Does Being Rich Make You Happy?
Is a high material standard of life desirable for optimal wellbeing? What might be the advantages of avoiding great wealth?
By Ian Thomson
This paper explores various issues associated with having great wealth and a high material standard of life. It is divided into three sections: sufficiency, equality and wider issues. Section A establishes a rational basis for avoiding great wealth. The subjective nature of the topic, however, precludes accuracy. In Section B it is shown that there would also be beneficial associated effects that would further increase wellbeing, by drawing upon existing egalitarian discussions. Section C demonstrates how the thesis would have theoretical implications for Rawlsian justice and indicates how it answers an existing controversy. It goes on to examine the implications for political structures, international relations and the environment. The line of argument is that it is rational, from the point of view of self interest for individuals to voluntarily limit their wealth, and that to live within a band of material and economic sufficiency may be the best way for individuals to flourish.
It is a mistake to believe that a just and good society must wait upon a high material standard of life. What men want is meaningful work in free association with others, these associations regulating their relations to one another within a framework of just basic institutions. To achieve this state of things great wealth is not necessary. In fact, beyond some point it is more likely to be a positive hindrance, a meaningless distraction at best if not a temptation to indulgence and emptiness.
Civilisation, in the real sense of the term, consists not in multiplication but in the deliberate and voluntary restriction of wants. This alone promotes real happiness and contentment, … A certain degree of physical harmony and comfort is necessary, but above that level, it becomes a hindrance instead of a help.
John Rawls’ intriguing statement in his Theory of Justice refers to both individuals and to institutions. I shall be exploring the validity of its applying to the former. The striking parallel of Gandhi’s statement indicates that it is a view held also outside a western context and that its application may be global. I will be using the term wealth to mean both possessions and money, and the word minimising to mean voluntary dispossession of wealth for the very rich, to a level of moderation.
Recently in the west, the desire for wealth creation in the banking sectors and housing markets in particular, has lead to a recession whose effects have been felt worldwide. It has been claimed, for instance, that bankers wishing to maximise their profits and house buyers wishing to get the most expensive house possible, have greatly contributed to the current economic situation. Recession has lead some people in affluent countries to question consumerism, spending, borrowing and the value of material things. The epitome of this is minimalism, described by The Times Magazine as “The Cult of Less”. Minimalism, as expressed on many websites, is to pare one’s possessions down to one hundred objects. Material goods are heralded as obsolete in favour of cloud-based computing where information is stored online, music can be streamed, emails and e-books are more prevalent, and a laptop can be an office. The following enquiry will shed some light on whether this interpretation of the idea of minimalism is a faddish cult or the expression of an enduring ethic.
The idea that having less is beneficial is not a new one. Religious monks and also various indigenous cultures have thought this for centuries. A most striking connection between austerity and virtue in indigenous culture is made by the fourteenth century philosopher Ibn Khaldun in The Muquaddimah, where he states flatly: “Bedouins are closer to being good than sedentary people.” He gives reasons that indicate that this is due to the simplicity necessary for a nomadic lifestyle. It may be that evolution has equipped human beings for a simple life, not one of plenty. However, whether we are commenting on the goodness of the Bedouin, on how austerity benefits monks, on why minimalists desire less or on what men want in Rawls’ society, we ought first to establish some consensus on what we mean by the terms goodness, benefit and so on.
There are many views on what the good life is for man, I will begin by looking at some main ones. According to Aristotle, happiness (the original Greek term eudaimonia can be translated as happiness, flourishing or wellbeing) is the highest good, it is that which is pursued for its own sake rather than as a means to something else. Virtue he says, is the “organisation of desire which enables man to live a truly happy life”. The two extremes of excess and deficiency should be avoided in favour of the mean. In terms of acquiring money, meanness or avarice is excess, and prodigality or waste is deficiency, whereas liberality is the mean. These qualities, however, are situation-specific and so what is temperate for one situation may not be for another.
Although Aristotle didn’t apply the principle of the mean to wealth itself but to attitudes or conduct relating to it, the opening quote by Rawls, along with an assumption that poverty is undesirable, indicates that we could. What would this look like? If we were to plot happiness and wealth on a graph it would not be a straight line but dome shaped, (the amplitude, length and shape of the dome may vary from person to person as will be seen). The mean would be the segment of the curve at the top.
Figure 1. Wealth
Henry Sidgwick states that “my Good on the whole is what I should actually desire and seek if all the consequences of seeking it could be foreknown and adequately realised by me in imagination at the time of making my choice,” with the qualifier of: “what [I] would desire if [my] desires were in harmony with reason.” This is also very close to the conception of the good that John Rawls adopts. Rawls says that “a person’s good is determined by what is for him the most rational long-term plan of life” and that “A man is happy when he is more or less successfully in the way of carrying out this plan.”
Derek Parfit suggests that the use of reason to compile and achieve an objective list, and the experience of pleasure, are needed together. So “What is of value, or is good for someone, is to have both; to be engaged in these activities, and to be strongly wanting to be so engaged.” Another modern view is that of capabilities. Martha Nussbaum describes capabilities as an “approach to quality of life assessment”. Nussbaum has developed a comprehensive and well studied list of ten “central human functional capabilities”. It is, I suggest, a form of generalised objective list. Nussbaum is , however, addressing the issue on a social level, whereas I am addressing it on a personal level.
I have briefly looked at various accounts of the good, for humans. I suggest that the common thread to plausible definitions is that they all contain a rational and an emotional component. The term I will use is wellbeing and the working definition that I suggest is that it is: pleasurable states of being (both physical and psychological), the doing of things which promote them, and the judgement of what weighting to give these things and their timing. A pleasurable state of being is, in this context, no way restricted to the common idea of pleasure: a hot bath, a glass of wine etc, but more akin to being in a positive state. It covers more than one state: happiness, joy, contentment and peace.
Section A: Sufficiency as a Limit
In Equality as a Moral Ideal, Harry Frankfurt asks what it means to have enough. It could mean that a standard has been met, below which is not enough. Alternatively he says, it could mean “that a limit has been reached, beyond which it is not desirable to proceed.”  He tantalisingly leaves the idea there. In this section, I would like to pick up this line of thought and see what it is about an affluent lifestyle that could be harmful to wellbeing. I propose to use the term sufficiency as a limit, for the thesis that great wealth, beyond some point, would cause a decrease in wellbeing. I will look at the three areas of contentment, choice and value.
The relationship between choice, money and possessions, are complex, however, for the sake of clarity I will make the assumption that wealth is divisible into two components: money and possessions. I will also assume that money has value because it gives us choice and possessions. When I look at the issue of money, I will only consider choice, as the issue of possessions will be dealt with separately. Money also gives us access to services. For simplicity, I shall put services in the category of choice, since having money gives us the option of employing someone to perform a task.
Establishing the thesis of sufficiency as a limit could have far reaching consequences. It would not only affect affluent individuals, but the relationship between rich and poor. It would change the chain of supply and demand and its economic structures both nationally and internationally, and could therefore have consequences for global politics and international trade. Thus, if sufficiency as a limit were widely accepted, we might not recognise our world, or on the other hand, “we might recognise ourselves for the very first time.”
- i) Contentment
It is a common view that happiness is intrinsically good, but it would appear that contentment is more ambiguous. Harry Frankfurt claims that contentment may not always be appropriate. It could be a result of “dullness or diffidence”. I believe Frankfurt’s use of the word contentment is inaccurate. Just as one would not normally wish to call a psychotic person’s mania, happiness or wellbeing, we would not normally say that someone experiencing diffidence, which is a form of fear, was content. Similarly dullness is a term which, by its negativity, would imply something along the lines of moral apathy. I suggest the word satisfaction would be more accurate for the ambiguous sentiment, and that contentment implies a deeper, healthier state of being.
Frankfurt, however, might say that if a situation is bad, discontent, not contentment, would be an effective motivating force for change. Ambition which could be seen as a form of discontent, is often considered admirable. Society has benefited from the discontent of reformers and from the ambition of individuals. For the individual, the energy generated by discontent can be pleasurable when experienced as a feeling of being driven. This is probably why these forms of discontent do not seem to feature on psychologists’ surveys on wellbeing, since if the subjects are asked “How satisfied are you with your life?” being driven could be seen as a source of pleasure as it may lead to temporary satisfaction and may also engender respect in one’s peers. Frankfurt, however, does rightly describe such ambition as “uneasiness” but does not acknowledge that it may also be pleasurable. That temporary periods of discontent may be good for us if they cause an overall beneficial change, is implied in Paula Casal’s article Why Sufficiency Is Not Enough. She considers the problem of knowing how to judge if “people have lives which are sufficiently good considered as a whole, even if they involve periods of deprivation”. These she calls “units of concern”. We have a similar problem in ascertaining what should be the units of concern for the issue of discontent.
Although we cannot be too prescriptive, we can suggest that discontent or ambition could be harmful to an individual if its duration or intensity were very great. It can be detrimental to the individuals in question and to those they associate with, and that, in turn, further detrimental to them. There is also a danger of discontentment becoming a character trait, which would compound the problem (as will be indicated below). Unchecked it could even lead to a nervous breakdown or other serious consequences.
