DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


Growth As An Opiate, Part 5: Self-Development And The “War On Envy”

The idea that societies with more economic inequality -- whether in terms of income, net worth, or something else -- are less moral is nothing new.

In the past, people have usually made this argument from a philosophical perspective -- for instance, John Rawls' famous argument that, if you designed a society from scratch, with no idea where you personally would end up on the economic scale, you'd choose a society where inequalities were only allowed if they benefited the worst-off.

Today, however, people are increasingly making this argument in psychological terms.  The larger the economic inequalities in a society, advocates of this view argue, the more emotional distress and "lack of social trust" -- i.e., envy -- people will feel.

For example, in The Spirit Level, a book Evan pointed out to me, epidemiologists Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson claim that societies with more wealth inequality, and therefore more (if you will) envy per capita, tend to suffer from lower lifespans, more teenage pregnancy, and a host of other problems.  Not surprisingly, Pickett and Wilkinson argue that -- at least, in already rich countries -- more wealth redistribution will create a healthier and happier population.

Thinking about this argument raises two interesting questions for me.  First, even assuming envy creates social ills, is designing government policy with the goal of reducing envy a good idea?  Second, are there other ways to reduce society-wide envy that don't involve the use of state power?

Mission Creep In The "War On Envy"

I'll admit, the argument that the government should act to combat envy is disturbing to me.  One reason is that, although The Spirit Level and similar books focus on envy created by inequalities of wealth, there are obviously many other forms of inequality that cause jealousy.

For example, suppose I resent what I see as your biological superiority -- maybe you're taller and have lost less hair than me.  Or perhaps I'm jealous of your relationships -- maybe you're married to the woman of my dreams, and I wish she were with me.

If money-related envy causes social ills, I'd wager that other types of envy have similar effects.  In other words, if wishing I were as rich as you renders me more susceptible to disease and shortens my lifespan, surely "wishing I had Jessie's girl," or that I had somebody else's athletic talent, will also be debilitating.

You can probably tell where I'm going.  Does this mean the government should engage in "sexual redistribution," and compel attractive people (by whatever measure) to accept intimate partners they wouldn't otherwise choose?  Should we adopt Harrison Bergeron-style rules requiring, say, people with natural athletic ability to wear weights on their legs?

In other words, if we're willing to redistribute wealth in the name of fighting a "War on Envy," it's hard to see why social policy shouldn't reach into other areas of our lives in ways most people -- regardless of political persuasion -- would find repugnant.

Does Self-Development Soothe Envy?

Earlier in this series, I discussed critics of personal development who cast it as a sort of modern-day "opiate of the masses."  These critics argue that practices like psychotherapy, meditation, and affirmations, precisely because they're geared toward relieving human suffering, are socially harmful.

Why?  Because, these authors say, the main source of human angst in modern times is economic inequality.  At best, self-development practices only offer a temporary "high," because they don't attack the root of this problem.  At worst, these practices perpetuate injustice, because -- like "cultural Prozac" -- they distract the masses from the inequality-induced suffering that would otherwise spur them to rise up against an immoral capitalist system.

What if we took this critique at face value for a moment, and assumed that self-development does reduce some of the pain caused by envy?  In other words, what if meditating, saying affirmations, or doing similar practices actually can cause people to feel less jealous of others?  In my own experience, this has some truth to it -- the more I've kept up my meditation practice, the less I've found myself unfavorably comparing myself to others.

Perhaps the widespread adoption of these practices would make people less interested in redistributing wealth.  But if that's true, in all likelihood, these practices would also lessen people's tendency to suffer over other kinds of inequality -- envy about other people's intimate relationships, jealousy over others' looks and natural aptitudes, and so on.

So, if we take Pickett and Wilkinson at their word, and assume envy causes all kinds of social ills, it stands to reason that personal development -- at least, the types of self-development with real emotional benefits -- may help create a happier and healthier society.  On balance, maybe a little "cultural Prozac" isn't such a terrible thing after all.

