Sustainable Development and the Materialistic Ideal

ABSTRACT - The conception of the good life favored by most individuals in less-developed countries (LDCs) is that of a successful participant in a consumer-oriented consumptive society. Many, perhaps most, international development professionals hold that it is futile or dangerous for those in LDCs to adopt and pursue this ideal. This paper deals with the ethical issues surrounding this conflict. In particular, it deals with the ethical constraints which development agencies ought to adopt in these circumstances in order to ensure that the aspirations of everyone are considered fairly.


Sheldon Wein (1992) ,"Sustainable Development and the Materialistic Ideal", in SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, eds. Floyd W. Rudmin and Marsha Richins, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 35-39.

Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, 1992      Pages 35-39


Sheldon Wein, Department of Philosophy, Saint Mary's University in Halifax


The conception of the good life favored by most individuals in less-developed countries (LDCs) is that of a successful participant in a consumer-oriented consumptive society. Many, perhaps most, international development professionals hold that it is futile or dangerous for those in LDCs to adopt and pursue this ideal. This paper deals with the ethical issues surrounding this conflict. In particular, it deals with the ethical constraints which development agencies ought to adopt in these circumstances in order to ensure that the aspirations of everyone are considered fairly.


One of the most difficult areas in applied ethics revolves around the determination of the appropriate ethical constraints for international development agencies. And, in the areas of indoctrinating, educating, and advising people in less- developed countries (LDCs) about those policy goals which the LDCs ought to pursue, making ethical judgments and setting ethical standards is particularly difficult. This paper does not attempt to solve any such problems. Rather, it takes on the more modest task of suggesting how we should begin to reason about these matters.

First, note that the ethical constraints on a development agency and its staff vary depending on whether the agency is funded with public or private money. tt is at least plausible to suppose that a development agency completely funded by charitable donations from, say, a North American church is ethically free to advise officials in an LDC to adopt an official state religion. But, clearly, a development agency funded by tax dollars is not ethically permitted to do so.  [I do not claim that it would be right for a church-based development agency to do this. (indeed, I think it would be wrong.) But, clearly, the church-based agency has more of an ethical case for so doing than a government-funded agency could possibly have. One of the referees for this paper reminded me of Thoreau's remark that if he heard that someone was coming to his home for the purpose of doing him some good he would run for his life. And, given the recent sad history of international development-& history which suggests that development aid has often done more harm than good-many LCDs might have boon wise to hood Thoreau's advice. Thoreau would, however, agree with me that neighbors are free to seek to assist each other in ways that governments simply should not got involved in.]

For the purposes of this paper I will confine my discussion to government-funded development agencies-agencies such as USAID, or CIDA, or WHO.   [Since most privately funded development agencies are involved in Joint-ventures with government-funded agencies, what I have to say applies to the vast majority of development agencies and projects.] This may strike some as being overly simplistic. To them I can only plead that even the simple case is going to turn out to be complex enough.

For purposes of discussion, consider the case of Lower Slovobia, a long-time LCD. The population of Lower Slovobia-the Lower Slovobs -seeks to be able to live lives of materialistic consumption. However, it is the considered judgment of international development professionals that the adoption of policies in pursuit of this ideal is unwise. There might be several reasons for this. Perhaps the development professionals think that Lower Slovobs will not be happy living lives of materialistic consumption, or that the ideal is simply unattainable, or that its attainment would be accompanied by substantial externalities which would seriously threaten other societies. (imagine that the Lower Slovobs want to burn down what we environmentally correct North Americans call "the rain forest"and what they call "the jungle".) How should we reason about the ethical constraints in disputes such as this? When should aid be simply given with few strings attached?

When should it be tied to progress on what we consider ethically important! And when should we simply refuse aid entirely? Obviously, I can't answer these questions here. All I can do is suggest a model for thinking about them.


I will not attempt a definition of the consumption -oriented ideal that has captured the imagination of Lower Slovobs. The ideal is clear enough to all of us; it is that celebrated by the television show "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous". it is that sort of life that Lower Slovobs seek. They want to bask in orgies of conspicuous consumption. And, though they know they will never live anything like that ideal life, they measure success in their own lives by how closely they approach that ideal. Furthermore, it is that ideal that they want for their children and grandchildren. For them, development should be directed toward increasing the probability that they will attain a life like (say) that available to a Ryne Sandburg or an Andy McDowell, or toward making their lives more like what they imagine such lives to be like, or both. [The difference between these two policy goals, while real, is of no practical import. I should report that my intuition on the matter is that the second is the one that should be pursued. As I write this, Me McDowell and Mr Sandburg are each in the news as a result of being 'beautiful people" who have just signed deals giving them mdlions of dollars for doing something each of them likes doing and is good at.]

