Assessing the moral cost of material wealth


The concern for material wealth in contemporary American society is misguided. Wealth in society is often manipulated as a measurement of social status, which in turn may represent success relative to others. Where success connotes self-actualization, which is Kurt Goldstein’s term for the motive to reach one’s full potential, measuring success quantitatively misses its mark. One does not grow closer to feeling fulfilled when they acquire object after object, and the inclination to do so hurts more than just the buyer, but also the marginalized and the environment.

One might argue that material goods lead to happiness through the purpose of those goods. However, most of these goods are redundant. One does not actually live happier when they have numerous items of clothing or the newest gadgets. Much of this feeling of need is based on comparison, on envy of the goods of others. This feeling is linked to a psychological phenomenon known as “relative deprivation.” Relative deprivation describes an individual’s feeling of entitlement to items that the people who surround them have – when individuals lack those items, they feel as if they are in a state of deprivation. When a new technology meets the market, Americans feel that they need it because everyone else has the opportunity to buy those same items. Americans do not want to be left behind. And when they have the opportunity to buy designer clothing, they choose to do so for the brand name more often than the quality of the product, as if to say, “Look at me, look at the money I spent and look at my prestige.” Americans often hurt themselves attempting to emulate those of higher means, buying items at prices they cannot afford and sacrificing their economic security and overall well-being to appear materially wealthy.

This behavior harms the individual, but they do not endure all of the cost. Lower-priced items often take advantage of the marginalized. Capitalism encourages prices to shift in accordance to supply and demand, and large corporations have been able to lower the cost of items so that the common man has greater purchasing power. Inexpensive goods compel Americans so strongly that they feel the need to exercise their right to purchase whenever a sale hits the market. Too infrequently do citizens question the effects of producing these cheap goods and the standards a purchase, or the company that makes the good, supports. Relying on areas laden with human rights violations for resources and outsourcing production to impoverished countries is rampant among large corporations. Recent reports suggest that Apple’s products may use material from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where child labor practices remain. Factory workers in China commit suicide because the work conditions are insufferable. In seeking material wealth superfluously, individuals strive to appear wealthy while blinding themselves from the poverty their behavior supports.

The desire to accumulate an exorbitant amount of goods also destroys the environment. From fracking to logging, the means by which companies acquire resources, and the institutions that allow them to apply such means, drives organisms toward extinction, cripples the world’s ecosystems and puts human survival as a species in danger. In contemporary American society, support for deals such as the Keystone XL Pipeline suggests that some Americans care more about petroleum and the products derived from it than their potential impact on the environment. When society enables corporations to destroy the environment, its members suffer. Skeptics question the authenticity of man-made global warming, but most scientists agree that it is linked to the behaviors of humans. The reason for destructive behavior, therefore, could only be that people do not care if their actions hurt the environment; their choices matter more. This seems to stem from the individualism of America.

Perhaps one would argue that the institutions allowing the dependence on material wealth should not coerce companies and individuals to show compassion for the poor or concern for the environment. This argument, however, denies the acknowledgement of a common humanity. One human should care about the state of the other. A global community should be no different than a local community, and Americans should realize that their desire for material wealth will not bring them fulfillment, but will cause a lot of damage.

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