Back to Prindle Institute

Woke Capitalism and Moral Commodities

photograph of multi-colored shipping containers loaded on boat

Many have started to abandon the usage of the term “woke” since it is more and more used in a pejorative sense by ideological parties – as Charles M. Blow states “‘woke’ is now almost exclusively used by those who seek to deride it, those who chafe at the activism from which it sprang.” What the term refers to has become increasingly ambiguous to the point that it seems useless. As early as 2019, Damon Young was suggesting that “woke floats in the linguistic purgatory of terms coined by us that can no longer be said unironically,” and David Brooks concluded that no small  part of wokeism was simply the intellectual elite showing off with “sophisticated” language.

But when the term rose to popularity in 2016, it was referring to a kind of awareness of public issues, and “became the umbrella purpose for movements like #blacklivesmatter (fighting racism), the #MeToo movement (fighting sexism, and sexual misconduct), and the #NoBanNoWall movement (fighting for immigrants and refugees).” And new fronts are always opening up.

Discussions of “Woke Capitalism” tend to focus on corporate and consumer activism. Tyler Cowen has also pointed out the importance of wokeism as a new, uniquely American cultural export that may fundamentally change the world. And, indeed, despite the post-mortems, “woke” remains in the lexicon of both political parties.

Even though the term “woke” has fallen out of favor, I suspect there is a mostly unaddressed aspect of wokeism that needs reconsideration. There may very well be a new mode of consumption just beginning to dominate the market: commodities as moral entities.

How does this happen? Let’s consider what differentiates Woke Capitalism from more familiar moral considerations about market relations and discuss how products have become moral entities through comparison to non-woke products.

It is not just about moral considerations: In any decision-making process, it is natural for some moral considerations to arise. In the case of market relations, any number of factors – the company’s affiliations, its production methods, the status of workers, the trustworthiness of the company, etc. – may prove decisive. Traditionally, as in the case of moral appeal in marketing – “If you are a good parent, you should buy this shoe!” – there seems to be a necessity to link a moral consideration with a company or a product. With Woke Capitalism, this relation is transformed: an explicit link is no longer necessary. All purchasing is activism – one cannot help but make a statement with what they choose to buy and what they choose to sell.

It is not just corporate or consumer activism: The moral debate about Woke Capitalism mainly revolves around the sincerity of companies and customers in support of social justice causes. And that discussion of corporate responsibility often revisits the Shareholder vs. Stakeholder Capitalism distinction.

Corporate or consumer activism seems to be making use of the market as a way of demonstrating the moral preferences of individuals or a group. It can be seen as a way to support what is essentially important to us. Vote with your dollar. As such, most discussions focus on this positive reinforcement side of Woke Capitalism.

What is lost in this analysis of Woke Capitalism, however, is the production of Woke Products which forces consumers take sides with even the most basic day-to-day purchases.

How should we decide between two similarly-priced products according to this framing: a strong stain remover or a mediocre stain remover that helps sick children; a gender-equality supporting cereal or a racial-equality supporting cereal. Each of these decisions brings some imponderable trade-off with it: What’s more important – the health of children or stain-removing strength? Which problem deserves more attention – gender inequality or racial inequality?

Negation of Non-Woke: The main problem with these questions is not that some of them are unanswerable, absurd, or impossible to decide in a short time. Instead, the problem is the potential polarizing effect of its relational nature. Dan Ariely suggests, in his book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shapes Our Decisions, that we generally decide by focusing on the relativity – people often decide between options on the basis of how they relate to one another. He gives the example of three houses which have the same cost. Two of them are in the same style. One is a fixer-upper. In such a situation, he claims, we generally decide between the same style houses since they are easier to compare. In this case, the alternatively-styled house will not be considered at all.

In the case of wokeness, the problem is that it is quite probable that non-woke products will be ignored altogether. With our minds so attuned to the moral issue, all other concerns fade away.

Woke Capitalism creates a marketplace populated entirely by woke, counter-woke, and anti-woke products. Market relations continue to be defined by this dynamic more and more. As such, non-woke products are becoming obsolete. Companies must accommodate this trend and present themselves in particular ways, not necessarily because they want to, but because they are forced to. And this state of affairs feels inescapable; there is no breaking the cycle. Even anti-woke and counter-woke marketing feed that struggle. All consumption becomes a moral statement in a never-ending conflict.

