The Story of Stuff

The Story of Stuff is a powerful indictment of consumerism. In twenty minutes it paints a horrific picture of the planet-stripping supply chain that furnishes us with ephemeral gizmos. For instance, did you know that for every binload of recycling you put out, there are 70 bins of waste produced further up the chain?

Most astonishing is this quote from economist Victor Lebow in 1955, which seems to have been stated in seriousness:

“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.”

It’s clear that we have to find alternative ways of living and producing. As many have pointed out, it’s not like the current system is making us happier or healthier. Chatting with a friend in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, we were sure that change was in the air, that governments would take this opportunity to make decisive policy changes. How wrong we were. And yet, everywhere you find people who think the same way. Clearly, Lebow’s is an idea whose time has passed. The question is will change follow in the global economy, and how much too late?

Kant, and Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics

I’ve started Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics MOOC on Coursera. I’m probably most sympathetic to Kant’s thought, particularly his idea that we should…

Always recognise that human individuals* are ends, and do not use them as means to your end.
– Immanuel Kant

Singer gave two objections to this which he framed as being fairly mild problems for Kant, and a third, put forward by Derek Parfit, which is more serious.

The first objection gives the example of a postman employed to send your letter to a friend. Singer said that the postman was clearly a means to your end, yet this did not seem wrong. He was able to justify Kant here by saying that postman had elected to be a means, was being compensated for his work and so this was fine. I’m tempted to say that by electing to be a postman, the postman is fulfilling some kind of limited professional end for himself rather than passively and exclusively fulfilling other people’s ends.

The second objection went as follows: if on a cold and windy night you were to walk behind a crowd of people, placing them between yourself and the wind, you would be using them as a means without their consent and yet this seems harmless. I feel that this is a broad interpretation of the word ‘use’. There’s no harm or disadvantage to the crowd they would not experience otherwise. You are in fact using your own body to position yourself more than you are using their bodies to block the cold wind. In addition, the consequences are so small that there may barely be an ethical issue here. If we treat this as a life or death case it becomes more clear cut that Kant could be right. Think of penguins huddled together against winter storms: if those experiencing the warmth of the middle don’t take a turn on the outside periodically, many in the colony will die.

The third objection, put forward by Derek Parfit, is more troubling. I would say that it does not invalidate Kant’s idea, but possibly marks a point at which we need to shift our approach to a balancing act in order to do the least harm and, hopefully, the most good. Parfit imagines that you are inside a crumbling house with your child and an unconscious stranger named Black. The only way to save your child from the falling rubble is to use Black’s body as a means to block the rubble. You know that this will save your child and you know that it will also crush one of Black’s toes. Because of the balance between the potential good and the potential harm, it is fairly clear that most of us would sacrifice one of poor old Black’s toes. Singer pointed out that we can play around with the balance of harm and good until the right course of action becomes unclear. Not many of us could cheerfully break both of Black’s legs knowing that John Stuart Mill had given us the thumbs up. (Perhaps this is where the importance of intention comes in).

But imagine that Black regains consciousness. He is in agony with a crushed toe. He speaks enough of your language to make you aware that he has a child in another building who also needs to be saved. Unfortunately, you can’t fathom where the building is and Black is now unable to walk himself. Not only are things looking bad for this child but you’ve also crushed poor Black’s toe. Objectively, the net harm is now greater because you violated Kant’s principle.

From Black’s perspective, you have wronged him in the worst way. That probably wouldn’t change your actions, but we are left in the domain of consequentialism: your action will be right or wrong depending on just how bad the outcome is for Black.

To conclude, if you find yourself justifying using a person as a means to an end it seems to me that you’re already in a very extreme situation, and possibly a purely hypothetical one. Seek to do the best you hypothetically can.


*The discussion about how far we can use animals as a means to an end promises to be thought-provoking and very challenging.