The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

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The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby Rippy » Fri Aug 06, 2010 5:05 pm UTC

I got into a bit of a debate with a work friend today which started when she mentioned how she really wants a diamond ring someday.

I asked why, and she replied that she thinks they're pretty. I got a little worked up and asked how her conscience could allow her to spend $2000 on something that has no use, when that $2000 could vastly improve someone else's life.
She said that the whole point of working is so that she can have money and be able to spend some of it on things such as a diamond ring.

I pointed out that this is making money for the sake of spending money, consumerism at its purest. She likened it to buying things to decorate a house, in that it makes you happier.

I said that, yes, while painting walls and decorating a house makes for a warmer space that actually makes your time spent at home more enjoyable, a lot of home decorating is spending money on things that get placed on a shelf and never appreciated apart from being pointed out to visitors in order to impress them. A diamond ring's benefit comes purely from the attached sentimental value and from the self-fulfilling prophecy of "I want one because it makes me happy, and it makes me happy because I want it to". You could replace it with a wooden ring and get the same benefit if you could make people believe it was worth $2000.

She fell back to saying it just makes her happy, so what's wrong with a diamond ring.


Needless to say, she started feeling bad, I started feeling bad for making her feel bad, and we changed the subject. But unlike the usual debate where I leave thinking "...Well, I still feel like I'm right, but shit, those were some good points I have to look into", I felt I was totally in the right.

I know everyone has their less-than-necessary expenses; I own two folding knives when at best I need one, and I have a $100 fountain pen, for example. But the knives have a useful purpose (camping/hiking) and one of them is only worth $10 and, provided I don't lose it, the fountain pen will save me (and the landfills) many disposable pens and may very well pay itself off eventually, in addition to being wonderful to write with.

I think most people who spend like this just shut their concerns out of their mind to prevent the cognitive dissonance, because I cannot fathom squandering money on things like diamond rings without some kind of crisis of conscience, but considering the practice is entrenched in our society (Western society at least), it clearly can be done.

I'm not quite sure what point, if any, I'm trying to make. Partly, I just need these kinds of debates to discover and solidify my own views, to be challenged and thus figure out where I'm wrong.

The debate should not digress into the ethics of diamonds specifically. That's a whole separate topic worthy of it's own thread. -Az

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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby Lazar » Fri Aug 06, 2010 5:20 pm UTC

I've also pondered the seeming extravagance and uselessness of jewelry - and I really hate those jewelry ads which tell you, to paraphrase, "The best way to show her you love her is to buy a big shiny rock to stick on her finger."

But at the same time, I think it's difficult to determine exactly where the consumption becomes extravagant. We couldn't begrudge people their televisions, movies and games; what about a work of art, or flashy clothes? All of these things just give us sensory pleasure, and humans need sensory pleasure. So if wearing shiny rocks and metal things makes you feel good, I struggle to find a solid reason why that's wrong. I think diamonds just stand out because they're so small, so expensive and so divorced from practicality.
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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby Spambot5546 » Fri Aug 06, 2010 5:30 pm UTC

Well first off tell her that if she gets a diamond she should at least get a lab made one. It's one thing to spend two grand on a shiny rock, it's quite another to spend two grand on a shiny rock and in the process help people in Africa murder each other.

As to the actual issue, i feel that it's her money, and while there is some moral obligation to help others it doesn't go beyond that. Yeah, i think more of someone when they're willing to give up 99% of their money to the less fortunate, like Warren Buffett, but just as i don't expect anyone to try to elevate me, i don't feel any obligation to elevate the rest of the world. I throw some money at Kiva, and someone is helped, but i still spent $1200 on a new laptop last month.
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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby Czhorat » Fri Aug 06, 2010 5:33 pm UTC

You are, of course, totally right.

It was, of course, an oversight for you to buy a $100 pen rather than a $60 re-usable pen and use the other $40 to make other people's lives better.

You also wear the least expensive clothes that will protect you from the elements.

You have the most basic computer that will allow you access to the internet to use it for work. Using it for entertainment just because it makes YOU happy is really a trivial waste of money.

All snarkiness aside, the argument to be made against a diamond -- the only argument that works for me -- is the social costs of diamond mining to people indigenous to the areas in which they are mined. If one is buying "clean" diamonds which aren't funding some warlord then I fail to see what interest you or anyone else has with how they choose to dispose of their disposable income. There exists to mandate for all of us to make purely utilitarian choices pertaining to how we spend our money.

Why does this bother you so much?

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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby mmmcannibalism » Fri Aug 06, 2010 5:38 pm UTC

I got a little worked up and asked how her conscience could allow her to spend $2000 on something that has no use, when that $2000 could vastly improve someone else's life.


Why should she feel bad for using the money she earned to benefit herself?

Of course I think most jewerly is a complete waste of money.
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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby Rippy » Fri Aug 06, 2010 6:20 pm UTC

The benefit of a diamond is totally perceived, though. A television has a tangible effect, something external that can (granted, emphasis on the "can") be beneficial to a human being in terms of knowledge or entertainment, for example.

