There are many reasons to be concerned about consumption of material goods in modern, affluent societies. Among such reasons we can include the environmental damage that it causes; the feelings of inadequacy that those with less capacity to consume might feel when they compare themselves to others; and the worry that it diverts us from more meaningful, or admirable, activities.
But lurking behind these concerns is something deeper, portrayed in countless books and films. We feel our hearts swelling when the protagonist transcends the petty attractions of materialism, by putting some other consideration ahead of them (usually love). This inspiring scene is never the moment when he or she decides that material goods are actually more important than love, or than acting nobly for some non-materialistic reason.
“consumers are not generally seen as lacking in morality simply on account of their consumption, except in extreme cases”
In this essay I argue that our tendency to prefer the noble to the materialistic in such stories reflects deeply held moral beliefs that create discomforts in a world of material superabundance. While such superabundance is a modern phenomenon, these discomforts are ancient and they much preoccupied the founder of ethics, Aristotle. In this essay, I follow his approach to moral reasoning to see if we can consider consumption in terms of justice.
What do we mean by ‘consumption’?
Consumption for reasons other than need is an aspect of every modern industrial society, involving all but a handful of unusual people. It is a mass phenomenon. Also, consumers are not generally seen as lacking in morality simply on account of their consumption, except in extreme cases. Consuming for reasons other than need is a very mainstream activity. But that kind of consumption seems to entail continuing, unsatisfiable wanting; many consumers can never have enough. It is also a uniquely modern phenomenon, because of the superabundance of material goods, the movement of which is accelerated and multiplied by data and communication technologies.
Aristotle began each of his inquiries by considering how things appeared, then assessing them in the light of the credible opinions (endoxa, in ancient Greek) developed on the basis of earlier experience and handed down to us. These opinions can be challenged or shown to be mistaken, and Aristotle does so in some cases. But he accords them respect and takes them seriously. So what might be the ‘credible opinions’, in our own time, about such consumption?
The sociologist Colin Campbell, in his influential book The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism (1987, but a new extended edition was published in 2018), attempts to unravel what he calls the ‘puzzle of modern consumerism’, namely the question of why we can consume so much more than we need and how we can make it a recreational activity. He proposes a theory of ‘modern autonomous imaginative hedonism’, which follows a cycle of ‘desire – acquisition – use – disillusionment – renewed desire’ and is, essentially, a form of day dreaming about what our life could be that motivates practical, consumption-orientated action.
In other words, modern consumption is an exercise in imaginative escapism that is bound to fail every time, leaving us with the desire to begin the process again. It is also much more related to what we think of ourselves, than to what we actually need in order to live in reasonable material comfort.
What are the virtues of a good consumer?
Aristotle based his ideas of morality on individual character. Most moral choices today, particularly in the public sphere, tend to be based either on what the consequences will be, aggregated across a population or social group (a utilitarian approach); or on some code or set of rules, such as laws, that create obligations to act in certain ways (a deontic or rule-utilitarian approach).
All choices, however, are made by humans and all humans are individuals. So Aristotle looks to the motivations of individuals as a way of considering morality and he argues that these motivations stem from character. The rightness of an action does not depend only on its consequences, but also on the qualities or virtues of the actor and how they shape his or her motivations.
Modern popular approaches to the morality of consumption tend to assume that it entails making ‘socially aware’ or ‘ethical’ choices. That is to say, it requires showing an awareness of the wider consequences and implications of our consumer choices, and how they can be made on the basis of moral positions. Examples are a belief that rainforests should be protected or a belief that producers of goods should respect human rights.
“our consumer choices are not shaped solely by a desire to limit the damage inflicted by the (regrettable) necessity of consuming in the first place”
The motivation for this kind of ethical consumption is essentially ameliorative. Consumption is regarded as necessary and perhaps even pleasurable, but it is not an unalloyed good. It has negative side effects that can be mitigated, if not eliminated entirely, by choices made in relation to how, when and where something is purchased and consumed.
If, however, we agree with Campbell that there is an aspect of self-realization and creativity in consumption, we can accept that our consumer choices are not shaped solely by a desire to limit the damage inflicted by the (regrettable) necessity of consuming in the first place. We can think of them as part of living a fulfilled human life in a modern industrial society.