We can distinguish between two types of preferences; personal preferences and civil preferences. Personal preferences are those one has for the assignment of goods and opportunities to oneself.

Civil preferences are those one has for the assignment of goods and opportunities to others. My preference for living in a temperate rather than a tropical or arctic climate is a personal one; my preference that you refrain from having children is a civil one. Civil preferences may be either altruistic or vicious. My preference that you not have children, when motivated by my desire that you be happy, is an altruistic civil preference. However, if my preference that you remain childless is motivated by my dislike for you, then it is a vicious civil preference. These distinctions are, in principle, clear enough. However, it may be very difficult to tell, even by introspection, which sort a particular preference is. Further-more, it is possible for a single preference to fall into more than one category. My preference that you, a spastic, not be put in charge of the switch controlling the nation's nuclear arms may be motivated by a desire to live in safety from nuclear disaster (personal preference) or by a desire that you, my friend, not be the cause of a nuclear disaster (altruistic civil preference).  [See Ronald Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously (London: Duckworth) pages 234, 275, and 357, and Sheldon Wein "Prisoners' Dilemmas, Tuism, and Rationality" Simulation and Games, Volume 16, #1, 1985. I have changed Dworkin's original terminology slightly.]

The preference Lower Slovobs have for a life of materialistic consumption is a personal preference. It may be, as anyone who has spent time in Lower Slovobia will attest, that this preference, rather than being fully informed, is almost always rather badly informed, often wrapped up with so many false beliefs that it is hard to figure out how to 'correct' the belief set. [For a good discussion of the role of informed/ uninformed/ misinformed preferences, see James Griffin, Well-being: Its Meaning, Measurement and Moral Importance (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986).]

But it does not follow from this that the preference is a false one, for the preference is almost always based on a substantial body of true beliefs. [A false preference is (standardly) one which the individual would abandon if her false beliefs were corrected.] Furthermore, those few Lower Slovobs who come to partially satisfy this preference show little sign of abandoning it once they have delighted in some of its satisfactions. Thus, for the purposes of this paper I will assume that these preferences deserve whatever level of consideration is appropriate to assign to firmly held but not very well informed preferences in setting any policy goals. [This might seem like a huge assumption. It is not. The onus clearly rests on those who would deny the assumption to show why individuals who happen to live in LDCs should be shown less concern and respect or be treated with less dignity than we regularly treat similarly placed individuals- including ourselves-who live in the liberal democracies of the developed world.]

Contrast this with the preferences of international development professionals who have examined the circumstances of Lower Slovobia. Whatever their personal preferences, their civil preferences are that development aid not be directed toward making Lower Slovobia into another Hong Kong. Several things deserve brief comment here. First, the preferences of international development professionals on this matter are usually better informed than the preferences of those in LDCs. Of course, they are not perfectly informed, only bettor informed. Second, we should distinguish between two reasons why international development professionals think that those in LDCs ought not to allow the materialistic ideal to dominate development policy. They might object because they think that policies designed to maximize the extent to which people got to live lives of materialistic squander simply cannot succeed and that the ways that they will fail will hurt all concerned. This is to be distinguished from the quite different position which holds that, even if such policies might succeed, they ought not to be adopted because there are other policy goals which are more pressing and more important. It is this latter preference, the civil preference that others not seek to live lives of materialistic consumption, that is of interest here.

To what extent should better-informed civil preferences count when they conflict with less well-informed, or even misinformed, personal preferences in making important policy decisions? To help clarify this issue I will grant arguendo that the development professionals are right about this issue in the following sense: the Lower Slovobs who hold the materialistic ideal would regret having pursued that ideal even had they attained it and would not regret having scorned that ideal had they scorned it and pursued some other ideal of the good life. [I don't believe that it makes any difference which version of counterpart theory one adopts for this case. However, I prefer the account given by David Lewis in The Plurality of Worlds(Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986).]


