Charity vs Consumerism in EA

post by nahyungkim1220 · 2016-12-15T23:07:39.151Z · score: -2 (14 votes) · EA · GW · Legacy · 6 comments

Abstract: The modern life in the technologically advanced parts of the world seems to be a breathless chase within a consumerist race. In such a world, where spare money is prized as the leeway to purchase the latest trends, evading consumerist temptations to commit to a lifetime of donations can become quite a challenge for the altruist. This undergraduate research strives to find whether consumerism or charity will be the most effective method to benefit the individual and the masses. First, the values of consumerism and charity (respectively) will be weighed on equal scales of personal gratification by criteria based on of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Then, their long-term global impacts are analyzed. This research is written in consideration of the rising Effective Altruism movement, a rising movement that demands use of critical thinking and empirical data in charitable action and seeks to do the most effective global good.


 A growing altruistic movement seeks to find the most effective ways to help people. Instead of blind giving, Effective Altruism performs thorough research to make sure that the way they are giving and to whom they are giving can make the greatest impact. Three main developers of Effective Altruism, Peter Singer, William MacAskill and Toby Ord., lead the movement into a larger spectrum in 2011. Effective Altruists are known for often deciding to donate a fixed ten percent of their life’s income to the most effective charity organizations. One issue currently residing in our current society and in the Effective Altruism movement is the dilemma between living a life of consumerism and charity. Although Effective Altruists argue that giving ten percent of one’s total life income does not actually cause much change in the donor’s life, there are certainly cutbacks to their materialistic lifestyle, which is why so many people hesitate to vow to this goal.

The issue at question here is, what is the most effective lifestyle to help the most people possible- consumerism or charity? In the history of American society, “consumerism” is defined as the idea that promotes people to spend their income on progressively more goods and services to increase the consumer’s level of happiness and to ensure a constantly progressive economic cycle of production and consumption (Wright and Rogers). Worldwide level of consumerism began with the Industrial Revolution in England in the mid-1700’s, when the invention of steam engines and machines allowed for mass production of consumer goods for the first time ever. From England, the technology of the Industrial Revolution made its way to other parts of the world; now, consumerism can be seen as the primary system of living in many developed countries, including the United States. “Charity” can be defined as the act of giving one’s own possessions or performing activities to help others who lack a necessary need in life. The concept of charity has been in existence for longer than consumerism; in fact, the word “philanthropy,” which is a synonym of charity, can even be traced back to 500 B.C. Usually, consumerism is not associated with helping people. However, like charity, it is designed to be a lifestyle that supports people, both physically and emotionally. Consumerism argues that people should spend their income on progressively more goods and services, not only because it will increase the consumer’s level of life satisfaction, but also because a constant cycle of production and consumption is beneficial to the economy. While individuals for their own benefit may use consumerism, it also helps the economy of countries based in consumerism.

What is the most effective lifestyle to help the most people possible- consumerism or charity? I will first define the word “help.” Both consumerism and effective altruism can be of help to people through different ways. “help” is defined as an action that assists fulfilling a necessary need. “Necessary needs” can be physical, such as needing food or shelter, or psychological, like needing companionship or a certain level of happiness in life. The types of needs that consumerism and charity must help to fulfill will be inspected further in the essay.

How effective is consumerism and charity (respectively) in helping people who practice it attain their necessary needs? In other words, I will be searching for how effective both charity and consumerism are on a personal level. This first sub-topic puts emphasis on the first half of the main question: what is the most effective lifestyle. To judge both consumerism and charity on an equal scale, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs will be used. The different types of necessary human needs that every individual processes were mentioned in the previous paragraph; these needs were actually addressed by a famous humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow in 1943 and organized into different categories, famously known as “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, there are certain criteria of needs that every human seeks to meet in order to lead a physically and mentally fulfilling life. The Hierarchy can be divided into five categories: physiological needs, safety needs, belonging needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization, the highest need being self-actualization. To measure how effectively consumerism and charity help people, each will be respectively weighed by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to decide their value. Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can be used to measure how consumerism and charity can be of help to people personally, and on what levels, they can accomplish the needs that everybody possesses. Whether it be consumerism or charity, the lifestyle that is able to fulfill the criteria of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs will have to be the method that helps individual practicing it most effectively.