When you derive happiness just from the ownership of a particular jumble of atoms, the specifics of "which atoms?" are all in your head. If you could bring yourself to point that desire at, say, a small piece of wood, or nothing at all, you would be no less happy.

My fundamental objection/frustration, then, is simply that this desire either won't - or can't - be directed at something less expensive.

Granted, it's not really possible to draw a line about what is or is not a wasteful expense (as the snarkiness reveals :P). I don't, for example, object to spending a little more to buy a prettier product. I do believe, however, that in more extreme cases such as expensive jewelry, the distinction is rather clear.

I do realize it's somewhat absurd to use the distribution of wealth as an argument, or to question one's freedom to choose their own happiness. It just seems like there are cheaper ways to trigger those same brain hormones.

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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby Oregonaut » Fri Aug 06, 2010 6:32 pm UTC

The question seems to me to be one of motivations. If you think you are going to be happy if you have that beautiful piece of jewelry (sapphires are gorgeous, garnets are too, diamonds are just plain to me), and that's what you work towards, and you get it, and it makes you happy, then you were right. You found something that would make you happy, and you went for it. If you find out that you still aren't happy, or that you forget about it as soon as you get it, you need to get yourself checked out for being brainwashed by corporate advertising.
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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby Czhorat » Fri Aug 06, 2010 6:41 pm UTC

Rippy wrote:The benefit of a diamond is totally perceived, though. A television has a tangible effect, something external that can (granted, emphasis on the "can") be beneficial to a human being in terms of knowledge or entertainment, for example.


Yest, but what of the benefit of a BIG television as opposed to a smaller one? Of a fancier laptop?

What I hear you saying is that someone is choosing to buy something which YOU consider frivolous but which gives HER pleasure. My real confusion is why this seems to bother you so much.

If she chose to take the money she would have spent on a diamond ring and instead bought a fancy TV, or a really nice fountain pen, a leather jacket or tickets to the opera, would your objection still stand? If not, what harm does it do to you or anyone else for her to choose to find pleasure in something different than what you would like?

To make my point more clearly, you said that your frustration is with the expense. Why would it matter to you if she's wasting her money? It might be a poor choice from a personal economic perspective, but I don't see why it's immoral.

From a utalitarian point of view, I could make the argument that a diamond ring, while not as useful as a TV, holds its value better. That', of course, is an entirely different line of debate.

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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby guenther » Fri Aug 06, 2010 7:05 pm UTC

Rippy wrote:My fundamental objection/frustration, then, is simply that this desire either won't - or can't - be directed at something less expensive.

Here's an interesting podcast on pleasure. It talks about how the pleasure we derive from, say, drinking wine is very much dependent on how expensive that bottle of wine is. Much of our perception of pleasure is very much a social construct.

So it's easy to say "Hey if we could just tailor our preferences differently, we could be economically more efficient". But we're just not built for that sort of rationality. I think there's value in promoting this sort of efficiency as a better way of life. But I don't think it's so good to look down our nose in scorn at people that have preferences that don't like up with ours.
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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby Rippy » Fri Aug 06, 2010 7:40 pm UTC

Czhorat wrote:What I hear you saying is that someone is choosing to buy something which YOU consider frivolous but which gives HER pleasure. My real confusion is why this seems to bother you so much.

General arguments against consumerism aside ("we don't need stuff to be happy", etc), it's about the difference between purchasing an object for its effects or utility, and purchasing an object purely for the possession of the object.

It bothers me because the ring has no conceivable function to justify its cost. You can look at it, and other people can look at it and be impressed, and that's about it. A big TV, likewise, offers little additional functionality for its cost. It bothers me that it takes such things to bring people happiness. Make-up, for example, is something I don't see as necessary, and yet I don't take offense to its purchase because it has an actual effect which gives some people pleasure.


guenther wrote:Here's an interesting podcast on pleasure. It talks about how the pleasure we derive from, say, drinking wine is very much dependent on how expensive that bottle of wine is. Much of our perception of pleasure is very much a social construct.

Yeah I've read a lot about those sorts of effects; Predicably Irrational is an excellent book that discusses it, among many other things. I am super podcast-hungry right now though, so I will give it a listen.

This is precisely my frustration. It doesn't make sense to value something more highly based on its cost. And yet there's no real way to change it (wait, except for... eugenics! Kidding, kidding...). I suppose it's not so much an ethical issue (as I originally was thinking about it), but more so just somewhat of a waste of mining resources?
Last edited by Rippy on Fri Aug 06, 2010 7:50 pm UTC, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby Czhorat » Fri Aug 06, 2010 7:48 pm UTC

Understood, but you leave me with two questions:

1) Why is it less moral to buy a luxury because it lacks utility?

2) Why does it matter to you how your friends or co-workers spend their money?

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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby Rippy » Fri Aug 06, 2010 8:07 pm UTC

Ahh, okay I need to reply and leave immediately, otherwise I will be at work forever!

