Frugality: Antidote to Prodigality


[1] One of the central moral problems of the age-though not usually recognized as such-is prodigality. At issue are economic excess and its attendant social and ecological harms: excess in the goods we extract from the earth, such as the fossil fuels we use to empower oversized vehicles and oversized homes; excess in the abundant and often frivolous products we make and consume; excess in the waste and contaminants we dump on the land and in the air and waters.

[2] The moral problem is not mainly that we seek "bad things," though, of course, there are plenty of examples of people grasping for products they shouldn't have at all, not even in moderation. Instead, the main problem is seeking too much of the many good things in life. In the language of classical Western thought, the prosperous people of the planet are guilty of greed and gluttony, two of the seven deadly, or primary, sins. The two are usually partners in producing excess.

[3] The prosperous have not learned the lessons of limits, both biophysical and moral. The results include a host of environmental woes and social inequities. To counteract prodigality, we need to discern and develop a socially and ecologically sensitive code of conduct, one that restrains us from excess and enables us to live within planetary bounds, to the benefit of all nations and all species, in this generation and all future generations. The prime antidote to prodigality is frugality-that classical virtue which has been perhaps the most neglected norm in modern morality but is now a necessary condition for economic justice and ecological integrity.

[4] The quest for economic abundance is the central paradigm that has shaped our national character and cultural institutions. Through most of the media of value transmission-obviously, commercial advertising, but also our much-celebrated "family values"-Americans have been socialized to seek the superfluous, in both quantity and quality of goods and services, on the assumption that Earth is a place of perpetual plenty. Our national ethos sanctions and even glorifies economic excess. These excesses reach their peak, ironically, at the celebration of the one who was the model of just and beneficent restraint.

[5] Political salutes to this "great" nation really mean this "rich" nation. The American Dream suggests little more than fulfilling fantasies of affluence. The "good life" or even "life abundant" has been redefined as material prosperity. The "pursuit of happiness" now implies the quest of acquisitions. "Success" is defined generally not as social service or creativity but as wealth-and gaining the property, prestige, and power that wealth provides. Excess is now the main sign of success, and the primary evidence of progress. This ethos is inherently wasteful. In fact, the more we can afford to waste, the better off we are perceived as being. Significant numbers now have the economic capacities to waste without wanting.

[6] In every culture, consumption is much more than economic exchanges of goods and services for basic needs. Consumption patterns are also cultural constructs, sending messages abut social meanings and values. This is especially so in an ethos of affluence.  For example, shopping is recreation for many, driven not by "needs" alone but also by the pleasure of discovering their "needs." For some, shopping is a compulsion that nurtures excess. For many others, shopping is therapy, providing an "uplift" when one is feeling "down" or "blue." Consumption often appears to be compensation for loneliness, powerlessness, insecurity, and even meaninglessness.

[7] In order to gain approval and inclusion, consumption is usually conformity to the conventional wants and styles-such as the "right" kind of car or TV-of our reference groups, whether of families and friends, or groups to which we aspire, such as economic elites. Millions of people feel forced to live far beyond their means-even to the point of severe debt-in order to "belong."   The reasons behind over-consumption are not always or even usually morally disdainful; they are often mainly mournful. Greed and gluttony may be prominently present, but these are often associated with deep human yearnings for self-esteem, social acceptance, and even ultimate meaning, while people are culturally conditioned to follow paths that frustrate these yearnings. 

[8] For some wealthy Americans, consumption is competition-the flaunting of superiority in affluence and influence.  Competitive consumption creates a vicious spiral of "conspicuous waste" (Thorstein Veblen) as the competitors race to display how much they can afford or, in the case of ostentatious gamblers, how much they can afford to lose. Reinhold Niebuhr seemed to have these Grand Acquisitors in mind when he defined sin in the form of "pride of power"-the futile and selfish defiance of the inherent insecurities of life, which itself arises from and reflects these insecurities, and which thrives at the expense of social and ecological abuses.[1]

[9] One might expect Christian churches in America to be spirited champions of frugality and aggressive challengers to the ethos of affluence. But, in fact, they generally reflect this ethos and some have sanctified it. Few are noteworthy critics. Sociologist Robert Wuthnow's study of the relationship between Christian churches and economic values in American shows "mixed signals" in the churches' moral teachings and members' attitudes in dealing with issues of affluence. The churches offer little moral guidance, other than those vapid bromides against "materialism."    Religion and affluence are "compartmentalized"; wealth and morals are "separated," so that the economic value system remains "largely unchallenged" and the quest for abundance goes largely uninhibited.[2]    

