The Ethics of our Society

Not so long ago, as my living situation seemed more tenuous, I appealed to my supposed friends to help connect me with a job. My social network has been the only way I’ve connected with gainful employment—with only two exceptions, both dating back to the late 1970s and 1980s—in my entire adult life. And it has become clear over the sixteen years since the dot-com crash that applying for jobs is fruitless: I have obtained exactly one interview in that entire time from an application. And my social network hasn’t been much help either: That one interview is out of four total, yes, in that entire sixteen years.

I was pressuring my friends, some of whom earn six-figure incomes, to do more and it didn’t go well. Their response was, in essence, to continue applying, even for jobs I can’t see myself doing and certainly don’t reflect my talents, and they didn’t seem at all concerned that continuing with this pattern might mean homelessness. One even dared to say to me that “it [applying for jobs] doesn’t work until it does.”[1]

One of the issues that cropped up was my anger about the political and economic system of social organization. My now ex-friends failed to understand the relevance of that system to my plight, which made crystal clear (as if I hadn’t already a pretty good idea) that none of them were reading or were interested in any of my work.

Considering that in that sixteen years, I finished a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and a Ph.D.; that in my dissertation, I develop an understanding of conservatism that explains much of what is happening today with a remarkably dysfunctional presidency, a segment of the population that continues to back that president for the very traits that make him dysfunctional, and the “culture wars” that have polarized the country;[2] and that in this blog and in other writings I have a lot to say about this political and economic system and problems that they have expressed considerable concern about, you might think they’d be a bit more interested.

Instead, they seem to view my fury at a system that has ostracized me virtually since birth, abused and exploited me throughout my life, and would by now surely have left me in the gutter if not for my mother’s intervention (her health has improved but remains an ongoing concern), as an irrational response.

Suffice it to say, we are no longer friends. They and their attitude are clearly a part of the problem.

And I don’t just mean my problem. There are lots of folks who haven’t nearly my talents, who would not have the ability to do what I have done, who have been left with the trash at the side of a financial and information superhighway. I see some of them in massive encampments, colonies really, alongside freeway on-ramps and off-ramps, in freeway underpasses. I read about skyrocketing rents in an economic system that is pushing people out of places[3] where many of them have lived for generations and where even ‘liberal’ economists insist that the solution must lie in increasing housing supply to meet demand[4] (rather than, say, redistributing work geographically) as if that had even once ever worked, as if the housing that would be built would be affordable. (Here’s a clue: In a capitalist system, builders build for the highest bidder. Full stop.) And I read about people who are dying “deaths of despair,” from suicide, from alcoholism, and from opioids. These happen to be white[5] but it isn’t hard to imagine that the numbers would be far worse and much more diverse if we included incarceration as largely a consequence of social inequality.[6]

By any human standard, this is a failed system. But a human standard seems not to matter.

As a scholar, I am interested in getting to the roots of that failure and that endemic lack of concern. Instead of sympathizing with the poor and helping them, we, first, blame them as individuals for their own plights;[7] second, fear them for their contributions to so-called “common” crime (while neglecting the crimes of the rich);[8] and third, neglect how policy contributes to the catastrophe.[9] If, as my ample references show, we were paying attention, we’d understand all this. And if we cared, we’d do something about it.

But we don’t. So what’s going on here?

As a vegetarian ecofeminist, I argue that the way we treat each other is inseparable from the way we treat non-human animals and the environment.[10] But why?

Basic to ethics are what might at first blush appear contradictory but I would say are complementary notions of utilitarianism and deontology. Focusing on how many people benefit the most, utilitarianism allows the ends to justify the means; a utilitarian argument would say, for example, that the needs of the vast majority of people who are not poor outweigh the needs of those who are. War, which is inherently a criminal act, can be justified only through a utilitarian argument: It combats an allegedly ‘greater’ evil.

But when it turns out that our authoritarian system victimizes humans, non-human animals, and the environment in an unsustainable way,[11] and that human extinction is a plausible or even likely consequence,[12] it becomes harder to say that our system benefits humanity as a whole. And when it turns out that war isn’t so much about stated causes, but rather about a continuing dispute among elites over which of them will control what people and resources on what territory, and when many (I’m always tempted to write all) of our social problems are intrinsic to social divisions that divert mass attention[13] from the malfeasance of the rich and powerful,[14] it gets even harder to see how this system benefits humanity as a whole.

