In a recent New York Times op-ed piece entitled, “Relax, We’ll be Fine,” David Brooks indulges, as he calls it, in a “great luscious orgy of optimism” for America’s future and assures us of an economic and social revival “built on America’s historic strengths.” What are those strengths? Among other things, Brooks celebrates our culture of “moral materialism”—a society that excels in creating “meaning-rich products.” Such products offer emotional experiences and supply identities “coated in moral and psychological meaning,” which consumers crave.
If morality has to do with what is right and wrong, and if materialism has to do with the belief that everything we experience can be explained in material, physical terms, that matter is all there is, then moral materialism, at the very least, means that consumer products possess a quality of intrinsic goodness. In other words, we have a duty to consume them—a failure to make and buy consumer goods is not just bad for the economy but a moral failure.
Now this notion of morality is not only odd, but wrong. Morality has to do with how we treat others, not with whether we should make or buy things for ourselves. Moral materialism may make sense to those who believe that physical comfort and the satiation of desires is life’s summum bonum, that securing one’s material lot is the key to finding peace, or that one’s significance is measured by monetary success. But for those who believe that there is something higher and better in life than what pleases the eye and excites the flesh, something more virtuous than acquiring possessions, then such a doctrine is bunk.
Moral materialism is obviously the accepted wisdom of our age, but shouldn’t we at least stop and consider what it actually entails? What happens when the “wellbeing” of society rests on personal profit and economic power as the pillars of its existence? What results from a system that makes sacred the ability to acquire, possess, consume? What kind of life is it when the sources of one’s property don’t matter, when the use of one’s property is nobody’s business, and when the disparity between rich and poor is understood as an inevitable outgrowth of a system that cannot be changed?
Erich Fromm explored these questions long before our current economic woes. He warned against the forces that turn human beings into a homo consumens—a total consumer in a paradise conceived as an infinite warehouse “where everyone can buy something new every day, buy everything he wants and even a little more than the one next door to him but transfigures us into an empty cipher—anxious, passive, profoundly discontent and bored.” What kind of life is this?
The doctrine of “getting ahead,” if left unchecked, turns us, in the words of Thorstein Veblen, “into passive receptacles of unfocused desires.” For what else can we call it when we are trained and manipulated and conditioned to be dissatisfied cravers, to have more than we need and can afford, are made to feel anxious and distressed, and are taught to value ourselves and others solely in terms of net worth because such “motivators” are good for a consumer economy? How do these motivators mark moral character? How do these values cohere with those of trust, relationship, compassion, self-donation, and genuine being? How do these strengthen our ability to love one another?
There is a Yiddish story about a rich man who is persuaded to pay a visit to the rebbe. The rebbe leads him to the window. “Look out there,” the rebbe says, and the rich man looks out at the street. “What do you see?”
“I see people,” he answers.
Then the rebbe leads him to the mirror. “What do you see now?”
The rich man answers, “Now I see myself.”
“So,” the rebbe says. “In the window there is glass and in the mirror there is glass. But the glass of the mirror is covered with silver, and no sooner is the silver added than you cease to see others but see only yourself.”
Today’s consumers look in the mirror and crave meaning. Contrary to David Brooks, however, the drive to fill up our lives with meaning-rich products is more sickness than cure. When we confine our ambition to trying to satisfy our disparate desires, the result is that we become increasingly self-absorbed and increasingly unable to care for others. This is the opposite of morality, the antithesis of character, the demise of self-control, and the destruction of social responsibility.
Jesus once asked, “What good is it if you gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit your very soul?” Devouring a whole array of trivial, peripheral “goods” that have little to do with a product’s true worth, let alone one’s own, may be exciting, but it leaves the soul bereft of rectitude and our relationships stripped of meaning and connection.
In the end, when material pursuits become our moral passion we spiritually and socially self-destruct; we forfeit what it means to be genuinely alive to the true, the good, and the beautiful. The having-selling-buying-working mode of existence may benefit one’s portfolio and Wall Street, it may even lead one to enjoy some semblance of the “good life,” but it has little to do with whether one’s life is truly good. We know this to be true every time we come home with one more purchase but deep down feel empty and alone.