PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Friday, March 08, 2019

Is materialism destroying society? by James O'Doherty

Is materialism destroying society? by James O'Doherty

In order to answer this question one should first determine what is meant by Materialism. The dictionary has two definitions for the word.

1.  “a tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values”.

2.  “a theory or belief that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications”.
 “The theory or belief that consciousness and will are wholly due to material agency.”

The second definition is related to Dialectical materialism, a term for Marx’s theory (the official philosophy of the Soviet communists) that political and historical events result from the conflict of social forces. These conflicts are thought to be caused by material needs. However this is not the meaning I am referring to in the title of the essay but rather the former. So the materialism that I wish to call attention to here is economic materialism which is an obsession with material things. It encompasses both a desire to possess objects (material things) and a need to demonstrate wealth. Furthermore it is a yearning to consume all sorts to material goods (consumerism). It rejects theism (the belief in the existence of a god) and presumes that the world in which we live is all there is. Both its goals and their end results are negative for society and I will attempt to demonstrate this in the essay. Take for example the acquisition and accumulation of material goods as a means of showing one’s worth or status. This leads to a false sense of comfort, affluenza (which is lack of motivation in wealthy young people) and even compulsive buying. People who purchase goods routinely buy far in excess of their needs but despite this they tend to be less satisfied with almost everything. Implying that materialism does not provide happiness.  It also manifests a great deal of egocentrism which results in numerous negative qualities such as self-centredness, lack of empathy, distrust, scepticism, jealousy, extravagance, overindulgence, envy and even unhealthy relationships. Accumulation of material goods or aspiration for success are other factor. These engender poor morals, disagreement and antagonism and a preoccupation with money.

Materialism in this context is therefore a personal attitude in which a person attributes great importance to the acquisition and consumption of material goods. The term materialistic is commonly used to describe a type of personality or a society and it often has negative connotations.  It equates social status and personal worth with affluence and wealth while also assuming that the accumulation of possessions will bestow happiness and prestige on an individual. When acquiring material possessions functions as a central life goal the person believes that possessions are crucial to securing happiness and they also think that success is judged by their material wealth and the quality and price of the material goods he can buy.

The concept of materialism has been present since time immemorial, one only has to recall the famous lines from Matthew 19:24 where Jesus says to his disciples “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”. The interpretation being that a rich man is often blind to his spiritual poverty because of his pride in his accomplishments and his wealth. He is content with his lot and distracted from the spiritual. All things considered he is materialistic. Ever since the industrial revolution materialism and its effects have augmented in the western world and the tendency is that it will continue to increase in reaction to discontentment and the need of many individuals to comply with social norms. Nowadays more than ever before people in the industrialised world are focusing more on money, image, fame and status.

Materialistic people bear such adverse traits as being ungenerous, selfish, no sense of solidarity with others. In addition they are unwilling to give or share possessions. They also have an utter lack of sympathy or empathy for those who are less fortunate than themselves. Besides this, they are very envious of other people and their possessions. If for example a friend buys a new top-of-the-range mobile phone then jealousy triggers a desire to equal or surpass their friend’s possession. Possessiveness is a further characteristic which concerns the loss of possessions and a desire for the greater control of ownership. For instance a male chauvinist who assassinates his wife or partner after she threatens to leave him is in fact treating his spouse as if she were a possession (he is losing control).

Some materialistic people are capable of exploiting others to achieve their goals or to obtain that craved-for possession which will validate their status or demonstrate their wealth when exhibited (their belief is that the end justifies the means). To illustrate this point consider the issue of surrogate mothers, it has recently been brought to light that these women are being commercialised like goods. The profiteering with women’s bodies has again become big business (sexual exploitation has already been going on for a long time) however this time to provide affluent people with an offspring. The product can be selected from a catalogue like any other material goods (you select the appropriate body for the purpose depending on the cost etc.). There are those who consider it a service but for the unfortunate surrogate mother it is generally a way of subsisting. Many of these surrogate mothers come from a deprived background and countries with poor standards of living. Obviously, the demand for the product enables unscrupulous organizations or companies to take advantage of the nitch in the market and make a huge profit from these poor women. How unfair! Surely the law should be changed to prevent these practices.

