liv: cartoon of me with long plait, teapot and purple outfit (mini-me)
[personal profile] liv
So I was chatting to my brother Screwy over Christmas, and he asserted that making ethical consumer choices is just a way to express your values, it doesn't really help to bring about change. Now, Screwy is a philosopher and fond of making provocatively sweeping statements, and he's also way to the left of me politically. But when we were chewing over this one, I realized I couldn't entirely refute it. So I'm bringing it to DW, to see what my thinky interesting readers think.

Since I am a capitalist, ethical consumerism is really quite important to me. It just seems right to me to prefer to give my money to people and enterprises that I approve of. I mean, that's not a moral absolute, there's a trade-off between what I want and what I consider ethical. And what I can afford, both in terms of paying a premium for more ethical purchases, and at this point in my life more importantly, in terms of time spent figuring out exactly where my money should be going. Partly cos a lot of the information I want when making purchasing decisions isn't readily available. But ethical considerations are a pretty big factor in how I choose to spend (and invest) my money.

Equally, as a capitalist, I am biased towards considering individual factors and bad at recognizing structural factors. (Some places on the internet, including the subtitle of this journal, I use the handle individ-ewe-al, which is a bit of a silly pun on my name, but it also reflects my politics and my tendency to think about individual human beings more than collectives like countries or women or the often nebulous "society".) I do try to correct for that bias, and a lot of the time that means listening respectfully to my leftier friends. But to a great extent, I tend to see morality as more about repeatedly making good choices rather than bad choices, based on making better what you can influence, not so much in terms of "changing the world".

So I suppose emotionally, I want it to be the case that when I buy fair trade food and put my money in a bank with an ethical policy, it matters, I'm doing some actual good. And in that sense, yes, I am expressing my values by making those choices. To an extent it seems a bit like voting; most of the time a single vote doesn't matter at all, and I do agree that if you really care about democracy and improving your society, you have to do more than just vote. But voting is a way of expressing your values; I believe strongly in the principle of a secret ballot, so it's not about "sending a message" as such, but it's still an expression. I am the sort of person who wants low taxes and lots of individual freedom and innovation / I am the sort of person who wants a strong welfare state and a mutually supportive community. So by voting, you're reinforcing to yourself that you are that sort of person, and that makes it more likely that you will make decisions that relate to those values in the future.

I mean, one of the examples that Screwy gave was vegetarianism. He said that an individual person being veggie does very little for animal welfare, so it doesn't really matter how strict you are about making absolutely sure you have no meat-based ingredients in your food, you're generally expressing your values by choosing not to eat meat. It doesn't matter whether you're vegetarian or vegan or somewhere in between, because you're really just being the sort of person who cares about animal welfare, and any expression of that is about as good as any other. (I hope I'm not misrepresenting him here.) That doesn't seem quite right to me, because surely if enough people stop eating meat, the meat industry will shrink and then fewer animals will be killed for food, so change will in fact be effected.

There's been a lot of discussion on Facebook recently about the possibility of voting Green at the upcoming election. And it's a discussion on Facebook, so of course it's very much about expressing values. Am I the sort of person who rejects the Neo-liberal economic consensus? Am I the sort of person who cares about the environment? I think very few people in the discussion really believe that the Green party is going to be substantial force in the next parliament, let alone that they're going to win the election. But maybe they want to be the kind of people who vote Green, perhaps because they want to protest against the entrenched political system without voting for racists. Several people are very vocal about refusing to vote Green because they're seen as an anti-science party; I think the fact that at some point in the party's history they supported homoeopathy is a very minor issue and the mainstream parties have done far worse things in terms of failing to base their healthcare policy on evidence, but for lots of people, being rational and therefore rejecting homoeopathy and other "woo" is a big identity thing.

For myself, I dislike the fact that the Greens are against genetic manipulation, which is kind of what I do for a living, and nuclear energy, which I am generally in favour of, but that's pretty minor compared to individual policies I disagree with proposed by any of the other parties. A higher value priority for me is that I want to be the sort of person who treats all human beings with respect, including people with disabilities and foreigners, so for that reason maybe it's worth my voting Green even though I have very little time for their economic policy, because they're against austerity and pro immigration. Basically they're kind of positioning themselves as economically left and socially liberal, at least to an extent; lots of people who are economically left tend to be somewhat statist and authoritarian, so they don't quite know what to make of this. I have the opposite problem, in that I'm socially liberal but economically right, so I likewise feel like the Green party is an awkward fit for me, just for different reasons. But the Liberal Democrats, er, basically failed to do anything actually liberal at any point in the last five years, so I am reluctant to vote for them even though on paper I agree with more of their policies.

