‘How we came to be living this way’ in Singer, P. (1997). How Are We to Live? Ethics in an Age of Self-interest. Milsons Point, NSW: Random House.

How we came to be living this way
A perverse instinct
In America in the eighties, the ethos of money-making reached a new historical high point, both in the amounts of money that were made in a very short time, and in the openness with which the goal of money-making was pursued. Such a society does not develop from nothing in a decade. Its foundations had been carefully laid over centuries. If we are to understand what went wrong in the eighties, and what the broader lessons of that decade are for the pursuit of the good life, we need to be aware of these foundations. The ideas that grew to dominate life in the United States have now spread to influence, to a greater or lesser degree, all of the developed world. They beckon onwards what we call the ‘developing’ world as well.

The most celebrated essay on the origins of the capitalist mind-and still one of the most illuminating- is Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, first published in 1904. Weber, a German sociologist, had read widely about Western and Easter religious, ethical and economic life, ancient as well as modern. He found something unique about the spirit of capitalism. Not that it was unusually greedy-on the contrary, wrote Weber, ‘the greed of the Chinese Mandarin, the old Roman aristocrat, or the modern peasant, can stand up to any comparison’. What is distinctive about capitalism is the idea of acquisition for its own sake as an ethically sanctioned way of life. Before the modern era, money and possessions were valued only for what one could do with them. At a minimum level money and possessions meant that one could afford food, shelter and clothing; at a level of greater abundance, money and possessions signified a grand estate, servants, lavish entertainment, travel, perhaps also the ability to attract...