Charity or consumerism is helpful to individuals can only become valid after they have been shown to be able to fulfill Maslow’s Hierarchy successfully. First, let’s weigh the effectiveness of consumerism as measured by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. According to Mihaly Csikzentimihalyi, a professor of Psychology at Claremont Graduate University and an acknowledged psychologist in his field, consumerism is able to fulfill the different criteria of needs in Maslow’s Hierarchy. In his scholarly journal, “The Costs and Benefits of Consuming,” Csikzentimihalyi divides the different needs into two categories: “lower needs,” which include survival and safety (physiological and safety needs), “higher needs” which include belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Csikzentimihalyi suggests that lower physiological and safety needs, such as the need to eat, drink, and have shelter could be met by the practice of consumerism – for example, the desire to buy houses in a “good” neighborhood may also be part of the desire for a safer environment. Furthermore, Csikzentimihalyi presents “bars, restaurants, sports arenas, museums, and concert halls” as examples of places where consumerism offers opportunities to mix with others and create bonds to fulfill their higher belonging needs. In fact, contrary to the negative attitude towards social conformity that consumerism often encourages, Csikzentimihalyi argues that conformity to buying the latest products placed in the consumer market is a means to accomplish feelings of belonging to the mass population. Purchasing items that represent one’s superiority and social wealth, such as pricy cars or clothing, can also increase feelings of esteem. However, Csikzentimihalyi points out that achieving self-actualization, the need placed in the highest category can be a different case: individuals who focus on self-growth tend to focus more on improvement of the inner self, rather than improvement of their outer goods. It is important to note that the acquisition of the highest level of need, self-actualization, cannot be met through consumerism alone; furthermore, the achievement of self-actualization leads to the diminishment of a consumerist lifestyle. Since consumerism is unable to fulfill the highest need of individuals on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it suggests that consumerism fails to fulfill the most important and sophisticated level of an individual’s needs. As mentioned before, “help” is defined as an action that helps to fulfill a necessary physical or psychological need. Thus, because consumerism fails to help the person achieve the highest psychological level of need on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it is concluded that consumerism is not the most effective means to help people on a personal level.

Let’s now discuss the effectiveness of charity on an individual scale by also investigating how helpful it is to fulfill the different categories of needs present in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. In contrast to the analysis of consumerism, in which the conclusions were based on deductive reasoning, let’s now utilize inductive reasoning, another method of making arguments in Critical Thinking. Inductive arguments “claim that their conclusion probably follows from the premises” (205). However, inductive arguments are not necessarily less dependable than deductive arguments; in fact, depending on how logically my reasoning follows one after other, an inductive argument can be stronger than a deductive argument. Unlike consumerism, where the individual was able to provide their necessary needs for themselves, charity is able to fulfill the necessary needs of others. In fact, there are numerous charitable organizations today that are dedicated to providing shelter (such as Habitat for Humanity) or food (such as Feeding America), accomplishing the “lower” survival and safety needs on the Hierarchy of Needs. Also, Peter Singer in his book, The Most Good You Can Do, explains people usually give to charity because they feel included in the community that they are giving to, or because of the “warm feeling” they get at the sense of helping someone. In such a way, charity can also increase the feeling of belonging and esteem for donors, thereby fulfilling their higher needs of belonging and esteem on the Hierarchy. Charity, like consumerism, is able to achieve the diverse lower and higher needs of individuals, but through different means. The difference between the effectiveness of consumerism and the effectiveness of charity, then, can only be determined if charity is able to help reach the most sophisticated level of need on the Hierarchy, self- actualization. The article “Why Do People Give to Charity?” by Sean Stannard-Stockton explains how charity can fulfill the criterion of self-actualization in Maslow’s hierarchy. Although Stannard-Stockton is not a psychological specialist, he is a specialist in philanthropic planning, in which he consults with many altruists who wish to improve the welfare of others through donations. In this aspect, his article discussing the different qualities of a philanthropist is reliable. The author discusses that the qualities of people who have reached self-actualization are very similar to qualities of the “very best philanthropists.” Stannard-Stockton reasons that generally, people who have lived a life of continuous giving share the quality of having acquired self-actualization, which means that they have accomplished the highest tier of need on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

