Morality and consumption: ethical shopping as a strand of applied ethics

bag-839602__340I have now started the preliminary analysis and exploration of the interview data I had collected to date. The more I listen to people’s reflections about ethical consumption and the perplexities of making the right choice, the more relevant the questions of morality become to my study and the more I feel inclined to connect my research with the field of applied ethics.

It is worth briefly explaining what applied ethics are about. Basically, it is one branch of the wider field of ethics, which itself is a sub-discipline of philosophy. Unlike meta-ethics which is concerned with the nature of moral judgments, and normative ethics that seeks to reveal and lay down the absolute moral principles, applied ethics purports to pass judgments on the morality of specific human practices and actions. The Society for Applied Philosophy defines applied ethics as “the philosophical examination, from a moral standpoint, of particular issues in private and public life that are matters of moral judgment” (Almond, 1996). The areas of human life that present moral dilemmas are varied – the most heatedly debated questions arise in the fields of medicine (abortion, stem cell research, human cloning, euthanasia), business (all sorts of corporate social responsibility issues), environmental ethics (human relationships with nature and animals), social ethics (can be thought of as a “code of conduct” between members of the society). The last two are precisely what ethical consumers are preoccupied with. Just like applied ethicists, responsible shoppers engage in examination, from a moral standpoint, of very specific issues – i.e. their day-to-day purchase decisions. In trying to find the morally correct way of consuming from the viewpoint of the relationship with the environment, society and other living beings, ethical shoppers are bound to face moral dilemmas that are hardly any less bewildering than the problems trained philosophers and ethicists are concerned with.

Thus, questions of moral standpoint and personhood are key issues on the ethical register of non-meat eaters. One of my research participants, when explaining her very strong vegetarian stance, talked with fascination about what intelligent beings pigs are and how cruel it is to separate newborn calves from their mothers – an action that would undoubtedly be judged as a moral crime if done to a human. Such view is a clear expression of a philosophical position which regards animals as having the same moral standing as humans – what would be wrong to do to a human is equally wrong to do to an animal. In my study, a distinction seems to arise between so-called moral and environmental vegetarians, and it is the former that are most concerned with avoiding causing any physical harm or moral wrongdoing to animals. The environmental vegetarians are more mindful of the duties of humans to landscapes, natural resources, as well as sustainable living.

Fair-trade supporters delve more into social ethics. The question of what obligations, if any, one has to the global poor, is one of the hot topics in the field. Some go as far as to claim that sacrificing a share of income for someone in a well-off nation is not just morally right but, in fact, morally obligatory (Peter Singer is probably the most famous proponent of such a position). For many consumers, therefore, buying fair-trade is a way to contribute to the global social justice. While applied ethicists resort to an array of philosophical theories to help solve moral puzzles, lay people have little idea of what utilitarian, deontological or virtual ethics dictate – instead, ethical consumers often rely on intuitions when trying to find their way out of the moral maze. Thus, one of the mindful shoppers I met through my study admitted having used to buy two different bunches of bananas – one organic and one fair-trade to balance out her money investment (now it is most common to hit both targets at the same time).

To conclude, solving ethical dilemmas is not a prerogative of academic philosophers. It looks like with the rise of ethical consumption a growing number of people continuously, albeit probably oftentimes unconsciously, engage in moral deliberations and pass dozens of moral judgments in the course of one shopping trip.


Brenda Almond, co-founder of the Society for Applied Philosophy: Brenda Almond, ‘Applied Ethics’, in Mautner, Thomas, Dictionary of Philosophy, Penguin 1996


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