Monday, December 22, 2014

The Case Against Materialism

It fits the season.

To put the holiday into perspective the American Psychological Association has released an interview with psychologist TimKasser.

In it Kasser explains that people who are materialistic, who measure life in terms of goods acquired, are less happy and less functional than those who value relationships.

One might say that people who define themselves as moral beings are generally happier than are those who define themselves as beings of desire.

Those who see humans as beings of desire often underemphasize the acquisitive aspect of desire, but if you define yourself as a being of desire you will naturally try to attain whatever you desire, be that objects or experiences.

Kasser does not make the point, but one may ask whether the same holds true for atheists. After all, atheists derogate the spiritual side of life. They reject the existence of a divine creator and benefactor. They believe in materialism.

But does this make them more materialistic? It seems logical that it would. It is worth asking the question.

Kasser explains that materialism impacts one’s relationships. Surely, he makes good sense:

We know from research that materialism tends to be associated with treating others in more competitive, manipulative and selfish ways, as well as with being less empathetic. Such behavior is usually not appreciated by the average person, although it is encouraged by some aspects of our capitalist economic system.

If you believe that your value as a human being can be directly measured by the quantity of your possessions, you will do what it takes to acquire more. You will not care about what you have to do to other people to gain more possessions than they do. And you will see people only as a means to acquiring more or an obstacle to acquiring more.

It follows logically a materialist might even see other people as objects to possess. He might see them as objects to horde or as objects to use and discard. If they are purely material beings, what would prevent you from seeing them as objects.

It’s not going to make them happy, but, for all I know, they might not believe in happiness.

In more real world terms, psychological research has demonstrated that materialistic values will undermine one’s emotional well-being.

In Kasser’s words:

We know from the literature that materialism is associated with lower levels of well-being, less pro-social interpersonal behavior, more ecologically destructive behavior, and worse academic outcomes. It also is associated with more spending problems and debt. From my perspective, all of those are negative outcomes.

And also:

We found that the more highly people endorsed materialistic values, the more they experienced unpleasant emotions, depression and anxiety, the more they reported physical health problems, such as stomachaches and headaches, and the less they experienced pleasant emotions and felt satisfied with their lives.

How then should one go about enhancing one’s well-being?

Kasser answers:

Specifically, materialistic values are associated with living one's life in ways that do a relatively poor job of satisfying psychological needs to feel free, competent, and connected to other people. When people do not have their needs well-satisfied, they report lower levels of well-being and happiness, as well as more distress.

Let’s see: happiness is associated with having the freedom to make decisions that influence the course of your life. This applies, I mention in passing, that believing that your life is a preordained script, one whose outcome is inevitable regardless of how you conduct yourself, will not make you very happy.

Happiness is also associated with the competence you demonstrate when you perform tasks successfully.

As for the notion that happiness, involves being connected to other people, it is worth noting that moral principles like: "Love thy neighbor as thyself" and "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you" promote human connection.

But, these precepts are Biblical. Does this mean that those who reject religion in the name of materialism will be led, inexorably, to see their neighbors as competing for goods and to do unto others as they do unto you.

Materialists believe that they can assure their place in society by acquiring more goods. The opposite is true. Pursuing goods for the sake of pursuing goods alienates other people and produces social isolation.

How does one transcend vulgar materialism?

One starts by being kind, considerate and generous toward other people. It means offering a gift that the recipient would like to have, not one that you would like to give. It means taking the time and trouble to think about the other person and to find the right and suitable gift for him.

It might feel strange coming from psychology, but the research shows that those who keep the spirituality in Christmas are generally happier than those who see the holiday in terms of material possessions.

In Kasser’s words:

Psychologist Ken Sheldon and I co-authored a study that found that to the extent people focused their holiday season around materialistic aims like spending and receiving, the less they were focused on spiritual aims. We also found that people reported "merrier" Christmases when spirituality was a large part of their holiday, but reported lower Christmas well-being to the extent that the holiday was dominated by materialistic aspects.

Today’s trendy atheists might consider it a challenge. One suspects that those who believe that there is no God must have very little interest in promoting spirituality. Some of them might identify as pagans, but presumably atheists do not merely reject the one god. They must reject all gods.

If theirs is the most rational point of view, the one that most befits human nature, how do they explain the fact that, when put into practice materialism seems to make people miserable.


Wm Sears said...

This seems a little vague, possibly because materialism has not been defined. One man's minimal level of comfort might be another's crass materialism. Is it a case of I know it when I see it?

Sam L. said...

"He who dies with the most toys, wins.": Bumper sticker.

There are those who think that way, and others who say, "He's dead. Sombody has to get rid of all that crap."

Ares Olympus said...

I'm with Wm Sears. This discussion is too vague for any clarity.

Is "Materialism" a desire to accumulate possessions, perhaps as a defense against deprivation, or is it just the philosophical belief in a universe of physical cause and effect, being the opposite of philosophical idealism?