From Stannard-Stockton’s argument, we can use inductive reasoning to follow the idea that the philanthropists who encountered Stannard-Stockton, who have also already met the highest level of need in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, are people who are already complete in meeting the lower physical and psychological needs that lead up to reaching the level of self-actualization.  The inductive argument entails the assumption that altruists should be able to reach out to others since they have already fulfilled their basic lower needs. For example, Effective Altruists dedicate ten percent of their life’s income to charitable donations, since they are financially stable enough to be able to support themselves while donating a portion of their income. In contrast to consumerism, charity helps to achieve the highest tier of need of self-actualization. Through inductive reasoning that people who have lived a life of continuous giving have achieved the characteristics of self-actualization, and that they have already accomplished the lower needs on the Hierarchy, we may conclude that charity is an effective lifestyle for individuals to attain their necessary needs.

Now let’s delve into the impacts of consumerism and charity on a long-term basis, and thereby address the long-term impacts of consumerism and charity, respectively. For a lifestyle to be helpful to the most people possible, it must have prolonging effects that are not only global, but also continuous on a long-term basis.

Consumerism is an idea that promotes people to spend their income on progressively more goods and services to increase the consumer’s level of happiness. In other words, a major aim of consumerism is to help the consumer achieve happiness. A project done by Pew Research Institute in 2007 collected data of countries in Asia with emerging economic markets, such as Indonesia, China, and Malaysia for seven years. In 2014, they found that the populations that experienced strong economic growth are much happier today than seven years ago. Strong economic growth is largely associated with the raise in the general population’s level of income; raise in income, likewise, is associated with the increase of the consumer’s ability to purchase more goods and services. From this research, it is possible to argue that consumerism is successful in helping consumers reach happiness. However, a similar research over a longer period shows otherwise. An investigation titled “Happiness and Life Satisfaction” by Our World in Data, a database organization powered by Oxford Martin School of Research, aids in explaining the long-term impacts of consumerism on a global scale. The research collected levels of happiness and life satisfaction in consumerist countries for several decades, to see if there was a correlation between the rises in general income and the population’s level of happiness. In one example, the research shows a graph of the levels of life satisfaction of the people of Japan through the years 1958 to 1986. In Japan, despite very rapid economic growth of more than five percent over the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s, the level of life satisfaction remained rather constant. The research also presents a phenomena called the “Easterlin Paradox,” which claims that the relationship between income and happiness or life satisfaction becomes “less definite” as income increases, and over time, there seems to be no relationship at all. Increase in income in a consumerist society means the increase of availability to purchase more goods and services. If increased income had no long-term effect on the level of the general population’s happiness, then that means consumerism has no long-lasting effectiveness in helping to give more happiness to those who practice it. The Easterlin Paradox is a crucial social phenomenon to knowing that on the long term, consumerism is not the most effective lifestyle to help the most people.

What are the long-term impacts of charity? Charity was defined as the act of giving one’s own possessions or performing activities to help others who lack a necessary need in life. One of the most necessary needs in human life is physical well-being. GiveWell, an Effective Altruist organization which performs detailed research on the effectiveness of diverse charity organizations, claims that the act of donating to deworm a child has “a subtle, lasting impact on their development, and thus on their ability to be productive and successful throughout life.” This claim is based on the reports from the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission’s campaign in South America in the early 20th century, in which they found that areas treated for hookworm infections “experienced greater increases in school enrollment, attendance, and literacy.”

