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Consumerism Qua Materialism: A Modern Confusion – Article by Kaiter Enless

Consumerism Qua Materialism: A Modern Confusion – Article by Kaiter Enless

Kaiter Enless
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Materialism has become a rather dirty word, principally through its connection to consumerism. Indeed materialism seems to have become so thoroughly conflated with consumerism as to be wholly indistinguishable. For example, in the study, Changes In Materialism, Changes In Psychological Well-Being: Evidence For Three Longitudinal Studies & An Intervention Experiment, the authors write: “Studies 1, 2, and 3 examined how changes in materialistic aspirations related to changes in well-being, using varying time frames (12 years, 2 years, and 6 months), samples (US young adults and Icelandic adults), and measures of materialism and well-being.”

It would be mistaken to conflate a philosophy of materialism, with mere consumerism as behavioral practice. I am not here suggesting that this is what the authors of the document have done (indeed, it appears as if they are simply using ‘materialism’ as a placeholder for ‘material object; principally, those objects manufactured and distributed in modern western society’), however, at first glance, it is difficult to tell and this is the crux of the problem. When one word is conflated with another, after a sufficient period of usage the two become implicitly associated, regardless of whether they are actually interlaced in any meaningful way. Thus, when one deploys the term ‘consumerism’ one instantly thinks of ‘materialism’ and vice-versa. This, I shall argue, is wholly mistaken; however, before proceeding, let us define our terms.

Consumerism is a term which rose to prominence in the 20th Century with the advent of mass production and denotes a social order wherein goods are purchased and used (‘consumed’) in ever increasing quantities. It has a few other more technical definitions, however, this is generally the explicit meaning of the term when it is negatively deployed (and it is almost always negatively deployed, at least, as of this writing, though positive variations of the term were used, such as by J. S. Bugas who deployed the word to refer to consumer sovereignty). In this negative characterization, consumerism is keeping-up-with-the-Jones or Patrick Batemanism — normative behaviors which privilege non-noetic objects over noetic ones with the exception of the referent consumer (the individual who is consuming the non-noetic objects, who naturally does so, not because they care solely about the objects themselves, but because they gain something from the consumption of those objects).

Materialism, broadly, briskly and vulgarly speaking, is a philosophical position generally characterized by substance monism, which holds that because everything which has been observed is energy and matter, it is rational to conclude everything that exists is (or is likely to be) composed of energy and matter (the same inductive reasoning is at work in expanding the theory of gravity to all places in the universe, even those wholly unobserved). As a school of thought, it has gone through numerous incarnations ranging from Democritus the atomist, to the cosmic mechanists prior to Newton, to the scientistic physicalists of the modern age (such as Hawking, Krauss and Dawkins).

More rigorous, sophisticated and logically defensible forms of ontological naturalism (sometimes referred to as ‘realism’ in contradistinction to ‘idealism’) which have been referred to as various materialisms can be found in the work of such philosophers as Wilfrid Sellars, John McDowell and Jeremy Randel Koons, and the neuroscientist, Paul M. Churchland.

Regardless of whether or not one agrees with the ontological assertions or arguments of any variation of materialism – atomist, mechanist, Sellarsian or eliminativist – it should be clearly noted that consumerism is a descriptive set of social practices, not a holistic formal ontology. One may be a Buddhist, Christian, Muslim or Daoist and still be a consumerist. Indeed, the vast majority of those who have ever lived western consumerist lifestyles within modern society have been Christians (principally Catholics and Protestants), not scientistic materialists (as is sometimes alleged); this is demonstrable simply by reference to religio-demographic composition, as most consumer societies were, from their inception, constituted by Christians who are, obviously, non-materialists (philosophically speaking). Of course, it is perfectly possible to be a stalwart materialist (in the philosophical sense) and still be a consumerist, but it is not intrinsic to the position.

