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.

24 comments on “The Luxury Problem

  1. shoreacres says:

    But are luxury and overconsumption synonymous? I don’t think so.


    • Bill says:

      Yes, I’m treating them as synonymous for purposes of Singer’s argument, relying on his definition (purchases that are not morally important, which I take to mean purchases of nonessential things). I realize the words have different connotations in popular usage.


      • shoreacres says:

        But then, of course, there are questions of what’s essential – and who gets to choose? I’m not really arguing here, just thinking about it. I may pop back when I’ve thought some more. 🙂


  2. daphnegould says:

    If everyone believed how Wesley did there would be no art, no literature, no technology. I suppose you could argue that you could make art from found objects, like weaving and dyes from nature, but if you take the argument to its conclusion you should spend all your waking moments making food for those who need it. Wouldn’t you spend an hour rescuing a toddler from a pit to save her? So why wouldn’t you spend all your hours making sure others don’t die from starvation?

    If you want to take it really far, you need to get rid of those with disabilities and the elderly because the money it takes to take care of them is so much compared to feeding the children elsewhere. You could feed 100 people for a year instead of that cancer treatment for mom. I have a autistic child (well adult now) and she struggles ethically with the fact that she needs so many services.

    Where do you stop? Should I have no joy in my life and spend every minute making sure others are fed? Am I not allowed to save for retirement? (My husband and I have always been savers, it is in our nature. When we first got married and had to count every penny to get by, we saved a percentage of our income.) Part of me thinks that every person should live in the city and no one should own a car as you would be using fewer resources like that. Live in a tiny apartment with four other people. There is room for your mat so you can sleep. I think we need balance in our lives but where that tipping point is is different for different people.

    I think the other side of looking at it come from my autistic daughter. Most of us humans see the suffering of people who are close to us. Our family. The people in our church or community. Our friends. Saving the world is too hard for us to see. Too difficult. My daughter’s brain works differently. She doesn’t understand why people take care of family over others. She doesn’t understand nationalism. She doesn’t understand team sports or competition. She doesn’t understand us versus them thinking at all. Either the positive or the negative. I think most people are programmed to make communities and protect their own. She is not. To give away money to those you don’t know is to take a support system away from those you you love and from yourself when things go bad.


    • Bill says:

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment Daphne. You’ve touched on some of the issues and questions that make this so complex, despite the apparent simplicity and strength of Singer’s argument. The post I linked fleshes it out more and the comments are insightful too.


  3. I am attending the National Peace Corps Conference in Berkeley today, Bill. This is a different type of giving. Peace Corps Volunteers spend two years out of their life going and living mainly in third world countries where they live and work in the communities they are trying to help. Obviously they don’t starve or go naked. They also have access to good health care. Beyond that, however, there is little in the way of luxury.

    While giving is obviously important, getting at the root causes of poverty is even more so. I have always believed that most people would prefer jobs over handouts. I have to head off to the conference but I’ll close with a thought that I stressed in my book. The Peace Corps has been in existence now for over 50 years. The US spends more on the military every five days than the total cost of the Peace Corps for the complete 50 years. Just what are the priorities of our nation? –Curt


    • Bill says:

      Thanks for your service Curt. I’m a Peace Corps fan.

      I’m not sure if you saw my recent post about our visitors from Tanzania. They were escorted by a former Peace Corps volunteer who met them during her service there. She was taking them around to sustainable farms to help expose them to ideas that might help them back in Tanzania. Impressive person.

      As for our level of military spending, in my opinion it is obscene. Imagine all the good that could have been done with the money if we only spent what is truly necessary for defense.


      • Had a few days off, Bill. Or was that a few off days. Anyway, I did see your post about the Tanzanians and the RPCV. That should have been fun showing them around. Now I am back from Berkeley, I have a couple of weeks to catch up before kids and grandkids descend on us. 🙂 –Curt

        Liked by 1 person

  4. barnraised says:

    Very thought provoking morning read. Hum… I like starting my day off on that foot!