Czhorat wrote:Understood, but you leave me with two questions:

1) Why is it less moral to buy a luxury because it lacks utility?

2) Why does it matter to you how your friends or co-workers spend their money?

1) This is one place where I do need to gracefully back down. I still submit that it is wasteful, but I shouldn't be bringing morals or ethics into it.

2) I care that people I know are making rational financial decisions, yes. They have a right to blow it all on weed if they really want to, and unless it's someone I'm close to it is not my place to question their decision, but I am allowed to see the decision and be frustrated at what seems to me a waste of money.

So then it just comes down to "what constitutes a waste of money?", which to me is spending money on something for a perceived benefit instead of an actual one. The biases mentioned by guenther, however, make that perceived benefit a somewhat real one, and therein lies my frustration.

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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby ImagingGeek » Fri Aug 06, 2010 8:39 pm UTC

Rippy wrote:Ahh, okay I need to reply and leave immediately, otherwise I will be at work forever!
1) This is one place where I do need to gracefully back down. I still submit that it is wasteful, but I shouldn't be bringing morals or ethics into it.


In what way is it wasteful? Diamonds aren't exactly a limiting resource - in fact, if it wasn't for a cartel they'd be a dime a dozen (or at least a few percent of their current cost). Better she spend that money on a rock, then on an endangered species buffet.

Rippy wrote:So then it just comes down to "what constitutes a waste of money?", which to me is spending money on something for a perceived benefit instead of an actual one. The biases mentioned by guenther, however, make that perceived benefit a somewhat real one, and therein lies my frustration.


But how do you separate a perceived verses actual benefit? If she buys the ring, and is happier for it, is that benefit still a perceived one, or is it a real one?

For that matter, why does there have to be a benefit (perceived or real) at all? If only things that provide benefits are of value, than the entirety of the art world is valueless. I have paintings on my wall my wife and I made - that are without any purpose, have no monetary value, and if anything were damaging to our health (not to self: brush cleaner + small apartment = bad idea). Should we throw those out because there was no tangible benefit to them?

It seems to be a bum argument from beginning to end - altruism has value, but so does fulfilling ones own wishes. Even if those wishes are fickle, and not of obvious value to everyone else.

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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby Sockmonkey » Fri Aug 06, 2010 8:46 pm UTC

To me what seems messed up is the whole idea of paying a lot for something mostly for the sake of knowing you paid a lot.

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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby PhoenixEnigma » Fri Aug 06, 2010 8:54 pm UTC

Rippy wrote:It bothers me because the ring has no conceivable function to justify its cost. You can look at it, and other people can look at it and be impressed, and that's about it. A big TV, likewise, offers little additional functionality for its cost. It bothers me that it takes such things to bring people happiness. Make-up, for example, is something I don't see as necessary, and yet I don't take offense to its purchase because it has an actual effect which gives some people pleasure.

Bolding mine, and what I find interesting. You have no trouble with people spending (likely considerable amounts) on makeup, which is a consumable that serves soley to make people appear more attractive/impressive. And yet a diamond ring, that you acknowledge serves much the same function, you find objectionable. There are of course some differences (makeup is consumable while a diamond should not be, possibly different cost/effect ratios), but both are people spending money to improve how they appear to others. Why do you consider one better than the other?
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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby Goplat » Fri Aug 06, 2010 9:20 pm UTC

People a couple hundred years ago didn't give a crap about diamonds. The demand is artificial - it's due to the De Beers cartel's very successful advertising campaign to convince people that a guy doesn't love a girl unless he blows away several months of his salary on buying her a rock.

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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby Vaniver » Fri Aug 06, 2010 9:24 pm UTC

Rippy wrote:The benefit of a diamond is totally perceived, though. A television has a tangible effect, something external that can (granted, emphasis on the "can") be beneficial to a human being in terms of knowledge or entertainment, for example.
Television is a noxious poison that saps people of creativity, intelligence, and verve.

Values are subjective. How would you convince the person with the above view that, no, some television is worthwhile? There's this show called Firefly, for example. Ultimately, you'd have to argue that human happiness is worthwhile, and people should be free to choose what makes them happy (or, that is, act on personal motives instead of externally applied motives).

Now, you can still have arguments about what should make people happy: but it's good to remember that your footing is not necessarily any stronger than anyone else's. Why is consumerism necessarily bad? Why is collecting pretty status symbols necessarily bad? Diamonds may be a suboptimal way of getting happiness- but the way to argue that is not to be the joyless leech who demands that everyone produce for the benefit of others. Even praising the virtues of generosity, while subtler, is not likely to make you many friends: telling her that, instead of buying a diamond ring she could decide to sponsor seven poor children for a year and delight in helping them out seems calculated to increase your status at her expense (I'm moral and you're not).

And if they genuinely like shiny things, and want to impress people who will be impressed by diamonds and not by rhinestones, then all you can do is compare their choices unfavorably to yours: which is not really grounds for convincing anybody of anything.