Aristotle and consumption
Aristotle sees consumption as part of the life of pleasure, the lowest of the three kinds of life he identifies in the Nicomachean Ethics:
“On the good and happiness [eudaimonia]: to judge from their lives, most people, i.e. the most vulgar, seem – not unreasonably – to suppose it to be pleasure; that is just why they favour the life of consumption. The kinds of lives that stand out here are especially three: the one just mentioned; the political life; and the life of reflection. Now most of the utterly slavish sort of people obviously decide in favour of a life that belongs to grazing cattle, and not without reason, given that many of those in high places behave like Sardanapallus.” (1095b 20 – 22).
What Aristotle means by ‘consumption’ differs, of course, from the consumption that underpins the modern phenomenon we are considering. His reference to Saradanapallus, a famously sybaritic king, confirms that he is referring to the consumption of rare and highly-prized things, not the mass consumption of superabundant material goods. So we cannot make a direct comparison between modern mass production and consumption and their precursors in ancient economies, where manufacturing a pair of shoes or an axe could take a great deal of time, effort and skill on the part of one individual. Modern mass consumption depends on economies of scale and financial intermediations that did not exist in ancient Greece.
Aristotle’s moral philosophy, however, rests not on material considerations, except to the extent that material wealth gives us a wider range of moral choices. He grounds it in his consideration of the nature and purpose of humanity. He observes that everything in existence is moving towards some end, as time passes and things change.
“this is a radical and bold assertion of individuality, which fits well with our modern sense of the consumer as a free and self-realizing actor in a modern market economy”
If that is so of the universe, what then is the end, or purpose of a human being? According to Aristotle, it is to fulfil the purpose of a human being, which is to live a human life. However, all things in life are either good or bad, and the higher purpose is to live a good life, and the highest purpose is to live the best life. What is the best life? The life of the morally good or virtuous person, acting according to the best and finest motivations and using the faculties of the human mind to best effect.
The Greek word for this kind of life is ‘eudaimonia’, a way of living that fulfils a life’s potential to the highest degree. Each person chooses his or her own eudaimonia. There is no template. Each person determines, for themselves, what it means for them to live the best life, bearing in mind the moral framework described by Aristotle and derived from humankind’s experience to date.
Combined with the idea that the rightness of an action rests on the motivations of character behind it, this is a radical and bold assertion of individuality, which fits well with our modern sense of the consumer as a free and self-realizing actor in a modern market economy. We are free to change our actions and to think differently.
Motivations to consume
Aristotle and Campbell both recognise that consumption is not simply about getting hold of more ‘stuff’, for the sake of it. In modern consumption-driven economies, consuming brings about or comes with certain kinds of recognition, or belonging: the status accorded to the wealthy and prosperous; the sense of belonging that is felt by an individual when their consumption engages them with the projected, ‘imaginative’ reality of themselves as participants in a community of interest, such as a ‘brand community’ or being part of a popular movement. These popular movements can include fashion trends and commercially-driven festivals of consumption, like ‘Singles Day’ and ‘Black Friday’.
Aristotle held that an eudaimonic human life is lived with reference to the social setting within which it takes place. He recognized honour, or status, as a central element of what is desired, besides material wealth. In today’s world of internationalised consumption, where we can buy things from anywhere in the world without leaving our seats, that social setting is self-determined, according to the consumption choices we make and the affinities we create.
Aristotle’s approach has so far been leading us towards a rather individualistic, positive view of consumption in a modern economy. It can be made to match the mood of the times, where we prize highly, in general, our self-created, consumption-based identities. But according to Aristotle consumption can also be bad, especially when excessive. So where can we go wrong in our purchasing and consumption choices?
Aristotle identifies three bad motivations in relation to consumption: desire for more than one’s share (pleonexia), greed (aneleutheria) and tastelessness (banausia). Pleonexia (the ancient Greek word), or the desire to have more than one’s share, is identified by Aristotle as the primary motivation leading to injustice in the distribution of material wealth. If I act from this motivation, I am still thinking of others as part of the framework within which I consume but in a negative, harm-seeking way. I am comparing myself with others and wanting to out-consume them.
