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Sue L. T. McGregor

Dr. McGregor is Coordinator, Undergraduate Peace and Conflict Studies Program
Mount Saint Vincent University, Halifax, Nova Scotia


Contact: [email protected]

Abstract

The premise of this paper is that a sense of an entitlement to consume, in combination with narcissistic pride, ego, vanity, conceit, and arrogance, leads to the untenable situation of morally irresponsible consumption decisions.

Consumption FACTS:

  • Global consumption of goods and services has topped $30 trillion dollars, annually.
  • The richest 20% of the world's countries, consume 86% of all things bought in the global marketplace.
  • 80% of all the products we buy are made by women, on average aged 12-14.
  • 37% of all clothes/apparel sold in North America are made in China where they are forbidden from organizing to improve working conditions (sweatshops, child labour, prison labour).
  • More than a billion people are living at a material standard of living that is supposed to be able to support only 400-800 million people and another five billion people aspire to this standard of living, maintained through unsustainable consumption patterns.
  • We would need four earths if everyone lived the western lifestyle.
  • A child born in North America or England will consume, waste and pollute more in a lifetime than as many as 50 children in a developing country.
  • The average Canadian household has more than 10,000 things in it. The ideal, sustainable, amount would be 200 things.
  • In the last 40 years, the world lost half of its crop land. It takes 500 years to form one inch of top soil. We deplete it 40 times faster than it can be replaced.
  • The industrialized world uses close to 70% of all oil consumed in transport even though they make up only 20% of worlds' population.
  • There are more than 500 million cars in the world, expected to increase five fold, to three billion by 2020.

These facts are strong indicators that western consumers ignore many of the moral conflicts surrounding their consumer acquisitions (Schor, 1989). Their consumption decisions are adversely affecting the next generation, those not yet born, those living elsewhere, and the environment. This paper provides a review of the literature on consumer entitlement1 and narcissism to offer another perspective to explain this immoral consumption behaviour. People who are primarily defined by their consumerism generally tend to become low-commitment people. Consumer cultures tend to erode virtues of humility and gratitude (Pahls, 2003). Also, in an individualistic consumer society, there is a strong focus on rights (McGregor, 2003; Romig, 2003). Rights imply an entitlement to goods and services (Australian Catholic Social Welfare Commission, 1996). These entitlements are based simply upon one's membership in the "consuming community"2 leading to, what Surdyk and Diddams (2001) describe as, an "entitlement mentality." Materialism, consumerism, and advertising have joined together to create very high expectations for the good life and a belief that all are entitled to these expectations (Roberts, 2000). The premise of this paper is that a sense of an entitlement to consume, in combination with narcissistic pride, ego, vanity, conceit, and arrogance, leads to the untenable situation of morally irresponsible consumption decisions.

Consumer Entitlement

Indeed, more and more people are beginning to appreciate that "consumerism is built on the inane sense of entitlement and the communal lie of 'I can do anything I want and possess everything I desire if I only apply myself to it' and on the pathological envy it fosters"(Vaknin, 2003, p.6). In the health industry and education sector, consumerism is actually now defined in terms of entitlement. "Consumerism, plainly stated, is the sense of entitlement patients acquire when they are forced to dig into their wallets and spend their hard-earned cash on their health care needs, in a society rooted in a free market economy" (Shlain, 2002, p.1). "Consumerism is a sense of entitlement some students feel regarding access to services and accommodations in return for tuition and activity fees" (Whitt, 2001, p.9). Pahls (2003) and Copleman (2000) agree, noting that consumption practices tend to create in people an illegitimate sense of entitlement.

If people feel they are entitled to consume, they see consuming as an expected reward for behaving in a certain way. Entitlement preaches that people deserve good things because they have been good, smart, diligent, or born in the right place (Risher, 2003). Worse, if something is seen as an entitlement (in this case, the right to consume), people will place a high priority on that activity to the exclusion of others (McGinnis, Chun, & McQuillan, 2003).
If consumption is seen as an entitlement, people will place a high priority on this activity, to the exclusion of others.
Because of this high priority on the right to consume, people will not be receptive to being asked to make socially and morally responsible consumption decisions. Add in the narcissistic dimension and the result is consumers who consume to feed their images of themselves, be damned the consequences on others or the environment.
This reality is even more alarming considering that, with a sense of entitlement comes a lack of connection (Surdyk & Diddams, 2001). This disconnectedness leads to enormous social, economic, and personal suffering inflicted by a few people whose antisocial attitudes and behaviour result, less from social forces than, from an inherent sense of entitlement and an incapacity for emotional connection to the rest of humanity. For these individuals, social rules have no constraining force, and the idea of a common good is merely a puzzling and inconvenient abstraction (Hare, 1995). A paradox emerges in that their sense of entitlement gives them the perceived moral high ground (O'Neill, 2000) at the same time that they experience a declining sense of personal responsibility, leading to immoral consumption (Strauss, 2000).

