Greed Pt. 3: When is wealth immoral?

To finish up my discussion of greed I want to talk about the moral implications.  In the first part I quantified the disparity, but is disparity the most important aspect?  I mean if I could live a life that gave me a good education, lots of opportunities, health care, feed my family…should I care whether or not some billionaire exists on there?  If perhaps the lowest economic status was as I described, maybe not, but it’s hard to imagine this to ever be the case.  Wealth is only acquired because of other people.  And the value of what is made, what is labored for is decided by people.  It’s a zero sum game, and while it’s possible to spread the wealth more equitably, it’s also possible to siphon the wealth away from the bottom and funnel it towards the top.  Please don’t lose track of the fact upwards of $21 trillion sits in off-shore tax havens.  If we have wealth beyond our basic needs, what is such a person’s moral responsibility in a world fraught with people who are without homes, without basic access to education, health care, or even enough food on a daily basis?

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Philosopher Peter Singer argues that our moral responsibility to save lives is not relegated only to situations where we see someone suffering.  For instance if you passed by someone who was drowning you would immediately act to do something about it.  But what about the knowledge that someone is in peril on the other side of the world?  Do we not have an equal moral obligation to help our fellow human?  I psychologically understand why the two situations are different, but from a moral point of view I can find no flaw in Singer’s argument.  We do have a responsibility to help those we can help.  I am not saying that I am absolved of this responsibility due to me making less than 10 million a year or anything.  There are people like philosopher William McCaskill (by the way he’s single ladies…or maybe guys…who am I to make heteronormative assumptions) who has stated that any money he makes over £40,000 a year he will give away.  Few of us have that kind of commitment I imagine, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try.   The fact still remains that there are people in this world who make more money that they could ever use and could do far more to help people than I could ever do in my lifetime.  Would putting all the wealth towards people who need it solve all their problems?  Probably not.  But this shouldn’t be the goal.  For any action we do to help others, we are under no illusion that the problem will go away everywhere, but we help when we can.  I mean if a friend asked me to help them move, do I say “I’m sorry I can’t help you because there are a lot of people who need help moving and since I can’t help them all, helping you doesn’t really make much of a difference”.  This would be a laughable argument at best, but more likely callous.   When I see the level of wealth inequality in the world, I personally find it morally reprehensible that so much wealth exists in the hands of so few while so many suffer.

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Now we can argue that hoarding wealth is a mental illness, or that their years of economic power have eroded empathy, and that such people can essentially do nothing but continue to hoard their wealth. These are likely valid arguments, but if our goal is a more equitable do such people have a right to such excess wealth?  Please keep in mind that I am not saying that we shouldn’t have any income inequality, but rather there becomes a certain threshold of inequality where society becomes unsustainable or at the very least has more suffering than it needs to.  But then what is the solution if people with unimaginable wealth are mentally unable to part with it?  In an argument I had with a conservative about this subject he argued that the only reason so much money exists in tax shelters is because they don’t want corrupt governments to get their hands on it.  And it’s true that money corrupts government officials as much as heads of corporations.  But I think we can agree that this does not excuse those with so much wealth from just using it themselves them to do good as a matter of moral responsibility.  Especially since so much of that wealth ultimately comes from investors, consumers, laborers, etc.

What then should we do?  If the movement of large sums of cash are going to corrupt people along the way, what is the answer?  Some have suggested that instead of a minimum wage we should have a maximum wage, or raise taxes on the ultra-wealthy.  All of these are prone to the corruption argument. Universal Basic Income is another suggestion, but this is something that only helps in already wealthy nations.  The best answer I can come up with is what we shouldn’t do, and that’s nothing.  In the election last night San Francisco passed a proposition which introduces a small tax to companies making more than $50 million a year to combat homelessness.  This is expected to bring in $300 million in income to the city to deal with the homeless problem there both in terms of getting those people shelter but getting them mental and medical help.  Of course there were billionaires against the proposition, but some were for it, and that’s heartening.  The arguments against were again largely of the nature of oversight, and I get that this should be a concern.  But given the spirit of the bill, then shouldn’t you be working to make sure that process works better and smarter, rather than just saying “strike it down…it’s not perfect”.  No bill is going to be perfect when it is trying to help lots of people, but if the goal is worthy, like ending homelessness (in one of the richest cities in the U.S.) then shouldn’t those high tech billionaires be asking “How can I help?” instead?  One wonders if the expertise of themselves and their employees in technology would be useful in helping to implement a policy that would help homeless people.  It is too often the quest for the perfect solution leads to excuses for inaction.  Solving this problem is complicated, perfection is unlikely to occur, but at least some people will be helped if we try.