Goplat wrote:People a couple hundred years ago didn't give a crap about diamonds. The demand is artificial - it's due to the De Beers cartel's very successful advertising campaign to convince people that a guy doesn't love a girl unless he blows away several months of his salary on buying her a rock.
This is why, for example, the Crown Jewels of Britain do not include diamonds. (Hint this is a total lie)
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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby Goplat » Fri Aug 06, 2010 10:05 pm UTC

Vaniver wrote:
Goplat wrote:People a couple hundred years ago didn't give a crap about diamonds. The demand is artificial - it's due to the De Beers cartel's very successful advertising campaign to convince people that a guy doesn't love a girl unless he blows away several months of his salary on buying her a rock.
This is why, for example, the Crown Jewels of Britain do not include diamonds. (Hint this is a total lie)
When I said "people" I meant "ordinary people". (Rich people have always been into ostentatious crap.)

My point is that people used to be just fine with not having a diamond. Then along comes De Beers telling everyone, what are you so happy about? You don't own a diamond! Lookatit, shiny, shiny! And weak-minded people just eat that shit up. Now they're unhappy that they don't own a diamond. Now they need one in order to return to the level of happiness that, had they never heard of diamonds, they would have had anyway.

Diamonds are a particularly noxious example of this because the person with the financial motivation to challenge the you-need-a-diamond meme (the guy) is not the same as the person who needs to be convinced (his girlfriend).

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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby Vaniver » Fri Aug 06, 2010 10:19 pm UTC

Goplat wrote:When I said "people" I meant "ordinary people". (Rich people have always been into ostentatious crap.)

My point is that people used to be just fine with not having a diamond. Then along comes De Beers telling everyone, what are you so happy about? You don't own a diamond! Lookatit, shiny, shiny! And weak-minded people just eat that shit up. Now they're unhappy that they don't own a diamond. Now they need one in order to return to the level of happiness that, had they never heard of diamonds, they would have had anyway.
Rich people have always been into status displays because everyone has always been into status displays. It's just that when you're rich it's harder to outdo the competitors.

What De Beers did isn't tell people that diamonds are shiny or expensive. People knew that. What De Beers did was connect diamonds to a motive that people already had: the desire for a permanent marriage. The diamond engagement ring is partly a status symbol- the woman gets to show off how much of a rock her future husband is willing and able to bestow to her- but is primarily a sign of seriousness. When a man buys you a diamond, that means a hell of a lot more than just saying some words, particularly for the middle class where that purchase took significant planning.

So, I would argue that De Beers's success has more to do with signalling theory than it has to do with tricking people into wanting something they don't.

[edit]
Goplat wrote:Diamonds are a particularly noxious example of this because the person with the financial motivation to challenge the you-need-a-diamond meme (the guy) is not the same as the person who needs to be convinced (his girlfriend).
Interpret this in context of signalling theory. Noxious for guys, sure, but it conveys information for the girls. The information is imperfect, of course, but all information is.

I should also note that wanting diamond jewelry is a different issue from wanting a diamond engagement ring.
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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby elasto » Fri Aug 06, 2010 10:53 pm UTC

I've never understood why the world isn't flooded with cheap, artificial, lab-grown diamonds. Well, anyhow, if diamond engagement rings got dirt cheap something else would simply replace them.

Yes, Vaniver is quite right to my mind: A diamond ring is primarily a signal of serious intent. If a man spends 3 months salary buying a diamond ring for a woman, it shows her she means a lot to him. He suffers a huge utilitarian loss in doing what he did - and, also, makes it very unlikely he is chasing more than one partner. I think it's also one of those mating signals based on 'I have so much in the way of resources to take care of you and our future kids that I can easily afford to throw some away' (I forget the term).

Mostly, though, I just think what Sockmonkey said: "To me what seems messed up is the whole idea of paying a lot for something mostly for the sake of knowing you paid a lot."

It would lower my opinion of someone if they spent three months salary buying a diamond ring for themselves in a way it wouldn't in someone buying one for someone else. (But no more or less than when anyone spends money with no functional return. As someone else said - at least a ring holds its value somewhat.)

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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby meatyochre » Fri Aug 06, 2010 11:04 pm UTC

I'm reminded of the argument that raged in a recent lottery ticket thread. You don't really get to tell other people how to entertain themselves. I may think that video games are a total waste of time, but to others playing them is practically a way of life.

I don't engage in conspicuous consumption myself, but I can't condemn those who do. There is social value in conspicuous purchases, whether you like or agree with it or not. "Making other people like me" is a valid and widespread way to spend one's time. I don't see why you'd judge.

In your particular argument I'd have attempted to dissuade her from a diamond simply because it's a diamond and they have a history that I find untenable. But I don't take issue with diamonds merely because they are a conspicuous purchase.
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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby Goplat » Fri Aug 06, 2010 11:40 pm UTC

meatyochre wrote:I'm reminded of the argument that raged in a recent lottery ticket thread. You don't really get to tell other people how to entertain themselves.
Agreed. Nobody should ever tell other people what to buy. Logical conclusion: No advertising allowed. That is what you meant, right?

