Economic Altruism



Economic Altruism


No less an authority than Pope Francis has this to say: “Feverish consumerism breaks the bonds of belonging. It causes us to focus on our self-preservation and makes us anxious”. Why consumerism should “break the bonds of belonging” (whatever quite that means) is not made clear: why should buying stuff interfere with desirable social relations? We often buy things together or as gifts for each other, and buying things alone for oneself is hardly a source of social breakdown. Also, why does consumerism (itself undefined) make us anxious and focused on self-preservation? We are already anxiously focused on self-preservation for obvious reasons (death, disease, war, etc.), and our purchases often ease these concerns by affording us security and protection (clothes, homes, electricity, food, etc.). Would we be less anxiously focused on self-preservation if we didn’t buy ourselves anything? Hardly. Perhaps the author intends all the argumentative weight to be carried by “feverishly”: it is consuming feverishlythat brings about these woes. But doing anything feverishly is liable to have untoward consequences—even giving money to charity if done feverishly (imagine a person feverishly working all the hours of the day in order to give money to charity, neglecting his family, working himself into an early grave, a monomaniacal loner). The pope obviously realizes that a little bit of consuming is not necessarily a bad thing, so he qualifies his condemnation by prefixing “feverishly”; but then the force of his criticism is blunted—what precisely is he criticizing? He doesn’t say so, but I assume his underlying complaint is that consuming is a selfish thing to do—and selfishness is a vice: all that spending money on yourself, treating yourself to this and that, buying yourself toys and fancy meals—instead of giving your money to charitable causes. Why not be more altruistic and give some money away instead of selfishly buying what makes you happy? Consumerism is thus the enemy of morality: it is pure selfishness. This has been a common complaint throughout the ages and is certainly part of traditional Christian teaching: we should be more altruistic and not so selfishly consumerist. Stop spending so much money on yourself (feverishly or calmly) and give more to others!    [1]           

            I think this moral position ignores an important aspect of consumption, even when what is consumed is entirely self-directed (which it often isn’t): namely that, in buying things for ourselves, we give money to others.Buying is also giving. We do the vendor a favor by buying from him, even when our aim is entirely egoistic. If I buy a new tennis racket in order to play better tennis, I make a donation to the seller of the racket—I provide him with an income. If I didn’t, he wouldn’t have one. If everyone stopped consuming, everyone would be out of work—no spending, no receiving, and hence no income. Someone might in fact spend with entirely altruistic aims: he doesn’t want anything for himself, but he consumes in order to provide others with an income. Of course, he could just hand the vendor the money and get nothing in return (unalloyed charity), but that has obvious disadvantages: people like to work and earn their money; we need functioning industries and other forms of work to live well; we would be depleting our own resources for nothing in return, which may lead to destitution and death. It’s better to make your transfers of cash to people who give you something in return: it’s better for everyone that way. This is not to say that you should never give to charity—you clearly should in certain circumstances—but it is to say that not doing so by consuming instead is not a purely self-benefiting act. It is altruism by egoism. That is the nature of purchase: you take from others by giving to them. There is nothing immoral about this arrangement, nothing culpably selfish (every time you eat you are acting “selfishly”). Self-preservation is not ipso facto morally bad (pacethe pope, apparently). You should pay a fair price, to be sure, but if you do you benefit the vendor—you make his life better. You are not unfairly depriving him of anything; you aren’t stealing. Consuming is perfectly moral; notconsuming is what is immoral. If you are a habitual miser, you decline to give your money to others for services rendered, thus reducing their income—an economy full of misers quickly tanks. Even strenuous (“feverish”) consuming is morally commendable, so long as you are handing over cash to other people; or at least it is not morally impermissible. Okay, don’t do it all the time, leaving no room for other worthwhile activities and interests, but there is nothing amiss with doing it regularly (compare other human activities that the church has seen fit to prohibit). It is a form of wealth distribution. It is not just selfishly hoarding up stuff for your own pleasure without regard for the welfare of others. There is no need for guilt as you make that big purchase—many people will benefit from it. Instead, think of all the good you are doing to complete strangers: thanks to you they have food on the table, happy children, a worthwhile life. Admittedly, we don’t want too much economic inequality in our society, or grotesque McMansions, or fleets of carbon-emitting sports cars: but that has nothing to do with consumerism as such. Spending is really just like charity, except that the recipient has to do something in return. If he can’t, then charity is appropriate; but if he can, there is nothing objectionable about getting something in return. Indeed, it is positively desirable from a moral point of view—you are actively helping people. This fosters social bonds; it doesn’t break them. People like being paid by you. Christianity has given consumerism a bad name by associating it with greed and anti-social behavior, but it is no such thing—not considered in itself.    [2] Charity can be a bad thing too if done thoughtlessly or from egoistic motives or without regard for consequences, but that doesn’t imply that charitable giving is somehow unethical (the vice of “giver-ism”). It is the same with the kind of giving that occurs in an economic transaction—capable of abuse but not inherently immoral. It is a bizarre form of puritanism to suppose that consuming is antithetical to morality—on the grounds that the consumer gets some pleasure out of it. It is not necessary to suffer in order to be a good person; self-deprivation is not the essence of the moral life, despite what the Catholic Church may have to say. True, the consumer is no rabid ascetic, but that is not a moral criticism. The wise consumer is a happy consumer, not least because of the altruism manifested in his acts. Remember that you are a person too and thus deserve moral consideration, from yourself as well as from others; it is not moral to treat yourself badly. So the consumer is not immoral simply because he treats himself well: he treats himself well by treating others well—by handing them money. He receives, but he also gives, necessarily so.

            And there is this not inconsiderable point: in charitable giving the recipient is in the donor’s debt, but not so in economic exchange. We always put people in an awkward position by giving to them—because then they owe us—but we can give without incurring the recipient’s indebtedness if we buy from someone. There is no burden of gratitude, no feeling that you must somehow reciprocate. This can fray relationships and break bonds—indeed, some people do it precisely in order to gain a moral edge over others. We can bypass all this by always receiving as we give. Everybody is happier that way. In an ideal society there would be no charitable giving (and so no moral indebtedness), but plenty of non-charitable giving—otherwise known as buying stuff.    [3] Perhaps we should re-label the consumer: she is actually a payer, a giver, and a producer (of other people’s wellbeing). Even a feverish one of those is not to be condemned (the sin of “producer-ism”).



    [1] This position ignores the fact that it is possible to consume for the sake of other people—you like to buy stuff and then give it away. So there is no necessary link between consumerism and selfishness. But let’s ignore this obvious point so that we can focus on a more interesting fault in the pope’s reasoning.

    [2] It is not to be confused with capitalism, for reasons too obvious to mention.

    [3] We should also reject the stereotype of the consumer as someone who accumulates manufactured goods beyond any real need (hundreds of shoes, dozens of cars, multiple homes). We can also consume music lessons, books, the works of local artists, the services of lawyers, gym memberships, and many other worthwhile goods and services. Many of the things we consume are indisputably good for the soul. Don’t Catholics consume things as part of their religion—such as the teachings of the pope (someone has to pay for his upkeep)? What about cathedrals? 

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