However, it could also be pointed out that society has not always benefited from discontent and ambition as, for example, both rioting caused by general discontentment and the ambition of unscrupulous politicians can cause a great deal of harm. It would therefore seem that, in the absence of motivation caused by positive emotions such as enthusiasm or charity, discontent is a viable and often necessary second best, but one that potentially has unpleasant side effects.
I also suggest that distinguishing between needs and wants will in itself promote contentment and would protect us to some extent from the vested interests of manufacturers and marketing companies. This may not necessarily lead to minimising, but to understand the nature of our desires as best we can, is to seek reality. Inasmuch as rational people believe that they have simple lives and modest desires but actually do not, such realism is likely to lead to having and wanting less. As Frankfurt says, a person’s “decision to be content with those resources”…”may be based upon a conscientiously intelligent and penetrating evaluation of the circumstances of his life.”. Although emotions, states and feelings are not slaves of reason, they are affected by it. One might at this point ask, at what point do needs become wants?
A serious problem is the somewhat arbitrary nature of thresholds. Paula Casal, claims that to determine a threshold precisely enough to inform policy, may be sufficiency’s biggest problem. However, we are not here discussing legislative ethics but personal wellbeing so we need not be so prescriptive. The problem is a different one. There may indeed be considerable variation in what people deem too much, not only within a country but more starkly globally, since what is considered rich in Mali, may be considered modest in England. Indeed I have seen certain aspects of living standards in Mali of rich people, that would be considered modest here in England. Furthermore as will be expanded on below, some people may be more tolerant to the pressures associated with great wealth than others. There may be as many thresholds as there are people.
It may be the case that some people have been habituated from an early age to deal with high levels of wealth, such as royal families, aristocracy and business magnates, and that society has developed over time, structures to aid them. Firstly, regarding habituation, I suggest it is indeed possible that people in special circumstances can have great wealth and still be contented. However, if one could establish a general rule, that would be sufficient. For instance, one could establish that eating large quantities of cream, over long periods of time, is very likely to give you health problems. There may well be exceptions but the general rule could be provable and would be useful. Similarly, it is conceivable that even a ruler of a country experiences reduced wellbeing at some point with augmented wealth and its associated burdens, for instance, if he became ruler of a state, an empire or the world. I cannot here go into the complex social issue of the relevance of the structures mentioned above, to wellbeing. However, inasmuch as they are necessarily oppressive, I do not consider such a system to be viable nor a threat to the thesis of sufficiency as a limit.
That there may be as many thresholds as people, is problematic to the thesis, as it could be used as a reductio ad absurdum. However, the fact that the threshold may be different for each individual can be seen as an indication that the principle allows one to have one’s own personal space, and to have autonomy and liberty, and as Gerald Dworkin paraphrasing Mill said, that “each person is the best judge of his or her own interests”, with obvious exceptions. Besides, to say that we cannot reach a consensus on the point at which bathwater is too hot, does nothing to weaken the argument that, with heating, at some point it will be too hot. Similarly, we are able to say that thresholds do exist without showing exactly where they are. In Aristotelian terms, the mean is situation-specific.
Contentment is the state of being, underpinning the principle of sufficiency as a limit. Dullness and diffidence do not, on closer examination, appear to be genuine contentment, nor does the value of ambition weaken the case for contentment. The problem of thresholds is a perhaps a logically unsolvable technical conundrum, but it does not undermine the principle that contentment and reason can guide people to limit their wealth. The above argument points to the conclusion that contentment is intrinsically good, which would mean that in theory we can regard sufficiency as a limit. We will now look at some practical questions to determine whether it would be reasonable to do so.
- ii) Choice
In the U.S. and Britain research has shown that “Over the last two decades, a new understanding began to emerge, especially from psychology and economics, that what we want and choose can often fail to deliver, and can even be counter-productive.” Walking down the isle of a large supermarket in the U.K. there is a bewildering degree of variety. Greater prosperity has brought more choice. One could question whether this is peculiar to liberal democracies, but it is likely that even, for example, in a communist system that imposed strict economic equality, if the wealth of the whole nation went up, then everybody would have more choice.
Having freedom of choice suggests we are more likely to get what we want. This is, however, according to Dworkin, merely a rule of thumb, an “empirical generalisation”. Amartya Sen, in his book Development as Freedom, says that we should not be fetishistic about freedom of choice, we should first see whether it is helpful to us, whether it gives us self-respect, mobility, allows public participation and so forth, since not all choice is desirable. “In particular, increased choice among goods and services may contribute little or nothing to the kind of freedom that counts. Indeed, it may impair freedom by taking time and energy we’d be better off devoting to other matters.” Later on I will look more into the issue of freedom, or liberty, but now let us see whether choice has instrumental, intrinsic, or other value.
I would like to take a look at what nowadays we might call “stress”. Dworkin talks about “psychic costs” of doubt and regret which increase the more choice we have.  One might, however, like to question him on how valid it is to go into the minutia of decision making: do such emotions really occur in a significant enough way to be relevant? In order to answer this we need to look a little deeper.
Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice explains that there are certain psychological processes that explain why increased choices can make us suffer. These include: regret, awareness of missed opportunities, raised expectations and feeling inadequate in comparison to others (which he explains is itself, a justifiable attempt at simplifying choice). In the face of this he concludes that “the goal of maximising is a source of great dissatisfaction”, and that the strategy of satisficing is preferable, and that in the field of choice, we ought to opt for voluntary constraints. If satisficing does not lead to the above costs of maximising, then it is a principle that optimises wellbeing. In this way satisficing is maximising. How true is this?
Some researchers have criticised Schwartz’s methodology. Diab, Gillespie and Highhouse, for example, say that “aside from being more prone to experiencing regret – maximizers are just as happy as satisficers”. So if Schwartz is wrong about the processes of adaptation, comparison, and raised expectation, we can at least conclude that maximisers will be more regretful and if regret is a form of sadness, then maximisers are less happy. Since the word sad can legitimately replace the word regret: for example “I’m now sad that I didn’t take that job” means “I now regret that I didn’t take that job”, maximisers are less happy. It is of course untenable that all maximisers are always less happy. However, such research establishes general rules, which, as mentioned earlier, is sufficient to our purpose.
Furthermore, we are here only concerned with the possible pernicious effects of maximising wealth, whereas Schwartz and Diab, et al. are talking about the psychological trait of maximising, and if some maximising is beneficial, for example maximising education or morals, then for a person with a general tendency for maximising, the good maximising would, to some extent, offset the bad maximising; but they are still left with more regret. How then can we know whether our maximising “balance sheet” is in credit or debit? I believe we cannot be sure, however, it is clear that we would wish to have as little regret as possible. We must therefore conclude that, for optimal wellbeing, we would maximise in those areas such as education, that promote wellbeing and minimise as necessary, in those areas such as wealth that can overall reduce wellbeing.
The act itself of choosing may be pleasurable and beneficial. Dworkin points out that “Some people get satisfaction out of exercising choice; thinking about, choosing among”. He also states that the exercising of choice, improves one’s self confidence and builds character. I do not find this a convincing argument, because besides it being, as Dworkin concedes, merely an “empirical generalisation”, it is implausible that the character improving qualities gained from wealth-based choices are alone valuable. There are plenty of other areas in one’s life in which one can exercise choice to improve character, that do not necessarily require money, for instance physical exercise and personal relationships. Similarly, there are a vast number of areas in which one can derive pleasure from choosing that require little or no money. (There are almost endless choices to be made in the practice of watercolour painting alone!)
This brings us to an interesting account of wellbeing and sheds some light on the issue of the value of choice. Ronald Dworkin, in Sovereign Virtue says “that a good life has the inherent value of a skilful performance.” He claims that actions, interests, and achievements have value within themselves, even if they were to have no effect outside that life. This he calls the model of challenge. It would mean that a person derives wellbeing from the skilful management and organising of his life and in acquiring skill in whatever he does, be it even mundane tasks; none of which necessarily requires money. This gives weight to the view mentioned earlier, that choice to improve one’s character need not require money. It also supports the larger thesis, that wellbeing itself doesn’t.
I have explored questions relating to the instrumental value of choice. Gerald Dworkin also examines whether choice is intrinsically valuable and demonstrates that it is not. Since, if we were to like three cars, say a BMW, a Ford and a Fiat in that order of preference, it would not make sense to prefer a scenario where we can choose between a Ford and a Fiat over one where we are simply offered a BMW. Why would we go for our second best car plus being able to choose, rather than our favourite car with no choice?
What does have intrinsic value is not having choices but being recognized as the kind of creature who is capable of making choices. …worthy of respect …But, of course, that it is better intrinsically to be a creature that makes choices, does not imply that it is always an improvement to have more. …In the realm of choice, as in all others, we must conclude – enough is enough. 
Simplification and streamlining are not uncommon notions, but to do so through a voluntary reduction of financial assets, would be more novel. However, being content with possessing less money, would decrease our options in some aspects of our lives which, it seems, is likely to reduce stress and regret, thus improving our mental wellbeing. For many this will be very controversial.
