The value of priceless things

On the toxic tendency to express everything in terms of money

These days Western mainstream politics is increasingly guided by purely rational economic argument. Hence all the things that are by nature inexpressible in terms of money, like social justice or compassion, are grossly being neglected in society today. This focus on short-term gains or losses is certainly not without any risks — to say the least.

Werner de Gruijter
Psychologist/writer, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

The Jewish philosopher and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm perhaps best captured the essence of the psychology behind the current dominant economic worldview. Since according to him the tragedy of our time lay precisely in that “people consider themselves exclusively as a commodity.”

Today many Westerners seem to believe that they themselves are supposed to be purely rational, calculating creatures whose main aim in life is to act on pure self-interest. ‘Long live the façade!’ so to speak. Although this myth is based on a corrupt and out-dated idea that originated from economics, it is by now embraced by almost everyone who has vested interests in the current state of affairs or is otherwise of importance in today’s society. That’s why once considered important and noble virtues dissolve into a sea of nothingness; thereby marking our timeframe as an age of decadence. For instance, in cultural discourse the focus is no longer on matters of compassion, but on those of efficiency. It is not anymore about the importance of enlightenment, but about the importance of consumption. And similarly, it is not about social justice, but about personal gains.

There were times however when people were less distracted by egocentric concerns and more spirited to protect the common good; for instance during the mid 20th century. Back then, powerful social institutions like labour unions, media and churches helped to keep alive valuable ideals and common goals. They were aided with the help of a horrifying memory as mankind had just witnessed itself in the mirror of two world wars. Together these forces constructed a world that on a symbolic level signified that “We, the people…” bare the sole responsibility to keep our power structure in check. And so we did. Not surprisingly, it created a momentum in which much democratic advancement could be anchored in the law. A reflection of this collective mind-set could be seen in for instance the years-long gradual shrinking of income inequalities.

Today, however, things are developing in a reverse direction. One of the root causes of this phenomenon can be found in the science that since the 70s looks again at humanity as a purely rational, calculating creature: economics. Check for instance this much-cited 1993 study from Frank, Gilovich and Regan. These researchers looked at how economy students as compared with others (in this case astronomy students), would respond to moral issues such as the willingness to give back $ 100 to the rightful owner. This so-called honesty survey took place among freshman at the beginning and at the end of the first semester. The result was striking in the sense that among the young astronomers no significant moral transition was reported. Economy students, however, had experienced a change in their perspective on reality. Over time they had become more egoistic in their behaviour. Unfortunately, this was not a coincidence. Years later, in 2005, this finding was to be replicated. And, in addition, there are many other studies in the same genre that have found similar results. In sum: if you study economy, chances are that you, as a human being, will start to believe in an egoistically inspired universe.

Research like this is food for thought. Since if this is really, year after year, the way our economists are being taught, then may be it is no surprise that in our age intimidation, mistrust and selfishness have become commonplace in other places than Wallstreet and the City alone. Behaviour, after all, is contagious.

But there is more; with the loss of the (partially corrupted) church as a significant moral factor in society, the Second World War as a moral reference point, the humanities and the arts as moral guidelines and so on, the average contemporary Westerner is increasingly at the mercy of the whims of the market to satisfy the appetite from his inner life. Hence many believe they can find redemption in prodigality, vanity, gluttony and greed. But all those solutions offered by the commercial world do not lead to fulfilment; they do not touch the core of the inner unrest; mainly because the essence of the problem is not material but immaterial. How frustrating. And although that makes the present mental, moral and ideological chaos complete, it doesn’t mean it is finished yet…

The Irish poet, Nobel laureate and mystic W.B. Yeats (1865-1939) once intuitively felt, in the early twenties of the last century, the advent of moral malaise. He expressed it in the following way:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,

and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction,

while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity…

Probably one of the most uncomfortable questions one can ask an average contemporary Westerner is: on which side of the moral line do you find yourself..?

After all, priceless things, like trust, compassion and especially honesty, seem hard to grab these days.