That sweet spot between excess and restraint

In lecture, reflection on October 11, 2013 at 14:23

My mom is a hoarder. Or maybe was. I don’t see her often. But she keeps stuff. She lives alone in a big house, and over the years she had accumulated enough stuff that she could start a bed & breakfast business, furnishing all her guest rooms with her accumulated properties.

One of my friends is quite the hoarder, too, but focuses his hoarding in tooling and equipment. His house is so full with electronics, measuring equipment, computer peripherals, and all manners of plasticky and metallic bits and pieces that it is actually difficult to find a place to step or to sit anywhere.

Absolute minimalists, in contrast, make a point of not having any stuff in their life. They will challenge themselves ruthlessly and oppose systematic resistance to new stuff entering their life. I came recently across a web page written by a certain Pat Shea who self-styles as a minimalist: “all his possessions fit in a single backpack”.

“How much stuff one voluntary keeps in one’s life” is really a scale with extreme hoarders at one end and extreme minimalists at the other end. It is a special case of a more general kind of scale: scales of human behaviour between voluntary excess and voluntary restraint.

Other voluntary excess/restraint scales are well known, usually by example of people who sit more towards the end than in the middle. For example, “how much one voluntary eats” is well-characterized with the stereotypical German person or USAmerican on the excess side, and fasting or dieting people on the other side; or “how much time one keeps available for unexpected opportunities” that is occupied on one side by over-busy, over-committed executives in cities and, unfortunately, involuntarily isolated and thus often depressed teenagers in less densely populated areas.

The voluntary part of these scales is what interests me here, because that is where the individual can exercise free will. There is another type of scale, which is about factual human behaviour without considering intent. For example, the factual scale “how much does one eat” has people suffering from bulimia at one extreme, and both anorexics and most poor people around the world at the other extreme. However, individuals sitting towards the ends of this type of scale may be constrained by external factors out of their control and thus usually cannot exercise free will.


One reason why these scales matter is that we are judged by other people based on them. We are not judged via the factual scales; only via the voluntary factor, or intent.

Consider an example. Say you earn 800€ per month from the only job you can find in your area, and you need to spend 500€ on life-preserving expenses: 300€ for the cheapest shelter in your area when you don’t have family or friends to host you under their roof, 150€ for the cheapest food for the minimum calorie intake required for your metabolism, 50€ to cook and ensure basic hygiene: a water bill, an energy bill (to cook, and warm the water you wash with). These amounts are out of the “voluntary” scale and you can’t be judged negatively for not saving more (you can’t) or not getting a better job (you can’t, either).

Then, consider a hypothetical scenario with the 300€ that remain: you could spend 5€ of it voluntarily every month and give to your local charity group that takes care of the elderly; or you could be taxed 5€ by your city hall instead to provide the same service to the elderly. In the first case, you take a position on the scale “how much do you voluntarily spend to help others out”; in the second case on the scale “how much do you spend to help others out because you have to”. In the first case you would be judged positively for it; in the second case you are just complying with the local regulations.

The same goes with the other scales. A person suffering from bulimia nervosa eats excessively and they cannot help it because it is a medical condition. We can’t judge them for that specifically. In contrast, a sane and wealthy person who eats a lot, simply because they like it, is usually judged negatively. Christians have even invented a sin name for this behaviour: gluttony. Similarly, we can’t judge someone positively because they care for their elderly parents when their local culture makes it mandatory; but we can do so when they care for their elderly parents when their local culture has otherwise good facilities to provide for the elderly in the absence of care.

This pattern reveals two basic principles:

  • every time a choice of the individual is replaced by a mandatory construct by a system or government, an opportunity to exercise social judgement disappears.
  • social judgements (and more generally, moral values) are based on determining intent, not factual observation alone.

Just saying of one of your friends “I find John does good by not eating meat” is senseless. Maybe John cannot eat meat because of some gastro-intestinal disease, or maybe John is too poor to afford meat. Because of these possibilities, unless intent is revealed the word “good” cannot apply meaningfully. Instead, the sentence “I find John does good by voluntarily giving up meat“  properly carries a meaningful moral message.


Without social judgement and involuntary constraints, there is no impetus to choose a specific position on an excess/restraint scale. In other words, if nobody cares (or you don’t care what others think) and you are not forced towards excess or restraint by external factors, nothing will tell you what to do.

If you have the luxury to be able to adapt your own behaviour,  deciding the direction and how to walk it is your choice. Free choices are difficult.

What happens if we do not consider this choice and “go with the flow”? We then become driven by instincts and unconscious social constructs ingrained in our early childhood. These tend to push us surreptitiously towards extremes. For example, our reptilian brain, when healthy, will push us towards material excess (more appeal to potential mates) and emotional restraint (more freedom to choose mates). Our western society ingrains into us tendencies towards excess materialism and spiritual restraint. In short, if you “go with the flow” and do not adjust your behaviour consciously, you will be driven towards behaviour extremes by what are really external factors. You give up on free will.

Another attitude is to consider this choice and go for an extreme on purpose. I could for example decide, like Pat Shea, to give up on material possessions and shed enough stuff that all my belongings fit into a backpack. Like him, I could also give up on hygiene products entirely. Or I could decide to actively eat two or three times my calorie requirement for the rest of my life. But as these examples show, you cannot argue rationally for sitting a the extremes of some behaviour scale. All my possessions in my back pack imply that I must rely on the possessions of others for shelter (I can’t sleep out in my climate) and cooking my food (can’t make outdoors fire in my climate either). Without any hygiene products whatsoever, due to my particular metabolism I would run more risks of infections and shorten my life expectancy. If I were to eat too much, I would also shorten my life expectancy.

More generally, the scales I have identified so far have this property in common: if you don’t choose your position by free will, you are automatically guided towards extremes by background / external factors. If you go for the extremes, whether voluntarily, involuntarily, or failing to actively choose, you are putting yourself in a situation that is difficult to argue for rationally. Here are other scales I have identified in the past with the same property:

“which proportion of your wake hours do you voluntarily dedicate to your work”

“which proportion of your time do you voluntarily dedicate to your friends and family”

“how much do you voluntarily favour the same gender as you when seeking companionship”

“how much do you voluntarily read fiction”

“how much of your non-survival income do you voluntarily spend on helping others out”

“how much do you voluntarily favour another gender as yours when seeking sexual intimacy”

“how much do you voluntarily play a music instrument, sing or dance”

“how much do you voluntarily exercise physically”

“how often do you choose a food item based on its origin and production means”

“how often do you teach something you know to someone else”

These are mere examples. But in all of them, a sweet spot between excess and restraint, between “all” and ”none”, ”always” and ”never” is hard to find but very well necessary.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: