How Macintyre’s or Aristotle’s account of a life lived in accordance with virtues could be applied to the issue of consumerism

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Last updated: November 21, 2019

Aristotle’s ethics emphasizes the importance of reason and virtue for good moral character.

Aristotle argued that every action has a purpose (telos), and that the good is the aim of every action. He went on and gave two classifications of good: Good as a means; good as an ends. He believed that happiness is the ultimate good or ultimate purpose for what other purposes are sought for. Aristotle believed that maturity is a prerequisite for the study of ethics.

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He believed that ethics has its own level of precision just as other sciences have their own level of precision.He also believed that ethics only enquired into the good for man. In searching for what is good for man, Aristotle rejected pleasure, honour, wealth and life of contemplation. Aristotle defined virtue as one’s capacity to do something well that perfects one’s nature. Vice, on the other hand, is the opposite of virtue. It is also the capacity of one’s character to modify ones passions and so forth. He said that virtue is like habit or like a mean between excess and defect.

According to Aristotle, to be virtuous meant to reason well.The purpose of man is to think rationally out of habit, in other words so doing you’d develop a rational disposition. Aristotle talks about someone being a good person because of what they are, not what they do. In our society moral goodness tends to refer to someone who is good at something rather than being good. Aristotle recognised two forms of virtue. The first being intellectual virtues and the second moral virtues.

He says that when our soul succeeds in controlling our desires, we engage our moral virtues. When our soul concentrates on intellectual matters, we engage our intellectual virtues.He tells us, every action and feeling must be done in the right amount. A consumer society is one which defines itself in terms of consumption rather than production.

It is a society in which we do not work to live, but work to shop, and where shopping is an ‘experience’ not based upon need but on desire and pleasure. Consumerism is concerned with appearances, creating an image, an identity, or several different identities which are defined by what we wear, what we possess, what we spend our money on, where we go on holiday, where we live – but not who we are. Consumerism is concerned with style, not character.Virtue ethics demands that we refine our character not purchase an image. The golden mean that Aristotle introduced refers to the idea that an action responding to a particular situation should be done so in the right way at the right time in the right about and for the right reason. By using the golden mean Aristotle believed people could excel and become virtuous.

The golden mean means having everything in the right amount. Everyone obviously needs to consume in order to live, but is it really necessary to continuously spend money to try and make yourself feel satisfied?If you allow yourself to become absorbed in consuming then you are practicing a vice, not a virtue. Aristotle rejected wealth – but is there really something wrong with being wealthy if you act according to the golden mean? If you spend how you should spend, and act how you should act without becoming caught up in the concept of consumerism. If you become obsessed with consumerism, you then become greedy and never satisfied – you always want the next best thing. For example celebrities who have so much money they don’t know what to do with it.They can become unsatisfied with what they have, even though it’s much more than the majority of the world’s population. According to the golden mean, consuming must be rational.

If you spend too little you’re miserly, but if you spend too much you’re greedy. The important factor is to spend in the right amount. Not too much and not too little. The route to happiness is not to spend lots of money everyday on unnecessary things, but to spend in moderation. However, contemporary consumerism does not fit this mean. A society which is caught up in consumerism do not take into account spending in moderation.

Consumerism is the idea that people never know when to stop – concerned with what they own rather than the type of person they are. This, according to Aristotle, would not make a person virtuous. According to Aristotle, a virtuous man is a happy man.

But what if someone is happy, because they have the money to buy things they feel they ‘need’? However, he says that a further requirement of true happiness is that it must be steadfast; if we rely too much on pleasures we will find that they cease to give us a thrill.This can be related to consumerism, because although to begin with, a rich person may feel happy because they can buy anything they want, it soon comes to a point where they have everything they need and are bored with their consumer lifestyle. Possessions and purchasing power are addictive but ultimately ephemeral things. We can lose them overnight, they can become stolen, broken, become unfashionable, last year’s, last month’s, last week’s style. So what is the thing that we have forever, that no one can take away, that is beneficial not harmful to human beings?Aristotle’s answer is ‘good reasoning’, or ‘contemplation’.

Aristotle draws our attention to the community, otherwise known as the polis. Consumerism on the other hand, draws our attention to ourselves. We buy something because we want it for ourselves – because we think it will make us happy. It is modern hedonism.

It is pleasure first and foremost for me. It is not driven by concern for the well-being of others because you are not taking other people into account when you purchase something which you are only buying because you want it, not because you need it.Though you could argue that it encourages neo-tribalism – we wear clothes that help us identify with a particular group/polis/tribe…

but it is about identity not about contribution to the well being of the tribe, which is what Aristotle meant by the well-being of the polis. As a reaction against hedonistic consumerism, some people, while acknowledging that some consumerism is necessary, choose to exercise their consumerism ethically… air-trade goods, body shop, free range foods, cosmetics not tested on animals, investment in green companies – Aristotle would approve of these businesses because they are taking into account the polis, and not working to make a profit just for themselves.

Aristotle said career should not be seen simply as a means to making money, rather it should involve: some worthwhile activity, contributing to self worth, being meaningful, seeing the place of work as a community, not seeing ones career simply as a means to paying rent but as having as much to do with life and its meaning.Our extreme consumer culture does not fare very well with Aristotle. He doesn’t tell us not to consume, or tell us what to do. He points us to the type of people we should strive to be in such a society.

Presumably enough people practicing the virtues in a society, the more likely that society is to be a virtuous one. Virtue ethics encourages us to think of things in terms of what we can become. Aristotle encourages us to think for ourselves, to employ the central virtue – reason – to work it out for ourselves… and then to act.

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