- David Mattson
Monuments to the Ego
Some rich bourgeoisie newcomers have perpetrated yet the latest in a series of atrocities upon the small valley where we live, entailing an assault on the sensibilities of virtually everyone and everything living there. Adding insult to injury, this has all been done with apparent utter disregard for us, our neighbors, our dirt road, the wildlife, the native vegetation, and everything sacred and beautiful.
The newcomers scalped the hillside they’ve occupied, smoothed out the offending topographic wrinkles, tore up all the untidy native shrubs, hacked a bench in the slope, erected a large garish pole barn, chiseled out an impractically steep access road, covered every flat or otherwise traversed surface with thick coats of coarse and fine gravel, revegetated the raw soil with non-native plants, propagated massive amounts of weeds, and displaced the deer and elk…meanwhile afflicting all of the neighbors below their lofty perch with the endless noise of heavy equipment suited for construction of interstate highways and a ceaseless caravan of over-sized dump trucks kicking up billowing clouds of dust while assaulting us with their jake brakes. And, no doubt, these naïve newcomers will panic when they realize that mountain lions and bears prowl the ridge where they live, with resulting fatal consequences for any large carnivore ranging nearby.
Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the favorite pastimes among us and other long-term residents is grousing about the rich newcomers, especially the ugly monstrosities they’ve built in highly-visible places. Our nearest neighbor, a salt-of-the earth kind of guy, has a talent for naming the $1 million-plus edifices, including The Ugly House, The Chicken Coop, The Atrocity, and, most recently, The Abortion Clinic. But the most compelling comment was delivered by yet another long-time neighbor, who billed all of these overbuilt ugly piles with-a-view as simply “monuments to the ego.”
Ego and Egotism…
Ego is an interesting concept upon which to hang the rapine pillaging in our little valley…as well as throughout the human-occupied world. Freud and Buddha would have us believe that all humans have an ‘ego’ (Anatta to the Buddhists), whether as a literal reality or simply as a useful partitioning of the psyche. By these conceptions, ego entails a way of orienting to the world that engenders survival and practical action by the ‘self’.
But, importantly, Freud allows for a curbing effect of the super-ego that embodies ethical concerns and cultural constraints, usually in service of some greater collective good. Likewise, Buddhists distinguish between the Small Self, entailing ego-based motivations, and the Greater Self that, like the super-ego, embodies evolution towards a maturity manifesting compassion and cognizance of connection with other beings. In both instances, ego unchecked by the super-ego or by evolution towards a Greater Self manifests as greed, selfishness, arrogance, fear, and hedonism, with resulting indifference, dishonesty, ruthlessness, and even cruelty exhibited towards others—especially others who are alien or otherwise different.
And Our Moral Universe
Another way of framing all of this is through the lens of moral universes. A person driven wholly by crass motivations originating in the brainstem and ego has a moral universe collapsed into the cesspit of Small Self. This is to say, essentially no moral universe. Expanding outward from this problematic condition are those who deploy notions of fairness, obligation, concern, and benevolence only to family members—as in the Mafia. Next beyond are those with a moral orientation that additionally encompasses those who are of identical or similar identity—national, tribal, ethnic, racial, gender, or the like. And, at the doorstep of enlightenment and transcendence, are those who extend moral concerns and deportment towards all humans—even towards non-human sentient beings.
Scholars such as Peter Singer and Shalom Schwartz have expounded on the importance of an every-expanding moral universe to the welfare and dignity of all humans, even of non-humans with varying degrees of manifest sentience. A world comprised solely of ego-driven humans operating with little restraint or related regard for the effects of their actions on others would be a truly horrific, eventually uninhabitable, place. As Steven Pinker has argued, our small Earth has become a more hospitable and charitable place largely because ever more people are regarding ever more beings of ever greater difference with ever more benevolence, despite what one might think reading vitriolic trash published in outlets such as Breitbart.
The Larger Psycho-Sociological Context
In the end, though, unchecked egotism and all the ills that flow from it flourishes only to the extent that such a condition is sanctioned, even encouraged, by culture, society, and institutions. People obviously shape all of these derivations of basic human behaviors, but human behaviors are in turn powerfully shaped by the higher-order social-psychological phenomena within which they are embedded, creating the potential for powerfully wicked—or powerfully benevolent—synergies.
Of relevance here, culture, society, and institutions ineluctably invoke the nature of our somewhat benighted nation and the more overtly benighted nature of the individualistic capitalist enterprise we have so enthusiastically embraced and codified.