Northern consumers are much more affluent relative to other consumers. Affluence is perceived as a matter of deserved personal reward and thus fully available to any who put forth the effort. Having worked for what they now enjoy, people expect others to do the same. This ideology ignores the plight of those people who did not start with the same advantages. A negative consequence of this perspective is that many consumers do not feel any sense of noblesse oblige to support their nation or to spread charity among the general public (Surdyk & Diddams, 2001). In concert with this decline in altruism is an increase in the aggressiveness of consumers. Perhaps the different perceptions of the nature of our role as adults are a factor here. Brannen (2003) advises that there is a difference between perceiving adulthood as entitlement to individual rights and seeing adulthood as being responsible for others. The fact that the percentage of aggressive consumers is significant and growing in the U.S., and all affluent societies, bears witness to the focus on rights rather than responsibilities to others. Things do not look positive for the future, given the characteristics of the incumbent adult population. "Generation Y" is likely to exhibit this aggressive, non-altruistic behaviour, having grown up in an affluent society with a sense of entitlement (Surdyk & Diddams, 2001). Howe and Strauss (2000) recognize that consumers born after 1980 feel alienated and disconnected, have a low sense of autonomy and emotional intelligence, are focused on self-interest and a sense of entitlement instead of community, lack an ethical and moral centre (reflected by "whateverism"), and have a strong penchant for materialism and consumerism.

Remember that, in a consumer society, people have very high expectations for personal gratification. People feel that they are entitled to have all their expectations met. Life should be easy. People should get out of their way (Strauss, 2000). Not surprisingly then, a sense of entitlement can lead to destructive, as well as aggressive, consumption behaviours. An entitlement mentality holds that the world is theirs for the taking, regardless of possible harm to others. Promoting the interest of a few elite populations, by facilitating consumer communal indulgence, harms and leaves out the masses (Hexmoor, 1998).Delayed gratification is a difficult reality for entitled consumers to accept, and their attitude can be expressed as: "I must act now to get mine." This behaviour exhibits a sense of social Darwinism on their part.
Many narcissistic consumers are so deeply invested in their beliefs, egos, and entitlements that they can live their whole lives and never have a clue.
They believe they have the right to subject others to undesirable outcomes simply because they can (Surdyk & Diddams, 2001). Enter consumer narcissism.
Those who love their consumerism are unable to see the needs of others.

 

Consumer Narcissism

More and more, the adjective of narcissistic is applied to consumerism (Romig, 2003). Pahls (2003) agrees, noting that Northern consumption practices tend to create an illegitimate sense of entitlement and a creeping kind of narcissism. It is a human trait to like oneself but, taken to extremes, it becomes narcissism that can lead to arrogance and behaviour that is harmful to other things in the universe. Narcissism is in contrast to altruism, the unselfish concern for the well-being of others (Hexmoor, 1998). Those who give their love to consumerism are unable to see the needs of others (Easwaran, 1997).

As you read the following two paragraphs, picture a Northern/Western consumer in your minds' eye. You will find it alarming how readily one can apply the characteristics of a narcissist to a Northern/Western consumer. Narcissists need attention, admiration, affirmation, and applause from others to reinforce their false sense of themselves. They have a grandiose sense of entitlement. They only care about appearances. They lack empathy. Everything and everyone are mere objects, unconditionally and uncomplainingly available for their pursuit of instant gratification. They are perniciously exploitive, using, abusing, and discarding people in a chilling manner. They have convinced themselves of their superiority, omnipotence (unlimited power), and immunity. They feel a deep need to "put people in their place" as a way to reinforce their regal sense of self. Narcissists are firmly convinced of their self-importance, making them feel entitled to special treatment, immediate gratification, and leniency (indulgence) (Vaknin, 2002).

Still with the consumer in mind, narcissists are impervious to the consequences of their actions, feel above reproach, feel protected, and believe they will be saved at the last moment; hence, the audacity and transparency of their consumption behaviour. They rarely cover their traces and are convinced that they are above moral laws. Since they tend to get away with it, they tend to feel immune to repercussions. They lack self-awareness and feel like a mere spectator; hence, they do not own their actions. Therefore, they cannot understand why they should be punished, feeling very wronged when they are reprimanded for their actions. Being held accountable is always a huge surprise and a nuisance but also proves to them that strong forces are out to get them. When made to pay for any misdeeds, a narcissist is always disdainful, bitter, and feels mistreated (Vaknin, 2002).

The two previous paragraphs on narcissism provide a compelling explanation for the current state of immoral consumption—buying goods produced using slave, prison, sweatshop, and child labour, without compunction; remorselessly buying products produced using non-renewable raw resources; ruthlessly, sadly, buying goods to create a personal identity; buying goods for instant gratification to address the fear of being isolated and ignored; feeling annoyed and irritated when someone tries to hold one accountable for unsustainable consumption; denying any link between one's consumption patterns and the impact on the lives of those who labour to produce our goods or on the environment; refusing to acknowledge that one's consumption behaviour is tantamount to exploiting, using, abusing, and discarding people and elements of the ecosystem; shutting out empathy and altruistic values; and, worst of all, a misplaced sense of being immune to all of the ramifications of one's consumption behaviour, assuming that "someone will save us in the nick of time!"

