Unethical Consumption and Obligations to Signal

| September 2015
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Many of the items that humans consume are produced in ways that involve serious harms to persons. Familiar examples include the harms involved in the extraction and trade of conflict minerals (for example, coltan and diamonds), the acquisition and import of produce (for example, coffee, chocolate, bananas, rice), and the manufacture of goods in sweatshops (for example, clothing and sporting equipment). In addition, consumption of certain goods (such as fossil fuels and the products of the agricultural industry) involves harm to the environment, to future persons, and to current persons in low-lying and developing countries, by way of their impacts on climate change.

There are many different ways to try to bring about an end to the harms involved in the production of such goods. These include reforming international trade rules, changing a country’s domestic laws and policies, instituting domestic economic levies on harmful goods (“nudging” consumers toward ethically produced goods), and so on. But these are all top-down solutions, and states and international organizations are currently failing to make many, if any, such changes. Such top-down changes may work in an ideal setting. But in our nonideal context, we may be better off looking at bottom-up solutions. That is why in this article I will start at the bottom, with the individual whose ordinary choices about how to travel, what to eat, what to wear, where to shop, and which policies to support all cause her to confront the possibility of involvement in these harms to the environment, nonhuman animals, and persons. What should—or, more strongly, what must—she do?

I take the claim that an individual has a straightforward duty of justice not to consume unethically produced goods—premised upon her general duty not to violate others’ negative rights or important interests—to be a nonstarter for the reasons explained in Shelly Kagan’s “Do I Make a Difference?,” namely, that not every purchase is a violation in that way. If the individual has a duty not to consume unethically produced goods, this duty must be given an alternative justification.

In the second section I map out a few different approaches, all of which I take to be promising avenues for generating duties in individuals to consume ethically. I hope that this will be helpful to those interested in taking up the problem. I think the last approach is the most promising and will spend the third section of this article developing it. Specifically, I argue that as a first step in collectivizing to act against unjust global labor practices, an individual ought to signal to others her commitments to ethical consumption. In section four I ask whether some signals are too cheap to function as a step toward collectivization, and defend the deliberate consumption of only ethically produced goods as a moderately costly and therefore reliable signal. In the last section I consider a challenge to the proposal in terms of whether it imposes unacceptable costs on consumers.

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Category: Article, Development, Inequality, and Poverty, Issue 29.3

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