To better see what makes Woke Capitalism unique (and uniquely dangerous), consider this comparison:

Classic moral consideration: Jimmy buys Y because Y conforms to his moral commitments.

Consumer activism: Jimmy buys Y because Y best signals his support for a deeply-held cause.

Woke Capitalism: Jimmy buys Y because purchasing products is necessary for his moral identity.

This is not just consumer activism whereby customers seek representation. Instead, commodities turn into fundamentally moral entities – building blocks for people to construct and communicate who they are. As morality becomes increasingly understood in terms of one’s relationship to commodities, a moral existence depends on buying and selling. Consumption becomes identity. “I buy, therefore – morally – I am.”

The Ethics of Manipulinks

image of computer screen covered in pup-up ads

Let’s say you go onto a website to find the perfect new item for your Dolly Parton-themed home office. A pop-up appears asking you to sign up for the website’s newsletter to get informed about all your decorating needs. You go to click out of the pop-up, only to find that the decline text reads “No, I hate good décor.”

What you’ve just encountered is called a manipulink, and it’s designed to drive engagement by making the user feel bad for doing certain actions. Manipulinks can undermine user trust and are often part of other dark patterns that try to trick users into doing something that they wouldn’t otherwise want to do.

While these practices can undermine user trust and hurt brand loyalty over time, the ethical problems of manipulinks go beyond making the user feel bad and hurting the company’s bottom line.

The core problem is that the user is being manipulated in a way that is morally suspect. But is all user manipulation bad? And what are the core ethical problems that manipulinks raise?

To answer these questions, I will draw on Marcia Baron’s view of manipulation, which lays out different kinds of manipulation and identifies when manipulation is morally problematic. Not all manipulation is bad, but when manipulation goes wrong, it can reflect “either a failure to view others as rational beings, or an impatience over the nuisance of having to treat them as rational – and as equals.”

On Baron’s view, there are roughly three types of manipulation.

Type 1 involves lying to or otherwise deceiving the person being manipulated. The manipulator will often try to hide the fact that they are lying. For example, a website might try to conceal the fact that, by purchasing an item and failing to remove a discount, the user is also signing up for a subscription service that will cost them more over time.

Type 2 manipulation tries to pressure the person being manipulated into doing what the manipulator wants, often transparently. This kind of manipulation could be achieved by providing an incentive that is hard to resist, threatening to do something like ending a friendship, inducing guilt trips or other emotional reactions, or wearing others down through complaining or other means.

Our initial example seems to be an instance of this kind, as the decline text is meant to make the user feel guilty or uncomfortable with clicking the link, even though that emotion isn’t warranted. If the same website or app were to have continual pop-ups that required the user to click out of them until they subscribed or paid money to the website, that could also count as a kind of pressuring or an attempt to wear the user down (I’m looking at you, Candy Crush).

Type 3 manipulation involves trying to get the person to reconceptualize something by emphasizing certain things and de-emphasizing others to serve the manipulator’s ends. This kind of manipulation wants the person being manipulated to see something in a different light.

For example, the manipulink text that reads “No, I hate good décor” tries to get the user to see their action of declining the newsletter as an action that declines good taste as well. Or, a website might mess with text size, so that the sale price is emphasized and the shipping cost is deemphasized to get the user to think about what a deal they are getting. As both examples show, the different types of manipulation can intersect with each other—the first a mix of Types 2 and 3, the second a mix of Types 1 and 3.

These different kinds of manipulation do not have to be intentional. Sometimes user manipulation may just be a product of bad design, perhaps because there were unintentional consequences of a design that was supposed to accomplish another function or perhaps because someone configured a page incorrectly.

But often these strategies of manipulation occur across different aspects of a platform in a concerted effort to get users to do what the manipulator wants. In the worst cases, the users are being used.

In these worst-case scenarios, the problem seems to be exactly as Baron describes, as the users are not treated as rational beings with the ability to make informed choices but instead as fodder for increased metrics, whether that be increased sales, clicks, loyalty program signups, or otherwise. We can contrast this with a more ethical model that places the user’s needs and autonomy first and then constructs a platform that will best serve those needs. Instead of tricking or pressuring the user to increase brand metrics, designers will try to meet user needs first, which if done well, will naturally drive engagement.

What is interesting about this user-first approach is that it does not necessarily reduce to considerations of autonomy.