There is social value in conspicuous purchases
Negative social value. If the only purpose of buying something is to show off how rich you are, you gain some value from it because you look richer, but everyone else loses some value because they now look poorer. If everybody buys it, status is unchanged - everyone once again looks equally rich - except that people have actually become poorer.

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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby meatyochre » Fri Aug 06, 2010 11:48 pm UTC

Goplat wrote:
meatyochre wrote:I'm reminded of the argument that raged in a recent lottery ticket thread. You don't really get to tell other people how to entertain themselves.
Agreed. Nobody should ever tell other people what to buy. Logical conclusion: No advertising allowed. That is what you meant, right?

Advertising is often unethical. I'd prefer if it wasn't allowed, but that's tangential to the thread topic. (That may also be a strawman you're arguing, but I'm not 100% since I'm not strong at identifying all logical fallacies)

In the interest of avoiding future arguments with any strictly literal thinkers, I'll amend to say that nobody can ethically tell other people that there is a wrong way to entertain themselves--and as long as the entertainment does not cause harm to another person (in case you were going to bring up pedophiles... heh).
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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby mmmcannibalism » Sat Aug 07, 2010 2:11 am UTC

Negative social value. If the only purpose of buying something is to show off how rich you are, you gain some value from it because you look richer, but everyone else loses some value because they now look poorer. If everybody buys it, status is unchanged - everyone once again looks equally rich - except that people have actually become poorer.


Having a (nice)car is a status symbol; having a car is not of negative value. Also, if everyone buys a diamond/watch, it creates lots of jobs for the people who produce diamonds/watches(who probably like having jobs quite a bit).
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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby IcedT » Sat Aug 07, 2010 3:14 am UTC

The only problem I have with conspicuous consumption is when cost alone, rather than the improved quality that cost often implies, is the main factor in a purchase. It's not unethical, but I do consider it to be in pretty poor taste. And yes, 'taste' is subjective and mostly arbitrary. But that doesn't mean it isn't an important and valid part of how I relate to other people.

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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby infernovia » Sat Aug 07, 2010 3:39 am UTC

Vaniver is dominating the topic again.

Rippy wrote:It doesn't make sense to value something more highly based on its cost.

Unless you want to display your wealth to others, utility be damned. It makes perfect sense, you would just not want the world to work that way. There is a sort of logic in their madness.

guenther wrote:It talks about how the pleasure we derive from, say, drinking wine is very much dependent on how expensive that bottle of wine is.

As well how hard it is to find (for example, only made in a certain location), the work and time put into it, rarity, etc.

Any sort of pleasure is for your own benefit, pleasure is not altruistic, nor moral.

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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby Sockmonkey » Sat Aug 07, 2010 3:55 am UTC

IIRC natural diamonds are still cheaper than artificial ones.
If it's just for looks you can always go with silicon carbide. It's indistinguishable from diamond without special equipment.

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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby guenther » Sat Aug 07, 2010 3:58 am UTC

infernovia wrote:
guenther wrote:It talks about how the pleasure we derive from, say, drinking wine is very much dependent on how expensive that bottle of wine is.

As well how hard it is to find (for example, only made in a certain location), the work and time put into it, rarity, etc.

Actually this is a better description of what that podcast talked about. Our pleasure is derived not just from the utility of an object, but from what we believe is its essence. For man-made things, part of that essence is the process of making it. If someone views a Pollock painting as an effort of genius, they would get a lot of pleasure viewing or owning one. If someone else views it as something any five-year-old could make, it's worthless. So we have these socially constructed properties that influence pleasure just as much as real, physical properties. In my mind, to be frustrated by that is to be frustrated that humans are humans.

It's less important that people spend $2000 on a ring, and more important that they're making overall good financial decisions. I care more about how much debt/savings someone has than how they spend their extra dollars every month.
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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby Charlie! » Sat Aug 07, 2010 4:04 am UTC

mmmcannibalism wrote:
Negative social value. If the only purpose of buying something is to show off how rich you are, you gain some value from it because you look richer, but everyone else loses some value because they now look poorer. If everybody buys it, status is unchanged - everyone once again looks equally rich - except that people have actually become poorer.


Having a (nice)car is a status symbol; having a car is not of negative value. Also, if everyone buys a diamond/watch, it creates lots of jobs for the people who produce diamonds/watches(who probably like having jobs quite a bit).

Having a luxury car relative to a normal one is of negative value to a person if signaling effects and the associated rewards are ignored. So if everyone has a fancy car, the signaling doesn't work and people are worse off than if they had normal cars. This kind of situation can be seen in the studies of rich people who don't enjoy their possessions because they don't boost their status relative to their neighbors.

Also, arguments from make-work are bad. Should we abandon modern production techniques, since that would create lots of jobs? There are always some people who would like having jobs quite a bit. However, the march of increased human happiness has been one of increasing efficiency, not sacrificing it in the name of jobs.
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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby IcedT » Sat Aug 07, 2010 4:12 am UTC

Charlie! wrote:Having a luxury car relative to a normal one is of negative value to a person if signaling effects and the associated rewards are ignored. So if everyone has a fancy car, the signaling doesn't work and people are worse off than if they had normal cars. This kind of situation can be seen in the studies of rich people who don't enjoy their possessions because they don't boost their status relative to their neighbors.
You're assuming a luxury car is not a better car than the normal one. A more comfortable interior, better handling, more safety features, etcetera are never worth anything?

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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby Izawwlgood » Sat Aug 07, 2010 4:13 am UTC

While I agree with your specific point of diamonds being a stupid expenditure, I feel you were kind of an ass to say that to her. It's her money, she can choose to spend it how she see's fit, or rather, she can have preferences for what she wants, and expressing your opinions in this regard just sort of mark you as a dick.

For example, I spend about 60$ a month on videogame subscriptions. That's outrageous, frivolous, and stupid, and I fucking love it. As you pointed out, you have luxury items you enjoy. Personally, I find owning a 100$ writing implement to be really ridiculous unless you're in the business of impressing clients who are signing inch thick documents.

I think the important thing to take away from this is to use some tact in the future when talking about your opinions regarding other people's opinions. We've all made the mistake of bashing [something] vehemently only to discover the person standing next to you really likes [something].
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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby elasto » Sat Aug 07, 2010 4:21 am UTC

Sockmonkey wrote:IIRC natural diamonds are still cheaper than artificial ones.
If it's just for looks you can always go with silicon carbide. It's indistinguishable from diamond without special equipment.
This is the curiosity, isn't it. If silicon carbide is indistinguishable without special equipment why isn't it the first choice? Assuming it's cheaper of course.

It's because it being expensive is actually the main point - which comes back to "To me what seems messed up is the whole idea of paying a lot for something mostly for the sake of knowing you paid a lot."

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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby infernovia » Sat Aug 07, 2010 4:22 am UTC

guenther wrote: Our pleasure is derived not just from the utility of an object, but from what we believe is its essence. For man-made things, part of that essence is the process of making it. If someone views a Pollock painting as an effort of genius, they would get a lot of pleasure viewing or owning one. If someone else views it as something any five-year-old could make, it's worthless. So we have these socially constructed properties that influence pleasure just as much as real, physical properties.

This is correct but I laughed while reading through it. A lot of it is just nitpicking however and which words are emphasized or not.

Edit: I think that site is not well designed. You would imagine a site like that would focus on its design... but I guess not.

Charlie! wrote:Having a luxury car relative to a normal one is of negative value to a person if signaling effects and the associated rewards are ignored.

Only if the luxury car is same in all ways to the normal one except in price. If it is luxurious in the time spent making it as well as the design, then the speed, the control, the feedback, the power, handling, aesthetics, comfort, would all be superior. There is a massive positive value to owning a luxury car, it is more enjoyable to drive in, especially if you are a car fanatic.

While it is true the signalling value would not be as effective, it is not the only value to judge by.

Btw, IcedT said the same exact thing as me. :( Ninja'd.

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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby PAstrychef » Sat Aug 07, 2010 2:57 pm UTC

How about this-that ring is a status symbol. It shows that your co-worker has a certain amount of available cash. She goes to fancy charity parties, looking for a rich man to marry. If she didn't have the status symbol she would never find one. Because of her wearing the appropriate symbols of the tribe she wants to marry into, she shows that she is worth considering.
In the end she does marry a rich guy and quits her job were her PITA co-workers feel free to complain about the choices she made with her money.
So was that money wasted after all?
Utility can take take many forms, and is often a really horrible way to deal with life. Where would aesthetics be if utility was the only reasonable metric?
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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby Zamfir » Sat Aug 07, 2010 3:16 pm UTC

Pastrychef, that doesn't work. The point of a statussymbol is that it is so expensive that it is very hard to pretend. A 20.000 dollar necklace does a fine job of saying 'I am not a fortune seeker, I am rich myself'. Especially if the rest of your belongings match the picture. A 2000 dollar ring alone, not so much.

The simple fact that you could afford one even though you are not rich makes it an ineffective signal to show that you are rich.

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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby Rippy » Sat Aug 07, 2010 5:06 pm UTC

ImagingGeek wrote:For that matter, why does there have to be a benefit (perceived or real) at all? If only things that provide benefits are of value, than the entirety of the art world is valueless. I have paintings on my wall my wife and I made - that are without any purpose, have no monetary value, and if anything were damaging to our health (not to self: brush cleaner + small apartment = bad idea). Should we throw those out because there was no tangible benefit to them?

Art is a form of expression, not a status symbol (though some art is valued highly and is used as such). The effects of status symbols, like art, are purely psychological, but unlike art those effects are pretty much just manipulative: making others view you more favourably, either for your own pleasure or as a business tactic. You and your wife were able to create something great out of a few paints and some canvas; you didn't need to carve those images into gold plate.