Other Posts in this Series:

  • Growth As An Opiate, Part 4: "Money Doesn't Buy Happiness" Cuts Both Ways
  • Growth As An Opiate, Part 3: The Hard Work of Happiness
  • Growth As An Opiate, Part 2: The Hazards of Happiness
  • Personal Growth: The New Opiate of the Masses?
  • 23Nov/10Off

    The Circumcision Ban And The New Atheism

    You've probably heard about a recent campaign in San Francisco, California to put a measure on the ballot banning circumcision.  I think this campaign illustrates some of the troubling assumptions people are increasingly making about spirituality in our culture, and I'm going to look at some of those assumptions in this post.

    Lloyd Schofield, who started the campaign, explains the ban by saying that "it's a man's body, and his body doesn't belong to his culture, his government, his religion or even his parents."  Thus, according to Schofield, forcibly removing a male baby's foreskin is immoral.

    Religion Isn't Like A Nose Job

    This argument may sound good on the surface, but if we examine it more closely, we can see that it proves too much.  What about situations where surgery is required to save an infant's life?  Should such operations be banned because "it's the infant's body" and no one has the right to invade it?  I think most people would say no.

    But this, I'm sure Schofield would respond, doesn't undermine the ban, because circumcision is never (as far as I know) needed to save babies' lives.  Instead, he has said, it's more like "cosmetic surgery." No one should be forced to get a facelift, the argument goes, and the same principle applies here.

    The trouble with this argument is that, for many, if not most, of the people who choose to have their babies circumcised, the procedure is not akin to cosmetic surgery at all.  It's a religious requirement.  If you believed, as these people do, that God exists, He is the ultimate arbiter of morality, and He wants you to circumcise your child, I don't think you'd see it as a trivial matter.

    In other words, when we unpack the rationale for the circumcision ban a bit, we can see that it's based on an idea hostile to religion:  that religious practices are just as frivolous and unnecessary as cosmetic surgery.

    If we want to have an honest debate about this law, I think we need to acknowledge that it's based on anti-religious assumptions of the sort we often see in the writings of "New Atheists" like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, and ask the ban's proponents to justify those assumptions.

    The False "Religion Vs. Morality" Distinction

    But there's a deeper, and more problematic, assumption behind the ban -- the notion that the ban is justified by moral principles that are separate from, and superior to, religious beliefs.  "People can practice whatever religion they want, but your religious practice ends with someone else's body," says Schofield.

    Again, this sounds convincing at first, but let's take a closer look.  Where do the ban's defenders get the moral rule that "your religious practice ends with someone else's body?"

    Did they learn this through scientific observation?  No.  As philosophers have often pointed out, moral principles are different from laws of nature like the law of gravity -- we can't learn what's right and wrong by conducting experiments.

    Some might argue that Schofield is expressing moral values most people share.  However, even assuming most people buy the principle that "your religious practice ends with someone else's body," that doesn't make the principle true.  To use a timeworn argumentum ad Hitlerum, a majority of the German people may have supported Hitler's rise to power, but I think you'd agree that doesn't mean it was a good thing.

    My point is:  it's far from obvious that the principle "your religious practice ends with someone else's body" is somehow more valid than the religious view "God commands me to circumcise my child."  Neither principle is more "neutral" than the other, and there's no good reason to dismiss the second one just because it contains the word "God."

    I suspect we'll see more and more legislation influenced by "New Atheist" ideas being proposed, and I think we need to understand those ideas and the role they're playing if we want to have a fully informed discussion about these laws.


    Rhonda Byrne’s The Power: Is The Packaging The Problem?

    A common reason people attack The Secret (and now, Rhonda Byrne's sequel, The Power) is that it promotes a self-centered and "consumerist" attitude.  Byrne, critics say, encourages us to focus on "manifesting" luxury cars, expensive shoes, and so on, rather than on helping others.

