Melting the Candle from Both Ends

On Monday I posted that denying yourself luxuries can be immoral. The interesting and challenging mindaeterna pointed me toward Slavoj Žižek‘s RSA talk First as Tragedy Then As Farce, which repudiates the idea of buying a feeling of worth completely:

I agree with much of Žižek’s analysis: unhappiness with a situation is a powerful driver for change, so charity can weaken efforts by both the victim and perceiver of imperfection to address underlying issues; some pre-packaged moral choices are made as lifestyle rather than ethical steps.

This is one of the reasons I am a member of the Green Party: we need to look at fixing the causes of problems rather than merely controlling resources. Society needs to move beyond the either/or of capitalism versus socialism into a realm where everyone has a fair share of resources, but the definition and comparative value of resources is dynamic.

I have written previously on the topic of non-monetary economies, and believe that they can be a fairer measure of reward. However, based on studies of relative deprivation, any single system of measure on any scale will produce perceptions of poverty and wealth. For a truly fair access to resources we must remove not only remove money but remove the need for absolute value: for example, access to hang-gliding is a resource for the subset of people who want to hang-glide but is not to people who do not, so hang-gliders can use all the hang-gliding but receive no credit or debit compared to any other activity.

This post-scarcity society (such as in Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels) is currently out of reach: whether we reach it by improved infrastructure, improved resource usage, benevolent other entities, or a method outside current thought, we currently have an unequal distribution of limited resources. This is where I diverge from the simplicity of Žižek’s analysis. While we seek a possible answer it is better to work on improving the system we have.

I buy organic, Fairtrade, and local produce because I believe they are better than the alternative (and have posted previously on difficulty choosing which to prioritise), but even if I did not the reason I buy the product does not show up on retailers’ sales records; whether I bought a local tomato to save carbon or brag to a dinner party, the retailer sees that local is selling better and is inclined toward buying locally.

If we are to build a better society we must not fall into the trap of creating new victims. We must not ignore unjust policies but also must not punish people for expecting existing policies will apply. We must not accept tearing down my friend’s wall to throw it through Tesco’s window as legitimate protest against capitalism.

There might be a perfect society out there but – unless we suddenly gain prescience – we cannot be certain any one suggestion is the right answer with enough certainty to casually destroy what we have. With society, as with any ongoing project, we must not only consider the ultimate goal but also whether there are interim changes that – while they may be abandoned later – make the existing system better or ease the transition to the new methods.

Do you believe ethical requires the rejection of flawed systems? Do you believe that change can only come from within?

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Filed under Musings, Seeking a Better World

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