Untangling ethical concepts: Part 2

EthicsThis week I continue to introduce some of the key concepts in moral philosophy and try to apply them to ethical consumption to make a better sense of it. Last week I looked at the notion of ethical deliberation and its role in consumer engagement in responsible shopping. I have presented the idea of ethical literacy and some of its key constituents.

This week I’d like to take up this discussion and introduce the last element of ethical literacy – the skill of moral imagination (my own personal favourite!). Moral imagination is defined as “a blend of cognitive and affective factors that help us develop a sensitivity for how our actions affect others and enable us to think creatively about solutions”. On reflection, I’d dare to claim that all ethical consumers are intrinsically morally imaginative. It seems to me that for an individual to choose to adhere to a distinctive consumption strategy in order to minimise the negative impact on the social and natural world, he or she must definitely have some sensitivity for the role of their private choices in preserving and promoting human wellbeing. Ethical consumers also exercise creativity – although to a different extent – when it comes to finding alternative ways of food provisioning that would enable them to avoid presumably less ethical choices. Growing your own produce on allotments and windowsills, subscribing to vegetable box schemes, going to farmer’s markets, sharing and exchanging foodstuffs can all be seen as creative solutions that ethical consumers resort to in an attempt to close the gap between their moral values and even the most basic of their choices and actions.

However, ethical literacy alone is not sufficient basis for a virtuous action. For ethically aware individuals to perform a high-principled act, he or she must also possess moral agency, attained through recognition of the significance of the action and their personal ability to take it successfully. Like ethical literacy, moral agency is a complex notion to which the following factors are key:

• Ethical Purpose: developing a sense of one’s role in the moral domain.
• Personal “ownership” and habituation of ethical behavior through:
– Taking responsibility for ones actions,
– Cultivating virtuous habits, and
– Developing a passion for justice.
• Moral Courage: the ability to act ethically even in the face of adversity and cost to one’s self.
• Moral Hope: the belief that we can make a difference.
• Moral Responsibility: the commitment to acting ethically.

The relevance of each of these factors to ethical consumption is high. Indeed, commitment to conscientious eating suggests a specific ethical purpose (arising out of consumers’ sense of their role in the wellbeing of animals, distant others, or natural environment). Further, mindful consumption can only become succesful long-term behaviour through habituation, and it certainly requires moral courage (ethical shopping often comes at a high cost, be it in terms of financial and time resources, convenience, or social relationships), and the sense of moral responsibility for the consequences involved in the shopping decisions.  As far as moral hope is concerned, my personal research suggests it to be relatively less important than all of the above. While most of my study participants did indeed perceive every ethical purchase as part of a collective action geared towards purposeful societal changes, some of the interviewees were a lot more sceptical of their consumer power. For them, the significance of responsible shopping lies primarily in its positive effect on their self-image, peace of conscience as well as of mind.

Finally, the last concept we are going to look at is ethical leadership, which includes:

• Leading by example through being a role model for ethical behavior.
• Taking the initiative to help others appreciate ethical issues, embrace moral purpose, and encourage moral agency.
• Participating in the creation of an ethical culture that encourages and supports those who speak up in defense of the integrity of the community and those who stand up to the pressures capable of tempting any one of us to act in ways that undermine the pursuit of our common goals.

My research results suggest that ethical leadership can play an important role in people’s engagement in ethical consumption. Thus, I found that strongly committed vegetarians and environmentalists can be very pro-active in encouraging other people to appreciate the ethics of food and promoting their moral agency with regards to consumption. Even those who prefer to avoid imposing their values and views on others commented on being ready to act as role models for ethical consumption by sharing information, knowledge, shopping and recipe tips. In my interviews, I didn’t address the issue of ethical culture and what it would mean for consumers to create and share one, but it definitely looks like an interesting avenue for future research.

Getting acquainted with key moral philosophy concepts proved very useful both in itself and for sharpening the focus on some very specific aspects of the ethical consumption phenomenon. The Rock Ethics Institute has a lot more learning resources and opportunities, and I look forward to visiting it in person.


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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