Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Pride and Property

-->In Utopia, fictional character Raphael Hythloday explains his society which has banned private property to author Thomas More's fictional self. Utopians believe that the possession of private property creates inequality not because of greed but pride. By eliminating private property, Utopians create a world where everyone contributes to producing goods necessary for survival while eliminating and even punishing “false pleasures” that create unnecessary work. While Utopians are enabled the pursuit of leisure activities for enjoyment, they are restricted from activities which lead individuals to possess property that leads to excessive pride. By eliminating private property, Utopia enables society to fulfill the needs of everyone while preventing pride from creating inequality.

Hythloday's pride motivates his statement that “among princes there is no room for philosophy.” More proposes that though “academic philosophy which considers anything appropriate anywhere” may not be useful for governing people, there is “another sort of philosophy better suited to public affairs” which through indirection “knows its role and adapts to it, keeping to its part in the play at hand with harmony and decorum.” More notes that this is why people enter into a commonwealth, arguing “if you cannot thoroughly eradicate corrupt opinions or cure long-standing evils to your satisfaction, that is no reason to abandon the commonwealth, deserting the ship in a storm because you cannot control the winds.” He says that individuals should “strive and struggle” to handle problems, suggesting the idea that “if you cannot turn something to good at least make it as little bad as you can. For everything will not be done well until all men are good, and I do not expect to see that for quite a few years yet” (44). Hythloday argues against this indirect approach, saying that catering to the pride of leaders makes it so “there is no room to dissemble or to look the other way: you must approve of advice that is clearly quite bad and subscribe to measures that are utterly pestilential.” Hythloday asserts that working within such a system would be “trying to remedy the madness of others by succumbing to their madness.” Instead the nature of the commonwealth makes the ability “to tell the truth” contingent upon telling power what they want to hear. He admits that it is difficult to determine right from wrong, lamenting “I do not know whether it is proper for a philosopher to say what is false, but it certainly isn't for me” (44).
While systems in Utopia aim to prevent power and pride from clouding judgment in policy, Hythloday's difficulty in determining what is “false” does not apply to Utopia's enforcement of leisure time activities. Utopia's most important goal is the achievement of happiness for everyone. While Utopians are free to pursue leisure activities including performing music and following intellectual pursuits, “false pleasures” such as playing games or taking pride in clothing are forbidden. Utopians define virtue as “living according to nature.” In preventing the problem that one might “deprive someone else of pleasure to promote [their] own,” the law of nature as interpreted by men requires judgment of some sort. While these rules may be determined by the commonwealth, how can Utopians judge actions that achieve happiness for individuals even if these actions produce that happiness through artificial means? Though pride may delude an individual into doing wrong, does that justify eliminating the happiness that some amounts of pride provide?

Utopians perceive private property as a cause of inequality because the undeserved pride it produces leads individuals to want to possess more than they need at the expense of others. While basic needs may motivate an individual to work to survive, possessions motivate individuals for irrational and unproductive reasons. In a society where style trumps substance, the value of necessities is depreciated by the inflated value given to property that serves no practical function. Hythloday explains “where everything is measured in terms of money, it is hardly ever possible for the common good to be served with justice and prosperity, unless you think justice is served when all the best things go to the worst people or that happiness is possible when everything is shared among very few, who themselves are not entirely happy, while the rest are plunged into misery” (47). Hythloday argues that Utopia's work structure seeks to eliminate the causes of this injustice because “as long as everyone has his own property, there is no hope whatever of curing them and putting society back into good condition.” Distributing justice in a capitalist society is difficult because “while you are trying to cure one part you aggravate the malady in other parts; curing one disease causes another to break out in its place, since you cannot give something to one person without taking it away from someone else” (48).

In order to provide the “necessities and comforts of life” in this ideal world, Utopians eliminate “futile and superfluous crafts” that “support over-indulgence and wanton luxury” while forcing idle members of society to work (63). In Utopia, everyone is required to work six hours a day towards meeting the needs of the community through whichever trade they are able to do. Individuals are allowed to choose what trade they learn unless societal needs require they fulfill a particular duty. Since there is no private property, less goods require less labor to make. Through collective organization, unnecessary work is eliminated and occupation becomes no longer a point of pride beyond the merit of the work itself. Thus Utopia sought to establish a system where “virtue is rewarded, and yet, since everything is equalized, everyone has plenty of everything” (46)
By giving everyone the means to take whatever they need for no cost, Utopian seek to eliminate incentives for committing crimes. Hythloday says, “why should anyone be suspected of asking for too much if he is certain he will never lack for anything? Certainly fear of want makes all kinds of animals greedy and rapacious, but only mankind is made so by pride, which makes them consider their own glory enhanced if they excel others in displaying superfluous possessions; in the Utopian scheme of things there is no place at all for such a vice” (68). Certain rules are imposed in order to eliminate the vices of vanity and pride, the most extreme being the uniformity of clothing which individuals make for themselves. If individuals are willing to put effort into a supposedly “false pleasure,” what makes their craft a vice instead of a leisurely pursuit? Pride is a logical reaction to the hard work individuals invest to obtain private property. While dishonest and unjust acquisitions of property should be prevented, hard work should always be rewarded.
While no one is denied access to their needs, vices are prevented or punished through a variety of alternative means in Utopia. Most crime is prevented through the peer pressure element involved in the communal style that Utopians live in. When crimes are punished, Utopians make clear not to excessively punish crimes to the point that bad behaviors are not distinguished from each other. Hythloday argues this is why crimes like theft are not punished with the death penalty because the goal of punishment is improving behavior rather than creating unhappiness for the individual committing the crime. Individuals who commit crimes are subjected to slavery and forced to do harder labor than others but unless their crimes are violent, they are not restrained physically. Escape is made impossible through the means of identifying these slaves by uniform and threat of death for attempting escape. Hythloday explains that the justice system in Utopia is designed to “eliminate the vice and preserve the person” (30). More argues against the idea that such virtue can be so holistically achieved, saying, “no one can live comfortably where everything is held in common.” He contends that such a system provides no incentive for individuals to work if they still benefit from the work of others. He argues “when people are driven by want and there is no law which enables them to keep their acquisitions for their own use, wouldn't everyone necessarily suffer from continual bloodshed and turmoil?”(48). He asks Hythloday how he expects to get people to respect each other, when magistrates no longer hold any authority.

The elimination of private property would limit inequalities among people, allowing them to coexist better and improving overall happiness. Nonetheless, the restrictions upon activities in order to eliminate “false pleasures” that instill pride in individuals is unnecessary for creating such a society. Inevitably, the punishments and restrictions that seek to strip Utopians of pride lead to unnecessary invasions upon the lives of individuals. The process of eliminating pride creates an inequality by determining what achieves happiness for an individual according to the supposedly superior attitudes of the commonwealth. Though many of the laws in Utopia are just and would be worth the effort for the sake bettering the public good, one cannot always qualify the reason we enjoy some activities other than a feeling of happiness and dignity that it gives us. As long as individuals do not infringe upon the rights of others to the same possessions and feelings, why should we forbid forms of happiness, believing our judgment to be better than theirs? More paraphrases Plato in suggesting that “wise men are right to refrain from taking on government tasks: when they see people rushing out on the streets only to be soaked by never-ending rain and they cannot persuade them to get under a roof and out of the rain, they get under shelter themselves, knowing that they will accomplish nothing by going out except to get drenched together with the rest and considering it sufficient, when they cannot cure the folly of others, at least to remain in safety themselves” (46).
 Works Cited
More, Thomas. Utopia. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001. Print.