Thursday, July 19, 2007

More and Monopoly

Well I finished readying Thomas More's Utopia a few weeks back, and I've finally found some time to write out some of my thoughts. Though, to be perfectly honest, the book left me with mixed feelings, and I have yet to resolve them. Perhaps my confusion is the result of reading this book immediately after Orwell's 1984, but who knows.

For starters, one of More's most forceful critiques was his stance on England's use of the death penalty. At the time, almost everything was punishable by death. More, rightly, points out that petty theft and murder are crimes that are not at all the same, and they shouldn't be punished the same either. He also points out, interestingly, that if a "Christian" nation is trivially putting people to death, then it is, in effect, overriding one of the basic commandments. He makes his observation as follows:

"God said, 'Thou shalt not kill'-- does the theft of a little money make it quite all right for us to do so? If it's said that this commandment applies only to illegal killing, what's to prevent human beings from similarly agreeing among themselves to legalize certain types of rape, adultery, or perjury? Considering that God has forbidden us even to kill ourselves, can we really believe that purely human arrangements for the regulation of mutual slaughter are enough, without divine authority, to exempt executioners from the sixth commandment? Isn't that rather like saying that this particular commandment has no more validity than human laws allow it? --in which case the principle can be extended indefinitely, until in all spheres of life human beings decide just how far God's commandments may conveniently be observed."

Personally, I am undecided on the death penalty. There are issues of how well can we really know that the person is guilty, and to what extent does the State have a right to take away the life of somebody. But do serial killers forfeit their right to live when they kill a bunch of people...? I'm not sure. Regardless, in More's case, he's quite right to point out that we shouldn't use capital punishment for just anything. I mean, the crime must be pretty horrible to warrant it. Anyways, this section just reminded me that I need to think on this some more (esp as a Christian, since Jesus' stance on mercy is pretty clear).

And then there's this wonderful part about how Raphael should give advice to political leaders (as a philosopher). The debate is whether or not he ought to, and whether or not anyone would listen if he did. More (the character) says that there's no room for "academic" philosophy, by which I think he means ideal theory, because it's "irrespective of circumstances." But there is, apparently, room for non-ideal philosophy, if only anyone would bother to care. He goes on to complain that "if we're never to say anything unconventional, for fear of its sounding ridiculous, we'll have to hush up, even in a Christian country, practically everything that Christ taught." That quote in particular made me laugh, as sad as that is.

Now here is where I think More is on to something. In Utopia, of course, there is no money and the usual things that we value (gold, gems) are worthless. Instead, everyone does their share and has what they need and they all seem to be content enough. Now all of that is quite attractive when you read it, but then you realize that it's far from practical (at least for a large nation). Utopia is an island with tons of natural resources, natural defenses, the people are raised to be of a certain sort, etc etc. But, one of the great lessons of their little hippy commune, is their attitude towards work. Check out this passage:

"They never force people to work unnecessarily, for the main purpose of their whole economy is the give each person as much time free from physical drudgery as the needs of the community will allow, so that he can cultivate his mind (yay!) -which they regard as the secret of a happy life."

In the US it seems like we live to work, whereas elsewhere in the world people work to live. Why the turn around? Maybe we can chalk this one up to the Puritans.... In any case, this was a discussion in my french business class where we discovered that the French (apparently) don't like to work, and they only want to work enough to have a decent quality of life. I'm not going to lie, our way seems to be quite stupid (working to work so we can work some more?), but I often find myself following in this stupid American tradition. I don't mean to say that we should do nothing at all, but we should have the free time to do the "work"/ activities that we enjoy (for some that means raising a family, for others it's education, and for some still it's something else entirely).

Moving along, here's a passage that struck me precisely because I've thought the very same thing myself. It's about our desire for precious stones when they look the same as non-precious stones (so it's not really an about the atheistic value, per se, but the whole rarity thing):

"There's another type of person I mentioned before, who has a passion for jewels, and feels practically superhuman if he manages to get hold of a rare one, esp if it's a kind that's considered particularly precious in his country and period -for the value of such things varies according to where and when you live. But he's so terrified of being taken in by appearances that he refuses to buy any jewel until he's stripped off all the gold and inspected it in the nude...But my dear sir, why shouldn't a fake give you just as much pleasure, if you can't, with your own eyes, distinguish it from a real one? It makes no difference to you whether it's genuine or not -any more than it would to a blind man!"

I really think he's on to something. Maybe in the future I should have a cubic zirconium for an engagement ring...(though we'll see if I still feel that way by then!). I never did understand what all the fuss was about. I mean, I've had people think my cheap Claire's earrings were real, so what does it matter anyway? If it's really about how it looks, then costume jewelery should suffice... ;)

Oh, and I particularly liked this bit about the law and lawyers (for those who are unaware, I am heading off to law school soon, so I suppose I ought to find this offensive and not funny). This part I think makes a lot of sense, and it's a wonder we haven't adopted it yet:

"It's quite unjust for anyone to be bound by a legal code which is too long for an ordinary person to read right through, or too difficult for him to understand."

The reason our's is so obnoxious is, of course, the lawyer's fault:

"If nobody's telling the sort of lies that one learns from lawyers, the judge can apply all his shrewdness to weighing the facts of the case, and protecting simple-minded characters against the unscrupulous attacks of clever ones."

Unscrupulous, I like the word usage here. What if one day I became a lawyer that's *gasp* unscrupulous. Heaven help us.

So, I thought the book was clever, obviously, it is after all a classic. It was a bit too unrealistic for me (yes, even me, a philosophy student), and I couldn't shake the image of what the State would turn into when it started to implement it (ie, big brother). But, the attitude is right, and we should at least take that away. This, of course, brings me to my follow-up story from a few nights back. I may have some socialist, maybe even communist, tenancies, but apparently in the face of good old capitalist competition those all melt away and reveal my true colors. By this I mean, the other night I played Monopoly with some of my friends and I found myself bending over backwards to get hotels on Atlantic Avenue, Ventnor Ave, and Marvin Gardens (the yellow properties). We were off to a great start because we landing on free parking 5 times in a row, and, apparently, all that monopoly dough can go to your head. Needless to say we ended up bankrupt with nothing by the end, so that shows you something. Everyone has an inner capitalist within, just waiting to be unleashed by a Parker Brothers game. So much for working together in social unity for the common good. Go straight to jail, do not pass GO, do not collect $200...

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