    • Bill says:

      Thanks. 🙂

      I know this isn’t the usual fare here. I find these kind of philosophical questions fascinating, so I do sometimes veer off into directions like this. Glad to know some folks found it interesting. We’ll be back to normal here tomorrow.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This has been a constant battle for me as we spend money to rehab the 2 bedroom cottage where we have just moved. What is luxury? What is simplicity? 12 dinner plates so we can practice hospitality? Building materials made out of natural substances– which are more expensive. A more costly faucet that will last longer than the cheapie one from Home Depot — made in China.
    Our own consciences must guide us.


    • Bill says:

      Yes, I completely agree. We deal with those kinds of questions all the time. Ultimately we just let us consciences guide us, while staying mindful of the fact that our choices, no matter how seemingly insignificant, all have consequences.


  6. ain't for city gals says:

    If feel like I live simply and do not over consume. But if I do want something that might be considered a luxury I would feel no guilt. And I am definitely against a luxury tax. Sometimes I think rich people get a bum rap….they do so much good and most of the time without recognition.


    • Bill says:

      From my experience on the edges of that world, I’d say it’s wrong to overgeneralize and stereotype as society often likes to do. There are rich people who are greedy and self-absorbed, and there are rich people who are generous and compassionate. Likewise there are poor people who are greedy and self-absorbed, and poor people who are generous and compassionate. I’ve known very generous kind-hearted people who are rich and very generous and kind-hearted people who are poor. “The greedy heartless rich” is a false stereotype.


  7. Sue says:

    I don’t think you can convince someone to give no matter what the argument is. Some people just don’t want to help others. I hear a lot of that from folks in government—they think it makes them dependent. And I guess–in a way–that is what is happening with so many. BUT—there are a lot of people that just need a little help. How do you know which is which?????? Hubby and I were getting rid of our truck. We weren’t offered much in trade -in, so we decided to give it to someone that NEEDED it. It was terrible. The ones that ALWAYS have their hand held out literally swarmed us. A couple of people we found out were broke—because they used drugs. It’s harder than you can imagine to “help” people nowadays.
    I finally found someone deserving of it and I could see his life change because he got that truck. He got a decent job. Now he is a productive member of society. But I wouldn’t want to go through that again. It’s hard to be helpful……………..


    • Bill says:

      It is hard, as your example shows. In Wesley’s day (18th century England) there was no social safety net and he was in fairly constant contact with people who were suffering from poverty through no fault of their own. Orphans, widows, the disabled, the unemployed, etc.

      It’s great that you were able to get the truck to someone who was able to use it so well. That’s a helping hand, not just a hand out.


  8. BeeHappee says:

    Thanks, Bill, I enjoyed reading this one and the comments, and saving it for later pondering too. I am starting to feel really weighted down physically and morally by all the stuff that is beyond absolute necessity. I think migratory societies had it nailed. We become sedentary and we lose any sense of what is really necessary to survive.


    • Bill says:

      It’s easy to fall into the trap of coming to believe that luxuries are actually necessities. It’s easy, I think, to end up in the situation where the things we own begin to own us.


  9. jubilare says:

    The question I have, that makes this question somewhat more complicated, is what defines luxury? Swede shoes is a throwaway argument. No one needs a pair of $1000 shoes.

    But what about a good mattress? A wooden table? A pair of good running shoes for a jogger? A good backpack to go hiking, a leisure activity that costs money? Or, for goodness sake, home internet access that allows us to blog?

    And then I come to the door of art. …Since before recorded history, art has existed as a luxury. It only arises with spare time and, often, spare funds. In ages past only the most wealthy men and women could give the artisan the time and support needed to create a sculpture, or a painting, a cathedral, or even a concerto. True, these things cannot compare to the worth of someone’s soul, but they still have great worth. When I ask myself if I would prefer that all the paintings, sculptures, great music, poetry, and beautiful buildings had never been, for the safety and security of all mankind… I stop dead. I’m at an impasse, caught between two horrors. The horror of the world we have, full of inequality and injustice, people starving, people dying for want of medicine, and the horror of a world that never had, nor never will have, the luxury to create that which it does not need. A world in which no great art, music, writing, or architecture ever existed.

