Envy and Covetousness

In poor and humble homes, in cottages,
In hardship and disaster, hearts are joined
More lastingly and truly than where ease
And opulence with envy are combined,
In regal courts and splendid palaces,
Where cunning and conspiracy you find,
Where fellow-feeling long extinct has been,
Where there’s no friendship that is genuine.

–Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso CANTO XLIV, 1

Ariosto here observes that it is among the wealthy and powerful where envy is found, not among the poor. Indeed, those who preach the gospel of envy are always the right and powerful—those looking to gain and maintain political power. I grew up working lower-middle classed, and most of the people I knew and was related to were the working poor. I never heard any of them spontaneously express envy of the rich, but I have heard them express gratitude toward those who hired them, who signed their paychecks. It’s only among the relatively wealthy (or those on generational welfare) who I’ve heard express envy. And the envious wealthy in turn project their own feelings on the poor, who they’ve never known nor met nor intent to ever actually get near enough to really know them.

The resentful longing for what others have primarily seems to be a trait of those who already have a great deal. This is perhaps not surprising, since that longing can be expressed in three ways: as greed, as covetousness, or destructively.

If it’s expressed destructively, the person will likely seek to destroy the goods, property, or relationships that person has. It’s the attitude that if I can’t have it, nobody can have it. This is what you seen when protestors against “greed,” free markets, and free trade riot and destroy businesses.

If it’s expressed as greed, the person will likely act to get similar things as those they envy. I would also expect that the “longing” for what others have is less resentful when it leads to a desire to acquire similar things to what others have. At its most positive, people build businesses and contribute to society through mutual exchange; at its most negative you have scammers and white collar crime.

And then there is covetousness.

“In coveting is evil’s root” (Chretien de Troyes, Eric and Enide, Ruth Harwood Cline, tr. line 2935).

Consider this line in light of the commandment that “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors wife or goods.” Indeed, without the sin of covetousness, there would be no need for “Thou shalt not steal” nor “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” I would venture to guess that there would also be no need for “Thou shalt not murder,” either. When one covets what others have, one wants precisely that thing that they have, and not just something like it. Coveting results in theft, adultery, and even murder, as well as resentment, which incidentally gives rise to redistributionary economic and political theories, giving rise to taxation, the welfare state, and the various forms of socialism, especially communism. When one covets, one can even learn to hate the good for being good.

As noted above, if one wants the kinds of things others have, one is typically compelled to work hard to get those things, to provide others with goods and services. This attitude is the very basis of capitalism. But if one wants the exact thing someone else has, one is guilty of the sin of covetousness, which leads to theft, adultery, and any number of other sins. We have typically failed to differentiate between these two attitudes toward what others have. That too, it seems to me, is a great sin as well — for then we cannot tell the difference between good and evil.

The problem is that people do not differentiate among these different responses to envy. Some responses to envy have positive social outcomes and thus are moral; other responses to envy foster resentment and have negative social outcomes and thus are immoral. Wanting to destroy what others have because they have it is immoral. Wanting to have the exact things others have and taking it from them (or having a third party take it from them for you) is immoral. If you are destructive or covetous, you have bad character. There is not and can never be virtue in these attitudes and the actions they provoke.

 

 

Good, Bad, and Evil…and Education

An engineer who is good at building bridges is a good engineer. The steel he uses must be of high enough quality to do the job – it must be good steel. When building begins on the bridge, it can only be done in good weather. A good engineer is good at being an engineer. Good steel is steel that can be depended on to do the job at hand (being dependable to do the job at hand is also a feature of being a good engineer). Good weather is weather that provides favorable conditions for what work the person wants to do – in this definition, rain is good weather for a farmer, but bad for our engineer. A good person is thus a person who is good at being a person. We must work at being good – ethics is work. But ethics is not necessarily what works. One has to keep in mind the end at which one aims. We need an idea of proper ends, a proper target at which to aim. The proper end of our engineer is obvious: to build a bridge that will span the gulf at hand and remain intact. He must design and build a bridge that does the work of a bridge.

From the example above, we can now distinguish between bad and evil. A bad engineer is one who is not able to design a bridge that will do the proper work of a bridge. An evil engineer is one who is able to design a bridge that will do the proper work of a bridge but who chooses instead to design a bridge that will not do the proper work of a bridge. For the bad engineer, the destruction caused by his bad bridge is incidental to his inability to design a good bridge. The bad engineer is bad because he is ignorant. He would build a good bridge if he could. For the evil engineer, the destruction caused by his bad bridge comes about because he chose to make a bad bridge so that it would cause destruction. The evil engineer is evil because he knows the right way to build a bridge, but chooses not to do so. He can build a good bridge, but chooses not to.

