Friday, 9 November 2012

The Intrinsic Value of Ideals

There's a new home owner moving in to the flat directly above mine, so there has been lots of construction and renovation work going on, which means endless drilling, hammering, and sweeping for stretches of days on end.

Some time last week, the ceiling of my parents' bedroom leaked; cement and grime-mixed water started forming ominous damp patches before it began dripping onto the bed and all over the place. To top it off, because it has been raining very heavily these few days, dirty water washes off from the balcony upstairs onto ours, and when it dries the whole balcony is caked in some kind of sandy, muddy residue. Suffice to say it was a rather unpleasant experience.

So, my dad kicked up a heroic fuss, and somehow managed to get the contractor for the works upstairs to:
(1) provide sealant and paint patching servicing for the patches on the ceiling;
(2) provide workers to clean up the balcony;
(3) use their own water ("But sir, I don't have a hose that long which can connect from upstairs to downstairs." "Go and get one!")
(4) replace my parents' bed mattress (seriously!).

This morning, a Singaporean worker came in to help with the ceiling. He assessed the situation, and then said in half-dialect and half-chinese: "I can paint your entire bedroom ceiling and two other room ceilings for $30 if you like."

So, obviously this $30 offer was an under the table offer; his boss would have no idea what's going on here. My mum took it up - $30 is virtually nothing to us in this context, considering how much effort we would have to put in acquiring the paints and brushes, and then panting and huffing (toxic smells, no less) while fighting against the concrete sky ourselves.

His offer really struck me. Firstly, it is very reasonable, or cheap, to put it bluntly. He probably meant it as a good offer, in fact. This is the effect of how the wide availability of similar services and the perceived low prestige level of the job can reduce the value or price of a person's work. Secondly, and related to the first, this man's work should be no less important than the other officey work that I'm more attuned to, having a degree in hand that grants me access into corporate jobs. In fact, without the bedrock of a hard labour industry that frees the rest of us from dirtying our hands and using our brains more, there wouldn't be any tertiary industries to speak of. Yet, this man has been inhaling toxic paints probably all his working life (and I'm already slightly giddy from the leakage of the smell despite him closing the door, enclosing himself in the room with the fumes trapped in there, so that we wouldn't have to endure the smells) - god knows what kind of effect that has on his health - and earning a meagre wage that, because of the advancement of the rest of the economy and our country's emphasis on high status, creative, innovative, entrepreneurial, and corporate work, can barely keep up with inflation or support a dignified way of living (I know the dignity of life is a subjective point, but I firmly believe it has a lot to do with how one fares in relation to others).

Countless conversations with people on the economic issues of minimum wages, welfare, taxation, and more generally, liberty, often reach some kind of extrinsic or utilitarian conclusion that we owe a lot to how the economy in Singapore is structured (by a particularly omniscient man, no doubt); it suits us (something about pragmatism), it has helped us survive over the decades, it has helped us compete globally.

But it is just as important to think of how the structure of this economy marginalizes some groups of people. Let's not even talk about foreign workers; here was a Singaporean man who probably has no access to other "better" work opportunities, very likely because of structural factors (I'm making some educated speculations - born into poor family, no money for further education, no qualifications, no access to knowledge that can enhance his productivity beyond labour, etc.). And more importantly, it is important to note that sometimes the economy, whether deliberately or not, is structured in a way that makes it okay to marginalize people. That's when it gets dangerous, because now we have some sort of "legitimate" reason to keep people down, or compromise on their dignity of life, or justify why their life value should be less than others. That $30 offer made me sad and ashamed. Sad for the obvious reasons stated above on the state of affairs, and ashamed because I know this happens, but I don't think so much about it until it's in my face.

This raises a question, both interesting and important, about the value of fundamental rights or ideals. I'm not particularly outspoken about rights because part of my sad reality is that I think morality is generally subjective at a human level (although I do - some will accuse me of contradiction here - lean towards the idea that there are objective truths). What is right or wrong can be defined by those in power. But this is why subjects should be given constitutional rights to check the powers that be, because power has the capacity to mute resistance against it when it no longer serves the greater good. And this is also why, I think, it is important to have and believe in some fundamental ideals - for some it is the right to life, for others it is the right to a livelihood, yet for others perhaps freedom - because powerful leaders are capable of instituting structures that prevent people from engaging in progressive resistance.

British MP Rory Stewart brought up a fantastic point on the importance of recognizing and touting intrinsic value in rights and ideals (as opposed to focusing on their extrinsic and instrumental worth) when arguing or pushing for them. He talked of the fundamental importance of democracy, but his idea can be applied to anything that's worthwhile to defend. On democracy, he said that for too long, people have tried to fight for it on the extrinsic, instrumental grounds that perhaps it improves the economy, or it creates jobs for people, or that it prevents war, etc.; such arguments for democracy will be undermined once another less desirable system is capable of offering the same good outcomes stated above. Very often, arguments switch from intrinsic ones to instrumental ones in order to please the masses, corporations that provide funds, etc. Perhaps pushing on ideals on intrinsic grounds is also too idealistic - the realist view will only consider costs and benefits, and interests. But each time we shift away from an idealistic stance to a realistic stance, we give up on something intrinsically sacred to the things that matter.

(Once again, I'm generally skeptical about the promise of democracy because it requires too many boundary conditions to work, but this doesn't mean that a well-functioning democracy isn't a worthwhile ideal since it encourages participation and an informed citizenry that cares about society, which are fundamental good-to-haves.)

So, on that note, I suggest that it is important to think of what matters for our society. There is admittedly no such thing as perfect equality in a society, but if we are willing to forgo a fight for equality then we can expect to see many low status people marginalized by the system, and that will be okay, legitimate, and justifiable on economic grounds. If we are willing to forgo a fight for welfare, health aid, better recognition for social workers, etc., then we can expect to see that society will still very much chug along with an acute rubric for the value of life, which is how much you are able to earn. This in turn has ramifications for which jobs are respectable and which jobs aren't. In my mind, a measure of a good society is one where most jobs, if not all jobs, can garner some form of equal dignity and respect, and that every worker can be considered to be of value to the society they reside in. These are conversations that on matters of fundamental importance that, while definitely not easy to reach consensus, should be carried out. Just because a system has seemed to work doesn't mean it should be the only game in town. More importantly, we need to think about important things that should be valued but aren't that the current system prevents us from achieving, or worse, from caring about.

Here's the TED Talk presented by Rory Stewart on his take on democracy and, to me, on the intrinsic value of ideals. A highly recommended viewing.


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