“The elaborate edifice of pleasures and conveniences that we have become accustomed to rests on the backs of the exploited and abused. Their world is grim so ours can be bright.”
To Buy or Not to Buy
Hurt no one; life is dear to all living beings.
Mahavira [Jain spiritual leader, 6th century BCE]
Before there was Love thy neighbor, there was Thou shalt not. Our strongest moral dictates take this form—thou shalt not kill being the first and most essential commandment of civil society, followed by a number of prohibitions that every decent person carries around in his head and tries, for the most part, to observe: thou shalt not steal, assault, abuse, slander, and so on. If you aren’t going to help other people, at least don’t hurt them—that’s the minimum standard of behavior we demand of each other. Compassion and generosity make the world a better place, but the world can (and often does) survive their absence; but neither the individual nor society can survive if we do not control our destructive capacities. The first rule of a physician is also the first rule of a moral person: do no harm.
Over the last couple of centuries, our understanding of this rule has gradually become more expansive. Specifically, we have broadened our notion of who should be protected from harm. Two relatively recent entrants to the set of morally protected entities are workers and animals; we now support, and sometimes mandate, the protection of these groups from exploitation. Exploitation, in this context, means using workers or animals for one’s own monetary benefit in a way that does them great harm. Whether a particular practice is exploitative may be subject to debate, but that these groups should be protected no longer is. Today we do not find it morally permissible to subject people to working conditions that are grueling or unsafe, or to subject animals to cruel or inhumane treatment. We repudiate such behaviors precisely because we consider the harm they do to be unacceptable.
In a consumer society, exploitation generally occurs as part of a larger process—the manufacture, distribution, and sale of a particular product. In a “classic” case of moral violation—assault, for example—there is one perpetrator and one victim, and the perpetrator acts in order to receive some benefit, which may be practical (like money) or psychological (like a feeling of power). When the harm inflicted is connected with consumer transactions, however, numerous parties may be involved, including three principals: a perpetrator, a victim, and a consumer. The perpetrator commits the exploitative acts; his primary motive is the compensation he receives. As the party who comes in contact with the victim, he might be termed the proximate beneficiary. The consumer, by contrast, never sees the victim, but purchases products that are made possible, or made more affordable, by the exploitation of the victim. As the final party in the process, the consumer might be termed the ultimate beneficiary.
“The thought of exploitation makes the consumer uncomfortable, but as long as there are intermediaries between himself and the victim, he accepts its benefits. He likes his exploitation at a distance.”
One example of consumer-driven exploitation is the widespread use of sweatshop labor in the developing world. Here, the victims are the workers; the proximate beneficiaries are the owners and managers of the factories; and the ultimate beneficiaries are—well, us. In the garment factories of Bangladesh, where clothes are made for American consumers, the production pressure on sewing machine operators is relentless. The message from retailers to factories is clear: fill our orders now, or we’ll find somebody else who can. To meet their quotas, employees must work at a frenetic pace, and do that for twelve hours a day, seven days a week. Much of the overtime is unpaid, there’s no paid sick leave, and barely time for restroom breaks—meet your quota or your pay is docked.
The pay isn’t enough to support a family, so their kids work too. Instead of being in school, girls spend long days in the factory, sewing buttons, trimming threads, or dyeing cloth. Working their way through mounds of clothes that are as tall as they are, they end up with stiff, sore fingers, back and neck pain, and repetitive stress injuries. Boys may work in ginning factories where raw cotton is processed—the air thick with cotton dust—or maybe they’re in a leather tannery, alongside heavy machinery and toxic chemical baths. Many of these kids will never escape the factories: this is it, this is their life, this is how they’ll spend the rest of their days. Throughout the developing world, workers who try to organize for better conditions and higher pay may be fired, jailed, threatened, beaten, or killed.
Much of the cotton that goes into these clothes comes from India. In order to get production contracts, growers must cut their costs to the absolute minimum, and it’s cheaper to use pesticides than to grow the cotton organically. Many of these pesticides are banned in the U.S., and they harm not only the workers but the entire local community. The pesticides contaminate the air and get into the food supply. They make the water unsafe for drinking, but villagers have to use it anyway—there’s no alternative. Short-term effects of pesticide ingestion include skin rashes, vomiting, dizziness, and blurred vision. Long-term, the pesticides cause asthma, cancer, birth defects, and acute pesticide poisoning, and are especially dangerous to the nervous systems of children. In the cotton-rich Punjab region, so-called “cancer villages” are everywhere.
