Why Does This Topic Matter: Thinking About the Big Issues


Issues of continuing relevance

This page describes some of the general ideas that the How Much is Enough website can illuminate in the classroom.

Meaning and Purpose of Life

Father John A. Ryan worked from within a Catholic-Christian perspective. His writings reflect the influence of the Gospel message and emerging Catholic social justice tradition on his understanding of the human person. Thus, he rejected what he saw as the false values of the consumer and materialistic culture arising from industrialism. Similarly, other people, such as those belonging to the National Consumer League, without explicitly calling upon Christian tradition were also critical of the growing consumer and materialistic culture as they called people to fight it. Some people, such as the writer for Gunther Magazine, believed that the critics were overlooking the benefits of the emerging culture. Several questions underlie these different positions: What is the meaning and purpose of life? What is the destiny of the human person? Why were we created? Accordingly, what is the good life? Is it a life of comfort and leisure? Or, is it a life of service and work?

These questions give rise to additional questions about our relationships with others. How do we define ourselves and others? Is it by employment? Income? Clothing? Or is it by their values? How they treat others? Their beliefs?

Fr. Ryan believed that character is shaped by how much we had or didn't have growing up. Do you agree? Can children be spoiled by being raised with too much? What is too much?

Social Justice in a Consumer Society

The National Consumer League called upon consumers to exercise their power to effect change in how companies conducted business. They believed that it was consumers' responsibility to know how and under what conditions the products they buy are made and sold. Accordingly, they believed that businesses have an obligation to provide employees with safe, clean, and comfortable work environments and to pay a living wage. Do you agree? What responsibilities do you see the consumer and the businessperson as having to the producer of the product? Is it the consumer's responsibility to keep himself or herself informed about such issues as sweatshops? Do you believe that the consumer has the power to change working conditions? What if the product is made in another country?

Similarly, think about business' responsibilities. The purpose of a business is to make money. Are businesses obligated to provide safe, clean, and comfortable working conditions? Why? Or, why not? Many businesses today are "public" companies. This means that they have shareholders, stock owners, who have invested in them to make money. To whom do these businesses have their first obligation? Is it to the employees? Or, to the shareholders? If giving better wages and working conditions hurts profits and lowers returns on shareholders' investments, should businesses freeze wages and not improve the working conditions?

Governments and Social Justice

Fr. Ryan looked to the state to help regulate wages and working conditions. He believed that if companies would not pay a living wage then the government should step in and force them to. Do you agree? If people are willing to work for subsistence wages, should they be allowed? Or, should the government intervene?

Fr. Ryan, as other social reformers of the period, believed that the government had an obligation to the citizen. On this basis, laws could be passed restricting business ventures, preventing monopolies, and limiting working hours. Some saw this as regulating morality. Do you agree? Does the government have an obligation to the citizen that justifies the government interfering in private enterprises? What right does the government have to say how a person may conduct his or her business? Does the government have a right to make businesses an instrument of social justice?

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