A user’s interests and needs can’t be collapsed into the ability to make any choices on the platform that they want without interference. Sometimes it might be good to manipulate the user for their own good.

For example, a website might prompt a user to think twice before posting something mean to prevent widespread bullying. Even though this pop-up inhibits the user’s initial choice and nudges them to do something different, it is intended to act in the best interest of both the user posting and the other users who might encounter that post. This tactic seems to fall into the third type of manipulation, or getting the person to reconceptualize, and it is a good example of manipulation that helps the user and appears to be morally good.

Of course, paternalism in the interest of the user can go too far in removing user choice, but limited manipulation that helps the user to make the decisions that they will ultimately be happy with seems to be a good thing. One way that companies can avoid problematic paternalism is by involving users at different stages of the design process to ensure that user needs are being met. What is important here is to treat users as co-deliberators in the process of developing platforms to best meet user needs, taking all users into account.

If the user finds that they are being carefully thought about and considered in a way that takes their interests into account, they will return that goodwill in kind. This is not just good business practice; it is good ethical practice.

Considered Position: Thinking Through Sanctions – Our Own Obligations

photograph of feet on asphalt before a branching decision tree

This piece concludes a Considered Position series investigating the purpose and permissibility of economic sanctions.

In this series of posts, I want to investigate some of the ethical questions surrounding the use of sanctions. Each post will be dedicated to one important ethical question.

Part 1: Do sanctions work to change behavior?

Part 2: Do sanctions unethically target civilians?

Part 3: What obligations do we as individuals have with regard to sanctions? 

In the first post, I suggested that sanctions are, on the whole, probably effective. In the second post, I suggested that sanctions, on the whole, probably do not violate the rights of innocent civilians (though I’m not totally certain about that).

The final question concerns how wide the scope of that obligation — that is, the duty to support these punitive economic measures — is.

There are two parts to this question.

First: who has responsibilities to boycott?

Do governments have an obligation to impose sanctions? Do companies have an obligation to pull out of Russia? Do sports organizations have an obligation to ban Russian athletes? Do academic journals have reason to reject papers submitted by faculty at state-sponsored Russian Universities? Do I have a responsibility to not purchase Russian-made products?

Second: who should be boycotted?

If I should boycott Russia, should I also boycott China given their treatment of the Uyghur people? Does it also apply to Saudi Arabia given their human rights abuses? Does it apply to the U.S. State of Georgia for its voting rights bill?

Who Has a Reason to Boycott?

For individuals and companies, there could be three different relations to boycotts. Boycotting could be morally prohibited, it could be morally required, or it could be morally permissible. Since it will be permissible just if it is neither prohibited nor required, let’s consider reasons it might be morally prohibited or required for individuals to boycott.

Are there any reasons to think it is morally wrong for individuals or companies to boycott? 

Yes, often there are.

There are some actions which should only be done by certain agents. For example, if I see you commit a crime, I cannot lock you up in my basement. Only the state has the authority to impose criminal punishments, I do not. Similarly, many philosophers historically have maintained that only the government can legitimately wage war.

There is good reason to think that, often, we should limit ‘coercive pressure’ to centralized agents. This is because when a group of people all try to collectively punish someone, the resulting punishment is often disproportionate.

Sometimes people do really bad things, and deserve some punishment. However, when the information goes viral, they don’t just struggle to get a job, they struggle to get any job. And so the bad action can destroy someone’s life. Each individual employer thinks they are just not hiring the person for this job, but when everyone thinks that way, the person is unable to get any job at all. But sometimes a person does not deserve to be unemployable, even if they really did something quite bad. And this provides one reason for why individual people or companies should not always take ‘boycotting’ or ‘coercive sanctioning’ into their own hands.

Could such considerations apply to Russia? Possibly, but I think it’s unlikely. The invasion of a democratic nation is such a serious violation of international norms, that it is hard to imagine any form of economic isolation that would be a disproportionate response. There could well be issues if, for instance, Russian civilians begin starving. But that is a general problem with targeting civilians and is not really a specific problem of mob injustice.

Are there any reasons to think it is morally required for individuals or companies to boycott? 

In general, there are two sorts of reasons one might be obligated to boycott a country or organization that is doing something unjust.

