The Moral and Ethical Weight of Voluntary Simplicity: A Philosophical Review

January 5, 2017

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedI’ve just published a new Simplicity Institute Report with a friend and colleague, Jacob Garrett, called ‘The Moral and Ethical Weight of Voluntary Simplicity: A Philosophical Review’. I’ve posted the introduction below and the full report is available here.

1. Introduction

A vast and growing body of scientific literature is impressing upon us that human economic activity is degrading planetary ecosystems in ways that are unsustainable. Taken as a whole, we are overconsuming Earth’s resources, destabilising the climate, and decimating biodiversity (Steffan et al, 2015; IPCC, 2013; WWF, 2016). At the same time, we also know that there are billions of people around the world who are, by any humane standard, under-consuming. Alleviating global poverty is likely to place even more pressure on an already over-burdened planet. To make matters worse still, the global population, currently at 7.4 billion people, is expected to rise to around 9.7 billion by mid-century and 11 billion by the end of the century (Gerland et al, 2014), compounding already severe sustainability and social justice crises. Continuous economic growth seems socially necessary but ecologically disastrous (Meadows et al, 2004).

What makes this entire situation more tragic still is that the high-consumption, Western-style lifestyles driving the environmental crisis are often failing to live up to their promise of a happy and meaningful life, leaving many people alienated from their communities, disconnected from nature, unhealthy, and overworked (Hamilton and Denniss, 2005; Lane, 2000). In this context, calls by environmentalists to reject consumerist lifestyles and growth-orientated economies in favour of less impactful consumption and production practices seem powerful, even compelling, from a range of environmental, social, and even self-interested perspectives (Trainer, 2010).

Choosing to consume less while seeking a higher quality of life is a living strategy that today goes by the name ‘voluntary simplicity’ (Elgin, 1998; Alexander, 2009). The term was coined in 1936 by Richard Gregg (2009), a follower of Gandhi, who advocated a mindful approach to consumption which involved seeking basic material needs as directly and sustainably as possible and then directing time and energy away from limitless material pursuits in favour of exploring ‘the good life’ in non-materialistic sources of meaning and fulfilment. This way of life, also known as ‘downshifting’ or ‘simple living’, embraces values like moderation, sufficiency, and frugality, and eschews the materialist values of greed, acquisitiveness, luxury, and excess. By exchanging superfluous consumption for more freedom, voluntary simplicity holds out the tantalising prospect that over-consumers could live more on less (Cafaro, 2009), with positive consequences for self, others, and planet.

Despite the apparent coherency of voluntary simplicity as an appropriate response to planetary and social crises, the social movement or subculture of voluntary simplicity remains marginal. Especially in the developed regions of the world, but increasingly elsewhere, dominant consumerist cultures continue to celebrate affluence, fame, and status on the ‘more is better’ assumption that increased consumption is the most direct path to happiness and fulfilment (Hamilton and Denniss, 2005).

What is more, this consumerist approach to life finds a sophisticated theoretical defence in neoclassical economics, a framework which holds that pursuing self-interest in the marketplace is the best way to maximise both personal and social wellbeing. From this perspective, environmental problems only arise when prices do not accurately reflect the true costs of production (due to ‘externalities’), which implies that the best way to respond to environmental problems is not to rethink consumption practices but to fix market failures from the production angle (see Princen, 2005). When prices are right, the argument goes, people will consume to an ‘optimal’ (utility-maximising) degree, which implies sustainability. This dominant economic perspective thus marginalises consumption as a subject of ethical concern, and based on this perspective, governments and businesses around the world argue that individuals and households should continue to consume as much as possible, because this is good for economic growth, and this paradigm assumes economic growth is the most direct path to progress (Hamilton, 2003).

Although dominant economic and cultural perspectives on consumption continue to assume that ‘more is better’, throughout history there have always been criticisms of materialistic values and praise given to ‘simpler’ ways of life (Alexander and McLeod, 2014). All the great spiritual and wisdom traditions have warned against the dangers of greed, extravagance, and acquisitiveness (see VandenBroeck, 1991), and, indeed, until quite recently, political parties across the spectrum shared a view that moderation, frugality, and humility were noble social and political values (see, Shi, 2007). Nevertheless, despite this long and venerable tradition, voluntary simplicity has received surprisingly little attention from moral and ethical philosophers (see Barnett, Cafaro, and Newholm, 2005).

Accordingly, in this article, we review and examine the moral and ethical weight of voluntary simplicity from a range of philosophical perspectives, including utilitarianism, Kantianism, virtue ethics, and Christianity, in order to assess which, if any, can provide a coherent philosophical defence of voluntary simplicity. While we do not claim to present anything like an absolute philosophical foundation to voluntary simplicity, ultimately our analysis shows that voluntary simplicity can draw strong philosophical support from a surprising range of moral and ethical perspectives. Our central argument is that this overlapping support makes voluntary simplicity a robust moral and ethical position that should guide the direction of our lives and our societies more than it does. Although we cannot detail the full complexity of the moral and ethical perspectives under consideration, and in fact we may raise as many questions as we answer, we will deem this preliminary analysis successful if it draws more attention to the issues under consideration and sparks a broader discussion.

The full report is available here.

Samuel Alexander

Over the last ten years Dr Samuel Alexander has been a lecturer and researcher at the University of Melbourne, Australia, teaching a course called ‘Consumerism and the Growth Economy: Critical Interdisciplinary Perspectives’ as part of the Master of Environment. He has also been a Research Fellow with the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute and is currently co-Director of the Simplicity Institute. Alexander’s interdisciplinary research focuses on degrowth, permaculture, voluntary simplicity, ‘grassroots’ theories of transition, and the relationship between culture and political economy. His current research is exploring the aesthetics of degrowth and energy descent futures. His books include Degrowth in the Suburbs: A Radical Urban Imaginary (2019, co-authored with Brendan Gleeson); Carbon Civilisation and the Energy Descent Future (2018, co-authored with Josh Floyd); Art Against Empire: Toward an Aesthetics of Degrowth (2017); Just Enough is Plenty: Thoreau’s Alternative Economics (2016); Deface the Currency: The Lost Dialogues of Diogenes (2016); Prosperous Descent: Crisis as Opportunity in an Age of Limits (2015); Sufficiency Economy: Enough, for Everyone, Forever (2015); and Entropia: Life Beyond Industrial Civilisation (2013); he is also editor of Voluntary Simplicity: The Poetic Alternative to Consumer Culture (2009) and co-editor of Simple Living in History: Pioneers of the Deep Future (2014). In 2016 he also released a documentary called A Simpler Way: Crisis as Opportunity, co-produced with Jordan Osmond of Happen Films. Alexander blogs at

Tags: consumption, cultural stories, voluntary simplicity