Although I don’t identify unreservedly as an effective altruist, I do stuff like
- donate part of my income to effective charities
- judge charities’ effectiveness broadly by the amount of good they can do per dollar, and certainly by whether they actually achieve anything
- think that the goodness of an action derives from its consequences,
which could lead one (and I include myself in this generic determiner) to think (to the extent that anyone other than me metaphorically gazes at my navel) that I am a consequentialist. And it’s true that when I think theoretically about morality, consequentialist frameworks seem apt for much decision-making at the policy level.
That being said, my desire to donate part of my income is driven partially by a repugnance for “obscene wealth”. A lot of people probably have an idea of this concept, often, even in general culture, based on counterfactual beliefs about how much it costs to save a life in the developing world:
“It’s disgusting that some people spend $XX,XXX(,XXX,XXX) on private jet travel/Lamborghinis/a multi-million dollar bra when there are people starving in the world.“
I can’t say how often this is underpinned by the tacit or actual assumption that they should actually donate the money to charity, versus simply objecting to the conspicious nature of consumption — which generally far exceeds the actual or possible consumption of the speaker.
There is a sort of virtue ethics to this; the speaker implies that the person doing the conspicuous consumption is besmirching their own moral character in some way. Maybe that’s because it’s trashy, classless, or some similar descriptor (often based on judgements inherited from the Old Money/nouveau riche distinction). Maybe because it’s seen as emotionally hurtful to people with somewhat less. Or maybe because that money could be, or should actually be, donated to charity.
Sometimes I think that I am essentially similar to people who hold these views; I just set the bar for “extreme wealth” significantly lower, closer to typical levels and patterns of middle-class spending in the developed world. Like the speaker above, I allude conveniently to a level of consumption that I don’t really desire; however, unlike the speaker above, I may spurn a level of consumption that could be attainable for me.
Private jet travel becomes excessive travel of any sort; a Lamborghini becomes any car beyond what’s necessary (which could be none); the Vogue fantasy bra becomes excessive expenditure on clothing way below the million-dollar mark.
Upon reflection, it seems suspiciously convenient that, for me, the concept of “obscene wealth” is always beyond my actual or desired level of consumption. It’s certainly well above the subsistence level (+ expenses essential for maintaining earning capacity) that is seemingly demanded by utilitarianism.
Perhaps my intuitive sense of “obscene wealth” is a psychological crutch that enables me to avoid excessive guilt about the fact that I’m not able to restrict my expenses to subsistence level, while also instilling in me a repugnance for excessive consumption. Perhaps this crutch will serve me well if my life goal is to donate a significant amount of my disposable income. Very likely this crutch is inherited from my Protestant upbringing (I don’t have anywhere near the level of intuitive disgust at the idea of someone saving millions of dollars versus conspicuously spending it).
On the other hand, I can see how my intuitive sense of “excessive” could easily become a moving target, perhaps never entirely failing to somewhat constrain my spending and prompt some donations, but not achieving the same level of impact as a more demanding view of ethics that would lead me to look seriously awry at any unnecessary expenses. This is not to say that I never feel any guilt about even small unnecessary purchases, but rather, that I feel emotionally that this guilt is silly.
I may continue to post on this topic, including perhaps a more specific definition of what typical spending habits I consider excessive, and a few thoughts I’ve had on possible pitfalls, blind spots, and inconsistencies in the popular and EA notions of “obscene wealth” and “excessive consumption”.