However, Henry David Thoreau states that “the rich man” … “is always sold to the institution which makes him rich.” This rather bold view, highlights the important problem of perceiving things outside of one’s frame of reference. It may be that one has to already have a high level of wellbeing to understand what a high level of wellbeing is. For instance, a soldier, prisoner, ghetto dweller or anyone who has been subjected to prolonged violence or abuse, in a peaceful situation, may feel uneasy and suspicious of well wishers. In short, “he wouldn’t know how good he’s got it”. Although it is difficult to break into different frames of reference, I believe it is possible, by conjecture and trial-and-error, as scientists do routinely in advancing hypotheses. Although this answer is not conclusive, Karl Popper in The Myth of the Framework, commenting on an analogous debate, said that “conclusive arguments in support of a theory are very rare in all but the most trivial issues, even though arguments against a theory may sometimes be pretty strong.”
Let us now consider the other component of wealth: possessions. Having a high standard of life without having high earnings could put a strain on one’s financial resources and cause anxiety and concern. This is one way in which a high standard of life would not be desirable for optimal wellbeing. It could be seen as living beyond one’s means or as mismanaging one’s affairs. However, I would like to focus instead, on issues inherent in having material wealth, that could lower wellbeing. For instance, getting used to a level of affluence could mean we take that which we have for granted and thereby derive little or no benefit from it. I shall use the term utility, rather than the term wellbeing, in line with the authors discussed.
Harry Frankfurt in Equality as a Moral Ideal, notes that each successive acquisition or repetition of a thing gives us less pleasure or benefit. This he calls the principle of diminishing marginal utility. It could, however, be argued that although marginal utility may constantly decrease, this will still always produce a net increase in utility. For instance, if we diminish a utility increase of 1 by 10%, we get 0.9. If we diminish this smaller increase of 0.9 by a further 10% we get 0.89. Mathematically this could continue to an infinite number of decimal places. Logically this argument is irrefutable, but it is also false since as we shall see, issues of space, efficiency and aesthetics mean that at some point total utility would reach zero and then keep decreasing into negative values.
Take the following example:
- I increase my utility by buying an iPhone, I derive pleasure from all the applications and features, and it is useful.
- I further increase my utility by buying a Porsche, I derive pleasure from how it drives, the look of it and people’s admiration.
- I further increase it by buying a bigger house, I have more space, privacy, and I find it aesthetically pleasing
- Compared to my old phone my utility is slightly decreased by the iPhone because the battery discharges relatively quickly, I spend a little longer navigating it, it costs me time to discover it’s limitations. Some of the initial increase in wellbeing wears off as the novelty does. It, being an upgrade, poses an increased financial burden.
- My new Porsche slightly decreases my utility by being an increased financial burden. Running costs are increased. I now start to worry slightly when I park it in less than ideal conditions. I may start considering the security of my garage. Occasionally with expensive cars one encounters malicious envy which further slightly lowers utility.
- My new house considerably increases my financial burden. Being bigger, it takes a little longer to clean and upkeep. I may employ a cleaner which further increases my financial burden and causes slight stress in recruitment, honesty issues, breakages and holidays. The larger garden and possible gardener create similar stresses. I become more concerned about security, installing an alarm, electric gates intercom, video, and have raised concerns about tradesmen. I may now seek a higher paid job in order to not have to struggle to maintain the lifestyle I find myself accustomed to. As is often the case, with the higher paid job comes more responsibility and therefore stress.
The cause and effect leading to negative utility goes on. People often do not factor in what Gerald Dworkin calls transaction costs. These can be small and can go up incrementally and unnoticed. It may be that small incremental increases are easier to adapt to than sudden, large ones, but the point is that even with small ones, at some stage we can no longer effectively adapt. Furthermore, individuals may not even be aware the process is occurring until the stress exceeds their natural tolerance level. I am of course here talking about the increasing of wealth in line with the existing discussions, but these higher costs also exist for wealthy individuals who do not increase their wealth.
There are also associated costs to choosing before the choice has been made, such as the time and effort necessary for gathering relevant information.
Anybody who has tried to buy a house or a car will be aware of the time-consuming nature of these choices. And although one can trade off money for time by hiring agents to do the initial screening, location, etc., the nature of the choice dictates a necessary investment of personal time.
The importance of these various costs should be emphasised. Avner Offer points out that “There is a view that ill-being does not belong on the same dimension as well-being”… “’Prospect theory’ argues that losses are more acutely experienced than gains.” This, I suggest, explains why the costs are often unnoticed since, although one perceives the associated benefits from the possession of material things more than the costs, one experiences the loss of equanimity more than the benefits. This would help to explain how one’s short term pleasure may go up, but one’s wellbeing actually goes down. The result is that one will feel one needs to buy and earn more to sustain satisfaction. This leads to what Offer calls “the ‘hedonic treadmill’: income has to rise in order to sustain satisfaction at a constant level.”
Psychologists such as Schwartz call diminishing marginal utility the phenomenon of adaptation. It is a fairly standard view. I am not here implying that it is a simple matter; there are of course complexities involved, such as the existence of an initial lowering of utility in a “warming up process” before the acquisition of a taste for certain activities. A more interesting idea, however, would be its reversal: would reducing the number of one’s possessions increase the value of the remaining ones?
A sceptic might say that not only would reducing one’s possessions not increase the utility of those remaining, it would in fact reduce numerically the total utility one has. One might counter this by suggesting that if, through adaptation, wear or neglect, the utility of the items has been reduced to nil or even to a negative figure, then it would not be the case. A negative figure would occur when the benefit the items give, are outweighed by the “bother” they generate through maintenance, being in the way, and so on. Decluttering one’s home would reduce maintenance, create order, increase space, and therefore improves one’s living environment. Furthermore, by reducing upkeep, and housework it would free up time for more meaningful pursuits. As Frankfurt suggests such chores are, for many, irksome.
The sceptic might reply that considerations such as decluttering, tidiness and maintenance are hardly moral issues. Also that just because I have less, does not mean that I will be tidier nor that my home will be more organised and attractive. In answer to the first, more important moral objection, one could reply that, whether or not this is a moral issue, the accumulation of costs can have a significant impact on one’s wellbeing and is therefore pertinent to this enquiry. In answer to the objection regarding tidiness, having fewer possessions may not make me a tidy individual, but it won’t make me untidier, and if say I have a fixed level of tidiness, then fewer possessions will mean I have reduced opportunity for mess and ipso facto there will be less mess.
However, would reducing one’s possessions add value to the remaining ones, if so how? If we compare owning fifty suits with owning one, intuitively it would suggest one might value the one more than one of the fifty. However, this does not answer the question satisfactorily, since if we were to go from fifty suits to fourty, how would the remaining suits have more value? I am unsure what the answer is, however, it may be that there is some kind of threshold whereby one starts cherishing more, what one has. Alternatively, that value is in part determined by how much use one gives something (along the lines of Marx’s labour theory of value) so the one suit would be valued more because it is used more. Or again, perhaps the appreciation of one’s possessions, in particular when one consciously reduces them, is a capacity that must be developed. There is, however, another way in which having less could certainly add value to what we own.
If one had fewer things, this could mean that the things one did have could be of better quality. For instance one could own two shirts at £50 each rather than ten shirts at £10 each. This clearly reduces the number of our possessions. One might object that it does not, however, diminish our overall wealth, and furthermore, that it encourages elitism and high-level consumerism. Firstly, one could answer that if one objects to £100 being spent on shirts one could have two shirts at £30 each instead of ten at £10 each, thus spending less and having better quality. Secondly one could argue that minimising does not advocate being poor, nor having low quality goods, but advocates moderation. Thus, if shirt prices were to range from £10 to £110 then £50 could be seen as moderate. Furthermore, it would be paternalistic to dictate how one spends one’s money. To have moderate wealth means some luxuries are affordable. G.A. Cohen sets out the view that “each person has the right to a private space into which social duty does not intrude.” The same can be said for personal duty: for example anyone who has tried to loose weight by modifying their long term eating habits will know that it is unwise to be too strict on oneself. We will look at personal duty in more depth in Section 2.
Finally, before leaving the topic of diminishing marginal utility, it is necessary to see whether the principle can be used to establish sufficiency as a limit, with regards to money. Abba Lerner applies the principle to money by stating that one buys the most important things first therefore, with more income we would buy the things that we originally declined to buy because they would have given us less satisfaction. Therefore for any given increase in expenditure, utility must proportionally decrease. Blum and Kalven however, do not find this argument convincing because, they suggest that money is infinitely adaptable, and that “even if all the things that money can buy are subject to the law of diminishing marginal utility, it does not follow that money itself is.” Blum and Kalven would appear to be correct. How can the law of diminishing marginal utility legitimately apply to what in effect is an abstract concept? A philosophy that does not see money in relation to what it does, must be fetishistic and make no more sense than one that advocates the collecting of pebbles to promote wellbeing and therefore is irrational. Whether the principle of marginal utility applies to money may be important theoretically, but not applicable to sufficiency as a limit.
In this section I have established that contentment has intrinsic value, and that a rational distinguishing of needs from wants fosters contentment. Then, moving from the uncontentious point that money increases choice and that to have some choice is beneficial, it was seen that studies indicate that there are costs involved that go up the more choice we have and that this can lead to a reduction in wellbeing. Criticism of some of these studies still leaves us with the conclusion that too much choice gives us more regret. Therefore, causally, great wealth can decrease wellbeing in at least one way. Although some people gain benefit from choosing and purchasing products, there are many situations in which one can exercise choice that do not require money. In the light of the model of challenge, the inherent value of choice may be, not in the day to day choices themselves, but in skilfully choosing which choices we allow ourselves.
