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Covenant Philosophy Conference Draft 2

Covenant Philosophy Conference Draft 2

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Published by Brandon Jones

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Published by: Brandon Jones on Oct 12, 2012
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I want to preface this whole paper with something which I am sure is true of anyone who majors in philosophy, which

is that I love philosophy and I find it extremely fascinating! I also see a lot of benefit to philosophy in that it teaches people to think critically, to construct solid arguments and identify weak ones, and that among all of its other great uses it can be used as an alternative to the status quo of moral ideas that we find in religious and cultural institutions. Currently, my real area of interest philosophically is Eudaimonia, specifically what human flourishing is and how it might be obtained for all people in a way that the ends justify the means. With all of this being said, something that has bothered me for a long time is that we have all of these really wonderful moral aphorisms from some of the greatest philosophical thinkers who ever lived and yet, for all of our various moral arguments, maxims and proposed moral paradigms most people in America don’t seem to really be living by them on any sort of consistent basis. I find this to be a real tragedy, because while I may not be able to define in full what all of the facets of Eudaimonia are, it is my belief that consistent moral behavior of some kind must be a part of it, and I suspect most people would agree with this even if we disagree on what constitutes moral behavior. All of this has lead me to question why this is, and I believe the really over simplified “in-a-nutshell” answer to this to be that we have created a bad moral environment that does not allow for good moral decision making on a consistent basis, that our current environment forces us to inevitably make bad moral decisions, often with the best of intentions behind them, and often without even realizing some of these immoral decisions are immoral at all as some of them are a central part of our way of life. The idea of environment is very important here because it means that the problem of people not living morally doesn’t lie with people themselves, rather it lies in how they are being nurtured by the institutions and policies of the era, things like education, the economy, the government, and health care, which establish our socioeconomic environment and in turn highly influence our actions, be they moral or otherwise. While it would be impossible for me to outline all of the ways and intricacies in which our socioeconomic environment is inhibiting good moral decision making in this brief paper, I would like to give a couple of high level examples of what I mean. In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics he lays out his argument for human virtues. He tells us that to live virtuously requires us “to do things at the right time, about the right things, towards the right people, for the right end, and in the right way.” Personally, I like the idea of achieving consistent moral living through virtue as opposed to a unified theory of morality because I think it’s really difficult for unified theories of morality to hold true in every conceivable situation. I don’t say this to spark a debate but rather to show that I find real value in virtue ethics and see them as one of many good tools for living a consistent moral life because they allow us to take stock of situations and moral dilemmas moment by moment, individually, as they arise. However, you don’t have to look far in our current socio-economic environment to find impossible moral dilemmas which would cause even the most virtuous of people to betray some of their virtues. A good example of an impossible moral situation is the problem of Walmart. A lot of people find Walmart’s business practices to be unethical and immoral, and for good reason. Walmart has a track record of treating its employee’s badly, undercutting their suppliers to the point that they hardly make any profit, contributing to abhorrent factory conditions in third world countries, harming the environment, eliminating small businesses, and so on and so forth. And so many people, coming from a