First, it might be necessary to help protect those suffering injustice. Thus, you might think that we owe it to the Ukrainian people to put as much international pressure on Russia as possible. Or, you might think we owe it to the people of Taiwan to signal as large a credible threat as possible. Here the thought would be that, collectively, such pressure can do real good in making the world a better place and protecting the rights of those being oppressed.

Second, it might be necessary to avoid complicity with injustice. Even if your refusal will not make the situation better, we often think that participation in evil can itself be evil. Thus, Google might worry that their map software could be used by invading troops. It might not make the situation any better for the Ukrainian people if Russian soldiers lacked access to Google maps; but Google might think they still have reasons to avoid associations with evil.

Of these two reasons, the first one strikes me as by far the most plausible argument. If you want to argue that academic journals should not publish papers written by those working at Russian state universities, or that gas companies should not buy Russian-produced oil, the best argument is that doing so helps send a broad and unambiguous signal that such invasions will not be tolerated now or in the future. This could, in turn, help protect rights. It is not that any one company makes a difference, but that everyone working together can send a uniquely powerful signal, and that such a signal only works if we all do our part.

It seems plausible, then, that many individuals and organizations plausibly have at least some reason to support various boycotts (especially in contexts where there is involvement by the Russian state).

Who Should be Boycotted?

Once we accept that sometimes individuals have good reason to boycott other institutions. There are tricky questions to be asked about the scope of those duties.

It seems plausible that I should boycott Russia, but what about other countries which are violating international norms? It seems clear that I should refuse to join a country club that discriminates against Black people. But do we also have reason to boycott a streaming service if we don’t like a podcast they host?

These are difficult questions, and I don’t know any easy solutions for how to sort the cases. That said, there are at least a couple of plausible principles that can help think through these things.

First, the worse the injustice, the more boycotting is justifiable. The basic reason for this is because the worse the injustice, the less likely it is that the ‘piling-on’ effect is going to result in some clearly disproportionate and unfairly punitive responses.

Second, the clearer the social norm, the more justifiable boycotting is. There are tons of unjust actions performed by governments. Invasion and war crimes are unjust, but so is the denial of religious freedom and gender parity. Nevertheless, it seems more justifiable to sanction Russia for invasion than to sanction the Maldives for its violations of religious freedom.

Partly this is because war crimes are plausibly more serious injustices. But partly it is because there are clearer norms against invasion. Invasion is less ‘generally acceptable’ and so coercive punishment seems less ‘ex post facto’ or ‘capricious’ when employed against an invading nation. There are lots of injustices in the world, and we probably don’t want to coercively punish every injustice anyone performs. Thus, to avoid maliciously targeting just those we tend to suspect or dislike, it is easier to justify boycotting those in violation of clear and broadly-accepted norms of justice.

Third, you want to watch out for inconsistency. In general, it is very dangerous to boycott, sanction, or coercively punish someone else if the main reason is just to improve your own moral image. But I think we often find ourselves tempted to boycott, less for the sake of the oppressed, and more to solidify our own moral reputations.

One way to keep an eye out for this, is to notice if your responses seem inconsistent or disproportionate. If you find yourself calling for the boycotting of Georgia for their pro-life laws, but not China for the oppression of the Uyghurs, then it should at least make you pause and wonder if your motivations are mostly about political posturing.

What Is the Wrong Lesson to Draw?

It is extremely difficult to give clear principles for when individuals should coercively respond to the bad actions of others. It is easy to get bogged down in complicated edge cases.

However, this itself can be a form of temptation. We can often bog ourselves down in edge cases in order to avoid clear moral duties. Thus, because I am not sure exactly how much money I am obligated to give to charity, I don’t end up giving any. Even though I’m quite certain that I ought to at least give some. (Those of us reading online articles about applied ethical puzzles are probably particularly susceptible to this vice.)

There are real, difficult, and complicated questions here. But just because some of the cases are difficult, does not mean all of them are. And sometimes there are clear cases that require us to stand up and sacrifice for the cause of justice.

When Should You Boycott?

close-up image of Benjamin Franklin on a hundred dollar bill

Public calls to boycott companies are increasingly common. Recently, musicians and podcasters have pulled their content from Spotify, and a member of Congress urged people to cancel subscriptions, due to the company’s relationship with Joe Rogan. Republican figures in the U.S. have called for boycotts of “woke” corporations. There is a rich history of calls to boycott Starbucks, from reasons ranging to the design of holiday cups to their recent removal of employee vaccine requirements. The examples go on, but I’ll stop for the sake of brevity.