We can see this vice in play in situations where there is competition to secure the best bargains, or to buy ‘while stocks last’. It also plays a part where the views of others about our consumption drive our behaviour, where we pursue what economists call ‘positional goods’, which we desire because they are also desired by others. Aristotle considers those who seek out a greater share of those things that are desired by many and therefore ‘fought over’, and concludes that such people are ‘justly objects of reproach’.
“some motivations for consuming, above and beyond what we need, can be defended as meeting desires which are legitimate and neither trifling nor silly, but part of living well in the modern material world”
Avarice (aneleutheria), the vice of desiring more for the sake of having more, relates to excessive acquisition of stuff simply for the sake of it. I believe that this is a rare thing, in a world of material superabundance. Imelda Marcos, the famously extravagant wife of the President of the Philippines, may have had absurd quantities of shoes, but the absurd quantities were not the ends in themselves of her actions. Status, power and ostentation were the ends. Outright greed, where the only reason for wanting more is to hoard and own stuff, is, I think, a rarity. There is almost always some other motivation in play.
Tastelessness (banausia) is likely to be a motivation in some modern cases, where the moral failure lies in misunderstanding the true value of the object of desire. This can be related to the vice of ‘smallness of soul’ (micropsuchia) where, according to Aristotle, a person underestimates his or her own worth as an individual. Where that occurs, we acquire material goods in order to achieve some kind of self-validation, precisely because we undervalue ourselves.
It is relatively easy to identify these motivations as not likely to be part of a good and fulfilled (eudaimonic) life. But some motivations for consuming, above and beyond what we need, can be defended as meeting desires which are legitimate and neither trifling nor silly, but part of living well in the modern material world. These motivations are what Colin Campbell is referring to. How can we identify and then manage these different motivations?
Aristotle’s approach to moral deliberation provides a possible answer, giving a framework for balancing different motivations, and reason against emotion.
A practical approach to deciding moral questions
For Aristotle moral decision-making is, above all, a rational process. But it is also a process based on character and motivations, as we have already seen. Unlike some other approaches to morality, that depend on the consequences of moral choices for those affected or the adherence to duty, Aristotle looks to the character and reasoning of the person making the choice.
His approach is useful when considering something as individualistic as modern consumption. Patterns of consumption can be analysed, of course, but only after individuals have made choices. Those choices are made in an endless variety of situations. The creation of ‘rules’ for particular situations, such as ‘don’t buy from exploitative employers’, or ‘don’t buy from people who lack a certain religious faith’, cannot be universalized and a list covering all situations would be very long. Moreover, it would still require the articulation of some end towards which the rules are guiding us.
So what is Aristotle’s approach, in practical terms? According to Aristotle, a virtue of character, or disposition, necessarily lies somewhere between two extremes, which are vices. He calls this mid-position a ‘mean’. For example, the virtue of courage lies between the extremes of cowardice and foolhardiness. The courageous person has the quality of character to act bravely, where the situation demands it, without lapsing into crazy self-sacrifice, and without losing sight of the other virtues of character that might also be relevant to the situation, such as generosity, temperance and greatness of soul.
So a virtue of character is demonstrated in making choices from a range of possibilities, that lie on a continuum, seeking the mean point on that continuum, which is determined by reference to all the relevant circumstances. Moreover, the choice is made through the deployment of intellectual virtues, which are forms of knowledge that can be acquired through training (in contrast to virtues of character, which are dispositions). Primary among these intellectual virtues is practical wisdom, which is an essential element of every correct moral choice. Consumption therefore has to be rational if it is to stand a chance of being virtuous in Aristotelian terms.
Campbell’s proposition that consumerism is a way of living through a projection of our imagined self is not, in itself, irrational, for an individual seeking a good and fulfilled life. We might even say it is a good of the soul, as opposed to a good of the body, because of the psychological benefits it brings. Aristotle considers those things that are good for the soul to be more important than those which are good for the appetites. This is because he considers the soul of a living thing (including plants and animals, as well as humans) to be the driving force that gives it being and purpose: a kind of ‘life force’.
