Hark the Herald Tribune sings
advertising wondrous things….
It is that time again when we all wonder what those bright packages under the tree hold in store for us. Because, let’s face it, Christmas has become an orgy of gifts and greed, and it all starts at Halloween. The fiction that it is about giving and not about receiving is exposed in the TV advertisements showing the kids exploding with delight as they open the largest and most promising of packages or shrieking ecstatically as they discover the latest in electronic toys. Thus, it would appear, it is time to think about industrial capitalism and what it has meant to the growth, or diminution, of the human spirit.
To begin with, there’s no question that capitalism has improved the lot of the average human in capitalistic countries, if we measure in terms of “things” and allow that happiness is equated with standard of living. The average Westerner lives better than a medieval king. But if we take a deeper look, together with Robert Heilbroner, who wrote the book on capitalism (well, Karl Marx wrote THE book, but Heilbroner’s book The Nature and Logic of Capitalism is worthy of serious thought) we find this:
“. . .the accumulation of wealth fulfills two functions: the realization of prestige, with its freight of unconscious sexual and emotional needs, and the expression of power, with its own constellation of unconscious requirements and origins.”
More to the point, however, is this observation about the possible costs of judging all success and happiness by how many toys we can accumulate in our lifetime, a cost that involves replacing of moral values with commercial values:
“The de-moralization of economic activity removed any need to justify the logic of capitalism, provided that it did not directly violate the law or outrage the deepest moral convictions of society, but it made meaningless such questions as: Which of two equally profitable undertakings is the better? Can one call wasteful any undertaking that returns a satisfactory profit? Is it possible to condemn on moral grounds legal and profitable actions, such as the decision to relocate a plant at the cost of community disruption? . . .
[Capitalist ideology] succeeds in offering definitions of right and wrong that exonerate the activities and results of market activity. This is accomplished in part because the motives of acquisitiveness are reclassified as interests and not passions; in part because the benefits of material gain are judged to outweigh any deterioration in the moral quality of society; and last and most important because the term ‘goodness’ is equated to private happiness, absolving all licit activity from any need to justify itself on moral grounds.”
Note the displacement here of moral virtues with what we might call “practical” values. Ethics is displaced by civil law, for one thing; “goodness” is equivalent to private happiness. If an action breaks no laws, makes someone happy, and results in profit, there is no need of further inquiry. The end of profit does, in fact, justify any means to that end. This is the new ethic which has displaced the old ethic that demanded justification and moral grounding for any action involving other persons, especially possible harm to others. An anecdote might help illustrate this point.
I was in charge of bringing speakers to campus at the university where I taught as a part of a lecture series that dealt with ethics in business. We invited the “ethics officer” at a large and successful company in Minneapolis to address the issue; she turned out to be a lawyer whose job was to see to it that her company did nothing that might end them up in court. “Ethical” became equivalent to “legal.” But, as Heilbroner suggests, they are not the same.
Again, some years ago I recall teaching a graduate course in Business Ethics and reading a book by a sociologist who examined in great detail the behavior of a number of employees who worked for several large corporations on the East Coast. What he found in common was the tendency to separate their actions on the job from their actions off the job. In the former case they could “live with anything” required of them to do their jobs — even to the point of burying toxic waste. In the latter case they insisted that they needed to look themselves in the mirror every morning and treat their families and friends with respect. In a word, they lived two lives. One life was centered around a loose grasp of traditional ethical and Christian values, the other centered around expediency, what was necessary to keep their job and please their bosses. Now, given that the workaday world has become the center of a great many lives in our nation, there would appear to be less and less concern about what one sees in the looking-glass while shaving or brushing one’s teeth, sad to say.
This has a direct bearing with today’s topic, of course, because it suggests that, in fact, we have become a society that has, as Heilbroner suggests, replaced traditional ethical concepts with commercial values and avoids altogether asking tough questions about our everyday activities if they might border on the unethical. Material gain has indeed placed itself at the center of so many of our lives as the most important thing. When we no longer seek the moral high ground because we seek instead the promotion, the new car, or are busily reaching for the package under the tree with our name on it, it is a sure sign that the human spirit has shrunk; as a nation we are at risk of losing our collective soul. Thomas Jefferson worried about this in 1788:
“What a cruel reflection, that a rich country cannot long be a free one.”
Christmas is merely the reductio ad absurdum of the displacement of ethical values, replacing the true meaning of a Holy Day with out-and-out greed. Peace On Earth and love of our fellow humans have been replaced by pleasure and self-indulgence. Right and wrong have been replaced by what feels good.
Christmas time is here by golly
Disapproval would be folly.
Deck the halls with hunks of holly
Fill the cups and don’t say when……