wide range of fields and backgrounds, have made good arguments stating that we need to stop shopping at Walmart because to shop there is to directly contribute to immoral business practices. I am one of those people who doesn’t shop there, as I too find Walmart to be immoral and reprehensible, all in all against my virtues. And that’s all well and good, but we have to realize that there are reasons, good reasons, that we tolerate Walmart’s existence and that millions and millions of people shop there every single day. Here’s a good one, many of their customers are poor and they can’t afford to shop anywhere else, and this is the bottom line of their motivation. This makes a lot of sense, especially when you consider that in America roughly one in every two people is now classified as being either ‘in poverty’ or ‘near poor’ by the American government. To be fair, “only” 49 million Americans are actually ‘in poverty’ and 97 million Americans are ‘near poor’ making for a total of 146 million people, which is close to half of our country’s combined population. Now, I feel confident that at least some of the hundreds of millions of Walmart customers realize that it is a highly immoral business, maybe even a few of them regret having to shop there, but it’s really rather hard to beat Walmart’s prices when every dollar counts. Walmart is also extremely convenient, they’re in almost every populated area of the country and the locations truly embody the idea of a “one stop shop” where you can find nearly everything you need in one place. These aren’t necessarily immoral people lacking in virtues shopping at Walmart, these are people trying to do the right thing in what I believe is an impossible moral circumstance, specifically supporting their families on a shoe string budget a lot of times, and in an economic environment that doesn’t allow for a better option they would be derelict in their duties to their families if they shopped somewhere else. Here we can see people failing to live up to Aristotle’s moral maxim in that they are doing the wrong thing with regard to the sweatshop workers manufacturing clothes for Walmart and other various afflicted parties by giving their patronage to this business, but they are doing the right thing with regard to their family. While I know the utilitarianists listening to this are probably shuttering at the thought of doing anything other than the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people, doing right by one’s family over the greater good of other people is something we instill in most American citizens from birth and I think we can admit that even the most ardent utilitarian would find it at least difficult to consistently neglect the wants and needs of their family by choosing to shop at more expensive markets with less selection on moral principle while living in poverty, although it never seemed to bother Karl Marx. At any rate, it is my suspicion that this is something most of us understand at a fundamental level. It stands to reason then, that if we want people to be more moral about their shopping habits as consumers then we have to enable them to be by creating an alternative to Walmart, and a successful alternative would, at a minimum, have to find a way to make groceries even easier and cheaper to obtain than Walmart’s way, and do so in a more moral way. This is a tall order when you consider that Walmart’s only real crime is doing exceedingly well at living up to the creed of capitalism, namely buying low and selling high in the pursuit of the greatest amount of profit. Walmart does a nearly flawless job of this, as it is motivated by capitalism and this economic paradigm does not ask us to consider the negative effects of our business practices on the environment or even the people who work within it unless this examination serves to further maximize profit. I have a lot of doubt as to whether it is even possible to offer a better working, more moral

alternative to Walmart in the capitalist paradigm because to do so would be going against the aforementioned maxim of capitalism, and as we have just seen monetary concerns, which by extension are concerns of our survival and comfort as they relate to the consumption of goods and services, tend to trump the ethical implications of the means by which we obtain the end of our subsistence. This is not really a surprise, but I think where I differ from many people is in what I interpret this to mean we must do. Where others see this as meaning it is futile to try a moral alternative to Walmart and thus passively except its perpetual reign of injustice, and others still want to continue repeating the same ineffective solutions like continue to press individuals without much money to influence the business practices of one of the world’s richest corporations with their dollars, I see it as a demand to make changes to our socioeconomic paradigm in the interests of allowing a more moral world. I don’t intend to make any grand allusions to what those changes should be, but I do think it is clear that whatever they might be, if we’re to overcome this moral dilemma, we must improve on our current environment which not only allows for but encourages these impossible moral situations. While I am not generally impressed by the idea of the one size fits all approach of unified moral theories, there is a moral maxim which I value as much, if not more, than virtue ethics. This would be Kant’s maxim from his “Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals” where he argues that we should, “act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” For as much truth as I see in this idea, I assert that to consistently live by this standard in America’s current socioeconomic environment is extremely difficult if not impossible, and if I am hesitant in saying that it is impossible it is only because I’m sure the argument could be made that it is possible to not treat people as a means to an end within our current environment but only by suggesting a completely radical life style that few in America would ever be prone to adopt. In my mind this is simultaneously the most controversial and most apparent argument I can make on this matter and it’s also what I meant earlier on in this essay when I said that we often tend to make immoral decisions without realizing it. A good example of what makes this amazing maxim so difficult a standard to live up to on any sort of consistent basis is going out to dinner at a restaurant. You order some food, it arrives, you enjoy your dinner, you pay (making sure to include a nice monetary tip) and then you leave. Even in this seemingly benign act you have failed Kant’s maxim, but how? It’s simple, you treated the employees of the restaurant, from the waiter who took and delivered your order to the various staff who cooked your meal, as a means to an end as opposed to treating them as an end unto themselves. Now, before you let incredulity get the better of you, think of it this way, regardless of how much humanity you gave to these workers in your mind or how much you thought you were helping that waiter by leaving him or her a tip, in your treatment of them you made them into tools, objects which you used as the means to obtain your end, in this case it was dinner. But it gets worse, for how did you afford your dinner? If you’re like most Americans you went to work that day, and regardless of your job satisfaction, how much money you made, or how you felt about working, you too were treated as a means to someone else’s end. What we have is an entire society operating consistently and perpetually against the idea of valuing people as an end unto themselves, opting instead to value people for what they can contribute.