To turn to the issue of waste generated as a consequence of materialism. I would say that while the large majority of people are conscious about the dangers to the environment (climate change, the Great Pacific garbage patch etc) and the need for a change in values they are much less concerned about aspects such as acquiring more wealth and possessions (materialistic values). However it is this fallacy of not seeing the connection between environmental damage and materialism (consumerism) that is perpetuating this catastrophe.

We live in a culture where we discard material goods when we should be trying to be more efficient and conserve them as long as possible. In addition nobody thinks of where all this waste that we throw away goes. Evidently, it must be dumped somewhere but we in the so called developed world say “not in my back garden” so the waste from chemical plants and contaminating electronic equipment are sent to poorer countries that are paid a miserable amount and expected to accept the burden (Pollution that we do not want).  On top of this, it is often cheaper nowadays to replace a broken electronic gadget or a torn garment of clothing than to fix them and industry has decide that it should be this way. The consumer cycle consisting of buying, upgrading, replacing, discarding is a calculated one. Naturally, planned obsolescence ensures that consumers keep spending, however, it has a major drawbacks and inconveniences especially the hefty environmental burden.

Psychologists have also seen that spending can be a compulsive behavior similar to gambling, food disorders and alcoholism.  Some people are especially prone to it because of some psychological pathology but it could also be an easily acquired habit (by conditioning) especially when exposed to the constant bombardment of advertisements on television, in the press and even on roadside billboards. Children and young people are extremely vulnerable to these advertisements as they portray a glamorous lifestyle and suggest that if one doesn’t comply they are both naive and foolish. Consequently, as a lot of people are not able to afford the levels of spending expected (they cannot match other people’s expenditure) hence jealousy, envy and antagonism is bound to follow.

Researchers in the United States have found that despite the increase in material wealth little to no effect on the well-being and happiness of its citizens has been noticed. Tibor Scitovsky, a Hungarian economist, called this a "joyless economy" in which people are forever pursuing comforts without encountering happiness. Furthermore when people obtain a lot of pleasure from buying things and believe that amassing material possessions are important goals in life, they usually experience less satisfaction with life. There is also a positive correlation between materialism and more serious psychological issues such as depression, narcissism and paranoia.

Three different studies (Belk 1983, Kasser & Ryan 1993, Richins & Dawson 1992) and a meta-analysis of work in this area (Wright & Larsen 1993) have found evidence of a connection between materialism and happiness. In all these studies they discovered a negative correlation between materialism and happiness or well-being. However so far it is unclear what causes this anomaly. The following questions arise; whether materialism cause unhappiness and whether unhappy people drawn towards materialism for fulfilment or it is some other factor?

On the other hand, however research shows that buying with the intention of obtaining a life experiences such as a vacation with the family make people happier than purchases made to procure material possessions like an expensive car. What is more, just thinking about experiential purchases makes people feel far happier than thinking about material ones.

In conclusion, the negative effects of economic materialism have mingled into many facets of society, environmental issues, personal relationships and emotional well-being and happiness. On a positive note industry creates employment but the waste generates by the industrial processes and the consumerism culture eventually has negative implications on other parts  society (e.g. in the form of pollution). 
Social status and personal worth are put on a par with affluence, wealth, material possessions, accumulation of material goods and one’s purchasing power. As a result, jealousy, envy, distrust and antagonism manifest themselves in people who are trapped in the desire for material possessions. Moreover it can even cause people to want to take advantage of others in a bid to obtain what they require. Take for instance the cases of exploitation of surrogate mother, the sex industry and even precarious work contracts.

In order to change people’s values on materialism we must start by educating young people to see the problems that materialism entails. Finally we should have legislation that ensures a proper use of advertising and marketing in the media.

by James O'Doherty

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