Certain types of charity that aim to improve the well-being of an individual can make longer, lasting impacts by affecting the individual’s life by increasing their quality of life. Increasing a person’s quality of life could lead to endless new possibilities for the person, but also to his/her environment; in the case of Rockefeller’s deworming campaign, the children who received treatment for hookworms were able to receive education to a better potential because they stopped being sick from hookworm infections. Consequently, the children who were given the chance to receive a fuller level of education are exposed to more opportunities to spread change and make even more improvements to their surrounding communities. Of course, there are also other types of charity that tend to be less effective; in fact, some large charity organizations similar often fail to achieve their initial goal of helping people, due to their large expenditure on human management and human resources. An example of such a failure would be the Red Cross’ record of building merely six homes for the people of Haiti after their major earthquake in 2011, after raising approximately half a billion dollars for the project. Likewise, there are numerous other ineffective, yet large charitable organizations that fail to execute their charity with the most effective results. Despite such flaws in major charity organizations of today, Effective Altruism acts as the rising countermovement to such less effective administrations; Effective Altruists focus on creating the biggest impact from a limited amount of resources by focusing on gathering accurate research and evidence before taking action; in other words, by using critical thinking. Accordingly, with the right process of thinking and planning, charity is able to make the most prolonging impact in the lives of the people it helps.


This analysis found that consumerism and charity are both able to fulfill most of the tiers on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which show that both lifestyles can effectively support individuals physically and psychologically. However, consumerism is unable to fulfill the final stage of “self-actualization,” where the individual stops improving their goods and services and begins to improve their inner beings. Through the examination of both consumerism and charity, the phenomena of Easterlin paradox revealed there was no correlation with happiness and consumption in the long term, thus showing that consumerism is not able to make a prolonging positive impact on the world. On the other hand, certain types of charity, such as deworming, was found to have created lasting impacts by increasing the quality of life of the people who receive them. In both the two questions that probe into the essence of charity and consumerism, charity was found as the lifestyle that makes the most prolonging and effective impact, not only on a personal level, but also on a global and long-lasting perspective. Although charity seemed to prevail as the more effective lifestyle, both charity and consumerism were found to have limitations; for example, while consumerism is unable to help the consumer reach self-actualization on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, some charity organizations such as the Red Cross are ineffective in giving the most effective help to those in need. However, with the rising movement of Effective Altruism, there is possibility to improve charity to fulfill the initiatives in the most effective manner. In this aspect, charity as a lifestyle hold more potential for the future, as a lifestyle with the ability spread change with a more prolonging and significant impact. 


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by rohinmshah · 2016-12-16T02:34:49.130Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm confused as to the purpose of this article. What is your goal with the article? It's written as though the reader is not expected to know what the Effective Altruism movement is, which doesn't make sense for the EA Forum.

comment by nahyungkim1220 · 2017-01-10T05:25:08.269Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for your comment! You're right. This article was an undergraduate research project. It was meant to be able to introduce the EA movement to those who aren't quite familiar with it and to have a discussion about it. I will make sure to include an abstract explaining the purpose of the article.

comment by MichaelPlant · 2016-12-16T16:06:24.301Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I also down voted this. Is this an undergraduate essay you wanted feedback on or something? If so, you should say so and explain what you want from the forum.

comment by nahyungkim1220 · 2017-01-10T05:13:44.349Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hello, Thank you for your feedback. It was an undergraduate research project I worked on with a professor and I should have mentioned so at least in an abstract.

comment by Castand · 2016-12-31T21:26:02.484Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Three main founders, Peter Singer, William MacAskill and Toby Ord., lead effective Altruism, which was founded in approximately 2011.

Please can we avoid talking about "founders" "leading" Effective Altruism? Its a set of ideas and a social movement, not a startup.

comment by nahyungkim1220 · 2017-01-10T05:16:19.107Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for your advice!