Drawing a clear distinction between materialism and consumerism is important given that because consumerism has become so thoroughly disdained, referent to it likewise besmirches any materialist ontology through negative moral assignation, RATHER than through rigorous logical refutation, thus engendering an impairment, not only of the thorough-going materialist diagrams, but also of critical, logical thought itself.

Kaiter Enless is the administrator and principal author of the Logos website and literary organization.

“Human Nature” is Tautological (2009) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

“Human Nature” is Tautological (2009) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
Originally Published March 10, 2009
as Part of Issue CLXXXIX of The Rational Argumentator
Republished July 23, 2014
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Note from the Author: This essay was originally published as part of Issue CLXXXIX of The Rational Argumentator on March 10, 2009, using the Yahoo! Voices publishing platform. Because of the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices, the essay is now being made directly available on The Rational Argumentator.
~ G. Stolyarov II, July 23, 2014
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What is meant by the term “human nature”? In one sense, it is supremely uninformative. The “nature” of any existent can be defined simply as “that which that existent is.” To say that “X is human nature,” is simply to say “X is what humans are and/or do.” This is fine by itself, provided that it is not used as an explanation for any particular human characteristic or activity. X may be human nature, but X does not occur because of human nature. To say that human nature is the cause of any phenomenon is to say that such a phenomenon causes itself. To say that “some people steal because of human nature” is to say that “some people steal because they steal” or that “some people steal because that is the way humans are.” This is not particularly enlightening as to why some people actually steal.

The striking fact about uses of “human nature” in discourse is that the term is virtually never invoked to account for all the wonderful things people do. Few, if any, people say that humans build great buildings, create art, invent machines, and save lives because “that’s just human nature.” But when it comes to some humans killing, stealing, lying, raping, and committing a host of other abuses, “human nature” virtually never leaves the discussion. This leads me to suspect that a lot of presuppositions are smuggled in under the umbrella label of “human nature” which are not implicit in the term. Namely, most people whose discussions are peppered by the term frequently presuppose that all human beings somehow have even the worst vices “in their nature.”

If “human nature” is “the way human beings are,” then it is clearly contrary to empirical evidence to suppose that killing, stealing, lying, and other vices are inherent in human nature. We can find numerous examples of good, upstanding people who have never killed or stolen – and even a few whom we cannot imagine lying. Surely, “the way they are” is such that they do not kill, steal, or lie. This is as much a part of their human nature as killing, stealing, and lying are a part of the natures of genocidal dictators in North Korea, Iran, Zimbabwe, and Sudan. There is no reason to suppose that anyone is capable of any vice just because some people have been observed engaging in some vices.

The facts that some people do commit vices that others do not commit and that no vice is universal to human beings indicates to us that no vice is inherent to human nature – the way humans are. Rather, every vice is incidental to human nature. That is, the natures of some humans happen to be vicious, just as the natures of some cats happen to be white (not that there is anything wrong with white cats). But vice is no more an inseparable part of humanity than whiteness is an inseparable part of cathood. It may well be that some people will always be irreparably vicious, no matter what external stimuli short of death are applied to them. This is why it may be reasonable to advocate killing genocidal sadists and other comparable entities. But this is no commentary on all the other humans of this world.

Moreover, it is essential to recognize that prevailing trends with regard to behavior change over time. 300 years ago, if two Western, upper-class males had a dispute, it would often culminate in a duel to the death. Today, the disputants would be more likely to sit down and quasi-civilly discuss their differences. The statistical prevalence of each kind of behavior has changed dramatically. Moreover, the change has been an unambiguous improvement. “What humans are” does not need to be static and set in stone. Rather, as incentives, institutions, and motivations change, so does behavior – and the sum of our behaviors constitutes our “natures.”

The view of “human nature” that I have presented thus far is fully in accord with the principle of individualism. This principle asserts that each human being is fundamentally different and should be judged on his or her own qualities, and not on the qualities of other human beings who happen to share some direct or indirect association. Moreover, individualism holds that each human being can control his or her own behaviors to a substantial extent. Each person is free to choose virtue but is just as free to choose vice, and each person must be prepared to be judged by the rest of us on the basis of his or her choices. The question remains, of course, what would motivate people to choose virtue as opposed to vice?

