Is Luxury Wrong?

I’m a lucky man in many, many ways. One way I’m lucky: I have smart friends, which means I get to have a lot of interesting conversations.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post called The Perils of Virtue, in which I suggested that buying luxury items (even small ones, like movie tickets) could be unethical, because the money is desperately needed elsewhere. In other words, the ethical opportunity cost of luxury is very high.

Several of my friends gave good responses, and I want to examine each in detail.

Zeev commented:

Ill just use your example of buying a 20 dollar movie ticket instead of giving to doctors without borders. If you buy a movie ticket you can say that you are paying someone’s salary, supporting the movie industry and the theater industry, and growing Americas economy. America having a strong economy is incredibly important since the USA has been a tremendous force for aid/charity to people around the world. If the US economy recovers/grows the aid that it provides to the world will help a lot more than doctors without borders ever could. So one can argue that spending 20 dollars on a movie ticket is just as virtuous as donating it to doctors without borders.

I know that that example was a bit of a stretch but you get the basic problem you can run into.

In other words, the world is very complex, and who’s to say where my money will do the most good in the long run?

Another of my friends made a similar argument (IRL!), pointing out that money given to charities could be misused by corrupt charity workers, or the people whose lives you save could turn out to be war criminals, or a million other possibilities. The basic argument is, I think, the same: we can’t see the future, so how can we know the most ethical way to spend our money?

My answer is that yes, the world is complicated, and no, we can’t predict the future. But not all possibilities have equal probability. Which sounds more likely: that Doctors Without Borders has massive systemic corruption so terrible that it renders donations worthless? Or that doctors are, in fact, using the money to practice real medicine in the field? As with all decisions, we can’t be certain, but we do the best we can.

Likewise, in Zeev’s example, it’s true that growing the US economy may be a net benefit to the world. But providing medical care in poor regions also helps the world, and $20 in (let’s say) Mozambique can go a lot farther than it can in the USA.

Let’s talk about that for a second. Here’s the world:

world

And here’s the world, sized according to how rich we are:

You can be forgiven if you don’t find Mozambique on that map, although its land area is twice the size of Japan.

Looking at the second map, I’ll ask again: where do we really think $20 can do the most good?

And finally, it’s true that if we save someone’s life, they may go on to do terrible things, leading to a net ethical “loss.” They could also go on to become a great leader. We simply don’t know. But if we conclude from this that saving a life is ethically neutral, I’m forced to ask what we ever meant by “ethical” in the first place.

Meanwhile, David J. Higgins wrote an entire post responding to mine. He also argues that luxury isn’t necessarily unethical. I’ll pick out his key arguments, as I see them:

As well as producing the ability to purchase luxuries, your salary is a method of ascribing value to your actions. While there are many arguments against specific pairings of salary and job salary it is, in Western world, the method most commonly used by people to measure their worth; if you work by the rule that you are not entitled to benefit from more than a basic life as long as there is someone in need then you can strengthen the unconscious belief that you are not worth your extra salary. However flawed the salary system, the larger monetary value of a doctor to a barista is a clear sign of societal worth; is the doctor immoral for not valuing his work as only equal to the barista?

Remaining with the doctor, some of the salary is a recompense for past effort: is it not ethical to have some luxuries now to balance the extreme stress of his degree and vocational training? Will we get the most skilled people wanting to be doctors, airline pilots, or judges if it brings only the spiritual benefits of service?

In other words, shouldn’t highly skilled people be allowed to make lots of money and spend it on themselves?

The answer is a definite yes. Dave’s correct that we’ll get better people in skilled jobs if society allows them luxury. But, as I was careful to say in my original post, I’m not talking about what people should be allowed to do, I’m talking about what’s ethical to do. These are very different questions.

I believe a free society ultimately benefits all, and people should be allowed to spend their money how they want (within reason). Attempts to force a whole society to behave “ethically” have been uniformly disastrous (see: communism in Russia, China, and North Korea; the Taliban; American Prohibition). But as an individual, the situation’s very different. If I see a chance to help someone, and I knowingly pass it up, I’m as culpable for that decision as for any other.

Dave makes another important point:

…relaxation is of value. Time away from doing stressful and intensive work gives the worker the ability to achieve more better work on their return. A surgeon who spends money on a great steak is getting more than sustenance; he is also undoing the damage that stress and fatigue do to his skills.

Beyond recharging, luxuries feed creativity. How often does the solution to a problem come when you are relaxing or in the shower? To say that one person deserves a month of clean water more than another person deserves a coffee is true in the abstract, but does one person benefit from a month of clean water more than they would benefit from the opportunity for creative thought that coffee brought? In many cases probably, but not always; unless we can decide in advance who will have worthwhile ideas how can we deny anyone the right to have luxuries?

