Bob Corbett
Webster University
470 E. Lockwood
St. Louis, Mo. 63119
May 1984; slight revised Aug. 1993


This paper is for discontented people. Its aim is not to persuade you to change your lifestyle, but it speaks to those who are already dissatisfied and who are looking for something different, a challenge, a new life thrust. Particularly, I address those who experience any one or more of the following:

If any of these discontents characterize you, then perhaps you will be challenged by my reflections.


It is a commonplace among us Americans that we live a fast-paced life. We're always busy. It is also often noted that Americans find a significant gap in their lives -- a disappointment in what life is and means. I believe that these two facts are connected. Our national lifestyle is not one of liberty despite much talk of our "liberties". Nor is our national life one of virtue despite the touted "Judeo-Christian values" that are said to dominate our culture. I will first develop my claim that we lack freedom and virtue, then suggest ways to regain them for both self and other.

Upward Mobility

A dominant activity for most people in our culture is tied to the phrase upward mobility. Even the poorest people dream of it and pursue it as they can. This phenomenon of upward mobility seems to me the dominant motivation behind a huge range of our daily acts. What do we pursue in upward mobility? Our own material well-being and comfort: large and comfortable home(s) with more and more amenities; constantly improved quality of these amenities (eg. first a wood floor, then carpets, then Persian carpets); multiplication of personal belongings (clothing, toys, jewelry, electronic equipment); the piling up of external amenities (fancy or extra autos, country houses, boats, ever-fancier bicycles) and the search for security (stocks, bonds, IRAs, private suburbs). There is nothing about most of these items which deprives us of liberty or virtue. But as a sum they define a LIFEFORM, which has overwhelming significance -- ever upwardness. How much is enough? Who of you can really define the stopping point? No one whom I've read or heard.

Thus our aims are ever upward. But upward movement requires wealth and wealth, for most of us, comes with the use of our time --the necessity of our time in direct paid work, in time used for the manipulation of money -- investment, speculation etc. We become ever more busy, less free.

This restriction of our time is not necessarily a loss of freedom, virtue or meaning. Not in itself. But this upward mobility, this concentration on self, requires values that are consistent with this LIFEFORM. Few of us really admit that we espouse such values. Thus there are conflicts in our value worlds which cause us to lie to ourselves and to act in ways which create gaps between our actual lives and what we say are our ideals. This is the loss of virtue, which creates for many of us a crisis in life's meaningfulness.

LIFEFORM and Virtue -- What is virtue and is it in crisis in our LIFEFORM?

Mainly I will skirt this difficult problem, but I will briefly sketch the term 'virtue' in an extremely broad sense. I am not a subjectivist who holds that any ideal is as good as another, but for the sake of my point here, the issue of what concretely is virtuous can be left aside. Rather, I want to call attention to the fact, obvious to most people, that there is a significant gap between our concepts of virtue, that is, concepts of good and evil and the purposes of life, and our own day to day lives. Why?

The easy out is to claim the fallibility of the human and to excuse ourselves on such grounds. Such a defeatist attitude is not an explanation; rather it is a mere excuse. We all know too many historical examples of people who have struggled and in fact narrowed the gap between their ideals and their realities. A second reason for this gap is more fruitful to explore than the answer of simple human weakness. It may well turn out that if we focus on the gap -- the gap between our ideality and our reality --we will discover that we've lied to ourselves about our ideals. We've articulated ideals as being our own which we can come to realize are in no way really our own. Put in another way, there is not really a gap at all.

I suspect that this latter is often the case. We lie to ourselves about our values, our ideals, in order to say to ourselves more than anyone else, that we really hold and believe social values, which our lives do not much reflect. This approach has been especially popular and well directed when, for example, social therapists urge white people to confront and name our own acts of racism. Only then, it is argued, can we confront the gap between that ideal and our daily lives.

Downward mobility: a Path to Freedom and Virtue

Suppose, then, that we do find gaps -- genuine or seemingly genuine failures to live up to our stated values. What then? My position is to show that we need liberation from upward mobility as a LIFEFORM. This is the first step to virtue and that in such virtue we will find both a greater freedom and a useful meaning for our lives.