It has been demonstrated that the accumulation of possessions is subject to the principle of diminishing marginal utility. When material things are “more bother than they are worth”, dispossession will increase the total utility. It is possible that reducing one’s possessions increases the value of those remaining although this has not been proved conclusively. What has been demonstrated, however, is that by changing one’s pattern of acquisition one can be more frugal and enjoy better quality items by default. I have thus sought to suggest that there are practical reasons for at some point, preferring not to have more possessions, and beyond that point, for minimising.
Therefore there is strong evidence to suggest that increasing either or both of the two components of wealth: money and possessions, would at some point lower our wellbeing. Thus if we are to fully flourish as human beings, our chances are best within the band of material and economic sufficiency (the mean). If sufficiency were both a standard and a limit, then, even if we do not know the exact value to give the thresholds, we have established that it is very likely that they exist and we can add them to the graph.
Figure 2. Wealth
Section B: Equality
There are numerous benefits to equality. It brings people together conceptually and psychologically, discouraging jealousy on the one hand and conceit on the other. It promotes dignity, fairness and social cohesion. Economic equality is a form that would be a by-product of minimising, and stem from the individuals concerned, even if they did not hold egalitarian views and were acting out of self interest. However, this is not to say that it is a selfish principle, as minimising would, for example, promote equality of aspiration within a community, by shifting focus from monetary concerns and by changing peoples attitudes on the value of material things. Furthermore, these beneficial effects on the community would be felt by the minimisers as additional benefits to those canvassed in Section A. Even if such effects were to be small, providing they are perceptible, they can be justified from the point of view of self interest and, as will be seen below, they would nevertheless, be important. In this section, I will draw upon existing egalitarian and prioritarian discussions both to highlight the associated beneficial effects of sufficiency as a limit, and to test their validity.
- i) Priority and Equality
People sometimes use the term “well off” ambiguously: for having wealth and sometimes for physical wellbeing. My suggestion is however, that since wellbeing is the end, wealth and equality are merely means. Existing discussions sometimes do not make this distinction. Such a distinction could have notable consequences, to people’s values, to distributive justice and to international relations.
In Equality and Priority, Parfit imagines a world of two populated continents separated by an un-crossable ocean. In The Social Basis of Equality, Norman imagines a community that is economically undeveloped but not destitute, and that enjoys good social cohesion and wellbeing. Imagine we now populate one of Parfit’s continents with this poor but happy community, everyone with a wellbeing rating of 120. On the other continent lives a community of affluent people, but everyone with a wellbeing of only 100. Who should we benefit? The difference between being financially well off and being well off in terms of wellbeing would have serious implications for the ideal of priority. Parfit for instance, posits what he calls The Priority View that “Benefiting people matters more the worse off these people are.” This is a view espoused by Thomas Nagel. If by worse off we mean in terms of wellbeing, then this would mean helping the wealthy continent first.
Nussbaum’s views suggest that we should ensure that the poor are secured various central functional human capabilities. I would argue that if, as she states, affiliation is a capability, it is also one for rich people and that although justice requires that the poor are allowed to achieve it, logic requires that the rich are too. If it is true that the rich and privileged tend to be those who run the institutions of the world, then it becomes especially important that they are fully functional human beings in an emotional/psychological sense. Thus again the rich should be given priority.
This would indeed be a controversial view. I am not suggesting that we should divert more resources (social services, counselling and so forth) towards the rich to the detriment of the poor, I am merely establishing the importance of the thesis. It may be that the poor are poor because the rich are rich, and that to help the poor, the attitude of the rich must first change.
- ii) Two Objections
Having made the distinction between wellbeing and being materially well off, we can now look at the “drop-in-the-ocean” objection and also the objection that the thesis is unrealistically demanding. Joshua Cohen acknowledges that inequality harms wellbeing, “But that is no reason whatsoever for giving away my money and joining the poor side of the division.” He points out that there are so many poor people that what he could do would have a negligible effect, and that extravagant charity could even cause more division rather than less. Whether or not your minimiser would be reducing his wealth by giving to charity, and despite the fact that the minimising thesis would not require a rich person to reduce himself to a level of poverty just to moderation, one could still use this “drop-in-the-ocean” argument for the tiny effect he would have on global or national equality.
This is a difficult and perennial problem. Peter Singer’s answer to a similar objection in Famine, Affluence and Morality was that if the principle is correct, what others do is morally irrelevant. Or as Cohen says, “Why should you expect single-handedly to make a massive global [or national] difference?” One should be realistic in how much change one can expect. Of course if the effect is below a perceptible level, one would have to find a different premise other than self interest to justify minimising, such as the “doing one’s duty gives one dignity” argument discussed below. Individuals could also appeal to the idea of promoting the interests of their offspring, which would in turn have some bearing on their relationships with them and therefore improve their wellbeing.
The objection that the effect is negligible is also not convincing from another standpoint, Cohen points out that there can be two readings of the word negligible: it can mean numerically small, or it can mean unimportant. One’s contribution could be seen as a small but important step towards equality, just as a single soldier’s contribution to a war could be seen as small but important. Also, if one were to minimise by giving to charity, then not only would this be important to the recipient (which is one of Cohen’s arguments) but it may also give the donor a sense of wellbeing.
But how can we reconcile a hypothetical community, which could at best represent some small remote country such as Bhutan, with the affluent communities in the U.K. or the U.S.? A view that requires rich people to voluntarily dispossess themselves of material things and of money is likely to face the objection that it is asking too much, because of the psychological burden imposed by such a requirement and because of the possible curtailment of life goals. According to Singer, Sidgwick argues “that we need to have a basic moral code which is not too far beyond the capacities of the ordinary man for otherwise there will be a general breakdown of compliance with the moral code.” It could be argued that it is natural for humans to be at least moderately greedy and desiring of comfort and status. Put simply, minimising is too at odds with human nature.
In answer, minimising is not a moral code, but a recommendation based on a rational claim. If there were enough grounds for the claim, anyone minimising, would do so out of self interest and it would no longer appear a burden. A failure to act according to our own best interests, would then be due to weakness of will. There is no reason to assume that ethical decisions are easy. This is not to say that currently it would be readily accepted. In most countries, one is at present generally considered fortunate to have great wealth. It would clearly have to make much headway, before it became a popular view.
iii) Association and Liberty
I suggest that for most people a large factor contributing to wellbeing is association with others. A popular view is that friendship and love are generally considered things that money can’t buy, and indeed financial issues can ruin relationships. In a community where there is economic inequality there will be, to some extent, fear of exploitation or conceit in the rich, and possible sycophancy or envy in the poor. It is also feasible that the negative effects of great wealth enter into family life, for example, children manipulating parents to get money, parents resenting this, and parents trying to “buy love”. This of course is possible in any family, but it is likely that the temptation to succumb to such behaviour is stronger if there is more wealth available. It would therefore be likely that a reduction in wealth for the rich would lead to an improvement in the quality of association they enjoy.
At this point someone might respond that a significant reduction in wealth for a rich person would stress relationships with their peers, and could be degrading. This may not however, necessarily be the case, since the more genuine a friendship, the more understanding and tolerant the peers will be. But even for those who are not blessed with understanding friends, one could argue that a stressful life change may still be for the best in the long run. In a similar way, changing one’s job to something more meaningful could initially be stressful. People wishing to minimise, may encounter some problems at first. However, in an analogous context Cohen discusses “moral pioneers” that make a pathway that is easier then, for others to follow.
However, one might agree that great wealth is detrimental to association but claim that the benefit from that wealth outweighs the benefit from better association. Intuition tells us that preferring wealth to friendship is probably erroneous. However, preferences are subjective and so it is a difficult opinion to disprove. Nonetheless, firstly, regarding the value of wealth, I suggest that below the standard of sufficiency it might be reasonable to say that wealth is preferable to association, but the further above that threshold one is, the less likely it is that the claim is realistic. Secondly regarding the value of (close) association, it would appear that a lack of it decreases wellbeing as I shall explore in the next paragraph. I therefore suggest, that if we were to keep degrading associations, at some point (and at some time) even the most inveterate bon viveur would experience a lack of true wellbeing.
Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice has pointed out that the forming of close social ties actually decreases our liberty, since a spouse or close friend make demands upon one’s time. Relationships carry responsibilities. This would suggest that the benefits obtained by a close relationship outweigh the loss of freedom. One may object by saying that this is a generalisation and that some will obtain more wellbeing from liberty even at the expense of association. However, Schwartz claims that the loosening of the ties of association have lead to a major decline of wellbeing in the U.S. since the 1960s. This is plausible, it seems to me that liberty with reduced close human association would lead to a dry and lonely existence, but that it is possible that close human association with little liberty, could be pleasant, or at least tolerable. It would therefore appear to be the case that association “trumps” liberty.