I believe this is a much stronger argument, and it’s one I actually agree with. Look at Google. Their headquarters is a playground; their employees are bathed in luxury. But that luxurious environment also helps draw the most brilliant minds in the world to work for them, creating products of enormous benefit to everyone. Relaxation does feed creativity, and mental health does have enormous value that’s hard to quantify.

So yes, luxury can be ethical – to the extent that it allows you to help others more effectively in the long run.

It may sound like I’m now using the same logic I condemned earlier, arguing that luxury is fine because the future is uncertain and nobody knows what’s best. But there’s an important difference. In my view, luxury is only ethical as long as it aids you in helping others more than you could be doing without it.

A night at the movies to unwind after a day of meaningful work; a week-long vacation to relax after months of stress; these are good things. But the ethical “price” for such luxuries is that we must funnel as much time and money as we can bear into efforts (such as charities) that do the most good in the world. Failure to do so is not merely a missed opportunity, it is wrong.

I want to emphasize again that this is a very high standard, and I certainly don’t claim that I’m meeting it. I go to the movies. I buy gadgets I don’t need. So please don’t think I’m holding myself up as some kind of perfect example here. I’m not. Nor do I want to preach to you; I’m simply stating conclusions that seem, to me, inescapable.

Gotta run. Tear me apart in the comments!

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11 responses to “Is Luxury Wrong?

  1. Always good to be considered smart; always great to be considered a friend.

    Re-reading my argument that people should be allowed to make more money if they are more socially useful, I discovered a hidden assumption: saying everyone can only earn what they need to live and saying that someone can earn what they want but should give away everything apart from what they need to survive differ only in degree.

    I only uncovered the assumption this afternoon so I am posting to expand the discussion rather than as a refutation of your point. As a possibly extreme case if we are seeking the most ethical route then your “give them the money then expect them to give it away” argument raises a question about whether employers have an ethical duty to pay people a living wage plus a donation on their behalf to (i) create an efficiency of scale in charitable giving and (ii) spare employees the dilemma of what to give to which charity.

    I am also not certain about double accounting: many high paid jobs are also socially useful, so expecting those employees to give away more than others is making them pay for the ethical right to do ethical work.

    • “…a question about whether employers have an ethical duty to pay people a living wage plus a donation on their behalf to (i) create an efficiency of scale in charitable giving and (ii) spare employees the dilemma of what to give to which charity.”

      To that question, my answer is an emphatic no. I’m encouraging people to give what they can afford as a personal decision. Imposing that decision from outside would be enormously counterproductive. If an employer forced it on them, the employees would quit; if a government forced it on them, the people would revolt; and they’d be justified in their revolution.

      I am also not certain about double accounting: many high paid jobs are also socially useful, so expecting those employees to give away more than others is making them pay for the ethical right to do ethical work.

      In my view, there is no “ethical quota” to meet, so there’s no double accounting issue. Rather, we should simply try to improve the world as much as we can.

  2. Being very conservative, I avoided your original post, although, I did have a desire to respond. This time around, I can’t help myself 🙂

    First I’d like to say, based on your arguments, Brian, you seem like you’ve pre-supposed the answer to your question. By that I mean you’re only looking as deep into the arguments as is needed to come to the conclusion you seem to want to arrive at: anything luxurious is at its core unethical.

    Lets take Zev’s counter arguments that you refuted:
    1.) Spending money on a movie contributes to an economy which will do a “good” in the long run. 2.) Charities are not always (I would argue seldom) altruistic and money donated may not do the intended good. You refute these by suggesting that the probability of doing good by buying a luxury is less than simply donating excess capital. Making this argument makes a few assumptions that you can not know:
    – The good done by donating a charity is necessarily more than the good done by contributing to an economy
    – Your interpretation of “good” is not flawed.

    Contributing to an economy provides a living to people participating in that economy. While purchasing a luxury, is by definition excessive, the people benefiting from your purchase are not likely to have such luxuries. Donating to charities very often goes to pay 6 and 7 figure salaries of the charity executives so one could argue the net effect is the same. We can’t know how much “good” we do directly in either case. We also can’t only consider potential “good” when thinking of the ethics of a decision. There is nearly always a negative effect when changing behavior. If we were to remove luxury purchases for the sake of ethical sensitivities, we’re fairly guaranteed to see extreme poverty increase and have many more people unable to meet minimum life standards. To me, without recognizing the bad that comes with a change in behavior, we can’t begin to grasp the ethical good that will or will not be realized. How much good do you have to do before the bad is outweighed? Who is the arbiter of good and who determines how much good is enough? I don’t posit this as means to start an argument, because I don’t have the answers. What I mean to say is we’ll commit rhetorical suicide trying to hash out where true ethics are and what the ultimate “good” should be.