The process toward this dual freedom and pursuit of virtue is the simplification of our lifestyles, or, said differently, to adopt downward mobility as our LIFEFORM. I will try to describe what this orientation is and what I believe follows from it. Downward mobility -- the simplification of one's lifestyle -- is an attempt to broaden one's concept of material aims to encompass all humans. It is to aim at a lifestyle, which is consistent with all people enjoying the basic necessities of life. It is an aim which places the pursuit of luxuries for oneself in a lower position of value and meaning that a pursuit of global social justice. This does not lessen one's responsibility to provide for one's self and family. Each of us has this duty. But provide WHAT? And, WITHIN WHAT CONTENT? Each of us must pursue basic needs and do so in a global and socially just way. I will not defend these two assertions, but I will try to clarify them. I believe they are already a part of most people's stated ideals, though completely inconsistent with upward mobility.

What is our need?

I am not at all sure what is a need and what is a luxury. Needs change as technology changes. Needs are related to the society in which we live. The concept of needs must be clarified, especially in this interconnected world where needs and luxuries differ in various parts of the globe. My own tentative list of needs include:

My aims are not to have us live in poverty. I find no value or virtue in poverty at all. Our planet can produce the basic necessities for all its people, but it cannot provide both the needs to all and luxuries to many. The limits of planetary growth seem to me to exclude this latter possibility.

Nor are my aims essentially anti-technological. Those of you who know me know that there are anti-technological biases in me. True. But these are not necessary to my position on simplification and basic necessities. In fact the opposite is true. To produce the basic needs for this plant of 5 billion plus people, we will require advanced technology. But modern technology is a dangerous tool. It produces, but it also destroys. It creates, but it pollutes and kills. We need to strive for a careful balance. But, technology itself is not an enemy.

Nor does my concept of basic needs envision a world where everyone is and has the same things. Not at all. Mine is a vision of a world where everyone's necessity has a moral priority over anyone's luxury. I'm not opposed to self-responsibility. Rather, I believe that it is an obligation on each of us, and work is a very positive force in our lives. But the LIFEFORM of upward mobility too often comes at the direct competition and detriment of other's basic needs.

How does my standard of living cause other people's poverty?

This argument is quite controversial, so I'll take the time to develop the point in four areas where we often enjoy advantages, or subsidies, which typically come from or out of the very poor of the world. The four areas are the subsidies of labor, natural resources, land and political self-determination.

  1. Labor.

Laborers increase the value of the goods they produce or create the value of the services they render. So, to use an industrial example, workers in the Rawlings factory in Haiti each sew about 40 baseballs each day. These workers increase the value of the imported (from the U.S.) and unfinished baseballs by stitching them up and making them usable. Rawlings supplies all of the baseballs for the major leagues and sells them at a decent profit. Thus the Rawlings; stockholders reap a benefit from the Haitian workers, the ballplayers' livelihoods are made possible by Haitian workers and much more indirectly, fans also benefit. Yet the Haitian worker receives a mere pittance for her work. The minimum wage in Haiti is $3.65 DAILY. However, it is doubtful that Rawlings even pays this much. The luxury of baseball, the luxury of the profits to the Rawlings' stockholders and so on, are directly subsidized by the desperate lives which Haitian people live to provide us with these luxuries. This case can be multiplied many times over in areas of labor, which touch our own lives more closely. There are many areas of food production where we receive a direct subsidy of our food costs by the poverty of the food production workers in our own and other lands.

  1. Natural resources.

I have selected a particularly controversial example to emphasize this area. Prior to 1964 United States oil companies paid about $2.00 a barrel for Arabian crude oil. This oil was sold here at prices, which gave us two major subsidies. First, the oil companies and their stockholders reaped huge profits at the expense of the only significant natural resource, which these traditionally poor and then powerless nations had. Secondly, the consumer -- you and me -- were subsidized to exceptionally cheap oil prices for our large and inefficient cars, our home heating and the power to drive our industry. All of this came as a direct subsidy of those then poor nations.

Today, of course, the situation has changed. Oil is 12 times more expensive at the wellhead. This is reflected in the consumer's spending on energy (though not much reflected in stockholders' profits). Yet it is instructive that it is still cheaper to purchase Arabian crude than to use our own oil. The subsidy is greatly reduced, but even in this emotive-charged area, the subsidy continues.

