Material consumption as the meaning of life (or not)

Posted on 11/14/10 21 Comments

Peter Egan, a columnist for Road & Track, shares in one of his monthly articles about the obsession he developed with a 2008 Mustang at the local Ford dealership. Day after day he pined for this car, until he finally drove out to the dealership to buy it. In the column he provides the following rationale as motivation for his purchase:

“A few years back, I walked out of a doctor’s office after a health scare and immediately drove to a Harley-Davidson dealer and bought a new Road King I’d been looking at. Moments of mortal awareness are marvelous for clearing the mind and forcing you to buy neat stuff.” (Peter Egan, “Failure to Dodge a Bullitt,” Road & Track (August 2009), 32).

Incredible. I might have thought that a health scare (i.e. a brush with one’s mortality) would be adequate grounds for a reexamination of one’s consumeristic priorities. (Picture a materialistic Gordon Gekko’esque bonds trader who, after almost losing his life in the World Trade Center collapse, completely changes his value system.) But no, Egan is so far gone that apparently he sees no irony in his own statements.

And why should he really? If we are random byproducts of blind processes and there is no objective purpose for our lives except what we given them, then we really are free to choose what it means for us to flourish. Some of my readers have been incredulous when I have raised the picture of the cannibalistic serial killer and other degenerates who choose a radically different conception of flourishing. But we need not reach to such extreme (though real) examples to make the point. We need simply point to the average materialistic participant in consumer culture.

For Egan flourishing means spending his days riding his Harley and polishing his newly acquired Ford Mustang. I may find his choices superficial and misguided, but then that’s just because I have a different view of flourishing which is true for me but obviously not for Egan. So the person who denies objective moral facts has nothing to say to Egan apart from “Hope you get your Mustang” or “I would have preferred something else.”

 But for a worldview like the Christian one in which it is an objective fact that morality is concerned with moving people from being self-centered to other-centered, the picture really is ironic and tragic.

  • James

    This is getting tiresome. Harris readily admits that there may be multiple ways to flourish (just as there are multiple ways not to). He illustrates this by the multiple peaks in a hypothetical moral landscape. But the argument goes much further, claiming that whether or not a particular concept of flourishing is on a peak or not falls, at least in principle, under the domain of objective scientific investigation. Egan may *think* that he is siting on top of a peak but be mistaken about it, just as a cannibal may *think* that he is perched there as well (but in fact may be resting in a deep valley).

    • randal

      To stay with the geographical metaphor, who says that living on a peak is preferable to living in a valley bottom? Isn’t that a matter of preference? The view is better at the top but the air is warmer at the bottom.

      • James

        What certain individuals may or may not prefer is not really at issue here. Who says that being healthy is preferable to being diseased? Isn’t that a matter of preference? Maybe there are a few that don’t. Does that mean that modern medicine is mistaken to make health the object of its study?

        What is at issue here is whether or not human well-being, in general, would be better served if more of us could live at the peaks rather than the valleys. I think that is indisputable. And I think that anyone who actually believes that the valleys (the worst of abject human misery) is preferable to the peaks has an inverted and mistaken view of what morality is.

        “Pinker, Harris, Churchland… that’s like a who’s who of scientific reductionists.”

        I know! Looks like fun. Come on…you wish you were there. Now I only wish my download speed was faster so that I could stream it.

        • randal

          “Come on…you wish you were there.”

          Okay, maybe I’m just suppressing my disappointment that I wasn’t invited to the party.

  • James
    • randal

      Pinker, Harris, Churchland… that’s like a who’s who of scientific reductionists.

  • Shawn

    For Christians it seems that if someone is enjoying themselves without God, there must be something wrong (sin) with what they’re doing.

    That’s what your repeated arguments against “human flourishing” seem to me to be suggesting Randal.

    I appreciate your efforts in providing a forum of debate and for starting it off with your posts, but it would ultimately be more substantial if you were as clear about your own position on these topics as we dissenters are.

    You regularly pretend to be “sitting on the fence” and to be open to several positions, when asked a direct question.

    You can’t win an argument like that, only keep from losing, which seems a little pointless.

  • Tim Stroud

    Wow, a man that you don’t know makes a decision about his own life, no one else’s, during a time of personal stress and you make it a point to label him shallow and self-centered.

    Was this posting really necessary? We get it, you are different. And in your own mind, you are better.

    This posting tells your readers so much more about you than it does about this stranger, Peter Egan.

    You write: “Incredible. I might have thought that a health scare (i.e. a brush with one’s mortality) would be adequate grounds for a reexamination of one’s consumeristic priorities.”

    Apparently you have never faced a brush with your own mortality, and here’s hoping, good sir, that you never have to.

    • randal


      Let me work in reverse order. First, on brushes with mortality, the mortality rate is currently running at 100%. And I hope that whenever I have a brush with mortality my first reaction isn’t to go out and buy a motorbike. I hope rather that it prompts me to spend more time with family, be more generous with my monetary possessions, et cetera.

