Saturday, February 6, 2010

Middle Class Guilt

Or, Can We Be Rich and Ethical?

"When the natural desires, the failing to satisfy which is nevertheless, not painful, are violent and obstinate, it is a proof that there is an admixture of vain opinion in them; for then energy does not arise from their own nature, but from the vain opinions of men." - Epicurus

As I was writing about my dream house and the prospects of having an extra smaller house in the backyard, visions of Haiti overshadowed it all. I'm middle class and have a lifestyle of excess, and I continue to live in a 1,000 square foot home despite the tragedies unfolding around the world. And I definitely think I have more than I deserve, but that's not enough for me to give it all up....

Sure I worked for it, but I didn't break a sweat the whole time I was writing essays for school. I worked a part time job throughout, but in a clean, comfortable environment. My fortunes are largely a result of luck. I was tremendously lucky to be born in a white middle class family in a city well-financed by insurance and inventions at a time of peace for this part of the world. It's also a roll of the dice that keeps me able bodied and relatively sane so far. I'd like to say that I've invested well due to intelligence, but that's really dumb luck too.

I sometimes question additions that go up in my neighbourhood because I was raised with five siblings in a house not much larger than my own and because I regret the one room we added when a third kid came along, but in the same breath I'll complain that I don't have an office at home where I can leave papers out and know they'll be there when I come back (sans drawings). My office is a drawer in the kitchen.
Comparing ourselves to others, judging those who have more, pride at doing without, fear of judgment from others who live with even less, all take us off the main road towards creating a world less dependent on petroleum, less obsessed with stuff, less toxic.

I was watching The Agenda the other night when a panel was talking about giving aid to Haiti.  Someone questioned why people didn't care about the place before the earthquake.  The obvious answer is that most people just don't know what's going on in other parts of the world.  I can't count how often I mention slavery on the cacao farms (chocolate) in the Ivory Coast to be met with head shaking and eye rolling because, "Marieee, slavery is illegal."  Therefore, it's implied, it doesn't happen anymore, and I must be a bit mixed up. 

But I don't think we can all really be expected to know what's happening everywhere.  There's 195 countries in the world all up to different things.  It's just too much to be on top of when you've got to work for a living and keep the house running and remember to call the principal back because your kid was late for school again.  So we pay attention when something big happens, and that has to be okay.  But once we find out, do we have an obligation to give up our savings, our vacation, or sell our new plasma TV to help?   

To be ethical is to be honest, fair, compassionate, respectful, and responsible.  The question with excess has to do with what's fair as well as what's compassionate.  Is it fair for some, like me, to have more than they need when others have less?  It's a justice vs mercy question.  I worked for my money, so I have a right to it, and yet how can I enjoy it when so many others are starving?

Often people equate the word rich with selfish as they picture a large house lavishly furnished.  But someone with little money can be selfish also, it just isn't as obvious.  Part of the problem with this dilemma is figuring out what lavish means.  A dictionary will tell you it means abundant or wasteful, among other things, but where's the line between excess and necessity?

I don't believe we need to restrict ourselves to nothing but one outfit, a cup, and a barrel to live in to call ourselves true environmentalists or global-thinkers or even unselfish.  Even Diogenes upgraded to Trumpus Tower when the need arose.  But is it reasonable that I have a fridge, or a living room?  Is it ethical to have space you don't use or a savings account or enough for a vacation when so many others have nothing?

Epicurus tells us a desire is necessary if the body needs it for survival and that unnatural vain desires are imprudent to satisfy.  But in our culture, social survival can depend on having a few luxuries.  So a few things become necessities socially when technically they're conveniences.  I can walk to the store for food daily instead of using a fridge for storage, but people would think I'm losing it.  So I think a few luxuries are, well, not necessities, but ethical to have particularly if there are kids involved who aren't prepared doing without.     

How much should we give of ourselves, of our money?  Some religions make is easy with a flat 10% rate for tithing.  But that's a drop in the bucket for some people and completely unaffordable for others.  Perhaps, once food, bills, and rent is paid, charity is the next step.  That'll at least work for people who haven't amassed a ton of debt over-consuming. 

I think it's okay to accept the life I have lucked into because it doesn't cause harm provided I keep my emissions down as far as possible, use few resources, and shop from ethical producers:  typically fair trade and union made.  But I also think it's necessary to help whenever we can and that that means sacrificing spending on self for spending on others.    

And a whole other kettle of fish once we get down to some action is how aid is being managed in Haiti. They had problems before because of French colonialists from way back and continued to have problems because of IMF policies.  Can we be sure money sent won't end up being collected as interest on loans?   You can fill out the form here to add your voice to those concerned parties.  It just takes a second.

Exodus 22:25 If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury.

Usury at the time meant charging any interest on a loan. Funny how the Pope cares so much about man lying with man, but this line is never mentioned.

And so it goes.

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