Granting that people always have free will to act virtuously or viciously, what would lead people to want to pursue either course of action? Earlier, I described some incentives for moral behavior that motivate people to pursue virtuous and beneficial courses of action with regard to themselves and others. On the other hand, what motivates vice? The kinds of vice that do damage to others – killing, stealing, infliction of injury, and deception – all seem to stem from some sense of personal inadequacy. Either one does not have enough things and wishes to take away the things owned by others, or one feels slighted, deprived, or persecuted in some manner by others and wishes to correct this perceived victimization by destroying its perceived source. Harm that people do to themselves seems to stem either from a conviction that their lives are not quite worth living or from a simple failure to consider all of the long-term harmful consequences of their decisions.

Exploring the common human motivations for committing immoral acts might lead us to an understanding of how to alter these motivations and direct the “natural” desires of more people toward virtue. For instance, if a person is motivated to steal by a lack of food, then if this person had food, he might not resort to stealing (provided, of course, that he recognizes the change in conditions and does not continue to resort to stealing due to the inertia of habit). On the other hand, the new-found presence of food might get the person to focus on some other attribute he believes to be lacking in his life – say, a car – and steal that. How might it be possible to get such a person to refrain from stealing? Clearly, all people perceive some kinds of inadequacies in their lives. The ways that people’s incentives are structured will lead them to consider whether moral or immoral means are the best ways to compensate for such inadequacies.

The proper incentive structure to give to each person is such that the costs of any vicious act will be greater than its perceived benefits. I note that these costs can be both external – such as any kind of punishment – or internal – such as a feeling of self-loathing and disappointment for having committed an immoral act. Well-developed internal aversions to vicious conduct reduce the need for external incentives to encourage virtue. A wide variety of institutions, technologies, and patterns of interaction shape both people’s external and internal incentives. Yet what is most important to remember is that we are not fated to be locked into any particular configuration of incentives, motivations, and outcomes. These continually fluctuate and sometimes experience radical directional shifts. In shaping these incentives, we ought to lose the defeatism of those who claim that “human nature” will forever sentence us to suffer evil instead of correcting it. Rather, we must act such that our individual, incremental effects are for the better rather than for the worse.

Read other articles in The Rational Argumentator’s Issue CLXXXIX.

Incentives Matter… On the Margin (2010) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

Incentives Matter… On the Margin (2010) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
Originally Published January 10, 2010
as Part of Issue CCXXXI of The Rational Argumentator
Republished July 22, 2014
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Note from the Author: This essay was previously published as part of Issue CCXXXI of The Rational Argumentator on January 10, 2010, using the Yahoo! Voices publishing platform. Because of the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices, the essay is now being made directly available on The Rational Argumentator.
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~ G. Stolyarov II, July 22, 2014
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One of the favorite expressions of economists is “Incentives matter.” There is much truth to this idea, but it is instructive to examine how it works a bit more closely.

An incentive is a set of conditions that favors one course of action and/or disfavors its opposite. A positive incentive increases the reward or decreases the cost associated with a decision, while a negative incentive increases the cost or decreases the reward associated with it. An incentive can be a condition of the natural environment, a conscious human choice, or an emergent outcome – a characteristic of what Friedrich Hayek called a “spontaneous order.”

But it is not the case that all human beings are moved by the same incentives to a particular course of action or inaction. For instance, an increase in the cost of gasoline might lead some people to drive less – but a wealthy car enthusiast might just take the hit and pay the higher price; for him, a negative incentive was not a sufficient deterrent to his behavior of choice. On the other hand, ample information and culture available virtually for free on the Internet might motivate more people to become computer-literate, but for certain individuals with a strong visceral fear of electronic technology, this might not be enough; the positive incentive has failed to overcome the psychological barriers within them.