The pluralistic liberal democracies of the developed countries all adopt the neutrality principle as a basic principle determining both the extent to which, and the ways in which, it is appropriate for governments to interfere in the lives of those whom they govern. The neutrality principle holds that governments must constrain themselves to acting in ways that are neutral between different individual conceptions of the good life, so that government agencies may not show one group more concern or respect than others simply because that group is thought to embody a morally superior conception of value.

Governments have a duty to organize their activities so that, as far as possible, they are neutral between various conceptions of the good life, between competing accounts of what gives value to a life. The neutrality principle is widely thought to be required by a fundamental value hold in developed societies: equality. [Sheldon Wein, "Liberal Egalitarianism" Philosophy Research Archives, Volume X, 1984.] These societies hold that each individual should be treated as an equal, with equal concern and respect, as a free and equal moral person, and that each should count for one and none for more than one.

Political theorists work to show what follows from accepting the neutrality principle as the basis on which to construct a fair and just society and to show which more basic principles some as the justification for the neutrality principle.   [Examples of works which connect liberalism and neutrality include: Bruce Ackerman, Social Justice in the Liberal State (Now Haven: Yale University Press, 1980); Ronald Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously (London: Duckworth, 1978), and A Matter of Principle (Cambridge, MA.- Harvard University Press, 1985); Richard Epstein, Takings: Private Property and the Power of Eminent Domain (Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press, 1985);Charles Fried, Right and Wrong (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978); Robert Nozick Anarchy, State, and Utopia (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1974); John Rawls A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971); and Joseph Raz, The Morality of Freedom(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).] The distinction between mainstream and radical political philosophies can best be characterized by reference to the noutrality principle. Mainstream political philosophies explain and justify the neutrality principle, while radical theories reject it and challenge and condemn even idealized forms of current political arrangements.

To say that all nonradical political philosophies accept the neutrality principle is not to say that there are no genuine disputes within mainstream political philosophy. In addition to the important disputes about how best to characterize the neutrality principle and what justification of the principle most warrants our allegiance, there are disputes over just what the neutrality principle entails. Roughly, we may distinguish between those features of society all theorists accept as following from, or being required by, the neutrality principle and those about which there is disagreement. [There are many ways to draw the distinction between what is (as it were) "up for grabs' (or up for argument) and what is agreed upon. H. L A. Hart would say that the agreed-upon arrangements are part of the core meaning of western liberalism; Ronald Dworkin would say that the accepted arrangements are part of our concept, while the disputed ones are part of competing conceptions of that concept; and John Rawls would say that the agreed-upon arrangements are ones which must be included in any account which is a candidate for reflective equilibrium, while the disputed arrangements are ones each school of thought seeks to bring into reflective equilibrium with the agreed-upon arrangements.] Thus, it is widely disputed just what social arrangements the neutrality principle requires in economic matters. At one end of the spectrum of political debate are the libertarians, who believe that treating people as equals-as individuals worthy of concern and respect-requires a free economic market and a government confined to supporting and defending the institutions needed to maintain private property and personal security.  [Libertarians allow voluntary non-market arrangements in society, but they condemn using government to support such arrangements (beyond whatever support the protection of individual property rights might provide voluntary institutions).] Social democrats, at the other end of the spectrum, hold that treating individuals as equals requires that the government not only create and support a free market but intervene in that market in order to correct market imbalances by providing a safety not for those who do not flourish in market economies. Furthermore, there is dispute both over which values a government should seek to instill in its population and over how far a government may properly proceed in the process of getting citizens to acquire these values. Thus, conservatives, who hold that it is proper for the state to play a role in inculcating those values necessary for the preservation of society, are opposed by (some) liberals, who think that even this violates the neutrality principle. [See Gregory Kavka, "Some Neglected Liberal Aspects of Hobbes's Philosophy" Hobbes Studies, Volume 1, 1988, for a discussion of liberalism and conservatism.]

