Morality: Outside or Within?

This week continues a series of posts in which I attempt to untangle the complex interplay of personal and social aspects of ethical consumption practice. I retain the focus on Grauel’s (2014) conceptualisation of consumer morality as neither exclusively personal nor entirely social which I find quite appealing. Grauel’s perspective has important implications for the question about the origins of human values which I raised a couple of weeks ago and to which I am yet to find a clear answer. However, Grauel has certainly helped me to move a step closer in that direction.

Firstly, Grauel too supports the distinction between personal and social values. One compelling argument he advances in favour of this position is that “moral beliefs and judgments are also present in non-communicative situations and become relevant as meanings in practices” (Grauel, 2014, p. 4). Secondly, he sees a person’s inner self as the locus of morality: “Actors have to acquire ideas of what they deem ‘good’ and ‘right’ and internalize them via socialization” (ibid.). While acknowledging that the ethical dispositions that individuals come to develop partly depend on the moral discourses circulating “in their social ‘habitat’” (Grauel, 2014, p. 5), he nevertheless contends that “morality is not determined by social structures, being grounded in good reasons and the human capability of ethical self-reflection” (ibid.). At the same time, he does not completely write social influences off – they manifest themselves in the “vocabularies of motive” to which individuals appeal when seeking to solicit social legitimacy to their conduct.

Grauel’s account offers a useful way to think about the relationship between personal morality and social normativity as they intertwine within the practice of ethical consumption. I find his approach compelling as it allows preserving a crucial distinction between the personal and the social and emphasizes the key role of subjective ethical dispositions in informing individual behaviour. Contrary to the social practice perspective, wherein socially dominant norms and ideas define individual performance of practices, Grauel takes subjective moral judgments to be the primary determinants of human conduct, for which social legitimacy can be – in Grauel’s study is – sought through the “vocabularies of motives”. This suggests that, although actively using Mills’ (1940) concept of the “vocabularies of motives” to construct an account of everyday moralities of ordinary consumers, Grauel does not go as far as Mills in assigning social structures the governing role in determining human behavior. The view that “acts often will be abandoned if no reason can be found that others will accept” (Mills, 1940, p. 907) implies the dominance of social normativity over individual dispositions, and it is at this point that Grauel must part company with Mills if he is to defend his claim that “morality is not determined by social structures” (Grauel, 2011, p. 5).

My research on ethical consumers also suggests the need to refine Mills’ perspective on human motives which overemphasizes their social nature while overlooking their essential personal dimension. Next week, I will look at Mills’ account of the process of motive attribution more closely and, drawing upon empirical evidence from my research on ethical consumers, provide a critical analysis of some of his key arguments.


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

Mills, CW. (1940) Situated actions and vocabularies of motive. American Sociological Review, 5(6): 904–913.


One response to “Morality: Outside or Within?

  1. Again, not overly familiar with Mills. “acts will often be abandoned…” seems (to me) to be missing the sense of normative pressure being applied, i.e. acts will often be abandoned if a person or group demands that they be justified but no “socially legitimate” justification is able to be found. I think this is a genuine pressure that individuals face, whether they succumb or not depends on their strength of conviction, of confidence etc..
    I suspect a counter point is that if one is able to articulate the personal reason for their action (what they consider the motive force) it will often coincide with what is considered to be legitimate by the larger group. That the majority of ethical convictions of individuals are recognised by the wider group (they somewhat emerge from social sources!) even if many of that group do not also hold that value. Of course, there are no end of exceptions to that statement.
    [just some thoughts]
    great blog title, by the way.

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