It has long been fashionable to knock materialism. When I was younger I was programmed to believe that people who shunned the acquisition of physical things were somehow more spiritually enlightened, and to look with disapproval at anyone enjoying their material stuff and their wealth. It is widely considered to be more spiritual to shun material comforts and follow the example of Mother Teresa or monks in monasteries. But on what basis? Is there any substance to this idea? What are the facts of reality and of our human nature that support it, or contradict it?
The claim that materialism is bad comes directly from religious traditions and is rooted in the morality of sacrifice. I was raised in the Roman Catholic tradition and the idea of abstinence, sacrifice and doing without was central to the concept of the good. I was taught that to be moral you had to give up the things of this world so as to store up “treasure in heaven”. The Christian tradition is not alone in advocating this morality of abstinence and altruism. It has been a common denominator of mystic creeds for millennia. But beyond religious dogma, I can’t find any reasons (in fact) that support this widely accepted idea. If you are interested in truth, then I recommend you question this almost universal assumption.
The justification for anti-materialism is always mystic in origin. It rests on the assumption that you are here to prepare for another life somewhere else – in heaven (if you play your cards right). In the Christian tradition, there is an assumption that this world is profane and the ‘next world’ is where it’s at! Pleasure is damned but suffering and sacrifice are held up as noble ideals. But why? Mysticism offers no credible reasons. And it can’t because mysticism doesn’t deal with facts and reality, it deals with dogman and say-so. Any truth seeker should be very suspicious of mysticism because it requires that you believe without evidence. Mysticism is the idea that reasons are not necessary. But reasons are required to know what is true. Thu,s it is the cardinal truth destroyer.
What are the facts?
Man cannot live without material values. We need shelter in the form of homes, we need clothes to wear, we need to produce our food. We need values to live. We need things. They make our lives possible, they make our lives better, they make our lives enjoyable. Material things such as washing machines, air conditioning systems, fridge freezers, cars, computers and aeroplanes, all add considerably to our human lives. It is undeniable that we need things to support human life. The ‘natural’ environment does not support human life, it very often threatens it.
But more than this, life is to be enjoyed. It is not just about staying alive. We all ultimately seek happiness in a rewarding and meaningful life experience. The production and consumption of material values are intimately connected with our continued survival and also our experience of happiness. Happiness is achieved by living right, by successfully creating the things we need to live, by achieving our dreams and goals, and by consuming or enjoying those achievements. Happiness is not achieved simply through consumption. Which means it is not achieved solely by accumulating or possessing things. It is achieved through the pursuit of, and achievement of, rational goals and values that support your life.
However, the truth that happiness is not achieved through the acquisition of material possessions does not mean that material possessions are somehow bad or should be shunned in favour of having less or consuming less.
Another example of the faulty thinking behind the cries against materialism comes from the assertion that it’s the cause of so many problems in the world. While it may be true that there are many things wrong with the way we humans live, there is no evidence that having material things is in any way causal!
Inequality is also cited by the anti-materialists. But most blank out the requirement to earn and produce values. To focus on the uneven distribution of material values as a reason to shun material values doesn’t make any sense. You don’t necessarily need a lear jet or a Ferrari sports car, but there is nothing wrong with enjoying one if you have earned it. It is important to understand that these things won’t make you happy if you didn’t earn them by your effort. Just as money is not the root of all evil, neither is our desire to enjoy our lives with wonderful toys. The root of all evil is irrationality because this is to reject reason as our sole means to knowledge and therefore the only means to guide successful action.
Material things should be celebrated as a huge achievement. It is the essence of mankind that he has the ability to transform matter through his thinking and ingenuity into a useful form for his benefit. Whether turning a tree into table and chairs, or turning minerals and metals locked in the earth into a computer, or releasing the energy stored in fossil fuels to provide cheap abundant and reliable energy.
To blame materialism for the problems that humanity is challenged by is like blaming knives for injury, or blaming fire for burning people. It is not things (individual concretes) that are the cause of any human problems. How can they be? It is irrational human behaviour that is the root of human problems. We need to lift our consciousness up from the concrete bound and begin to think in terms of principles. It is only the anti-conceptual mind that could see material things, or their acquisition, as a problem.
A Life on Earth
Where do you live your life? Here on earth. What helps support it and make it better for you? Material things, possessions that bring utility or comfort to your short existence. Are you going to be duped by the promise of another life ‘after this one’? Are you going to listen to those who are trying to get you to give up all the things that make your existence pleasurable, comfortable and enjoyable, on the promise of another life after you are dead?
Life on earth requires material things. Only advocates of an anti-human, anti-life way of living could possibly claim that you are better of rejecting material values. But this most emphatically does NOT imply that meaning and happiness are found though the mere possession of material values alone.
What do you think?
Please comment. I value your input.
Nigel Howitt, Treehouse Farm
July 8th 2020