If a man wants to plan for a family, he will try to accumulate skills and relationships that will get him into a career with an income and security to raise a family. He may spend decades spending nearly nothing on himself, but for his desire to be a good provider.

re: ...It follows logically a materialist might even see other people as objects to possess. He might see them as objects to horde or as objects to use and discard. If they are purely material beings, what would prevent you from seeing them as objects.

This seems like sloppy thinking, "it follows", "if they are"... I'm not saying there's not truth here, but its not so clear to me what it is.

The pastor at my church says parents should not think they "own" their children, and to recognize every child has come into life with his or her own purpose, yet parents have a pride and responsibility for their children to have a chance to succeed and therefore must override their child's immediate desires to socialize them into a larger context, until they can do this for themselves.

I knew a medical doctor my my men's group who talked about his son, and being disappointed in his young 20's son's choices, and he really was concinced his son was making mistakes, and had a terrible time controlling himself, and not telling his son what to do, or why what he was doing was going to fail.

Is that possessiveness? Is materialism responsible for this? I don't see that. But it was a problem of boundaries in relationships, and giving others the chance to make their own mistakes. I suppose a perfectly spiritual person (new age style) wouldn't care if his son became a drug addict, and would say it was just another "experience" that would help his immoral soul learn. Why not jump off a bridge if the world isn't real?

Materialism isn't the clear problem.

Ares Olympus said...

p.s. I saw this today, a earnest secular remake of the 10 commands. Honor thy mother and father, and no murder didn't make the list, too obvious I guess, no need for a higher authority (#5). Is "materialism" responsible for this thinking? I won't disagree.

The final ten winning beliefs of the Rethink Prize, a crowdsourced rethinking of the Ten Commandments, are as follows:

I. Be open-minded and be willing to alter your beliefs with new evidence.

II. Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what you wish to be true.

III. The scientific method is the most reliable way of understanding the natural world.

IV. Every person has the right to control over their body.

V. God is not necessary to be a good person or to live a full and meaningful life.

VI. Be mindful of the consequences of all your actions and recognize that you must take responsibility for them.

VII. Treat others as you would want them to treat you, and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated. Think about their perspective.

VIII. We have the responsibility to consider others, including future generations.

IX. There is no one right way to live.

X. Leave the world a better place than you found it.

Ares Olympus said...

p.s. I make tons of typos myself, but I noticed in paragraph 10, should be "hoard" not "horde". :)

Wm Sears said...

It looks more like the ten postures.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

"You can't have everything. Where would you put it?" (Steven Wright)

And stuff can't love you back.

For definition's sake, the root of the matter is the -ism itself. Those who adhere to or follow a particular -ism feel it holds a key, core or controlling tenet that reflects some truth about life or the world. Yet most -isms are conceptual. Therefore, people align themselves to these concepts and it becomes part of their identity, or they may use them to assign labels to another (perhaps competing) conceptualization.

A true materialist (follower of materialism) believes that natural matter and phenomena is all there is.

"Materialism," in the human sense of consumption, is an objectified life, where the source of happiness is defined by material possessions, whether their abundance or scarcity. It can also apply to any number of disordered attachments (obsession, avarice, greed, etc.).

Certainly material is necessary for survival and sustenance. Beyond this, material can add joy to life, whether as food, shelter, etc. But survival is distinct from comfort, and this is where things can become more complicated. Is "comfort" freedom from pain, grief, distress, constraint? When does "comfort" transition to the truly optional or luxury?

My own sense is that when material possessions come to be viewed the primary source of life's joy, there's no room for anyone else. This creates social separation, which is the source of pathos. The materialist chooses possessions over people.

That's what "Rosebud" was all about. That's the prison of materialism.

n.n said...
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n.n said...
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n.n said...

Materialism can be defined as a primary orientation toward tangible assets. It is expressed as a behavior that favors collection and exercise of items and features in that class. Like any obsession, it is exclusive. Perhaps that's where it acquires a negative connotation.

Anonymous said...

Ares 1:54 PM,

if V. is valid, what's the point of the rest of the list? doesn't man become god? if all men are god, what does any of this other rubbish mean anyway? we're important because we're a humanoid collection of cells? the whole thing seems to fall apart.

Dennis said...

Does the material lead to the conscious or does the conscious lead to the material? Might there be a middle ground?
Anon Dec 23,
Good point in that to remove the conscious from the equation in a reductionist manner is to rely n something that does not meet a number of points that need to be addressed.

Sam L. said...

I believe that the concept of "materialism" was popularized by Karl "I don't know those other guys" Marx.

David Foster said...

Useful to distiguish between materialism driven by desire for the object itself versus materialism driven by status associated with having the object. People who break into stores to steal Nike shoes, for example, are probably mostly in the latter class.

Also, it's often asserted that *experiences* leave more lasting good memories than do *things*, and are also more pleasant in the anticipation. The problem with this logic is that things are often used to enable experiences. If you enjoy the experience of sailing, for example, it is helpful to have that thing called a boat.