However, the loss of liberty in one area may be compensated by increased liberty in others. A feature of having very much more wealth than others is that there is the danger of it being taken away or damaged, or that there is danger to one’s own security. It is these types of concerns that lead the super-rich to enclose themselves within secure compounds, install surveillance, bars on their windows and to invest in security guards, body guards and panic rooms. Furthermore they may be limited in their freedom of movement, where they can park their expensive cars, and in the spontaneity of their actions. It follows therefore, that to minimise would reduce such concerns and increase physical liberty in these areas.
Of course this claim is also subject to weighing up the benefit obtained from material things against peace of mind. Since it has been indicated that material possessions are subject to the law of diminishing marginal utility and to their associated costs, there must generally speaking be a point at which the costs outweigh the benefits. Furthermore, the very act of minimising would decrease one’s emotional attachment to wealth, thereby increasing one’s psychological freedom. An emotional investment in material things means an emotional and arguably greater deficit if we are deprived of them through theft or accident. To conclude, freedom from material attachment promotes equanimity.
- iv) The Problem of Status
It may of course be claimed that certain people desire wealth not necessarily so much for the pleasure the objects and services it will bring, but for status and the attendant feeling of self worth. Status in turn, does of course bring access to more resources, choice, comfort and so on. In other words, high status, like wealth, can be instrumental to wellbeing. However, although we all like to be treated with respect, the persistent drive to achieve high status through amassing wealth could be due to a lack of self esteem, which also generates sentiments of aggression or a desire to dominate. I suggest that these traits often lead to conflict and a lowering of wellbeing for the subject. It would be wrong to mistake the means (status, resources, freedom and so on) for the end (wellbeing), and if a means does not effectively promote the end, it should not be used.
Furthermore, status is dependent on the attitude and reaction of others and it is offered to whatever group society finds useful at the time, such as warriors, fertile women, priests, politicians, celebrities and so on. If then theoretically speaking, an egalitarian society found everybody equally useful we would all have equal status. Also, if we had more self-esteem, were more at peace with ourselves, feared others less and had strong familial and community ties, we would have no need to seek pleasant states through status, since we would already have them. As Daniel Chiras postulates “Psychologists tell us that the roots of the sense of inadequacy can be traced to other factors. The lack of self-esteem that advertisers feed off in our culture results, in large part, from inadequate family systems and deficiencies in child rearing.” In other words, it is due to lack of wellbeing that we seek status. Nonetheless this is a complex issue and the social ties that connect us, must affect a person’s wellbeing; but to make one’s wellbeing dependent on the (variable) opinions of others and on responding to the influence of advertisers by material acquisition, does not appear a solid strategy.
- v) Symbolic Worth
Minimising would send to both the local community and to the international community a powerful message. Gandhi (a successful barrister, voluntarily turned ascetic) suggested that “The rich should take the initiative in dispossession with a view to a universal diffusion of the spirit of contentment.” The message would be in such a spirit and would say that equality is desirable and that great wealth is not preferable to it. It is possible that the message may be misinterpreted at first and that the minimisers would be seen as eccentrics, but as more people minimise, the message would become clearer.
A sceptic might suggest that minimising is a selfish doctrine which increases the wellbeing and possibly the savings too, of the rich, and that any symbolic worth would therefore be cancelled out. It is indeed consistent with the thesis that a wealthy person just above the threshold of sufficiency as a limit, dispossesses himself of “2x” worth of possessions, saves “x” amount of money through his new lifestyle, and has therefore “x” less total wealth than before, which is enough to put him below the threshold whilst simultaneously increasing his savings.
Minimising is neither a selfish doctrine nor an unselfish one. However, it could be argued that it is compatible with charity. One can improve one’s wellbeing and still give to the poor, and it may be that a higher level of wellbeing will make one more generous: feelings of contentment and security are more compatible with giving (as is having more spare cash) than material cravings and fear. Dworkin says that “our duty to [the poor] is one of human compassion, not one that derives from a principle of equality.” Minimising shifts values away from material and financial matters leaving more time and energy for more meaningful concerns, which may include, for example, the interests of others.
Another retort a sceptic could offer is that if it is accepted that too much wealth is detrimental, people may stop giving to the poor for fear of decreasing their wellbeing. Although a logically weak argument because people at sub sufficiency would still clearly benefit from help, I think it bears some truth. The answer may be that if the truth about extreme poverty were clearly disseminated by the media and charities, there would be no drop in the desire to help in the rich.
- vi) Dignity and Empowerment
Finally, if one were to be convinced by the argument that limiting wealth is advantageous and therefore good, there would be a knock-on beneficial effect, namely that by knowingly doing what is good, one will get a sense of fulfilment of duty which engenders dignity. This may appear odd in a discussion largely about self interest, however, if one sees the limiting of wealth as duty to oneself, it is empowering and therefore not incongruent.  For instance, if one believes in equality (or for that matter in sufficiency or some types of socialism or ecology in the anti-consumer sense, or if one is simply disillusioned with recession-causing greed), then minimising will increase autonomy and power. It means that any individual living above the standard of sufficiency can act and is not so subject to feelings of powerlessness or helplessness. On a global level, the empowerment will be of a nurturing kind rather than one of dominance (as, arguably, it is at the moment), similar to how certain countries are starting to take the lead in cutting their carbon emissions. This may not be to their economic advantage (if we set aside the debate on decoupling which is on whether it is possible to divorce economic wealth from resource use), but it is principled and responsible.
On the other hand, it may be that minimising is a requirement that is so out of line with current mores, that it may have negative, rather than positive, psychological effects. Robert Nozick pointed out in Anarchy, State and Utopia regarding philanthropy that, if there is no legislative compulsion to give money away, to voluntarily do so could have hidden costs: a person “might feel that only ‘suckers’ or ‘saps’ make special sacrifices when others are ‘getting away’ with not making any; or he might be upset by the worsening of his position relative to those who don’t contribute”. Furthermore, the costs may be higher still, since if someone did not meet the required standard of minimisation, he may feel guilty enough for it to damage his wellbeing.
However, although the feelings of gullibility and guilt may arise if one minimises, it is unlikely to have much significance. A certain amount of guilt in such circumstances would do no harm to long term wellbeing and may even improve it, by causing one to increase one’s efforts. Aristotle believes guilt, or shame, can be beneficial, indeed almost a virtue. Also, feeling gullible is not a proof of long term damage to wellbeing. It implies comparison with others which, as has been shown above, may in itself be counterproductive; it is not a good idea to base one’s morality on the approval of others. It is also unlikely that one would feel gullible if one recognised that minimising was in one’s own self interest. Thus to rationally decide upon a thing and to carry it out despite one’s fluctuating emotions, brings wellbeing. This is indeed a direct parallel to the very definition of wellbeing given by Sidgwick and Rawls and close to the definition of virtue given by Aristotle, in the introduction.
In this Section I have shown that there is an important difference between wellbeing and wealth. Severing the link between the two would mean that a rich person can be worse off than a poor one; this would open the flood gates to prioritarian objections. The argument can be salvaged by observing that the proposed paradigm of sufficiency is logically consistent, impartial, and is concerned with the relief of suffering. It is also in any case compatible with philanthropy. Since a degree of economic equality would be one of the results of minimising, it would itself improve the quality of people’s association with one another and arguably, increase their peace of mind.
If this were accepted, we have seen that it would not be beyond the capabilities of the average wealthy person, since motivation would be through self interest. More work needs doing, however, to ascertain if acceptance is feasible in the light of the current ethos which is to some extent global and relies on the creation of capital for the production and distribution of goods. Acceptance of sufficiency as a limit and minimising for those with great wealth would have resultant effects to the global order, politically and economically. In the next section I will look at some of these issues and suggest some directions which answers could take.
Section C: Wider Implications
In this section I shall discuss how the advantages to avoiding great wealth translate into a wider context. Existing criticisms of the maximising assumption in Rawls’ original position are given further weight by sufficiency as a limit, and a systematic analysis seems to point to the assumption being gratuitous. I shall go on to argue that sufficiency as a limit would render levelling down tenable, since it would not in fact harm the rich, but would help them by improving their wellbeing.
- i) Theoretical Implications
Following this line of reasoning highlights a dissonance within Rawls’ Theory of Justice. Is it rational to assume that we would always want as many primary goods as possible in the original position? In the original position, Rawls imagines decision makers under a veil of ignorance, that is to say they know nothing of the particulars of themselves, for example their race, sex, religion, place in society, their abilities and so forth, nor do they know their own individual conception of the good, what their own life plan is. He does let them have a conception of the good that was mentioned in the introduction and which we will discuss shortly. Therefore, when deciding between principles of justice, the idea is that impartiality is assured. The parties are also assumed to be self interested and rational.
Harry Frankfurt questions the assumption that people in the original position will want as many primary goods as possible. He claims that it “tends towards fetishism” and that even under the veil of ignorance, people would still be able to appreciate that someone continually adding to his supply of primary goods may find that at some point they cost him in terms of stress, more than they are worth. In Section A we looked at the associated costs of wealth and saw that such costs do indeed exist and are significant enough to warrant consideration. It would seem, at least as far as the primary goods of money and liberty are concerned, that Frankfurt is correct. Like Frankfurt, I make the assumption that in this context liberty is equivalent to choice.
Rawls, however, says that once the veil of ignorance is lifted, people for religious or other reasons can relinquish their primary goods; but this does not convince Frankfurt, who thinks that to do so may be burdensome and cause much anxiety. It can be argued that since I have demonstrated that dispossession is empowering it would not therefore be burdensome. However, it is consistent to argue that it is both empowering to be released from a problematic situation and to not wish to be put into such a situation in the first place.
