A moral philosophy with devastating results

In Brief: 
  • A McGill University psychiatrist, Dr. Abdu’l-Missagh Ghadirian traces how the philosophy of materialism has infected our global culture
  • By disregarding humanity’s spiritual nature, materialism is shown to underlie numerous problems, from environmental degradation to poverty and human trafficking
  • Drawing on religious scripture Dr. Ghadirian, offers a road map away from materialism and its excesses

Materialism: Moral and Social Consequences
By Abdu’l-Missagh Ghadirian
George Ronald Publishers

It is a question many people in affluent countries have increasingly come to ask: why has not the steady rise of material wealth and comfort been accompanied by a similar increase in happiness and well-being? In fact, happiness has often declined in the face of wealth.

The divergent phenomenon has been documented in numerous studies, notes Abdu’l-Missagh Ghadirian in his new book, Materialism: Moral and Social Consequences. One researcher, he writes, found that the number of Americans who reported themselves “very happy” declined between 1957 and 1998 despite a doubling of income.

“This negative relationship between wealth and well-being is replicated in studies covering diverse cultures — in Australia, Germany, Norway, Romania, Russia, South Korea and the United Kingdom,” writes Dr. Ghadirian.

The explanation, says Dr. Ghadirian, lies in the false assumptions about the nature of reality, promulgated by what has become the prevailing philosophy and a “universal behavior pattern” in the modern world: materialism.

“‘Materialism’ is an expression given to a group of doctrines about the nature of the world in which matter is given a primary position while the mind (or spirit) is accorded a secondary or dependent reality or no consideration at all,” writes Dr. Ghadirian.

This reductionist idea today pervades almost nearly every school of science, which holds it as the path to progress and well-being. It has, moreover, been given popular expression by our consumer culture, in which “material desires are overrated and excessively glamorized.”

Dr. Ghadirian believes, however, that materialism is actually the thread that today connects a wide range of problems, from environmental degradation to global extremes of wealth and poverty; from substance abuse to human trafficking.

The problem, he writes, is that materialism ignores the two-fold aspect of human nature: that we have both a body and a mind (or spirit). “The human mind is very complex; it cannot be broken down and reduced to a simple mechanism of brain function.”

As a result, we have ignored the importance of the spiritual dimension of human existence. Those held under materialism’s sway, therefore, are forever chasing the chimera of unceasing acquisition, unable to find true contentment and well-being.

Dr. Ghadirian is well qualified to write about such issues. A Fellow to the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada and a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, he is a member of the faculty at McGill University in Montreal and has published over 130 peer-reviewed articles.

Dr. Ghaderian is also a member of the Bahá’í community of Canada — and one of his primary interests is the intersection of spirituality and medicine.

In Materialism, his analysis draws extensively on ideas and quotations from the world’s holy scriptures, which all teach of humanity’s dual nature. “The purpose of religion and divine education is to enable spiritual qualities to dominate the material or lower qualities,” he writes.

He suggests, moreover, that the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith today offer a distinctive antidote to the scourge of excessive materialism, appropriate for the modern mind, on a global level.

“Materialism in moral terms,” he writes, “can have destructive consequences and may permeate society as a form of social dysfunction. It is an acquired condition and state of mind which develops as a result of a number of factors, including materialistic education, parental attitudes, and socio-cultural influences. To remedy this condition, a reconstruction of society’s mindset and attitude toward the accumulation of wealth and greedy attachment to it is needed, through a consciousness of and belief in intrinsic moral values and the spiritual reality of existence which transcend dependence on material wealth as a lifestyle.

“The Bahá’í Faith defines economy in a broad context, relating it to the spiritual reality of human beings,” he writes. “When we look at human society as a collection of souls in a global community, with equal rights to betterment and progress, we become more conscious of the needs of others. Through this perception we realize that the interests of society must transcend the pursuit of individual self-interest.”