Minimalism & Morality

Most of what you experience as your “needs” are only desires that were inculcated into you.

Minimalism is a hot topic these days, and like most hot topics is commonly addressed in detail but not at depth. Most discussions of minimalism are rife with details of the how and why one object or another was kept or discarded, and much time is given to personal anecdote regarding a vast array of personal possessions: the sentimental attachments to such possessions, the difficulty of giving them up, the emotional and behavioral adjustments to their absence. Such is the lingering over details of possessions that many discussions of minimalism come across as little more than unintentionally ironic extensions of materialism by means of minimalism.

In a similar way, the expression “less is more” has become such a superficial commonplace that we rarely consider its deeper meaning, or the interesting details of its implications. For instance, one might ask “Less of precisely what, more of precisely what, and most of all, precisely why?” Left aside also is the question of whether, under the “less is more” mantra, what one has less of is even of the same nature or substance as what one gets more of. Even the usual call for “simplicity” generally goes no further than suggesting that owning less provides greater opportunity for aspects of life other than material ownership, yet these supposedly precious other aspects are cited only in vague terms such as “relationship,” or “free time” or “greater freedom.” Mention of any higher purpose for such matters is conspicuously absent.

Where morality is concerned, it is easy to get the impression that for most people adopting minimalism is only another way to gain personal advantage, as though personal advantage is the only desire in life worthy of consideration. In some discussions of minimalism a pseudo-moral competition breaks out, in which such virtue in itself is accorded to minimalism–without ever explaining why–that some participants make of minimalism a kind of cult, based on competition to be “more minimalist than thou,” such as the person who gave up their car, who is outdone by the person who gave up their bicycle, who is outdone by the person who gave up not only dental floss, but underwear and toilet paper.

Yet entirely missing from nearly all discussion of minimalism is any consideration of its moral implications. I’d like to present a view of minimalism that has morality as its basis, though a form of morality which in turn is based on development and strengthening of the self and of specific capabilities, specifically in service to a greater good.

An elephant kindly offering a shower to a group of zebras

Moral aspects of minimalism

The first aspect of morality in minimalism is that of personal capability; the more capable you are, the more capable you are of doing good. Therefore, morality requires that you become as capable as you can become. The second aspect of morality in minimalism is based on deeper values of respect, of compassion, and of a love which extends well beyond your personal concentric circles of family, friends, colleagues, country, and even humanity itself. I’ll address these two aspects in order, starting with personal capability. First however, I’d like to present a definition of minimalism.

Minimalism is maximalism of what matters

Most people think of minimalism in material terms as owning only what you truly need, but the outward material aspect of minimalism serves an inward purpose; the underlying essence of minimalism is the choice to pay consistent attention to what is truly important, and to exclude from your attention what is not important. It means the ongoing effort to filter out the distracting, the unnecessary, the pointless, and to avoid involvements which detract from the few areas of life you deem truly worthy. This requires emotional and mental discipline, particularly given the gushing streams of potential distractions presented by consumerism, social pressures, and the existing web of unhelpful associations which may and probably does still exist in your own mind.

Minimalism also means efficiency: accomplishing what you consider important in the most efficient and effective way possible, minimizing the effort and resources required to do so. One aspect of the claim that “less is more” is that efficiency produces greater results from the same effort. We now find an apparent contradiction, in that “minimalism” is actually maximalism; in minimizing the presence in our lives and in our minds of the unimportant, we maximize what is important. “Minimalism” is maximalism of what matters.

We all have a moral obligation to pay as much attention as possible to what is important, and as little attention as possible to what is unimportant. To not do so means to do less good in the world, which is clearly not a positive moral choice. Minimalism in the sense of owning only what we truly need is a way to help us concentrate consistently on what is important, and help us exclude what is not important, by structuring our personal material environment accordingly.

This panther is wondering whether you’ve considered the matter deeply enough.

Minimalism & personal capability

Years ago, when I was reading a large number of books on business strategy, I encountered the observation that someone who had truly made their own fortune, if that fortune were to suddenly disappear, would be able to build it all back again from nothing but their own capability; if you took away from Bill Gates everything he owned, he could gain it back again because of the abilities he had developed. Bill Gates didn’t build his personal capability by filling his life with trivia, and then paying gobs of attention to all that trivia.

Personal capability is developed through the combination of worthy choices, concentration, and challenge. Removing distractions from your life helps you concentrate, and helps you to meet important challenges. Personal possessions can be terribly distracting; even when you’re not using them, their very presence triggers reminders that you could use them. Years ago I got rid of my television, and canceled cable service, mainly because every time I passed by the TV I had to fight the temptation to turn it on, and resisting that temptation was a waste of emotional energy: no television, no temptation to waste my time. Saving a few thousand dollars in cable service fees while using my time more effectively was also clearly a good deal.

Minimalism & character development

“The important thing is this: To be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become.”

— Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1914–2008)

Physical fitness is not achieved through constant ease and comfort. On the contrary, constant ease and comfort will quickly destroy your physical fitness. Constant ease and comfort are also the enemies of character development.

The practice of minimalism is a tremendous aid in character development, first of all because the process of adopting material minimalism forces you to clarify for yourself the question of what you consider truly important. Maintaining minimalism strengthens your commitment to the ideals you have chosen.

The view from inside a typical McMansion

A need for material ostentation is dangerous to your financial health

Most people accept, without actually thinking about it, that a need for ostentation is “just part of human nature,” and therefore should be accepted, both in others and in oneself. I reject that idea. A need for ostentation is not only a clear weakness of character, but is evidence of lack of nobility as well as evidence of bad judgment. A need for ostentation means that you are not in control of yourself. It means that your judgment has been warped by egotism, specifically by an egotism which relies on the opinion of others. Many a person has failed financially, gone into bankruptcy, even gone to prison for fraud or tax evasion, due to a need for ostentation which they could not control and, much worse, had never questioned. The house, the cars, the planes, the clothes, the jewelry, the expensive parties just to show off: it all leads to disaster, in so many cases, because it is the opposite of wisdom, the opposite of morality.

Minimalism involves practice, emotional and mental and spiritual practice, of non-ostentation. Such practice is good for your soul, as well as your financial condition. With a better financial condition, you can do more good in the world. Therefore morality requires that you practice non-ostentation. The practice of minimalism in material matters makes you stronger financially, as well as stronger as a person.

The relationship between minimalism and abundance

Approached a certain way, minimalism does embody the expression “less is more,” though the nature of the “less” is different than the nature of the “more.” The specific reason for the difference in nature of “less” and “more” where minimalism is concerned is explained by the difference between the material world and the intangible world.

This giraffe is wondering about your intentions.

Clearly, the material world is both necessary and valuable, but only within certain limits. The intangible world is also necessary and valuable, but tends to be discounted because it is not directly perceivable by our senses. The two worlds are of different natures, but interact with each other, influence each other, and may affect each other directly. For instance, the precise nature of a person’s intention may mean the difference between life and death–for instance your own–yet the intention itself is intangible. Character qualities are also intangible, that is not directly perceivable, and only unfold over time, yet can determine the material fate of many other people, even millions of other people in the case of world leaders. Good judgment is also intangible, yet interacts in profound ways with the material world, and can mean the stark difference between a life of fulfillment, or a life of misery and despair.

The material world also influences and directly affects the intangible world. For instance, material temptation obviously can and often does influence intention. Material circumstances may also influence or directly affect character, for better or for worse. A more blunt example: if you persistently abuse your material body, you may be left with far less of a mind.

A further example of the importance of the intangible is that of commitment, which is the deepest and most significant instance of intention, expressed over long reaches of time, and nearly always presented with material challenges along the way. The relationship between the material world and the intangible phenomenon of genuine commitment can be surprising. For instance, if you’ve made a genuine commitment, you need far less in material terms to fulfill that commitment than you think you will need if you haven’t yet made the commitment. Consider exercise equipment or a gym membership versus a commitment to exercise. Until you’ve made a genuine commitment to exercise, a gym membership or exercise equipment may seem necessary before you start. You may even use their absence or inconvenience as an excuse for not exercising. Once you have made a genuine commitment to regular exercise however, you don’t need exercise equipment or a gym membership, because you’re going to exercise no matter what. You’ll find a way. You’ll make it happen, convenience or not, difficulty or not. Ease can be the enemy of commitment, in the same way that ease is the enemy of fitness and character development.

The entire atmosphere of Earth is a delicate, thin layer.

We are living on an ecological credit card

All value ultimately depends on nature. Nature is the only ultimate source of income, of wealth, and of value. If you doubt that this is true, please consider the following questions. Would there be food, without plants? Would there be clean air, without a healthy atmosphere? Would there be wood, without trees? Would there be fish, without viable oceans? Would there be petroleum or coal, without ancient plants? Would there be people, without nature? Would there be real estate or a stock market or nifty startups to invest in, without people? All value ultimately derives from the health of the natural systems on which we depend.

We are living on an ecological credit card. Actually, it’s more like an investment account. If we make good investments, and don’t make withdrawals, the account gains in value. If we make withdrawals equal only to the value of the gains, the account is stable. However, if we make withdrawals greater than the value of the gains, we begin to drawn down the account, imperiling our finances.

That’s what we are doing now, and at a dangerous rate. All serious studies show a looming set of severe shortages of fresh water and food, even as population continues to grow, soil is depleted, forests are destroyed, the ocean becomes harmfully acidic, and we inject more than 20 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere per year, with possibly disastrous effects.

Is this really the best we can do?

To continue the financial analogy, we could be making investments in the natural world which would increase our total wealth, but that’s not what we’re doing at all. Instead of making smart investments, we are simply using up and destroying the only capital we have, and the only capital that will ever be available to us–and no, moving to Mars isn’t a realistic option.