We can best see how incentives matter by examining large-scale changes in behavior. Crime statistics in an area might fall, for instance, if people were allowed to carry concealed weapons in public, where a previous law might have prohibited this. But there would still be some individual acts of crime, just as there would still be some people who would never think of committing a crime, no matter how easy it would be to perpetrate one or to get away with it. If the government raised the minimum wage, the unemployment rate would increase over what it would have been otherwise, but it is not the case that all workers – or even all workers previously earning less than the minimum wage – would suffer or lose their jobs. Some low-income workers might even get a pay raise, but likely at the expense of others being laid off or never being hired in the first place. Yet some generous employers might choose to personally absorb the cost increase and refuse to lay off any workers – but this might mean fewer other investments in their businesses or a lower standard of living for these business owners.

We can summarize this insight by stating that incentives matter on the margin. If a person’s other characteristics – including ideas held, material position, and skills – strongly favor one course of action over another, then an incentive to the contrary is unlikely to change that person’s behavior. On the other hand, if a person is barely inclined one way or another, then an incentive might result in a shift of behavior.

Once made explicit, all of this might appear self-evident to someone who paid attention in a basic economics course. Why is it important, and why does it bear emphasizing? There are several reasons.

Recognizing the marginal importance of incentives prevents individuals from looking for panaceas or overnight revolutions, of which our world yields extremely few, if any. On the other hand, it also inculcates one against despair. Any sufficiently strong incentive will result in a desirable or undesirable statistical shift, but it is unlikely to completely solve a problem. On the other hand, it is also unlikely to completely doom the state of affairs, either. Human beings are remarkably resilient and intricately complex. Crimes, disasters, bad laws, and health defects will destroy some and keep down others – but human innovation and creativity will not completely die; it will flourish somewhere, in some way or another, where the negative incentives are not strong enough to thwart the civilizing desires of the best among us. But it is also important to recognize that human existence is a continual struggle against both natural perils and the follies and even the evils committed by our fellow men. We will need more than one incentive to be favorably arranged if we are to keep these enemies of civilization at bay.

The marginal functioning of incentives is also a cause for hope. If a destructive policy were to completely cripple some facet of human life, then there might not be a way to resist it effectively. But because some individuals are sufficiently strong internally so as not to be diverted from their course by the policy, they can amass the will and the resources to resist it. Moreover, people can condition themselves to respond more or less strongly to certain incentives. The more a person can train himself to persevere in the face of significant externally imposed costs, the more likely that person is to succeed despite such obstacles. Such successes are the building blocks upon which all human civilization has been built.

It is instructive to remember that there has never been an even tolerably calm and safe environment for innovators to flourish; at every time and place in history, some force – deliberate or not, more severe or less so, but never particularly mild – stood in the way of the thinkers and creators to whom we owe our progress. Where the carriers of civilization overcame these forces, they created a more favorable environment for us. We must, likewise, strive against the challenges of our time. By overcoming existing negative incentives, we can create positive ones for the future, through the examples we set and the work we bring forth.

Click here to read more articles in Issue CCXXXI of The Rational Argumentator.

Labels and Ideological Bubbles – Article by Sanford Ikeda

Labels and Ideological Bubbles – Article by Sanford Ikeda

The New Renaissance Hat
Sanford Ikeda
August 30, 2013
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Be mindful of how you label the people with whom you disagree.

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When I engage in an ideological discussion I try to be sensitive to how I ideologically label the person with whom I’m talking and how she labels me. I’m not talking about dismissive or openly pejorative words (e.g. evil, stupid, silly), but proper terms of discourse. More than just good manners, how we habitually label our opponents in ideological dialogue could reveal something unpleasant about the ideological world we inhabit.
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Getting the Label Right

