On the Limits of Moral Freedom

AutonomyLast week I left off the discussion having approached the issue of moral freedom, that is individual capacity to define and pursue our own conceptions of good. I was steered into this direction by my analysis of the life stories of two ethical consumers, Lucy and Solveig, whose ideas of ethical consumption, despite being informed by the exact same moral principle, may have very different manifestations in practice. And yet, there is something inherently distinctive about Solveig and Lucy’s approach to ethics and morality which unites rather than divides them – both consider themselves to be free to define their own idea of good and ways of achieving it and are willing to grant the same extent of moral freedom to others.

They have got their own reasons for doing it” – says Lucy about the people whose consumption practices are not bound by the same ethical considerations as her own foodways.

Of course I think I am doing the right thing, because otherwise I wouldn’t do it, but that does not necessarily mean that other people are not doing the right thing in their life (…) I only have the answer for me and I don’t have the answer for everyone” – asserts Solveig, echoing Humean argument for moral relativism.

Having started with Aristotelian conception of ethics as “striving for or aiming at the good” (Coff’s, 2006, p. 22) I now feel compelled to turn to Kant (rather curiously for there are not many points of agreement between the two as far as moral philosophy is concerned) and his idea of individual freedom as the capacity to pursue our own conceptions of the good. It appears that his vision of an autonomous person “as a free and independent self capable of choosing his or her own ends” (Sandel, 2010, n/p) and the “author of the only obligations that constrain us” (ibid.) is the one that Lucy and Solveig seem to embody. Their ideas and practices of ethical consumption rest on their assumed freedom to define what is morally good and what is harmful, who or what is worthy of ethical considerations, under which circumstances, and with what provisos. This seems to be an expression of contemporary individualism which grants people the liberty to choose what kind of persons to be, which responsibilities to assume and which altogether neglect. Interestingly, this ties in quite neatly with Archer’s (2000) concept of human beings as active agents with the innate capacity to reflexively discern, embrace, and prioritise their ultimate concerns and commitments in life thereby defining their unique personal identities. Archer, however, adds a critical realist perspective to the overly idealistic philosophical account of individual autonomy offered by Kant. She makes the crucial point that no human being can enjoy absolute freedom to live out his subjective ideals and pursue his preferred ways since our courses of actions are shaped and moulded by the forces and powers of the outer world: (…) we do not ever make our personal identities under the circumstances of our choosing, since our embededdness in nature, practice and society is part of what being human means (Archer, 2000, p. 249).

Solveig’s life story offers particularly telling examples of the embeddedness of individual choices in the practical, natural, and social contexts of reality and the contingency of people’s life projects on various structural factors. Thus, the growth of the Internet and proliferation of social media platforms and online communities – and, crucially, availability of these resources to Solveig’s – have been key in facilitating the practical side of her vegan lifestyle by offering easy access to information: “God bless the Internet – I would have died without having access to vegan recipes”, news: “When Oreos turned vegan I found that on one of these groups” as well as knowledge sharing and support: “Sometimes just giving people tips”. Further, the Green Party’s rise to power and subsequent increase in public awareness and availability of environmentally friendly products in Solveig’s native Germany, as well as cultural diversity, broad variety of eating traditions and wide selection of vegan foodstuffs in supermarkets, online shops, and restaurants in the UK played a central role in making her ethical food commitment a feasible and sustainable undertaking.

Other structural factors, to the contrary, act as constraints by significantly limiting the array of ethical food practices that are available to Solveig in her particular social and practical contexts. Absence of fresh food markets near her home makes shopping at more conveniently located supermarkets a frequent, albeit undesirable, way of food provisioning. Further, UK supermarkets’ security measures against food skipping prevent Solveig from manifesting her commitment to responsible consumption through dumpster diving, which she used to practice back in Germany. Finally, global market mechanisms further limit her opportunities to put her money where her mouth is:

I would like to consume more products from smaller independent companies, but it is really tricky because you have three or four really big companies that produce soya products and it is very hard to avoid that.

Thus, however autonomous we may deem ourselves to be, our subjective moral ideas and ideals can only be translated into practice under favourable objective circumstances. This discussion of both enabling and constraining powers of structure in relation to individual consumption practices compliments my previous post on the role of subjectivity in shaping consumers’ ethical foodways. Taken together, they can hopefully provide a more complete picture of the wide range of influences that determine not only people’s ethical principles, but also their ability to live them out.


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

Coff, C. (2006). The taste for ethics: An ethic of food consumption (Vol. 7). Springer Science & Business Media.

Sandel, M. (2010). 12-Lecture Course: Justice — What’s the Right Thing to do? Lecture 11, Obligations and Loyalties. Retrieved from http://www.virtualprofessors.com/justice-michael-sandel-whats-the-right-thing-to-do


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