value


E.J. Bond (1992) ,"Materialism As a Fundamental Mistake About Value", in SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, eds. Floyd W. Rudmin and Marsha Richins, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 164-166.

Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, 1992      Pages 164-166


E.J. Bond, Department of Philosophy, Queen's University, Canada

Margaret Thatcher, some time during her last year of office, said that the sufficient conditions of happiness were two: owning your own house and having at least a small return on capital investment. Owning property and having a docent income was All, and she envisaged this as a possibility for the entire adult population of Great Britain-a state of affairs supposed to ensure universal well-being. This is materialism, or the kind of materialism we are talking about, in its mildest form. Wealth and prop", not necessarily more than modest amounts, are ail that are necessary to flourish as a human being.

It can go further of course. Those who seek affluence, or getting as much as they can for themselves of material wealth as their sole aim in life, whether they want to spend their money or accumulate it, or both, have a slogan: 'Poverty sucks.' And of course they're right. There is nothing more depressing, an a continuous basis, than being poor, than having to count pennies, than being burdened with an oppressive debt, than having your property or your income under threat, than being dispossessed, than not knowing where your next meal is coming from, or how you're going to manage to support your dependents. Material prosperity which, in our social order, requires a degree of financial security, is one of the necessary conditions of living a good life. And this means more than more subsistence. It means more even than we all have come to expect in a society as affluent as ours: a decent place to live with a measure of privacy, indoor plumbing, central heating, and hot and cold running water. ft means, at least for the majority, having some of the extra goodies and having the leisure time to enjoy them.

As the owner of a not-bad sound system, a huge collection of recorded music, and the recent purchaser, admittedly at a bargain price, of a brand now colour television and a hi-fi stereo VCR, whose capability I enjoy immensely (not to mention my dishwasher, my new microwave, and my other labour-saving appliances), I am hardly in a position to be advising a spartan life free of all such encumbrances. If it is something you enjoy, or something which saves more drudgery, then it is life-enhancing beyond the faintest shadow of a doubt. It is a genuine good for its possessor and to deny that would be more hypocrisy. The mistake about value is not the desire for material well-being; it is the pursuit of money and material possessions for their own sake, as the sole or principal or chief goal in life. That is what materialism is. But if wealth and property are not only goods, but the sole goods, why stick at a modest amount? Why not try to get as much as you can? Why not go for the boodle? That is where materialism inevitably leads. The trouble is it doesn't work. As an account of the summum bonum materialism fails on four counts.


Who needs more state-of-the-art VCRs than they have rooms in their houses? Who needs a fleet of Cadillacs? Who needs, indeed who benefits from, having more than they can possibly use? Having a large income is grand, but what is the point in having more money than one can do anything with other than make more of it? Either one spends it on redundant items which yield little or no additional pleasure or freedom from unwanted tasks or, in miserly fashion, one simply accumulates it. But to what and? Affluence has its limits, for it soon reaches a point of diminishing returns, and ultimately nothing is to be gained from the further accumulation of wealth or property.


Of course massive wealth yields status and power. it yields status through display and conspicuous consumption-win its mildest form brand-name products, their envy-creating emblems publicly flaunted-and in the satisfaction of being recognized, both by one's peers and one's inferiors, as belonging to the social elite of the very rich. ft yields power through the control of corporations, their projects and their policies, and through behind-the-scenes manipulation of politicians and hence of public policy. Much of this financial and political manipulation is, of course, in the interest of protecting or adding to the vast wealth or property one has already accumulated, and so would fall under the heading of materialism strictly speaking. ft would then be liable to the other objections presently being raised to that as a philosophy of life. But power and the ability to manipulate may, like status, be sought for their own sakes, in which case they are not materialistic in the strict sense, and if there is a mistake about value here as well, we must make out a separate case. If one is pursuing power and status for their own sakes, one is not making wealth and property the exclusive and or goal of life, and that is our definition of materialism.


