Wednesday, February 28, 2018

On capitalism and compassion

Peter Levine wrote that "if you have voluntarily spoken for hours to a person about matters of shared interest, you must show greater concern for his welfare. It is not always desirable to incur obligations of this kind; there is such a thing as being over-obligated. Yet a life with very few such relationships would be narrow and impoverished."

Most people, including most defenders of capitalism, defend the value and power of sympathy, at least in words. The economist Adam Smith said, "The charm of life is sympathy; nothing pleases us more than to observe in other men a fellow-feeling with all the emotions of our own breast."

What emerges from capitalist systems in practice, however, usually doesn't look like it comes from human sympathy. Parker J. Palmer wrote: "Deep caring about each other’s fate does seem to be on the decline, but I do not believe that New Age narcissism is much to blame. The external causes of our moral indifference are a fragmented mass society that leaves us isolated and afraid, an economic system that puts the rights of capital before the right of people, and a political process that makes citizens into ciphers." Our social systems affect our inner lives. "Thus we see the secret failure of American capitalism," wrote Edward Abbey. "For all of its obvious successes and benefits...capitalism has failed to capture our hearts. Our souls, yes, but not our hearts."

"Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651) — the urtext of the new individualism — dismissed Christian kindness as a psychological absurdity," Phillips and Taylor wrote. The political philosopher John Locke, who was 19 when Leviathan was published, argued that states form to protect the self-interest of individuals. Locke believed, in Jeremy Rifkin's explanation: "Society properly becomes materialistic and individualistic because...this is the natural order of things."


Adam Smith, "The Theory of Moral Sentiments," quoted by Mary Wollstonecraft. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. (1792) Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1996. p. 92.

Edward Abbey, "Appalachian Pictures," in Desert Solitaire, p. 149

Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor. On Kindness. New York: Picador, 2009. p. 7.

Jeremy Rifkin with Ted Howard. Entropy: A New Worldview. London: Paladin Books, 1985. p. 34.

Parker J. Palmer. A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004. pp. 37-38.

Peter Levine. We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America. Oxford University Press, 2013.

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