Posted by Sara Meers on October 3, 2013
Consumerism is a problem. This is the conclusion Bruce Rittenhouse, a part-time faculty member in the Religion and Philosophy Department, has reached and is explaining in his new book, Shopping for Meaningful Lives: The Religious Motive of Consumerism. He believes consumerism deforms individual character, our sense of obligation to one another, and our concern for future generations and the environment.
Have you ever wondered what the ideal form of life is? “Scholars in philosophical and religious ethics spend a great deal of time arguing about this,” Rittenhouse says. “As my students often tell me though, this conversation can seem irrelevant to the real world because almost no one that one meets is attempting to live by these ideas.”
In his new book, Rittenhouse analyzes economic, sociological and psychological evidence to prove that consumers behave differently than the current theories predict.
“When I worked for a Fortune 500 company, every one of my coworkers—economically comfortable people who appeared devoted to their families and faith communities—acted without regard for ethics when they saw an opportunity for modest economic gain,” said Rittenhouse. “So I set out to ask why. Why was the incremental wealth so important that most would sacrifice their professed values to obtain it?”
What began as Rittenhouse trying to understand what drives consumerism during his doctoral program dissertation, later turned into a book deal allowing him to present his findings to a border audience.
Rittenhouse proposes that consumerism functions as a religion in Western cultures, providing a means of assurance that an individual life is meaningful. Because people need this assurance to live out their everyday lives, consumerism takes precedence over whatever other values a person professes-unless a person can adopt a different way to secure the meaning of his or her life.
“Part of my project was to describe the most competing theories of consumerism and to test these theories alongside my own using economic and sociological data,” he says. “I demonstrate that understanding consumerism as a strategy to secure meaningful life explains Americans’ economic behavior over the past several decades and the competing theories do not.”