The (im)morality of conspicuous consumption

Sharp essay by Peter Singer.

When Radosław Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister, went to Ukraine for talks last month, his Ukrainian counterparts reportedly laughed at him because he was wearing a Japanese quartz watch that cost only $165. A Ukrainian newspaper reported on the preferences of Ukrainian ministers, several of whom have watches that cost more than $30,000. Even a Communist member of Ukraine’s parliament, the Rada, was shown wearing a watch that retails for more than $6,000.

The laughter should have gone in the opposite direction. Wouldn’t you laugh (maybe in private, to avoid being impolite) at someone who pays more than 200 times as much as you do, and ends up with an inferior* product?

That is what the Ukrainians have done.

He goes on to make the point that

We can adapt that judgment to the man or woman who wears a $30,000 watch or buys similar luxury goods, like a $12,000 handbag. Essentially, such a person is saying; “I am either extraordinarily ignorant, or just plain selfish. If I were not ignorant, I would know that children are dying from diarrhea or malaria, because they lack safe drinking water, or mosquito nets, and obviously what I have spent on this watch or handbag would have been enough to help several of them survive; but I care so little about them that I would rather spend my money on something that I wear for ostentation alone.”

Spot on.

* Oh and by “inferior” he means that these expensive bling watches are functionally worse than standard quartz devices.