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The Good Life Ideal and Social Justice (If We Can Afford It)

Ethicists, secular, as well as religiously inspired, seem to be of one mind in this matter:

It can be argued that the single dominating and organizing value in American culture is economic—the good life (an ideological structure). Our American culture promotes and rewards this and thereby educates to it. Even our universities have capitulated to this value. Too often they simply train for the job market. Practically, then, this means that other values will be persued and promoted only within this overriding priority. Thus, justice in education, housing, medical services, job opportunity is promoted within the dominance of the financial criterion—“if we can afford it”, where “afford” refers to the retention of a high level of consumership. The dominance of the economic value is the root of enslavement, the ideological structure.

We may consider a concrete example. At Mass one Sunday morning in October a serious, deeply religious couple hear that the following week there is going to be a collection for the foreign missions. As they drive home Mrs. Jones is likely to say, “Bil, do you think we could afford something like $20 or $30 for this collection?” After some musing Mr. Jones may well respond that he, too, thinks they could afford that amount as their contribution. While most would indeed consider Mr. and Mrs Jones a generous couple, we must note something significant. When both of them used the expression “we could afford”, they meant “without changing significantly our level of consuming”. They did not mean “we could afford $20 or $30 if we dine out less frequently or give up smoking and cocktails, or if we cancel our vacation trip, or sell one of our sports cars.” Even in serious people the good life ideology is operative, and it profoundly influences what they do and do not do on the operational level. If Mr. and Mrs. Jones were to give up the good life ideal, they could give far more to the foreign missions.

So it is also on the level of society itself. The gross inequities of our world do not change much despite the deluge of words because the basic premises have not changed.

—from Happy are You Poor: The Simple Life and Spiritual Freedom by Fr. Thomas DuBay, Ch. 9: Pilgrim Witness

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