Mission and materialism mingled

This page is outdated. The text below is from the first, 2007 draft of Meaningness. My understanding of the material has changed since then, and the style I write in too. Someday I would like to rewrite this; but I hope the 2007 version may be adequate for now.

The defects of mission and materialism are well-known and experienced by us all. Because each is unworkable, they are unstable, and we adopt both at different times, or in different parts of our lives. This also does not work. Trying to mix them is another approach.

Torn between mission and materialism

Alternately adopting mission and materialism can feel like a war between two parts of oneself.

  • The part committed to mission claims to be morally pure, and casts the part committed to materialism as selfish and subhuman. Secretly it also knows that its self-denial is self-destructive, and wishes it could let go and enjoy life a bit more.
  • The part committed to materialism claims to be realistic and intelligent, and casts the part committed to mission as a hypocritical holier-than-thou simpleton. Secretly it also feels guilt and disappointment, and wishes it felt secure enough to be more generous.

This is a recipe for misery and dysfunction.1

The prominent Anglo-American philosopher M. Ciccone was famous for passionate commitment to materialism in her early work. Subsequently, however, influenced by the mystical philosophy Kabbalah, she explored the existential angst that comes of being torn between materialism and mission:

How high are the stakes?
How much fortune can you make?
Does this get any better?
Should I carry on?
Will it matter when I’m gone?
Will any of this matter?
Does it make a difference?
Nothing lasts forever.2

Muddled middles

A more sophisticated strategy seeks to mingle materialism and mission. This creates muddled middles: attempts to avoid the tension by finding a compromise. These can be categorized as giving higher purposes mundane uses or as giving mundane purposes higher meanings.

[There should be a diagram here, showing mission and materialism in between eternalism and nihilism, and then the two doubly-muddled middles between mission and materialism.]

Giving higher purposes mundane uses

In this mingling, one overtly pursues a higher purpose, with a covert mundane agenda. One might, for instance, aim for fame and glory while leading a celebrity media campaign to save starving Africans from poverty; or make zillions of dollars (and acquire a harem of groupies) as an “alternative” “rebellious” musician; or wield the power of life and death over millions, in the name of Protecting The People, as a demagogic politician.

On a more ordinary level, our motivations are rarely unmixed. When pursuing higher purposes, we almost always hope for some mundane reward, even if it is only a casual compliment from a friend. This is often sleazy and covert. That is not to say that we cannot be authentically compassionate or creative; just that there is a self-aggrandizing tendency operating at the same time.

Virtually every domain of human activity gets appropriated and distorted by materialism. We use every situation as a domain in which to conduct social actions of seduction, competition, and domination. Almost nothing is too trivial, nor too important, for a group to specialize in it; observe differences in ability, recognize champions, winners, and losers; hope for success in it and fear failure; and seek mates who are successful at it.

Any time we set out nominally to do something (even a noble, higher purpose—curing cancer perhaps), we are also to some extent using that project as a way to look virtuous, make money, gather power, or make ourselves more sexually attractive. We may be more or less aware of these additional motivations. Even if we were perfectly disinterested ourselves, the other people engaged in the activity would have these motivations. So it becomes impossible simply to do the thing; we can only do it plus materialism. Often the demands of materialism run counter to accomplishing the original project. Materialistic agendas are the main obstacle to many goals.

Giving mundane purposes higher meanings

This mingling strategy is the mirror image of the first. Here we pretend a plainly mundane purpose—such as material consumption—has some spurious higher one. This pretense aims to alleviate guilt about mundane purposes generated by the critiques of materialism. And, as a happy twofer, we can look good to other people at the same time!

As traditional bases for meaning have evaporated, hunger for alternative sources have made this an increasingly effective marketing approach. It presents products that you buy for mundane purposes as having higher ones, such as fair trade, saving the environment, educating starving children, purifying your chakras, sending a message to evil capitalists / perverted socialists, and so on. In principle, it is possible that such combinations could work, but when you investigate details it nearly always turns out that they have little if any effect. You may feel better about yourself—if you can maintain the delusion—but otherwise you are paying extra (a mundane loss) without the claimed higher benefit.

If feel you have adequately fulfilled your unwanted duty to higher purposes this way, you will be less likely to pursue them realistically.3

Here is a short, clear explanation from Slavoj Žižek:

Starbucks is in the business of selling indulgences—of the sort Martin Luther railed against—absolving you of secular sins.

I’ll discuss this muddled middle further in the ethics chapter of Meaningness. I’ve also written about it in “ ‘Ethics’ is advertising.”

Almost right and completely wrong

The muddled middles are accurate in their implicit recognition that both mundane and higher purposes are meaningful, and that—realistically—we have no choice other than to pursue both.

They are inaccurate, and may not work well in practice, because they tacitly accept an absolute distinction between the two types of purpose. They try to achieve two purposes in a single activity. This fails to resolve the underlying tension.

So long as the types of purpose still seem opposed, the strategy pulls activity in two directions at once. That usually makes it both less effective and less enjoyable. “Fair trade” coffee does little if any good. And do you genuinely feel better for overpaying for it, or do you just feel that you’ve dutifully checked off an ethical chore?

The muddled middles preserve the self-indulgent, self-protective grasping of materialism, and the self-righteous justification of mission. That tends to lose the uncomplicated enjoyment-value of animal satisfaction (because we pretend that is not what we seek), and also the selfless compassionate joy of accomplishing higher purposes (because we have subordinated those to a materialist agenda).

  1. 1.The Guru Papers explores this pattern in depth; I have summarized it here.
  2. 2.Madonna, “How High,” on Confessions on a Dance Floor (2005). Cf. “Material Girl,” written by Peter Brown and Robert Rans, sung by Madonna on Like a Virgin (1984).
  3. 3.Or so some social-psychology research claims, and it seems plausible! As of 2020, it’s hard to know what results in that field to take seriously, due to the replication crisis.