Ethical Consumerism is Hard

It’s not easy being an ethical consumer, these days — especially if you’re hoping to buy products that embody all or most of the ethical values you care about.

Here’s an example. If you like salmon, and if you’re the sort of consumer who wants to eat ethically, should you buy organic salmon or buy wild salmon? After all, there’s a huge effort these days to promote organic foods as ethical — gentler on the earth, and so on. Of course, others aren’t so sure that there’s much benefit to organic foods, and some even argue that the organic label is more a status symbol than anything else.

Now what about wild vs farmed? Some people think that farmed salmon is always bad. Others, like food-policy expert James McWilliams, argue that for whatever its current flaws, farmed fish provides our best hope for a future that includes significant amounts of protein at acceptable environmental costs. Eating wild fish, on the other hand, puts pressure on fragile wild populations.

But still, there are plenty of people who are dedicated to eating organic, and plenty of people who are quite insistant upon eating only wild fish.

The problem is, you can’t have it both ways. Wild salmon cannot, by definition, be organic, because it’s impossible to control what wild salmon eats. It can only be truly organic if it’s raised in captivity. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

This is just one tiny example of the challenges of ethical consumerism. Any given product can embody any number of incommensurable values — values that can’t just be added up to arrive at a total “ethics quotient.” The same problem applies to wind power (which produces no air pollution but kills birds) and oil from Canada’s oil sands. (which is produced in a democracy but is environmentally-dodgy).

Of course, none of that means that it’s not worth some effort to try to buy conscientiously. It just means that, as often as not, values-based consumerism is going to mean purchasing according to values that matter to you, rather than hoping to buy in a way that is ‘truly ethical,’ in some grander sense.

4 comments so far

  1. Tom Simcoe on

    So is your conclusion that there is no “right” answer in the ethics of consumption? That when ethical considerations compete it becomes a matter of personal preference? I struggle with this as I use my iPad (ethical status – as yet undetermined). The technology has been a force for positive social change and a blessing for the disabled, among other benefits, but there are those pesky labor issues… Where does personal ethical choice end and rationalization begin?

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Tom:

      No, I’m not saying there are never right answers. I’m saying things are complicated. In at least some cases, I think there’s little hope of arriving at a best answer (e.g., organic vs mainstream agriculture), in which case we may need to settle for making purchases that align with our personal values. But we shouldn’t rush to that conclusion in any particular instance. It’s still important to think carefully.

  2. Tom Simcoe on

    So is the problem in your example that we don’t have a principle to help us conclusively decide what the most ethical result is (e.g. we must choose the farming practice that provides the greatest benefit to the most people) or because we don’t have the science to answer the question? If it is the former, is it because ethics can’t provide a universal rule, or because there are competing ethical philosophies and we haven’t been able to sort it out?

    Forgive me for drilling on this issue, but it’s a troubling one for me. If we believe that there ultimately is an ethical rule that should guide us, then your answer of “purchasing according to values that matter to you” means it arguably shouldn’t make a difference if the value that matters most to me leads to a less ethical result simply because it is too complicated to get to an answer. Clearly, that’s not how ethically motivated consumers think. They believe there is a right answer, and if they find it they will abide by it. The value that matters to me is the right one – neither choice is has moral value independent of that quality.

    On the other hand, if there is no ultimate ethical rule, then is ethics just a matter of personal preference among theories? I understand that you are not saying this, but I don’t quite see how we avoid the conclusion. There are competing theories, and neither is really right, so choose the one you like best. It seems that this answer is being rejected at the end of the day, and we are left with consumers striving for a grand answer.

    That leaves the problem in your example being that we have the ethical principles, but not the science, to answer the question. If the science is unclear, shouldn’t the answer be to go with the approach that has the strongest data supporting it? This I can live with.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Good questions!

      My worry is not at all the indeterminacy of the relevant science. Even when all the facts are in, we can still face deep dilemmas, since (to return to the wind-farm example) there’s math to tell us which is more important ethically — reducing pollution or avoiding killing.

      And nor is the problem that there are *no* ultimate ethical principles. There may well be. And even without those, we can certainly reach agreement on *some* issues because some points of view are not supported by decent arguments (from basic principles to practical conclusions). My claim here is a more modest one, namely that for at least *some* issues, we are likely to find that there are deep ideological differences — where people’s moral POV is deeply bound up with their own self-conception — that make resolving moral debate literally hopeless. For example, I think the debate over GM foods is in that terrain. At very least, I think the likelihood of “near-term” agreement is next to nil.


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