Sede Vacante

The light is on but no one is home.

Earning vs. wanting: a call to worthiness from consumerism


I’m sick and tired of people whining about how consumerist and materialistic our world has become. Not because I disagree. On the contrary, I’d be the first to tell you that our values have been completely fucked up by this drive to acquire iPods and BMWs. What buggers the fuck out of me is that *no one* is giving a sensible way of answering the call for a balanced and conscientious life as a consumer.

“Live simply so that others may simply live.”

It sounds pretty and poetic, doesn’t it? It achingly calls on the affluent to sacrifice so that the less fortunate (human or otherwise for all you tree-huggers out there) can lead better lives. But seriously, that’s some lazy-ass philosophizing right there. You can’t start thinking like a human being and then decide five minutes later that you’ve had enough. Come on. Philosophizing isn’t that much different from having sex: keep going until you’re done.

Some of you are grinning. Yes, I’m in front of my computer philosophizing with myself. It’s because I’m stuck in Vietnam, smacktard. Everyone’s a fucking clown when you’re trying to say something serious. Read on.

The problem with living simply

Let’s start with what everybody probably understands by living simply. It’s the guy who is driving a Honda Civic when he can afford a Ferrari. Ok, that sounds cool. Don’t even think about stopping there. Or else I’m going to clench my ass-cheeks and… I digress.

So we are therefore saying that living simply is as straightforward as buying a cheaper version than you can actually afford. Are we therefore saying that we are issuing a blanket condemnation of all things expensive? Or is it the self-moderation that maketh simple living? A Kia Pride or Daewoo Matiz is far simpler and cheaper than a Civic, so should we therefore chastise all the Civic drivers as well? The more left-leaning among you can probably still agree to that statement. So let’s go a little deeper.

It’s a a little too communistic for my taste, but we’re moving forward at least. So the ticket is a utilitarian way of life? I’m seeing most people on bicycles, and only those with shit to haul get four wheelers with an engine. I dig it. But there are natural consequences to this view.

Does that mean that creating something better or more beautiful is now an immoral act? That we want only purely functional things. So you’re saying that in an ideal world, we’re all still driving black model T’s. Or water buffalo. And that artists, scientists and inventors should be relegated to burning at the stake? Oh wait, some of you cute motherfuckers are saying, “NO! We should all be driving Ferraris!” Or perhaps, you’re thinking that we should make Ferraris but no one should buy them.

If you’re one of those morons, this is the point in this conversation at which you should go grab a large silver serving spoon… and shove it in your ear. Are you still thinking those thoughts? Wiggle the spoon around a little! There you go.

All thoughts of creating a useless vision of the universe aside, the main synthesis is this: life presents itself as a manifold of things to choose from. Some will necessarily be better than the others. Some will cost more than others. And people likewise, will have different capacities to pay. This scarcity of goods and disparity between supply and demand is the cornerstone of economics. Here’s news for you hippies: economics isn’t evil. It’s a natural aspect of our existence. Get over it.

As we can see, this poetic directive to “live simply” is utter horseshit unless you actually spend some time thinking about it.

Traditional simplistic ethics applied to consumption

Since we are essentially pondering the ethics of consumer decisions, we’ll need to consider the usual suspects that we need to look at when trying to understand the ethics of an act–the act in itself, the human actor’s intent, and the circumstances surrounding the act. While normally used to investigate the morality of far less mundane actions like killing in self-defense, and the abortion of children conceived during rape, it is important to note that regardless of the severity of the moral dilemma, the same demand for philosophical rigor is in effect.

The first component, the act in itself, is pretty much the same for all consumer transactions–there is inherently nothing evil about buying anything. However, we do need to take a look at the product itself! This is just your run-of-the-mill ethical consumerism.

For us ordinary consumers, this means that we must favor products that are produced without undue harm, cruelty, or exploitation of human beings, animals, and the environment in general. As moral creatures, we are obligated to boycott products of companies that engage in morally reprehensible actions in order to bring their products to market.