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Now you may argue that income inequality has gotten a bit better, and that those at the very bottom are doing better than they were 50 years ago.  And this may be true, but just because the ultra-rich are willing to keep more people at a basic level of subsistence, doesn’t necessarily lead to a better situation.  What many people face who are barely getting by is a feeling of hopelessness.  They can live paycheck to paycheck, but they have little opportunities to save, emergencies (like a blown furnace, medical emergencies or car repairs) wipe what little savings they have, and most importantly they work in jobs that have little opportunity for advancement, or chance to save to go back to school to be retrained for a better job.  Perhaps all the greedy are doing is to find a “sweet spot” where people aren’t desperate enough to revolt but still poor enough to be compliant.  In a consumer driven society, if people don’t have enough capital to buy goods well you don’t have consumers and so I am sure that the raising of the bottom of the poverty charts isn’t entirely out of the goodness of the billionaire’s heart.  Not surprisingly people don’t want to toil at a dead end job their entire lives.  People don’t just want to survive, they want to live.

I’ve tried hard to objectively look at greed as well.  Is there a time when greed is good?  Is there a benefit to it in this world?  Sometimes even bad things have good consequences even if unintended.  The only positive argument I’ve been able to find is that people with large amount of resources are able to invest heavily and develop quickly technologies which might take far longer to develop otherwise.  Technologies that might even save lives. But such things are hard to quantify and must also be measured in against the suffering that greed costs.  It also assumes that technological advancement should be a priority over other things.  I wonder sometimes that even if some discovery save lives, does that mean we are actually learning to value life?  If I’ve made the world better, but only did so for more profit, is the world actually better? Or do the intentions matter for building a better future?

Image result for greed quoteIn this conversation I have not talked about economic systems much.  I don’t consider socialism vs. capitalism a battle of moral systems.  I think if our morals were in place both systems can be very effective.  Greed is the corruptor of both.  My personal feelings are that a dose of each is the best, although I’m still working out the proportions.  Fundamentally, to my understanding of capitalism it’s focus is the acquisition of wealth.  Socialism makes more statements about how society should have a stake in the wealth it produces.  For me, I will personally lean more towards socialism because it is the only system that demands that we think about how we allocate resources in a fair manner.  I realize this is a point of contention upon many, and I am not going to make a strong evidence case for my views here in this post as the focus is on greed. Suffice to say I am acutely aware of the positive things that capitalism has done.  I’m also aware of the many negatives.  Here is just one expressed by a fellow blogger and one of the most well read people I know.

I also want to be clear that  while I have spent a lot of time chastising those who have the upper echelon of wealth, the fact remains that most of not all the people who will read this post are in the top 1% globally (including myself), and thus we could all be probably doing more than we are.  We certainly can’t use a greater degree of greed as an excuse to not try to do what we can.  I am not immune to the comforts that having a decent living wage provides.  Perhaps the best way to prevent greed from destroying our society is for all us to adopt a philosophy that prevents it from taking a deeper hold in our own lives.

End Note

Please check out more about Will MacAskill in the link I provided above.  His projects towards effective altruism are truly wonderful visions and I think it’s a project we can all get on board with.

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Creeps and Cat Calls

catcallsI posted the above graphic on my Facebook page the other day and it elicited a good bit of discussion.  I had started writing a response to someone’s comment and it was getting a bit long so I thought I would turn it into a blog post since it goes to the very roots of how I became a feminist.  Actually I would rather say “how I began my journey to become a feminist” because I don’t know if I truly am yet.  It takes a lot of time to overcome social conditioning in a world tilted against half of the population.

It wasn’t until the age of 23 that I had really fallen in love and had what I considered my first serious relationship.  Her name was Anna (well still is) and she was just a wonderful human being.  She announced to me early on that she was a feminist and studied gender sociology.  The word feminist at that time, and even still today, had a negative connotation and I was not unaware of it, but I’ve always been one to go beyond the label to know the quality of the person, but one can’t help but have the only ideas that you know about feminists in your brain, even though I knew that there was no reason for men and women to be treated differently, and so I had no problem having her teach me more.  The fact that she was crazy about me made me feel pretty good about myself because it meant that I wasn’t like other guys and that there had to be some spark of equality in me that made her feel safe.  She taught me a lot of things, but it’s interesting how academic it can all feel.  Not that I don’t take academic research seriously, or even feel a certain level of outrage, but sometimes things don’t hit home until you really see it and it becomes personal.

