08 March 2019

Is materialism destroying society? By Lawrence Baron

Is materialism destroying society? By Lawrence Baron

In theoretical philosophy we have the old problem of materialism. Basically, is the physical world the highest order of existence followed by mind, soul, spirit, and so on? Or is there some form of higher order existence such as mind or spirit and materialism is just a subset of this higher superior order of being?

This problem takes us back to such ideas as the mind body problem, spirituality and superior intelligence by the gods. In other words, early in our evolution we felt the world around us was mediocre and our ancestors came to the conclusion that there must be a superior power that can make our lot much better. This idea must be one of those memes that originated in the archaeological mental past at the birth of Homo sapiens but it is still with us today.

Of course, there is no superior power since our idea of superior power fits perfectly well with the models of natural selection and biological group structures. The low level monkey not only had to contend with the whims of their second level monkeys, but all the monkeys had to contend with the whims of the chief monkey. No doubt the first philosopher monkey must have had the idea that surely there must be a better and far superior chief monkey than the one we have. And thus Zeno’s paradox was born and the superior intelligence model was formulated.

But it must have been a clever and brave marketing and sales monkey to persuade the chief monkey to buy into the idea that there is a superior and more powerful monkey than the chief himself and that we should worship it. And then be appointed director of ideology. This brings me to applied philosophy.

In applied philosophy, basically the activities we mostly get involved with during our meetings, we have the concept of materialism, as in the title of our discussion, which we also refer to as consumerism, economic materialism and maybe even capitalist society. I will use the term social materialism or even consumerism to distinguish from philosophical materialism.

My only caveat about the terms used is that I consider everything we need and desire that is not freely available from nature must be considered as social materialism. Anything that requires human brains or human labour must be regarded as social materialism because we do not only consume sports cars and mobile phones but also medicines, packed food etc.

The idea is that consumerism is changing or even destroying our society because we do not endeavour in more lofty activities such as building better cathedrals, write more poetry, spend more time preparing wholesome food and, of course, meeting in coffee shops and rustic restaurants, like Plato, Socrates, and friends did, to discuss the infinite and life in general. Basically, today we seek meaning in life by the thrill of what we purchase. Spending money on big ticket items, such as a sports car, gives us the emotional high and elation which is probably the equivalent  to our ancestors bringing down a mammoth for lunch.

But this scenario begs two questions: 1) how is social materialism changing or destroying society? And 2) what is society changing from? We can quickly get rid of the idea that society was better in the past. It wasn’t.

In 1846, the Viennes doctor, Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis, suggested that if doctors washed their hands before treating women during childbirth this might reduce the number of female deaths at childbirth (a). And although the results were spectacular in 1847 there is still an issue today about washing hands.

Furthermore, in 2016 the World Health Organisation reported: Last year, an estimated 303 000 women died from pregnancy-related causes, 2.7 million babies died during the first 28 days of life and 2.6 million babies were stillborn. Quality health care during pregnancy and childbirth can prevent many of these deaths, yet globally only 64% of women receive antenatal (prenatal) care four or more times throughout their pregnancy (b).

These are just two examples to illustrate the point that life and society was never better in the past. I also use these two examples to show that even if consumerism is having a negative effect on society there is still enough “decency” left in society to "invest" in real needs technology. We don’t just produce sports cars in our society.

But social materialism has changed society; we understand the material and physical world much better today than ever. We can manipulate the material world to meet our whims and desires: we can build bridges over valleys, use efficient light cars instead of horses, and in 2019 we can change and manipulate the human body with our technology that would have been unimaginable in 1846.

In any event, we also interact with our material world because that's the only world we have. This is, indeed, what it means for something biological to be natural: something biological has to interact with the material world around it. Our capacity to learn from experience also makes us slightly different from other creatures who do not necessarily adapt to new situations. And one of those differences is of course our capacity to understand and formulate ethical concepts and the idea that something can be better. Indeed our relationship with the material world is one of more and better.

My two real world examples demonstrate that social materialism, whether of real life need gadgets or consumer goods, social materialism can solve some of our problems. What has not changed is the will to make social materialism accessible to everyone. Consider this fact about one of the richest country in the world: The number of uninsured Americans has dropped from 48.6 million in 2010 to 29.3 million in 2017 (c). That‘s practically the combined population of Hungary, Austria, Ireland and Denmark (29,220,087 Wikipedia).

The problem for Dr Semmelweis was that his well run and paid for teaching hospital for midwives had a mortality rate of one in 25, whilst the paupers hospital for medical students had a mortality rate of one in 10 (a). If spirituality is the highest order of being, why is there such a discrepancy in real life?

The reality about this topic is that, yes, materialism has and is changing society, we can do better things at the materialistic level. We also know more things about the world around us. But in the philosophical debate of whether there is some lofty superior existence to being human, the answer is clearly, no. No changes here as I have demonstrated. The ethical and spiritual society of the gods has not changed at all; we’re still the immoral and non spiritual biological blobs we have always been. We have changed the monkey, but we haven’t changed the attitudes of the human monkey.

(a)       The Dirty History of Doctors’ Hands by Leah Ginnivan
(b)       Pregnant women must be able to access the right care at the right time, says WHO
(c)        30 Staggering Healthcare Statistics to Know in 2019
Dr. Nikola Djordjevic  

Best Lawrence

Is materialism destroying society? by James O'Doherty

Is Materialism Destroying Society? By Ruel F. Pepa (c)

Is materialism destroying society? By Lawrence Baron

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