As consumers, we want shirts and jeans and jackets at rock-bottom prices, and that’s what we get; but for the people who make our clothes, the costs of our frugality are high. The prices that we pay are not enough to provide a living wage and proper working conditions. The same is true of the produce we consume, much of which comes from Mexico. Conditions in the camps where farm workers stay are harsh: one or two families crammed into one small room; no windows, beds, or furniture; people sleeping head-to-toe on pieces of cardboard spread over concrete floors, as scorpions scamper by. The toilets provided by the company are filthy, so families use buckets in their rooms instead; and the company showers are often out of water, so people bathe in the irrigation canals. People also fill up their drinking containers in these canals, because they can’t afford the bottled water that’s sold in the company store; nor can they afford much food, so they eat very little. The workers and their kids are dogged by hunger and headaches; they rummage through trash cans for food.
Some of the kids work in the fields too; their small hands are perfect for harvesting the chili peppers that we love in our nachos and salsa. Sometimes one of these kids, maybe twelve years old, will notice children walking on a nearby road, and she’ll stop working for a moment to watch them. The children are chattering on their way to school, and they’re wearing clean, brightly colored clothes; and she’ll remember, not bitterly but wistfully, how she used to go to school too—what was it now, two, three, four years ago? Anyway, some time in the irrecoverable past, some time before the labor of her life became the gathering of fresh vegetables for me.
The use of child labor in agriculture goes way beyond Mexican produce. In Asia, Africa, and Latin America, children are widely used to harvest products like sugarcane, cocoa, and coffee for Western consumers. Children are the cheapest possible labor force. They work long days for next to nothing and are constantly exposed to hazardous chemicals. They do whatever has to be done: pulling weeds, carrying heavy bundles, spraying pesticides. The work is backbreaking, and much of the harvesting requires knives or machetes. Severe cuts are common, and any child who does this for long has the scars to show for it. They work in the hottest part of the day, with the sun beating down, and often succumb to heat-related illnesses—headaches, dizziness, difficulty breathing. Millions of children around the world do this work for our benefit, and the fruits of their labor are the low-cost soft drinks, candy bars, and coffee we love.
Starvation wages, brutal hours, child labor, and exposure to toxic chemicals are some of the hidden costs of consumerism. Consumers demand rock-bottom prices; retailers then demand the same from their suppliers; and producers in turn cut labor and safety costs to the bone. If they don’t, they’ll lose their contracts to competitors who underbid them.
The consumer’s role in all this is marked by irony and moral ambivalence. The consumer is not cruel or abusive by nature. He doesn’t want to see anyone get hurt—but without him, no one would. Though he exploits no one, the exploitation depends on him: remove him from the process and the process collapses. He makes exploitation possible because he makes it profitable. His moral sense is strong enough that he condemns exploitation, but not so strong that he rejects its fruits. The thought of exploitation makes him uncomfortable, but as long as there are intermediaries between himself and the victim, he accepts its benefits. He likes his exploitation at a distance.
Whenever a consumer buys a product, she gives financial support to the entire process by which that product is manufactured, distributed, and sold. Her money cannot distinguish between those parts of the process she approves of and those she does not. To the extent that a consumer gives monetary support to an exploitative process, she contributes to its perpetuation; to the extent that she withdraws her support, she contributes to its demise.