Given the frequency and intensity of calls to boycott, slowing down and analyzing this practice may be useful. My goal here is to briefly reflect on the nature and purpose of boycotts to determine criteria for when one ought to join a boycott.

My analysis here will be somewhat limited. First, I won’t directly consider international boycotts – the refusal to purchase goods that are produced in some foreign nation due to policies of that nation. Second, this analysis will only look at consumer boycotts rather than practices like diplomatic boycotts. However, what I present below may nonetheless have bearing for non-consumer boycotts.

We should start by considering the purpose of a boycott. Each boycott should have specific goals and aims. There must be a motivation that differentiates a boycott from matters of mere convenience, say, shopping at store A rather than store B because store A is around the corner while store B is on the other side of town.

One might think that a boycott serves as punishment. Namely, a punishment that consumers inflict on companies for engaging in wrongdoing. Corporations aim to make profits. So, refusing to consume their wares is a way to make them worse-off. In contrast, it hardly seems like I am trying to punish other grocers when I shop at the store closest to me.

Although some might view boycotts as a form of punishment, this does not capture the whole picture. This is apparent when we consider the idea of expected consequences. Suppose that my friends and I decide to stop buying clothes from a manufacturer who we believe uses exploitative sweatshop labor. This is a classic example of boycotting.

What consequences can we expect to follow from this choice? Well, practically none. If this clothing company is of any significant size, the choices of a few consumers will have little, if any, impact on their profits. The choices of a small collective are just proverbial drops in the bucket compared to their billions of dollars in sales each year. If a boycott is supposed to be a form of punishment, then perhaps my friends and I should abandon this boycott; we can’t hope to put a dent into their profits.

So, we’d be better served by abandoning the conception of boycotts as punishments. Instead, we might see them as a form of expression. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that spending money is a speech act. So, consumers who choose to engage in a boycott might be seen as performing a speech act in the marketplace. Vote with your dollar. Namely, their economic behavior and choices are meant to express opposition to some action, behavior, or policy of a corporation.

Viewing boycotts as a matter of expression can change our understanding of the circumstances under which we should join a boycott. Specifically, I think that we ought to join a boycott if it a) aims to express the right kind of message and b) if it has a reasonable chance of succeeding at this. A note of clarification about the later criteria is necessary, though. By “succeed” I do not mean that a boycott must bring about change. Rather, this requirement is less rigorous. When we view boycotts as being about expression, a boycott is successful simply if it sends the message. These criteria taken together give rise to at least three conditions that a boycott should meet before we ought to join it.

First, the boycott should be organized. The marketplace can be chaotic. A variety of reasons determine consumer choices. Businesses are left with raw sales figures and must determine the reasons behind any changes. Suppose many joined in on our clothing boycott. Unless our messaging is organized, the corporation may never attribute the sales decline to consumer outrage and thus our message will not be received. So, our boycott should be organized in some form, whether this is through petitions, messaging on social media, etc.

Second, the boycott must have a clear goal. For a behavior to be wrong, there must be something else that one could perform. This is one implication of a principle that philosophers call “ought implies can.” If I told you that breathing was wrong due to the chance that you might inhale and kill a small insect, you’d be right to respond incredulously – you cannot stop breathing, so breathing cannot be wrong. By having a clear goal (which it sends through its organized messaging) a boycott makes the case that the behavior of the corporation is wrong by showing the morally superior alternative.

The organization and goal requirements have an additional benefit – they may allow us to avoid frivolous boycotts. For instance, some have boycotted vodka over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, despite the fact that almost no vodka consumed in the U.S. is a Russian product. A more organized boycott would target specific, actually Russian-produced brands. Further a boycott with clear goals would not merely expressing outrage at a product due to its association with a particular culture – it would aim to send a message to an authoritarian regime, not condemn the people suffering under it.

Third, boycotts should send the message that a behavior is morally unacceptable, rather than merely disagreeable. This stands in contrast to actions that one merely finds displeasing or does not agree with. Unlike the previous two criteria, this is not a practical consideration. Rather, the concern involves the message we send when we join boycotts motivated solely by disagreement.

Imagine the owner of a local pizza shop made a series of posts on a personal social media account supporting a particular candidate for office. Screenshots of these posts then circulate, maybe on a sub-Reddit. Members of the community who support a different candidate begin questioning whether they should continue to order pizza from here. They should ask themselves: What message might a boycott send?

