Voluntary Simplicity as an Aesthetics of Existence

28 Pages Posted: 24 Feb 2020

See all articles by Samuel Alexander

Samuel Alexander

University of Melbourne - Office for Environmental Programs; Simplicity Institute

Date Written: October 8, 2011


What becomes of moral and ethical discourse and practice if the search for a universal moral code is given up? The substantive part of this paper begins exploring this question by turning primarily to the later works of Michel Foucault – the texts of his so-called ‘ethical’ turn. It is in these texts where Foucault develops his notion of ethics as ‘an aesthetics of existence,’ which he presents as an alternative mode of ethical practice that can be taken up, by default, one might say, in the absence of a knowable and universalizable morality. Foucault argues that our identities are socially constructed entities, and that we lack a transcendental or purely rational ‘self.’ But he nevertheless carves out and secures a certain, albeit limited, degree of space within which our socially constructed identities can act upon themselves for the purpose of ‘self-fashioning.’ We may not get to choose the raw material of which our identities are constituted, but it nevertheless lies within our power to shape that raw material in various ways, just as the sculptor may make various things from a given lump of clay. According to Foucault, this relationship of the self to the self is the terrain of ethics, and when engaging the age-old ethical question, ‘How am I to live?,’ Foucault suggests that we avoid the traditional search for a moral code and instead ask ourselves the further question, ‘What type of person should I become?’ Using aesthetic metaphors to describe and develop this process of self-creation, Foucault summarizes his ethical position with the pronouncement, ‘Make life a work of art’ – an intriguing, provocative, but ambiguous statement that provides this paper with it’s foundation.

The aim of this paper, however, is not to present a thorough analysis of Foucault’s notion of an aesthetics of existence. Instead, after providing a brief exposition of Foucault’s ethics, this paper will undertake to actually apply the idea of an aesthetics of existence to a particular subject of ethical concern, namely, to our role as ‘consumers’ in the context of First World overconsumption. Three consumption-related issues – ecological degradation, poverty amidst plenty, and consumer malaise – provide ample grounds for thinking that consumption is a proper subject for ethical engagement, in the Foucauldian sense of ethics as ‘the self engaging the self.’ If it is the case that our individual identities have been shaped, insidiously perhaps, by a social system that celebrates and encourages consumption without apparent limit – and it would not be unfair to describe consumer societies in these terms – then it may be that ethical practice today calls for a rethinking of our assumptions and attitudes concerning consumption, which might involve a deliberate reshaping of the self by the self.

This paper will explore the possibility of such an ethics of consumption in the following ways. First, by explaining how neoclassical economics, which is arguably the most influential paradigm of thought in the world today, conceptualizes consumption as something that benefits both ‘self’ and ‘other’ and, therefore, as something that should be maximized. To the extent that we, modern consumers, have internalized this conception of consumption, an ethics of consumption might involve engaging the self for the purpose of changing the self and creating something new. The second way an ethics of consumption will be explored will be through an examination of the theory and practice of ‘voluntary simplicity,’ a term that refers to an oppositional living strategy with which people, somewhat paradoxically, perhaps, seek an increased quality of life through a reduction and restraint of one’s level of consumption. The paradox, so-called, consists in the attempt to live ‘more with less.’ Since voluntarily living simply means heading in the opposite direction to where most people in consumer societies (and increasingly elsewhere) seem to want to go, one would expect living simply to require a fundamentally creative engagement with life and culture, especially in contemporary consumer societies that seem to be predicated on the assumption that ‘more consumption is always better.’ This need for a fundamentally creative engagement with life is what prompted the present attempt to elucidate the idea of ‘voluntary simplicity as aesthetics of existence,’ and it is this attempt to infuse Foucauldian ethics with an emerging post-consumerist philosophy of life that constitutes the original contribution of this paper.

Keywords: voluntary simplicity, aesthetics of existence, Foucault, sustainable consumption, neoclassical economics

Suggested Citation

Alexander, Samuel, Voluntary Simplicity as an Aesthetics of Existence (October 8, 2011). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1941087 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1941087

Samuel Alexander (Contact Author)

University of Melbourne - Office for Environmental Programs ( email )

185 Pelham Street
Carlton, Victoria 3053

Simplicity Institute


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