Selfish Minimalism?

In exploring minimalism as it’s practiced in contemporary culture, I ran across the blogs of “The Minimalists” and Joshua Becker, who I think of as the more reasonable minimalists. They in turn led me to discover the extreme minimalists who actually count the number of items they own and embrace an arbitrary numerical standard for ownership of physical possessions, such as 100 things, or 39 things, or even 15 (!) things.

Living with an arbitrarily chosen quantity of possessions for a delimited time might be fun as a challenge. And, after all, you’re reading a post written by someone who has abused her body in the name of taking on arguably crazy physical challenges, such as biking 112 miles in Alaska just weeks after taking the California bar exam, or climbing obstacles on a basic training course at the Air Force Academy just because I was given permission to do so during my orientation. (Both of these feats of strength and endurance likely contributed to my later need for back surgery—ouch!).

As much as I enjoy a good challenge, I don’t think paring down my possessions to that extent is one I’m interested in taking on anytime soon. So I’ve confined my exploration to the more reasonable minimalists, including their blogs and any podcasts or interviews that were readily accessible. As with so many things in today’s culture, I found these minimalists to be quite mixed. On the one hand, they speak of the tremendous benefits one can derive from paring down one’s physical possessions, living spaces, and financial commitments. On the other hand, they often invoke altruistic motives for living with less stuff—“The Minimalists” do this from a more liberal perspective, Becker from the perspective of a religious conservative. Sure, they say, do it because it will make your life better, but feel really good about it because you will be reducing your carbon footprint, practicing asceticism, helping the less fortunate by giving your stuff away, etc.

As an Objectivist, I reject any altruistic or ascetic motivations or reasons for paring down one’s possessions (or life in general). I’m interested in doing it only insofar as it will make my life better. Period. And so the idea of exploring “Selfish Minimalism” was born. Once the phrase occurred to me, I was interested in seeing whether anyone else had explored minimalism from the perspective of selfishness (and by this I mean—as Ayn Rand did—rational self-interest). I did a Google search for “selfish minimalism,” and here’s what I found:

At the top we see that one blogger has a post under the heading, “Selfish Minimalism.” But he’s not talking about a type of minimalism that is selfish. Rather, he’s arguing that what most people already understand to be minimalism—trying to live with the absolute minimum of material possessions that one practically can manage—is itself “selfish.”

For a moment such a lack of possessions seems like a virtuous lack of attachment to material goods. But on second thought it seems incredibly selfish.

This man owns only what he personally wants. He has nothing for the benefit of anyone else. He cannot offer anyone a place to sleep, or even a place to sit down. He has nothing to loan to a neighbor. Not only does he have nothing to meet anyone else’s material needs, he is probably a burden on others. I imagine he is able to do without some things because plans to borrow from neighbors or relatives when necessary. Such extreme minimalism would be an interesting exercise, but a sad way to live.

So, minimalism is selfish (and bad) according to this blogger, because it will leave you without enough extra to benefit other people and, in fact, you will likely be a burden on others due to your need to borrow from them on occasion.

Next up we have Joshua Becker, who, at his “Becoming Minimalist” blog, devotes an entire post to decrying selfishness. It’s called “The Antidote for Selfishness is You.” Not surprisingly, some of the things he lists as being selfish are, in reality, not selfish at all. Becker cites, as attributable to selfishness, things such as: wars of conquest (implied); allowing feelings of jealousy to go unchallenged in oneself; making “unhealthy decisions” about how to spend money; inability to find “true contentment.” Those who are familiar with Ayn Rand’s Virtue of Selfishness, which presents an ethics of rational self-interest, know that none of these negatives can be attributed to one’s proper concern with one’s own self interest. To me it was disappointing to see Becker, who seems to be the best, the most intellectual of the minimalists I’ve seen, criticize selfishness in this way. (He also denounces “corporate greed” (how cliché!), as well as the failure to “meet[] the apparent needs of others.”) Becker is implying that to embrace minimalism is to reject selfishness, and vice-versa.

The third blogger appearing in the Google search provides another variation on the possible relationship between minimalism and selfishness. Courtney Carver attempts to debunk what she thinks are “misconceptions” about minimalists–one of which is that they are selfish. “[Minimalists] may not spend on extravagant gifts, but because they have cleared the clutter in their own lives, they have the time and space to be more thoughtful about yours, and in turn become more giving.” I guess spending money on extravagant gifts would not be selfish on Carver’s view? Nor would be being “thoughtful” or “giving” with respect to other people and their lives? I disagree. Sometimes, with respect to some people, it would definitely be in one’s self-interest to do these things.

