26 Jul 2009

Immoral Consumption

For most of human history, there has been no moral constraint on consumption. We have had physical constraints on consumption (you can only consume what you have). We have had moral constraints on other actions (e.g., murder) but not consumption. Why not? Mostly because consumption has always been a "good" thing, something that has allowed us to improve our lives and the lives of those we traded with. Because these trades were voluntary, there was no moral dimension to worry about (see this prior post on "socially-beneficial crime")

Now when did consumption start to take on immoral dimensions? The first obvious case was when people began noticing that some consumption produced indirect harms, e.g., pollution. These externalities are intimately linked to the consumption, so the quick way to reduce them is by reducing consumption. (A slower, more effective way is to change the production or consumption process so each "good" comes with less "bad.")

A less obvious case is when consumption facilitates other activities that are harmful. To some people, overpopulation is one such activity. How does more consumption lead to overpopulation? By making it easier to afford kids.

Take the example of food. For most of human history, food was expensive. Kids, therefore, were also expensive. When technological development (fertilizers, seeds, machines, etc.) made it cheaper to produce food, we got two results: Those who were alive could consume the same amount of food in exchange for fewer resources, and the cost of children fell. Taken together, we can therefore see how the Green Revolution has contributed to both obesity and overpopulation -- two unintended consequences that we suffer from today. (Although these consequences were predictable, they would not have stopped innovation or the Green Revolution. Although society was made worse off as a result, individuals benefitted, and individual benefits are what drive adoption decisions.)

Note that obesity and overpopulation are only "bad" in the sense that they create negative outcomes (public health costs and environmental stresses, respectively); cheap food is not bad, per se.

Bottom Line: Because our internal controls on behavior have developed over thousands of generations, we find it very difficult to change our view of something formerly "good" to something now "bad." As a result, we are likely to behave badly -- unless some external controls (prices) are imposed.


  1. I think there are some significant cultural groups that historically have seen consumption in moral terms (i.e., seven deadly sins, or any one of number of buddhist and hindu doctrines). Modern captialism however depends upon consumption to drive the markets of exchange. So from that economic point of view consumption is actually a moral good.

    You point out how modern scientific evidence and the rational approach to existence have developed arguments that begin to question the economic preference toward consumption. But i am left wondering if we are beginning to talk in moral terms tha there are several communities and traditions that might better serve the discussion.

    Numerous members of the 'live simply' movement hearken to these long moralistic traditions as source of their inspiration, avoiding the need to view anything as "external," and embracing the interelatedness of life and the ecosystem as an a priori good to be preserved in and for itself.

  2. Umm, humans have been denouncing the immoral consumption of others since civilization began. It's a primate status game. We're hard wired to try and bring down those who signal higher status.

    How are you adding a moral dimension to consumption? An efficiency dimension? Sure, I know how that works. But moral? Based on what clearly derived moral system? Tell us and then we can discuss it. But until then, we can't know whether you're on to something or whether your "intuition" is just your status game machinery running its program.

  3. The moral dimension to consumption is sustainability. By definition, those systems, practices or policies that are not sustainable will collapse at some point in the future. “Good” and “bad” change according to the context of societal changes, but often lag a bit, and are also subject to what is considered currently fashionable. One of the major turning points against the idea of the 7 deadly sins, specifically gluttony, may be exemplified by a quote from Marketing consultant Victor Lebow in 1957:

    “Our enormously productive economy…demands that we make consumption our way of life; that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions in consumption…We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing rate”

    This trend continues as indicated by this feebly reasoned article in Forbes.com, “The Virtue of Waste.” http://www.forbes.com/forbes/2004/1213/116_print.html
    How such a brilliant and accomplished man could rationalize virtue in this way is beyond me. He uses the second law of thermodynamics as a rationale for the argument that striving toward energy efficiency is useless and futile. I say, yes, of course entropy increases as we use energy, but entropy only establishes the limits of efficiency, not the utility of increased productivity.

  4. What always amazed me is how fast something that was new a month ago, becomes obsolete so fast. Computer hardware, clothes, cell phones. Incredibly wasteful to try something new when you haven't utilized the old to its full potential. Great note, over all.

  5. @R Terrific. So you stipulate that when you say "moral" you mean "sustainable". This is good because sustainability is a purely utilitarian concern. We can use reasoning and math to reach conclusions about sustainability. No squishy intuition about right and wrong is necessary.

    However, to paraphrase the famous saying, now all we're doing is arguing about property rights. Let's make a list of all the resources you think we could run out of. Then we'll assign property rights to those resources. The owners of those resources will maximize their returns, which will either (a) result in sustainable use of those resources or (b) result in a _socially_efficient_ depletion of those resources.

    Problem solved. No sanctimony necessary.

  6. David, you lost me with some of your "children are costly, therefore cheaper food means more children" argument, which doesn't acknowledge the eons of agrarian history common to most parts of the world. Societies where large families are still the norm, in fact, tend to be those where more children meant (or still mean) many hands to manage flocks and bring in the crops.

    The many costs, to the planet and to societies, of too many people and poor quality (including fast) food don't seem accounted for by such a simple cost/benefit model.

  7. Your story about Immoral Consumption got it dead wrong. Improved food production resulted in FEWER children, not more*. The fertility rate has been falling all around the world for over 100 years. (Records older than that are pretty shaky.) Familiers used to have many children for two basic reasons. One; they needed a lot of hands around the farm to grow the food to feed the family. Two; infant mortality was high (There is a cementary in Savanah that has a twenty year history of one family in the 1800's that will break your heart).

    In modern times, children have become a liability (education, medical, etc.) instead of the asset they were when farm work was needed.

    *Of course there were a lot of other contributors, i.e., urbanization, increased education, birth control, etc.

  8. @CB -- see http://aguanomics.com/2009/07/small-is-beautiful-review.html

    @KD -- There is not objective definition of moral. I am pointing out that people use that word more often, perhaps as a type of reverse-status judgment.

    @R -- good comment/framing as "objective" (even if that's not your goal...)

    @KD2 -- sustainable is a good defn, but you need to have property rights for the environment, right?

    @KW -- farm kids can produce more, but what about city kids. See below...

    @JWT -- The demographic transition (women at work, longer lives, safer childbirth) all reduce pressure for more children. Holding those things stable, cheaper food leads to MORE children; remember that >50% of people now live in cities.

  9. @DZ - Absolutely. Let's assign property rights to environmental resources and then we don't have to argue about moral intuition.


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