Although I arrive at this conclusion through utilitarian means, an argument that the ends do not justify the means, that the means may be intrinsically unacceptable (by violating the rules and obligations we have toward each other), is a deontological argument. But as a society, especially with our embrace of capitalism and even more so with our embrace of neoliberalism, humans are reduced to their production or, even more crassly, their ability to earn profits for the rich. Put in Kantian terms, a market system, which always privileges whomever has the greater ability to say “no,”[15] does not treat humans as ends in themselves but rather as means to elite ends. And not just humans, but the environment and non-human animals as well.

We have made a serious mistake in adopting this system of social organization[16] on utilitarian grounds[17] and I no longer see any possibility that we can remedy it in time.[18] I may end up homeless but humanity and a lot of our fellow lifeforms on earth will end up extinct.

And what my ex-friends have demonstrated is that they are not merely unable, but unwilling, to draw this connection.

  1. [1]David Benfell, “To my friends,” Not Housebroken, April 7, 2017, https://disunitedstates.org/2017/04/01/to-my-friends/
  2. [2]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126).
  3. [3]Alexander Eichler, “America’s Poorest People Running Out Of Places To Live: Study,” Huffington Post, February 17, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/16/affordable-rentals_n_1282519.html; Erica Goode and Claire Cain Miller, “Backlash by the Bay: Tech Riches Alter a City,” New York Times, November 24, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/25/us/backlash-by-the-bay-tech-riches-alter-a-city.html; Andrew Gumbel, “San Francisco’s guerrilla protest at Google buses swells into revolt,” Raw Story, January 25, 2014, http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2014/01/25/san-franciscos-guerrilla-protest-at-google-buses-swells-into-revolt/;  Bill Moyers and Michael Winship, “Advice to Plutocrat Perkins: Time to Shut Up!” Bill Moyers, January 30, 2014, http://billmoyers.com/2014/01/30/advice-to-perkins-time-to-shut-up/; Will Oremus, “Eviction protesters block Google bus in San Francisco: Fake video of Google employee goes viral,” Slate, December 9, 2013, http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2013/12/09/eviction_protesters_block_google_bus_in_san_francisco_fake_video_of_google.html; Norimitsu Orishi, “New San Francisco Tech Boom Brings Jobs but Also Worries,” New York Times, June 4, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/05/us/san-francisco-tech-boom-brings-jobs-and-worries.html; Theresa Riley, “Making the Rent on Minimum Wage,” Bill Moyers, April 2, 2012, http://billmoyers.com/2012/04/02/making-the-rent-on-minimum-wage/; David Streitfeld, “Activists Accuse Tech Community of Throwing San Francisco Under the Bus,” New York Times, January 21, 2014, http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/01/21/activists-accuse-tech-community-of-throwing-san-francisco-under-the-bus/; David Streitfeld, “In San Francisco and Rooting for a Tech Comeuppance,” New York Times, March 8, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/09/technology/in-san-francisco-and-rooting-for-a-tech-slowdown.html; Ana Swanson, “What you’d need to earn in every state to rent a decent apartment,” Washington Post, June 9, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2015/06/09/what-youd-need-to-earn-in-every-state-to-afford-a-decent-apartment/
  4. [4]See, for example, Paul Krugman, “Inequality and the City,” New York Times, November 30, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/30/opinion/inequality-and-the-city.html
  5. [5]Julia Belluz, “Why the white middle class is dying faster, explained in 6 charts,” Vox, March 23, 2017, http://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/3/23/14988084/white-middle-class-dying-faster-explained-case-deaton; Anne Case and Angus Deaton, “Mortality and morbidity in the 21st century” [draft], Brookings Institute, March 23, 2017, https://www.brookings.edu/bpea-articles/mortality-and-morbidity-in-the-21st-century/; Andrew J. Cherlin, “Why Are White Death Rates Rising?” New York Times, February 22, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/22/opinion/why-are-white-death-rates-rising.html; Jefferson Cowie, “The Great White Nope: Poor, Working Class, and Left Behind in America,” review of White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, by Nancy Isenberg, Foreign Affairs, November/December, 