Private Vices, Public Virtues

There are many names for this cultural sickness that afflicts us. Most, if not all, spiritual traditions based in animism recognize the “motherhood” of our planet and our relation to all things that exist. The history of these ideas shows the age of this disease. It’s origins are in the birth of agriculture and ownership during the Neolithic. In many cultures this has been held in balance with notable and brutal exceptions. But things are different now.

We live in an age of intense irony as our greatest triumphs in science, reduction of violence, creation of wealth (in all forms) darkens the shadows and gnaws on us with the visions and the results of greed that are integral to our success. Our modern problem with this and, perhaps, the sickness itself was identified in 18th century Europe during the philosophical ferment that is now called the Enlightenment. Not surprisingly the US is a product of that ferment and is an extreme example of the sickness. A major problem of the emerging materialism that had been funded by colonial wealth was how to motivate people in the emerging proto-capitalist economies. Greed has never been a virtue and is usually a sin. But the new socio-economic models were to be driven by greed among the population to expand the wealth of the elite and the population had been long taught by the church that greed was a major sin. The church was, of course, playing this both ways to protect their own wealth.

Bernard Mandeville wrote an essay on this that caused a lot of trouble in the mid 18th century. The essay was titled The Fable of the Bees or Private Vices, Public Benefits and tackled an already long standing argument about private vices being converted to public virtues. Through a roundabout route, this is philosophy after all, this influenced David Ricardo who developed the Labor Theory of Value and the whole range of liberal economists in the 19th century from which are deeply troubled world is a result. Before too much confusion sets in please remember that liberal means conservative, as much as it used to mean anything, in the US. And, of course, what we are taught as our two national parties, Republican and Democrat, are both based in liberal economics and maintain that greed is a virtue if not actually sacred. The issue of public or private has long since been lost in this country although a from of it survives in the democratic socialist parties of Europe and among Bernie Sanders followers. And what Mandeville was most concerned with, the moral question, has long since been lost with liberal economics replacing all morality. Hence the issue of naming the disease . . . It’s name is Greed and it is not sacred.

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