Ethics of personal consumption

The consumption of certain products is likely to have direct harmful consequences. For example, eating meat will, in expectation, increase the number of animals in factory farms. In addition, consuming some of these products may support harmful social norms. For example, eating meat can support the view that the interests of other species should be discounted or ignored.

Moreover, the issues are not purely consequentialist, and there are deontological constraints on consumption choices (for instance, it might be unacceptable to buy from sweatshops even if refusing to do so did not create tangibly better outcomes).

There are, however, reasons to think that changing one’s own consumption decisions is not a cost-effective way to spend one’s time or money. One such factor is opportunity cost: spending more resources on ethically sourced products leaves fewer resources to spend on even more important projects. And in many cases, one person buying less of something can indirectly lead to others buying more, offsetting some or all the good done.

Budgeting for yourself and others

A dollar donated to a cost-effective charity can do over a hundred times more good as a dollar spent on personal consumption (MacAskill 2015). This might seem to lead to the conclusion that all money not spent on the essentials of life should be donated to charity. However, allowing oneself some discretionary spending may well be necessary to happiness, productivity and commitment to giving.  Most members of the community budget reasonable portions of their income for themselves, to stay motivated, prevent burnout, and increase productivity (Kaufman, 2013).

Some members of the effective altruism community suggest setting a “charity budget”: a clearly defined amount of money to be given to charity each year (Wise 2015). This allows people to make a decision once per year, rather than every time they purchase something for themselves, which can help to reduce emotional distress. Others have argued that self-investment (for instance in respectable clothing) can increase one’s efficacy in many ways, and that therefore it may be worth prioritizing a certain level of self-investment over direct donations (Hurford 2014).

Environmental consumption

Climate change could potentially have a major impact on human health and wellbeing. Other environmental issues like air pollution and environmental degradation are already having serious consequences.

Environmentalists often favor interventions that involve changes in personal consumption: travelling less by plane, offsetting carbon emissions, buying more second-hand items, and replacing goods less often, as well as forms of dietary change. Members of the effective altruist community have generally emphasized other approaches, such as political advocacy and donating to effective environmental charities.

Further reading

Hurford, Peter. 2014. You have a set amount of “weirdness points”: spend them wisely.
A discussion of how, for instance, wearing respectable clothes can be a good investment.

Kaufman, Jeff. 2013. Keeping choices donation neutral.

Kuhn, Ben. 2013. Conversation with Alice Yu on Effective Altruism.
A general discussion of effective environmentalism, including criticism of local and organic food.

MacAskill, William. 2015. Doing good better: How effective altruism can help you make a difference. New York: Gotham Books.
Chapter 1 introduces the idea of the ‘100x Multiplier’, according to which people in developed societies can do at least 100 times more to benefit others as they can to benefit themselves.

Wise, Julia. 2015. Burnout and self-care.
A post on budgeting and preventing burnout.

Zabel, Claire. 2016. Ethical offsetting is antithetical to EA.
A general argument against offsetting.