    While reading your posts on this topic and attempting to consider the delicate balance between ethically good and bad decisions based on intended and unintended effects, I’ve come to a realization that for me is inescapable. Based on your theory and arguments, its seems (likely without realizing it) you believe the ultimate good is served by pure Marxism. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” It is only in this situation that the ethical boundaries you’ve constructed could be met. Now, Marxism isn’t about the choice of individuals to give up their excesses for the benefit of those who can not provide as you’re suggesting, but the effect of your theory and Marxism is the same. This, for me, is where the ultimate fallacy lies in your argument. If, for any reason, be it by government mandate or ethical pressure, people do not reap the rewards of their labors, their labors will diminish as most individuals do not work for the benefit of society, they work for the benefit of themselves. We may consider that nature to be in and of itself unethical, however, the reality if we were to realize such a state in society the productive output of a society will necessarily decrease very likely hurting the society as a whole and causing more strife than the initial state, which is ultimately ethically bad.

    I do realize we’re talking about an individuals choice to go to the movies vs donate to Doctors Without Borders, which will not cause what I suggest, however, if an action is to be ethically good for one person, should it not be ethically good for everyone to make the same decision?

    • Hey Adam! Thanks for commenting in such detail. I’ll respond point by point:

      Being very conservative, I avoided your original post, although, I did have a desire to respond. This time around, I can’t help myself 🙂

      I’ll be honest, I’m surprised you see this as conservative/liberal thing. The usual conservative/liberal disagreement is over the role of government, and I’ve explicitly said that government should never try to enforce these ideas. Presumably you also have many ideas of what’s ethically proper that you wouldn’t try to enforce on everyone.

      First I’d like to say, based on your arguments, Brian, you seem like you’ve pre-supposed the answer to your question. By that I mean you’re only looking as deep into the arguments as is needed to come to the conclusion you seem to want to arrive at: anything luxurious is at its core unethical.

      I guess there’s no meaningful way I can respond to that. If I’ve unknowingly leaped to a conclusion, then by definition, I wouldn’t know. 🙂

      Lets take Zev’s counter arguments that you refuted:
      1.) Spending money on a movie contributes to an economy which will do a “good” in the long run. 2.) Charities are not always (I would argue seldom) altruistic and money donated may not do the intended good. You refute these by suggesting that the probability of doing good by buying a luxury is less than simply donating excess capital. Making this argument makes a few assumptions that you can not know:
      – The good done by donating a charity is necessarily more than the good done by contributing to an economy
      – Your interpretation of “good” is not flawed.

      Let’s step back for a second. As I see it, there are really two questions here. The main question is whether or not we are morally obligated to try as hard as we can to help others. My answer is yes, and that’s my primary point in this post.

      A secondary question is how to most effectively help others, e.g. is there more benefit to charity donations, or investment in the economy, etc. I happened to pick movie tickets and Doctors Without Borders as a convenient example, but I wasn’t trying to make a point about private investment vs. charity specifically. My point was that we should try to help others as much as possible, regardless of the method, rather than just doing whatever we want and rationalizing it as “helpful” afterward.

      I’m happy to talk about grow-the-economy vs. donate-to-charity, and I will, but remember it’s only a secondary point. It’s irrelevant to my thesis. (I probably didn’t make that clear enough in the post.) And by the way, you’ll note that I mentioned Google, a for-profit company, as a major force for good in the world. That should give you some indication that I’m not anti-capitalism.

      Contributing to an economy provides a living to people participating in that economy. While purchasing a luxury, is by definition excessive, the people benefiting from your purchase are not likely to have such luxuries.

      Luxury is relative. Someone in the U.S. making minimum wage and working 40-hour weeks will earn about $14,500 in a year. The average income in Mozambique is $1,200, less than 10% of that. I’m not saying Americans don’t need help; I’m saying others need it even more. I’m not saying we shouldn’t help Americans; I’m saying a dollar in Mozambique can help a lot more.

      Donating to charities very often goes to pay 6 and 7 figure salaries of the charity executives so one could argue the net effect is the same.

      Doctors Without Borders is run by a person with a six-figure salary, but it takes in nine-digit donations. If one-tenth of one percent of my donation goes to a CEO, that’s a deal I can live with.