Contradictions of Capitalism
Neoconservatives and their lapdog economists would have us believe that unchecked unfettered capitalism under-girds the best of all possible worlds. Moreover, freely but selectively quoting the likes of John Locke and Adam Smith, they would further have us believe that unbridled greed and unqualified self-interest, channeled by the invisible hand of free markets, is the surest means of furthering the well-being of all humans. Indeed, the Princes of Capitalism who run amuck on Wall Street proudly and unabashedly profess their greed and fundamental disregard for others, assuming that we who hear such professions somehow know it ends well for the rest of us due to the transformative magic of markets.
Never mind peoples’ unequal access to markets. Never mind inequalities in power and privilege. Never mind unequal access to information. Never mind the fundamentally irrational behavior of humans. Never mind the distorting effects of artificial demand created by manipulative advertising. Never mind the chronic gross distortion of markets by hidden (or not so hidden) subsidies created by power elites beholden to wealth elites. Never mind…ad nauseam. We have no free markets.
In the end, people who are wealthy or powerful become ever more wealthy and powerful at the expense of everyone else. Despotism reigns in the sense that an ever smaller minority of people amass an ever greater portion of values, while everyone else becomes comparatively more impoverished. It is no coincidence that we have seen a trend, not only in the United States, but in most developed or developing countries, towards the amassing of more and more wealth in the hands of a mere 1%—even 0.1%—of the populace.
As the radical thinker and economist Charles Eisenstein pithily observed, the modern business enterprise operates on the basis of shifting costs onto others as a normal part of making profits; in other words, by privatizing profits while socializing costs. Put another way, profits—the fundamental underpinning of the capitalist enterprise—are axiomatically created by passing as many costs as possible onto the affected human community, the natural environment, and future generations, often in ways that are fundamentally destructive. The French economist Thomas Piketty offered a complementary argument in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, holding that ‘trickle down’ from wealth elites to the comparatively impoverished masses is, in reality, inconsequential and little more than cover for this despotic capitalist enterprise.
And the Problem of Externalities
But concern about the imperfections and problematics of capitalism are not limited to radical or revisionary economists. Indeed, the likes of John Locke and Adam Smith were acutely aware that, despite the hidden hand of markets, the monetary capitalist systems they championed would generate social costs and income inequalities that required rectification by governments.
Some of these social costs have been termed ‘externalities’ by succeeding generations of economists—an externality being a cost or benefit generated by a private economic transaction or activity, but incurred by those who did not chose to partake of the outcome. Classic examples of such externalities include air and water pollution, spillover effects of development on surrounding property values, and the loss of finite biota caused by profit-making enterprises.
Our society has, reasonably enough, responded to these sorts of externalities with laws that zone development, control pollution, and protect endangered species. Whether overtly or tacitly, most people realize that we do, in fact, live in community where considerations of the commonwealth occasionally weigh heavily in the scale of considerations. Indeed, every credible economic or political philosopher or theorist since Locke and Smith and afterwards, Marx, has viewed capitalism and property, not as ends in themselves, but rather as candidate means (dubious means, in the case of Marx) of uplifting humanity and enhancing the well-being and dignity of all—of promoting a flourishing commonwealth; something that many contemporary politicians, economists, and bourgeois capitalists seem to miss.
As it is, the pervasive systemic problem of privatized profits and socialized costs remains, especially in a society such as ours that is wedded to the justifying myth of capitalism and, in the minds of some, the virtues of unchecked greed and individualism—and where those who profit so much from displacing the costs of their activities onto society hold such sway over politicians. This insidious system continues to spawn the sorts of people who show up in our little valley with ill-gotten (by definition) wealth to manifest their ego in various physical obscenities.
The notion of ‘property’ is yet another pillar of Smith’s capitalism that factors into on-going devastation of the natural world by societies that have succumbed to the capitalist premise. More to the point, private property rights plays a central role in not only the unfolding ecological holocaust, but also in simultaneously catalyzing and justifying damage to human communities.
On the face of it, ‘property’ seems a benign or even beneficial concept. The term is generally understood in reference to anything owned or possessed by someone. Adam Smith even advanced the notion that one’s own labor and physical body are property held, by right of ‘natural law’, exclusively by the salient embodied person. Yet the notion of property has, in fact, been extended to possession of one human by another, most egregiously in the form of overt slavery, but historically (and, in places, still) even in application to dependent children and adult women.
And Its Problems
These latter extensions to other humans highlight an intrinsic, even potentially fatal, problem with the notion of ‘property’. Relegation of anything to the category of property constitutes the ultimate instrumentalization and related erasure of intrinsic worth. Through this, property has no rights, no prerogatives, and no claim to considerations of well-being and health.