[10] In the meantime, the wealth and income gaps continue to grow between the rich and the poor in the United States and between the top fifth of the world's population and the bottom, desperate half. Equally, unsustainable patterns of using the planet as source and sink have led to climate change, collapsed fisheries, endangered species, and pollution in a multitude of forms. No doubt, the linkages between profligate prosperity and poverty, on the one hand, and ecological degradation, on the other, are complex and ambiguous. Causal connections are not always clear or even evident. Nonetheless, there is plenty of evidence to contend that the profligacy of the prosperous is often at least a contributing cause of global disparities and ecological degradation. 

[11] The moral problem with excess is the deprivations it imposes, on both other humans and other species. Our excesses in goods are really excessive regard for ourselves at the expense of others, which is the essence of sin in much Jewish and Christian thought. Profligate production and consumption must be restrained for the good of others. These restraints point to the prime function of frugality. 

[12] Countering the ethos of excess is a formidable task. It demands cultivating the virtue of frugality in its fullness in our personal lives, our communities of faith and learning, and our social institutions. Frugality is truly the subversive virtue, representing a revolt against the sacred values of the Sumptuous Society.

[13] What is frugality? Contrary to conventional stereotypes, frugality is not penny-pinching cheapness, or hoarding, or hair-shirt austerity, or even simple bargain-hunting. Instead, its Latin root, frux, conveys the essential character of frugality: fruitfulness and joyfulness! It finds joy in justice and fullness in restraint. Frugality connotes moderation, thrift, cost-effectiveness, and satisfaction with material sufficiency-similar to the "contentment" described in the first Pauline letter to Timothy (6:6-10). It can be interpreted as the economic dimension of the classical virtue of temperance. The features of frugality in its fullness include: conscientious conservation of resources, sustainable production and consumption, care and maintenance of possessions, living within available means, optimally efficient technologies, minimal harm to other species, comprehensive recycling of products, social deterrents to waste and incentives for constrained consumption, built-in durability and repairability of products, just and generous sharing of resources, and the sacrifice of excess goods for the common good. 

[14] Indeed, as a norm for the economic activity of both individuals and societies, frugality can be defined as ethically disciplined production and consumption for the sake of higher ends. It is a middle way that is concerned about both the over-consumption of the rich and the under-consumption of the poor. It is an earth-affirming, enriching norm that delights in the non- and less-consumptive joys of the mind and flesh, especially the enhanced lives in human communities and the habitats of other creatures that only constrained consumption can make possible on a finite planet. It is "sparing" in production and consumption-literally sparing of the scarce resources necessary for human communities and sparing of other life forms that are both values for themselves and instrumental values for human needs. 

[15] Under a number of names, frugality has been a prominent moral norm and practice in the world's great religious traditions. In Christian history, Catholic, Orthodox, and various Protestant ethics have been generally united in interpreting frugality as an expression of love, including justice. Indeed, one scholar describes the economic ethics of the New Testament as frugality in "the service of love."[3]  The essence of frugality, then, from a Christian perspective, is a form of sacrificial sharing for the sake of Christ's cause of love. Prodigal societies will do well to learn what various religious traditions have long known, at least in theory if not always in practice: The fullness of life will not be found in the abundance and opulence of possessions, but in just and generous solidarity, so that all will have enough to thrive together.

[16] The frugality we need to combat prodigality, however, cannot be a mere revival of a traditional moral practice-because historical expressions of frugality have had too many debilitating flaws and culture-bound limitations to be simply repeated in the present. Instead, we need a revitalization and a re-formation of this practice to make it responsive to contemporary conditions and corruptions. Frugality, for instance, must be interpreted not only as a personal virtue but also as a social norm. 

[17] The present political prospects for creating frugal societies appear bleak. But we dare not succumb to fatalism or self-fulfilling prophecies about the prospects for change, in our churches or social institutions. Transformational possibilities exist and can be enhanced, to degrees that we can never predetermine, particularly if serious initiatives are undertaken to promote the values of frugality against the disvalues of alternatives. That is a major challenge for moral education in these times.


End Notes

 1. The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation (New York: Scribner's, 1949), 188-94.

 2. God and Mammon in America (New York: Free Press, 1994), 4-9, 25-28, 120-51, 173-79.


 3. Wolfgang Shrage, Ethics of the New Testament, trans. David E. Green (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), 102-106, 159-60. 


© January 2007
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 7, Issue 1