  1. Land.

The whole of Latin America provides a classic case of others' subsidies of our lifestyles. Land in Latin America is usually owned by a very tiny native elite, or, increasingly, by U.S. based international corporations. This land is used for export crops to provide us with coffee, bananas, sugar and other luxury crops. The natives of these countries typically have little access to arable land to grow food for their own consumption and hunger is the subsidy they provide for our luxury.

  1. Political self-determination.

This last example can continue on into my final case. Why would people tolerate such a subsidy out of their very needs? They do not do this knowingly or willingly. First, they are kept ignorant of as much of this process as is possible. (However, we shouldn't doubt for a moment that they know this story better than you or I!). Secondly, as we see daily in the news, the people are oppressed by brutal governments of every political ideology. Why? To provide those of us of the rich and powerful nations, both east and west, with the subsidy of poverty and terror that much of the world pays. One may well protest that my analysis denies the concept of market prices and free competition. To some extent it does. I do not accept the argument that fair competition is the rule. Nor do I accept the claim that any economic advantage that one can get away with is just. No. I do reject such a value and urge others to also reject it. We must face the dilemma of living in an increasingly interrelated global community. We have brothers and sisters. When our luxuries are supported by their lack of the basic necessities, then our economic principles must be subjugated to people needs.

Upward mobility ignores global limits.

Not only does upward mobility ignore the needs and subsidies of the poor of the world, but the logic of upward mobility ignores the limits of the planet. Consider that logic. Really, who can define for himself or herself how much is enough? Virtually no one. The logic of upward mobility is to get as much as you can. Aim ever for more. More is better. The ideology of upward mobility tells us that anyone who really tries can have all that he or she wants. But will the planet bear this? I believe that it cannot and cannot for two reasons. Limits to growth. There are finite limits to the natural resources available to us. Almost everyone is aware of the limits of fossil fuels. These produce the primary sources of power that move industry and transportation in the public, commercial and private sector. Without this power source the plenty of our market would not be. Yet, the United States uses more fossil fuels to power its air-conditioners for its quarter of a billion people that the entire billion people of China use for all their power sources put together! We could not extend this use of power to the entire planet. There are not enough resources to do it. We, the people of the planet, directly compete with one another for the use and products of these limited resources. We cannot have unlimited growth. Thus, the premise of upward mobility is sadly mistaken. Not everyone can participate by his or her effort. No. In the world of ever upward we must directly compete. Some will satisfy their luxuries only at the direct expense of someone else's need. Limits to what the planet can bear. We have come to realize that there is a limit to what our planet can bear of the by-products of our productive acts. The pollution of air, land and sea, the mounting up of our waste is threatening the entire ecological balance of our planet. New technology, stricter limits on our productive acts -- these may help. (The latter tends to direct production to countries where these stricter rules do not limit production.) But the problem seems to me that we, the rich and powerful, are overburdening and overabusing our planet's resources and its delicate ecosystem. There are limits to upward mobility.

Downward mobility -- in search of liberty, virtue and justice.

And so I turn to an alternative. Since I believe I have given adequate reasons for believing that upward mobility costs us our freedom in a constant slavery to acquire more goods, often at the costs of our own virtue (i.e. consistency between or own stated values and our lives), I now turn to an alternative--downward mobility.

In general I believe that for us to live more simply and to use less of the natural resources, participating less in the abuse of the planet and relying less on the subsidy of others' labor, resources, land and freedom, that such a LIFEFORM creates a worthwhile value for our lives and allows us to pursue virtue. But even this is not enough. The other, especially the disadvantaged of the Third World, has been a concern throughout my remarks. We are one people. The rich and powerful of the west and east, the so-called first and second worlds, have seized control of much of the rest of the world. By our power we have, in manners I've described, extracted subsidies of the poor's wealth to satisfy our luxury. This is patently unjust and globally dangerous. Modern communications and transportation technology have made this a globally interconnected planet. Any concepts of freedom, virtue or meaningfulness must be socially just or they will crumble against the press of world inequality.

These are gigantic concerns. My question is really much more personal and self-directed. I am an idealist and something of a utopian, but not so much that I believe that your changing your lifestyle or my changing mine is going to change the world pattern. So what do I ask?