Suppose, for example, that she goes to a restaurant and pays five dollars for a ham sandwich. Five dollars is the price but it’s not the cost. The cost is the prolonged suffering that had to be endured by a victim she’ll never see for a pleasure she’ll soon forget. The pig from which her meal came spent its entire life inside a vast, warehouse-like structure, never once experiencing the pleasures that were natural to it—soil and sunshine and straw and fresh air. Nor could it move in ways that were natural to it: either confined in a stall of iron bars no larger than itself or crammed in an iron pen with other, equally immobilized, pigs, this animal that was as smart and as curious as a puppy had no place to walk or run, no room to lie on its side or turn around. The conditions of mass confinement, the lack of exercise, and the slatted concrete floor it had to stand on all its life made it susceptible to injuries and infections, including fractured legs, festering sores, pus pockets, and tumors. Veterinary care was nonexistent. Then one night it was suddenly woken, prodded onto a truck, and taken to a slaughterhouse. On the slaughterhouse floor, the squealing of the terrified pigs was so loud and plaintive that the workers had to wear earplugs. The workers stunned the pig with an electric gun, slit its neck, shackled its hind legs, and hoisted it by machine into the air, its blood flowing into a trough. That’s if our pig was lucky. The assembly-line slaughter moves at a hectic pace, and the stunning often fails. If that was the case, then the pig, trying to get away, was beaten with pipes to get it under control; then its neck was slit, perhaps while it was still kicking—or, if its resistance made even that impossible, it was shackled and lifted by its hind legs before eventually being lowered, writhing and squealing, into a vat of scalding water. Its six months on earth, such as they were, were over.
A pig in today’s factory farming system cannot live or move or raise its young in accordance with its nature. It endures intense pain and relentless discomfort in an environment that is unspeakably grim. Finally, it is herded into a clanging, shrieking hell where, as part of a never-ending line of panic-stricken pigs, its throat is slashed. The consumer who buys a ham sandwich or a package of pork chops or a pound of bacon contributes to this brutality. Much of her money goes to other parties in the process (restaurants, grocery stores, trucking companies, etc.), but some goes to the slaughterhouses and factory farms where animals suffer systematic abuse—abuse in this context meaning callous and egregious mistreatment. How the consumer feels about this abuse doesn’t really matter; it’s her action, not her sentiment, that has an impact. She is voting with her checkbook, and her checkbook says to the meat industry, “Keep doing what you’re doing.” And the meat industry complies.
The prohibition against hurting others is our most basic moral precept. Ignore that, and there’s not much left. Yet consumers ignore this prohibition every day, blithely and without hesitation. They are an essential part of the exploitative process; their money is the fuel that keeps it going. They are therefore responsible for its perpetuation. They are not, of course, the only responsible party; the exploitation would also stop if no one were willing to commit the exploitative acts. Still, the harm inflicted through the exploitative process can occur only with the support of consumers. Their instruments of harm are not guns and knives but checkbooks and credit cards—instruments whose banality in no way undermines their deadliness. So long as a person gives monetary support to exploitative practices, she fails to meet the minimum standards of a moral person.
If leading a moral life means anything at all, it means at the very least that one does not engage in or support the abuse of people or animals. Those who work for factory farms and those who buy their products violate this standard. So do those who buy clothing made in sweatshops or chocolate made with child labor. All of which points to an emerging moral reality: that morality today is inextricably tied to consumerism, and that one cannot be a moral person without simultaneously being a moral consumer. Moral behavior requires that we consider the consequences of our actions, and that includes the consequences of our purchases.
My self: You’re asking too much of me. You always ask too much.
My conscience: I’m not asking too much. You care about people, don’t you?
Self: Of course.
Conscience: And you care about animals?
Conscience: So don’t hurt them. That’s all I’m saying. Just don’t hurt them.
Self: I don’t hurt them.
Conscience: Not directly, no, but you give monetary support to companies that do. That makes you complicit in their exploitation and abuse. You think that because you don’t force children to work for slave wages and you don’t slit the throats of terrified animals, your hands are clean. But your hands can’t be clean when your checkbook is dripping with blood.
Self: Look, all I do is buy things. I go into a store, I pick out what I need, and I buy it. I don’t hurt anyone. If a company somewhere does something cruel or abusive, that’s their responsibility. I didn’t ask them to do it. I’m not responsible for what they do.
Conscience: But the reason they keep doing it is that you keep paying them. You’re rewarding their behavior—and you are responsible for that. The way to stop exploitation is to stop buying the products of exploitation. The way to stop the abuse of dairy cows is to stop buying dairy products.
Self: But that’s ridiculous. Companies mistreat cows—so I can’t eat cheese? What sense does that make? I shouldn’t have to pay the price for someone else’s abusive behavior. Give up cheese? Forget it! I love cheese, I live for cheese.
Conscience: Pleasure is fine as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of other sentient beings. But if an animal has to endure prolonged anguish and suffering so you can experience some trivial, ephemeral pleasure, it’s not worth it.
