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.)