Zweckrationalitat vs Wertrationalitat: why rational choice theory can’t explain ethical consumption

brain-2146167__340Once again, I pack for a trip to a sunny destination in a pursuit of exciting travel experiences and fruitful learning opportunities. Next Monday, the Fourth International Conference on Food Studies is kicking off in Prato – the heart of the Tuscan region famous, among other things, for its strong and striving Slow Food Movement. I can’t wait to explore this intriguing region and its distinctive food culture, but I have other goals in mind too – I very much look forward to presenting my research at the conference and meeting a cohort of academics specialising in different areas of the global food studies. As I was revising my presentation, I realized the need to address some of the criticisms raised in response to my talk at the ESA conference in Porto. Specifically, I feel it is important to guard my approach to ethical consumption against the shadow of the rational choice theory, and in search of a convincing argument I have once again turned to Margaret Archer. From her extensive discussions of reflexivity (see references) I could easily pick up the points to support my view of ethical consumption as a reflexive project which consumers deliberately design and intentionally engage in, but which has nothing in common with narrow framing of human action (consumption choice in my case) as the outcome of a cost-benefit calculation performed by a highly rational,  utility – maximising agent.

According to Archer, any social action that human beings choose to perform involves an attempt to activate their agential powers in order to achieve a desired end. Since people act in a real world, such an attempt also activates causal powers of the world’s natural, practical and social orders. These powers can act either as enablements or as constraints for a chosen action, and in the latter case the subject will have to bear certain costs in order to successfully carry it out. Ethical consumption as a reflexive project also entails an attempt on the part of an individual to apply his causal powers in order to shape his food provisioning in a particular way. This in turn activates structural and cultural powers which the subject will have to negotiate to achieve contextual feasibility of desired foodways. Hence, consumers exercise reflexivity to design consumption projects that, on the one hand, will help them address their subjective moral concerns, while on the other hand, will be compatible with the objective structural (availability of products, prices, access to information, labelling, etc.) and cultural (social acceptance, family relationships, various social roles and accompanying responsibilities, etc.) factors. This is when reflexivity kicks in to mediate between conceived projects and contextual hindrances, and the outcome of subjects’ deliberations will depend on their specific concerns, strength of commitment and ability/preparedness to pay the costs. Indeed, in a situation of “contextual incongruity” (Archer, 2009) we often have to adjust our goals to ensure their feasibility.

However, such deliberations are light years away from a cost-benefit analysis. The rationality that is being exercised is not instrumental rationality (Zweckrationalitat) of an utility-seeking actor, but is value-rationality (Wertrationalitat) of a subject who treats values as end in itself. These deliberations have strong emotional overtones (since, as Archer (2004) notes, emotions act as commentaries on our moral concerns) and cannot be reduced to value-strippedrationalisations whose only goal is to maximise utility. It is precisely because rational choice theory entails “a flat denial of altruism, of voluntary activities and, underlying both, of free-giving” (Archer, 2007, p. 322) that it is such a stark contrast to ethical consumption, which at least to a degree relies on altruistic, self-sacrificing, interest-free morality (albeit ethical action as a self-pleasuring and hedonistic pursuit is also a plausible scenario, see Kate Soper’s work on alternative hedonism). As Archer (2007, p. 300) notes, “right judgment stands in opposition to motivation by self-interest, idleness, self-aggrandisement, convenience and so forth”. This is also why value-oriented reflexivity is a continuous and iterative process – arriving at a morally right decision is much more difficult than performing a cost-benefit analysis, and achieving a moral ideal / absolute is probably a life-long challenge. In Archer’s (2007, p. 300) words, “the value-orientation of reflexivity does not lend itself to the termination of one’s mental review of moral considerations. Since the aim is to determine upon the course of the right action, then “good” is always the enemy of “best”. Similarly, ethical consumption is not bound to become a routinised practice precisely because “value-rationality does not lend itself to any form of normative routinisation” (Archer, 2007, p. 301). Thus, rational choice theory which, among its other crimes against human subjectivity, ascribes uniform concerns to entire social groups and collectivities and treats individuals as passive agents is not a well-fitted framework to apply to ethical consumption. In contradistinction, the latter depends on value-motivated social subjects who actively seek to address their subjective moral concerns through specific projects, reflexively conceived, developed and adjusted to the objective reality.

I hope that by using Margaret Archer’s approach I have been able to demonstrate the conceptual misfit between ethical consumption and instrumental rationality. Ethical consumption as a value-driven project simply can’t be squeezed into the narrow frame of the rational choice model of human behaviour. I also hope to make this point very clear in my presentation at the Food Studies conference on Monday.


Archer, M. S. (2000). Being human: The problem of agency. Cambridge University Press.

Archer, M. S. (2004). Emotions as commentaries on human concerns. Advances in Group Processes, 21, 327-356.

Archer, M. S. (2007). Making our way through the world: Human reflexivity and social mobility. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


One response to “Zweckrationalitat vs Wertrationalitat: why rational choice theory can’t explain ethical consumption

  1. Pingback: Data Analysis Insights. Case 1: Lucy’s moral horrors or what it takes to go vegan. | ediblematters·

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