How does your simplification directly help anyone?

It probably doesn't; not in itself. Personal simplification, downward mobility as a LIFEFORM is a personal and first step. Its aim is to get one's own life into meaningful and virtuous order, not really to change the world. In fact, in the short term your own simplification might even have a slight negative effect. It makes you less of a consumer, thus less is produced, and thus fewer jobs are necessary. The purpose of downward mobility is personal, not systematic. First change you, not the world. By becoming downwardly mobile in a society that constantly pushes and affirms upward mobility is to make your own lifestyle and its social effects a constant effects a constant ISSUE OF CONCERN for you. It also makes you a radical, and somewhat of a freak or curiosity. Yet these acts are mainly consciousness raising and resetting one's own priorities. Then, as we progress in this new LIFEFORM we are in a much stronger position to go beyond personal simplification and to begin to face our global economic, political and social institutions. We will not be so wedded to our system of necessary exploitation to support the lifestyle we want. Thus, personal simplification, downward mobility, is the PRE-REQUISITE to freedom of action toward the questions of social justice.

Along the way, and central to my position, you gain much personal freedom. Work has less of a call on you. You need less wealth to have what you need. There are two ways to deal with a gap between one's wants and one's wealth. The first is to work more or earn more. This requires time and often tension, and often demands doing things you regard as distasteful. How many thousands of people are locked into jobs they detest simply because the lifestyle of upward mobility requires large amounts of money to support this way of life? The second way to deal with this gap is to want less. Wanting less -- downward mobility -- costs less. This often opens choices (freedoms) to work less, or work at more satisfying, but perhaps less remunerative jobs.

Is this enough?

You may feel cheated. I often do at this point in my own argument. Don't I have a plan to better the world? No. Not really. But that is not a reason why each of us does not have a responsibility to achieve as much consistency of moral purpose, as much meaningfulness, and freedom and justice in one's own life as possible. This comes with closing the gap between ideality and reality in our own lives and with personal service to others. But, this does not mean that we can't achieve anything outside ourselves. We can make a difference, but we must be realistic. We much change ourselves. We must be felt. But to expect a global response to a call as severe as this one is not to be realistic. Those who pursue freedom, virtue and service will always be a small minority. We shouldn't be discouraged by this fact, or deluded by grander schemes.


So much for the theory. In many ways assenting to the theoretical case is the easy part. Now the problem is how to achieve downward mobility. I have been consciously trying to move myself toward downward mobility -- as a LIFEFORM -- for several years. I have made a little progress. Our children have followed more out of necessity (especially when they all still lived at home) than out of deep conviction. But, I struggle and have learned a little in the process. I want to be upfront. I am not a person who lives on the margin of poverty. I made a very fine salary at my work for Webster University. A few years ago I gave up half of that salary to free up more time for my volunteer service work and I could do this because I didn't need the money. From the global perspective I am fabulously wealthy. Even from the U.S. standpoint I was well off when I earned my full salary. Most of my money goes for my own living. I do not hold myself up as an ideal model, yet I have managed to turn my life around somewhat, so, with hesitation, I come forward with practical suggestions for downward mobility. I do not aim at completeness, but only a small beginning set of strategies to provide you with directions or starting points. This sort of practical moving will be highly individualistic. Each person will have his or her own ways of moving. For what they are worth, here are 10 ideas as starters.

