Friday, March 02, 2018


"This submerging superyacht is said to be the world’s most expensive private object"

If this is what fulfills a person’s desires, rather than, say, feeding hungry children or providing them with basic medical care, then that person is worthy of contempt and condemnation.

In this post, I am building on remarks I made in yesterday’s post regarding the five giants of human welfare: housing and urbanisation, education and skills, health and social care, the future of work, and the challenges of poverty.

People act to fulfill their most and strongest desires, given their beliefs. Some desires are malleable - molded by people’s interactions with their environment. There is little reason to believe that our biological ancestors evolved a hardwired desire to spend money on these types of goods - nothing comparable to hunger, thirst, or the aversion to pain. These are learned desires. However, these are not desires that people generally have any reason to teach.

In fact, quite the opposite is true. These are desires that we have reason to mold using our tools of criticism and condemnation. We have reason to view people whose desires are fulfilled by states of affairs like these in the same way we view people whose desires are fulfilled by the rape and torture of young children - or even much worse - because if the numbers of young children whose lives would be improved by people with different desires.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development spends $31,000 on a dining room set while it is cutting benefits to the poor, and the nation is up in arms. Yet, there is a question as to why a private individual who spends as much on a dining room set when they could be doing something with the money also deserves an answer.

We can argue that the very wealthy have a moral permission to spend their money as they please. However, this "moral permission" is an ambiguous term. There are two types of moral permission. There is the moral permission that is free from condemnation and criticism, and there is the moral permission that may be criticized and condemned, but which does not deserve punishment or any type of violent response.

The right to freedom of speech is like this. The right to freedom of speech says that there are many things that one can say that deserves neither condemnation nor punishment. There are other things that, though deserve condemnation and warrant holding those who say them with contempt does not justify a violent response. And there are things that one can say (e.g, fraud, libel, slander) that warrant a violent response.

The claim that one has a moral permission to spend money as one pleases may be taken as comparable to the claim that one may say or write what one pleases. It prohibits a violent response to the things that one spends one's money on, but it does not protect the affluent person from condemnation, criticism, and contempt because they care more about having a string of pretty rocks wrapped around their neck than the fact that nearly 500,000 people will die from malaria this year.

So, when somebody produces an article or story about the fanciest houses, expensive clothes, lavish parties, large yachts, glorious penthouse apartments, expensive vacations, and other expenditures of extravagance, rather than looking at them with awe and wonder, we should read them as we would read a story about somebody who had been discovered with a den of kidnapped children in his basement that he used at his pleasure. At the very least, the quality of his desires are no different.

And, in closing, I want to repeat, the person with good desires does not sacrifice anything to do that which benefits others. The person with a desire to feed the hungry and provide medical care to the sick gets what he wants by contributing to these ends just as the person with a $3 billion yacht gets what he wants. The only difference is that one wants to feed the hungry and provide medical care for the sick, and the other wants to sail around in a $3 billion yacht.


Doug S. said...

At what income level do we start condemning people? Most people have expenses that aren't strictly necessary. If someone gets a $25,000 new car instead of a $20,000 car, the $5000 would easily have bought enough insecticide treated bednets to save at least one African child from malaria. Suppose a government spends $20 million on building, outfitting, and running art museums - that's a lot of sick children, too!

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Like most things in morality, there is no sharp dividing line. It is, instead, a matter of degree. I'm not inclined to think it is worth the effort to condemn the person who spends an extra $5,000 on a new car when we have people spending $500 million on a new boat.