    It's true that the Law of Attraction is often packaged as something we can use to improve our own lives, rather than those of others.  The publisher's description of The Power, for example, proclaims that "perfect health, incredible relationships, a career you love, a life filled with happiness, and the money you need to be, do, and have everything you want, all come from The Power."

    On the other hand, we can certainly imagine people using the Law of Attraction (assuming, for the moment, that it works) to serve others.  Perhaps we might visualize a sick relative getting better, hungry people receiving food, or a dangerous tropical storm abating -- just as Buddhists pray for the wellness of all beings in Metta, or loving kindness, meditation.

    So, I suspect many critics' real gripe with the Law of Attraction has to do with the "self-centered" way they think it's marketed, rather than the concept itself.

    The "Opportunity Cost" of Spirituality

    To be sure, some critics recognize that the Law of Attraction -- again, assuming it works -- can potentially be used to help others.  The real problem, they say, is that it obviously doesn't work.  Wishing a tropical storm won't devastate a town simply won't have any effect.

    Even if this critique is right, I think it's open to the objection "so what?"  People do all kinds of pointless activities, such as (in my opinion) watching reality TV and tweeting about what they ate for breakfast.  Even assuming it accomplishes nothing, why is visualizing the improvement of others' lives more problematic?

    This is where some charge that trying to "manifest" what we want isn't just a waste of time -- it's socially harmful, because every minute we spend visualizing is a minute we could have used taking concrete action to help somebody.

    Interestingly, this is the same objection we often see critics of "mainstream religion" making.  People who pray to God to relieve suffering in the world are misguided, the critics say, because there is no God.  But more importantly, churchgoers are squandering time they could be spending on real charitable work.  (This is the sort of thing we often hear from "New Atheist" Sam Harris.)

    Religious People Give More

    If this argument is right, we should expect religious people to do less charitable giving than unbelievers.  While believers are uselessly propitiating their imaginary sky-god, atheists are down in the trenches, solving real people's problems -- right?

    Actually, much evidence suggests the opposite:  religious people tend to be more generous than unbelievers.  In Who Really Cares, a study of charitable donation, economist Arthur C. Brooks found that religious belief was the strongest predictor of giving to charity among the factors he looked at -- more so than any political orientation, age group or race.

    So, while it may be true that believers spend time in worship that nonbelievers don't, it seems religious people nonetheless find the time to do more giving.  But why?

    One plausible explanation I've heard is that religious people are happier.  They feel more secure, and grateful, living in a universe they see as orderly and benevolent.  And psychological studies have found that happier people tend to give more generously.

    In any case, all this suggests that we shouldn't be too quick to conclude that adherents of the Law of Attraction are less likely to be charitable, simply because they believe their thoughts can affect reality.  Of course, because the ideas in The Secret are different in many ways from traditional religion, we shouldn't necessarily assume The Secret's followers are more giving either.

    We'll explore this issue in more depth soon.


    Personal Development Politics, Part 2: The Elections and Self-Responsibility

    We've been looking at the argument, made by some personal growth critics (Salerno posted about this, for example), that self-development's emphasis on personal responsibility favors political conservatism.  If this is true, I've been asking, why do self-development teachers tend to be politically liberal?  Is it because they don't see the implications of their ideas?

    Like I said in my last post, I think the answer is no.  I've seen many examples of personal growth teachers consciously embracing both liberal politics and a belief in human beings' ability to control their circumstances.

    This recent Huffington Post piece by meditation teachers Ed and Deb Shapiro is a good illustration.  The Shapiros don't seem particularly thrilled about the recent U.S. election  — they describe it as characterized by “weird and unqualified people vying for top government positions," by which they presumably mean some of the Republicans who swept the House of Representatives.