Well, the boycotters might be seen as expressing the sentiment that they refuse to support others whose political beliefs run counter to their own. This is not an incoherent position to take. However, it is antithetical to the attitudes that enable the functioning of a democratic society. To live somewhere with a free, deliberative, and collective decision-making process requires accepting that others will not always share your outlook. So, we should not engage in boycotts simply due to political disagreements. Instead, the positions and behaviors worthy of boycott should be those that cross the line from merely contentious into morally unacceptable.

Of course, the line between the political and the moral is blurry. Indeed, political ideology may determine moral beliefs. This leads to moralism in politics; the attitude that one’s political views are universal moral truths which cannot be compromised. Thus, for many, a Venn diagram of the politically disagreeable and the morally unacceptable may just be a circle.

And this could be why calls to boycott have become more common in recent years. As political disagreements become increasingly more morally charged, they are less about the merits of particular policies and more about how we should live our lives. In a capitalist society, our behavior on the marketplace is part of how we live our lives. Thus, it makes sense that our decisions about what we buy and where are increasingly shaped by our political preferences.

Fast Fashion Isn’t the Fashion Industry’s Only Problem

photograph of shelves of shirts in shrinkwrap

Most young Americans have never lived in a world where the latest fashion trends were not available instantly at dizzyingly low prices. Fast fashion retailers like Shein and ASOS offer seemingly endless online catalogs of low-quality clothes, typically about as durable as tissue paper, and in the last few years they’ve broadened their audiences through social media sites like TikTok and Instagram. Influencers purchase a few hundred-dollars worth of clothing, reflecting that week’s micro-trends, and spread these finds out on the floor to be filmed. Most items are only worn a few times before they move on to their next haul. To get a sense of the scope of this problem, we might look at pioneering online retailer ASOS, which aims to add roughly 5,000 items to its virtual catalog every week. As Terry Nyguen, a reporter on consumer trends for Vox, explains, “Garment production has quietly accelerated to breakneck speeds over the past three decades, easing young and old consumers into thinking of their clothes as disposable.”

As a culture, we’ve been trying to wrap our heads around fast fashion for nearly a decade now; for example, Sakshi Sharma and Victoria Jennings have probed the ethical dilemmas posed by fast fashion before here on the Post. Sharma explains how the industry allows wage stagnation and workplace abuse to flourish, and Jennings examines the negative impact fast fashion has on the environment. It is worth noting how extremely difficult it is to quantify this negative impact. The oft-repeated statistic that the garment industry pollutes more than any other, with the exception of oil, seems to come from a study on a single Chinese province, as Alden Wicker explains in his expose on the tangled web of shoddy evidence and unverifiable data that impede genuine research. Misinformation, he argues, poses obstacles for consumers and eco-activists alike.

But regardless of what the exact impact is, the fashion industry is ramping up, not slowing down. A 2019 report published by the Global Fashion Report on the fashion industry predicts a global increase in textile production of 81% by 2030. It’s near impossible to make a case for fast fashion, but at the same time, it’s misguided to focus all of our ire on that specific sector of the industry when high fashion is just as guilty of unsustainability. Is fashion itself, as we currently understand it, inherently unsustainable?

Unfortunately, a designer label is hardly a guarantee of eco-friendliness. Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie, while not exactly qualifying as “high fashion,” are certainly on a different tier than Shein. However, these two brands, which are owned by the same company, still use unsustainable synthetic fabrics like polyester, and neither is especially transparent about where and how their garments are made or what steps they plan to take to reduce carbon emissions. Companies that definitely would be considered high fashion, like Versace, have made gestures towards sustainability, but as one sustainability-rating site noted, there is no evidence that Versace is on track to meet its goals.

Paradoxically, fashion is both art and commodity. We think of our clothing as expressive of our true essence and therefore unique, but the things we buy are selecters for us by a cadre of market researchers and boardroom executives, and are ultimately iterations of ephemeral trends that flatten rather than enrich individual expression. Fashion, as essayist Kennedy Fraser noted in 1978, is at its core “materialistic, and holds that appearances are of greater significance than substance. Among the shared limitations are fickleness, a preoccupation with descrying the will of the majority in order to manipulate it or pander to it, and a concern with the accumulation or protection of power and profit. Although all fashion looks mobile and rebellious at times, its roots are surprisingly constant: to think or act for reasons of fashion in any given field is to support that field’s established centers of power.” Fraser rightly points out that fashion in general, whether high or low, requires a base of consumers, so its continuation can only ever perpetuate the aims of capitalism. Even the most daring trend can be watered down and shuffled onto a Target sales rack, fully incorporated into the mainstream culture it once challenged the boundaries of.

