Sunday, March 22, 2009

Why Do Philosophers Have Such an Antipathy Towards Consumption?

On a recent episode of the television show, No Dogs or Philosophers Allowed, the topic under discussion was "the ethics of consumption." One guest, drawing much from Plato and Aristotle, brought up an interesting point: philosophers have largely "spoken with one voice" in their antipathy towards consumption of bodily pleasures.

While this statement's absolutism was challenged by another guest, the point is very correct. While philosophers differ in degree of antipathy, they have largely "spoken with one voice" in antipathy towards consumption. Even the most "happiness focused" philosophers, like JS Mill and Epicurus, were always insistent that true happiness is something untied to consumption and that consumption is something of a transient and crass, and lesser, version of happiness.

My problem with this idea - that happiness is something very unrelated to true happiness - is that it does not jibe with the way real people live. While a philosopher may be able to convince another philosopher that true happiness cannot be enhanced or affected by consuming nice things, I don't think that the philosopher would be able to convince P. Diddy, any member of "The Real Housewives of Orange County," or the myriad of real people who aspire to make more money so that their standard of living might improve of the idea that pursuit of nice things is a mirage of real happiness.

The question is: why are philosophers so unanimous in their antipathy towards consumption and acquisition of physical pleasures and their suggestion that real happiness comes from intellectual and "spiritual" pleasures such as good conversation, an active mind, and the like?

My first thought, as I watched the program (where one guest very explicitly suggested, and another agreed, to this dictum) is that perhaps, this is an example of philosophers projecting their predilections onto others. Philosophers, after all, are the happiest when undergoing intellectual pursuits and are not as concerned with the world of concretes. As such, it would make sense for them to beatify the "life of the mind" as the road to real happiness, and the "life of bodily pleasures" as a distracting detour. (I've always thought that this was why John Stuart Mill was so insistent that, in ranking pleasures, bookish pleasures of the type he valued were placed above all others; his mistake was to assume that the pleasures he found most desirable were THE most desirable.)

Another thought is that philosophers may devalue material wealth because, subconsciously, they are justifying the fact that they are generally forced to get along with less. Plato may have devalued material pleasures and extol intellectual pleasures because this was the way he was forced to live. It is quite possible to suppose that as philosophers don't tend to make as much as merchants (but FEEL much more important than merchants), their way of "justifying" this (to themselves and others) was to philosophically devalue materialism and extol intellectualism as the true ideal.

I am certainly not the first to suspect this idea. Philosopher Robert Nozick - one of the few to openly prise capitalism - wrote an essay offering answers to the question, "Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?"

In the essay, he gave two main answers: (1) intellectuals often feel that they are slighted by capitalism, as they tend to make less, but feel they are worth more, than businesspeople; (2) intellectuals were the group generally told in school that they were "the best" and were often raised with a sense that they should be the prized group in society. (Therefore, any system that does not value them more than merchants is inherently unjust.)

Intellectuals now expect to be the most highly valued people in a society, those with the most prestige and power, those with the greatest rewards. Intellectuals feel entitled to this. But, by and large, a capitalist society does not honor its intellectuals.

The last possible reason I want to offer for why philosophers may devalue consumption more than most of the "real world," is that, as they deal in ideas and abstractions rather than concretes, there is a tendency to believe (implicitly if not explicitly) that ideas are more real, lasting, and pure than the "real" world of concretes. This can be seen by the scorn that has often been thrown towards the philosophy of pragmatism, which always attempted to put ideas in the service of practice, rather than the other way around. AS pragmatism cared more for what worked in practice rather than ideational soundness (efficacy over consistency or philosophical beauty), pragmatism has often been seen, pejoratively, as the philosophy of businessmen and "the bottom line."

This may explain why people who are not intellectuals or philosophers do not tend to take as crass an attitude towards material wealth than philosophers and intellectuals. To the former group, material pleasure is a very real thing and ideas do not have quite the status placed on them by philosophers (who employ them constantly). Most regular people are not as happy mulling over Proust and Wittgenstein as they are watching a Blu-Ray on a big HD TV. (Philosophers, of course, cannot relate to this. It doesn't hold true for them.)

I am not one to say that material pleasure has any 1:1 relationship with happiness, and have seen enough empirical studies suggesting that no such relationship exists to know better. But I simply think that this is an area where the rift between philosophy and the real world is very great indeed. It is also an area where philosophers so easily fall into the mistake of WRONGLY assuming that what it is like to be them is what it is like to be everyone else. (Of course material consumption is inferior to intellectual consumption! Who would suggest otherwise?!)

Until philosophers can prove to non-philosophers (the decided majority) the intrinsic value of not pursuing nice things and good sensual experiences (and rather living the life of an intellectually satisfied ascetic) - which I don't think can be done with a straight face - then I will regard it as a shame to hear that philosophers "speak with one voice" on the undesirability of consumption. Unfortunately, that "one voice" will be one only heard by philosophers.

1 comment:

  1. I have two other suggestions. One thing is that it's too obvious to be worth saying. Money's basic purpose is to fulfill desires. People say "money doesn't buy happiness" because it makes them sound smart.

    The second thing is that it's comforting to think that money doesn't determine happiness. It's more egalitarian and gives people a greater sense of control, and philosophers especially don't like things being beyond their control. Plus, if money doesn't cut it, it's natural to assume that either a firm decision or an intelligent plan must be the answer, both of which fall to the philosophers.