We cannot enjoy our material possessions, even supposing them to be absolutely secure, if our personal lives are going badly. There can be an emptiness at the heart of things no matter how lavish, sumptuous, or beautiful our surroundings may be. Being affluent, having much in the way of wealth and valuable property, gives no assurance at all that one's life will be rich and full. One cannot even enjoy one's toys and gadgets, let alone one's luxurious surroundings, if one is lonely or depressed, or constantly harried, or forced to be in daily contact with people whom one cannot bear. Companionship of some kind, and companionship not paid for, is, for most people, a necessary condition of the good life, of having a sense of well-being. Everyone, or nearly everyone, likes, perhaps needs, to be liked for themselves, and that is something money cannot buy. To be hated, or strongly disliked, or even to meet everywhere with indifference and unconcern, is a source of vast unhappiness. More than that, most people need to be cared about by somebody. "Nobody cares whether I live or die" is one of the deepest cries of misery, and it can issue as easily from the most finely appointed mansion in an enclave of the very rich as from anywhere else. Nor are alcoholism and drug addiction-both palliatives to a dismal life-the special province of the poor. Affluence is no assurance against a bleak and meaningless life. It may have the power to satisfy one's sensual appetites, but it has no power by itself to satisfy one's emotional needs.


Free time for the pursuit of pleasure, or for doing what one enjoys doing because one enjoys doing it, is a necessary condition of a good life. Free time, of course, means time free of work, by which is understood what we do, not for pleasure, but for the production of some object, such as a crop of potatoes, a musical performance, a car, a book. Or work may be the rendering of some service, such as healing the sick, caring for children, cleaning up, counseling investment, organizing a conference, presenting a paper. Work is usually done within a social context (one exception being growing vegetables for one's private consumption) where the object or service is presumed to be useful, or worth while, or necessary, either for oneself or for others. Obviously paid employment, farming, operating a business come under this heading, as do parenting and household chores. Again the end or aim of the activity is not pleasure or enjoyment but the production of objects or the performance of services which are presumed to be necessary, useful, desirable, or for which there is a demand. All of these things constitute our work, whereas going to parties, crossword puzzles, listening to music (unless one is a critic or holding an audition), watching television and playing golf (unless one is a professional), are leisure-time activities where pleasure or enjoyment of the activity is normally the and or aim.

Work need not be more burdensome toil, though too often it is, and is often so regarded in our culture, as part of the so-called Protestant work ethic. Though work is not done for pleasure, one may take pleasure in doing it, just as one may take pride in doing one's work well, whether as parent, farmer, administrator, musician, street-cleaner, camp-counselor, or whatever. It is just that pleasure has no place in such activity as an end, for the end is the product at least adequately made or the service at least adequately rendered. More often than not, however, our work is seen as just a job, or simply putting in time, while the really valuable part of our life is in our time off, our leisure-time activities: boring or burdensome toil all day to make money not just for the necessities, but for beer and television at night. But arguably it is a necessary part of a truly happy and fulfilling life, that one has work where, whatever the strain, one is able to exercise one's developed talents for a useful or desirable purpose and to take pleasure not only in the results, but in the activity itself, even though, unlike leisure-time activities, it is not done for the sake of pleasure. It is also perfectly obvious, though one's work may be a source of income, that this kind of pleasure is no more wealth or property than it is the pursuit of pleasure, and thus materialism is dealt another blow. If the only value for oneself one's work could have, was making money, then this would confirm materialism. But since a person is happier if she finds her work itself a source of satisfaction, materialism as an account of value-that is to say an account of what is worth having, getting or doing to the exclusion of everything else--is effectively dead.

What can we conclude from all this? Money, in a money economy such as ours, and material possessions, which together constitute material prosperity, are genuine goods. Lot us not pretend otherwise. And again they are goods not only because of our material needs-basic subsistence, health, and shelter-but because of the additional security and life-enhancing pleasures they can provide. But while they are necessary for happiness and well-being, they are nevertheless not sufficient, and it is pointless to pursue them without limit, for their own sakes, beyond the point of diminishing returns. Furthermore, having material prosperity, even in a high degree, is perfectly compatible with having a sense, not of well-being, but of emptiness and meaninglessness, a void that cannot be filled by the further acquisition of wealth and property: by shopping sprees, a bigger house, another yacht, or by making a financial killing. To fill that void we need friendship, affection, and a sense of our own worth, something that can be achieved only if we see our lives as having some meaning or point or purpose, and that cannot be brought about by more money-making, more consumption, or the endless pursuit of pleasure that money can buy.

