Previously, I’ve written about what happens when you don’t have anything to believe in, and how poverty can deteriorate into something much deeper and more torturous than just a a lack of money. But I think there’s also something to prompt the deterioration more than just not having enough money as such. I think purpose factors into it. I also think it’s difficult to sustain a purpose if you aren’t regularly making live choices.
I’ll talk about what I mean by live choices in a second. If you are in any way familliar with William James’ notion of live optionality, then suspend your previous understanding of the term because I mean it slightly different.
Did you know that in the UK, if you have saved up more than ten-thousand pounds, depending on a number of factors, your benefits will get cut off? That means your social care will be cut off, because nobody will be paying for it. It is also substantially more expensive than you will be able to afford. Your housing might be in jeopardy depending on how you came to occupy it. That means sometimes, people have to spend their money on things they don’t want or need so they can keep living. From my perspective, that’s somewhat surreal. If you’re on benefits for whatever reason, and your cost of living is such that you build up a surplus, you must always consume a little bit more so that you don’t run up too much of a surplus.
I’m not telling you this to highlight how bad some societal problems are. I’m telling you this so I can segue into a discussion on the relationship between meaning and wealth.
I don’t know if wealth is what we usually think it is. The initial notion of wealth is that it’s something like the sum of your material goods and comforts. Or a slightly more enlightened view is that it’s the sum of your property in a capital sense. You might get no material use out of a flat, but you might rent it out and benefit from it in terms of income.
Both of those concepts of wealth seem to miss out on something. We don’t restrict the savings limits of people on benefits because we’re worried they’d become too comfortable. People on benefits can often– thankfully– live very materially comfortable lives. I say thankfully because comfort is basically everything we as a society afford them. Meaningful occupation, as one example, either isn’t an option or isn’t something we’re willing to allow them.
Now I ask: what other sorts of wealth could we be concerned with? It seems to be options, or at least meaningful options. To have a meaningful option is important, because to have a meaningful option means I can adapt at the junctures in my life where my current course ceases to be adaptive. My life becomes a live option for me. I become engaged in it.
This sense of live-optionality, and the consequences for your own engagement in your day-to-day being, seems to be the main point of money as an object of desire. We seek it because the eventuality of having it creates the potential for live-options in our lives. When we have it in the right amount, it’s the right amount because it makes some options meaningfully live.
What is a live option? Well, it’s like a live wire. In some sense it’s flush with energy. But there are other constraints. A live option has to be possibly attainable to count as a live option. A live option has to make a meaningful difference to our lives either in the attainment or in the pursuit. So, a live choice is when you pick between live options. I think we should start thinking about happiness in a eudaimonic way in terms of engagement with the world– or existential care, as Heidegger would put it. That’s a sort of care that is impossible unless your choices in some sense matter.
I don’t think you have this sort of care-wealth/live-optionality if you have a massive amount of gross income but very little net– for instance if you have a lot of debt but also own a lot of property. That sort of position seems sort of independent from the wealth of live-optionality. If you happen to have very high gross, but also a high outlay and therefore a net that might be comparable than someone who does not own any property, then you might even have less wealth in terms of live-optionality than someone who is not otherwise legally and financially entangled.
When rich people think about happy poor people, they think about poor people with live-optionality that they don’t. That means no mortgage, no car payments, no ability and-thereby-no-expectation to save for children’s college funds, etc. When poor people think about rich people, they don’t think about rich people as such; they think about rich people with the sort of live-optionality that they don’t have.
This isn’t me saying there’s a grass-is-greener argument to be made about material wealth. If you gave me the option, I would pick the option with greater fluid income, all else being equal. But that’s only because, all else being equal, more fluid income would entail more wealth in terms of live-optionality.
That’s sort of the trade we make on behalf of people we take care of. They don’t have to worry about their money, or the course of their lives. But that’s because there is no longer much of a real course to worry about.
It seems like an authentic life can’t be alienated from the possibility of making live decisions. This might be why we pity people who have to suffer through bullshit jobs. They might have all the status or money in the world, but that doesn’t mean they have anything to live for. To live in the verbal mode– like to really live, man–is in some sense to be faced with a set of live options. That means having the sort of life that can support a set of live options.
This seems like a special case of the argument that free will is not the ability to do anything, but the ability to do only those things that you would have done given the opportunity. Is wealth just having a lot? Is it having a little? Or is it having what you need to do the things that matter to you? It seems like it’s the last option to me. If that’s the case, and if we take the view that a certain amount of money just makes you want more money– which I have no research for as of the moment but certainly suspect is the case– then we should probably be suspicious of the pursuit of absolute Capital wealth.
I was talking on the phone with my friend just now and he pointed out something pretty important: live optionality is basically the ability to freely create your own life. I dunno, I guess there’s a good reason we used to play Bioware RPGs.