A prominent Norwegian political and social theorist and an author of multiple works dedicated to rational choice theory and the philosophy of social science, Jon Elster believes that a life of self-realization is more preferable and beneficial in comparison with a life on consumption. At the same time, this statement may be objected as person’s consumption leads to his or her happiness. The purpose of this paper is to identify Jon Elster’s theory, raise a considerable objection to it, and provide a meaningful response.
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According to Elster (1986), “at the center of Marxism is a specific conception of the good life as one of active self-realization, rather than passive consumption” (p. 97). In the center of any economic system, ideology, or personal beliefs there is a concept of values’ allocation; however, before the decision-making concerning how values should be allocated, it is essential for individuals to consider who they are and what they value (Elster, 1986).
In general, Elster sympathizes with Karl Marx’s individualistic conception of good life and his idea of free self-realization in particular and states that although the majority of people cannot realize their fullest potential in the development of all their abilities, they should be free to choose and develop any of them (Elster, 1986). However, this position may be argued as a life on consumption connected with modern capitalism play a significant role in people’s lives.
In a contemporary multiple-choice society, a person inevitably faces major decisions that include decisions related to consumptions as well. As a matter of fact, the consumption of good in the ordinary sense and consumption as a source of entertainment and aesthetic pleasures in a broad sense is substantially valuable as it promotes positive emotions, welfare, and happiness that may be regarded as an ultimate good for people (Elster, 1986).
For instance, purchasing new things is frequently connected with positive emotions. Burger et al. (2015) conducted the research dedicated to the investigation of interrelation between consumption and happiness. According to its results, there is a positive correlation between the feeling of excitement and the amount of consumptive spending (Burger et al., 2015). Moreover, the research demonstrates that specific expenditures generally lead to greater happiness. For example, people “who spent relatively large amounts on durables, such as furniture and tools, tend to be happier than people who expend more on disposables” (Burger et al., 2015, p. 9).
In addition, expenditures on educations are associated with happiness, especially for women, related to the educational process and acquiring of knowledge. At the same time, expenditures on food have relatively small, though positive correlation with happiness for people with low income as “enjoyment of meals is more important in these conditions, possibly because of their social functions” (Burger et al., 2015, p. 9). From a personal perspective, a life on consumption has multiple benefits; however, in the present day, its significance is controversial.
In general, the concepts of self-actualization and self-realization are as old as the history of mankind due to its presence in all major philosophies and religions. Self-realization may bring countless advantages to any individual who achieves it, including higher self-esteem and confidence, a sharper focus on values, understanding of people’s characters, emotional endurance, persistence, resilience, and the acceptance of reality.
However, self-realization may have a greater impact on happiness in comparison with consumption and this phenomenon may be observed through the example of modern trends of minimalism. As a lifestyle and an anti-consumerist approach, minimalism may be currently regarded as a full-featured philosophy that focus on non-material values “with the demand for seeking meaning in life by means other than consumerism-oriented attitudes” (Dopierała, 2017, p. 67). It has several fundamental components that include the criticism of excessive consumption, or consumerism, aspirations’ post- materialistic redirection, or genuine values’ discovery, and the reconstruction of previous life (Dopierała, 2017).
Minimalists focus on the psycho-spiritual aspect as the most essential factor of personal development and a source of satisfaction and happiness. They refuse the redundancy of objects, especially unnecessary products, and analyze their connection with social meanings in order to avoid the manipulation by social standards in the relation to consumption. On the one hand, it is possible to expect that minimalism is an insignificant trend that does not have a substantive influence on people in the global context. On the other hand, it attracts particular attention of communities worldwide. Taking into consideration the popularity of minimalism, it is possible to conclude that people are happy when they prefer self-realization instead of excessive consumption.
In general, the statement of Elster concerning the prevalence of self-realization over consumption will always initiate fierce debates. Consumption is inextricably bound with positive emotions; spending results in people’s happiness and general welfare and that is why it should be considered. At the same time, modern trends demonstrate that a substantial number of people may be happy without many things and their significance is determined exclusively by social pressure.
Burger, M., Chiperi,, E., Kang, X., & Veenhoven, R. (2015). Happiness and consumption: A review of research. 14th International Conference on Travel Behavior Research. Erasmus Happiness Economics Research Organization EHERO.
Dopierała, R. (2017). Minimalism – a new mode of consumption? Sociological Review, 66(4), 67-83.
Elster, J. (1986). Self-realization in work and politics: The marxist conception of the good life: Jon Elster. Social Philosophy and Policy, 3(2), 97-126. Web.