We were both grad students at the University of Oklahoma and while I had roommates she had her own place and our relationship got to the point where I was spending most nights there.  One night we were fast asleep in bed, when the phone rang, which was next to her bed.  It woke me slightly and I heard her pick up the phone and say “Hello?” A few seconds passed and she once again said “Hello?”. And then after a few more seconds she yelled “Oh my God!” and hung up the phone.  When I asked her what was wrong she said it was a guy on the other end of the phone and he asked her to keep talking so he could masturbate to her voice.  It was an incident so befuddling to me that I almost couldn’t process it in the moment.  I know I held her, but I don’t think at the time I could truly understand how it made her feel.  However, I did know at the moment that something was wrong.  Something was fundamentally wrong in the world.  This was not the first time she had experienced something like this.  And it was by far not a rare experience for women in general.

kate-nash-quote-feminismFeminism has come far, fighting a lot of the big and obvious things that have been suppressing women in our society, but the undercurrent of misogyny remains.  I realized the day after that night time phone call that there were simply certain things in this world that I would never have to face.  While laws had been passed to protect women, to give them better opportunities for jobs, better pay, a wider variety of careers, there were certain things that I would never feel.  I would never be cat called, and I would never have some creepy person calling me in the middle of the night using me for purposes of masturbation, and I would never have a guy honk at me because I of the clothes I was wearing.  It would be easy to be glib here and say as guys we would love all these things, but it’s a position of privilege to feel this way because I could enjoy the fantasy and then once it’s over I would go back to being a man.  Someone who isn’t judged based on the most superficial qualities about myself.  No one would really question my morals for wanting to be sexy or liking sex.  No one would criticize me if I wanted to be more modest.  I would never have to deal with a date who seemed nice, but felt that if he was going to pay for dinner I had to put out.  That he had a right to my body at a certain point, and that being physically weaker I might not be able to fight him off.  I would never have to face the humiliation afterward when my body, when my very personhood was violated and reported the rape that so many women have faced by having the finger pointed at me.  What was I wearing?  Did I have any alcohol?  Did I lead him on?  Did I invite him into my home?  None of these things are permission for rape.  And so like so many women I might also make the decision to not say anything.  Just suck it up and move on so as not to invite criticism and judgment, and possible even more violence at the hands of the person who raped me.

traditionThese incidents are not rare.  They are not spread out sparsely across the multitude of women.  They are common, there is no hiding from them, they happen every day.  It is the totality of all these things a woman has to face.  This oppression and disregard is sometimes more obvious and sometimes less so, but they are ever present.  Is it any wonder that many women begin to think the worst of men?  Find it hard to trust them?  Find it hard to trust themselves when it comes to even telling one of the good ones from the bad ones.  At times I have been one of those men who complained about women not appreciating a nice guy.  I was wrong to do so, because even if I am nice, given what so many women have gone through, my compassion should always have been at the fore.  And if all this isn’t sad enough, it’s important to remember that this is one of the countries where women can consider themselves having it good compared to many places.

Look, I’m not blind that there are issues that negatively impact men as well, but the issues men face aren’t even close.  I also find that as we actually truly start to value those things that we consider feminine those culturally narrow definitions of masculinity also begin to fade.  While I may not know yet whether I am the feminist I want to be, I know that the fight for equality is everybody’s responsibility and that it lifts us all to a better position morally, ethically, and spiritually.  The only way for everyone to have power is through equality.  Power combined with inequality means that someone is losing.  And women have been losing for far too long.

Finding Equilibrium

In a previous blog post I wrote about some of my questions about equality.  Why do some people actively seek it and why don’t others?  Is that they already see the world as equal as it can be?  Do they simply accept a natural order in which things are going to be unequal?  Or are they simply selfish, knowing inside that equality might remove them from a position of privilege?

