Historically, moral codes imposed limits on human behaviour. They encouraged people to accept their station in life and to reconcile themselves to their limitations. Moral values such as abstinence, delayed gratification, restraint and prudence played a key role in regulating human affairs; they guided people in their relationships with others and established clear moral boundaries beyond which we were warned never to transgress. Since the rise of modernity, however, old moral codes have been undermined by the powerful forces unleashed by modern society. For some time now, Western societies have struggled to find a viable alternative to traditional morality.
Throughout history, episodic erosions of traditional authority had a positive side. The questioning of moral codes gave some people the freedom to make their own way in life, and to embrace new opportunities thrown up by a changing world. As Hannah Arendt argued: ‘With the loss of tradition we have lost the thread which safely guided us through the vast realms of the past, but this thread was also the chain fettering each successive generation to a predetermined aspect of the past.’ (1) Yet despite its potentially liberating impulse, the loss of traditional forms of authority can also foster a climate of uncertainty, as people become disconnected from their past.
Some modern societies are better than others at providing what we might call a ‘web of meaning’, through which people can make sense of the world and develop a feeling of responsibility and obligation to others. However, contemporary society seems to find it very difficult to establish self-consciously moral categories of right and wrong. Today, there is a widespread reluctance amongst our leaders and institutions to make ‘value judgements’ or morally coherent statements. Typically, new codes of conduct rely on non-moralistic sources of authority, such as psychology and therapy (2). And in recent decades, environmentalism has become a key influence in shaping people’s behaviour and attitudes.
Indeed, the traditional project of imposing limits on human action is increasingly being recycled through the code of conduct of environmentalism. Every aspect of life, from our work and relationships to the most banal things we do, is now subject to the green code. ‘Don’t print out this email’, our online correspondents warn us. Hotels encourage us to continue using dirty towels instead of leaving them to be washed in electricity-using washing machines. We are all continually instructed to conserve – energy, water – and told not to throw anything away, but rather to recycle it or reuse it.
How have the traditional values of prudence, restraint and conservation made a comeback as powerfully influential green virtues?
The problem of authority
For some time now, it has been clear that capitalist society is faced with a crisis of authority. Numerous observers argue that capitalism seems unable, morally and politically, to justify and legitimate itself. Historically, capitalism sought to bypass the problem of moral legitimacy by flagging up its capacity to raise productivity and encourage consumption as the two things that made it a good system. However, such appeals to individual self-interest do very little to endow human action with meaning, or society with purpose. Arguments about what is in people’s best economic interests can motivate individual behaviour to a certain extent, but they do not give meaning to society. The empty character of the lifestyle of consumption was brought home in the aftermath of 9/11, when President George W Bush called upon the American people to stand up against the terrorists and defend the American way of life by… shopping. Historically, leaders’ promotion of consumption has frequently provoked an opposite reaction: a cultural critique of consumerism, and a celebration of restraint.
Many commentators – from both left and right – argue that a system which justifies itself on the basis of its ability to raise living standards and encourage consumption may actually undermine the very virtues that were first associated with capitalist society. It is widely known that during its development, capitalism extolled the virtues of hard work, saving and of delayed gratification. The so-called Protestant Ethic encouraged and nurtured a system of internalised moral restraint on consumption and living standards. Meaning was derived from work and achievement, not from the consumption of goods.
By the 1970s, the seeming erosion of these moral restraints made those who are concerned with maintaining stability and order very uneasy. They believed that the ‘excesses’ of the 1960s were the price that had to be paid by a society that encouraged an ‘anything goes’ attitude towards economic activity and consumption. This concern about consumerism-over-values was most evident amongst conservative thinkers, who were particularly sensitive to the corrosive impact that a hedonistic consumerist culture might have on traditional moral values. Prudence and restraint have always been key virtues in the conservative imagination. As Russell Kirk, a leading American conservative thinker, noted: ‘Burke, could he see our century, never would concede that a consumption society, so near to suicide, is the end for which providence has prepared man.’ (3) However, the idea that values of moral restraint were being eroded by the celebration of consumerism was not only expressed by conservatives. In the early 1970s, Jurgen Habermas, the leftist German social theorist, argued that the ‘legitimation crisis’ faced by capitalism was underpinned by a ‘motivational crisis’, as capitalist society lacked the cultural resources to give meaning to people’s lives. The implication of Habermas’ argument was that, in the long run, the focus on expanding living standards might further deplete the traditional moral resources upon which capitalist society was built (4).