Of course, when it comes to actual voting, I am aiming to vote for an MP as well as for a party, and I will have to vote tactically to some extent because FPTP forces that. And I doubt that the Green party would enact their somewhat Utopian policies even if they did get into power, which seems pretty unlikely anyway. But in terms of figuring out whether I'm the kind of person who could vote for a party who don't want to invest in science and economic growth, but do plan to roll back draconian laws against "terrorism" and punitive welfare cuts and abusive immigration policies, these considerations are less important.

But precisely because I think of myself as an individual more than a member of an identity group, I feel vaguely uneasy thinking like this. I don't like the idea that my vote is merely a way of being a middle-class over-thinker who likes multiculturalism and dislikes austerity, or who likes science and dislikes wealth taxes if I decide to vote the other way. I don't like the idea that in choosing to be mostly vegetarian, I'm just being the kind of person who cares about animal welfare (and Jewish dietary laws), I'm not actually helping animals or the environment at all. And I don't like the idea that it's not worth making more effort to cut down on the eggs and dairy I eat and prioritize buying produce that comes from decently treated animals. Even though that would make my life easier, I want to feel like I'm actually making a difference, even if it's a small one, even if it's only on balance and the sort of thing that only helps if lots of people do it.

Maybe this is why I tend to put time and effort into community volunteering, and don't feel comfortable with efficient charitable giving. If I do stuff that actually makes people's lives better where I can see it, that is at least satisfying, even if it doesn't have globally significant effects. If I give what I can afford, which is really quite a lot in relative terms, to buying cheap medicines so that children in the poorest parts of the world are more likely to survive treatable diseases, I don't actually change the situation where there's huge global inequality such that a billion people need handouts from rich Westerners to get basic medical care. And isn't picking causes just one more consumer choice, one more way of expressing values without effecting change? The Effective Altruism people are expressing their values, which is that they're rational and care about spending their money where it can do most good and aren't moved by sentiment, and I'm expressing mine by preferring to volunteer and make personal connections with people, because I'm the sort of person who believes in having a strong responsibility to people whose lives I'm directly involved in. Does any of it matter, given that although my friends and I are mostly rich in global terms, we're hardly rich or influential enough to actually have a meaningful effect on international politics?

There's a locked discussion elsejournal to the effect that you have to be either a teenager, or hugely privileged (unattached, high earning 30-something white guy was the sort of example), to be arrogant enough to believe you can change the world. I think I've never been a change the world sort of person, but I do think you can make a positive difference to the people in your life, and if everybody did that, the world would get incrementally better. But I also think there are ways to bring about real change that aren't just consumer choices, or else the kind of activism that you can only engage in if you are really comfortably cushioned and have plenty of spare money, time and energy.

Well, last time I talked about the philosophy behind my politics it went reasonably well, so let's see if this sets off some equally good discussion, even if I am not quite aligned with many of my readers in some ways.
ETA: My brother turned up to explain what he meant a bit more clearly than my summary: his clarification

Some Clarification

Date: 2015-01-28 10:57 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I didn't, I hope, claim that all ethical decisions should be understood as or undertaken as an expression of your values, and not as attempting to make a difference. The thought is that there are a plurality of types of reasons. We (I?) tend to think that my reason for doing X (not eating meat/buying fair trade/voting green etc..) must be because doing X is a good way of achieving some final goal, Y (preventing harm to animals/promoting well being/switching away from oil based tech, etc...). However, that's not the only kind of reason we have for action. We need to find ways to express ourselves, to be able to say, 'I do not countenance animal cruelty, slavery, environmental degradation...'. Many of our actions have that sort of reason as a justification. As it happens, I think that most vegetarians are veggos because of that sort of reasoning. Why? because a. being veggie is, in part, an identity -- hence the tendency to avoid eating anything Linnaus says is an animal irrespective of its sentience (think about mussels, oysters etc);b. our whole economy relies on cheap meat and factory farming. You cannot avoid complicity in animal exploitation. The same is true of the exploitation of the world's poorest, but you can, as pointed out, buy fair trade, ethically invest and promote alternatives. Perhaps there is a veggie parallel, but I can't quickly see it and actual vegetarians tend to settle for not eating meat.