Self: Abstention. That’s what you always preach. Abstention and self-denial. But I want to enjoy my life, I want to enjoy my meals. I can’t sit around all day eating wheat germ and celery.
Conscience: But how much pain, how much deprivation, should animals endure so you can have your little treats? This is the same question I keep asking you: aren’t the basic needs of other breathing, feeling beings more important than your desire for some fleeting, nonessential pleasure? I understand that you’d rather eat a big cheesy pizza than, say, spaghetti with tomato sauce, but is the pleasure differential between these two meals enough to justify subjecting a dairy cow to a lifetime of confinement, deprivation, and pain? Is your daily fix of cheese worth that much suffering? Is the slightly higher level of pleasure that you’ll experience for a few minutes if you eat pizza rather than spaghetti sufficient reason to condemn an animal to a terrible life and a brutal death?
Self: You can talk all you want about big global problems, poverty and exploitation and animal suffering, but there are damn few things in life that matter more to me—and to just about everyone else, if they’re honest about it—than little daily pleasures. You may not like that, you may declaim about what’s important and what’s not, but ultimately what we care about is what our day is like—our ordinary, humble day—and whether we experience enough of the pleasures we’ve come to love to offset our daily setbacks and aggravations. And no pleasure matters more to us than food. A meal, or even a snack, that we really love can be like an oasis in the middle of the day. When I’m stressed out about a million different things, when I’m frazzled and weary, nothing can lift my spirits more than the thought of the cheese enchiladas, soft and scrumptious, that will soon be mine. That promise of future pleasure keeps me going. And now you want to take even that away.
Conscience: Your life is so bleak, so arduous, that only the anticipation and consumption of cheese make it bearable—is that it? Please! Find some other food to get you through the day, will you, something that doesn’t depend upon the suffering of animals. You think your life is tough—what about the cow that spends her life in a tiny pen, forcibly separated from her calf, bloated with growth hormones, never seeing the sun or eating grass, producing milk at an accelerated, unnatural rate, all so that you can get your cheese, and plenty of it, and cheap? Are your little daily pleasures, as you call them, worth that much misery? Any time you eat animal products, you’re saying by your action that the pleasure you derive from eating the foods you’re used to is more important than the suffering that was endured to provide that pleasure. In your scheme of values, the pleasures of the palate reign supreme. You’ve put your taste buds in charge of moral decision-making.
Self: I don’t like animal suffering either, and if I could magically eliminate it, I would. But animal suffering is part of the natural order. How many animals are killed by predators every day? How many die from disease and starvation? That’s just the way the world is.
Conscience: Human suffering is part of the natural order too, but we try to reduce it. That’s our obligation as moral beings. It’s the same with animal suffering. We may not be able to change what goes on in the wild, but we should at least make sure we don’t add to the suffering of animals, and we should treat the animals we’re responsible for in a humane and compassionate way. But that doesn’t happen in slaughterhouses and factory farms, which is why you should oppose those businesses the best way you can—by not giving them your money.
Self: Even if I gave up all the foods you want me to, it wouldn’t accomplish a thing. If I stopped consuming my two or three pounds of cheese a week, the dairy industry wouldn’t even notice. The living conditions of dairy cows wouldn’t change one iota, and not a single cow would be saved from the slaughterhouse. My sacrifice would be in vain.
Conscience: If people stopped giving money to the meat and dairy industries, a lot of animal suffering would be prevented.
Self: But I’m not “people,” I’m just me. All I can control is what I do, and if I boycotted those industries, it would have no impact at all.
Conscience: The more people who boycott them, the bigger the impact.
Self: That may be, but in itself my joining the boycott would make no appreciable difference. I’d be diminishing the pleasure of my own life without producing an offsetting benefit anywhere else.
Conscience: You never know who might be influenced by your example, or how far the ripples of your actions may go. If you’re going to live a moral life, you have to behave at all times as though the world were watching you, as though it were looking to you for guidance.
Self: I live a quiet, obscure life, and the world neither knows nor cares whether I’m a ravenous meat eater with blood running down my chin or a prissy, ingredient-reading vegan. Setting an example, when there’s no reason to believe anyone would follow it, would be pointless. Instead of making choices based on the likely and foreseeable impact of my actions, I’d be opting for a feel-good morality. Such a morality does nothing except make you feel like you’re doing something.