  1. I believe that a primary task is to reduce the amount of money it costs you to live. I direct this strategy to people who are not suffering the want of basic necessities. First, secure the basics. Then, either hold yourself there, or, as is the case for so many of us in the United States who have long ago passed this point, begin to reduce your spending on yourselves. This tactic allows several choices. It may produce excess income, which you can begin to use to help less fortunate people more than you already do, turning your attention outward from self even more forcefully. Or, you may be able to seek more satisfying and socially useful work for less pay; or work less time at your paying job and devote some time to working for no pay or little pay in the service of less fortunate people. There are many options, to say nothing of the tension relief that follows from needing less money.
  2. Use less fossil fuel. The automobile seems to me a particularly extravagant mode of transport. Frequently only one person travels in an auto which burns precious fuel for little needed trips. Set a quota of usage. Reduce your gasoline consumption by 20% for 6 months. Then, reduce again. Ride a bike or walk or ride busses when possible. Condition yourself to alternative modes of transport.
  3. Radically curtail TV watching or get rid of the machine altogether. This has been one of the most successful strategies in parenting. After marrying and leaving my family of birth in 1962 we decided then never to own a TV. We never did. The model of how to live -- the model of upward mobility -- is the dominant model on TV. I'm not speaking of the advertising, but of the programs themselves. Who are the people who come into your homes, who influence your image of how to be? They are primarily upwardly mobile people. Consumers. Then, of course the commercials add their own power to shaping your needs. Simply avoid it all, or at least curtail it. What do you lose? Some good programs. Yes. Anything that you can't replace with activity on your own part? I would argue definitely not. In raising my seven children I believe that the most significant benefit we had from not owning a TV was the activity that replaced TV watching. We talked, we visited, played and read. Our lives were more interactive because of this lack. And, for my purposes here, it helped us from becoming as indoctrinated toward upward mobility as we might otherwise have been.
  4. As a corollary to the above: associate with other downwardly mobile people (if you can find them!). This provides you with a community of people who reinforce your own LIFEFORM and provide you with other models to consider.
  5. Reduce the possessions you own. When our family made the conscious choice to try to turn our lifestyle downward, we found that we had many so-called 'valuables' that we really didn't need. These provided us with a large supply of wonderful gifts for other people's weddings, birthdays or other occasions. It saved us money too. The things we could give were usually much more valuable in the world of upward mobility than gifts we could have afforded to buy.
  6. Related to the above: simply reducing the amount of stuff you own is freeing in many ways. First it turns you away from patterns of acquiring (if you will embrace downward mobility you must not remain primarily a consumer) toward simplicity.

    Secondly, it frees much time from maintenance of things. Thirdly, it lessen tensions since one is increasingly freed from the worry about one's things -- their safety, their appearance, their very being. Bear uppermost in mind -- the aim is a new LIFEFORM.

  7. Move outside yourself. There are many poor and less fortunate people around you. They are in your own neighborhood, city, state, country and in every corner of the globe. As a start it is not so important what or who you choose, but that you choose. Get outside yourself with a significant portion of your time. Help others to help themselves. This is part of developing the mindset that sees the task of life's meaning as sharing responsibility for helping others achieve the basic necessities of life.
  8. Be reflective and critical about your LIFEFORM. What you must be aiming to achieve is a new LIFEFORM, not a few good deeds. Carefully watch what you are doing and try to head off the hardest areas of upward mobility, which try to reassert themselves in you. This struggle is not easy. The world we live in is thoroughly committed to upward mobility. Each of us, even the very poor (or the very vocal!) has been socialized toward this value. You will face incredible self-deception on your own part and discouraging gaps between your new ideals and the power of your old pattern of acts. But, try to keep a clear and honest view of what you are and are not achieving.

  9. Read and inform yourself. The things I have talked about in the second section of this paper are much written about by more careful thinkers than I am. Read them; discover the literature that tells us about exploitation and unfair advantage. Discover the huge literature of social justice.
  10. Take some large, important, even if mainly symbolic, task. Use this task to motivate yourself and keep you critically aware of where you want to go. You are fighting a tough enemy -- upward mobility. In my own case I decided to give up automobile ownership. I did this first in 1973, but then owned a car from 1975 to 1979. Finally (at least I hope!) I gave up car ownership in 1979. This creates little inconvenience for me, though other people might not view it that way. I learned to ride my bike to the grocery and to shop daily rather than weekly. Why? Primarily it is a symbolic act of defiance. It is to prove to MYSELF that I can face up to what upward mobility tells me is necessary and to answer, no thanks. I don't need it or want it. Symbols and discipline are necessary. It is a new LIFEFORM I seek.

These ten are just a sampling. Your own creativity, if you're truly committed, can create many strategies to help you learn how to live meaningfully, freely and virtuously in peace and harmony with the people who share your planet.

My Philosophy Page Webster U. Philosophy Department

Philosophy for Children Critical Thinking Current Semester Education Existentialism
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Bob Corbett