Ethical consumption and the vocabularies of motive: on the social legitimacy of individual practices

network-1020332__340My American journey is now finished. A six-week visit to Penn State happened in a heartbeat, but the experience I’ve had will take a lot more time to analyse and digest. Under my belt – a first-hand insight into the American academia, living a life of an average college student, meeting scholars from all sorts of disciplines, getting exposed to a whole range of new perspectives and views as well as some more tangible achievements – presenting my project in front of two very different academic audiences and writing a post for the Rock Ethics blog. Giving talks at the departmental seminar series and bioethics colloquium has been one of the most useful experiences. Getting some positive feedback was certainly very uplifting, but constructive criticism is what helps improve the work after all, and it is by engaging with more critical comments that I was able to open up new perspectives on some of the most important issues in my research.

Not for the first time, my sampling criteria and, specifically, my exclusive focus on self-identified ethical consumers attracted some scrutiny. What about ‘non-ethical’ consumers – those who do not actively engage in ethical consumption as well as those who just don’t explicitly frame their food practices as such? – I was asked. While I feel that the research questions I aim to address justify my sample, there is, indeed, a growing recognition of the need to build links between research on ethical and mainstream consumers. One author who has already made a move in that direction is Grauel (2014) whose study of ‘everyday moralities of consumption’ of 25 ordinary consumers offers a lot of theoretical and empirical material to engage with.

Grauel outlines two distinct theoretical approaches to morality – as internal versus as external to individuals. The first perspective locates morality within the person and links moral judgments with acquired and internalized ethical dispositions of an individual. The second view transfers morality from the realm of the personal to that of the social and understands it as “intersubjectively constructed in an ongoing communication process, in which the status of certain behaviours as morally relevant is (de-)institutionalized” (Grauel, 2014, p. 6 ). Grauel seeks to reconcile these two seemingly contrasting perspectives on morality by arguing that both internalized ethical dispositions and moral communication, that is morality as a social discourse, are intrinsic to individual consumption practices. He cites research on ethical consumers which suggests that a strong commitment to ethical eating poses the double challenge of presenting ethical practices as both authentic (stemming from internalized ethical dispositions and moral principles) as well as socially legitimate. Grauel, however, argues, that this challenge confronts both explicit ethical consumers as well as those who do not strongly identify with the practice, but nevertheless have to deal with the questions of morality implicit in their day-to-day consumption practices. His study analyses narrative interviews with 25 German citizens in order to reveal how “ordinary” consumers negotiate the tensions between the desire to remain authentic and “true to yourself” when describing their food habits and the need to present their practices as “morally legitimate” (Grauel, 2014, p. 6). Grauel underscores participants’ attempts to justify their consumption behavior by drawing on the social discourses that provide acceptable excuses for the divergence from ethical ideals, i.e. the “vocabularies of motive” (Mills, 1949 cited in Grauel, 2014). Specifically, he singles out references to authenticity as an important part of such “vocabularies of motive”. Personal taste as well as preferences and requirements of family members are referred to as “authentic needs” which are socially recognized as deserving respect and consideration, even when found at loggerheads with ethical responsibilities towards the environment, food growers, animals, etc. Further, practical circumstances (e.g. access to and affordability of better choices) were also referred to as a valid excuse for not being able to follow ethical consumption practices.

While Grauel’s study intends to link findings from research on explicit ethical consumption with experiences of more mainstream consumers, I found it interesting to compare his observations with what my own study reveals. Firstly, references to the “vocabularies of motive” were clearly present in my participants’ accounts. Despite subjects’ clearly stated position regarding food ethics and active engagement in corresponding practices, none of the interviewees claimed to have achieved the standards of ethical consumption that they had subjectively defined and set for themselves and that their eating behavior was oriented towards. It is the need to justify this gap between participants’ actual practices and their perceived ethical ideal that made them resort to the same “vocabularies of motive” that participants of Grauel’s study referred to. Thus, Lila (whom we are yet to meet) referred to the notions of good mothering when explaining why she had ultimately allowed her vegan daughter to have dairy ice-cream: “It was just constantly – no, you are not allowed that, you are not allowed this, it was kind of – that is just so unfair”; Solveig appealed to the social conventions around being a respectful guest: “Not accepting it would have been rude beyond belief”; while Maggi justified the occasional forsaking of her vegan principles by alluding to the values of thrift and respect for food: “It really seems morally wrong to throw food away (…) it just seems wasteful, completely wasteful, why throw good food away?”

In tune with Grauel’s observations, these quotes highlight how individuals, while willfully confessing in reneging on their commitments due to various demands of life, solicit moral validity to their dietary compromises by presenting them as expressions of socially approved values. This serves to substantiate Grauel’s argument that consumer morality is neither exclusively personal nor entirely social – instead, it draws upon individual ethical dispositions while also appealing to the socially legitimate moral discourses.

The discussion on the personal versus social seems to have deeply penetrated my thinking about morality, ethics, and human practices. I will take it up next week to see what other insights into this complex issue are offered by Grauel.


Grauel, J. (2014). Being authentic or being responsible? Food consumption, morality and the presentation of self. Journal of Consumer Culture, 1469540514541880.


One response to “Ethical consumption and the vocabularies of motive: on the social legitimacy of individual practices

  1. Interesting post (just stumbled upon).
    I’m not familiar with Grauel (or Mills really, for that matter). “vocabularies of motive” can be seen as a search for socially legitimate motivations, but it can also be seen as connected to motivations for action (which are no less related to the social): that the people not only said they were motivated by X, but really were motivated by these considerations. I think this is a plausible explanation for all the examples you give.
    The alternative is that the people lapsed on their ethics (due to weakness etc.), and then sought some socially acceptable excuse for having done so.

    This distinction is important, I think.

    Hoping to read some of your post PhD posts :).

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