    The only answer I can find that makes sense to me is this: it is not luxury that is the problem. It is Greed… that desire to take and take, to never have enough, and to think always of the self first. The horrible, willful blindness and insensibility to the plight of others. Perhaps there is some way to kill greed without killing art. At least, I hope that it is so.


    • Bill says:

      It became acceptable to say that “Greed is good.” Somehow the idea that being greedy was actually helping the poor took hold. I’m encouraged to see that most folks don’t subscribe to that these days. Greed is bad, in every way.

      I could go on for pages on this subject, which I find fascinating and troubling. One of the things that is so disconcerting about Singer’s argument is that none of the things you mention, however useful they might be, are preferable to saving a drowning toddler. Almost no one would hesitate if asked whether a good mattress or a pair of running shoes is worth the price of a child’s life. Yet we somehow feel (at least I do) that there isn’t anything morally wrong with buying useful things. That’s what makes it such a difficult philosophical puzzle.

      As for art, I don’t accept that we must choose either a world without suffering children or a world without art. I think that’s a false choice. I believe that we have enough to have both. But even assuming that we have to choose art or a child, who would choose art if they knew the child? I imagine myself as a peasant serf knocking on the door of the manor house and begging for some medicine to save the life of my dying daughter, and being told no because the lord had decided to commission a portrait instead.

      Yet when the great art of the Renaissance was created, children were literally starving while the cathedrals were being built and the portraits were being painted.

      It’s a very difficult question to wrestle with.

      Where ever we ultimately come down, the most important step, in my opinion, is to be mindful that every time we spend money we are making a choice and every expenditure matters.


      • jubilare says:

        “I think that’s a false choice.” My point is that, with the reductive argument of luxury versus charity, it isn’t a false choice. It’s one or the other. Swede shoes or the Sistine Chapel, it all depends on where the line is drawn. And where that line is drawn changes the argument. The logical conclusion, if no line is drawn, is that art should not exist until the whole of humanity is secure, and therefore all art that has been created up to this point should not have been created and should not be maintained at any expense.

        Don’t get me wrong. I’d choose the child, too, but if I had any inkling of what was lost in that choice, I think it would break me. It would be like choosing to save a child’s life, only for that child, and every other child, to grow up in a world of steel and concrete.

        You might say that the argument isn’t meant to be taken to this extreme conclusion. That’s probably true. As an exercise in mindfulness and responsibility, the oversimplification is effective, so long as its nature, as an oversimplification, isn’t forgotten. Everything hinges or where the line is drawn, and I doubt any two people could ever fully agree on that, much less the whole of mankind. The best that can be hoped for is personal mindfulness.
        Anything more than that dives into a rabbit-hole of philosophical and practical questions.

        On the whole, though, I agree. When we spend money, we are making a choice and it matters. We’re making tons of choices, and being aware of those choices is important.


  10. EllaDee says:

    I saw this post earlier in the week and kept it to read. It’s thoughtful and thought provoking. Trying to simplify current day life and stop assessing value in monetary terms is challenging. But it’s worth thinking about the time, money and effort spent on nice-to-haves and what the real cost is, and to whom we are conferring benefit and power. Society has made many of its own chains. We can’t look elsewhere for the means now to break them, we have to look to ourselves, and only then we may be able to help others.


    • Bill says:

      Well said. I don’t have an answer, but it’s good I think to set our minds on these kinds of challenging questions sometimes. We need to let ourselves be challenged. I’m inclined to believe as you do that the best way to begin helping humanity is to first make sure we ourselves are living right. Someone said, live simply so others may simply live.


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