David CLOUTIER. The Vice of Luxury: Economic Excess in a Consumer Age. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2015, pp. 336, $32.95 pb, ISBN: 9781626162563. Reviewed by Maria C. MORROW.
David Cloutier’s book The Vice of Luxury rises to the challenge of taking on a difficult and neglected topic in Catholic moral theology. Although luxury certainly seems to be a vice afflicting modern American society, it is hardly a topic that will make a scholar popular! Moreover, Cloutier’s treatment is astonishingly thorough with a broad variety of sources, including primary sources from the Christian tradition, recent papal encyclicals, secular sociological studies, and modern non-Catholic Christian approaches to luxury, among many others.
The book is divided into two parts. The first part addresses the topic of luxury in history, as a vice that degrades people, blocks a spirituality of material goods, and often fails to help the economy (contra a common assumption). The second part turns to a more substantial definition of luxury, asking the questions of who has more than enough, what is enough, and what is beyond enough. The first part benefits the reader immensely by providing not only a representative treatment of luxury in history, but a framework for considering the moral, spiritual, and economic problems caused by luxury. And yet it is the second part where Cloutier’s argument becomes not only interesting, but compelling. Against those who see describing the vice of luxury akin to nailing jelly to a wall, Cloutier makes a convincing case that luxury can and should be (and, in fact, often is) defined. This valuable contribution is crucial for moral theology’s efforts of addressing the vice of luxury in concrete terms.
Yet this great strength of Cloutier’s book also belies a remaining weakness. While the reader may be persuaded by this overall claim, the instances of luxury provided by Cloutier are debatable. In Chapter 7, for example, Cloutier considers such topics of food and clothing, housing and transportation, and other “necessities.” While the ubiquitous five-dollar latte seems easy enough to categorize as luxury (p. 235), the more complicated situations – as Cloutier acknowledges – call for discernment, and some of Cloutier’s examples are easily open to a different narration than instantiating the vice of luxury.
One could note that even discernment on these topics is itself a luxury brought on by other underlying lifestyle choices and societal pressures that Cloutier does not treat in detail. As someone raising six children on a single professor’s salary on the East Coast, I personally have to make more challenging basic financial decisions (e.g. how to pay for a necessary $7,000 plumbing repair to a 100-year old house). Hence one wonders if the increased housing size since the 50s, for example, might not appear so problematic were it not for coinciding decreased family size and increasingly later commitment to marriage and raising a family that results in much unused housing space. While Cloutier proves that luxury is not a new problem, he notes the particularity of the problem for America today, with an underdeveloped account of this larger picture. And while Cloutier briefly mentions the need for communal insight when it comes to college and retirement savings, he does not provide substantial suggestions other than the problems of discerning a legitimate advance and guarding against prioritizing independence over interdependence. In reality, college savings (and the problem of college debt delaying marriage and family life) is a serious problem; the first question I receive as the mother of six is how we plan to pay for their college. Additional instances that deserve investigation in the “Other Necessities” category might include medical bills and travel with the purpose of visiting family.
These criticisms do not detract from Cloutier’s immense contributions, but rather point out the direction that other moral theologians should follow as they reflect on this important topic. For this is certainly is a book that deserves attention from the field of moral theology and theology in general; many, if not most of us, can relate to Cloutier’s discussion of luxury at a personal level, and it is time that we devote scholarly (and popular) attention to this vice. While the text as a whole is likely too advanced for the average undergraduate reader, the educated Christian interested in this topic would find it a valuable resource.