In the 1970s, various commentators added their voices to the debate. They argued that the increasing valuation of economic expansion, hedonism and consumerism would further erode the moral and political authority of public institutions. The American sociologist Alvin Gouldner said: ‘The moral crisis has not so much been solved as deferred by the strengthening of the non-moral bases of social order, particularly the growth of the increasingly abundant gratifications that an industrial civilisation is able to distribute.’ (5) This outlook was systematically developed by the well-known American liberal commentator, Daniel Bell. In his 1976 book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, he argued that the central contradiction – between the demands of the Protestant Ethic in the sphere of work and of hedonism in the sphere of consumption – would contribute to the moral disorientation of society. Bell warned:
‘When the Protestant Ethic was sundered from bourgeois society, only hedonism remained, and the capitalist system lost its transcendental ethic. There remains the argument that capitalism serves as the basis for freedom, and for a rising standard of living and the defeat of poverty. Yet even if these arguments were true… the lack of a transcendental tie, the sense that a society fails to provide some set of “ultimate meanings” in its character structure, work and culture, becomes unsettling to a system.’ (6)
Bell was sceptical about the ability of capitalist society continually to expand and raise living standards. But he believed that even if it could deliver on these promises, it would still face a moral crisis – and one that was bound to get worse and worse.
It is in Habermas’ Legitimation Crisis (1973) that the corrosive impact of consumerism on the traditional system of meaning is most forcefully conceptualised. Habermas wrote of a ‘self-defeating process’, where the more that the influence of classical morality diminishes, the more that economic and hedonistic satisfaction come to be seen as significant. Yet this tendency for replacing traditional morality with ‘consumable values’ ends up undermining morality further still. The cumulative impact, according to Habermas, is the steady erosion of the traditional moral values that gave meaning and motivation to behaviour in capitalist society. He warned that the ‘remains of pre-bourgeois traditions, in which civil and familial-vocational privatism are embedded, are being non-renewably dismantled’ (7). This view of the traditional system of meaning as a non-renewable moral resource led Habermas to conclude that the very attempt to legitimate the capitalist system on the basis of economic rationality would, in the long run, exacerbate the problems it was meant to solve. From this perspective, the expansion of consumer culture continually intensifies a process of moral depletion. As Raymond Plant suggests, in a study of Habermas’ work published in the early 1980s, capitalist development rested ‘upon a range of internalised restraints upon demand and consumption which the very success of capitalism destroyed’ (8).
Habermas’ idea of moral depletion resonates with traditional concerns about the destabilising effects of unrestrained economic activity. Daniel Bell was disturbed by the lack of limits imposed on the appetite for consumption in the 1970s. He was sensitive to the potential contradiction between ‘the demands in the polity and the limitations set by the economy’, and was worried that expectations of rising living standards would ‘create a sense of entitlements’ that might spin out of control (9). Bell also noted that a society where the ‘engine of appetite’ is ‘the increased standard of living and the diversity of products’ encourages a ‘reckless squandering of resources’ (10). Sooner or later, he suggested, the pursuit of hedonism would come up against the limits posed by nature. With Bell, Habermas’ idea of moral depletion was developed in a fetishistic form as the depletion of nature.
The conviction that the erosion of moral restraint would sooner or later come up against the limits posed by nature is a familiar theme in conservative thought. It is useful to recall that Malthus’ theory of population was informed by powerful moral concerns about welfare measures which allowed the poor to breed without restraint. For Malthus, the thesis that population growth would crash against the limits of nature served as an indictment of what he considered to be the imprudent and reckless behaviour encouraged by the English Poor Laws (11). His call for restraining procreation was in part made on the basis that nature would demand a heavy price for the weakening of moral restraint. Since the eighteenth century, the Puritan temper has frequently drawn on anti-consumption ideas. This association of moral and natural limits was explicitly endorsed by Bell, who frankly acknowledges his debt to Malthus. Bell wrote:
‘The Puritan temper might be described most simply by the term “delayed gratification” and by restraint in gratification. It is, of course, the Malthusian injunction for prudence in a world of scarcity. But the claim of the American economic system was that it had introduced abundance, and the nature of abundance is to encourage prodigality rather than prudence. A higher standard of living, not work as an end in itself, then becomes the engine of change. The glorification of plenty, rather than bending to niggardly nature, becomes the justification of the system.’ (12)
For Bell, this ‘glorification of plenty’ was not only inconsistent with the moral foundations of capitalism – it also represented a threat to nature itself.
Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions Of Capitalism can, in part, be seen as an attempt to link the quest for increased living standards with the degradation of nature. This link – which now dominates twenty-first century environmental consciousness – arose from Bell’s embrace of the Malthusian ideal of prudence. Accordingly, Bell drew attention to what he called the ‘enormous “spillover” effects from economic growth’. Pointing to the dangers of pollution, he asked: ‘How does one make the trade-off between food and pollution or, in an analogous case, between strip-mining for coal and the large-scale scarring of countryside?’ (13) Like Malthus, Bell was not principally concerned with the environment as such. Instead, the problem of the environment served as a tangible reminder that the unrestrained quest for improvements in quality of life would, in the long run, have destructive consequences for society. In other words, the representation of moral depletion as the depletion of nature helped to give meaning and urgency to the demand that society should internalise a consciousness of limits.
Warnings about moral depletion dovetailed with a new, emerging awareness of limits in the 1970s. The publication of the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth in 1972 gave rise to widespread debate about the viability of a society founded on the principles of economic expansion and development. The aim of the reconstructed Malthusians in the Club of Rome and elsewhere was to impose new limits on the behaviour of individuals and of society. They claimed that humanity must abandon the idea of steady progress because of its destructive impact on the natural foundations of life. ‘Today it seems that the basic values, which are ingrained in human societies of all ideologies and religious persuasions, are ultimately responsible for many of our troubles’, argued The Second Report to the Club of Rome (14). At that time, in the early 1970s, calls to restrain human activity made only a marginal impact in Western culture. Throughout society, both the public and government officials continued to aspire to economic expansion and increased living standards. Environmental problems were perceived as technical issues that could be tackled without altering society’s commitment to consumerism and economic growth. However, this perception has radically changed in recent years.
From raising expectations to lowering them
Daniel Bell’s lament on the loss of moral virtue was based on the idea that the emphasis on living standards and consumption did not provide an adequate moral justification for the authority of capitalist society. He insisted that capitalism had failed to generate any such self-justification, and therefore ‘in periods of crisis it had either fallen back on traditional value assertions, which have been increasingly incongruent with social reality, or it has been ideologically impotent’ (15). By the 1980s, even the most fervent traditionalist could no longer ignore the fact that ‘traditional value assertions’ had lost much of their punch and influence. Many began to recognise that what lay behind the emerging climate of moral confusion was the thing that Habermas characterised as ‘motivational crisis’. It was in this period, the 1980s into the 1990s, that the widespread loss of trust in authority came to be recognised as a pressing problem in contemporary public life. It was an era in which all forms of authority appeared to be undermined, as the assumptions upon which they rested were called into question (16).
The promise of economic expansion and consumerism still influenced people’s outlook and behaviour, and it continues to do so today. Yet by the time Bill Clinton said ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ – a slogan he used in his successful US Presidential campaign in 1992 – he was only half right. It is important to recognise that consumerism had a quite limited influence on culture and society, as reflected in the lack of affirmation it enjoyed. Yes there were the ‘yuppies’ in the 1980s, but the verdict of mainstream culture is that the Eighties were the ‘greedy decade’. Since the Eighties, consumerism has continually been attacked by an increasingly widespread anti-consumerist outlook. And through this backlash against conspicuous consumption, the moral critique of hedonism has become indistinguishable from the denunciation of the reckless depletion of nature by an apparently irresponsible species: humanity. Consequently, today, in the minds of the critics of modernity, the fear of moral depletion is organically linked to ideas about the exhaustion of nature.
Over the past decade, Malthusianism has been recovered with a vengeance. Apocalyptic thinking has become normalised, and human action and aspiration are frequently stigmatised. In the absence of a positive moral outlook, Western society has opted for a new negative morality: one which aims merely to restrain human action so as to avoid making matters worse. According to one American sociologist, Malthus was the ‘original worst-case thinker’; the sociologist describes worst-case thinking as arguments that are based on the idea that ‘we humans are making some kinds of worst cases more likely and potentially more devastating’ (17). In short, worst-case thinking means always thinking the worst about the human species – which is why, in all seriousness, a Malthusian environmentalist group campaigning for a dramatic reduction in the human population has called itself The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (18).
The ease with which contemporary culture can make a conceptual leap from its anxieties about moral depletion to the exhaustion of nature shows that, today, the project of moral recovery is expressed very much in environmental terms. At the same time, contemporary environmental consciousness has successfully developed a new critique of human ambition, with a compelling argument for restraint. The ‘science’ of global warming has been transformed into a moral denunciation of human activity, to a point where the term ‘human impact’ is instantly identified with destructive and irresponsible behaviour. Apparently, humans are not creative – their impact is only wasteful and harmful.
In the current period, the celebration of restraint and limits, and the renunciation of human ambition, is expressed in a variety of ways. First, and most obviously, there is the environmental critique of the human desire for a better life. In the green outlook, the pursuit of human ambitions can only lead to the wanton destruction of the environment, and therefore it is a threat to the survival of the planet. The morality of restraint is also expressed in today’s psychological critique of individualism. Increasingly, psychology is mobilised to argue that ambition, competitiveness and hard work make you ill, and that anyone who works too hard or wants too much is dysfunctional. There is also an emerging cultural critique which says that consumerism is bad for one’s health and self-esteem, since the accumulation of wealth and possessions is likely to make one unhappy. The cumulative impact of all these arguments is to reinforce the belief that a contented life is one that knows its limits. This focus on limits is driven by a new project: to encourage a cultural shift away from the valuation of ‘raising expectations’ towards the celebration of ‘lowering expectations’.
Economic growth is indicted on the grounds that it leaves people dissatisfied. Prosperity and wealth are now looked upon as markers of mental health problems; happiness is increasingly associated with modest ambition and moral restraint. ‘Economic growth does not create happiness: unhappiness sustains economic growth’, argues Clive Hamilton in his 2003 book The Growth Fetish (19). This idea that happiness is inconsistent with economic growth is the main premise of Hamilton’s, and may others’, criticism of consumer society. Hamilton writes:
‘The subjugation of the human spirit in consumer culture manifests itself, to an ever-increasing degree, in restless dissatisfaction, chronic stress and private despair, feelings that give rise to a rash of psychological disorders – anxiety, depression, substance abuse. We engage in a range of behaviours aimed at compensating for or covering up these feelings.’ (20)
Here, the traditional virtues of prudence and restraint are reintroduced through the idiom of therapy. High expectations from life, the promise of modernity, are renounced in favour of accepting modest contentment.
Of course, there are many legitimate criticisms to be made of consumer society. It encourages an obsessive appetite to live through things, and it pushes people to define themselves through what they buy. It subjects many people’s lives to the fetishism of the brand and the product. Instead of valuing people for their achievement, the consumer culture celebrates them for what they possess. But the problem with consumer society is not that it encourages us to be discontent, but rather that it incites us to find contentment through things. Discontentment is historically a positive virtue that has driven the human imagination. The problem with the consumer society is not that it makes us too ambitious but that it confines ambition to the sphere of consumption. Ambition, with all of its creative drive, is best realised through a positive approach towards innovation and risk-taking. And instead of lowering expectations, we need to raise them – that is how we find meaning through our work and achievement. Testing our limits, rather than respecting or bowing to them, is how we progress. And despite the deeply held prejudice that we should slow down and live within our means, the fact is that we realise our very humanity through making and remaking our world.
Frank Furedi is author most recently of Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right, published by Continuum. Buy this book from Amazon(UK). Visit Frank Furedi’s website here.
Really Bad Ideas
(1) Hannah Arendt (2006) ‘What is Authority’ (originally published in 1954) Between Past and Future, Penguin Classic, p.91.
(2) See Frank Furedi (2004) Therapy Culture
(3) Cited in Greenberg, Nadivah (2006) ‘Shop Right: American Conservatisms, Consumption, and the Environment’, Global Environmental Politics, vol.6, no.2, p.85.
(4) Habermas (1976) p77
(5) Gouldner (1973) p276
(6) Daniel Bell (1976) The Cultural Contradictions Of Capitalism, Heinemann, London, p.21
(7) Habermas (1976) p79
(8) Raymond Plant (1982) ‘Jurgen Habermas and the Idea of Legitimation Crisis’, European Journal of Political Research, vol.10, p.343.
(9) Bell (1976) p23
(10) Bell (1976) p.22.
(11) This argument is pursued in Frank Furedi (1997) Population and Development, Polity Press, Cambridge, p.14.
(12) Bell (1976) p.75.
(13) Bell (1976) pp.23-24.
(14) Mihajlo Mesarovic & Eduard Pestel (1974) Mankind At The Turning Point, Hutchison, p.11.
(15) Bell (1976) p.77.
(16) Eric Hobsbawm (2004) The Age of Extremes:The Short Twentieth Century,1914-1991, Abacus Books : London, p.11.
(17) Clarke (2006) pp.30 & 3.
(18) See Voluntary Human Extinction Movement
(19) Clive Hamilton(2003) The Growth Fetish, Allen and Unwin, Sydney
(20) Clive Hamilton ‘What’s Left? The Death of Social Democracy’ in Quarterly Essay, issue no 21, 2006, p.36.