I hope that makes sense,
YAB

Re: Some Clarification

Date: 2015-01-28 11:25 am (UTC)
heliopausa: (Default)
From: [personal profile] heliopausa
"Plurality of reasons" - well, yes! We're dealing with human beings here. :)

Whose whole economy relies on cheap meat and factory farming? (Serious but minor question - not sure if you mean Britain here or the US or the world.) I don't see why a notional person couldn't avoid complicity in animal exploitation in any of those places, though - at any rate, to the same extent as they could avoid exploitation of the world's poorest.

Re: Some Clarification

Date: 2015-01-28 11:37 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
"plurality of types of reasons". Whose economy? certainly the west's. In as much as there is a global economy, the world's. Though, sure, if you are an Adavsi in Utah Pradesh, you probably don't partake in the global economy. But the Indian middle classes? They need the americans to consume Indian goods and services, and the Americans can do that because they have cheap, mass produced meat (and other food stuffs).

Still, Liv's affectionate brother.

Re: Some Clarification

Date: 2015-01-28 11:57 am (UTC)
heliopausa: (Default)
From: [personal profile] heliopausa
:) "to the same extent as they could avoid exploitation of the world's poorest."
I was replying to your remark: "You cannot avoid complicity in animal exploitation. The same is true of the exploitation of the world's poorest, but you can, as pointed out, buy fair trade, ethically invest and promote alternatives. Perhaps there is a veggie parallel, but I can't quickly see it."
It is certainly possible to avoid complicity in animal exploitation to the extent that people in rich countries can avoid complicity in exploitation of the world's poorest. (Which is, as you certainly suggest, a quite limited extent.) There are vegetarian parallels to ethical investment etc (for a start, avoiding investment in companies which deal in animal products) even if they are not as widely promoted as simply not eating meat.

Re: Some Clarification

Date: 2015-01-28 03:41 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
That is true. Hmmmm.... what do I think? You can't end the exploitation of the poor by buying fair trade, and you cannot end the exploitation of animals by choosing not to buy animal products. I think those things are true. I think to achieve both of those two things we need systemic change. It is true that if every individual and every company changed their purchasing decisions, things would be different. The thing is, they will not, and I think they cannot. It is not a conceptual impossibility. It is a practical impossibility. I do not really have an argument for that thought but it seems true.

I still think that there is a difference between fair trade and vegetarianism. Actual individuals benefit from you buying fair trade products or investing in small-scale, ethical businesses. Where is the parallel with the cows? If I do not buy meat, Daisy does not benefit, just as much as Laxmi, working in a sweatshop in Bangladesh, does not benefit if I buy my clothes second-hand (or from an ethical retailing company). Having said that, the vegetarian movement might have reduced the number of cows in the world and increased the percentage of cows with a reasonable standard of welfare. To that extent, you might think there is a parallel.

Anyway, the thought was that with fair trade you have reason to buy fair trade coffee because it brings about some desired end, a better standard of living for some individual human beings. When it comes to vegetarianism, you do not have that sort of reason. Instead, your reason is something like, you do not want to be the sort of person that exploits animals and you do not want to live in sort of world that we live in. You need to find a way of actualising those values. If you have enough time and energy, you might also agitate for systemic change, from market reform to global revolution (depending on how deep you think the systemic problem is). The vegetarianism was brought in to give an example of a type of reason that is not, do X to promote Y. You might buy fair trade simply as an expression of your values, but, plausibly, you do do it because you want to make some individuals life better.

Re: Some Clarification

Date: 2015-01-29 01:51 am (UTC)
heliopausa: (Default)
From: [personal profile] heliopausa
I posted a link to some figures about the decline of meat-eating in the US earlier on this page; I expect you can easily find figures for the UK.

I don't think you can argue of the basis of what you think are the reasons for other people choosing to be vegetarian! (or buy fair trade,come to that.) I suggested earlier on this page that if a researcher wanted to assess the effectiveness of individual ethics-driven consumption in bringing about actual change vegetarianism is probably the wrong test-case to choose, precisely because there are so many reasons for people to adopt vegetarianism.

I think it's great that people are working for systemic change; it is certainly needed.

Soundbite

Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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