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Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Turning up the Hedonic Treadmill: Is It Morally Impermissible for Parents to Give Their Children a Luxurious Standard of Living?

This essay was the overall winner in the Undergraduate Category of the 2023 National Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics

Written by University of Oxford student, Lukas Joosten

Most parents think they are helping their children when they give them a very high standard of life. This essay argues that giving luxuries to your children can, in fact, be morally impermissible. The core of my argument is that when parents give their children a luxurious standard of life, they foist an expectation for a higher standard of living upon their children, reducing their lifetime wellbeing if they cannot afford this standard in adulthood.

I argue for this conclusion in four steps. Firstly, I discuss how one can harm someone by changing their preferences. Secondly, I develop a model for the general permissibility of gift giving in the context of adaptive preferences. Thirdly, I apply this to the case of parental giving, arguing it is uniquely problematic. Lastly, I respond to a series of objections to the main argument.  

I call the practice in question, luxury parenting. Luxury parenting consists of providing certain luxuries to your child which go beyond a reasonably good standard of living.  I will consider this through a framework of gift giving, since luxury parenting can be understood as the continual gifting of certain luxuries to children. While my argument also applies to singular gifts of luxury to children, it is targeted at the continual provision of luxury goods and services to ensure a high standard of living throughout childhood.


Section 1: Preference Screwing

When we discuss harming one’s wellbeing, we are usually referring to taking some action which changes the actor’s situation so that they are further from their preferences. However, a person’s wellbeing can be harmed in the opposite way as well, by changing their preferences away from their situation. Consider the following example.

Wine pill: Bob secretly administers a pill to Will which changes his preferences so that he no longer enjoys cheap wine.

Will has been harmed here in some morally significant way without having received any immediate disbenefit. The harm consists in the effect on future preferences. We can call this type of harming “preference screwing”.

Preference Screwing: Making it more difficult for an actor to achieve a certain level of utility by changing the actor’s preferences so that there is a larger divergence between the preference set and the actor’s option set.


Section 2: Adaptive Preferences and Gift-giving

The theory of adaptive preferences tells us that people tend to return to their baseline happiness after positive or negative shocks to their wellbeing because people’s preferences adapt to their current situation. I argue this process of preference adaptation implies that some instances of gift-giving are impermissible, because consuming a high-quality gift, screws with the preferences of the recipient, so that they derive lower utility from future consumption of lower-quality variants of the good they were gifted.

There exists a vast literature debating the accuracy of adaptive preferences.[1] However, my argument only requires a weak restricted form of adaptive preferences. Namely it simply says that there is some negative impact of consuming expensive goods on the enjoyment of future cheap goods. That such an impact exists is generally empirically supported, even if the strength of the impact is debatable.[2]

It might be objected that if preferences are adaptive, then gift-giving has no long-term harm since, upon returning to the lower-quality good, preferences will adapt downward immediately. There are two independent reasons why this is not a problem for my argument.

Firstly, I don’t assume (and the empirics don’t support) complete adaption, only partial adaptation. This means that once the preferences of an actor have (partially) adapted up after consuming the higher-quality good, then if the actor returns to the lower-quality good, their preferences will adapt down but not completely, so there remains a long-lasting upwards pressure on their preferences.

Secondly, as discussed in section 3, since childhood is a formative life-phase, preferences adapt more quickly and more permanently for children. Luxury parenting thus fixes children’s preferences at a high point, which will take much longer to adapt back down in adulthood.

This allows us to develop a model of gift giving. When A gifts X to B, B’s lifetime wellbeing is affected in two ways. Firstly, there is the immediate positive (or negative if a particularly poor gift) utility derived by B’s consumption of X. Call this the immediate utility. Secondly there is the long-term impact of the gift’s preference screwing. The preference screwing effect is the total harm to the lifetime wellbeing of B incurred by B as a result of the preference screwing caused by consuming X. This allows us to state the following:

Net wellbeing impact of gift giving = immediate utility – preference screwing effect

Now, consider that preference screwing through gift-giving is usually not considered a form of wronging. Consider the following example:

Wine gift: Bob gifts a bottle of Château Latour to Will for his birthday. After thoroughly enjoying the wine, Will no longer enjoys cheap wines as much

In wine gift, we would not say that Bob has wronged Will. There are two distinctions between wine gift and wine pill which explain why gift giving to adults is generally permissible.

Firstly, wine gift is not necessarily a net negative for Will’s lifetime utility. The spike in utility of drinking the gifted bottle may outweigh the loss in utility from the future discounted happiness of drinking cheap wines. In wine pill, there is only a negative impact on Will’s utility (ignoring the health effects).

Secondly, and crucially, Will consents into receiving the gift. Generally, we think that a person’s potential complaint versus a particular action is much weaker when they consented into that action being conducted upon them.

