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AU professor receives National Endowment for the Humanities funding
5/21/10

Should living simply be viewed as a virtue? Is extravagance a vice? Do people who choose the simple life tend to be happier than spendthrifts? Or are they missing out on what life has to offer? Is it those who live more extravagantly who get the most milk out of the coconut?

These are some of the questions Emrys Westacott, professor of philosophy at Alfred University, will explore in his book on the philosophy of frugality.

Westacott received a prestigious National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) stipend to support his work on the book this summer.

Mary McGee, dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, called the NEH stipend a significant award, one that is based on peer review by experts in the field.

With the recent recession stimulating interest in the methods and benefits of frugal living, Westacott’s work is certainly timely. And like his other writings on ethics, it is an attempt to apply philosophy to issues that confront all of us in our everyday lives. Moreover, he hopes that the book will engage readers beyond academic philosophers.

“I believe it is possible to write in such a way that makes the humanities interesting and accessible to non-specialists but is still scholarly and rigorous,” Westacott says.

In today’s difficult economic circumstances, many people are trying harder to follow Ben Franklin’s advice and live within their means, cutting back on extravagances to do so. It’s easy to see how that sort of frugality—living within one’s means—is sensible, says Westacott.

But the deeper question, he argues, is “whether it is still wise to be frugal and live simply even if one does not need to. From ancient times to the present many great thinkers, including Plato, the Buddha, Augustine, and Thoreau have espoused simple living as the key to happiness. But are they right?”

The current state of the economy introduces a further complication, Westacott adds. While living on a budget and not buying the extras might make sense, some argue that the economy will improve more quickly, and everyone’s standard of living will go up, if we all go out and spend more money. The issue of frugality thus has social and political ramifications which his book will also explore.

“The book is not a polemic,” he says. “It is an open-minded inquiry into the pros and cons of frugality.”

Westacott’s interest in the question of living simply grew from teaching an Honors Seminar at Alfred entitled “Tightwaddery: The Good Life on a Dollar a Day.”

As he says in the course description: “This course is less concerned with cutting coupons than with the question Socrates asked long ago: What is the good life for a human being?”