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Jun 3, 2016

Evolved to Consume: Why Existentialist Libertarians Need Not Reject Consumerism

Pamela Hobart reviews William Irwin’s book The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism without Consumerism.

Bill Irwin’s 2015 book, The Free Market Existentialist: Capitalism without Consumerism, defends three main points: that (Satre’s) existentialism turns out to be compatible with libertarianism, that moral anti-realism is true (i.e. there are no mind-independent moral facts), and that moral anti-realists can consistently espouse libertarianism. The upshot of these three taken together, as the title suggests, is that support for free-market capitalism need not be a product of, or constitute support for, consumerism (the admittedly pejorative term for the state of affairs in which people’s identities are unduly tied up in material possessions). 

Further exegetical work on Satre is well beyond my area of expertise, and the debate over moral anti-realism seems to me to turn more on linguistic distinctions that ontological ones (more on Irwin’s anti-realism here). But Irwin’s defense of moral anti-realism relies heavily on evolutionary psychology, and unfortunately the further relationship between consumerism and evolutionary psychology goes largely unexplored. Irwin must accept this inconvenient implication for his argument if he is truly convinced of the relevance of evolutionary psychology to our lives today. 

To take one step back, why does evolutionary psychology support moral anti-realism? Because moral claims need not be true to persist and get transmitted from human to human — they need only to confer survival value on their believers. People treat moral claims as if they are true, and that is powerfully motivating, but at the end of the day there’s no sufficient reason to think that there actually exist moral facts. Human morality (especially core morality — things like altruism and reciprocity) can be completely explained by the capacity for moral norms to enhance group and/or individual fitness. 

Let’s grant for now that the evolutionary defense of moral anti-realism is correct. By implication, we accept that an evolutionary perspective on human life is important, discernible, and morally instructive. As Irwin writes in The Free Market Existentialist, though it is fluid and variable, human nature does in fact exist. Thus existentialists, who have at times claimed that there is no human nature at all, must adapt their arguments accordingly.

Since the agricultural revolution, evolution has rewarded those who stayed put and accumulated stuff with more offspring. The average individual’s life may well have been worse, as compared to hunter-gatherers, but it was an evolutionary deal with the devil. In fact, agriculture may have merely facilitated the drive to consume coming to fruition, rather than creating it in humans in the first place. As Margaret Mead explains, “There may be human potentialities which date far back in evolutionary time for which new artificially created conditions may find a new use.”  Evolution can happen relatively quickly. But even if agriculture is too relatively recent to have made us acquisitive, humans may have been latent consumers all along. 

Whether a desire to accumulate material possession was the actual cause of the agricultural revolution, or merely a byproduct of it, sociocultural conditions that create material desires (and largely, if incompletely, fulfill them) are now here to stay. Deep-seated cognitive mechanisms (perhaps biases) like loss aversion, the endowment effect, and the Ikea effect provide further evidence that ownership and investment in one’s belongings have been a feature of human life for quite some time and that material possessions are now a feature of species-typical life for humans. 

This is not to say that all humans are endlessly acquisitive, that those with less of a spontaneous or considered desire to consume are abnormal, or that every fulfillment of a material desire is necessarily a benefit to its bearer. The exact details aren’t critical here (though they are interesting). Just grant the general observation that as morality has furthered human survival, so have possessions and the private holding thereof. Taking evolutionary considerations seriously may very well include accepting that a good life for a human involves the having of a good deal of stuff, as judged by her place and time. There isn’t necessarily any is/ought fallacy in taking cues from what people are like as a type as an input for understanding how we might live if we want to flourish (hey, Aristotle did it).  

On top of basic needs like food and shelter, humans have deep needs for a sense of social belonging, security, self-expression, etc. Though some purchases are frivolous, most can be understood as manifestations of these further desires. Homes as customized sites of shelter and places to build our family lives, clothes and other adornments as markers of actual or desired social set, gifts to ritualize the ties we’ve established in the past or want to establish in the future. 

So basically, I agree with Irwin that human nature is extant but malleable. However, one feature of human nature is a certain level of either inherent or latent acquisitiveness which often serves deeper human goals. Rampant consumerism for its own sake may not be a value or state of affairs that thoughtful people, existentialist or not, can rationally endorse upon reflection. But the burden is on an anti-consumerist to show that the vast majority of purchases are somehow negative, and it is a heavy one, because otherwise why would people make them?

If forces like advertising and keeping-up-with-the-Joneses peer pressure were so strong that they could corner virtually everyone into leading a life of crass consumerism against her best interests, then existentialism would be either false or irrelevant. Such weak humans would not really be able to become self-directed meaning creators in the first place. We respect agents by assuming that, in the absence of extremely compelling extenuating circumstances, that their choices are autonomous.

In a world lacking transcendental meaning and when faced with our absurd lives, material possessions are often of significant instrumental value. Deriving some measure of self-worth and identity from stuff is indeed partially defensible in a capitalist system, because your stuff is a symbol of the value you first provided to others in procuring your wages. Though people will value different particular purchases differently, generally thinking your stuff is some imperfect reflection of your success as a person helps to power the economic system that keeps us prosperous and free.

For all of these reasons, certain default acceptance of the prominent place of material goods in our lives isn’t necessarily bad, and evaluating every purchase for conformity with one’s self-given essence isn’t a good use of the existentialist’s cognitive efforts. To the extent that stuff makes our lives worse and not better, that is a symptom and not a cause of independent vices (like obsessive status-seeking and impulsivity). Just as it is better not to dwell on the fact that there are no moral truths, it’s better for we who have evolved to consume not to dwell on the fact that our consumptive activities are ultimately pointless.