When education experts choose to use teaching methods like the look-say method of teaching reading, when it is well-established that it does not and never has worked, over using phonics, which we know is the best way to learn how to read, then which one of these categories do you think America’s educators fall into? And what about our choice not to teach children foreign languages when we know they can learn them –- before they reach puberty? Or using the “tally” method to teach “comprehension” (it does the opposite, and we know it does)? Isn’t it time that we started providing our students a good education, rather than the one we have been providing them which has failed both them and this country?

I Will Never “Give Back” to My Community (but I Will Give)

There are few concepts I dislike more than “giving back.” I dislike it because underlying it is a false premise and because it undermines the very virtue of giving.

“Giving back” is a term that has bothered me for a while, but a recent report on local news about a woman who volunteered at the children’s hospital really drove it home for me when the reporter described what she was doing as “giving back.”

First, the false premise. If I am “giving back” that means that I have more than I should. When I give a cashier $20 for something that costs $17.70, the cashier will be giving back $2.30 in change. The cashier, momentarily, has more money than (s)he should, which is why the money is given back. The idea of “giving back” to the community thus implies that the one giving back has taken more than he or she should have. This would properly describe a thief making reparations, but it should not describe acts of generosity. One only gives back under the conditions of a zero sum game. The thief thus properly is giving back if he has to give back what he took. For the same reason, politicians can be properly understood to be giving back if any money ever leaves their hands. They are playing a zero sum game, so they necessarily are giving back if they donate money to anyone.

But people participating in the private sector, in the profit-making economy, are playing a positive sum game. That means they are creating wealth and value in the world. Others benefit as much — often more — than do the business owners themselves from their activities. So when a person starts a business in a community, that person is benefiting that community, creating value in that community and creating wealth (through jobs and creating something of value people want) for that community. Having taken nothing, that person has nothing whatsoever to give back.

The absurdity of the concept of “giving back” is demonstrated quite strongly with the woman volunteering at the children’s hospital. For her to give back, she had to have taken something from the children to give back. This woman has taken nothing; she has done nothing but give.

And that leads me to my second point. When you say that woman is “giving back,” you are making her generosity less virtuous. You are saying the recipients deserve her time and money. She owes it to those children to volunteer to try to make their lives better, more fun. Her generosity comes from her not owing anyone anything, but choosing to give anyway.

A business owner who opens a business in a community is thus benefiting that community by his mere presence in that community. He is providing jobs and goods and/or services, creating value and creating wealth. The community is already better off because of what he is doing as a business owner. He has taken from no one to get what he has gotten; what he has gotten is a poor reflection of the value he created, value he necessarily shared in creating through voluntary trades with others. He does not owe the community anything. He provided goods and/or services that community needed; he provided jobs that community needed. The community in turn rewarded him, making him wealthy enough to have enough excess that he is capable, if he wants, to be philanthropic.

If we consider the fact that no market exchange can or will happen unless both people are better off — unless more value is created — it makes sense to understand that extra value each gives the other as a gift as well. The business owner has been giving to the community by simply having a successful business. The community members have been giving to the business owner because he offers them the gifts of increased value in goods and services they want.

So the business owner does not give back when he is generous. He is giving. Anyone who gives to others, whether they are a business owner or a current or former employee, is giving, is being generous, because they have participated in a positive sum game, and from the benefit they have given, give more from the benefit they have received.

And that is why I consider the term “giving back” as a way of saying “giving” not just objectionable, but downright odious.

Taxation is NOT Generosity

It is unethical to use taxation to be generous, as happens when we are taxed to help others –- which means we are not actually being generous.

Why is it acceptable for a large group of people (like a government) to do something it would be illegal for an individual to do? I cannot force people to give me money so I can give it to other people whom I prefer to have the money, under threat of taking them by force and locking them up in my basement. But a government can do just that –- it just replaces the basement with prison.

How easy it is to be generous with other peoples’ money! And what is worse, when government is generous with your money, you do not feel obliged to help others –- why give when it is taken from you? So now people are acting less generous and charitable than they would otherwise (more heavily taxed Europe is less individually generous than are Americans). And money that could have been used to either lower prices of goods (making them cheaper for the poor to buy), hire more people (including the people “helped” by the government), or buy things that would have resulted in other businesses having to make more product, resulting in a need for more hiring, is taken away, filtered through people who are overpaid do an hour of work for eight hours at work, so that the poor get a very minuscule portion of the money anyway.