      We can’t know how much “good” we do directly in either case.

      Why do you say that? There are websites devoted to researching and reporting the effectiveness of charities. The data’s out there. Certainly some charities are much better than others, so it’s important to do your research.

      We also can’t only consider potential “good” when thinking of the ethics of a decision. There is nearly always a negative effect when changing behavior. If we were to remove luxury purchases for the sake of ethical sensitivities, we’re fairly guaranteed to see extreme poverty increase and have many more people unable to meet minimum life standards.

      I’m suggesting we try to do the most net good possible. If it gets to the point where Americans are donating so much to charity that it begins wrecking our own economy, then at that point we’d need to change tactics, but we’re nowhere close to that right now. In any case, even if the tactics change, the overall goal of trying to help others remains the same.

      To me, without recognizing the bad that comes with a change in behavior, we can’t begin to grasp the ethical good that will or will not be realized.

      Certainly.

      How much good do you have to do before the bad is outweighed? Who is the arbiter of good and who determines how much good is enough?

      Each individual person has to decide this for themselves.

      I don’t posit this as means to start an argument, because I don’t have the answers. What I mean to say is we’ll commit rhetorical suicide trying to hash out where true ethics are and what the ultimate “good” should be.

      Why? Surely the question of what’s right and wrong is one of the most important we can ask?

      While reading your posts on this topic and attempting to consider the delicate balance between ethically good and bad decisions based on intended and unintended effects, I’ve come to a realization that for me is inescapable. Based on your theory and arguments, its seems (likely without realizing it) you believe the ultimate good is served by pure Marxism.

      The opposite, actually. I’m strongly opposed to Marxism. Giving as much as you can spare to the needy is a good thing, yes, but forcing others to do the same is a recipe for disaster, because of those unintended consequences you mentioned. That’s why I was so careful to say that no one should be forced to act this way. Rather, I’m hoping to encourage people to do it willingly.

      “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” It is only in this situation that the ethical boundaries you’ve constructed could be met.

      That quote isn’t actually bad when taken as an individual code of ethics. It’s only when it’s forced on a whole society that the disaster happens.

      Now, Marxism isn’t about the choice of individuals to give up their excesses for the benefit of those who can not provide as you’re suggesting, but the effect of your theory and Marxism is the same. This, for me, is where the ultimate fallacy lies in your argument. If, for any reason, be it by government mandate or ethical pressure, people do not reap the rewards of their labors, their labors will diminish as most individuals do not work for the benefit of society, they work for the benefit of themselves.

      Exactly. I couldn’t agree more. The key is to find a way to make personal benefit align with the benefit of others. Capitalism is good at that, which is why it’s better than Marxism at running a society. But at an individual level, there’s an even better way to make the two align: find personal satisfaction in the work you do to help others.

      For example, Larry Page – CEO and co-founder of Google – makes a salary of $1 per year. Clearly he could be making a lot more, but I have no doubt that he’s excited and passionate about his job. His labor isn’t diminished, it’s enhanced. My work on the AI, which I hope will benefit society, also earns me nothing, but I love what I’m doing so I keep doing it. And the personal satisfaction I get from donating to charity vastly exceeds the transient pleasure I would get from piling even more luxuries onto the heap I already have.

      We may consider that nature to be in and of itself unethical, however, the reality if we were to realize such a state in society the productive output of a society will necessarily decrease very likely hurting the society as a whole and causing more strife than the initial state, which is ultimately ethically bad.

      Addressed above.

      I do realize we’re talking about an individuals choice to go to the movies vs donate to Doctors Without Borders, which will not cause what I suggest, however, if an action is to be ethically good for one person, should it not be ethically good for everyone to make the same decision?

      To make the decision to help others, yes; to have it rammed down their throats, no.

      After reading over your comment in full, I think our real disagreements are much smaller than they first appear. I think a lot of our “disagreement” is due to miscommunication, which I’ve tried to clarify. But as always, I welcome your thoughts.

  3. My apologies, my reference to my conservative nature was not to imply that I believe your discussion (or your theories) were from a different political perspective than mine, however, since the original question was about the ethics in spending resources on luxuries, I avoided the topic because such conversations have a tendency to become political (i.e. morally unjust Capitalism vs. the morally corrupt Socialism).

    In reading your reply, I think I understand our difference. While the definitions of morality and ethics tend to reference each other, I have always used the terms differently (and have observed much of society doing so as well). My internal definitions of the terms
    – ethics: judicial fairness
    – morals: social fairness
    When talking about the ethical good in a decision on where to spend money, there are too many variables and interactions between systems for us to know at any given moment whether a decision we’re pondering on is clearly ethically good. Obvious decisions like giving money to war lords exempt of course.

