Navel gazing: consequentialism and “obscene-wealth” virtue ethics

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”.


I’m an arts major. Please stop saying “STEAM”.

The term STEM is used to differentiate the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics from other areas of human endeavor, such as the arts, the humanities, and, depending on whom you ask, the social sciences.

What I studied was most definitely not STEM. I not only took a Bachelor of Arts: I also majored in a pretty “artsy” field. Abstract art was analyzed. Creative work was submitted for academic credit. I saw far too many of my classmates nude — as part of edgy theater works, of course. More shockingly still, at one point I thought I almost understood postmodernism.

While unconventional, this kind of education has its benefits, which are numerous but are not the topic of this post. (Tellingly, I feel the need to add here that I am gainfully employed and am a fully-fledged Contributing Member of Society.)

But it is rather clearly not Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. And recent attempts to assert the necessity of Art(s education) by adding an “A” to STEM are misguided and will have negative effects.

Most obviously, STEAM fails as a descriptor — it is, ironically, as insubstantial as actual water vapor. Is there any field/skill that can’t be described broadly as “Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics”?

When you say “21st-century students must become competent in STEAM”, you’re basically saying that they should be educated in everything in which it is possible to gain an education, which as a statement seems somewhat redundant.

What is this non-STEAM field that all today’s students are apparently spending too much time studying? Sports class? Sex ed?

Second, the term “STEM” was coined for a reason, and adding “Arts” makes it difficult to discuss the issues that still surround STEM fields.

The cynical view is that governments try to push students into STEM fields because they’re more productive in a modern economy. This may well be true, or have been true for the past few decades — it’s unclear whether it will remain true in the coming age of artificial intelligence.

However, there is something else going on in STEM, evidenced by the abundance of discussion of “Women in STEM” and “Minorities in STEM”. For various hotly-debated reasons, even in areas where educational access is equal, there are significant disparities in the entry of women and minorities into STEM fields.

If STEM is expanded to include Arts (and thus, as I sketched, comes to mean “basically everything in which someone could be educated”), it will be impossible to meaningfully discuss these disparities. I’m not advocating for any particular view on causes here — I haven’t done enough research on the topic to form an opinion.

My point is that the meaninglessness of the term “STEAM” (if enough people took it up, which I doubt) would reduce our capacity to identify and discuss clear patterns of disparity between different areas of study.

Finally, to a “STEAM”y like myself who has spent a ton of time studying discourse, adding Arts to STEM seems to be based on a fallacy. The fact that STEM is valuable, or that we need more people to study it because certain jobs will be in demand, or that it’s potentially bad that there are disparities, doesn’t mean that other fields aren’t valuable, nor that the way to recognize the value of something is to say that it’s equivalent to something else that is valued.

Perhaps, in this supposed “post-truth” era, we could instead ground the alleged value of arts and social sciences precisely in the critical analysis and thoughtful construction of communications required to avoid absurdities like STEAM.