Material Problems Have Moral Solutions

This article was originally published at ValuesandCapitalism.com on April 18, 2013.

Is material prosperity the key to moral improvement?

For Marxists, the answer is yes (as explained in my last post). In fact, according to Marx’s narrative, the moral and social ills of society are directly attributable to material poverty. The only way to improve moral life, then, is to first improve economic conditions.

But history tells a different story.

In his book “Economics as Religion,” economist Robert Nelson tells the story of Zambia in the late twentieth century. As one of Africa’s poorest nations, Zambia was, for many years, the number one recipient of foreign aid. Hoping to improve the economic life of the Zambian people, nations around the world poured millions into Zambia in an attempt to spur investment and economic growth. But after three decades of aid, Zambia’s economy actually worsened—its GNP was smaller than when the aid first began.

Needless to say, economic factors alone are not enough to improve the moral life of poor people. In fact, causation is precisely the other way around.

The Zambian story shows clearly that without strong moral foundations—especially with regard to theft and property rights—economic growth is almost impossible. Wealthier nations could pour all the capital they wanted into the Zambian economy, but as long as officials failed to respect the rights and lives of their countrymen, it would never make a difference.

In the early twentieth century, famed economist Frank Knight argued a similar thesis in response to progressives and socialists who sought to use government economic programs as a means to eradicate societal ills. He wrote in 1939:

The idea that the social problem is essentially or primarily economic, in the sense that social action may be concentrated on the economic aspect and other aspects left to take care of themselves, is a fallacy, and to outgrow this fallacy is one of the conditions of progress toward a real solution of the social problem as a whole, including the economic aspect itself.

According to Knight, then, social progress occurs not when public officials realize that all social problems have economic causes, but rather, when they understand that this idea is a fallacy. Instead of reforming economic policy, then, to try and improve social conditions, human beings everywhere ought to remember that the source of social ills is not necessarily economic, and that even economic problems may not have economic causes.

For example, consider poverty. Of course, many people around the world are born in to poverty and never escape it. Others are the unfortunate victims of fraud, disease or natural disasters that have taken a permanent toll on their economic life.

But it’s no secret that many economic problems have their cause in moral or familial breakdown. The children of married parents, for example, have more economic resources, more parenting from their fathers, and face less risk of psychologically traumatizing parental break-up. According to the US Census Bureau, children of divorce are more likely to be in poverty, diminishing their prospects of paying for a college education. Additionally, even the poor themselves are extremely likely to name drug abuse as the number one cause of poverty.

Material prosperity is important for societal health. It facilitates saving and investment that drive the engine of economic progress. But material deprivation alone is not the cause of societal breakdown.

Helping the poor, then, is often more a matter of moral support than an issue of economic policy.

A Beginner’s Guide to Late-Night Debates

This article was originally published by Relevant U on April 4, 2013.

We live in a land of opinions. Whether it be gay marriage, Hamlet’s delay or the East-West schism of 1054, university halls, Facebook comment threads and coffeeshops are full of people eager to express their new-found beliefs about every controversial topic imaginable.

On the surface, this is a great thing. Debates and controversies force us to examine their beliefs about important things in unique and revealing ways. But this is not always the case. When people are more interested in winning than discovering the truth, intellectual disputes devolve into dead-end mind games that do little more than frustrate everyone involved.

This is only natural. In fact, studies have repeatedly shown that human beings would rather continue defending bad ideas than admit intellectual defeat. But this doesn’t make pointless arguing any more forgivable. So here are three tips to make this year’s intellectual debates more fruitful.

Ask Questions

Studies have repeatedly shown that human beings would rather continue defending bad ideas than admit intellectual defeat.

Unfortunately, most arguments are started for the wrong reasons. Whether due to some intellectual defect, survival instinct or ancient fall from grace, most of us argue to vindicate our own preconceived beliefs—not to discover truth.

Knowing that, why continue to pit yourself against the illogical barricades of your opponent?

Instead, use your discussions to ask questions. Find out what your opponent really believes. Who are his influences? Where did she come to adopt these ideas? What can you do to better understand their positions?

You’ll find that such questions build bridges toward mutual understanding that no argument ever will. Not only are your opponents forced to more seriously examine their beliefs, but they will understand that you are serious about discovering truth and might actually return the favor.

Respect Others’ Opinions

Though it may be hard to believe, most people form their opinions with the best intentions in mind. Whether Republican or Democrat, atheist or theist, optimist or pessimist, people around the world hold opinions because they believe they are correct and will make the world a better place. Only crazy people hold an opinion because they believe it is wrong, dangerous or destructive.

So, instead of snubbing your intellectual opponent, remember that his or her opinion likely comes from the same longing for truth that gives rise to your own beliefs. Pitch your ideas as a solution, not an argument. Look for areas of common ground. Be sure they understand that your beliefs come from the same desire for peace, truth and justice that underlies their opinions. In no time, your opponent will begin to take you much more seriously.

Use Your Resources

Like it or not, no one is going to change a long-held opinion because of your thirty-second lunchtime monologue.

Like it or not, no one is going to change a long-held opinion because of your thirty-second lunchtime monologue. Even if your opponent is proved totally wrong, they would probably rather continue arguing than embarrassingly admit defeat (wouldn’t you?)

Instead of trying to change someone’s mind over the course of one conversation, recognize that learning is a life-long process. Recommend books and other resources that address the topic at hand. Find discussions of the topic at hand to help organize your debate. Remember that anything you say has probably been said more eloquently before.

Know When You’re Beat

You’re no more likely than anyone else to enjoy the prospect of admitting you’re wrong, but being willing to do so actually makes you a better debater who enters into conversations willing to learn, to surrender long-held positions and concede points. Even if any given debate doesn’t completely change your mind, debates are opportunities to publicize your views and bring balance to your understanding. Approach your debates as a student–not a boxer–and you’ll be better for it.