2016, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/reviews/review-essay/2016-10-17/great-white-nope; Ross Douthat, “The Dying of the Whites,” New York Times, November 7, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/08/opinion/sunday/the-dying-of-the-whites.html; Gina Kolata, “Death Rates Rising for Middle-Aged White Americans, Study Finds,” New York Times, November 2, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/03/health/death-rates-rising-for-middle-aged-white-americans-study-finds.html; Gina Kolata and Sarah Cohen, “Drug Overdoses Propel Rise in Mortality Rates of Young Whites,” New York Times, January 16, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/17/science/drug-overdoses-propel-rise-in-mortality-rates-of-young-whites.html; Paul Krugman, “Heartland of Darkness,” New York Times, November 4, 2015, http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/11/04/heartland-of-darkness/; Paul Krugman, “Despair, American Style,” New York Times, November 9, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/09/opinion/despair-american-style.html; Nigel Morris, “Spike in suicide rate in Europe and US linked to financial crisis,” Independent, September 18, 2013, http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/spike-in-suicide-rate-in-europe-and-us-linked-to-financial-crisis-8822729.html; Lynn Stuart Parramore, “Crisis to Suicide: How Many Have to Die Before We Kill the False Religion of Austerity?” Alternet, April 16, 2012, http://www.alternet.org/story/155012/crisis_to_suicide%3A_how_many_have_to_die_before_we_kill_the_false_religion_of_austerity; Tara Parker-Pope, “Suicide Rates Rise Sharply in U.S.,” New York Times, May 2, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/03/health/suicide-rate-rises-sharply-in-us.html; Alana Semuels, “Is Economic Despair What’s Killing Middle-Aged White Americans?” CityLab, March 23, 2017, https://www.citylab.com/politics/2017/03/economic-despair-killing-middle-aged-white-americans/520554/; Yves Smith [Susan Webber], “Austerity Kills: Economic Distress Seen as Culprit in Sharp Rise in Suicide Rate Among Middle Aged,” Naked Capitalism, March 1, 2015, http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2015/03/austerity-kills-economic-distress-seen-culprit-sharp-rise-suicide-rate-among-middle-aged.html; David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, “How Austerity Kills,” New York Times, May 12, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/13/opinion/how-austerity-kills.html; David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, “Paul Krugman’s right: Austerity kills,” Salon, May 19, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/05/19/paul_krugmans_right_austerity_kills/; Noelle Sullivan, “Neoliberalism Is Killing Us: Economic Stress as a Driver of Global Depression and Suicide,” Truthout, April 2, 2017, http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/40064-neoliberalism-is-killing-us-economic-stress-as-a-driver-of-global-depression-and-suicide
  6. [6]Steven E. Barkan, Criminology: A Sociological Understanding, 3rd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006); Angela Y. Davis, Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture (New York: Seven Stories, 2005); Herbert J. Gans, The War Against The Poor: The Underclass And Antipoverty Policy (New York: Basic, 1995); Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
  7. [7]Kristina Cooke, David Rohde, and Ryan McNeill, “The Undeserving Poor,” Atlantic, December 20, 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/12/the-undeserving-poor/266507/; Michael B. Katz, The Undeserving Poor: America’s Enduring Confrontation With Poverty, 2nd ed. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University, 2013);
  8. [8]Steven E. Barkan, Criminology: A Sociological Understanding, 3rd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006); Angela Y. Davis, Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture (New York: Seven Stories, 2005); Herbert J. Gans, The War Against The Poor: The Underclass And Antipoverty Policy (New York: Basic, 1995); Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