The show of dedication that an expensive diamond engagement ring shows (i.e. look I'm spending 3 months of salary on you I love you) is the same, economically speaking, as if the man burned 3 months' salary in front of her and gave her a plastic ring. Neither, to me, sounds very personal or romantic. What if he instead spent 3 months' salary planning a month-long (or however long the pay is worth) trip with her, and bought her a reasonable ring? Does this not happen because people really just want the damn expensive ring, or because it's just not tradition?

I see a difference between spending a few hundred dollars on yourself every month in the form of TV, video games etc, and spending thousands on goods to put on display so that people will be envious of you. Yes they can buy what they please, yes it creates jobs, but just because something creates jobs does not mean it's therefore good, or that there aren't alternatives. This is why we aren't starting wars constantly because, hey, it creates jobs!

I just think that, if you have enough money for expensive jewelry, and you don't have any more reasonable or necessary things to buy with that money, then you don't really need that extra money. Why not work less and have more leisure, or give it away? I don't, however, know enough about economics to say whether or not this just destroys a capitalist economy. (My guess is, yes, massive recession)

Izawwlgood wrote:I think the important thing to take away from this is to use some tact in the future when talking about your opinions regarding other people's opinions. We've all made the mistake of bashing [something] vehemently only to discover the person standing next to you really likes [something].

A good point, I did regret taking the original conversation quite so far.

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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby Charlie! » Sat Aug 07, 2010 5:16 pm UTC

infernovia wrote:
Charlie! wrote:Having a luxury car relative to a normal one is of negative value to a person if signaling effects and the associated rewards are ignored.

Only if the luxury car is same in all ways to the normal one except in price. If it is luxurious in the time spent making it as well as the design, then the speed, the control, the feedback, the power, handling, aesthetics, comfort, would all be superior. There is a massive positive value to owning a luxury car, it is more enjoyable to drive in, especially if you are a car fanatic.

While it is true the signalling value would not be as effective, it is not the only value to judge by.

It doesn't have to be functionally identical to a normal car, as long as the price takes all that into account.

The value from signaling is also included in the current price of things like cars, by the magic of the free market. So if you're buying a luxury car and aren't getting that value from it, you are paying more than it's worth (on average, with usual capitalist assumptions), therefore buying it has negative value.

Why would you do something that's bad for you? Because you think that it would be good for you. I.e. here you have to break from the simplest free market assumptions and let humans be irrational and influenced by society and advertising.
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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby infernovia » Sat Aug 07, 2010 5:32 pm UTC

Rippy wrote:Neither, to me, sounds very personal or romantic. What if he instead spent 3 months' salary planning a month-long (or however long the pay is worth) trip with her, and bought her a reasonable ring? Does this not happen because people really just want the damn expensive ring, or because it's just not tradition?

Are you really imagining that everybody wants expensive diamond rings all the time? That is not really the case. Of course, a more gorgeous rock will always be superior to a less gorgeous one, but for many, it might simply be a luxury that they do not really need. So they do this kind of thing, its just that the ring is easier to think about, and it doesn't matter if they are ok with losing the money for it.

Why not work less and have more leisure, or give it away?

Status is important to a few select people, as well as fashion. Maybe they will just be bored without it. And leisure also needs a lot of money. Keeping up with the latest hardware is not cheap.

This goes along with the concert player that only got 32 dollars from the subway. Listen to the music that is popular, is it really that hard to imagine why people were not awe-struck by his music? How many people are music lovers anyway? They probably go there for that status and the environment, the music probably is not their complete focus. That is why those that DO love music have the obligation of grabbing the best of the best and dress them in suits. So that the people who can't understand it can at least be impressed.

The mass-produced status rock is an extension of that.

Charlie! wrote:The value from signaling is also included in the current price of things like cars, by the magic of the free market. So if you're buying a luxury car and aren't getting that value from it, you are paying more than it's worth (on average, with usual capitalist assumptions), therefore buying it has negative value.

Why would you do something that's bad for you? Because you think that it would be good for you. I.e. here you have to break from the simplest free market assumptions and let humans be irrational and influenced by society and advertising

No, Charlie. Signalling might add to the cost of the car but buying it is still not of negative value. As long as the pleasure you gain from owning a car that drives amazingly outweighs the expensive cost, then it is still not of negative value. As long as only a few cars like this are being made, and as long as only a few people are car fanatics, the cost will always be dramatically higher. But if you are a car fanatic, then this will simply not matter because the intense pleasure you gain from driving a car that well made will outweigh the cost of coming into the culture.

People don't buy cars just as status symbols you know.

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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby ImagingGeek » Sat Aug 07, 2010 5:59 pm UTC

Rippy wrote:Art is a form of expression, not a status symbol (though some art is valued highly and is used as such).

Jewelry manufacture is also an art. You should stop by a store that manufactures their own jewelry some time - the skill required is as specialized and difficult to acquire as is the ability to paint or sculpt.