Where Do We Go From Here?

Believe it or not, there is hope in the midst of all of this folly. And, that hope comes from the true nature of being a narcissist.
Narcissistic consumers will transform themselves into anything to get and keep attention-that is the ring we grab as we ride this wild carousel.
To be truly guilty, there must be intent.
Narcissists do not abuse and harm others in a cold, calculating manner.
It is done, offhandedly, extemporaneously, as a manifestation of their true character. Narcissists act the way they do because they cannot help themselves. They are seeking attention and external validation stemming from a grandiose, highly pretentious sense of entitlement. Paramount to the successful resolution of our collective consuming behaviour is the belief that, to be truly guilty, there must be intent (Vaknin, 2002).If you ask any group of people anywhere in the world, "How many of you woke up this morning with the intention of destroying the world?" nobody would raise their hand. So, if they are doing it without intention, and yet they are doing it anyway, it means that it is imbedded in how they do things as opposed to being something that they want to do. And, that suggests that it can be reversed (Hawken, 1994).

However, there is an Achilles Heel to this scenario—a small but mortal weakness. Even though the opposite of a sense of entitlement would be "a sense that I have a role in this" (Schlegel, 2003), knowing about the impact of one's decisions on others and the environment implies responsibility. Learning and knowing would mean one just might have to do something about it. Unfortunately, a sense of entitlement implies that people have abdicated a certain amount of their personal responsibility to some other entity, like government or business or some other THEY. Because of the sacrifices they have made to acquire the "good life," they feel they should not have to deal with others' hardships. To compound matters, people see progress as having entitled them to consumer expectations. They have the expectation that nothing should ever go wrong, and that if it does, there is a quick fix or remedy just around the corner. Many narcissistic consumers are so deeply invested in their beliefs, egos, and entitlements, that they can live their whole lives and never have a clue (Murphy, 2003; Romig, 2003; Shellooe, 1998).

But, something must be done because responsible consumption is our collective, moral imperative. The hidden costs of irresponsible consumption are not reflected in the actual costs people pay for goods and services, are often far removed and not readily visible, and are hard to document (Unitarian Universalist Association [UAA], 2001). If, as Copleman (2002), Risher (2002), Romig (2003), and Vaknin (2002) suggest, we live in a society where all citizens interpret the world through the lens of narcissistic personal rights and entitlement, it makes sense that consumers living in that culture will use the same lens when they shop. Romig (2003) and Hexmoor (1998) say we have to unmask narcissism if we are to dedicate ourselves to purposes that go beyond our own selfish desires achieved through consumption. In agreement with Shellooe (1998), Romig believes that this process involves acquiring a living sense called transcendence, a faith in and devotion to things considered larger than the self. People are humbled when they see the reality of their place in the bigger picture.

Shellooe (1998) continues this line of thinking, noting that it takes a personal, spiritual transformation to come to the change in attitude leading to morally responsible consumerism. And, no matter how bad things may get, and they are getting really bad regarding social injustice and ecological disaster, persons only comes to that transformation in their own time. They cannot be dragged along, kicking and screaming in their denial. Each individual person starts from a different place but this paper has argued that narcissistic consumers all start from the same place—feeding a sense of entitlement and false self.

The state of humility called for by Shellooe (1988) must be achieved because the economy, and by association our consumption, is based on domination and control of the resources of other, largely disenfranchised people. The inflated ideas of entitlements are deeply embedded in our collective psyche. Grounded in a sense of privilege, self-importance and entitlement, people continue to realize their relative prosperity on the backs of prisoners, slaves, and women and child sweatshop labourers. This situation can be perpetuated because people are often ignorant of their real connections and interdependence. By buying into consumerism, people are complicit in the exploitation of peoples' deepest hopes, dreams, drives, and basic needs (Beath, 2002). He asks, "How can we feel that we have a right [are entitled] to the level of prosperity that we enjoy when it is so often produced in ways that destroy workers' health, tear the fabric of the social culture, undermine the integrity of communities, and undermine the ecologies of regions and the entire world" (p.6)?

To turn this situation on its head, why not enable the consumer narcissist to get attention by withdrawing one source of "narcissistic supply" and replacing it with another source, that being models of morally responsible consumption patterns. If people crave attention by being a consumer, change the focus of their attention to being a global citizen first and a consumer second. Then, create a situation where they crave that sort of attention. If they need to focus on rights and entitlements to gain power, shift their attention to being morally powerful through responsible consumption decisions (McGregor, 2003). Indeed, this shift may not be as difficult as one may think. Narcissists will transform themselves into anything to get and keep attention (Vaknin, 2002). That is the ring we grab as we ride this wild carousel.

1This paper is about a sense of entitlement to being able to consume and does not refer to the concept of entitlement widely used by those wishing to investigate issues related to both food security and nutrition (Pearce, 1997).
2The consumer community counts among its members most North Americans, West Europeans, Japanese, Australians, and the citizens of Hong Kong, Singapore, and oil sheikdoms of the Middle East (Hawken, 1994).

References

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© Sue L. T. McGregor 2003

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