  9. [9]Josh Bivens, “Adding insult to injury: How bad policy decisions have amplified globalization’s costs for American workers,” Economic Policy Institute, July 11, 2017, http://www.epi.org/publication/adding-insult-to-injury-how-bad-policy-decisions-have-amplified-globalizations-costs-for-american-workers/; Bryce Covert, “Clinton Touts Welfare Reform. Here’s How It Failed,” Nation, September 6, 2012, http://www.thenation.com/blog/169788/clinton-touts-welfare-reform-heres-how-it-failed; Bryce Covert, “This Is What Happens When You Rip a Hole in the Safety Net,” Nation, March 28, 2013, http://www.thenation.com/blog/173567/heres-what-happens-when-you-rip-hole-safety-net; Democracy Now!, “As Lawmakers Target Food Stamp Funding, New Report Finds 1 in 6 in U.S. Are Going Hungry,” May 30, 2013, http://www.democracynow.org/2013/5/30/as_lawmakers_target_food_stamp_funding; Thomas B. Edsall, “Making Money Off the Poor,” New York Times, September 17, 2013, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/17/making-money-off-the-poor/; Josh Freedman and Michael Lind, “The Past and Future of America’s Social Contract,” Atlantic, December 19, 2013, http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/12/the-past-and-future-of-americas-social-contract/282511/; Henry A. Giroux, “Neoliberalism and the Machinery of Disposability,” Truthout, April 8, 2014, http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/22958-neoliberalism-and-the-machinery-of-disposability; Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010); Michael B. Katz, “How America abandoned its ‘undeserving’ poor,” Salon, December 21, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/12/21/how_america_abandoned_its_undeserving_poor/; Paul Krugman, “Free to Be Hungry,” New York Times, September 22, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/23/opinion/krugman-free-to-be-hungry.html; Joan Walsh, “Poverty nation: How America created a low-wage work swamp,” Salon, December 15, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/12/15/poverty_nation_how_america_created_a_low_wage_work_swamp/
  10. [10]Greta Gaard, “Vegetarian Ecofeminism: A Review Essay,” Frontiers 23, no. 3 (2002): 117-146; pattrice jones, “Mothers with Monkeywrenches: Feminist Imperatives and the ALF,” in Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? Reflections on the Liberation of Animals, Steven Best and Anthony J. Nocella II, eds. (New York: Lantern, 2004), 137-156.
  11. [11]John H. Bodley, Victims of Progress, 5th ed. (Lanham, MD: AltaMira, 2008).
  12. [12]Andrew Anthony, “Yuval Noah Harari: ‘Homo sapiens as we know them will disappear in a century or so,’” Guardian, March 19, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2017/mar/19/yuval-harari-sapiens-readers-questions-lucy-prebble-arianna-huffington-future-of-humanity; Nathan Curry, “Humanity Is Getting Verrrrrrry Close to Extinction,” Vice, August 21, 2015, http://www.vice.com/read/near-term-extinctionists-believe-the-world-is-going-to-end-very-soon; Dahr Jamail, “Are We Falling Off the Climate Precipice? Scientists Consider Extinction,” TomDispatch, December 17, 2013, http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175785/tomgram%3A_dahr_jamail%2C_the_climate_change_scorecard/; Cheryl Jones, “Frank Fenner sees no hope for humans,” Australian, June 16, 2010, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/frank-fenner-sees-no-hope-for-humans/story-e6frgcjx-1225880091722; Charlie Smith, “Could abrupt climate change lead to human extinction within 10 years?” Georgia Straight, February 11, 2017, http://www.straight.com/news/868051/could-abrupt-climate-change-lead-human-extinction-within-10-20-years; Phil Torres and Peter Boghossian, “The Looming Extinction of Humankind, Explained,” Vice, August 18, 2016, http://motherboard.vice.com/en_au/read/armageddon-comma-explained
  13. [13]David Benfell, “We ‘need to know how it works,’” March 15, 2012, https://parts-unknown.org/drupal7/journal/2012/03/15/we-need-know-how-it-works
  14. [14]Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (New York: Crown, 2012).
  15. [15]Max Weber, “Class, Status, Party,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 119-129.
  16. [16]David Benfell, “‘We have found the enemy, and he is us’ — and our system of social organization,” March 6, 2013, https://parts-unknown.org/drupal7/journal/2013/03/06/we-have-found-enemy-and-he-us-and-our-system-social-organization
  17. [17]Gerhard Lenski, Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966).
  18. [18]David Benfell, “We have failed the test,” Not Housebroken, December 9, 2016, https://disunitedstates.org/2016/12/09/we-have-failed-the-test/

Author: benfell

David Benfell holds a Ph.D. in Human Science from Saybrook University. He earned a M.A. in Speech Communication from CSU East Bay in 2009 and has studied at California Institute of Integral Studies. He is an anarchist, a vegetarian ecofeminist, a naturist, and a Taoist.

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