    Since we’re now introducing the idea that the morally right decision is to always seek the best net moral good (which I would argue should be the end result of ethical decisions as well – ethics is just more complicated), we’re setting an entirely different stage for conversation. In my head, morality defines an intrinsic and personal valuation for every action or decision. These values tend to be influenced by Religion and/or upbringing and are therefore different between people. That said, buying a movie ticket is morally ambiguous (little to no social benefit or harm) for most people, at best, while donating to a charity (assuming the charity is honest/transparent) is generally morally good (there is a clear social benefit).

    Ultimately, I believe, similarly. Help when possible and try to make the world around you (and beyond) a better place. I will also say, however, that my beliefs have a “ranking” system that fits just fine with both my morals and ethics.
    1.) Try to be righteous in my actions.
    2.) Protect and aid my family and friends
    3.) Help when possible and doing so doesn’t threaten my first two objectives.

    • Good point about ethics vs. morals. In my own brain, I was avoiding “morals” because I thought it had a religious connotation, whereas “ethics” seemed more secular. But I had little real basis for thinking that, and doing some Googling, I did find a site endorsing the difference you describe. The terms both seem pretty fuzzy, though.

      Your three-tier moral ranking system dovetails nicely with my own ideas about morality/ethics, so I don’t think we’re too different there. 🙂 “Help when possible” is what I’m arguing for too. I just think a lot of people underestimate how big that “when possible” can be.

  4. I suppose I am just a simpleton but I can’t understand why you’re making this so complicated! Has it really become difficult to just be a “good” person?

    We donate to global charities when we can because it is important to help those who can’t help themselves, but just as important is the help we provide those around us. We aren’t living the high life by any means but we are better off than many of our friends and community members. If we go out for a nice dinner, we tend to take along some friends who can’t afford it. Why? Could we take that $60 and help an entire community in a third world country? Of course we could. But do you know what happens after our friends leave us? They are filled with hope. They know they are loved. They know good things can happen. They leave us and the go into the world and do their small part because they can feel in their heart the difference it makes.

    We have a shared cabin on a lake. Is that a luxury? Yes it is. Many people don’t have that luxury, which is why we take other families up there. Families that can’t afford to go on a vacation. We drive them up, feed them well and enjoy the place. They go home, again with hope in their hearts, relaxed and ready to take on the world. They go out and help those around them. They feel better. The kids get home and maybe they decided, after their nice weekend, to cut the grass of the old couple next door. Maybe mom doesn’t feel so overwhelmed so she does some sorting and schedules a donation pick up.

    Again, maybe I’m just to simple. Maybe simple is better though. I don’t walk through life feeling like I don’t do enough or wondering if I could do more. I share what I have every day. Every night I can go to bed knowing I helped at least one person in some way. Hope is not a luxury, it’s a need. It helps people thrive.

    • Hi Barbara. Thanks for the comment! 🙂

      I make the issues as simple as I can, but the world’s a complicated place. So I often find complexity is unavoidable.

      It sounds like you are doing some great things with your friends, and I’d never want to discourage that. As you say, hope is crucial, and it has a ripple effect that spreads beyond the first person you touch. So I think the things you’re doing are wonderful. I’m not saying that the help we give has to be overseas, or that it has to be given through formal donations to charities, or that we can’t use luxuries to charitable ends.

      Rather, my point was that “pure” luxury – that is, luxury that helps mainly ourselves – is a missed opportunity to help others, and is wrong from that standpoint.

      I’m a middle-class American, but I still make more money in a week than a lot of people make in a year. I would feel bad lavishing all that on myself, and what’s more, I believe I should feel bad about that. Not that I want to wallow in guilt, but I want my conscience to spur me to help the many, many of our fellow humans who remain desperately in need. Yes, that means constantly asking myself if I can do more, but that’s just the nature of the world.

      • I understand what you’re saying, but I still think you’re making it harder than it should be. I am glad you care enough to think about it though. How much better the world would be if everyone did. Helping yourself does help others. The key as always is moderation. 🙂

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  6. I would like to see a moral argument against exorbitant luxury in particular. I know it is hard to classify, and “slippery slope” arguments will draw us straight back to the $10 movie ticket. But still, we are talking about lavish spending that makes no sense (creates no “jobs” either, and I hardly believe it makes anyone happier).
    I wrote a dissertation about ethics, but I’m still very confused with the topic.

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