At the same time, how impossible it is to dismiss the idea of fashion, to stop our ears against the alluring language of pattern and color, of form and movement. Like any kind of image-making, fashion provides us with metaphors and symbols through which we understand ourselves and our position in the world. Situated at the intersection between private and public, between self and other, these polyvalent symbols allow us to simultaneously articulate, as well as create, our sense of self. The fashion industry capitalizes on these ingrained desires, which is partly why addressing the negative environmental impact of the garment industry is so difficult. Consumers should and must shun fast fashion brands, but that only tackles one small part of the problem. We need to completely rethink fashion, finding a way to embrace the good and discard the bad, if we want to lay the foundation for a more sustainable world.

McKamey Manor: The House of No Consent

black-and-white photograph of silhouetted figure behind glass

Since 2005 Russ McKamey has been running McKamey Manor, an extreme horror attraction. When patrons sign-up for the tour they are signing-up for being physically and psychologically mistreated. Before participating, patrons must go through extensive interviews, a medical examination, and sign a long legal waiver. However some participants complain that the experience is too extreme and that the legal waiver does not excuse their behavior. The nature of the attraction brings up a host of issues concerning the nature and extent of consent.

A waiver is a voluntary surrender of a right or opportunity to enforce a right. Many horror attractions require patrons to sign a waiver before entering, in which the participants acknowledge that they are knowingly taking on the risk of various losses and relinquish the right to seek damages they may suffer while attending the attraction. For example, if a person who attended a horror attraction suffered from a heart condition and experienced a heart attack during their participation, they would not be able to sue that attraction for any medical expenses incurred as a result of that heart attack. In the case of McKamey Manor the waiver is reportedly about 40-pages long. In addition to the waiver, potential patrons are required to watch videos of other people’s experiences at McKamey Manor. The participants in these videos all ask to have their experience ended prematurely, and advise the potential participants that they “don’t want to do this.”

But does it follow that potential participants, duly informed of what may happen to them, truly consent to be buried alive, forced to ingest their own vomit, held under water, cut, struck, and verbally abused? Not necessarily. Not even a signed legal form, or other explicit signal of consent automatically creates genuine consent. There are several conditions which render void apparent consent such as when no genuine choice is available to participants or when the participant is offered something that undermines their ability to make rational decisions. McKamey Manor offers participants $20,000 if they can survive the entire experience (which is of variable length, ranging from 4 – 10 hours). Even in the longest scenario a successful participant would stand to make $2,000 per hour of their time — an inducement that undermines a person’s ability to think clearly.

While recent McKamey attractions allow participants to create safe words to automatically end their horror experience, this was not always this case. And McKamey patron Amy Milligan claims that even when she begged the actors to stop, they continued to torment her. If a person cannot end the experience at will — if they are at the mercy of the actors creating the experience — then that person has been robbed of their autonomy, even if only for a limited time. This creates another type of situation in which the explicit consent signal, in the form of the waiver, is a legal fiction. It is not possible for a person to fully waive their autonomy, as doing so would be to essentially sign themselves into slavery.

The idea that such “voluntary slavery” could exist is discounted as a possibility by philosophers with views and methodologies as different as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Stuart Mill. Rousseau argued that once a person becomes a slave by losing all autonomy, they cease to be a moral agent at all. As such to consent to being a slave would be to consent to no longer being a moral or legal person. Mill argued that voluntary slavery was an exception to his harm-to-others principle, which stated that any person could do as they pleased so long as they did not harm someone else. He claimed that although a person attempting to sell themselves into slavery may not be causing harm to anyone but themselves, it nonetheless stood in contradiction with the whole point of the harm-to-others principle — to maintain maximum individual liberty.