This allows us to say that the permissibility of gift given is a function of the following two parameters:

  1. Expected net wellbeing impact of gift giving (henceforth expected net impact)
  2. Level of consent

The weight given to each is going to vary with one’s background intuitions on paternalism. Anti-paternalists might thus completely disregard the first parameter, arguing that given sufficient consent, gift-giving is always permissible. My argument is inclusive to a broad pluralism on this matter, since it avoids the 2nd parameter altogether, as discussed in section 3.


Section 3: Giving Children Luxuries

By evaluating luxury parenting on the two parameters, I argue that many instances of practice are impermissible.

Firstly, consider level of consent. Children are usually thought to lack the required capacities for autonomous decision making, such as critical thinking, time-relative agency (ownership of future interests) and independence[3]. This means that children, generally, cannot consent into receiving luxuries from their parents.

As such, we must adapt the model of consent for children. Brighouse suggests that the autonomy rights of children express themselves as fiduciary duties upon parents.[4] Parents thus have the authority to make decisions for their children, but this authority is limited by the duty to act in the child’s best interest. This means that both parents can permissibly give gifts to children, but only when those gifts appear to be in the best interest of the child. Assume now that, ceteris paribus, the non-welfare interests of children are unaffected in cases of gift giving. Given this assumption, we can say that the permissibility of child gift giving boils down to the expected net impact.

Luxury parenting is thus usually impermissible since it is particularly likely to lead to a negative expected net impact. This is because the preference screwing effect is likely to be strong, while the immediate benefit is small. Children are particularly vulnerable to preference screwing from luxury parenting for four reasons.

Firstly, childhood is an especially formative stage in life. Due to the ongoing development of the brain, the patterns children learn are going to be extra lasting. [5] This means that if preferences are formed to expect a high standard of living, these preferences are going to be especially sticky. If the child’s standard of living drops upon reaching adulthood, those preferences will likely adapt down less quickly and won’t adapt down completely.

Secondly, when children experience certain goods, they often experience them for the first time. If the first time they experience a particular good or service, they are experiencing an expensive variant of that good, they are likely to calibrate their future expectation on this expensive good, because they have no cheaper variants to compare it to.

Thirdly, children generally will have a lesser appreciation of the uniqueness or scarcity of the goods they experience at a high standard of living. In wine gift, Will is acutely aware that his drinking of Château Latour is a unique and temporary experience. This awareness can deter the preference adaptation. However, children are less likely to be aware of the fleeting nature of the standard of living and so are not protected from preference adaption in this way.

Lastly, the effect is going to be especially strong because the luxury gifts are provided for an extended period of time. If parents provide a luxurious standard of living for multiple years, that gives a very long time for the child’s preferences to be pushed upwards and solidify there.

On the flip side, the immediate utility effect is going to be smaller for children. The satisfaction people receive from luxuries often goes beyond the direct experiential joy of the good or service. There is also the novelty of the experience, the secondary reflective happiness from knowing that you are consuming something special. Children are much less likely to appreciate the novelty of the experience since they are likely, as argued above, to be less aware of the uniqueness of the experience.

In sum, luxury parenting has strongly negative preferencing screwing effects while it offers a limited positive immediate utility. In turn, luxury parenting is likely to have a negative expected net impact on children, meaning that luxury parenting is often impermissible.


Section 4: Objections

Objection 1: Symmetry Implications

If it is impermissible to give a luxurious standard of life to children, this could imply that it is morally required to give a miserable existence to children instead. If childhood suffering will push preferences down such that children will be happier in the long run, this may be better for the child. This implication would be so clearly unacceptable that it would condemn the whole argument. However, the implications of the model are asymmetrical. This is because children are generally thought to have significant rights, which ought to be respected. They have rights against being physically harmed and to a reasonable standard of living. Parents cannot impose suffering on their children even if it is a net-positive on lifetime wellbeing because this would violate these rights protections.

On the flipside, parents can permissibly withdraw these luxury goods, since children generally are not thought to have a right to luxury living.


Objection 2: Shared Time

One might argue that luxury parenting is permissible because it is necessary for parents to give themselves a high quality of life. Parents are generally thought to be under an obligation to spend quality time with their children because a healthy parental relationship is crucial for the child’s development. This is problematic since many opportunities for quality time are also opportunities for parents to spend money on themselves, such as restaurants, vacations, or entertainment. So, if we think parents should be permitted to spend money on themselves, this could make luxury parenting permissible. There are three responses to this objection.

Firstly, there are still many ways parents can spend on themselves without spending on their children. Parents can spend money on activities without their children or they can spend money on themselves while shielding their children from the same luxury expenditure, for instance by ordering a lobster for yourself and the pasta for your child.