The latter problem could be solved with a simple negative income tax or basic income guarantee that neither rewards people for not working nor punishes people for getting even a minimum wage job replacing all forms of welfare. If we’re going to have welfare, it ought to be the least disruptive and least penalizing for doing well. The larger problem of being generous with other people’s money requires a change in overall philosophy in the country at large, and in Washington in particular. While that is more difficult, it can be done with a strong bully pulpit. Only when someone important publicly and consistently talks about moral government (one which doesn’t initiate force to get things done) will it get realized in the world.

Taxation

If I were to approach someone and tell them that if they did not give me some money, that I would take them by force and lock them in my basement, I would be arrested for extortion. If they refused to pay and I followed through on my threat, I would be guilty of kidnapping. It is unjust for me, a private individual, to earn my money in such a way, even if I then turned around and gave that money to the poor. Which is why it is both immoral and illegal in every society.

But if the government approaches someone and tells them that if they do not give the government their money, that it would take them by force and lock them in jail, it is called taxation. If they refuse to pay and the government follows through on its threat, it is called arrest and imprisonment. This is considered by many to be a just and proper way for the government to make its money.

Why is something that is unjust for an individual to do to another just for one group to do to others, so long as that first group is larger, stronger, and called a government? If something is unjust and immoral for an individual, then it is unjust and immoral for a group, even if that group calls itself a government. A change in terminology does not justify unjust behavior. Theft is theft, no matter if you call it by its proper names of theft and extortion, or by the evasive term taxation. To tax is to steal. And that is what any government does whenever it taxes. A free and just society is based on the concept of free trade. Free trade is based on the premise that “if you do something good for me, I’ll do something good for you.” The opposite of free trade is extortion, or “unless you do something good for me, I’ll do something bad to you.” Any government or society based on free trade is just. Any government or society based on extortion is unjust.

Whenever the concept that taxation is theft is brought up, the response is always that the government has to make money somehow. Which is true. But so do I. Yet this is clearly not enough for me to engage in extortion. So why is it a legitimate reason for the government to do so? Anything immoral for an individual is immoral for a group, whether they call themselves a gang or a government. Anything illegal for a private individual or group should be illegal for the government. It is no better than anyone else simply because it is called a government. It does not know more, is not wiser, it is not more intelligent. And even if they did have these attributes, that would still not give government the right to steal – which is the right to take away another’s rights to their life, liberty, and property – a right nobody ever has, least of all in a free, civilized society.

A Story of Emergence

Suppose you were a conscious amino acid. The material world consists, for you, of fellow biochemicals, and you know too that you are made up of atoms, and that those atoms are made up of electrons, protons, and neutrons. You go about your business, acting as an individual amino acid, sometimes joining into larger groups (proteins), and then separating out from them. You wander around your society of biochemicals, imagining that this is all there is.

And then one day, a nucleic acid comes to you and tells you that you are part of this larger entity, that your mind is not entirely your own, but that there is this thing out there, this “cell” of which you are a part, that comes in and influences your actions. All that you thought were your choices or merely random events is in fact run by this higher intelligence known as the “cell.” It is not that you don’t have choices — you can be in this or that part of the cell, you may attach yourself to a tRNA, to a protein, to a short polypeptide, etc. — but you are now informed that there is a greater purpose involved, that you are part of this larger cell, and that your actions help to keep this cell alive.

Now, from the point of view of the amino acid, the cell will seem, in relation to you, “immaterial.” It will make no sense from your material point of view. It will seem very strange indeed. You may believe in the cell, or not (and be an atheist). There will be discussions among your fellow biochemicals regarding the nature of the cell. Is it material? That is, if it even exists. The “cell” theory does seem to make a lot of things make more sense — but it is nonetheless troubling. If it is not material in the same sense as a biochemical, is it really material? From our more complex, emergent human perspective, the cell seems to be just as material as as its constituent biochemicals. While, on the other hand, our “mind” appears to be just as immaterial as the cell is to the biochemical.

Let me tell a short story of emergence.

In the beginning was pure information, or pure energy. Information is inform, yet gives form. It is the foundation of all things. (In the beginning (archae) was the word (logos).)

As the universe expanded and cooled, that pure energy crystallized out into quantum particle-waves. It became more material.

Some of those quantum particle-waves combined to form emergent atoms with greater complexity. These atoms were more material than their constituent particle-waves.