Call it minimalism, call it sensible risk management, call it whatever you like, but at this point the moral argument for not using more natural resources than you absolutely have to is not only clear, but may mean the difference between genuine prosperity in both material and spiritual terms, or complete disaster in both material and spiritual terms. I have years of experience in material minimalism, and it has not only made me prosperous in every way, but given me confidence that humanity can develop the same long-term, sustainable prosperity through material minimalism. The question is only of making the choice.

The immorality of taking more than you need, at others’ expense

“The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”

— Mahatma Ghandi (1869–1948)

In material terms, there are three levels of morality, in descending order:

  • Taking what you need
  • Taking more than you need
  • Taking more than you need, and at others’ expense

Clearly, there is nothing wrong with taking what you need, particularly if your survival depends on it, and in doing so you harm no one. Taking more than you need is already questionable however, in moral terms. Why are you taking more than you need? Is it good for you to do so? Are you being arrogant or egotistical by doing so? Are you sure you are doing no harm in the process?

It is at the third and lowest level, that of taking more than you need, and at others’ expense, that we see stark, brazen and plainly destructive immorality. When you take more than you need, and do so at the expense of others, you are making the clearly immoral choice to do damage to others for something you don’t even need that is in no way related to your survival. It is here that the terrible ugliness of egotism is revealed: the need to feel important, as expressed through doing harm to others, while indulging yourself in the completely unnecessary. Clearly, that is evil.

Yet that is precisely what we are doing, on multiple levels, when we buy things we don’t need while destroying resources we can’t afford to waste, while depriving others of those resources. For the surprising answer as to who those “others” are, do read on.

This crowned lemur is counting on you.

The ultimate measure of morality

We all have concern for ourselves, and such concern is healthy and positive. Concern exclusively for oneself, on the other hand, has a simple and uniquely negative name. It’s called selfishness. Yet concern exclusively for those like you is just an extended form of selfishness. In those like us, we see a reflection of ourselves. In those like us, we see resources we want to carefully maintain. So the usual concern for “those we love,” touted so highly as a measure of morality, turns out to be more a measure of selfishness than of morality.

The ultimate measure of morality is in how much concern we have, how much concern we are even capable of, for those unlike us, who do not remind us of ourselves, who do not represent a resource we want to carefully maintain. The more unlike us those “others” are, and the more we are able to care about them, the greater and the deeper our morality.

Let’s gradually extend the circle of possible concern, and thus deepen the level of morality, using a metaphor of “the solar system of selfishness,” in which you are the sun, at the center of your own personal solar system. Clearly, it’s no moral challenge at all to be concerned about yourself, and oh how brightly you do shine–to yourself anyway. From a distance, it’s a different matter.

Proceeding outward in our solar system of selfishness, still directly related to and reflecting ourselves back to us, is a circle consisting of “those close to us.” There’s still no moral challenge here, so let’s continue to travel outward. A bit further out from our sun-self are circles of people we consider “like us,” circles based in race, profession, gender, interests, ethnicity or nationality. Yet even here it’s still not much of a moral stretch to be concerned about people we consider similar to us, so we must travel even further out, to circles consisting of human beings “not like us.”

Suddenly, at this distance from the glorious, shining sun that is you, things become much more challenging, on a moral level. I don’t need to spell out the challenges, other than to say that dismissive, derogatory and damaging terms become a terrible temptation for many people when they consider “others” at this distance of difference. Yet all of a sudden, things have become so much more interesting here, so full of amazing details of difference, so wondrously unfamiliar, that we must travel even further away from the sun of our selfish selves. What could possibly exist beyond this strange realm of people who are not at all like us? The answer is stunning in its simplicity, staggering in its implications:

Beings that are not people.

“What? You expect me to be morally concerned about aliens?”

If you take deep morality seriously, you must proceed further outward from your solar system of selfishness–but you can only proceed further on a moral level by realizing that your solar system of selfishness is an illusion, an illusion created by your own ego.

Ok, snap out of it, dude. You’re not the sun, you don’t own your own personal solar system, and these beings that are not people are also not aliens. They are your fellow beings, hundreds of thousands of other species, living together with you on our one and only and irreplaceable planet. We know of no other beings anywhere else in the universe, and no other habitable planet. We all live here together, we all die here together, on this one delicate planet. We make life better or worse for all of us here together, in every choice we make, both large and small.

At the moment, we humans are pretty much screwing everything up, and profligate misuse and overuse of resources is a major part of the damage we are doing. The damage we are doing is also dangerous to ourselves, so it is clearly in our interest to find a solution. Minimalism offers a clear solution. Minimalism is a positive moral choice, as well as an excellent risk mitigation strategy both personally and on a planetary level. Minimalism is also good moral exercise, can help make you rich both materially and otherwise, and is actually a hell of a lot of fun.

A few thousand galaxies in what was previously considered a “blank” part of space.

Have at it, humans.