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Monday, January 5, 2009

success and moral failure

This is from an essay written in 1997 that may as well have been written yesterday about Bernard Madoff.
We live in a time when many people experience their lives as empty and lacking in fulfillment. The decline of religion and the collapse of communism have left but the ideology of the free market whose only message is: consume, and work hard so you can earn money to consume more. Yet even those who do reasonably well in this race for material goods do not find that they are satisfied with their way of life. We now have good scientific evidence for what philosophers have said throughout the ages: once we have enough to satisfy our basic needs, gaining more wealth does not bring us more happiness.

Consider the life of Ivan Boesky, the multimillionaire Wall Street dealer who in 1986 pleaded guilty to insider trading. Why did Boesky get involved in criminal activities when he already had more money than he could ever spend? Six years after the insider-trading scandal broke, Boesky’s estranged wife Seema spoke about her husband’s motives in an interview with Barbara Walters for the American ABC Network’s 20/20 program. Walters asked whether Boesky was a man who craved luxury. Seema Boesky thought not, pointing out that he worked around the clock, seven days a week, and never took a day off to enjoy his money. She then recalled that when in 1982 Forbes magazine first listed Boesky among the wealthiest people in the US, he was upset. She assumed he disliked the publicity and made some remark to that effect. Boesky replied: ‘That’s not what’s upsetting me. We’re no-one. We’re nowhere. We’re at the bottom of the list and I promise you I won’t shame you like that again. We will not remain at the bottom of that list.’

We must free ourselves from this absurd conception of success. Not only does it fail to bring happiness even to those who, like Boesky, do extraordinarily well in the competitive struggle; it also sets a social standard that is a recipe for global injustice and environmental disaster. We cannot continue to see our goal as acquiring more and more wealth, or as consuming more and more goodies, and leaving behind us an even larger heap of waste.

The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle -Peter Singer
In general I appreciate Singer's ability to help me easily recognize my own moral failures and I think his broader argument in the essay stands but I'd like a better understanding of his view on proximity and unknown knowledge. (Come to think of it, he or others have probably beat the topic to death already and I am just unaware.)

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