People often like art because its beautiful. So is jewelry. Why is it OK to love the beauty of art, while not the beauty of jewelry? Why is it possible to show off art without being pretentious, while any expensive jewelry is pretentious in your opinion?

Rippy wrote:You and your wife were able to create something great out of a few paints and some canvas; you didn't need to carve those images into gold plate.

So what you are saying is if we had created art from gold, it would no longer have the "positive moral value" you've ascribed to our current paintings? And you may be interested to know, but painting supplies are priced such that carving in gold leaf may very well have been a less expensive option.

Its seems your whole argument boils down to "items of value without function are evil". I'm sorry, but I don't buy that. It seems to me that you're offended by displays of wealth, and thus cast a negative view on expensive objects - whether they're displays of wealth or not.

Rippy wrote:The show of dedication that an expensive diamond engagement ring shows (i.e. look I'm spending 3 months of salary on you I love you) is the same, economically speaking, as if the man burned 3 months' salary in front of her and gave her a plastic ring. Neither, to me, sounds very personal or romantic. What if he instead spent 3 months' salary planning a month-long (or however long the pay is worth) trip with her, and bought her a reasonable ring? Does this not happen because people really just want the damn expensive ring, or because it's just not tradition?

I didn't spend 3 months salary on my wifes ring; only ~ one paychecks worth. Nor has anyone anyone I known spent that kind of money - nor do I know of stores that sell many rings in that price range. Average engagement ring around here runs $1-5K. I don't know where this 3-months paycheck thing came from (at the time of my engagement, about $10K) - maybe a US thing?

Rippy wrote:I see a difference between spending a few hundred dollars on yourself every month in the form of TV, video games etc, and spending thousands on goods to put on display so that people will be envious of you.

But since we didn't buy our wedding rings to make others jealous, what is your point? I bought it because it looked good on my (then girl friends) finger, and I was about to propose. You seem to be assuming that is the sole purpose of buying expensive things is to be ostentatious. Hate to break it to you, its not. My wife and I just bought a car that is more expensive than the average - not because its a display or wealth, but rather because its a higher quality car that should last us a decade or more. My last laptop was quite expensive - not for the "coolness" factor of having the best, but rather because in buying a more expensive one I can get another year's work out of it before it becomes obsolete - in the long run a money-saving tactic. I have a painting I bought for ~2 paychecks worth (back in my grad school days, so not actually that much). I didn't buy it to be ostentatious, but rather because I really, really liked it.

Expensive things tend to be of better quality than cheap things.
Expensive things often are visually more pleasing than cheap things.
Sometimes things we want, for no reason other than we want them, are expensive.

You wish to attach a negative moral value to those simple facts - sorry, I'll never buy that.

And while we're on the topic of money for appearances, I hope you include large, public charitable donations in your list of evil money things. After all, they serve the same purpose (by your rational) as a fancy ring or expensive car - to enhance ones social standing and display ones wealth.

Rippy wrote:I just think that, if you have enough money for expensive jewelry, and you don't have any more reasonable or necessary things to buy with that money, then you don't really need that extra money. Why not work less and have more leisure, or give it away?

Wow, you're really fixated on the money thing, aren't you? I work the job I do, and work the hours I work, because I love my job. For me my work is my leisure. Under your rational I should stop doing less of something I love simply because I get paid - in your estimation - more than I need. Ironically, if I worked less I'd still be "overpaid" - I'm on salary; so absolute hours do not matter.

I'm also going to guess you're quite young - as you age you'll find that there is no such thing as extra money. Whether its an extra payment or the mortgage, or money put away for our kids future education, there is always a use for any money left over once the bills are paid. Once in a blue moon we'll "waste" that extra money on something that simply makes us happy - I'm not going to apologize for that, nor will I buy into your pseudo-morality that would hold those purchases as an act of evil. Happiness has its own value, even if that cannot be measured in dollars.

And while we're on the topic, why is it YOUR TV bill is beyond reproach? Its not something you need - its something you have purely for your enjoyment, it has no actual value nor any practical purpose. For that matter, over a period of 5 or so years, it'll cost you as much as your friends $2000 ring, and serve just as futile a purpose.

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Re: The Ethics of Consumption (or: Are diamond rings okay?)

Postby setzer777 » Sat Aug 07, 2010 11:12 pm UTC

I have to go back a bit, because this confuses me:

elasto wrote:
Sockmonkey wrote:IIRC natural diamonds are still cheaper than artificial ones.
If it's just for looks you can always go with silicon carbide. It's indistinguishable from diamond without special equipment.
This is the curiosity, isn't it. If silicon carbide is indistinguishable without special equipment why isn't it the first choice? Assuming it's cheaper of course.

It's because it being expensive is actually the main point - which comes back to "To me what seems messed up is the whole idea of paying a lot for something mostly for the sake of knowing you paid a lot."


If this is actually true, I don't see why most people don't just by silicon carbide stones and tell everyone that they are real diamonds. If the physical stone is indistinguishable to most people, and a simple (harmless) lie gives it the same social value, does that mean people spend way more just so they themselves will know they spent more?
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