Gerald Dworkin approaches the problem from a different angle. He mentions strategic reasons why people may wish certain choices not to be available, for instance a banker may not wish to know the combination to a safe in case he were to be threatened into opening it. If we add to this a principle with deep historical roots, namely that of temptation or weakness of will, we have a strong argument. Say for instance on removal of the veil of ignorance, one is convinced that a moderate level of affluence would be more conducive to wellbeing, but finds that the principles of justice one has agreed upon give one a high level of affluence. It may then be very difficult not to succumb to the temptation of keeping the wealth.
Although he does not allow his subjects to have their own individual conception of the good, Rawls does, as mentioned earlier, allow them a conception: they know they have a life plan and that it is the most rational one they are able to formulate. They also know that they will be most happy if they succeed in carrying it out. If they are rational as he assumes, they would also be able to appreciate that there is danger in great wealth from distraction, temptation, indulgence and emptiness, as mentioned by Rawls himself in the opening quote and as indicated by the principle of sufficiency as a limit. It would therefore be irrational for them to attempt to maximise the primary good of wealth or earnings in the original position, since this would impede or at least jeopardise their life plan and the possibility of optimal wellbeing. The maximising assumption in the original position is therefore inconsistent. This in turn would have other implications for Rawlsian justice, for example in the case of the difference principle. Whereas at present, for any given system of distribution, it would not matter how much money a rich sector of the population gets providing the poorest sector benefits most, it may now be deemed necessary to modify the principle to have a systemic protection for the rich.
Sufficiency as a limit also has implications for the existing egalitarian controversy over levelling down. The graphic example of the levelling down objection that Parfit gives, is that since it is bad that some people are blind and some are sighted, it would be justifiable to make the sighted blind, not because it would benefit the blind, but to satisfy the ideal of equality. This he rightly observes, is abhorrent or absurd. Norman believes the objection can be met, by an example of the community with a simple lifestyle, mentioned above. The community enjoys good social cohesion and wellbeing and is at a “fairly low level of economic development”… “though not experiencing great hardship”. “Given the opportunity of economic development which would make them all better off but introduce substantial inequalities, they might prefer to remain less prosperous but equal” because, he argues, unity in relative poverty may be preferred to schism and disdain on the one hand and to resentment and servility on the other. Norman concludes by saying “There is a real tension within the egalitarian ideal, but”… “we can see how it might indeed be rational to prefer greater equality to greater well-being”… “the ‘levelling down’ problem has not disappeared, but the Levelling Down Objection can be met.”  I propose that the concept of sufficiency as a limit would ease that tension and remove the problem as will be now shown.
The community in question is located in the top (or second) segment of the curve of wellbeing in Figure 2., we know this because firstly they are not on the first segment, since they are not experiencing great hardship, and secondly that their needs are sufficiently being met means that they are above the threshold of sufficiency as a standard. They are therefore on the second segment. Even if we disagreed with them, this does not disprove the conclusion, since it is their opinions that count. In other words it is the psychological response to external conditions that determines a subject’s wellbeing. Therefore, if they accepted more money they would be pushed further along the curve on a downward trajectory. To say as Norman does, that they “prefer greater equality to greater well-being” would thus be incorrect. It is Norman’s assumption that wellbeing is the same as affluence or at least inextricably linked to it, that causes the problem. The community prefers greater wellbeing through equality, to lower wellbeing through wealth. In the light of sufficiency as a limit, economic levelling down ceases to be problematic.
- ii) Practical Implications
If the sufficiency as a limit view were correct and a significant number of affluent individuals in the west practiced minimising, this would arguably have global ramifications. Developing countries are reliant on the trade, services and tourism of the affluent ones. They are reliant on consumer demand to boost their economies thereby lifting the poor sectors of their populations out of sub-sufficiency. The world’s poor depend upon the wealth of the rich. This is not a particularly hard-line view as even benevolent and progressive, philosophers can agree with it. Andrew Kuper for example in an analogous debate, says that we should help the poor in ways such as the fair trade of luxury items and eco-tourism, which we cannot do if we do not have spare cash. It therefore figures that minimising for the rich is self indulgent and even irresponsible. Furthermore, globally, the advances in standards of living have occurred partly due to free trade and the incentive of profit and therefore due to capitalism. Ayn Rand in The Virtue of Selfishness talks about “the spectacular success, the unprecedented prosperity, that capitalism has achieved” and says that “Capitalism, by its nature, entails a constant process of motion, growth and progress.”
Tim Jackson however, believes that a static or even a contracting economy is still compatible with capitalism. He points out that since there are capitalist economies that do not grow and non capitalist economies that do, the idea that anti-growth is anti-capitalism, is false. What Jackson is implying is that it is not a given, that the private sector must continually increase its profits. Capitalism does not necessitate maximisation and economic growth is not implied by free trade. G.A. Cohen supports this conclusion when he says that “universal maximizing is by no means a necessary feature of a market economy.” One could also disagree with the view that increases in standards of living are partly due to capitalism, since we could argue that they have occurred due to state run institutions that have provided health care, well-fare, infrastructure and so on and therefore have occurred despite capitalism. From the perspective of sufficiency as a limit, however, it does not matter whether services are state owned or privately owned, it is an underlying ethos separate to and compatible with either or both.
It is also not clear that maximising is based on a logical economic rationale. From a study of the psychological roots of over-consumption and economic growth, Chiras concludes that “People buy to make themselves feel better – to satisfy internal longings.” This of course does not prove that a system based on spending cannot work: we have seen that in such societies much good has been done. However, we can say that it is not based on reason but on irrational impulses or a skewed conception of wellbeing. Gandhi said that “That economics is untrue which ignores or disregards moral values”. The use of the word “untrue” is interesting since it is not one we often see in this context. The implication is, I believe, that economics is a tool for benefiting people, not for serving the sort of abstract insatiable, corporate monster described by Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath. I have striven to demonstrate that buying beyond rational requirements does not bring happiness, and that as I will discuss shortly, neither is it sustainable.
Nevertheless, a sudden drop in demand and/or production in the West caused by minimising could well destabilise existing systems, leading to widespread suffering in the developing world and even to conflict. Rich nations could therefore assist the poorer ones with their economies in an interim period, as equilibrium is re-established and a gradual transition effected. It may then be that a developing nation would evolve in a more integrated fashion if its land and workforce were turned over to food production and national services, instead of producing luxury items for affluent countries. I also propose that the practice of minimising with a measured dismantling of the current economic structures on which inequality is based, may in the long run be the least risky policy for avoiding conflict; Gandhi believed that “A violent and bloody revolution is a certainty one day, unless there is a voluntary abdication of riches and the power that riches give”.
However, it could be argued that the transition could be too morally costly to the poor in the short term, even admitting there are greater long term benefits. Consequentialist policy makers would probably have little trouble deciding that the long term benefits outweighed short term suffering, if indeed the equation was this simple. The average man in the street could be justified for using a Schefflerian argument that we have a prerogative to give a reasonable amount of priority to our own interests and goals, even at the cost of the overall good. This is not as controversial a view as it may first seem. Adam Smith for instance believed that individuals acting from self interest promote the good of society through spontaneously arising systems of organisation. This has been described by Robert Nozick as the “invisible hand” theory in Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Therefore, the self interested man in the street, who initially acts to the detriment of the overall good, when the relevant economic systems have recalibrated, may then be participating towards a better order.
An alternative proposition to that of the poor nations being dependant on the rich ones is, that it is the West, for example, that is dependant on the cheap raw materials and labour of the developing countries. That there is a net gain for the rich from the poor, is reflected in the situation of aid and debt repayment since for every dollar that a developing country gets in aid, over twenty five are spent in debt repayment. It is upon such income that the rich nations maintain their lifestyles. It may be that the root of the problem is the negative thesis of duty: that we have a stronger obligation to the poor not to harm them, which we do every time we conduct unfair negotiations, influence the world bank, and create unfair import taxes, subsidies and patents, and every time our actions (such as overconsumption) perpetuate oppressive structures.
It is probably fairer to say that rich and poor countries actually rely on each other. Even so the rich countries would appear to have a general economic situation weighted in their favour. Charles Beitz says that “The system of interdependence imposes burdens on poor and economically weak countries that they cannot practically avoid”. It may be that a change in attitude by the rich of the world, and the acceptance of minimising, could create a power shift in its states and its political and economic structures, that will enable a more equitable system to emerge.
Finally, a highly significant knock-on effect of minimising, would be the effect on the environment. As I will attempt to demonstrate, there would be significant advantages for the environment if individuals rejected great wealth. It is possible that short term benefits to the environment are experienced by the individuals concerned, raising their wellbeing and if these benefits are significant, they certainly would be appreciated. For instance if climate change were to cause the Gulf Stream to stop or for fossil fuels to be depleted within a lifetime, then to avoid experiencing such major events would be a great benefit even for rich individuals. In addition, sufficiency as a limit would have important implications on the definition of sustainability, on how many resources we need, and how many we can channel to the poor to help them adapt to climate change.
