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Conspicuous consumption slammed by ethics prof

Gaudy displays of wealth have always been with us, but it can only bother you if you let it get under your skin.
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Nevil Hunt, May 14, 2013 4:15:51 PM

Being rich may be nice, but there’s no reason to rub the Average Joe’s nose in it.

So says Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton University.

Singer has stirred up plenty of comments with an opinion piece that’s been printed across Europe and North America. In it, Singer says conspicuous consumption does no one any good while prompting many people to envy the wealth of the lucky few.

The genesis of Singer’s article was the Polish foreign minister’s visit to Ukraine in April of this year. News reports suggest the minister was mocked by his Ukrainian counterparts for wearing a Japanese watch worth about $165.

The Ukrainians showed off watches worth thousands, and one minister reportedly wears a timepiece worth $30,000.

Singer points out that the Japanese watch probably keeps better time than the old-fashioned watches that the wealthy favour, while costing many times less. What’s the point, Singer asks, of owning something more expensive and less useful?

The answer has nothing to do with telling the time and everything to do with telling the world you have money to burn.

In the Western world, people who don’t have bags of cash laying around are willing to blow their budget so they can own one of these overt signs that says they have lots of money. Canadians buy T-shirts emblazoned with logos of retail chains such as Abercrombie and American Eagle. The shirts may be no better quality than ones costing half as much, but they shout to the world – and especially members of the opposite sex – “I have money and I want to associate myself with this brand.”

Designer purses are another example. They don’t do a better job of carrying possessions than any other purse but send the same signal about wealth. And when you see a Ferrari on the street, it’s an even bigger symbol of excess cash (and probably issues with small genitalia and premature baldness).

Singer goes a little too far when he suggests that the conspicuously wealthy must also be ignoring the poverty that exists in our world. He says it’s selfish to buy an expensive item when there are people starving overseas.

What Stringer fails to consider is that someone can be grossly wealthy and very generous at the same time. If you have $10 million and give away $1 million – and then buy a Porsche – are you a bad person? Clearly the answer is no.

Ostentatious displays of wealth have always been with us, from the first gold-handled sword to gold-plated toilets. Some rich people need to flaunt it. Others want to pretend they’re wealthy.

Conspicuous consumption will only bother you if you let it bother you.

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Nevil Hunt

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