Secondly, the magnitude of this sacrifice, being unable to spend on oneself, directly correlates with the level of wealth parents have. This makes the sacrifice a less significant problem because the wealth of parents reduces the required sacrifice of parenting significantly in other contexts. Wealthy parents can afford babysitters, summer camps, and meal boxes. This means that the sacrifice of giving up luxury is balanced out by the diminished sacrifice in other facets of parenting.

Thirdly, parents are routinely asked to make sacrifices for their children in determining how they spend their time. They can only watch child-friendly movies, avoid bars, and go to child-friendly holiday destinations. It’s unclear, for instance, how giving up luxury is materially different from forcing parents to go on vacation to Disneyland.

In sum, a parent’s interest in treating themselves is insufficient for making luxury parenting permissible.


Works Cited:

Bagenstos, Samuel R., and Margo Schlanger. ‘Hedonic Damages, Hedonic Adaptation, and Disability’. Vanderbilt Law Review 60, no. 3 (2007): 745–98.

Brighouse, Harry. ‘What Rights (If Any) Do Children Have’, 1 January 2002.

Coleman, Joe. ‘Answering Susan: Liberalism, Civic Education, and the Status of Younger Persons’. In The Moral and Political Status of Children, edited by David Archard and Colin M. Macleod, 0. Oxford University Press, 2002.

Russell, Simon J., Karen Hughes, and Mark A. Bellis. ‘Impact of Childhood Experience and Adult Well-Being on Eating Preferences and Behaviours’. BMJ Open 6, no. 1 (1 January 2016): e007770.


[1] Bagenstos and Schlanger, ‘Hedonic Damages, Hedonic Adaptation, and Disability’.

[2] Bagenstos and Schlanger.

[3] Coleman, ‘Answering Susan: Liberalism, Civic Education, and the Status of Younger Persons’.

[4] Brighouse, ‘What Rights (If Any) Do Children Have’.

[5] Russell, Hughes, and Bellis, ‘Impact of Childhood Experience and Adult Well-Being on Eating Preferences and Behaviours’.

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1 Comment on this post

  1. While I agree that it’s wrong to spoil the kids by lavishing them with extremely luxurious and expensive gifts,
    it needs to be pointed out that going in the opposite direction can be equally harmful, even if withdrawal of luxurious goods is not so extreme to push the kids below reasonable standard of living.
    Here are couple of further objections:

    1. Your example of parents ordering lobster for themselves and pasta for kids as a way to keep spending time together, while shielding kids from luxury doesn’t really work. As long as kids grow up a little bit, like when they are 10 or something, they will realize what is going on and it would be extremely hard for parents to explain to kids why they don’t let them eat the same things. Such parents would look stingy and mean, and such discrimination when it comes to standard of living in the same household could only lead to family tensions and bitterness.

    2. While lowering exposure to luxury can, as you explained, skew kids preferences in the right direction, that is, enable them to be happy and satisfied even with less luxurious products, it can also lead to feelings of deprivation and fixation on wealth and material values, especially if the kids are aware of how well-off their parents are. In practice it would be incredibly hard to hide all the evidence of being well-off from kids. Kids are not stupid, and it would require some sort of grand conspiracy. If kids know you have money and don’t let them enjoy the same things you do, it will, once again, make kids bitter, feel deprived, etc… Such feeling of deprivation can cause development of economic materialism and pursuit of luxury later on in life, which, I guess we would rather avoid.

    On the other hand, letting kids enjoy the standard of living that parents have and not depriving them of anything, will typically lead to a different worldview, in which they don’t fetishise wealth, because they were never deprived, and so they might pursue other more humanistic goals in life and not fixate on wealth. Who always had money, typically isn’t obsessed with money, and can dedicate themselves to other things.

    Many people from well-off families were idealists, pursued education, science, social change, etc… and weren’t just chasing money. Whenever you deprive someone of something, they will be likely to fixate on it and start chasing it.

    3. Also, even if they end up less well off than their parents, in sense that they can’t afford the same standard of living and the same luxuries, chances are their preferences will readjust and they will adapt to lesser standard of living. It’s not too hard to readjust preferences. But they will, for sure, not feel deprived, and they will not fetishize or idealize material wealth, because they will have memory of what it was like to be rich, so they will know that they aren’t really missing that much.
    On the other hand those who were always deprived, will never know wealth, and may chase it, fetishize it, idealize it, and always feel deprived.
    You can never feel as deprived when you have pleasant memories of family home when you didn’t lack anything.

    4. History has shown us that it’s almost impossible to escape from your background. So if your family is rich, and if they do have above average standard of living, it’s only fair that all the members of family equally share it. I’m not advocating for extravagant spending. I’m just arguing that intentional deprivation of some members of family, just because they are kids, and for whatever philosophical reason, is wrong, because it can only cause tensions in family.

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