The buying power and ethical responsibility of today’s consumer are at the core of David Schwartz’ latest book, Consuming Choices: Ethics in a Global Consumer Age.
Schwartz, a philosophy professor at Randolph College, said the book originally focused on an ethical critique of purchasing meat from factory farms or confined animal feedlot operations. He said he has a strong interest in animal welfare issues and planned to examine whether it was moral for the consumer to purchase and eat products from these types of companies.
“However, I soon realized that the questions at issue, and the arguments involved, had application and implications far beyond meat-eating,” he said. “They really applied to any product we might buy—food, coffee, clothing or electronics—that were produced with unethical means. These means include not only animal suffering but also worker exploitation, child labor, and serious environmental damage.”
The book, published in May by Rowman and Littlefield, examines the ethical dimensions of consumer life and what sorts of unethical practices are at issue with today’s products. Consuming Choices assumes that a certain amount of wrongdoing by companies is known to consumers, who in turn commit wrongdoing by buying those products.
“We are the crucial ethics cog in these unethical machines,” Schwartz said. “Each of us must ask, ‘Ought I to purchase and benefit from products made with exploitative labor or the production of which caused environmental harm?’ In the end, ethics is about our own personal choices, regardless of how others may choose.”
Schwartz finds the topic interesting for many reasons, especially for its practical import for trying to live ethically.
“From a purely philosophical perspective, perhaps the most interesting conceptual aspect is the phenomenon of collective action, in this case collective wrongdoing,” he said.
Schwartz added that in most instances of collective wrongdoing, a given action causes harm only when many other people also do the action. For example, one person driving a car does not harm the environment. However, when billions of cars are driven simultaneously, the environmental impact is tremendous.
Schwartz’ interests in the arts, moral values, and public policy are reflected in the ethics and philosophy courses he teaches. In 2000, he wrote Art, Education, and the Democratic Commitment: A Defense of State Support for the Arts.
“Currently, I am reading a lot about the relation of ethics and aesthetics, particularly the question of whether one should take ethical considerations into account when judging artworks,” he said.