It seems that disproportionate quantities of carbon emissions are being generated by the middle and upper classes of the wealthy nations, since they are the ones most able to afford air travel, large homes, not to care about excessive heating of their homes and so on. The average annual carbon dioxide emissions for a resident of the U.S. is 25.9 tonnes. By comparison an African resident produces 0.9 tonnes. This also means, therefore, that the rich are able to make an important difference. Since wealth and spending are directly linked to one’s carbon footprint (except where money is spent on such things as solar panels) minimising would be good for the planet. What is good for the planet is of course good for its inhabitants, not least for the poor, since it is likely to be they that would most suffer the effects of climate change but be the least able to adapt to it: “A low capacity to adapt to climate change automatically implies vulnerability. Among the factors imposing limitations on adaptive capacity, the most significant is persistent poverty”. If a rich person is concerned by such issues, minimising would be of interest.
Finally it should be noted that, if the world’s population generally had the wealth, and resource consumption of the rich, it could become uninhabitable within just a few years, which is another reason for those without great wealth to avoid it. It may appear unfair to thus put a burden on the poor, while the rich are enjoying a higher standard of living. However, imagine two villages, the first over-indulges in eating meat and leaves carcasses to contaminate the communal water source. It would be rational for the second village to want to avoid both the ill-health from eating too much and to not worsen the contamination to their water. It could be that recognition of sufficiency as a limit and the practice of minimising are instrumental to a concern for the environment. In this way, sufficiency as a limit can be seen to be at the core of sustainability and of ecological movements. On a finite planet we cannot all have an infinitely increased standard of life. It is as much an environmental ethic as a personal one.
Deciding on whether great wealth is at the detriment of wellbeing is not without its difficulties, nevertheless, there is a prima facie case for accepting the premise. Certain issues, such as those of establishing precise thresholds may be problematic, but as Aristotle said about ethics in general, we should not expect more precision than is natural to the subject. Various objections have been countered by arguing that answers consist in the weighing up of conflicting interests: choice versus contentment, community cohesion versus wealth, association versus liberty and so on. This is the nature of complex issues such as these, and it would also be a balancing act to staying on the top segment of the wellbeing curve. It is part of living well and is contained in the consensual definition of wellbeing offered in the introduction.
I contend that it has been shown that contentment is essential to, and part of wellbeing and that choice and money erode it. Regarding possessions, after a point or maybe even sometimes from the outset, the more of them we have, the more we take them for granted. In addition, after a point they tend to restrict our freedom. This suggests that great wealth does not promote optimal wellbeing. However, accepting that minimising is beneficial, would present us with some psychological difficulties, since it is considerably out of line with the current consumer ethos and with the desire for wealth creation. It is not, however, out of line with current research: “Materialism, a preoccupation with economic well-being, was negatively correlated with SWB [Subjective Well-Being] and especially so in those who believed that more money would make one happier.”
Minimising promotes the benefits of equality by closing the gap between rich and poor. The shift of emphasis from material equality to equality of wellbeing means that the very wealthy can be worse off than those with moderate wealth, which is the theme running through this paper. That wealth brings status, need not be the case, as it is contingent on circumstantial factors. Furthermore, to seek status seems to symptomise a lack of self esteem which is caused by inadequate association (including within the family). It is also to some extent caused by advertising: the very thing that the desire for wealth has created. Wealth therefore seems to be the problem not the solution. Although the arguments discussed in this paper do not point to firm proof, we can conclude that there are a number of advantages to avoiding great wealth and that there are strong arguments that would suggest that a high material standard of life does not produce the best conditions for optimal wellbeing.
Such a conclusion would have serious consequences to theories of justice such as Rawls’. Given his conception of the good, the assumption that people in the original position would not be aware of the negative effects and risks of great wealth, is gratuitous. That the maximising assumption is falsifiable and that the difference principle would need to be modified, makes us suspect that such a modest argument as has been presented here, is false in the light of such a well thought out system as Rawls’. However, Karl Popper proposes that it is the nature of theories that, the more useful they are to us, the more they are falsifiable. There is little doubt that Rawls’ theory of justice is useful. Sufficiency as a limit would also mean that the levelling down argument is turned on its head, as an economic levelling down for the rich would mean a levelling up in terms of wellbeing, which therefore renders the argument obsolete.
Criticism could be levelled at sufficiency as a limit, by claiming that minimising is irresponsible since the developing countries rely on the spare cash of the affluent one. However, as has been demonstrated, this may not be the case, and the thesis could be at the heart of a fairer global system. There is much controversy in the study of environmental science as to the timing of major events that could substantially lower our wellbeing. We cannot be certain that such events could not occur in our lifetime. The general acceptance of minimising would reduce the chances of people alive today, minimisers included, of experiencing these events. The thesis of minimising could be accused of being impractical or unrealistic, but again, as has been demonstrated, it is consonant with free trade and central to climate change issues, and would also go a long way in promoting global justice. Such a paradigm shift in attitudes that man has held for so long, on the one hand, does in today’s society seem unlikely. Still, mankind has also espoused values of simplicity and austerity for centuries and probably millennia, and it could be that in an age where the means of production and distribution have been solved globally and where we no longer need to maximise, the move to minimising and moderation is the natural path for human evolution.
Aristotle, Aristotle, Introductory Readings, trans. by T. Irwin and G. Fine (1996) Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company Inc.
———-, The Nicomachean Ethics (1980) New York: Oxford University Press
Charles R. Beitz, “Justice and International Relations” (1975), Philosophy & Public Affairs 4: pp.360-389
Jeremy Bentham, “Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation” (Hafner: New York, 1948), 1-7, 29-31. First published in 1789. “The Principle of Utility” in Peter Singer (ed.), Ethics (1994) 306-312 Oxford: Oxford University Press
Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety (2005) London: Penguin Books Ltd
Paula Casal, “Why Sufficiency Is Not Enough” (2007) Ethics 117 (Jan.2007) 296-326, University of Chicago Press
Daniel D. Chiras, Environmental Science (2001) Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers
Duncan Clark, The Rough Guide to Green Living (2009) London: Rough Guides Ltd
G.A. Cohen, If You’re An Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? (2000) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
Norman Daniels, (ed.), Reading Rawls (1989) California: Stanford University Press
Democritus, Democritus (1998), Paul Cartledge (ed.), London: Phoenix, Orion Publishing Group
D.L. Diab, M.A. Gillespie & S. Highhouse, “Are Maximizers really unhappy? The measurement of maximizing tendency” (2008) Judgement and Decision Making Vol. 3, No. 5, (June 2008) pp.364-370
Gerald Dworkin, “Is More Choice Better than Less?” (1982) Midwest Studies in Philosophy 7 Social and Political Philosophy, French, Uehling, Wettstein (eds.), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
Ronald Dworkin, Sovereign Virtue (2002) London: Harvard University Press
Harry Frankfurt, “Equality As A Moral Ideal”, (1987), Ethics 98 21-43, University of Chicago Press
Mahatma Gandhi, Readings from Gandhi (1969) K. Kripalani, M. Meghani (eds.), Bhavnagar: Lok-Milap Trust
James Griffin, Well-being (1988) New York: Oxford University Press
Tim Jackson, Prosperity Without Growth (2009) London: Earthscan
Shelley Kagan, The Limits Of Morality (1991) New York: Oxford University Press
Ibn Khaldun, The Muquaddimah, An Introduction to History (1967) London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd
Andrew Kuper, “Facts, Theories, and Hard Choices” (2002) 125-126 Ethics & International Affairs 16, no.2
Jonathan Lear, Aristotle, The Desire To Understand (1988) New York: Cambridge University Press
Neil Leary, Celia Conde, Jyoti Kulkarni, Anthony Nyong, and Juan Pulhin, (eds.), Climate Change and Vulnerability, (2008) Sterling, VA: Earthscan
Ben Machell, “The Cult of Less” The Times Magazine, 30 October 2010,
Bruno Malinowski, “The Kula Ring” in Peter Singer (ed.), Ethics (1994) 73-76 Oxford: Oxford University Press
Lorna Marshall, “Reciprocal Gift-Giving among the !Kung” in Peter Singer (ed.), Ethics (1994) 72-73 Oxford: Oxford University Press
Richard Norman, “ The Social Basis Of Equality” (1997) Ratio Vol.X, No3 238 John Cottingham (ed.), Oxford: Blackwell Publishers
Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974) New York: Basic Books, Inc.
Martha Nussbaum, “Women and Equality: The Capabilities Approach” (1999) International Labour Review Vol.138, No.3 227
Avner Offer, The Challenge of Affluence, Self-Control and Well-Being in the United States and Britain since 1950 (2006) New York: Oxford University Press
Derek Parfit, “Equality Or Priority?” (1997) Ratio Vol.X, No3 202 [John Cottingham (ed.) Oxford: Blackwell Publishers]
———-, Reasons and Persons (1984) New York: Oxford University Press
Thomas Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights (2008) 2nd ed. Cambridge: Polity Press
Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (2002) London: Routledge Classics
———-, The Myth of the Framework, In Defence of Science and Rationality, (1994) original version in E. Freeman (ed.), The Abdication of Philosophy and the Public Good (1976) La Salle, Illinois: The Open Court Publishing Co.
Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (1964) New York: Penguin Books USA Inc.