      Second, you write “We get it, you are different. And in your own mind, you are better.” Actually, I’m not mentioned in this post at all. Rather, I contrast Peter Egan with a bonds trader who, after facing a brush with mortality decides to reorient his priorities, pursuing relationships with other people rather than the almighty buck. Your incredulity suggests that you consider both responses to brushes with mortality equally praiseworthy. Is that really your view?

      Finally your opener. Yeah, I think that responding to a brush with death by consuming more material goods is shallow and self-centered. I presume you don’t think so?

      I never said I am not shaped by this same consumer culture. To a greater or lesser degree we all are. (One only has to read the first few pages of Peter Unger’s Living High and Letting Die to realize that.) But what troubles me most about your response is this erroneous notion that judging somebody’s actions as immoral is itself immoral.

      • Tim Stroud

        “But what troubles me most about your response is this erroneous notion that judging somebody’s actions as immoral is itself immoral.”

        In this case the notion is not erroneous. Judging in ignorance is immoral. That is what you are doing here.

        Tell me more of the story of Peter Egan’s life and then see whether he still should be labeled as a shallow and self-centered person. Is Egan really “so far gone” that you would hold him up to your readers as an example? Does it really just take one action by a person at a stressfull time in their lives for you to make this kind of judgement?

        Maybe I just don’t understand you. Is this what your “objective morality” necessarily leads to?

        Our deaths are assured. Contemplation of your mortality prior to your death is not.

        • randal


          Thanks for your response.

          How much of a person do you need to know before you can judge their action? Depending on the action, not too much. Let’s say that Phil has a near death experience after which he resolves to go out and have that affair he has been thinking about for five years. I know nothing of Phil but I will draw some reasonable conclusions about his action and underlying character based on the evidence available to me.

          I know very little about Egan, so I render my judgment on what I do know. Typically when people have a brush with their own mortality they reorient to that which is most important. Egan didn’t however. Rather, he reoriented toward the consumption of more material products. This is a key hallmark of consumerism. (I define consumerism as the treating of commodities as intrinsic goods and/or intrinsic goods as commodities.) His entire essay which focuses on lusting after a car for months until he finally makes a purchase evinces the same hallmarks. We’re all affected by the false metanarrative of consumerism but these examples are particularly sharp and telling examples.

      • Shawn

        Responding to a brush with death by acting on what one has been putting off “for the future” is the point of Peter Egan’s story.

        Given Peter’s life long passion involves motor vehicles (one assumes given his occupation)I don’t think it unreasonable for him to have the purchase of one on his “bucket list”.

        You may not consider it spiritually fulfilling, but (fortunately) the world isn’t completely full of God botherers yet.

        In any case, to accurately pass moral judgement on Peter’s life decisions you would need to see the entirety of his “list”.

        • randal

          Spiritually fulfilling. That’s the key phrase. The lie of consumerism — milked to great effect by marketers who develop lowly brands into exalted, quasi-transcendent lovemarks, is that we can find spiritual fulfillment through the consumption of material goods. It’s a tragic lie and is unsustainable. For example, the average Canadian family of 4 consumes the equivalent amount of resources as a Hatian village of 1200. Economists estimate that if we all consumed at the same rate as North Americans we would need between 3-5 planet earths.

          • Shawn


            You are the master of avoiding the issue by responding to something entirely different.

            You should consider entering politics.

            You see, I used “spiritual fullfilment” as a descriptor for your Christian position on morality, not as a criticism of a motor magazine writer’s article on why he loves motor cars.

            The issue of how much an Canadian family consumes compared to a Hatian one, I find completely irrelevant even to your original post, let alone my reply.

            Not that’s it’s not important, just another topic alltogether, unless you are suggesting that non one should be buying cars following a near death experience, because Canadians consume too many resources already.

            • randal


              I could never be a politician. They’re just glorified waiters, doing everything they can for a tip from the customer. But thanks for the compliment.

  • James

    I got bored and sketched this:

    I think we should have a caption contest.

  • Ray Ingles

    For an alternate – and entirely secular – critique of consumerism, see “Spent” by Geoffrey Miller. Egan could be wrong – assuming the worst about his article as Randal does – for non-transcendental reasons.

    • S1lverBullet

      Just ordered it Ray. Thanks.

      • Ray Ingles

        Just to note, I don’t agree with everything Miller writes in there. But it’s quite an interesting read, nonetheless. It accounts for some things about everything from Gucci bags to Lexus cars – and especially how they are marketed – that I had found inexplicable before.

    • randal

      Looks very interesting, and a bargain at four bucks (on Amazon)! Thanks. I’ve benefited from reading Juliet Schor and Benjamin Barber, as well as William Cavanaugh.

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