Why is it that having money seems so immensely attractive to many people? Perhaps it's not a single thing, a particular experience of 'being rich', but many different ones which overlap in that money comes in useful for them. You may enjoy going on travels once a year — for which you need the spare cash. You may take it to be important to be well and fashionably dressed, to own a car and a house, and also to be able to choose among many options in these matters, aiming for good quality and a personal note. You may have an eye on buying good school education for your children, a pleasant retirement home for yourself or your parents, or on supporting a charitable cause financially. For each of these goals it is imperative to assemble the necessary means; you have to find ways of making money.

In all these cases, however, money is simply a means to an end. As long as it is only required to get something else, all the motivation to get our hands on it comes from that something, whatever it is in the circumstances. Of course you might doubt whether all the purposes I've just listed are really good goals to have your activity directed at; but at least they're purposes distinct from simply collecting money. The focus is on the actual goal, and if something other than money were required for achieving that goal, then we'd be glad to let go the money and direct our attention towards that other thing.

Yet there is something special about money — and that can let us slide into becoming attracted to the money itself, instead to what it buys us. Money functions as an abstract placeholder for options: the very same fistful of currency can be used for widely varying purposes; it's not inscribed on it what you can get in exchange; as long as it is money (and valid, and the right amount), it's fully up to you what you want to trade for it. It's also up to you when you make use of it: as long as it remains in the abstract form of money, you can hoard it somewhere for as long as you like, and thus delay both your decision what to trade it for, and the beginning of your ownership of that thing. Take a simple example: if you've got some money right now, but you're not hungry, then you don't have to decide at this very moment what to eat; and neither do you need to carry around actual food. Only later, when you think it's time to trade your cash for something to eat you have both to choose and also, once you transformed the money into an actual meal, you must consume that meal within a reasonable time (or else it will corrupt). So money is both an abstract placeholder and a means to counter the passing of time: you can keep money for a while and only later trade it for something else.

(It is both only ever to a certain degree: there may come an economic crisis bringing a devaluation of the sums in your bank account; and inevitably over time the world changes, sometimes drastically — or more strictly, given enough time, it will always change drastically —, perhaps to the point where money doesn't count any more: remember those post-apocalyptic movies where a wad of banknotes doesn't even buy you a bite to eat and is best used for making a fire? Or think of the currency of old times: a handful of 18th-century coins have no value other than for being exhibited at a museum or written about in history books. Money is more stable than many other things in life; but it is by no means eternal.)

Pervasive as it is in our world, and broad as the range of things might be that you can get for it, note that these are always externals. Money functions as a placeholder only for externals: it's true, there's no need to produce food, build houses, transportation, tools and the like when you can buy them; and yes, you can buy pleasure and convenience, entertainment and distraction, even public attention and celebrity — as long as you have money, you can exchange it for almost every kind of external goods. (Especially in our modern world; this wasn't always so — for instance, in societies of old high birth was considered valuable, and you could at best have bought the appearance of that, but not the thing itself.) But then also think of all the things money cannot buy: love, friendship, more life time, a sense of direction in your life, and, first and foremost, excellence of character. Just as you would expect, if money is only an abstract placeholder for externals, it precisely cannot stand for anything of those things that are not external, which require at least in part an attitude from you yourself, something integral to your person, and the way you're living your life.

Now most people would agree, when prompted to think it through, that money is not a good guide to living a good life. And yet many exhibit that same tendency in practice that they would dismiss in their considered opinion. This is partly because of the placeholder function. As long as you value any externals that can be bought by money, you will thus automatically value money. It's easy to recognize individual kinds of externals for what they are: just external things with no real value. But all of them at once are a tough call, and as long as there are many that you still consider valuable, money will draw on that attraction cumulatively. Likewise, the potential of deferral is attractive especially when fears about the future (and the future procurement of externals) come into play. The more fearful you are about the future, the more attractive seems getting more money.

Since money, in its function as abstract placeholder for externals, is so pervasive, it's easy to fall for the error that it is always a good thing to have more of it — that it is always a good idea to go for it. That's where we begin to think that the question "How much money will it get me (or save me)?" is a good guide for our actions. In short, you might make money into an unconditional good, something that is good per se, without depending on circumstances. And this is where the error lies. We fall into a mindset in which money considerations can only be trumped by other money considerations. Consider: money can be quantified, as many other things can't, so it is always possible to easily compare options by their weight in money; it will often be harder to compare them in other respects. Thus in addition to buying you some time, putting money first can also simplify decision-making about how to act. In the jungle of options we inhabit today, such simple clarity can be seductive. So in the end, we might even make up a general rule such as "if in doubt, go for what gets you more money (or what costs you less)".

But that means to overlook the fact that it's only externals that can be bought with money, and so the general rule blocks your view of what is much more important than externals: the integrity and excellence in the qualities of your character, which show themselves in the way you're living your life, and in the personal relationships you maintain. Money may be abstract, but it's not abstract enough to cover that. Moreover: money may make it all right to delay decisions on externals, but with decisions about those other things, the integral concerns of your relationships, your character, and what use you make of your lifetime, there is no such thing as delay. With externals, it might be an advantage; with your personal development, it always puts you at a disadvantage. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.