But all who accept the legitimacy of contemporary developed societies agree that certain institutional arrangements are required by the neutrality principle. Thus, restrictions on torture and mutilation are also not contested, for everyone agrees that such restrictions are required by the neutrality principle. And prohibitions on discrimination on the basis of race, or religion, or gender are in the same category. [Affirmative action programs are contested. The question is whether such programs are required, permitted, or forbidden by the neutrality principle and equality.] Democracy is seen not just as the best means of attaining other social goals (though it is certainly that) but also as an end in itself-a requirement of treating everyone as an equal. (Of course, there are legitimate disputes over how much weight democracy should be given when compared with other values.) The institution of private property and arrangements which provide people with opportunities to acquire wealth-at least a minimum level of each-are, like democracy, seen as having both instrumental and intrinsic value. That is to say, a society which treats its members as equals will arrange its affairs so that those individuals who would like to do so will have opportunities to acquire and hold possessions. Limits on the acquisition of wealth and private property must be based on the negative effects these activities may have on other individuals seeking to attain their favored conceptions of the good life, not on judgments that a life dominated by materialistic consumption is somehow morally inferior. Those who accept the neutrality principle have real disputes over how important private property and wealth are, just as there are real disputes over how democracy should be ranked against other values. But, among those who accept the neutrality principle, there is near unanimous agreement that both opportunities to acquire some wealth and hold some private prop" are things which any decent society must provide all its members.


The neutrality principle does not, by itself, tell us much about international development aid. About all that follows from the neutrality principle with any degree of certainty is that non-government international development agencies that are funded by voluntary donations are permitted. But whether government-funded international development efforts are forbidden, permitted, or required is hotly contested.

Nor is there any other well- established basic political principle with the breadth of support of the neutrality principle to which we can turn to guide us in this matter. So, we are left with a difficult political question: Mon our basic principles give us only contested advice about how we should proceed, how should we proceed? I take it that the standard response to this question is to say that one should determine which of the general political philosophies most warrants our acceptance and ask of it how to dispose of the issue in question. But the problem with this response is that, at present, we have several well-developed political philosophies competing for our acceptance, and each of them is subject to several different interpretations. The results, while intellectually very stimulating, are unfortunate in practice; we have a plethora of incompatible counsel.

The standard wisdom, then, has us examine the dominant theories of justice to see how they defend the neutrality principle and then reason from the neutrality principle, so defended, to the particular case. My suggestion is that we examine the structural features of the dominant theories of justice in the hopes that some structural feature common to all our better theories is mirrored in the practical problem at hand. If it is, then that should be our guide.


All the political philosophies which provide an adequate justification for and defense of both the neutrality principle and the political arrangements found in contemporary developed western pluralistic democracies share a variety of features, but the one that interests me here is that all are constructivist theories which make crucial use of the notion of rational individuals who are nontuistic. In all cases, the conception of rationality employed is the instrumental conception; an individual is rational just to the extent that, given her beliefs, she adopts the most efficient means of attaining her ends. And, for the purposes of theory construction, individuals are thought of as nontuistic; they take no interest in the interests of others.  [On the distinction between mutual disinterest and nontuism, see David Hubin, "Non-tuism" Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Volume 21, # 4, December 1991.]

Consider the three contemporary political philosophies which have received the most critical acclaim and attention: the utilitarianism of John Harsanyi, the contractualism of John Rawls, and the economic contractarianism of David Gauthier.   [John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, especially pp. 152-175; John Harsanyi, "Cardinal Welfare, Individualistic Ethics, and Interpersonal Comparisons of Utility" Journal of Political Economy, Volume 63,1955, pp. 309-321, and 'Bayesian Decision Theory and Utilitarian Ethics" American Economic Review, Papers and Proceedings, Volume 68, 1978, pp. 223-228; David Gauthier, Morals by Agreement, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986). For an analysis of Rawls and Harsanyi, see Sheldon Wein and Lanning Sowden, "Justice and Rationality: Doubts about the Contractarian and Utilitarian Approaches' Philosophia, Volume 17, #2, March 1987. On Gauthier's work (and contractarianism in general), see Sheldon Wein, "Problems with Contractarianism" Journal of Social Philosophy, Volume XVI, #3, 1986; "Twentieth Century Economic Contract-arianism" Arab Philosophical Journal, Volume 1,#1-2, Winter- Summer 1990; and *A Hobbesian Foundation for Welfare Rights' The Liberalism- Communitarianism Debate edited by C.F. Delaney, (Totawa: Plowman and Littlefield, 1992).]