Conscience: Any time you act out of principle, other people may be moved by your example or influenced by your thinking. But whether they are or not, you have to do what’s right. The most basic rule of morality is that it’s wrong to harm others unnecessarily, and that means an absolute refusal to support abuse or exploitation.
Self: You’re an idealist, I’m a pragmatist. You look at principles, I look at impact. You see me in some quasi-Kantian way, as though my action will become the rule for everyone, as though I’m a universal legislator. But I’m not a universal legislator, I’m a real-world agent, so what I care about are not abstract principles but actual benefits and harms. You want me to be a moral exemplar, a role model for the world, but that’s not what I am, I’m just me, so I base my decisions not on what the world would be like if everyone did x rather than not-x, but on what the world would be like if I did x rather than not-x. And since my actions usually affect me most of all, that’s where I look first in deciding what I should do.
Conscience: Are you saying that even if you thought the world would be a better place if everyone did x, you’d do not-x?
Self: It would depend on the impact I’d have in that situation. If by doing x, I would actually benefit somebody, then I might do it. But if it was just an idle gesture, if it would make my life less pleasurable while benefiting no one, I sure as hell wouldn’t. I’m not going to give up things I love just to win kudos from you.
Conscience: Consumer action on behalf of the exploited does benefit them—it’s just that the benefit comes not from the individual per se, but from the collective impact of all the individuals who participate. The fight against exploitation is like a massive tug of war between money and morality. We’re up against companies that will do anything to make a dollar and consumers who will do anything to save a dollar. The only way we can win is to get you and a lot of other people on our side of the rope.
Self: You’re making the same old argument; only the metaphor has changed. If a large number of people join your side, it will make a difference; but whether a single person joins or not will make no difference at all. Suppose you were in a real tug of war, played out on a huge field, with tens of thousands of people on each side. Do you really think it would make a damn bit of difference in the outcome whether I joined you or not? What matters in my decision-making is not the collective impact, but my impact on the collective impact. If that’s negligible, and if joining would deprive me of some of life’s pleasures, I won’t do it. I won’t make sacrifices for nothing.
Conscience: If everyone thought the way you do, there would never be any social progress at all. “Puny little me can’t make a difference”: that’s what your argument comes down to. But in fact individual participation is what makes collective achievements possible. Look at the Montgomery bus boycott during the civil rights movement. Anyone who joined the boycott knew she would have to make sacrifices, but had no assurance that her participation, by itself, would have an impact. But people joined anyway, believing it was the right thing to do. In the end, the boycott led to the elimination of segregation in the city’s bus system. There’s no way to measure the impact of a single participant, considered in isolation, but together the group achieved something great, and everyone who participated contributed to that success.
Self: A clear-cut victory like that is the exception rather than the rule. I could cite plenty of instances where people made tremendous sacrifices for their pet cause and it was all for naught.
Conscience: Advances in moral norms often occur over decades or even centuries, so what seems like a failure at the time may actually be a steppingstone toward eventual success. What you’re really asking, though, is whether your sacrifices would make a difference, and I think they would, even without regard to long-term social progress. Because if you did the kinds of things I’ve suggested, then there would be one more person in the world fighting for the poor and the sick and the hungry—and one less person in the world supporting the abuse of animals and the exploitation of workers. And that would be a real difference, and a very good thing indeed.
Self: It’s great that some people make big sacrifices for wonderful causes; I just don’t want to be one of them. Me and mine—that’s what I care about. So when you ask me to do something that has obvious costs for me and dubious benefits for some unknown person or animal—well, forget about it.
Conscience: What do I stand to lose—that’s what your thinking always comes down to. You balk at any small deprivation you might endure, while blithely ignoring the terrible harms that your purchases inflict upon others. Take a cotton producer and a garment factory that together make clothes for one of the big American retailers, that force employees to work grueling hours in hazardous conditions for meager pay—all so that self-indulgent Americans with air conditioning in their SUVs and cell phones at their ears can buy name-brand clothing at rock-bottom prices, never thinking for a moment about the suffering they’re contributing to. Do you really want to patronize companies like this? Do you really want to send them money so they’ll keep doing what they’re doing?
