The moral foundations of ethical consumption

fall-2110614__340I continue the discussion on human morality inspired by Jonathan Haidt – today, I am focusing on the Theory of Moral Foundations which purports to explain the origins and diversity of moral worldviews. Haidt strongly argues against a rationalist approach to morality which regards moral reasoning as largely a cognitive ability that humans develop as they grow up and that is focused almost exclusively on the concept of justice. Instead, he asserts that moral judgments are culturally and contextually varied and, importantly, grounded in emotions and intuitions rather than rational reasoning. According to him, these intuitions arise out of inborn moral foundations that are rooted in our common evolutionary heritage and are, therefore, shared by all humans. Cross-cultural research provided Haidt and his colleagues with an insight into what those foundations might be, and the following were suggested as the universal moral values that people all across the world have innate empathy with: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Although these foundations are ubiquitous, each culture builds upon them to construct its own unique moral matrix which is what explains the wide variation in people’s moral reasoning (which, sadly, is responsible for a lot of intercultural and inter-religious conflicts).

When discussing the diversity of moral views, Haidt builds upon the idea of WEIRD (standing for Western Educated Industrial Rich Democratic) people/societies, introduced by a team of academics in a recent cultural psychology article. In these WEIRD societies, people are highly autonomous, individualistic and concentrated on protecting their individual rights which makes them prioritise concerns about harm and fairness. Non-WEIRD populations, to the contrary, are a lot more socio-centric, i.e. more focused on groups, collectives and societal relationships, hence put a high priority on the values of loyalty, authority and sanctity.

I find the theory of moral foundations very relevant to my research on ethical consumers. As I am trying to dive into other people’s value systems, it is very helpful to be able to understand where those values might potentially be coming from and “connect the universal moral taste receptors to the specific moral judgments that a particular person makes” (Haidt, 2012). And as I talk to my participants, all of whom happen to be members of a WEIRD society, I discover that the vast majority of their ethical food commitments are indeed rooted in the moral foundations of harm and fairness (although I am cautious of making big claims having not yet done a thorough data analysis). Thus, commitment to not eating meat can be easily seen as an expression of concern over causing harm to sentient beings – in fact, all vegetarians and vegans I’ve met emphasized animal suffering as a major reason behind their avoidance of animal products. The fairness foundation also features prominently on the agenda of ethical consumers – the importance of fair relationships, both economic and social, with the distant others was highlighted by all fair-trade supporters I spoke to.

“Morality binds and blinds” is another argument that I was curious to test. Haidt asserts that shared moral matrices bond people together, while at the same time blinding them to the possibility of other moral views being valid and justified. He writes extensively on how this moral divergence fuels religious and political arguments concentrating especially on the differences between liberals and conservatives’ political and social agendas. What I am more interested in, however, is whether people with strong ethical life commitments are indeed oblivious to the fact that there is “more than one form of moral truth” (Haidt, 2012, p.110). My evidence on this issue is not conclusive. I’ve met people who are very active in advocating their moral standpoints and constantly fighting the battle against what they perceive as hedonism and self-indulgence and in favour of more ethical lifestyles. But I have also met people who are not trying to draw others into their moral universe and who are ready to recognize that “non-ethical” habits may very well be driven by equally valid moral concerns – concerns over children’s health, family budget, or interpersonal relationships. This brings me to the point that keeps recurring in my mind whenever I am trying to pin down the nature and meaning of ethical consumption.  It also makes me feel uneasy about the flyer that I designed and used to recruit participants for my study – 6 months ago, the words “organic”, “fair-trade” and “free- range” seemed to be the best hook to catch the “true” ethical consumers. I am lucky to still have been able to attract people whose ethical commitments go far beyond such marketing catchphrases, and whose moral worlds are as varied and diverse as to enable me to recognize that ethical consumption cannot be reduced to the specific labelling claims, shopping sites, or product qualities. It is a lot more inclusive phenomenon, and  understanding it requires discovering and exploring individual moral values and, importantly, recognizing the diversity of their origins, contexts, and manifestations.

P.S. This is my last post inspired by Jonathan Haidt and his “Righteous Mind”, but definitely not the end of my journey into the world of moral psychology – an unexplored field which promises to offer valuable insights into how ethical consumer identities originate and develop.


Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Allen Lane, London.


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