If you remain unconvinced, then let’s look at the homeless situation. Why are the homeless, homeless? When I ask this question I’m not asking how the homeless came to be homeless, I’m asking why we’re not giving them homes. Here’s a statistic for you, it has been predicted that for every one homeless person in the United States there are twenty two empty, mostly foreclosed homes left over from the mortgage melt down sitting there vacant, wasting away with no one to buy or live in them. So I’ll ask again, if we more than have the means to supply homeless people with homes, why are they homeless? I suggest that it’s because they don’t have money and that giving away homes for free goes against the entire grain of our socioeconomic environment, one in which most people believe in the idea of a meritocracy. I believe that Alain de Botton stated the problem of a meritocracy far better than I could in his lecture, “A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success”. In the lecture de Botton says of America, “Everybody, all politicians on the Left and Right, agree that meritocracy is a great thing, and we should all be trying to make our societies really, really meritocratic. In other words, what is a meritocratic society? A meritocratic society is one in which if you've got talent and energy and skill, you will get to the top. Nothing should hold you back. It's a beautiful idea. The problem is if you really believe in a society where those who merit to get to the top, get to the top, you'll also, by implication, and in a far more nasty way, believe in a society where those who deserve to get to the bottom also get to the bottom and stay there. In other words, your position in life comes to seem not accidental, but merited and deserved. And that makes failure seem much more crushing.” We are very hung up on the idea that simply being a person is not enough to merit even those things which we know to be the bare minimum requirements for surviving in the world, namely food, water, or shelter. In a country where we have enough homes to house all of our citizens and enough food to feed them, there are still portions of our population living on the streets and going hungry, and many of these are children, despite our various safety nets and programs which attack the symptoms of poverty and homelessness but not the source. The source of homelessness is not poor work ethic or mental handicap, not really, because if we wanted to it is demonstrably true that we, as a nation, are not lacking in the resources to help each and every single one of them, rather the source of homelessness is an idea. It is the idea that a person should have to earn or otherwise come to deserve their basic survival necessities from something more than the fact that they are a person; It is the idea that people are a means and not an end, for if we truly felt that each individual homeless person were an end unto him or herself we would not hesitate to make sure they never did without these fundamental needs ever again. And we don’t. We demonstrate on a consistent and perpetual basis that we see people as a means to an end and this mentality is blatantly supported by an economic system which doubtlessly could not work without it, and if it did it wouldn’t really be a monetary system anymore, capitalism or otherwise, it would be a completely different system, for where there is money there is inevitably the treating of people as a means to an end. This is why virtues and moral theories alone aren’t enough, because they have to consider the motivations of our environment in order to ever be effective. And so, I would argue that if you are a philosopher, and you believe enough in a moral ideology, then you should be working to find a way to change the environment in such a way and to whatever extent as to allow for that moral behavior to become a consistent reality. I’ve used the word consistent throughout this paper because I believe that

it is not always the case, even while living in an environment that is not nurturing of moral behavior, that we are always immoral. Clearly that is not the case. Sometimes we do still manage to do the right thing for the right reason at the right time to the right people and for the right end, and sometimes we do manage to truly treat people as an end unto themselves, but it’s not the norm, and I would argue this is at least partly the reason why we get so moved by tales of people who sometimes manage to achieve these moral standards in a big way. When it does happen money might be involved in the sense of a donation of some kind, but it’s never the motivation to achieve these and other moral maxims. It seems like a tragedy to me that we should rely so heavily on a transactional tool which rarely, if ever, inspires us to be moral and which so often seems to bring out the worst aspects of our behavior.

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