Friday, January 30, 2009

Questioning people's motives

This is the second in my series of "thinking out loud" posts loosely grouped under the banner of Toward a 21st Century Ethos. The ideas are laid down here with broad brush strokes, and the devil will most certainly be hidden in the details.

Never one to take small bites when chewing on a subject, today I try to tackle the question of what motivates people and the need to build a social economy not centered around profit and greed. To discuss economics might seem off-topic, but I would argue that how a society functions at its most fundamental level and the behavior it encourages cannot be compartmentalized from the ethics we preach in church or at home.

In our capitalistic society, no ideal is enshrined as highly or protected as thoroughly as the right to private property and profit. Our legal system was constructed to preserve it. Our myths and metaphors revolve around it.

Our cultural icons are rugged individuals who thrive on self-reliance to achieve great material success. They disdain weakness and collective action. Yes there are many exceptions, but the general storyline still runs through most of our pop-culture mythology. These are ideas that arose from and suited the needs of industrial capitalism.

Some may try to argue that as a "Christian" nation, our ethics are actually informed by the New Testament. And on an individual level that may be true, but it's not the behavior that is expected or rewarded by the prevailing social order. In fact, I would argue, that the lessons taught by Christ are often in direct opposition to those encouraged by our society.

Despite the fact that Jesus repeatedly assailed greed as a motivating force (see Matthew 19:23-24, as just one example), many Christians seem to wall-off their religious beliefs as separate from their economic ones. This is usually rationalized with Christ's own words "render unto Caesar." The meaning of those words is ambiguous, but many take it as an implicit endorsement of maintaining a split personality in our secular and spiritual lives. It may be that he was renouncing participation in the economy at any level, but I'm not here to argue his intention.

I'm also not here to argue against the separation of Church and State, which I completely agree is a vital component of our democracy. What I am here to do is argue for better aligning our social behavior with our ethical beliefs, and there are plenty of common moral principles that span the plethora of our different spiritual traditions.

Here are just a few that I think most of us can agree on: ensuring an equality of opportunity for all to contribute; serving the greater good; rewarding honesty and accountability. Our current system fails at those things in most instances. Naomi Klein, who I saw speak just last night and who is the author of The Shock Doctine, does a better job of documenting specific examples of that than I ever could.

What I would like to do in this essay is provoke people to begin to question whether the social system built up around profit and private property still suits us in a day and age when advances in technology are rendering their pursuit not only obsolete but damaging to our further growth.

There is no argument that as a social system, capitalism served some very well. I firmly believe, however, the beneficiaries of its largesse are a rapidly shrinking minority. I'm also convinced that the corrosive influence of profit-seeking as the prime motivator in our society is undermining the integrity of all our essential institutions: medicine, education, government, and beyond.

There is also a very dark cynicism to the ethos of capitalism. It feeds a myth that human beings are essentially lazy and corrupt, and that they can only be motivated by the promise of fulfilling their most selfish material desires. My experience, and I'm guessing yours too, is that most people are on the whole good-hearted and giving. They are motivated by a desire to contribute to their communities and better the situation of their families. They want a purpose in life, and to belong to something greater than themselves.

What could arise in place of a profit-based economy? I think the glimpse of an answer was provided in Pekka Himanen's book The Hacker's Ethic. It describes a culture where people are motivated by respect and recognition among their peers. These hackers (the term did not originally hold its current pejorative sense) collaborated on open source projects, not to win great riches, but to establish their reputations. Because of the collective work of so many talented indivduals, they also created much stronger products than their proprietary competitors.

How much more successfully could a society function that did not limit how its members could contribute their talents, and that did not impose false rationing of resources in order to preserve an opportunity for the few to profit at the expense of the many? It's a matter of giving up our allegiance to old and outdated ideologies, and of looking at the world with the fresh eyes of a newborn. We do have the ability to make radical changes in the way we live, but we still lack the political will.

The trends of automation, digital communications, and open-source software and hardware (check out this interesting Wired article) are pushing the cost of manufactured goods further and further down. They're reducing the possibility of profit through any but the most artificial of means. This may seem like a scary proposition, but it's also a tremendous opportunity. It offers us a chance to remake ourselves and our society. But first we need to acknowledge the moment for real change that stands so clearly before us.
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