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Now, some people argue that “ideas matter, labels don’t.” When we’re talking about specific ideas, such as for example military intervention in the Middle East, then yes calling it liberal, libertarian, progressive, socialist, or whatever may add nothing to the discussion. But when referring to the worldview of a particular person or group of like-minded persons, especially in the context of a public debate, then how we label ourselves and others can matter a great deal. If the goal is to promote constructive dialogue then it’s important to get the labels right.
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We prefer in such cases to be called by the label that we identify ourselves with. I don’t like being called a conservative or a liberal because those labels signify sets of ideas and policies, many of which I do not hold. I prefer to be called a libertarian. (Classical liberal might be better but no one in the mainstream knows what that is.)
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Colleagues I’ve known for decades at my college assume that I’m a conservative because I’ve come out publicly against nationalized healthcare, from which they wrongly infer that I oppose same-sex marriage and that I “support our troops” in foreign wars. Readers of The Freeman have, I’m sure, had to defend themselves against the charge of being “pro-business” because of our skepticism of regulation and high taxes. We have to explain that upholding the free-market is not pro-business, pro-consumer, or pro-labor (although the free-market position is in a sense “pro” all those things and more). That kind of mislabeling, however annoying, can be the result of an honest mistake—one I know I make myself.
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Mistakenly mislabeling someone is one thing: conservative for libertarian, marxist for progressive. Another is deliberately mislabeling your opponent, a trick that forces her to waste time defending herself against the false charge. But there’s a third kind of mislabeling that reflects a deeper sort of error, one that issues from exclusivity and insularity.
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Who calls herself a Neoliberal or a Statist?

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For example, I’m reviewing a book about cities whose author uses the word “neoliberal” a lot. It’s used mostly by Europeans on the political “left”—e.g., social democrats, progressives, socialists, greens—to refer to people or groups who hold some sort of “libertarian” views. I’ll explain in a moment why I’m using scare quotes here.
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From what I’ve been able to gather from my European colleagues, however, no one actually identifies herself as a “neoliberal.” Neoliberal is apparently a term some attach to positions “on the (extreme) right,” which apparently includes people thought to have an anti-union or pro-business agenda. There are such people, of course, but there’s a reason no one self-identifies as a neoliberal.
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As Stanley Fish explained a few years ago in The New York Times: “…neoliberalism is a pejorative way of referring to a set of economic/political policies based on a strong faith in the beneficent effects of free markets.” So “neoliberal” is pejorative.
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And before libertarians get too indignant, let me point out that we sling words like “collectivist” and “statist” when describing our opponents, and to my knowledge no one self-identifies with those terms, either. To be sure, among our ideological comrades, they may have a fairly clear meaning and may spark a certain esprit de corps. But consistently using a word, over a wide range of venues, to describe others that no one ever uses to self-identify is a pretty good sign that you live in an ideological bubble.
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Evidently, while the author of the book I’m reviewing says she’s writing for “an interdisciplinary readership,” she takes it for granted that it will be an ideologically sympathetic one.
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Our Ideological Bubbles

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An ideological bubble, as I’m using the term, is a social network with shared ideological understandings that closes its members off to others with opposing views. You can be a staunch market-anarchist, for example, but still be willing to have a serious, civil conversation with people with whom you strongly disagree. Put simply, you live in an ideological bubble if the only people whom you will talk to seriously about ideology are those you already agree with.
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An ideological bubble insulates us from real-time criticisms of our principles and positions, retarding our intellectual growth. It gives us a false sense of security and breeds self-satisfaction, off-putting harshness, and intolerance—things destructive to civility. Also, keep in mind that it’s often the bystanders to a debate whom we want to persuade, and they will consider our language and conduct when judging our ideas.
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One of the things I’ve learned from my great teacher Israel Kirzner is that we can’t realistically be aware of all of our current limitations because we simply don’t know all that we don’t know. We have blind spots, and that means intellectual bubbles of all sorts are inevitable.  But that doesn’t mean that they have to remain invisible to us. Kirzner also taught us that creative discovery is possible. The signs are there, and keeping an eye open to them will give us a chance to make them at least a little more permeable.
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Sanford Ikeda is an associate professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of The Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism.
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This article was originally published by The Foundation for Economic Education.