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Amy UelmenOctober 29, 2015

The Vice of Luxuryby David Cloutier

Georgetown University Press. 336p $32.95

Distant Strangersby Judith Lichtenberg

Cambridge University Press. 186p $29.99

Leaving Mass after hearing the Gospel admonition about moths and rust destroying earthly treasures, my 10-year-old self was reflecting on our suburban Los Angeles existence. Why don’t we try to unplug from everything electric? My less enthusiastic parents grilled me on my plan for sanitizing the dishes. I did not have a good answer.

But that desire to simplify increased, especially as I opened my mind to the realities of economic injustice. I wondered: to what extent am I personally responsible for exacerbating or remedying these ills? When I worked as a lawyer at a large law firm, it just felt wrong to me to spend so much on lunch when other people did not have basics.

But I still struggled to answer with precision. When it comes to evaluating my own income and possessions, how much is enough? Do my tiny daily choices really matter? Will my reduced spending detract from healthy economic growth and jobs?

As Pope John Paul II exhorted in the encyclical, “On Social Concerns,” solidarity is “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.” But what on earth might that mean in daily life?

Two new books, Judith Lichtenberg’s Distant Strangers and David Cloutier’s The Vice of Luxury, bring deeply probing contributions to these discussions. In different but complementary ways, both books “hit us where we live,” in Cloutier’s phrase, offering vivid accounts of moral responsibility for economic choices, not for the super-rich or ascetic hermits but for ordinary people.

Why are we sometimes paralyzed by the questions noted above? Both books trace such paralysis to the extreme form of some of the arguments. As Lichtenberg explains, according to the “consequentialist problematic,” if we are obliged to treat all agents’ interests equally and to do what is best overall, it may not be permissible to give preference to one’s own interests, or of those near and dear. But most people are simply overwhelmed by the idea of trying to figure out how to treat the interests of everyone in the world with the same intensity and focus, so they simply disengage from the question.

Similarly, Cloutier hones in on how corrosive a “two-level” ethical dichotomy is, in which one must choose between complete rejection of the material world and total immersion in it. When pressed to make such a stark choice, many just back away from the difficult task of ongoing discernment. As long-standing theological critiques of luxury have simply dropped off the radar, at this point material self-indulgence is “not even seen as a problem,” which makes it difficult to articulate any evaluative criteria for the use of material goods.

In contrast to these extremes, both Lichtenberg and Cloutier offer what Lichtenberg summarizes as a “relational approach,” in which moral responsibility for economic injustice rests not on a vague and generalized capacity to help anyone and everyone but on an assessment of the actual harm that our economic choices cause and of the ways in which we are actually connected to one another.

But wait—isn’t this a step back from universal concern for all humanity? No: this concern is actualized when it takes on concrete form. To focus on areas of more explicit moral engagement— including the extent to which in labor or other power relationships one may benefit from another person’s difficulty because of inadequate regard for her interests—is not to undercut a universal connection to humanity but to make it real.

Further, Lichtenberg argues, to mark certain kinds of interactions as areas for discretion—including how much time, effort or financial resources to expend—is not to underrate their importance or moral meaning. Instead, they open our eyes to “new harms”—the realization that “our most humdrum activities may harm people in myriad ways we have never thought about before.” It is precisely by acknowledging that space for discretion that we can encourage responsive, creative and realistic solutions.

As a theologian, Cloutier works with a relational interpretive key to bring love of God and love of neighbor back into the center of how we think about property and material goods. In an especially rich discussion of an analogy between sexual and economic ethics, he notes that, as with eros, the tendency has been to privatize consumption choices in a search for happiness unfettered by obligations and free of social constraints.

In contrast, a sacramental worldview, in which “the spiritual is participated in via the material,” opens our minds to a deeper understanding of holiness in the world. It heals the dichotomy at the root: “Like eros and agape in the sexual sphere, the point is not to separate the two but rather to have our ordinary material needs and wants become reoriented and transformed toward their genuine telos: showing forth and bringing about love of God and neighbor.”

So how does this cash out? For starters, consider what James Nash terms the “damning drawback”—luxury goods sustain jobs; or John Maynard Keynes’s theory that thrift depresses the economy. A relational lens helps us to see the contexts in which that drawback is inapplicable, or simply hogwash—as when a $93 million endorsement contract for premium priced gym shoes amounts to 50% of the wholesale costs.

If “smart shopping” is defined as finding exactly what you want for the lowest price, the alternative “sacramental shopping” challenges us to reflect on “how to do the most good connecting ourselves with others through our purchases”—possibly even paying a premium in certain circumstances. So yes, go ahead and pay a little more for those peaches at the local food co-op or for an independent mechanic. In this way, Cloutier explains, “we notice the poor—which is to say we honor and give what is due to those who do this kind of good work.”

Finally, a relational lens can also help to smoke out the economic and social harms caused by the zero-sum game of “positional goods,” in which the value of a good is connected to how one is then socially situated as compared with the possessions of others. Here too, the argument is not for a withdrawal from the market but, as Cloutier explains, a strong critique of “certain kinds of consumption”—with attention to the social, emotional and spiritual damage caused by a kind of arms race in spending. No, we do not need to clamor all at once for the latest version of the flat-screen pad or phone or television screen. Enough is enough.

The language of luxury as a vice can help us to discern the point at which we reach, to paraphrase Aquinas, inordinate consumption and fall into the trap of sacrificing higher goods in the search for ease, pleasure, novelty, convenience, status.

Lest anyone think that the upshot of either book is dour, it is also important to note the role that material goods can play in a celebration of God’s abundant love and abiding presence. Each of Cloutier’s evaluative criteria for these goods—the extent to which goods are shared, whether they foster a sense of one’s vocation, their “festival” role and the quality of fostering cultural enrichment—merits extended, personal and practical meditation.

It is fascinating to read these books in conversation with each other. Cloutier’s analytical frame focuses for the most part on the habits and perspectives of people in the United States. While his proposals are anything but myopic, one does wonder whether the horizons of localized community discernment will be able to fully embrace the challenges of global poverty and global citizenship. Lichtenberg’s discussion of similar categories against the backdrop of “distance” complements and complicates in helpful ways a more domestic focus.

Both books plumb the depths of some of my most vexing questions and leave me with a sense of hopeful commitment. Yes, my daily choices matter; yes, it is possible to discern when enough is enough; and yes, there is something we can do individually and as communities to heal the wounds of economic injustice.

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