brothers’ keepers, losers weepers

The January 2007 issue of Harper’s Magazine features an article by David Graeber positing that Americans (and in fact, people generally) are far more motivated by altruism than most thinkers accept. One point Graeber makes illuminates (from a somewhat oblique angle) some of the ideas I pointed at in an earlier post, on the relation between the prevalence of religious belief and of socially destructive behaviors. Graeber argues that egoism and altruism “arise in relation to each other” and, perhaps more provocatively, that “neither would be conceivable without the market.” He points out that historically, “it is generally in the times and places that one sees the emergence of money and markets that one also sees the rise of world religions – Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam.” The emphasis on material goods and this world naturally brings forth a “countervailing” deemphasis of those very material things in favor of “spiritual” values…including altruism. The problem with market behavior is that, unchecked by any other values or belief, it encourages and justifies above all else short-term, self-enriching behavior. I say “short-term” because, logically, a valuable object you have now is always worth more than a potentially more valuable object you do not have now – even if it’s possible that you might have it in the future, that’s uncertain; whereas your current possession of such an object is a certainty. (Incidentally, the original, moral usage of “value” is overridden by a similar logic: one could argue that morals invariably attempt to outweigh present, perceived gains with future, probable losses, this-worldly or otherwise. And so the market invariably diminishes non-material values in favor of material value.)

That inherent selfishness of the market (and theoretical attempts to claim that, as a whole, the market sees to some sort of social good tend to read like rationalizations – and ultimately founder upon a logic of value similar to that outlined above) surely contributes to the social dysfunction outlined in Gregory Paul’s article.

So Graeber provides indirect theoretical support for the notion that there’s a correlation (not necessarily causation) between the prevalence of religious belief and the prevalence of the sort of social dysfunction Paul describes.

It also might provide support for the disdain many people feel for religious organizations once they become invested (in all senses) in this-worldly markets.


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