Relegation of inanimate physical objects to the category of property is perhaps not problematic, but any application to another life form, especially one with plausible sentience immediately raises moral questions. Does a dog deserve consideration of its health and well-being, despite being property? Some people would say ‘no’, but our society has answered a resounding ‘yes’ through the passage, for example, of animal welfare laws and even serious consideration of whether chimpanzees deserve rights. But, then, do elk and bears and lions deserve consideration of their welfare? Do ecosystems have ‘health’ and, if so, do even these abstract entities warrant moral concern, especially when it comes to fostering and preserving ‘health’?
I hold that the manner in which a person orients to such issues offers a profound commentary on their ego maturity and moral universe—Small versus Greater. And, in fact, orientations towards living property end up being entangled with precepts of capitalism and consideration of ‘the other’ in choices people make regarding their use of property, specifically whether they care at all about the negative impacts their choices may have on others, whether human, animal, vegetal, or even spiritual. People with small souls and a small moral universe will probably not give a damn, and even actively resist any societal requirements that they be held accountable for the harm they cause, often by deploying the justifying rhetoric of libertarianism and the primacy of individual freedom.
Inanities of Property Rights
All of this comes to a head in considerations of private property rights, although it is worth first noting that property can be held privately, publicly, or communally, and also simply by societal consent without rising to the level of a ‘right’. But there are some ideologues and yahoos (not mutually exclusive) who hold that the only credible sort of property is private, and that all private property is axiomatically held by the owner as a ‘right’.
Such simple-minded constructions hardly pass the laugh test. On the face of it, public property has more intrinsic merit than private property simply because it is held in trust to explicitly serve the greater good of society. The same could be said for communal property, but with ‘the greater good’ reckoned at the scale of a given community.
Insofar as being a ‘right’ is concerned, Debbie Becher cogently observed in a 2015 article that “…social theorists have long understood that property is not the ownership of a thing or a set of individual rights, but a set of social agreements about what ownership entails…Property rules involve government intimately not only in creating value but also in determining who deserves which valuable resources.”
Notice ‘social agreements’, the role of ‘government’, and the invocation of ‘deserve’. None of this bespeaks a ‘right’ in the conventional sense that we think of such things, especially in application to human health and happiness (see my article on Human Dignity and Micheline Ishay’s book The History of Human Rights), although our society paradoxically—even perversely—holds that rights attach to our property but not to our health. In fact, property is held solely by the consent of society and ultimately (whether acknowledged or not) in service of promoting the commonwealth of human well-being and dignity.
Rich and Not-So-Rich Yahoos
Yet our country is filled with people who think that they not only have an absolute right to their property, but that this supposed ‘right’ gives them the prerogative to mete out use, abuse, destruction, and harm without restraint or consideration of impacts on other humans—much less impacts on other sentient beings, and certainly not impacts on the health and wholeness of the ecosystems they exploit.
Such seems to be the case with our new neighbors wreaking havoc upstream in yet the latest exhibition of stunted moral development by newly-arrived rich folk. Although these people are by no means the only ones.
We all suffer sooner or later living in a world of unchecked greed, selfishness, and self-centeredness—understood by some to be the equivalent of ‘individualism’. This is especially true in a country such as ours where simple-minded conceptions of capitalism and private property encourage, if not sanctify, abusive relations with the land, other people, and other life forms. Under such auspices, people are prone to the fallacy of conflating ‘freedom’ with possession, which can never lead to contentment.
No doubt, most of us want the greatest scope of free choice possible, as well as assurance that the physical goods we depend upon and hold dear will be secure from depredation. Yet, more assuredly, I would hold that most of us—albeit inchoately—want to be part of a commonwealth of human dignity. Inescapably, such a commonwealth requires that we curb our actions out of respect for others and with due consideration of harm we may cause. Sadly, our society seems to be exhibiting less rather than more of such dignified self-restraint.
There are perhaps only a few ways that the current death spiral of our living Earth can be checked. The spiritually dead look to technological fixes. A highly virulent and contagious disease specific to humans might save the rest of life on this planet, but only through erasure of our species. More hopefully, we humans might evolve towards greater benevolence, generosity, and concern, not only for other humans, but for all of life.
But such evolution depends on the rapid expansion of our collective moral universe beyond the frontiers of humankind. To do so, though, requires that we transcend our delusional fixation with patently destructive ideologies, of which capitalism and private property rights are currently one of the most potent. Closer to home for me, I hope to live long enough to see the end of people scraping, gouging, chiseling, hacking, tearing, and uprooting the naked living Earth simply to build yet another monument to their ego.