The Luxury Problem

So it seems a comment by a presidential candidate has stirred up some discussion of a fascinating and perplexing issue of ethics and philosophy.  I don’t expect that to happen very often–the usual mudslinging and lying doesn’t leave enough time for it.  Nor do I expect there to be a lot of national soul-searching on the question. But it is a subject of great interest to a nerd like me.

The subject is whether or not it is immoral to spend money on luxuries. Some of the arguments are reviewed HERE.

The post focuses on the Anti-Luxury Argument of the philosopher Peter Singer.  It goes like this:

Singer’s Anti-Luxury Argument

  1. If one has the ability to help others in dire circumstances without giving up anything morally important, then one should do so.

  2. One can help others in dire circumstances by giving up luxury goods. One can instead donating the money one would have spent on luxury goods to save those in dire circumstances.

  3. Therefore, one should give up luxury goods and instead donate the money one would have spent on luxury goods to save those in dire circumstances.

To motivate premise 1, Singer asks us to imagine a scenario like the following:

Drowning Toddler: You are walking along one day when you see a toddler drowning in a shallow pool. You could easily reach in and save the toddler, though doing so will destroy your $1000 suede shoes.

Singer then asks readers to consider whether, according to their own moral views, they are obligated to save the child. On reflection, most people judge that saving the child is not merely a nice thing to do, but obligatory. They think it would be wrong to let the child drown. The child’s life matters more than the suede shoes.

Singer then asks readers to consider how they would respond to a slightly modified case:

Starving Toddler: There is a toddler starving on the other side of the world. You could easily save his life, but only if you decide not to buy $1000 suede shoes and instead donate the money to an organization that will save the child’s life.

Singer thinks Drowning Child and Starving Toddler are different only in their details, rather than their essentials. If it’s imperative that you save a drowning child at the cost of your fancy shoes, then, he thinks, you should just avoid buying the shoes in the first place, and instead use the money to a save a child’s life. Most people commit themselves to saying they have a positive duty to save the toddler in Drowning Toddler. But, Singer thinks, once they admit this, they will have to accept this Anti-Luxury argument.

Of course Dr. Singer was not the first person to make such an argument.  John Wesley, for example, argued that it is immoral to keep for ourselves anything beyond what is necessary to provide the bare necessities of life:  simple food, simple clothing and basic shelter. Anything beyond that should be given to those who do not have food, clothing or shelter. In his sermon “On Dress” (one of many places Wesley made the argument) he said:

Nothing can be more evident than this; for the more you lay out on your own apparel, the less you have left to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, to lodge the strangers, to relieve those that are sick and in prison, and to lessen the numberless afflictions to which we are exposed in this vale of tears…. Every shilling which you save from your own apparel, you may expend in clothing the naked, and relieving the various necessities of the poor, whom ye “have always with you.” Therefore, every shilling which you needlessly spend on your apparel is, in effect, stolen from God and the poor! And how many precious opportunities of doing good have you defrauded yourself of! …

 I pray consider this well. Perhaps you have not seen it in this light before. When you are laying out that money in costly apparel which you could have otherwise spared for the poor, you thereby deprive them of what God, the proprietor of all, had lodged in your hands for their use. If so, what you put upon yourself, you are, in effect, tearing from the back of the naked; as the costly and delicate food which you eat, you are snatching from the mouth of the hungry. For mercy, for pity, for Christ’s sake, for the honour of his gospel, stay your hand! Do not throw this money away! Do not lay out on nothing, yea, worse than nothing, what may clothe your poor, naked, shivering fellow-creature!

Fourteen centuries before Wesley made his claim, Basil of Ceasarea (St. Basil the Great) also said as much:

Who is a man of greed? Someone who does not rest content with what is sufficient. Who is a cheater? Someone who takes away what belongs to others. And are you not a man of greed? Are you not a cheater? Taking those things which you received for the sake of stewardship, and making them your very own? Now, someone who takes a man who is clothed and renders him naked would be termed a robber; but when someone fails to clothe the naked, while he is able to do this, is such a man deserving of any other appellation? The bread which you hold back belongs to the hungry; the coat, which you guard in your locked storage-chests, belongs to the naked; the footwear mouldering in your closet belongs to those without shoes. The silver that you keep hidden in a safe place belongs to the one in need. Thus, however many are those whom you could have provided for, so many are those whom you wrong.

The most common objection to the argument that purchasing luxury items is immoral is that overconsumption by the affluent creates economic activity that inures somehow to the benefit of the poor.  “A rising tide floats all ships,” the saying goes.  (Or perhaps, as Warren Buffet has quipped, “A rising tide floats all yachts.”)  There may be truth in that, but of course it would not be comforting to a starving person, whose life could have been saved with the money a rich person (that includes anyone reading the post) spent on a luxury item.

So what is the answer?  Some may choose to live as Wesley did and give away nearly all the money they earn.  (Wesley earned a lot of money from the books he authored, and gave it all away to the poor as he earned it. “If I leave behind me ten pounds when I die, you and all mankind may bear witness against me, that I have lived and died a thief and a robber,” he wrote.  When he died, he had only the coins in his pockets.)  Others may trust the notion that spending money on luxuries will ultimately benefit the poor somehow.  Of course most people will simply refuse to wrestle with the issue, which is easy to do in our culture since we aren’t specifically confronted with the choice of either saving a drowning child or buying a pair of shoes.

For those who are inclined to think about such things, the subject can be maddening.  What is a luxury? What specifically should we do with the money we don’t need?  Should the beneficiary of charity be required to “deserve” it?  And how do we measure that?

I’m not going to try to tackle those questions.  Maybe this winter, when I have more down time, I’ll return to them.  But whatever the ultimate moral solution to the “luxury” question, I’m increasingly convinced that we should all strive to live simply.  As Wesley and St. Basil (and no doubt countless others) observed, most of the time when we spend money on luxury items our motives aren’t good. Most of the time we when we buy things we don’t need, they don’t make us happier.

The cost of overconsumption, it seems to me, goes far beyond just the missed opportunity to help the needy.  By continuing to consume more than we need we are pillaging the earth, degrading the environment and warping our values.  Maybe we don’t all need to live like Wesley, but surely our culture would benefit if we should all choose to dial it back, appreciate the pleasures that are available for free and lighten our footprints on the planet. We might even find that many of the things we thought were necessities, were in fact luxuries that complicate and burden our lives.

Maybe simplifying our lives will float more boats than overconsumption.