Untangling ethical concepts: Part 1

Ethics-cloudIn preparation for my very much anticipated visit to Pennsylvania State University, I started to explore the facilities and resources that the university offers and that I can especially benefit from while there. The Rock Ethics Institute is undoubtedly one of my first ports of call – a broad range of ethical issues addressed, a wide assortment of regular events and the presence of high-profile academics make it an ideal educational setting for anyone who wants to learn something about ethics. Even from a distance, the Institute has a lot to offer – the official website is packed with learning resources and materials on a variety of ethical issues. The best starting point for any wannabe ethicist is the page which provides definitions and explanations of the critical concepts in moral philosophy. As I was going through the article, I kept challenging myself to think about the possible application of these notions to the ethical consumption phenomenon and, particularly, their relevance to the empirical findings arising from my own research. This mental exercise proved worthwhile and fruitful, and I’d like to share my humble thoughts (which, not so humbly, will require two separate posts!). For each of the concepts, I will provide the definition and explanation from the Rock Ethics Institute followed by my deliberations on how this specific notion relates to consumer practice of ethical shopping.

First of all, it is useful to unpack the idea of ethical deliberation. Ethical deliberation is a mental process intended to help us to “identify and understand the ethical challenges we face, evaluate the facts we have in light of our shared norms, and provide a basis for acting ethically”. There is little to be changed in this definition if it is to be applied to ethical consumption. For a responsible consumer, every shopping act involves the identification and understanding of concomitant ethical challenges and their assessment against the individual’s moral system. Ideally, this should produce a clear argument for or against a particular product choice, although, as I keep emphasizing, the actual way to ethical consumption is riddled with moral crossroads.

The next concept is that of ethical literacy, which itself involves a number of notions each requiring a separate explanation. Thus, the following skills are considered to be essential constituents of ethical literacy:

  1. Ethical spotting. It is defined as “the ability to recognize that a situation involves ethical issues and to appreciate the ethical values underlying that issue”. Clearly, for consumers to be capable of ethical spotting, a sufficient level of awareness of environmental and social issues implicated in the production of food is required. The lack of ethical spotting (which I suggest to call ethical blindness) can only be considered consumers’ fault in an environment where knowledge and information about consequences of our food choices is readily available and easily interpretable.
  2. Ethical salience is another key ingredient in ethical literacy. It refers to the “awareness of the ethical intensity of the issue or situation” and involves the following (direct quote from the website):
  • Recognition of the centrality of underlying values to the individual or community.
  • An appreciation of the seriousness of the resulting harms.
  • An awareness of the likelihood that harm will result.
  • An understanding of the numbers of people adversely affected.

While some moral dilemmas can be assessed with such a mathematical precision, ethical consumption certainly can’t. Judging the ethical salience of each and every individual product choice, while might be scientifically feasible (for example, by calculating food miles, greenhouse gas emissions, fair trade’s monetary benefits for participants, etc.) is obviously too difficult and onerous a task to be set before consumers. While shoppers may be perfectly aware of the potential harm that a particular choice is likely to cause, fully recognise the ethical values at stake, and have very strong ethical commitments, they still lack the skills, tools, information and time resources required to quantify and compare the adverse effects of different purchase options.

3. The third element constituting ethical literacy is ethical reasoning skills. They “help us support our normative judgments with coherent and consistent arguments” and involve the following reflections (again, quoted directly):

  • What are the relevant ethical duties in this instance?
  • Who and what will be impacted by an action? (Who are the stakeholders?)
  • What consequences might result from acting in a particular way?
  • Is this action based on values that we fully endorse?
  • What would a caring person do in this instance?

Some of these, such as understanding potential consequences of specific consumption choices or recognising the stakeholders involved, seem to be less of a challenge for a well-informed consumer. Others, however, present a serious philosophical trial. Moreover, they seem to refer to some universal sense of right and wrong and presuppose a common understanding of ethical duties (the last question sounds like a direct reference to Aristotelian idea of a “virtuous person” which I find problematic and, let’s be frank, rather unhelpful guide to morality), while different people have different value systems and priorities*.

I’ll leave it here for now, but I’ll be back next week to unpack some more ethical concepts and try to connect them to ethical consumption. Meanwhile, I encourage you to explore the Rock Ethics Institute website and make sure you don’t miss their blog!

* Having just finished reading Andrew Sayer’s book on critical realism, I am rushing to stress that the fact that a wide variety of moral views can be found both across and within societies does not mean that we should fall into the trap of moral relativism.



The Rock Ethics Institute. (2014). Resources for Ethical Deliberation. Retrieved October 2, 2014, from http://rockethics.psu.edu/resources/resources/resources-for-ethical-deliberation


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