John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (2003) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
Richard Rudgley, Lost Civilisations Of The Stone Age (1998) London: Century
Stuart R. Schram, Il Pensiero Politico di Mao Tse-Tung, trans. by Marina Premoli and Renata Corsini Pisu (1974) 1st ed. Firenze: Oscar Mondadori
Barry Schwartz, The Paradox Of Choice (2005) New York: Harper Collins Publishers Inc.
Anup Shah, “Poverty Facts and Stats” Global Issues, http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats, accessed on 15 November 2010
Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics (1967) London: Macmillan and Company Ltd.
Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”, in Thom Brooks (ed.), The Global Justice Reader (2008) 387 Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing
———-, (ed.), Ethics (1994) New York: Oxford University Press
Henry David Thoreau, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, [1849, original title: Resistance to Civil Government] http://www.constitution.org/civ/civildis.htm, accessed on 8th September 2011/09/2011
 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (2003) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press at pp.257-258
 Mahatma Gandhi, Readings from Gandhi (1969) K. Kripalani, M. Meghani (eds.), Bhavnagar: Lok-Milap Trust, at p.54
Ben Machell, “The Cult of Less” The Times Magazine, 30 October 201, at p.44
 Ibn Khaldun, The Muquaddimah, An Introduction to History (1967) London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, at p.94
 Rudgely claims, for example, that for 95 per cent of human beings’ time on the planet, they had a simple hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Skeletal remains indicate that the relatively recent move to farming, brought with it a decline in health, body size and life expectancy. Richard Rudgley, Lost Civilisations Of The Stone Age (1998) London: Century
 Merely for convenience and consistency, I shall use the masculine convention: “man” “him”, “he” etc. rather than the feminine or the composite (“him/her”).
 Jonathan Lear, Aristotle, The Desire To Understand (1988) New York: Cambridge University Press, at p.155
 Ibid, at p.164
 Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics (1980) New York: Oxford University Press, at pp.36-40
 Ibid at pp.79-89
 Ibid at pp.86-87
Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics (1967) London: Macmillan and Company Ltd., at p.111
Derek Parfit Reasons and Persons (1984) New York: Oxford University Press at p.500 (paraphrasing Sidgwick)
 Rawls, op.cit., note 1 at p.79
 Parfit, op.cit., note 13 at p.502
 Martha Nussbaum, “Women and Equality: The Capabilities Approach” (1999) International Labour Review Vol.138, No.3 227, at pp.233-237
 Ibid at p.235
 This is also similar to Jeremy Bentham’s conception of utility: anything which produces “benefit, advantage, pleasure, good or happiness”, or “prevent[s] the happening of mischief”: Jeremy Bentham, “The Principle of Utility” in Peter Singer, (ed.), Ethics (1994) New York: Oxford University Press, at p.307
 Harry Frankfurt, “Equality As A Moral Ideal”, (1987), Ethics 98 21-43, University of Chicago Press, at p. 37
 I have borrowed the phrase from Thomas Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights (2008) 2nd ed. Cambridge: Polity Press, at p.10
 Frankfurt, op.cit., note 19 at p.41
 Frankfurt, op.cit., note 19 at p.39
 Paula Casal, “Why Sufficiency Is Not Enough” (2007) Ethics 117 (Jan.2007) 296-326, University of Chicago Press, at p.314
 Frankfurt, op.cit., note 19 at p.41
 Casal, op.cit., note 23 at p.312-13
 Gerald Dworkin, “Is More Choice Better than Less?” (1982) Midwest Studies in Philosophy 7 Social and Political Philosophy, French, Uehling, Wettstein (eds.), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, at p.49
 Avner Offer, The Challenge of Affluence, Self-Control and Well-Being in the United States and Britain since 1950 (2006) New York: Oxford University Press, at p.vii
 Dworkin, op.cit., note 27 at p.59
 Barry Schwartz, The Paradox Of Choice (2005) New York: Harper Collins Publishers Inc., at pp.3-4 (paraphrasing Sen)
 Schwartz, op.cit note 30 at p.4
 Dworkin, op.cit., note 27 at p.50
 Schwartz, op.cit note 30 at p.5 and pp.99-217
 Schwartz, op.cit note 30 at pp.78-9
 Satisficing, a term used by some consequentialists, combines ‘satisfied’ and ‘suffice’ to denote satisfaction with something adequate to one’s needs. I use the term contentment because, as mentioned earlier, I believe it conveys a deeper state to that of satisfaction.
 Schwartz, op.cit note 30 at p.235
 D.L. Diab, M.A. Gillespie & S. Highhouse, “Are Maximizers really unhappy? The measurement of maximizing tendency” (2008) at p.367
 Dworkin, op.cit., note 27 at p.59
 Ronald Dworkin, Sovereign Virtue (2002) London: Harvard University Press, at p.253
 Dworkin, op.cit., note 27 at p.60
 Henry David Thoreau, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, [1849, original title: Resistance to Civil Government] http://www.constitution.org/civ/civildis.htm, at para. 24 of 47, accessed on 8th September 2011
 Frankfurt, op.cit., note 19 at p.26.
 Dworkin, op.cit., note 27 at p.49
 Ibid at p.50
 Offer, op.cit., note 28 at p.37
 Ibid at p.32
 Frankfurt, op.cit,. note 19 at pp.26-27
 Ibid, at p.42
 This is reflected by the popular aphorism attributed to Socrates: “The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.”
 G.A. Cohen, If You’re An Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? (2000) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, at p.167
 Abba Lerner in Harry Frankfurt, op.cit., note 19 at p.28
 Blum and Kalven, in Frankfurt, op.cit., note 19 at p.26.
 This would give the minimalist movement mentioned in the introduction some ethical legitimacy.
 Derek Parfit, “Equality Or Priority?” (1997) Ratio Vol.X, No3 202 John Cottingham (ed.) Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, at P.206
 Richard Norman, “ The Social Basis Of Equality” (1997) Ratio Vol.X, No3 238 [John Cottingham (ed.), Oxford: Blackwell Publishers] at p.252
 Parfit, op.cit., note 56 at pp.212-213
 Nussbaum, op.cit., note 16 at p.232
 Ibid at p.235
 Cohen op.cit., note 52 at p.159
 Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”, in Thom Brooks (ed.), The Global Justice Reader (2008) 387 Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing at p.392, the original version appears in Peter Singer, Famine, Affluence, and Morality, Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 1, no. 1 (Spring 1972), 231
 Cohen, Op.cit., note 52 at p.162
 Ibid at p.163
 Singer, op.cit., note 63 at p.392
 Cohen, Op.cit., note 52 at pp.143-44
 Schwartz, op.cit., note 30 at p.107
 Ibid at pp.108-10
 Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety (2005) London: Penguin Books Ltd, at p.3
 Daniel D. Chiras, Environmental Science (2001) Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, at p.36
 Gandhi, op.cit., note2 at p.66
 Cohen, op.cit., note 52 at p.165
 Unless one believes Socrates, that it is impossible to do what one does not actually want to do, because the mere fact of doing something means that that is what one truly wanted to do. I am assuming this is not the case and am adopting the Aristotelian view that it is actually possible to act against one’s true intentions.
 Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974) New York: Basic Books, Inc., p.267
 Aristotle, op.cit., at pp.104-105
 I believe the reason that Rawls does not allow people in the original position to know their own particular conception of the good is that it is a difficult concept to pin down and generally in the populace there is limited consensus on what it is, but that the pressing problem of justice requires a solution that cannot wait for consensus.
 Frankfurt, op.cit., note 19 at p.42
 Ibid at p.43
 Ibid at pp.42-43
 Dworkin, op.cit., note 27 at p.55
 Weakness of will has been discussed by Aristotle. For a full discussion see Aristotle op.cit., note 9 at pp.159-182
 Parfit, op.cit., note 56 at p.211
 Norman, op.cit., note 57 at p.252
 Ibid at p.252
 Andrew Kuper, “Facts, Theories, and Hard Choices” (2002) 125-126 Ethics & International Affairs 16, no.2, at p.125
 Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (1964) New York: Penguin Books USA Inc., p.119
 Tim Jackson, Prosperity Without Growth (2009) London: Earthscan, at p.198
 Cohen op.cit., note 52 at p.144
 Chiras, op.cit., note 71 at p.36
 Gandhi, op.cit., note 2 at p.65
 Ibid at p.67
 Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974) at p.18-22
 Anup Shah, “Poverty Facts and Stats” Global Issues, http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats, accessed on 15 November 2010
 Thomas Pogge, World Poverty and Human Rights (2008) 2nd ed. Cambridge: Polity Press, pp.6-20
 Charles R. Beitz, “Justice and International Relations” (1975), Philosophy & Public Affairs 4, at p.374
 Duncan Clark, The Rough Guide to Green Living (2009) London: Rough Guides Ltd, at p.28
 Ibid, at pp.25-28
 Neil Leary, Celia Conde, Jyoti Kulkarni, Anthony Nyong, and Juan Pulhin, (eds.), Climate Change and Vulnerability (2008) Sterling, VA: Earthscan, at p.210
 Aristotle, op.cit., note 9 at p.30
 Offer, op.cit., note 28 at p.30
 Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (2002) London: Routledge Classics, pp.17-20