Whatever the answer to that question is, a recent conversation with a friend, and articles about the inequality that exists in areas of Baltimore, got me thinking a little more about equality.  I started to think about the question:  What does equality even look like?  Is equality a state of perfection that we cannot attain?  Are we caught in idealism and not being practical?  How can equality be achieved, when we are all different?  I think those of us who fight for equality have visions for what that might look like, but have we ever actually seen it?  Does this sense of equality only lie in our hearts and we push in a direction not really thinking about where we end up?  Even though nature often tends towards balanced, it is state rarely reached if ever.  Instead we find most things oscillating about a state of equilibrium.  Many times that oscillation is damped, meaning that while we never quite reach a state of balance, each oscillation is not as wild (or in other words doesn’t take us as far from equilibrium as the preceding oscillation).  Is this perhaps what the fight for equality looks like – swinging back and forth until finally the oscillations about that state of equality or so minute that we can no longer detect the inequality anymore?  In a complex society where one can find many areas in which inequality exists, do we prioritize the most obvious ones first, until other ones seem resolved to the point that new areas of inequality see more important?  Or as a fellow blogger wrote when addressing the issues of vaccines, can we sometimes make the issue worse by continually fighting for something even when the problem doesn’t exist because of the time and energy we have invested into a cause?  A recent Daily Show piece discussed how anti-GMO groups have actually helped large corporations, like Monsanto, to gain more of a stranglehold on the food supply because they are now the only ones with the money to be able to afford all the bureaucracy it takes to get a patent on a genetically modified seed.

It occurred to me that although we might be great at pointing out inequality, how often do we have a conversation about what equality looks like, and does it exist anywhere?  Are there real examples we can use?  Are there any microcosms of the larger society we all want to live in?  It is has only been within the past 30 years or so that a lot of psychological research shifted away from just looking and ailments of the mind and started focusing on the more positive aspects of our humanity, like happiness.  While depression is terrible and it is important to help those with depression out of those states, is learning how not to be depressed that same as knowing how to be happy?  Can we always derive what a good example is, by simply only looking at bad examples?  I believe the answer to that is no.  Growing up with an alcoholic father, I learned about the kind of husband and father I didn’t want to be.  But as I had marriage troubles in my own life it occurred to me I never thought enough about what a good father and husband is supposed to be like.  It required a certain rewiring in my thinking.  When it comes to studying happiness it required asking a set of questions that haven’t been asked before.  What makes people happy?  What kind of behavior to happy people exhibit?  What kinds of societies are happier? These questions are important to ask and science has helped make a lot of progress in the area of happiness.

So while we are all pretty great at point out inequality maybe we should shift our focus to talking about what equality would look like.  Find real world examples.  Analyze how and why those societies work and how they are advantageous to what we already have.  Pointing out inequalities between men and women have value, but let’s have a conversation about what are the positive values we want a human to have, regardless of gender.  Let’s have an idea of where we are going, before we push.  It might even help us get there faster

Equality, I Spoke The Word As If A Wedding Vow

Recently I’ve been thinking about the word “equality” and what it really means. I always think that when you are thinking about word and are unsure what it means a good place to start is the dictionary.  But that didn’t help much because the major definition simply says “the state of being equal” or defines equality in terms of mathematics. I think most of who think equality is important would define it in terms of equal status, equal rights, and equal opportunities.  Such equality might be easy to legislate, but it is not easily found.

The interesting question to me is why equality is something that some people thing is important and others don’t. Part of the reason is that many simply don’t see other people as equal.  And most troubling are those who see someone as inherently unequal simply due gender or race.  It seems to me that those who fight for equality and who believe that equality is important in a society don’t see inequality as inherent, but rather a product of environment.

Equality, like freedom may be a difficult ideal to obtain, but it seems to me the true inequality in this world is between those who think we can attain it and those who think inequality is inherent for whatever reason. And so I wonder, what is the common bond between people in both those groups of people?  Since race and gender have nothing to do with how smart you are, your physical abilities, your potential to be successful, or your ability to show love and kindness, why are there people who think that race and gender automatically pre-determines such things?  Children carry no inherent sense of inequality in regards to race and gender, so where does it come from?  What trait oh of humanity leads people to adopt the idea that one person is less than another?  When does it start to develop?  Is it a desire for power? A fear that in balancing the equation that for one group of people to rise up, that we must then relinquish some power and come down?  Maybe equality isn’t something we can attain, but maybe we can at least see everybody as valuable if not equal.  To be honest, the fact that we are all equal regardless of race or gender seems so obvious to me that I find it vexing that anybody should think any other way, so I am interested in hearing thoughts from others.