Monday, January 26, 2009

When is enough enough?

January 26, 2009
Torrey Orton
In a world where almost no one agrees on what’s enough for themselves (though willing to specify the quanta for others) finding some shared standards for many aspects of life is beyond us as a society. Our varying commitments to tolerance and diversity encourage this. The push of the economy shapes us towards new choices of many useless (other than aesthetic and identity additives) or unproven novelty products. The principle influencing leverage arises from the twin pincers of social seduction by additives and social obligation to sustain the economy by spending up.

Among noteworthy exceptions are some ethically discretionary aspects of living like the right to choose your death or the surrogate mother of your child. Massive public majorities approve such rights while legislative progress is blocked by the over-representation of the remnant 20% in public places: commentary, elected roles, etc. In matters of basic life sustenance, the rules (read ‘research’) change annually if not weekly, as e.g. red wine is discovered, disowned, re-discovered, moderated with olive-oil and so on. See the progress of science in medicine – some wonders and continuing horrors as commercialisation pressures lead to dangerous early adoption of treatments (especially drugs) and over-prescription of the latest wonders (Prozac-like mood management, Viagra-like arousers…) as determinist assumptions flood the public airspace, meeting public needs for possible certainties to defend them against the rising tide of actual uncertainties.

In tandem with this disarray, we have a stunning set of excesses across the spectra of human interests. I recently listed 9 prominent ones in three minutes: executive salaries, information overload, hoons (various HSV8’s and Hummerlikes – Jeep, Land Rover and Chrysler 300), obesities, intoxications, sound, smell and sight pollutions, muscles (hairy and bare), extreme sports (from the mild like bungee jumping, to the scary like base diving; from challenging like iron person events to death-dealing like street racing), and house and contents explosions. These are immediately recognisable by anyone. How they view the excess is another matter. One person’s excess is another’s access.

People write books on this situation – Affluenza, Well & Good locally; Enough and a competing Affluenza in the UK and When more is not enough in USA since 2004. The St James Ethics centre ( has published at least 6 articles since 1995 on related topics. Various other Op-Eds and letters abound across the Anglosphere. Companionably, researchers in various places have revealed, again, that getting more beyond a certain level of possessions produces no increase in well-being or happiness. Commentators range from outraged at the waste to buoyed by the life-enhancing successes of capitalism (global shifts out of poverty, etc.).

Maybe this is because ‘enough’ is a confusing word. It has at least three meanings which if not carefully managed in speech and writing elicit distracting profusions of entanglements. These meanings are: ‘superfluity’, ‘intemperance’ and ‘over’ ( The materially befuddled may not see that they are over the limit because their intemperance pales in the glow of superfluous consumption. The informationally befuddled, like me, cannot tell with real confidence that these excesses actually exist in quantities or trends sufficient to warrant more than passing notice. In this sense, the excesses are creatures of publications in search of audiences. They just feel like they are real and worthy of notice.

At the moment, apart from evocations of traditional virtues (temperance, moderation, etc.) and pleas for public action to constrain executive salaries, and unearned bank bonuses, the main substantial case made for less of something is that it costs too much at current incident rates. There is probably a new role called ‘social-economic cost analyst’ (Certificate level 4, perhaps) now populating every kind of organisation to make its particular case in ‘lost dollar’ terms. In this respect the enough crisis is a net job creating one.

The public discourse on many of these excesses expresses a values dilemma. Notional social conservatives with traditional values are scandalised by the excesses but prohibited from regulating them out of preference for personal choice. Notional social liberals with well-being values (overlapping in this regard with traditional conservatives and similarly scandalised) opt for regulation with little regard for choice. Public action wallows back and forth around varying coalitions of narrow issue groupings.

Watch the current attack on late night drinking in Melbourne (indirect, at that, since the targets are two: bingeing and violence, each of which can exist handily without the other). The latest regulatory effort to constrict access and group gathering by narrowing licensing has the side effect of endangering the café and bistro heart of the city. For variety, watch the US Republican efforts to rein in Democrat economic interventions on grounds of their impure attachment to government intervention, and a couple of other fundamentalist economic principles.

The underlying values dilemma is how much nurture is required to produce self-regulating people, which, to go back to the beginning, we all agree others should be. Meanwhile we should be excused from the requirement on self-selected occasions and issues. This, overall, is a matter of prudence, not evil and good.

Finally, it seems quite hard to get much common ground on such matters – the determination of standards for, say, obesity. A start might include some moves like this - staying with obesities because they touch so many important contiguous human needs and values with little variation for cultures, times and places:
1) Provide commensurate figures for ‘normal’ in the area of excess under examination;
2) Have an articulated model of well-being within which the target issue(s) can be interpreted;
3) Have cultural / historical differentiated models of well-being;
4) The contexts considered should include local, regional and global comparisons; and,
5) An assertion of possible common ground across all discussants should be made as part of each contribution to the discussion (these might include shared facts, beliefs values and standards).
This approach also provides a starting place for reporting and discussion of most high impact public issues. Occasionally, the papers do a reasonable job of this, but not consistently or thoroughly. Nor do the liberated on-line presses from what I can see, though I look forward to correction.

A challenge to thorough contextualising and balancing of arguments is that success in balancing may tend to reduce member seeking from issue audiences. That is, if I’m bothering to write about something it is because I think something should be done about it. So, in seeking to attract others towards my action orientation I will choose ways of presenting it which may be attractive to some others. However, not many people are attracted to act by balance, while various gurus (and me, too) will tell us we should be. Another dilemma.

Anyway, maybe all this is a flurry of attention attracted by what is really nothing more than the spume rising from an onshore breeze’s touch of a swell of history. Maybe these excesses are just a slight rise in the level of human energies and compulsions which will sink naturally under the weight of boredom. Some would label this kind of observation ‘negative’, and an excess in its own right!

Neighbouring* subjects & issues: virtues, well-being theories, Global Reporting Initiative (, positive psychology, nutrition, , sustainability, democracy…

*neighbouring = historical and conceptual factors which give perspective to the blog topic

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