Last week, I pondered over various approaches to defining ethical consumption. I’ve looked at Carrier’s (2010, p. 672) definition of it as ‘the shaping of purchasing decisions by an evaluation of the moral attributes of objects on offer’ which I criticised for neglecting the crucial role of the agents making an ethical choice and the weight of their subjective values, principles and beliefs upon the moral reasoning behind it. In opposition to this what I would call spiritless conception of ethical consumption (for it only attests to the moral attributes of the products and not those of the persons), I have presented Coff’s (2006, p. 22) approach to food ethics as tied in with Aristotelian idea of “striving for or aiming at the good”. I find this approach compelling since it reflects the ideas which seem to underlie ethical food practices of my study participants. None of the ten self-identified ethical consumers, when asked what food ethics mean to them, referred to any specific product attributes to look for or any particular rules to follow. Instead, abstract moral ideals and principles, such as “doing good”, “avoid causing harm”, “preventing oppression”, were invoked to explain the fundamental meaning of their ethical food practices, whichever form they take. But, as Coff (2006) rightly argues, in order to live out such an idea of ethical consumption, one must first imagine the good – or the harm for that matter – as well as the ways to convert it into concrete actions, for, as he helpfully points out, “the aim of the ethics is praxis” (p. 22). From this two important questions unfold: 1) how do people develop specific conceptions of the good and 2) how do these ideas translate into actions? The first question, which essentially concerns the subject of value formation, occupies a prominent place in my work. Today, however, I’d like to concentrate on the second issue, that is how do individuals’ moral ideals inform their ethical consumption practices? And is there more than one way to live out the same moral principles?
The two ethical consumer cases I have analysed so far supply some good examples to reflect upon. So, for Lucy, whom we have already met in my previous posts, the moral principle of doing no harm is the ultimate benchmark against which she evaluates her actions and consumption of food in particular:
It’s the care-harm (moral foundation) and I think that influences the way I eat. All that thing about factory farming just seems harm – what we are doing is enslaving the animals so that we can have something tasty on our plate.
This moral credo underlies Lucy’s commitment to an ethical lifestyle. It justifies her vegan diet, informs her support of the animal rights movement, and explains her acute criticism of the factory farming. And it is this ethical postulate that also serves to justify the offence that Lucy consciously caused to her mother by refusing to eat a free-range chicken, bought especially in the hope of making her share a Christmas dinner with the rest of the family.
Now meet Solveig – a heroine of another ethical consumer story which I am currently closely following through the dozens of pages of an interview transcript. Her idea of ethical consumption rests on the very same moral principle of not causing harm that guides Lucy’s foodways, but her application of it is strikingly different. She embraces the value of animal life just as wholeheartedly, but her vegan practice is riddled with compromises which her various social positions and roles are incessantly demanding. On a family gathering she finds herself unable to refuse a slice of cheesecake especially provided for her by her elderly grandmother. On a trip to Nigeria, she feels obliged to share a seafood dinner with her hosts who went to great length to offer their guest the best food available. So what makes Solveig sacrifice her ethical commitment? Let us hear her speak for herself:
I think in a way it is the whole Hippocratic thing, you know, – first do not do harm. I know that if I had gone to my grandmother’s place and refused the cheesecake that she bought especially because I was coming to visit… (…) I think it would have been more harmful. (…) And Nigeria – it is a similar thing, but on a more – on a larger scale I think. (…) So the priority in this case was really not to hurt people’s feelings and not to offend people.
Thus, although Solveig is guided by the same moral principle as Lucy, by extending its application beyond animals to also include human beings with whom she has a specific relationship, she comes to very different conclusions about what the best way of “not doing harm” is. Although there is a lot more to be said about the deeper reasons behind Solveig’s prioritisation of her social relations over her food ethics, what her and Lucy’s contrasting examples clearly demonstrate is the key role of people’s subjective conceptions of ethics and morality in shaping their consumption acts, choices, and practices. It is what each individual consumer defines as morally good and worthwhile and, moreover, how far he is willing to stretch his moral vision (i.e. what objects, relations, and situations fall within its horizon) that determines whether, how and with what implications he will apply his ethics to his consumption practices.
This steers me to consider the issue of moral freedom – the capacity to choose and pursue our own conceptions of good. I will give time to my readers and myself to reflect upon this before taking up the discussion in my next post.
Carrier, J. G. (2010). Protecting the environment the natural way: ethical consumption and commodity fetishism. Antipode 42, pp. 672–89.
Coff, C. (2006). The taste for ethics: An ethic of food consumption (Vol. 7). Springer Science & Business Media.