So, the first round of the analysis of my first “ethical consumer case” is finished. While there is no doubt that I will return to this interview transcript many times, I have some preliminary insights to share. Lucy’s case proved to be a remarkably good empirical blueprint of many of the ideas constituting my theoretical framework. In particular, Archer’s notions of ultimate concern, moral project, reflexivity, and her accounts of human emotionality and internal conversation as being central to the development of distinct personal identities seem to be evidenced in Lucy’s story of becoming an ethical consumer. Below are my key points on formation of an ethical consumer identity which are essentially a synthesis of Archer’s theoretical ideas and the empirical evidence gathered from Lucy’s life story.
1. The first step towards acquiring an ethical consumer identity is developing a concern over a cause that can be addressed through ethical consumption. People may be sensitised to concerns in different ways, e.g. Lucy’s concern over animal life and welfare goes back to her personal experiences with captivated animals. Hards (2011) advances the following factors as potential instigators of the development of particular values: performance of practices, example setting, communities of practice as a site of value formation, and interaction with like-minded others as the driving force behind the reinforcement of values (Hards’ work on the evolution of environmental values is well worth checking out).
2. Emotional involvement is key to embracing a particular concern as ultimate and turning it into a moral commitment (since, as Archer would remind us, emotions are commentaries upon our concerns). Lucy’s story strongly backs up this argument as all the ethical turns in her consumption practice have been provoked by a surge of powerful emotions in response to the personal experiences of animal suffering (I wrote extensively about this in my previous post).
3. By determining our ultimate moral concerns we attain our distinct personal identities (as Archer contends, what we value and care about in life reflects the kind of persons we are). From this it follows that Lucy’s personal identity is defined by her concern over animal suffering. Indeed, consider her quote about factory farming: “And it is just not right, I can’t do that to animals, it’s just cruel”. The key point of this phrase is a sharp juxtaposition that Lucy makes between herself and the notion of cruelty. Taken to its logical completion, the quote would read: “And it is just not right, I can’t do that to animals, it’s just cruel, and I am not a cruel person”. Thus, Lucy’s ethical food commitment and its underlying concern over animal suffering is a reflection of her distinct personality which one could probably describe as compassionate, humane, committed to avoiding causing harm, etc.
4. Identity has not only be achieved, it must also be continuously sustained. In order to sustain a desired identity it is essential to constantly reassert our ultimate concerns and sustain our moral commitments. To reassert an ultimate concern means to prioritise and promote it over other competing concerns. To sustain a moral commitment means to ensure its continuity and consistency. Lucy’s story provides several illustrations of the direct relationship between the consistency and stability of our moral commitments and the continuity of our identities. One of the most telling examples is when she called herself a “total hypocrite” upon being introduced to the idea of veganism and realising that her consumption of dairy products is incongruent with the ethical principles she claimed to hold. The revealed inconsistency between her concerns and her actual practices had a profoundly destabilising effect on her sense of integrity, personal continuity and self-worth. Over the life course, however, Lucy sustained her ethical consumer identity by constantly reaffirming her ultimate concern over animal suffering and prioritising her ethical food commitment over other desires and needs, especially her health which has suffered a lot during prolonged periods of a nutrient-poor diet (Lucy used to live on a “bread and jam diet” as she hated cooking and vegetarian meals were not widely available in shops or restaurants back in the day).
5. To ensure the continuity and consistency of our moral commitments we need to engage in internal conversations and exercise our property of reflexivity in order to accommodate our ultimate concerns within our given contextual circumstances. That Lucy engages in such reflexive conversations is evidenced in the fact that her ethical consumption practice does not remain stagnant but continues to change and evolve as Lucy refines her moral concerns (she went vegan three years ago) as well as adjusts her ethical commitments (she has recently started eating fish in order to improve her health). This suggests that she reflexively reviews and re-orders her hierarchy of priorities in order to work out a satisfying balance between her various concerns and achieve a fulfilling life.
These are the insights that Lucy’s case provided so far. I am looking forward to see whether the other participants’ stories will offer more support to this account or suggest some alternative explanations on how, that is through which inner workings and under which external conditions individuals become ethical consumers and what it takes to remain one.
Hards, S. (2011). Social practice and the evolution of personal environmental values. Environmental values, 20(1), 23-42.