By the fourth entry in the Google search, we have come full circle. Peter Shallard, who describes himself as a “Shrink for Entrepreneurs,” argues that “minimalism is toxic for you and your business,” and describes minimalism as “the selfish squandering of opportunity.” It seems that he is concerned that “the 1%,” whom he names explicitly, will lose their ambition when they reject “keeping up with the Joneses.” Minimalism, he writes, is “toxic because it encourages you to only focus on having what you need – which means rejecting any opportunities to help other people with their needs.” So, again, minimalism is condemned as selfish because, to paraphrase, working to gain and keep only what you need and want for your own purposes will prevent you from having the surplus necessary for you to comfortably perform your altruistic duty toward others.

So, is minimalism selfish? Or is that, as Carver argues, merely a misconception? Perhaps, as Becker argues, minimalism is actually an antidote to selfishness. Or perhaps, as I think, only a certain type of minimalism is selfish and is therefore good.

Note: In a future post I’ll talk about why I’m interested in minimalism. (As the first two posts on this blog show, one significant influence is the aesthetic described in Ayn Rand’s novels.)

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12 thoughts on “Selfish Minimalism?

  1. When you build your world around yourself, it would be rational to add and keep only that which you need to function utmost effectively in achieving your values. Any useless and/or contextually unnecessary material or spiritual possessions should rationally be discarded so everything Man owns provides a purpose for his life–as a rational being, there is no reason to possess something otherwise. Therefore, I think if one desires to live ideally, arbitrarily keeping one’s possessions down to a specific number is irrational. If the idea of minimalism can or does represent a concept entailing the consistent essentiality-oriented upkeep of all of one’s possessions in subordination to the proper fulfillment of one’s existence then I submit that such a concept would be rational. But if there is a fully determined concept already existent that is not consonant with the justifiable one I just provided, then I believe it would then be necessarily immoral to implement such a premise in practice.

    If one focuses and so constantly applies reason to any circumstance in life implying a volitional choice, then one should always be able to find the answer eventually if as a Man one’s brain is properly physically functional and the concepts one utilizes for identification aren’t fallacious.

    This is the first I’ve heard of “minimalism” and concerning moral theory it may indeed be a valid practice as far as I understand it.

    In consideration of the ability to comment upon this post I so take it implied that such comments are welcome.

    Adios 🙂

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    1. Definitely welcome, and this is exactly the type of approach I have in mind. As for “minimalism” being a fully determined concept, it seems far less determined, based on the research I’ve done so far, than is “selfishness” in the realm of ethics.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely. It’s been a while since I’ve reread THE FOUNTAINHEAD, but I clearly recall the description of the room he rented from Mrs. Keating having almost nothing in it except his drawings and clothing. I started with the examples from ATLAS SHRUGGED, however, because I wanted to be clear that it’s not an issue of living in poverty. Everything that Rearden (and, no doubt, Dagny Taggart) had in the spaces described was very expensive. And, as one of my followers on Twitter noted, living in two rooms on the top floor of a skyscraper in NYC contradicts what most people today understand as “minimalism.” It *is*, however, a great example of what I have in mind here on this blog.

      Thanks for stopping by 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It will be interesting to see how you develop your thoughts. For now let me say that I like my “things.” They symbolically represent my efforts and reward my success. At retirement now I no longer find the need to buy. My life is full and my home has beautiful items that I have created or purchased.

    My late husband used to advise me to be moderate! I would laugh and reply that there was nothing moderate about me. So being a minimalist doesn’t really appeal to me; I’ll just wait to see what you have in store.

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    1. ” I like my “things.” They symbolically represent my efforts and reward my success.”

      If that’s true of all—or at least most of—your things, then that’s consistent with what I have in mind. Really it comes down to whether you love/use/enjoy your things, and it sounds like you do. Thanks for stopping by!

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  3. Maybe my plan qualifies as selfish minimalism. When my job went away, I realized that my interests might be served by owning much less than most of my acquaintances expected or desired from life. I wanted my own business. There would be no ‘job’ in my field for me ever again, so any new position seemed as poor as any failure I might possibly suffer by going out on my own. So I cashed in everything and sold my condo, and moved to my vacation cabin to pursue the vague dream of my own business.

    My home is a clam shack (288 sq. ft.), instead of a waterfront condo (1350 sq. ft.), and my cars are growing old, instead of being traded for new. My clothing is fleece, instead of a suit, and I wear rubber boots or athletic shoes instead of pumps. I eat at home, rather than going out. For various reasons, I have not reached my goal quite yet, but I am going to, maybe soon. In the meantime, I am cozy and comfy, I eat better, and I am enjoying my hobbies and studies more than I ever dreamed I would. My boats and bikes are used regularly. I can spend as much time gardening or hangin’ on the Internet as I want. And I live at the beach!

    My only worry is that I am not doing enough to be productive, but it is like comparing apples to oranges if I think of past productivity as compared with the productivity possible to me today. I am very anxious to hear your thoughts. Thank you for bringing up the subject.

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    1. Sometimes paring down allows people to pursue activities that are productive, and yet not financially rewarding. (Perhaps those activities will be financially rewarding in the future, perhaps not.) That would be one perfectly selfish reason to adopt a minimalist lifestyle. Welcome to the blog!

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