Judith Lichtenberg: Consuming Because Others Consume (=CBOC)


1.      Often people consume, because others consume

         a.      An example of the relativity of consumption

2.      Usually assumed to be bad, but it needn’t be

         a.      Often it is reasonable and respectable and ethical to consume when others do

3.      Because people consume because others do, reductions in consumption if done generally needn’t involve sacrifice

         a.      Why?


4.      Why considered bad to consume because others do?

         a.      “Keeping up with the Jones”

         b.      Engaging in conspicuous consumption

                   i.       E.g., Hummers? Big diamond rings?

         c.      Competition to outdo others in consumption

         d.      Trying to get superior status by what you consume

                   i.       Show you are better than others

         e.      Judging others by their material possessions, what they consume, is considered shallow

         f.       We care too much about what others think of us

         g.      We assess our own worth solely or mainly in terms of what others think of us and this is a mistake

         h.      Suggests that people have vices (bad character traits): Sheep-like, shallow, greedy, envious

         i.       Examples?



5.      One: Many needs are contextual/relative and so what one needs depends on what others are doing (consuming)

6.      We often think of human needs as absolute

         a.      A need is a need independent of context

         b.      Basic biological needs seem absolute; e.g., caloric intake

                   i.       Even here context can matter (e.g., amount of physical activity required)

7.      Often needs are contextual

         a.      Busses/car examples: A car in the suburbs is a need, but not a need in a city, a traditional agricultural society, or where there is good public transportation

         b.      If others take busses there will be busses and less need for cars; if no bus system exists, people will have to use cars

         c.      So desire for a car dependent on what others do

         d.      If everyone else has a car you must too

         e.      Not a function of greed, envy, desire for status, or even convenience


8.      Two: Entrenchment of new: How new “luxury” goods become more like needs

9.      E-mail: At first a luxury, now a necessity

         a.      If many have it and you don’t you become worse off relatively by being isolated from the information that others have

10.    Answering machines/text messaging

         a.      When people own these, makes sense to ask someone to call a dozen people

         b.      Person w/o machine makes caller work harder and likely will not be reached at all; puts you at a severe disadvantage

         c.      Businesses without machines have frustrated callers and go out of business


11.    Three: Salience (acquaintance breeds desire)

         a.      When others have things, you become more aware of them, and more likely to want/buy them, as now notice their value

         b.      Perfectly respectable process of acquiring desire

                   i.       Not based on greed/envy


12.    Four: Consumption as a means to self-respect

         a.      Having certain consumer goods can be a communication to others that we are as good as they, or at least not worse than them

                   i.       Need to avoid shame

                            (1)    School kids’ clothing

         b.      Could say that you shouldn’t care what others think

         c.      But we do

         d.      And it is not irrational to care about what others think about us or to want respect from others

                   i.       Someone who did not care at all about what others thought of them likely has psychological problems

13.    CBOC is not necessarily bad if reason is seeking equality rather than superiority over others

14.    Still isn’t it unfortunate that how others think about us depends on what we consume?

         a.      It depends: If a person consumes a twelve pack of beer, doesn’t that seem relevant to our perception of them? What we consume often expresses our values (see Schor, “Clothes Encounters”)


15.    Five: Consumption as a means of communication to others information about ourselves

         a.      Lawyer who drives a fancy car gives the impression that she is doing well (winning big settlements and so can afford a fancy car) and thus you might want to hire her.

         b.      Contractor with a big truck or a VW beetle?



17.    Changing our consumption patterns/habits if done collectively may be less traumatic than those of us who are used to a certain level of material comfort suppose.

18.    Because we CBOC, reductions in consumption if done generally needn’t involve sacrifice

         a.      To extent that people consume because others do, we could consume less and if others did too, there might not be a loss in well being

         b.      If consumption relation and well-being relative, then prospects for reducing consumption w/o loss of well being are improved

19.    Thus worries about asking people to consume less for environmental or social justice reasons are exaggerated

Questions on Lichtenberg, Consuming Because Others Consume

1.         What are reasons for thinking it morally problematic to consume as others consume?

2.         Does Lichtenberg think it is morally problematic to consume as others do?

3.         What does it mean to say needs are contextual?

4.         What are some examples of and reasons for consuming as others consume that Lichtenberg thinks are not problematic?

5.         Does Lichtenberg criticize consumption as a means of self-respect?

6.         Why does that fact that we consume because others consume give us hope for a more easy transition to a lower consumption society?