Self: I’m a creature of habit, like every other consumer. I like my little routines. I like to go to certain stores, buy certain products, and pay certain prices. I don’t want to change that. I don’t want to change anything. I want products that will make me happy, that don’t cost much, and that are easy to buy. Pleasurable, cheap, and convenient—that’s the consumer’s Holy Trinity.
Conscience: Could you possibly be any more self-absorbed? Look, every purchase that you make supports something. The only question is what you’re going to support. You have to choose: your purchases will either support workplace practices that are humane, or those that are exploitative—which is what you’re doing when you buy clothing made in sweatshops. But it’s not that hard to change. There are online retailers you can order from, and their clothes are made from organic cotton, meaning no pesticides were used. And their clothes are Fair Trade Certified, meaning they’re sweatshop-free. So the people who made them worked in decent conditions for decent wages. The same thing is true of food: you could start buying Fair Trade coffee and chocolate and produce.
Self: I’ve seen the websites you’re talking about and their prices are ridiculous. Right now I pay twenty-five dollars for a pair of slacks. The companies you’re talking about charge twice that much. I can’t throw money away like that. We’re barely staying afloat financially as it is, and now you want us to spend twice as much on clothes as we already do? That’s crazy.
Conscience: You sound like a plantation owner defending slavery on the grounds that it leaves more money in his pocket. Of course it does! That’s the whole point of exploitation: give workers as little as possible so there’s more left over for you. But how fair is that? The farmers in India who grow your cotton and the seamstresses in Bangladesh who make your clothes should be paid a living wage; and their health, and the health of their communities, should be protected. All of that costs money, so of course the clothes are going to cost more. Where else would the money come from, if not from the consumers who buy their products? So you have to spend a little more on clothes—so what? What would you prefer, keeping workers indigent so you can hold on to your precious twenty-five bucks?
Self: It’s easy to pontificate when all you have to worry about is right and wrong. Of course money seems trivial to you—you don’t have to deal with it. You don’t have to figure out how to pay for anything. You just sit there in your ivory tower spewing out moral platitudes. Look, it’s not like I have money to spare. We pay our bills and buy our groceries, then hope like hell that our bank account doesn’t bottom out before the next paycheck comes along. I stew over the aggravations and indignities we already endure because of a lack of money—a TV picture so full of snow I’m constantly fiddling with our crappy antenna (we can’t afford cable, we can’t afford satellite); an outdated computer that grinds away for five, sometimes ten minutes while loading a page; a car whose axle screams like a tormented animal every time we go around a corner—and now you want me to buy “cruelty-free” foods and “pesticide-free” cotton and “sweatshop-free” clothes, never mind that all of this costs a lot more than we’re paying now, and where’s the money to come from? Where does paying our bills on time rank in your hierarchy of values? How about frugality and money management—do those count for anything in your moral universe?
Conscience: They count for something, but financial constraints can never, ever justify supporting exploitation. In your personal interactions you’d never hurt others for the sake of money. It’s only because, with consumer transactions, the victims are unseen that you allow your moral standards to lapse. Let me ask you this. Would you consider it morally acceptable to work people to the point of exhaustion for pitiful wages, force them to live in squalid, unsanitary conditions, and expose the workers and their families to dangerous levels of carcinogens? Would you be willing to treat people like that?
Self: Of course not.
Conscience: Then don’t pay others to do it for you. Don’t pay other people to do the moral dirty work you’d never do yourself. If it’s wrong to do it, it’s wrong to support it. A purchase is not just about you and your desires; it’s about all the people and animals that are affected by the manufacture, use, or disposal of that product. Most of the exploitation and abuse that are related to consumer products would end immediately if people were as conscientious about their purchases as they are about their personal interactions. If you would not be willing to confine an animal for life in a tiny stall, deny it exercise and fresh air and medical care, and finally slit its throat while it writhed and squealed—if you wouldn’t be willing to do these things yourself, then don’t pay others to do them for you. It’s a clear, simple standard, and consumers who follow it will make the world a better, more humane place: if you wouldn’t treat a person or an animal that way, don’t give money to those who do.