    At first, the Shapiros may sound like they're counseling people who are upset about the elections to give up, and accept that there's nothing they can do to change the situation.  "It is our ability to be fully present and engaged that enables us to accept every situation exactly as it is," they write, inviting us "to embrace difficulties, deep sadness, upset feelings, or injustice while staying aware, present, and available."

    Self-Responsibility and Social Change

    However, the Shapiros go on to reveal a strong, perhaps even radical, belief in personal responsibility.  We can only work for social change, they explain, when we drop our griping about the situation, "for in that moment of acceptance we can move to transform it."

    Once we fully accept what's true right now, the power of our thoughts and actions to change the world is at its height.  "Everything we think, say, and do has an immediate effect on everyone and everything else," they write, and this "means that we have enormous resources available to us at all times."

    In other words, although they stop short of embracing a full-blown "Law of Attraction," and saying we can conjure up things we want through thought, the Shapiros clearly are firm believers in individuals' ability to shape their situation, and reject the Marxian notion that we're basically pawns of impersonal social forces.

    Also, notice that the Shapiros' belief in self-responsibility doesn't lead them to reject politics as a means of solving social problems -- their whole piece, though abstract, is about how adopting an attitude of mindful acceptance can actually empower people to reverse the current political trend.

    But What About "Blaming The Victim"?

    I can imagine a critic arguing that, although the Shapiros may think it's consistent to be politically liberal and believe in radical self-responsibility, they're simply wrong.

    This is because, the argument goes, a major tenet of political liberalism is that the government should create a fair society by redistributing wealth.  This, in turn, is based on the notion that each person's wealth is mostly a matter of luck -- how much they inherited, their genetic makeup, and so on.

    However, the belief that we can create our circumstances implies that we're responsible for how wealthy we are.  If we're poor, that can't be due to bad luck -- it must be because we're lazy.  And if we're lazy, that means we don't deserve to have wealth redistributed in our favor.

    As I've touched on briefly before, I disagree.  I don't think you need to believe that everyone's circumstances are solely, or even mostly, the result of chance to consistently be a political liberal, as I've defined it.

    I'll list four reasons why below.  (Notice how the arguments I'll make can also be used to justify voluntary charity, if government redistribution of wealth isn't your thing.)

    1.  Social Harmony. Some, like this organization that Evan pointed out, argue that societies with lower disparities in wealth are more harmonious, in that their people tend to live longer, they have fewer violent crimes and less teen pregnancy, and so on.

    I haven't looked in detail at their evidence, so I'm agnostic about what they say, but the point is that it can be used to justify economic equality regardless of whether the less well-off "deserve" contributions from the better-off.

    To illustrate, if I was certain that giving money to someone in poverty would extend my lifespan by five years, I'd probably do it regardless of whether he was responsible for being poor.

    2.  Compassion for people who make bad choices. Suppose your friend became a drug addict and, as a result, lost his job.  Would you feel no compassion for him, and refuse him help, because he chose to use drugs?  I don't think you would.  In other words, it's certainly possible to feel compassion for people whose predicament is arguably "their own fault."

    3.  The "Unconscious Beliefs" argument. It may be the case that (1) we're all totally, or mostly, responsible for the situation we find ourselves in, but (2) not everybody knows that.

    For example, suppose I harbor the unconscious belief that "I deserve to suffer and be poor."  I'm "responsible" for this belief, in the sense that it exists in my own mind, but I may not be conscious of its existence or my power to change it.  Many self-development teachers (T. Harv Eker is a popular example when it comes to money) see it as their role to make people aware of "limiting beliefs" like these.

    What's more, one might argue, so long as there are people who aren't conscious of their ability to control their economic circumstances, redistribution of wealth or private charity is sometimes needed to help such people.

    4.  Divine Command. As you know, many people believe that God, or another supernatural force, has given them an unqualified command to be charitable.  From these people's perspective, it's our job to help the less well-off, regardless of whether they're "at fault" for their plight.

    What do you think?  Is a strong belief in personal responsibility inherently conservative?