“For the consumer seeking to consume in ways that contribute to a eudaimonic life, different aspects of justice must be considered; but few hard and fast rules, relevant to all cases, can be established”
Rejecting all consumption as simply wrong, or a regrettable necessity, is to fail to acknowledge that it can, probably for most people in prosperous countries, at one time or another contribute to a eudaimonic life. But what is it to act correctly? Aristotle would suggest we act correctly if we act justly.
Today, justice in relation to consumption tends to be discussed in terms of ‘social justice’. ‘Social justice’ means many things, depending on who uses the term and in what context. But it would be reasonable to say that it focuses on the external cumulative impact of consumer choices on those perceived to be suffering injustice, either in general or in terms of specific areas of consumption.
In the view of Aristotle ‘general justice’ is however not a matter of a judgement about whether everybody has fair shares, but of the overall situation and whether some action is right or wrong. According to Aristotle, no virtuous act can be unjust and no unjust act can be virtuous. All good actions need to be compatible with justice. This idea of general justice as a virtue we can exercise in making moral choices is not, unlike other virtues, a mean on a continuum between an excess and deficiency. You can’t be excessively just, or insufficiently unjust. It is more of a mean with several dimensions: the just choice is the choice that accords with several virtues, each with their own mean.
This way of thinking about our consumption choices still makes sense today. For the consumer seeking to consume in ways that contribute to a eudaimonic life, different aspects of justice must be considered; but few hard and fast rules, relevant to all cases, can be established. This is because all circumstances are different, thus living a good, eudaimonic life requires continuous reflection on the complexity of human experience.
For example, I may be concerned about the treatment of the workers who make the car I am purchasing, but on mature reflection I may also conclude that it will offer me self-realisation, in addition to a means of getting from A to B. Or, perhaps more likely, I may be concerned about the fact that the car runs on diesel – is there some injustice in the way people are affected by the pollution it will produce? Perhaps I should think about whether I am acting justly to my family, who know I will enjoy driving the car, but who might prefer the money to be spent on something they can all enjoy. There are many things to consider and thinking about them in terms of justice gives them a coherence that Aristotle identified when he put justice at the centre of this moral philosophy.
This approach is based on dispositions of character, rather than rules or codes of conduct. These dispositions can be practised and we can become better at using them. ‘We become just by doing just acts’, as Aristotle put it. The good consumer therefore needs to possess a disposition towards acting justly. This may sound idealistic, but few people would include acting unjustly in the enterprise of the imagination, of self-realization, that motivates a good deal of consumption in modern, affluent economies. On the contrary, that imagined state would naturally consist of good things, worthy of praise (even if imagined) rather than blame, if it is to serve a positive purpose and contribute to a eudaimonic life.
To return to the question we asked at the beginning of this essay – what is it we intuitively sense to be lacking in our consumption and its capacity to make us truly happy, which we see so frequently portrayed in stories that inspire us? I think it is a combination of our entrapment in the endless cycle of consumption described by Colin Campbell – satisfaction is always just out of reach – as well as a nagging sense of injustice. This injustice is partly personal, a feeling that we are missing out on something, and consumption can secure it for us, but it never quite does; and partly social, in the sense that we can see how others are subject to injustice because of how society distributes its consumption. When the heart-swelling moment arrives in a book or a film when the main character casts aside material wealth in favour of love or some other noble, non-materialistic cause, we are feeling a sense of things coming back into balance, of Aristotle’s idea of general justice being asserted and recovered.
So a question we could ask, when we consider an act of consumption for reasons other than our comfort and material needs, is whether it is just, in the Aristotelian sense. Answering that question will guide us towards our overall goal of living a good and fulfilled life (an eudaimonic life, to use the language of Aristotle). It will also allow us to feel good about our consumption choices and more confident that we are not contributing to the manipulation of others, such as advertisers, but acting according to our own enterprise of the imagination, in which we act justly. It is not easy, because life is complicated, and all situations are different and require examination. But, as Socrates famously put it, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’.
- Aristotle, (2002), Nicomachean Ethics (trans. C Rowe, commentary by S Broadie), Oxford: Clarendon Press
- Campbell, C., (1987), The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism. 1st ed. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd.