Sunday, July 22, 2012

Concern For The Collective

For whatever reason, I am one of those people with a deeply ingrained sense of fair play that recognizes we are more than simply individuals 'doing our own thing' in isolation and with no regard to others; I happily acknowledge that we are part of a larger agglomeration that we name 'society.'

So yes, I readily admit to being one of those who counts the number of groceries in the basket of the person ahead of me in the express checkout at the grocery store; I am also someone who uses highway passing lanes for their intended purpose and not as my personal conduit or as a semi-permanent solution to avoiding merging traffic while driving at a speed that shows no regard for cars behind me. I also get outraged if a page is defaced or torn out of a library book.

In my mind, all of the above are serious crimes against the collective, selfish refusals to consider others as worthy of our respect and co-operation as we live out our lives.

And yet it is an attitude that seems all too common today, as governments and cultural imperatives urge us to be self-absorbed consumers whose highest values spring from the dictates of the marketplace, not our consciences, values, spiritual beliefs or regard for the common good.

It was therefore refreshing to read in today's Star an article entitled Harvard professor Michael Sandel examines ‘moral limits of markets’ in new book. In it, Sandel, a highly regarded Harvard professor of political philosophy, asks questions that we seem to have become reluctant to ask today:

Sandel says that we are increasingly reluctant to talk about what kind of society we want. We are reluctant to allow moral and spiritual concerns into public debate. Instead, we’ve come to rely on the market to assign value.

“Part of the appeal of markets,” he writes in the book, “is that they don’t pass judgment on the preferences they satisfy. They don’t ask whether some ways of valuing goods are higher or worthier than others.”

The market is only interested in efficiently matching buyers and sellers. It is not interested in what is being distributed, or whether it is fair — let alone whether some things should be distributed at all.

Sandel talks as well about the growing inequality gap that essentially has us living on different worlds, something that seems so very evident when we look at the direction the Harper regime is taking us in Canada:

By putting a price on just about everything, by having things of great value up for sale, we end up widening the gap between those with money and those without. “At a time of rising inequality, the marketization of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives,” Sandel writes. “We live and work and shop and play in different places. Our children go to different schools. . . It’s not good for democracy, nor is it a satisfying way to live.”

He does not oppose inequality everywhere, but believes that too much of it is dangerous. “Democracy does not require perfect equality,” he writes, “but it does require that citizens share in a common life. What matters is that people of different backgrounds and social positions encounter one another, and bump up against one another, in the course of everyday life. For this is how we learn to negotiate and abide our differences, and how we come to care for the common good.”

In a world that encourages lazy thinking, reactionary rather than thoughtful responses, and the embrace of absolutisms, Sandel is a refreshing and much-needed voice of reason and reflection. For those who are especially interested, he also has a 12-part television series available on the Internet that explores many of these questions.

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