The debate between my self and my conscience springs from the conflict between moral ideals and personal inclinations. The voice of conscience, full of rectitude and absolutism, echoes the exhortation of Thoreau in his essay on civil disobedience: in the face of an enormous wrong, it is a man’s duty “to wash his hands of it…not to give it practically his support…. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.” The self, by contrast, is so wrapped up in his own feelings that nothing else matters very much. As Adam Smith points out, men “feel so little for another…in comparison of what they feel for themselves; the misery of one, who is merely their fellow-creature, is of so little importance to them in comparison even of a small conveniency of their own.” The formulation of a personal moral code is an outgrowth of this conflict. It arises from the uneasy and ever-shifting compromise between personal desires on the one hand and moral principles on the other.
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“Every day we’re tested and every day we fail. We think we’re moral but we don’t even know what being moral would look like.”
The consumer is a beast not easily fed. Happiness, for him, means getting what he wants, and he wants a lot. The consumer’s dream is to get everything and spend nothing. He wants to satisfy every desire but hold on to every dollar. That being impossible, he settles for getting as much as he can while spending as little as he can. He is simultaneously ravenous and miserly.
Get more, pay less is the consumer’s credo; and for him to willingly do otherwise would be so contrary to his nature it would be like setting his hands on hot coals. Though he may be willing to pay more for a better product or better service or greater shopping convenience, he won’t do so for the purported but unverifiable benefit of distant and unseen others. The moralist in us may do that, but the consumer will not. The consumer qua consumer is utterly egocentric; his wants are the only things he knows.
In a famous passage in The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin notes that “we behold the face of nature bright with gladness,” but that behind the pleasing sounds of songbirds lies a darker reality—the predation and destruction of life that are so much a part of the natural world. Modern society offers a similar dichotomy, the glitz and glitter of the consumer world obscuring that world’s disturbing methodologies. Behind the alluring neon and the sleek plastic packaging and the bright colorful products lies a hidden realm of exploitation and abuse, where the transgressions of immoral companies are abetted by the purchases of amoral consumers. The elaborate edifice of pleasures and conveniences that we have become accustomed to rests on the backs of the exploited and abused. Their world is grim so ours can be bright.
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Every day we’re tested and every day we fail. We think we’re moral but we don’t even know what being moral would look like. Every day, as consumers, we face a dilemma: what do we do when morality collides with habit, when our abhorrence of cruelty and exploitation demands that we forgo customary pleasures and willingly pay more for less? If we don’t comply with these demands, if we can’t refrain from buying products that are built on the suffering of others—well, it might be time to rethink our self-image.
Our sense of ourselves as essentially moral comes from our interactions with those around us. If in the course of our daily social contacts—with family and friends, neighbors and coworkers, customers and clerks—we are generally respectful and helpful, if we usually follow the usual rules, then we regard ourselves as moral. But when we look beyond these confines, when we evaluate ourselves as members of a global community, with impacts on distant people and animals, then our moral standing comes into question. When we hear about millions of children dying of preventable diseases and know we aren’t doing much to help, when we hear about terrible working conditions and animal cruelty and know we are buying the fruits of those practices—at such moments we experience a fleeting sense of guilt, a quickly suppressed feeling of moral inadequacy. We have a gnawing sense that what we should be doing we aren’t, and what we are doing we shouldn’t be.
For those who take moral principles seriously—who look to them as the guiding lights of human conduct, to be followed religiously—they can be very disheartening. Love thy neighbor as thyself. Who can live up to that? Who among us cares as much about his neighbor as he does about himself? Our neighbors are innumerable, and so many are aching and desperate. We just don’t have time for them; we wish them well but we have problems of our own. Or take the dictates of my conscience: Meet the basic needs of others rather than satisfying nonessential desires of your own. Don’t buy products derived from the exploitation of people or animals. Are these dictates morally sound, are they defensible principles which, if followed, would make the world a better place? Sure, I think so, but who could follow them? Who could even begin to follow them? If I donate a little, they say donate a lot; if I donate a lot, they say donate more. If I give up one product, they say give up another; if I give up another, they say give up ten more. Their logic is clean and perfect and awful. To my conscience they are clear, simple standards; to my self they are endless, unreasonable demands.
Moral principles born out of concern for others. Accustomed pleasures that are as powerful as addictions. Both of these have a strong hold on me, and as they pull me in opposite directions they engender a sense of moral hopelessness. Leading a moral life seems impossible. I should be reducing the suffering in the world; instead, I add to it. Every day my actions—and inactions—show how little I’m willing to do for others, and to change that I would have to adopt a life of a thousand sacrifices. To move from the person I am to the person I should be, that’s the price I’d have to pay. Today, being a good person has become maddeningly elusive, as our impact on distant others has dramatically augmented our moral responsibilities. The damage that we inflict as a result of the most mundane consumer transactions has created a modern moral conundrum, and it crystallizes the problem of morality and distance, the difficulty of being moral when the tendrils of our actions reach so far.