And note it is not selfishness that is the issue. It would be quite beside the point to call, at this point, for altruism and transcendence of the self, or to utter the slogan 'Think of others for a change." The mistake I am talking about is a mistake about what is good for you, what will make you happy, about what you should be seeking in life for yourself. And material prosperity is not the answer, or not the exclusive answer.

Nor is it a call for concern for the spiritual as distinct from the material. Status, fame, and power are not material in any sense and, because they are non-material, have as much right to be called spiritual as anything else, and while they are or may be genuine goods for their possessors, they will not, as a supplement to material prosperity, provide the kind of meaning we are looking for. Nor, once more, is it that it is selfish to devote one's life exclusively to the acquisition of these things; rather it is that possession of them, even in the highest degree, will not by itself make one happy or provide one with a sense of well-being. Having these things, and having them in the highest degree, is simply not the best life one can have for oneself. The problem is not that people who pursue these things exclusively and without limit are thinking only of themselves, or concentrating exclusively on the material while neglecting the spiritual, but that they simply do not know what will make their own lives valuable, satisfying, and truly worth living.

Friendship, mutual affection, good will both given and received, and the sense that one is using one's developed talents to do some valuable work well, are all necessary ingredients of a good and satisfying life for oneself. Unless one believes that a life is worth living only for what one is able to do for pleasure in one's time off, which is false, there is no self-sacrifice in doing good work however taxing that work may be although, of course, time off for pleasure and relaxation is also a necessary ingredient of a good life. Without the sense that one is doing something worth doing well, something that is directed to some end other than pleasure or the accumulation of wealth, there is no hope of self-esteem. Self-esteem is a necessary ingredient of happiness and the sense of well-being, and even the honour and recognition one receives will ring hollow, will not add to one's self-esteem, unless one understands that this honour and recognition are deserved. Of course, under ideal conditions, one will receive honour and appreciation for work well done. Further, to fail to receive it is injustice, for which one suffers. lt is also unjust to receive rewards if they are not deserved, and if one's rewards are known to be unjust or undeserved they cannot add to one's self-esteem and, unless one is a total nihilist of the G. Gordon Liddy stamp and admires those who succeed by cheating, these undeserved rewards will result in self-contempt and self-hatred.

There is a distinction at least as old as Plato, one recently refurbished by Alasdair Macintyre, between values internal and values external to practices. [See Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2 ed. (London, 1985), Chapter 14.] The notion of a practice is a direct descendant of Plato's notion of a techne-an art or craft or skill, such as medicine, learned from master practitioners, practiced in a social context, and serving its own internal end, in the case of medicine the heeling at the sick. The physician, practicing as a physician, has that as her aim. (This is clearly related to what I have been calling work.) She also, of course, gets paid and, if she does her work well, receives honour and recognition. The pay, the honour, and the recognition come as a consequence of her doing her work well, but her aim, as a physician, is just that-to do her work well, to aim at the values internal to the practice. If instead she is concerned only with values external to the practice-the money and the status-the practice will be seen only as a means to these external ends and its quality will almost certainly suffer as a consequence. Furthermore she will have lost one of the essential conditions of her own happiness, the satisfaction of practicing her craft for its own internal ends to the best of her ability and, in the process, doing something socially valuable and worth while. To seek wealth and property, to the exclusion of everything else, as the sole good--and that is how materialism has been defined-wis to treat value internal to practices as means merely, and that can never result in a truly meaningful, hence valuable life. It is, in fact, a kind of spiritual sickness.



E.J. Bond, Department of Philosophy, Queen's University, Canada


SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism | 1992

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