Affluence really isn’t immoral

The BBC’s The Big Questions has asked me on to discuss consumerism. Presumably they want me to defend it and I’m pretty happy to do that. Of course, I intend to be a little mealy-mouthed. I am very happy to defend affluence and inequality. I think people do little harm and much good as consumers, but I suppose consumerism is one degree too materialist to be wholly satisfactory. 

These are some of the things  I shall aim to say.

(1) Most of us are affluent now. Being well-off requires at least as much grace as being poor.

(2) The material pleasures of life are very real and most of them are pretty harmless. We should get on with enjoying ourselves instead of indulging in puritanical tosh.

(3) Living for material pleasures is not all bad: hedonism is a fair creed. But surprisingly few people really get off on it. Most people feel the need to deploy a wider emotional palette. I think  modern Westerners are affluent,  but that hasn’t made them less kind, generous, or neighbourly.

(4) I do think that modern people have had it so easy that they sometimes become a bit graceless, especially when they can’t get instant gratification. This is, as it were, an affluence deficit. But there were and are plenty of other deficits to being poor.

(5) People tend to overlook the way affluence has coincided with – and helped create – a literate, thoughtful society most of whose citizens have quite wide aesthetic and cultural horizons.

(6) It is of course important that parents should help their children understand both the merits of and limitations to materialism. The trouble is, this can only be achieved by being tight with them. This is hard work, and it happens that modern parents seem rather scared of their offspring.

(7) Whatever the failings in consumerism or affluence, for goodness sake don’t blame capitalism and capitalists. They’re just out to make a buck. They’re bound to love and exploit our weaknesses. So – as usual – we have to develop our own toughness to resist their blandishments.

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Publication date

25 July 2009