Saturday, May 03, 2014

Class, Covetousness, and an Ethics of Empathic Caring

“2014 BMW i8 plug-in hybrid: High performance but with a conscience,” by David Undercoffler for the LA Times, May 2, 2014 

Shortly after May Day, an eye-opening article (below) from the Business section of the paper calling attention to how a sub-class—“eco-chic speed freaks”—of the upper class lives (or should live) and plays, at least when sufficiently motivated by an inordinate desire to possess (hence ‘to covet’) expensive “toys.” And all this “with a conscience”! Those identified at the end of the piece as “moneyed Silicon Valley and Westside denizens” who are drawn to such “eco-chic” fast cars will no doubt protest: “We earned the right to buy such things,” the implication being that there’s no true coveting taking place here, as these cars don’t belong to anyone until they purchase them. Their consciences further satisfied by fashionable and effective “green” marketing. 
“Attention, eco-chic speed freaks: Set aside your Teslas; you have a new toy to covet.
The 2014 BMW i8 plug-in hybrid and the all-electric i3 are the first offerings from the automaker’s new i subbrand. Equal parts sex appeal and efficiency, the cars combine electrification with lightweight construction and eye-catching designs. We recently spent a day in the i8, a 357-horsepower, all-wheel-drive coupe with wing-like doors that open upward and a body that will excite anyone with a pulse.
This is no Leaf or Volt. The i8 sells for $136,000. But it’s not a Porsche 911 or Audi R8 either — though it costs about as much. This car promises high performance, but limited by a conscience. [….] Even with a $136,000 price tag, BMW should be able to attract a crowd similar to the Tesla set: moneyed Silicon Valley and Westside denizens who want their speed to come in a form that still says, ‘I care.’”
Consider the following summary from a portion of the Catholic Catechism on the prohibition of greed and envy: “Covetous desires create disorder because they move beyond satisfying basic human needs and ‘exceed the limits of reason and drive us to covet unjustly what is not ours and belongs to another or is owed to him.’ Greed and the desire to amass earthy goods without limit are forbidden. Avarice and passion for riches and power are forbidden. ‘You shall not covet’ means that we should banish our desires for whatever does not belong to us.”
Do people really need to possess $100,000+ cars even if they can afford them? What can we, as as society afford? To be sure, there are many things we might possess that we don’t literally need and yet still find sufficient justification or warrant for acquiring them. But does this desire (as cultivated by capitalist marketing and involving the clever exploitation of irrational psychological impulses and dispositions) for and subsequent possession of such cars say anything to us about the socially just, ethically proper, and ecologically sane production, distribution, and consumption of precious resources and humane employment of human labor? How does the production and consumption of such vehicles contribute meaningfully to (or impede the pursuit of) individual human flourishing let alone the basic welfare and well-being of individuals and groups in our society? In a manifestly inegalitarian society in which there is an abundance of both absolute and relative poverty, how can we rationalize this kind of consumer production for the upper classes?    
And of course the conception of “care” invoked in the last sentence of the article, it should be clear, is not in any way related to the notion of an “ethics of empathic caring,” be it among and between human and non-human animals or in the ecological world more generally. In other words, it has nothing whatsoever to do with that kind of “care ethics” that is animated by concern with the relief of the myriad forms of avoidable and thus eliminable human suffering and which arises while acting in pursuit of individual human flourishing (in the eudaimonistic sense), the necessary conditions for which are found in the provision of general welfare and well-being made possible by coordinated collective action (which takes place, in the first instance, through the institutions and processes of democratic government and governance). 

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