Monday, 13 June 2016

The Desert Island Test

We all know that the price of things is based on laws of supply and demand. There is a greater supply of coal than diamond necklaces, and both are desired, so naturally a diamond necklace is more expensive than a sack of coal. But that begs the question: even though expensive things are expensive due to high desire, to what extent is there high desire for them because they are expensive?

Quite a lot, actually, given how much people value status - it's probably at a level way beyond the expectation of the average casual observer. A good way to show you have lots of disposable income is to pay high amounts for things that come in cheaper varieties (houses, cars, jewellery, clothes, hotel rooms, dining out). So while it's true that some things like diamond necklaces and Ferraris are, in terms of social status, obvious peacock's tails, it's also the higher prices of everyday things that signal status.

A good illustration – one that I didn’t invent - is something called the desert island test. The desert island test is a great way of illustrating just how much of our lives are governed by what people think of us. Imagine yourself to be completely alone on the island but yet fantastically rich, living in a huge mansion, with expensive furnishings, a fast car, fine artworks and a stunning garden.

In this scenario any pleasure you had in your opulent situation could only be derived from its intrinsic rewards – there would be no sense of pleasure from others’ reactions, because there is no one else there to react. It is difficult to say just how much contentment a life of such solitary richness would bring, but I suspect with the loss of that all important component of status gravitas one's possessions would lose a lot of their meaning and joy.

When I think of what I believe human excellence to be – it seems a quite natural observation that as long as people have the necessary things for a comfortable life, you'll find that their happiness, fulfilment and contentment have almost nothing to do with wealth, fame, or anything to do with material acquisition of status goods. 

What gives humans excellence of life is excellence of mind, but not merely at an academic or logical level; excellence of mind is about pursuing love, grace, kindness, generosity, solicitude – and dovetailing them through knowledge, wisdom and intelligence. When you see people courting fame or material wealth or career success for the sake of status, or people looking to build themselves up at the expense of the feelings of others, or people desperate for admiration, kudos, or the opportunity to control others, you know that all these things give exhibition to the fact that such people haven’t developed their minds to a level that will free them from the burden of what will turn out to be mediocre pursuits.