These theories share the same logical structure. All adopt what has come to be called the constructivist model. They hold that justice is the first virtue of social institutions and that the basic principles of justice are those principles which, when adhered to by all, lead to each being better off than she would be without the acceptance of those principles. [For a rich and full discussion of the structure of contractarian theories of justice, see Arthur Ripstein,"Founclationallism in Political Theory' Philosophy and Public Affairs, Volume 16, #2 (Spring 1987).] To aid in the formulation of the principles which have this property, the contract, or bargaining game, is employed. An initial choice situation, (sometimes referred to as the "state of nature") is postulated, where rational individuals, each of whom seeks to maximize her own utility and who, in so doing, recognizes no social rules which might constrain that pursuit, are asked what set of principles each will accept providing that others accept those principles also. The agreod-upon principles are the basic principles of justice. Thus, every constructivist theory consists of four parts. First, there is the specification of the initial choice situation from which the basic principles governing social interaction are to be chosen. Second, there is the defense and employment of particular decision- theoretic principles of rational choice to derive principles acceptable to rational maximizers bargaining from the initial choice situation.  [See Rawls, A Theory of Justice pages 15 and 121.] Third, there are the principles of justice chosen by the rational individuals in the preferred initial choice situation. Finally, there is an account of why the principles chosen in this way have any moral significance.

In each case the theory is constructivist and works from quasi-idealized instrumentally rational agents who are nontuistic. That is to say, the idealized individuals have personal, but no civil, preferences and each seeks to satisfy as many of her (duly weighted and ordered) preferences as she can. Thus, in Harsanyi's theory, nontuistic rational individuals placed in circumstances where it is rational for each to suppose that she has an equal probability of being any given individual decide that a society governed by the principle of average utility is the most rational choice. (The principle of average utility states that society should be ordered so that the institutional arrangements ensure that the total utility divided by the number of people is as great as possible.) Rawls's agents of construction, conceived of as being in the original position behind a veil of ignorance where each lacks knowledge of who she is, decide that a society governed by a principle of liberty and by the difference principle is the rational choice. (The principle of liberty states that each person is to have the maximum liberty compatible with the same liberty for all others, and the difference principle states that, in a system where positions are open to all, social institutions should be organized so that goods and services are distributed equally unless an unequal distribution will serve to maximize the benefits to the worst-off group.) Gauthier's better-informed nontuistic rational individuals, who find themselves in a noo-Hobbesian state of nature, hold that a society governed by the principle of maximin- relative- concession is best suited for their needs.[For widely divergent accounts of what the principle of maximin -reiative-concession requires in practice, see Jan Narveson, The Libertarian Idea and Sheldon Wein"Twentieth Century Economic Contractarianism" Arab Philosophical Journal, Volume 1, #1-2, Winter-Summer 1990.]

And, although the terminology of nontuism is (for good reason) sometimes rejected, in every contemporary liberal political philosophy one will find (something like) nontuistic instrumentally rational agents being used in the construction of a theory which defends the neutrality principle and the core political arrangements of contemporary pluralist democracies. [Though many have criticized this approach, no one has ds~sl pod a viable contemporary political philosophy that does not adopt it.]


Typically, preferences for a life of materialistic consumption are nontuistic preferences. And typically, preferences opposed to materialism are tuistic preferences. This in itself establishes nothing, for it is a mistake to suppose that nontuistic preferences are morally superior to tuistic ones. (The preference for a society governed by principles of justice is, para-digmaticaily, a tuistic preference, one each theorist seeks to instill in others!) But it does show us where the onus lies. Those in LDCs who, like the Lower Slovobs I have been asking you to imagine, seek to build for themselves a society where they may indulge themselves in lavish materialistic luxury resemble the agents of construction used in contemporary political philosophies in just this respect: reasons are needed before any barriers to their acting on their preferences may properly be constructed. Thus, from the point of view of the ideology that we in the developed world have adopted, the onus lies with those of us who would seek to have people in LDCs abandon their quest to build societies where wealth and consumption are the norm. We need to give them reasons, reasons which it is rational for them to accept from their own point of view, before we can be justified in erecting obstacles to their realizing their goals. No doubt such reasons can be developed. We have no difficulty in providing reasons for tying international development aid to progress on reducing human rights violations or attaining stable democratic institutions. Both are clearly required by the neutrality principle. But until they are, we have no basis for interfering with the struggle of LDCs to become places where individuals may act on their desires to lead lives most of us reject as inferior. To do any different would be to fail to treat people in LDCs with the same concern and respect we profess is due to everyone in virtue of their status as free and equal rational beings. [In the course of writing this paper, I benefitted from discussions with Thea E. Smith and from exceptionally helpful and perceptive written comments provided by two anonymous referees. My research was supported by grants from the Saint Mary's University Senate Research Fund and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.]



Sheldon Wein, Department of Philosophy, Saint Mary's University in Halifax


SV - Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism | 1992

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