But this traditional view is woefully limited, and does not address our original problem. Interestingly, because of their sheer cost, the types of products that normally attract our attention as icons of wanton consumerism are those that easily pass this test. You can bet your ass that Ferrari doesn’t abuse cute furry animals in the production of their cars. You can rest assured that there are no child laborers in some poor Southeast Asian country making components for the Enzo.

So far, we still haven’t resolved the dilemma. The drive to innovate and create better and more beautiful things MUST be compatible with a realistic directive to consumers as to what items they ought to choose. What this means is that there must be some people out there who are *worthy* of buying a Ferrari. It is this idea of worthiness that I want to focus on.

A phenomenology of worthiness

As in all things in philosophy, sometimes, stating the question properly in a natural language can provide all the clues we need. Let us begin by way of an example in natural language: if Michael Schumacher wants to buy a Ferrari, he bloody hell is worthy of it.

So what do we mean by “worthy”? Well, let’s take a look at the Schumacher analogy.

The simplest component would be the ability to pay. Schumacher is one rich bastard, and a Ferrari would hardly make a dent in his retirement fund. But beyond that, we must consider his other obligations. Just because he has the money in his account doesn’t mean that he has the ability to pay. If he owed someone a lot of money, then obviously the correct thing to do is pay back this debt before considering a new car. Or perhaps if he had 256 children, it would be immoral to make such a purchase unless he had already planned for their college educations.

Another obvious component is intent. What did he wish to accomplish by the purchase of the Ferrari? To ease our discussion, let’s just say that he wants to drive it. He wants to use it to drive to work on weekdays, and on weekends, he’ll take it to the track, change the tires, and let the thing just breathe. He does not intend to keep in a vault to gain value as a mint condition item. That would be sacrilege. Ferraris are meant to be driven. And seen. And heard. The important point here is that the buyers intent, must more or less conform to the design purpose or telos of the product. More or less. Using a fork to scratch your bellybutton is probably ok. But all you toy collectors who keep them in their unopened boxes will burn in hell.

Another important aspect is that he can truly appreciate what makes a Ferrari so special. I’m sure if you point to any part of the bloody car, he can tell you what it does, how it works, and why Ferrari’s version of it is so much better and sexier than anything else out there. He’ll probably even tell you why red is the only color to consider for one of these sexy machines.

Although somewhat overlapping with the notion of appreciation, let’s talk about the ability to wield a Ferrari. I think, beyond a doubt, Mikey can and will squeeze every last ounce of performance and function of that Ferrari if given the chance and appropriate conditions. He’ll heel-toe-heel into corners, and accelerate out of them like a Hindu in a cattle ranch.

And of course, we need to talk about the need. In this case, our analogy probably fails. But if the Schu were to suddenly come out of retirement and move to racing stock Ferraris, an argument can be made.

This all sounds so wonderfully philosophical. So five criteria refined from our original three–the ability to pay, the intent, ability to appreciate, ability to weild, and need.

Back to the real world

The point I’m really making is that worthiness is an important and oft-neglected aspect of our purchasing decisions. And that aspects, I feel, spells the difference between moral consumerism and excess.

We as consumers should question why we want certain items, and beyond that honestly assess our worthiness for such things. A top chef SHOULD have a home kitchen worth several tens of thousands of dollars. But some rich bastard who just likes the look of stainless steel and likes to impress house guests should look for a more modest investment.

As for me, I’m proud to say that I’ve stayed faithful to these ideas. Everything I own is crappy, except for those things that I feel I’m truly worthy of. I’ve got a 20 dollar phone, a Honda Civic, and I don’t wear any jewelry.

Or maybe I just can’t afford anything better. Meeh.

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1 Comment»

  The environmental question « Sede Vacante wrote @

[…] (You also might want to read my post on ethical consumerism. It’s right here.) […]


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