Some of those atoms combined to form chemicals (more material than atoms) — and some of those chemicals were able to interact in complex cycles to give rise to cells with emergent complexity. These cells were more material than their constituent chemicals.

Some cells were able to develop complex interactions such that multicellular organisms were able to emerge, giving rise to greater complexity and more complex interactions. These multicellular organisms were even more material than their constituent cells.

One species of animal evolved a highly complex brain with an emergent intelligence. This brain resulted in more complex social behaviors, the evolution of language, and the emergence of complex culture and religion. It was so complex that it was able to contemplate itself and the universe (thus, the universe became complex enough to become self-aware, to be able to contemplate itself). It seems that there will soon be 10 billion members of that species, with brains so complex that the minding function of that brain has given rise to the appearance of permanence (the same way that while each of the lower levels that constitute it are in fact always in flux, always in time, they nonetheless gain more appearance of permanency). This species has more time and more time experience, more material being, than do all the levels below it that constitute it (there is a nested hierarchy — a new Great Chain of Being). And that mind is much more material than the brain that gave rise to it.

Humans are not the end of the line. New levels of complexity have emerged in the past, and they will continue to do so in the future. And there will be fewer examples of those more complex levels that emerge (the same way that there is more energy than quantum particle-waves, more particle-waves than atoms, more atoms than chemicals, more chemicals than cells, more cells than organisms, and more organisms than humans). The emergentist evolutionary world view thus gives you emergence of tue universe to God — who is the most complex, highest level of emergence, with the most time. Thus, God is also the most material.

This story derives from Darwinian evolutionary theory, combined with information theory, complexity theory, chaos theory and fractal geometry, the theory of emergence, and self-organization theory. This combination is able to give rise to both ethics and God.

Fear and Injustice

How often do we fail to do something because of fear? How often do we allow injustices to continue because of fear?

Think about all of the people being accused of sexual harassment. Think about how many of them preyed on others for decades because their victims wouldn’t say something out of fear. Fear of what? Fear of losing a job, fear of not getting a job, fear of what people would think of them.

Of course, much of the time the people who are most aware of the problems in society are aware of those problems precisely because of the jobs they have. If they were to let people know about the underlying corruption, the way people actually behave, the way money is wasted, the way people are treated, they would be fired–and likely find themselves unable to get another job in that fields. Or, sometimes, in any field (you don’t want to be known as the person who roots out corruption in a society permeated with corruption).

If you want to know the degree to which public education is corrupt, ask a public school teacher. Actually, that won’t do you any good, because they won’t say anything because they are afraid they’ll lose their jobs. Better, ask a former school teacher, who has no intention of ever working in public education again.

The laws “protecting” whistle-blowers are useless. Government whistle-blowers just get accused of being traitors. When that whistle-blower is a police officer reporting on the corruption among the police, he can find himself an unfortunate victim of an unsolvable crime. When that whistle-blower is an employee of a corporation, that person had better be independently wealthy, as they will have a very hard time getting a new job. Our prisons are full of such whistle-blowers, who suddenly find they violated some piece of legislation that primarily exists to protect business and government from whistle-blowers.

And just try to report something to the EEOC or some similar government entity supposedly designed to protect workers. How often is something not found, when you know the business was screwing you over?

This then gets into something other than fear. This gets into the fact that bureaucracies make you feel helpless. If you overcome your fear, you will find yourself essentially helpless in the face of the bureaucracies that are supposed to be helping you.

To return to the issue of fear, there are also a number of social issues we simply cannot deal with because of the fear of political correctness. It is impossible to criticize certain people for certain things for fear of being labeled a sexist or a racist or a homophobe or such. If you criticize something–say, a lack of trust–that is found primarily in a certain group–say, among the poor–you will likely find yourself accused of racism because of your accuser’s perception that the poor are mostly minorities (which isn’t actually true). You will likely be accused of saying all the poor are untrusting or even untrustworthy (although you didn’t), or of saying that this or that minority group is inherently untrusting or untrustworthy (although you didn’t). As a result, people learn not to even make cultural or subcultural criticisms because you’ll find people overapplying what you said to make you look bad. From fear, we won’t criticize anyone’s ethics or morals.

Of course, if you cannot say anything out of fear, fear is preventing you from changing the world. Is this, perhaps, the point? We are allowing injustices to continue because of fear. We fear what people will say, what people will think; we fear losing our jobs, or being unable to get a new one. We live in a culture of fear–and we’re deathly afraid to say so.