The Virtue of Simplicity

In this paper we explore material simplicity, defined as the virtue disposing us to act appropriately within the sphere of our consumer decisions. Simplicity is a conscientious and restrained attitude toward material goods that typically includes (1) decreased consumption and (2) a more conscious consumption; hence (3) greater deliberation regarding our consumer decisions; (4) a more focused life in general; and (5) a greater and more nuanced appreciation for other things besides material goods, and also for (6) material goods themselves. It is to be distinguished from simple-mindedness, a return to nature, or poverty. Simplicity overlaps with traditional virtues such as temperance, frugality, and wisdom, and sustains and enables traditional virtues such as justice and generosity. Simplicity is a virtue because it furthers human flourishing, both individual and social, and sustains nature’s ecological flourishing. For analytic purposes, we consider six areas in which simplicity can make important contributions: (1) basic individual flourishing, (2) basic societal flourishing, (3) individual freedom or autonomy, (4) the acquisition of knowledge, (5) living meaningfully, and (6) preserving and protecting nonhuman beings. The proven failure of materialism to secure subjective happiness or objective flourishing argues for the practice of voluntary simplicity and for the radical reform of modern consumer societies.

Joshua Colt Gambrel & Philip Cafaro
Published in: Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics
2010 23 (1-2) Pages 85-108