As a 16-year old East German, I experienced with some bewilderment, but also excitement, the sudden influx of consumer goods into my world. After the Berlin Wall fell, the shelves in our stores were transformed almost magically, and virtually overnight. So were we and our homes. Old clothes, furniture, stereos and TVs went out. Shiny new commodities came in, at least where people could afford them. As I grew up, I never thought of us as materially poor or wanting. Our needs for food, clothing and shelter were satisfied just fine. Yet 1989’s radical change in East German consumption showed just how alluring modern consumerism is. When I began my Philosophy PhD 20 years later in New Zealand, I found myself writing about the ethics and politics of consumption, with a special focus on what we actually need to flourish as human beings. The question of how we should, and shouldn’t, consume has remained a major theme in my work. An accident? Hardly. To hear more about my story, check out the video above about what I do, and why.
Also, below are answers to further questions that I couldn’t address due to limited time during the webinar. If you’d like to ask anything else, you’re welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tracy asked: It sounds as if Sen’s capability approach might have informed your early work. Is that so?
I’ve actually been focussing on the concept of human needs instead of human capabilities. I use them to substantiate the notion of human flourishing in turn (which I primarily construe from the perspective of perfectionism/developmentalism). That said, quite a few philosophers have argued that human needs and human capabilities actually have an awful lot in common — a view that I agree with.
Anonymous asked: If new goods and services can enhance flourishing, we need people to have the motivation to develop new goods and services. But how do we have this without consumerism?
I don’t think that the absence of consumerism entails the absence of goods/services development. Throughout most of humanity’s past history, consumerism didn’t exist (certainly not in its modern form). Yet, new products were developed. Similarly, East Germany wasn’t consumerist. But again, new products were developed. Plausibly, they were not developed nearly as rapidly and in similar volumes, but lower speed/volume does not mean zero speed/volume.
Final thought: why should research and development in general (which tends to yield new goods/services) only flourish in consumerist societies? Why could it not also flourish in a society where the pursuit of knowledge (rather than material pursuit) is priced above all else?
Anna asked: Where did you develop the term, a ‘flourishing life’?
My work has long been informed by Ancient Greek philosophy, especially the writings of Aristotle. His ethical theory has eudaimonia at its heart, a term that’s often translated as ‘happiness’, but that’s much better rendered as ‘flourishing’. For Aristotle, a flourishing human life is our ultimate end, and therefore it should be the final reason for which we do the things we do. There are various rival modern theories of well-being, including:
- Hedonism: the idea that a good human life reduces to pleasure and the absence of pain, and
- Desire-fulfilment / preference-satisfaction theory: the idea that human well-being is a matter of getting what you want / prefer
These approaches have many problems (feel free to read section 3.2 of my doctoral thesis), which is why I’m a proponent of perfectionist theories instead. I especially like Richard Kraut’s account in What Is Good and Why: The Ethics of Well-Being. Given that Kraut too is an Aristotelian philosopher, that’s not a coincidence.
Susan noted: The Amish segment reminded me of the saying “don’t make a guest suite too comfortable so visitors don’t overstay”.
Yes, just like some people don’t have guest chairs in their offices, thereby making sure that team meetings become more efficient 🙂 The crucial difference to the guest couch case is that the intentional discomfort of the Amish focusses on their own practices and activities, not so much on what others do.
Brendan asked: Did the West German advertising create desire?
It certainly did, though perhaps not in the same way that ads create desire now. Imagine you watch Star Trek, all the amazing adventures that those starfaring future humans pursue. That creates desire of a kind — for example, the wish that I too could travel on an intergalactic vessel and see far-away parts of the cosmos. But a desire like that is abstract: it doesn’t really drive what I do on a daily basis. Arguably, West German advertising had that effect. There was an abstract wish that I could consume the things I saw, but it never drove my day-to-day decisions and actions. That’s different to what advertising does now: you see commodity X on TV and learn how much better it’ll make your life, and you’re supposed to go forth and buy it right away.
Now, one could certainly argue that West German advertising contributed to the end of East Germany. We knew how much more advanced and widely available the goods and services beyond our border were, and we wanted to have those things in our lives too. So at some point, West German commercials may well have contributed to what we did after all: not directly go out and buy commodity X, but first tear down the Wall.
Anonymous asked: Do you think we can still support local small business owners while being more ethical about our consumption? One of the big losers out of this pandemic has been small local businesses and even local franchises of major international corporations.
Yes, very much so. In fact, the support of local businesses is linked to better consumption in more ways than one. To begin with, a focus on local producers increases the robustness of the local economy. In times of disruption like the current one, people still need to meet their basic needs through consumption, and they can do that much more easily and securely when they source their goods and services from places geographically close to them. Thus, companies that sell to local consumers will find that sales in times of international disruption remain reasonably stable.
Secondly, the sourcing and consumption of local commodities are often much more environmentally friendly too, because transportation is greatly diminished. That’s where concepts like food mile apply.
Thirdly, it enables people to take responsibility as consumers. I argue in my work that the final users of commodities have a great deal of responsibility for the ills of consumerism. To live up to it though, they need to be able to understand how the things they consume are actually made. Attaining that knowledge is very difficult with regard to producers that are located far away and (often) intentionally prevent the leaking of information about their operations. It’s much easier for us to hold local producers accountable. As members of our own community, they have a much greater incentive to be good citizens of that community, and to inform us about what they do (and why). Plus, we can simply walk over and visit — and protest, if necessary. All that said, the total volume of what we consume has to come down though (eg, to decrease environmental impact).
Tetyana asked: Did you enjoy your life in the East Germany? Would you prefer to live that life, or rather life in a capitalist country?
I certainly did. As I said in the webinar, East German life for a child like myself was pretty good. My basic needs were met to high degrees (eg, in terms of nourishment, housing, education, and social life). However, in later years I probably would have felt rather differently because that’s when things like the freedoms to express yourself politically, to pursue the job you want, and to see other countries become hugely important. That’s why I was so lucky that the Berlin Wall fell when I was 16: I had the best of all worlds.
One caveat though: your choice between East Germany and life in a capitalist country is what philosophers call a false dichotomy: it makes it seem as if there are only those two choices. In fact, though, there’s at least one additional plausible alternative: market socialism. And that’s perhaps the one I would truly vote for.
John asked: Do you think it’s a psychological feature of individuals to want to consume more, unless there is some kind of collective action, or imposed constraint?
Psychology certainly plays a major role with regard to our consumption drive. To name just two examples, take the Diderot effect and cognitive satiation. The former represents the phenomenon that once I introduce a new possession (eg, a high-quality fancy suit) that’s deviant from the complementary set of my current belongings, my consumption runs away because I now want a whole lot of other things to create a new complementary set of belongings (eg, high-quality shoes, shirts, ties, cuff links, etc). Cognitive satiation results in our getting mentally bored. Any new commodity we acquire almost inevitably becomes boring once we’re familiar with it, so we seek novelty to recreate excitement — and for many people that novelty comes in the form of further commodities.
Phenomena like these are not unavoidable, of course. For instance, we can usually omit the purchase of a commodity that’s deviant from our current complementary goods — if only we’re aware of the Diderot effect to begin with. And we can seek stimulation outside of consuming new goods — eg, by pursuing complex activities. To the degree that such activities actually keep increasing in complexity, they may virtually never become boring. Chess is a great example: even if you become better over time, there are always more opponents you can play against (who are just as good as you are, or better).
So I don’t think that collective action and imposed constraint are the only means to combating consumerism, though they’re certainly among the tools we have available.