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One way in which distance complicates moral decision-making is that it makes the consequences of our actions less clear. It’s hard to evaluate actions we have taken, or actions we might take, when the consequences are distant and indirect—when there are a lot of miles, and a lot of intermediaries, between ourselves and the impact of our actions. The chain of cause and effect is murky at best. We aren’t sure how much good we’re doing, or how much harm, or how that would change if our actions changed. Often the ripples of our actions are seen dimly if at all. We do not live in a morally transparent world.
Consumer transactions are opaque in yet another way. Often we don’t know what workplace practices lay behind the products that we buy. Where were the raw materials harvested or refined, and under what conditions? Where was the product manufactured, and under what conditions? In many cases we simply don’t know. Products do not come with their autobiographies attached.
Even when we are aware of workplace exploitation, distance affects moral decision-making by diminishing our sense of responsibility. The greater the distance between ourselves and those who are exploited for our benefit, the less responsible we feel. Such exploitation is easy to ignore when it takes place in distant lands, or at least is hidden from view. But what if it happened before our eyes?
Imagine that a huge tannery suddenly appears across the street from you, a Bangladeshi processing plant that’s been transplanted—workers and all—to your neighborhood. The workfloor takes up most of this sprawling building, but there’s also a retail area at one end. It has great prices on leather goods, with more shoes, handbags, gloves, belts, and wallets than you’ve ever seen. To get to the retail area, though, you have to walk past the work area, and each time you do this, you find it increasingly disturbing. Foul air hits you the moment you step inside. Even with a handkerchief over your mouth and nose, an airborne toxic stew fills your throat and stings your nasal passages, a cough-inducing mix of chromium and formaldehyde and sulfuric acid. You see vats and drainage channels full of foaming chemicals, all the solvents and dyes and hair removal agents that are needed to turn an animal’s hide into smooth, supple leather. You look at the workers—this one about forty, that one about fourteen—and you notice the white blotches on their dark skin and the fatigue that’s written in their eyes. The men are gaunt and stooped, the boys coughing, always coughing, and they all look unhealthy, and nobody’s wearing gloves or boots or masks, and you’re thinking, What the hell? And one day you read a story in your local paper, how these tannery workers are paid subsistence wages, and how they rarely make it to the age of fifty, wasting away in these vast chemical cauldrons. One man’s dying of lung cancer, another of chronic bronchitis, and all of them have serious medical conditions, sinus cancer or asthma or allergic dermatitis; and as you recall your most recent purchase you’re thinking, Workers get sick and die so I can have a damn belt?
Or suppose a slaughterhouse is built next-door to you, and through your kitchen window you see cows being herded inside and it’s their eyes that get you, huge with fear, the animals know this is bad, really bad, and you’d like to reach out to them, touch them gently on the head or shoulder, tell them it’s okay, but you know it’s not and they know it’s not, it’s nowhere near okay. If you want to buy some ribs or sirloin or ground beef, step inside. The meat is fresh and it’s cheap, but the noise inside is unnerving, it’s so loud, you didn’t realize the cry of an animal could be so human, that god-awful mix of terror and bewilderment and pleading, the cries penetrate your ears and go straight to your heart. So you can buy whatever looks good, but who’d want to? Some people would, of course, but to do that there would have to be an awful lot inside you that’s dead, plain dead.
We live in a world that so often is opaque or translucent, where suffering and exploitation are either hidden from us completely or are visible only dimly, as through a thick pane of pebbled glass. We sense that something is happening on the other side of the glass, something unpleasant, but why dwell on that, life is tough enough as it is, and anyway there’s no way of knowing, and you can’t live your life based on stories and hearsay and vague, watery images.
If we lived in a transparent world—where all suffering was close at hand and plainly seen, and where causes and effects were clear and unambiguous—things would be so much simpler: there would be no problem of morality and distance. There would only be the problem of morality.[Parts I and II written 2004-2008. Revised 2018.]