[Advice] Minimalism and Morality

Beautiful forest

This is a guest post by Firinn Taisdeal, author of Living Much More through Buying Much Less.

Minimalism is a hot topic these days, and like most hot topics it is commonly addressed in detail, but never in depth. This article is an in-depth look at minimalism, morality and its personal and ecological implications.
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, including:
  • The sentimental attachments to our possessions
  • The difficulty of giving them up
  • The emotional and behavioral adjustments to their absence
Such is the lingering over details regarding our possessions that far too many discussions on minimalism come across as little more than unintentionally ironic extensions of materialism by means of minimalism.

The “Less Is More” Mantra

The expression “less is more” has become a superficial commonplace these days, such that we rarely consider its true meaning, or the interesting details of its implications.
You are often left wondering: “Less of precisely what, yogi precisely what, and most of all – precisely why?”
Under the “Less is More” mantra, it is also unclear whether 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 stuff provides an opportunity to improve other aspects of our life. These supposedly vital other aspects are mentioned all too vaguely, like “better relationships”, or “more 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 just another way to gain personal advantage, as if personal advantage is the only desire in life worthy of consideration.
In some discussions of minimalism, a pseudo-moral competition often breaks out, in which virtue in itself is accorded to minimalism without ever explaining why. In such cases, minimalism becomes some kind of cult, in which members compete to be “more minimalist than thou”:
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 their dental floss, but also their underwear and toilet paper.
Yet, completely absent from nearly every discussion of minimalism is consideration for its moral implications.

A Different View of Minimalism

I’d like to present a different view of minimalism, one which has morality as its foundation. Minimalism through a form of morality which in turn is based on development and strengthening of the self and of specific capabilities, but in service to a greater good.
Personal Capability. 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.
Moral Values. The second aspect of morality in minimalism is based on deeper values of respect, compassion, and 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. But first, 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 actually 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 that which is not.
It requires an ongoing effort to filter out the distracting, the unnecessary, the pointless, and to avoid involvements which detract from the few areas of life which you deem truly worthy.
It 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 tend to linger in your own mind.
Minimalism also means efficiency: accomplishing what you consider important in the most efficient and effective way possible. 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. By minimizing the presence 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 immoral.
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 unimportant, by structuring our personal material environment accordingly.


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 concentration, and through 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 be.
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. Not to mention, saving a few thousand dollars in cable service fees while using my time more effectively was 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
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 need for material ostentation can be 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 and poor 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 the need for ostentation which they could not control. 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, 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 and 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.
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 your 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 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.

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 credit.
If you doubt that is true, consider the following:
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 upon 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 remains stable. However, if we make withdrawals greater than the value of the gains, we begin to draw down the account.
That’s what we are doing now, at a dangerous rate.
Scientific studies show a looming set of severe shortages of fresh water and food. As the world’s 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 each year, with possibly disastrous effects.
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 what you will.
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 intangible terms, or complete disaster in both material and intangible 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 find the same long-term, sustainable prosperity through material minimalism.

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 Gandhi (1869-1948)
In material terms, there are three levels of morality, in descending order:
  1. Taking what you need
  2. Taking more than you need
  3. Taking more than you need, at others’ expense
Taking more than you need is 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?
Yet that is precisely what we are doing, on multiple levels, when we buy things we don’t need. We are destroying precious resources we cannot afford to waste, while depriving others of those resources.
For the surprising answer as to who those “others” are, please read on.
For the need to feel important, by indulging yourself in the unnecessary, and potentially harming others, is evil. It is here that the ugliness of egotism is revealed.
It is at the third and lowest level – that of taking more than you need, at others’ expense – that we see brazen immorality. When you take more than you need, and do so at the expense of others, you are making the immoral choice to do damage to others for something you don’t necessarily need.
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.

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.
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.

The Solar System of Selfishness

Let’s gradually extend the circle of concern, and deepen the level of morality, by visiting the Solar System of Selfishness. In this solar system, you are the sun, at the center of your own personal solar system. Here, it’s no moral challenge to be concerned about yourself, your needs and your desires – and oh how brightly you do shine! But from a distance, it’s a different matter altogether.
Proceeding outward from the Solar System of Selfishness, but still directly related to and reflecting back upon you, is a circle consisting of “those close to you.” There doesn’t appear to be any moral challenge here, so let’s continue traveling outward.
A bit further out from our sun-self are circles of people we consider “like us”. These are circles based on 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 which 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 and staggering in its implications:
Beings that are not people at all.
“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. 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, together with you on our one and only irreplaceable planet. We know of no other beings anywhere else in the universe, and no other habitable planet. We live here together, we die here together. We make life better or worse for all of us here together, in every choice we make, big and small.
At the moment, we’re pretty much fucking 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 in our best 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, is a good moral exercise, can help make you rich both materially and otherwise, and is also a hell of a lot of fun.
I invite you to consider minimalism and morality.


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