Though McKamey Manor residents do not sign themselves away into permanent slavery, they do “waive” their autonomy for a limited amount of time. Importantly, the effective duration of this “waiver” is determined not by the participants, but rather by the actors. Moreover some of the experiences patrons are subjected to are essentially torture. Here again the substantiveness, or, at least, relevance, of patrons’ consent is dubious. Consider waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning. (McKamey contends that no participants are waterboarded, but admits that they will be made to feel like they are drowning — a spurious distinction.) The problem with military detainees being waterboarded is not that they weren’t asked for their permission first. Indeed lack of permission is not the sole moral shortcoming of any form of torture. The problem is instead the nature of the activity and the relationship it creates between people: a relationship in which one person is inflicting suffering an another for enjoyment or profit.

McKamey and his defenders claim that the screening and waiver process creates a situation in which McKamey Mansion patrons consent to a prolonged period of physical and emotional abuse. However there are some things that no waiver, no matter how length and legalistic can create consent for. A person’s autonomy is inalienable. This doesn’t just mean that it cannot be taken away, but also that it can’t be given away.

What’s In a Name? The Morality in “Meat”

close-up photograph of a raw cut of meat

In 2018, Missouri banned the use of the word “meat” to describe products that are “not derived from harvested production livestock or poultry.” As punishment, “Violators are subject to up to one year in prison and a fine of as much as $1,000.”  The law was written in response to the rise in popularity of realistic meat substitutes such as Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat and to the emerging technology of cell cultured meats. Similar laws followed in states such as Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, and South Dakota.

The concerns don’t stop with use of the term “meat.” Last summer, FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb expressed concerns about the use of “milk” to describe products like soymilk, almond milk, and oat milk. Such terms are misleading, he claims, because “An almond doesn’t lactate.” 

Supporters of these laws offer a range of arguments, some of which appear to be in better faith than others. The first argument is that use of terms like “meat” and “milk” to describe products that are plant- rather than animal-based is misleading and perhaps even deceptive. Consumers have a right to know what they are putting in their bodies. They need to make nutritional decisions for the sake of their health, and the labeling of products like “meat” and “milk” may get in the way of their ability to make such choices effectively.

Opponents of the legislation are unconvinced by this argument for several reasons. First, this kind of figurative language has been used to describe replacement products for many years, and consumers are well aware of this. There is no reason to believe that they arrive at their grills angry and nutritionally deprived when they realize that their “veggie burger” isn’t made from a cow. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the new legislation came about because lawmakers were receiving letters or calls of complaint from confused consumers. Instead, they seem to be motivated by complaints that they are hearing from the animal agricultural industry—an institution that is understandably nervous about the rising success of meat replacement products. What’s more, these products are not packaged in such a way that would render consumers unable to tell that the “burger” they are consuming does not come from a slaughtered cow. They say “vegan” or “vegetarian” in no uncertain terms on the package. They also include a list of ingredients and nutritional information. Consumers know how to access nutritional information. There’s no plausible reason why confusion should exist. There is also no deception if there is no intent to deceive. These products do not claim, in any way, to be animal-based. What’s more, many opponents of this kind of legislation argue that it’s the industry of animal agriculture that is not transparent with consumers about the nature of the products that they sell. The conditions under which these products are produced—in factory farms—are neither appetizing nor ethical. 

One argument in favor of the legislation is more straightforward: these labels harm the agricultural industry, and that might be a very bad thing. Animal agriculture is important for the economy. It is also important on a more personal level. Farmers and ranchers have families to support. The labeling of these products hurts their bottom line and, as a result, has a real impact on the quality of their lives. There is nothing wrong with plant-based food, but such products should stand on their own merits, rather than riding the coattails of popular animal-based products by using the same language. 

In response, opponents argue that, though it is unfortunate that people might lose their livelihoods, society has no duty to protect this industry in particular. Some ways of earning a living are harmful, and moral progress requires that we get rid of them. For example, if we let concerns regarding the livelihood of slave traders and slave owners win the day, we’d still have slavery. What’s more, no one is trying to go this far. Animal agriculture isn’t being shut down, it’s simply competing against other products in the marketplace that use some of the same words as part of their marketing and advertising campaigns.

Legislation restricting the use of the “meat” label also faces constitutional challenges. The American Civil Liberties Union, along with The Good Food Institute, and the Animal Legal Defense Fund filed suit on behalf of Tofurky in response to the law passed in Arkansas. The lawsuit contends that the legislation was constructed to protect the business of animal agriculture in violation of the first and fourteenth amendment rights of the producers of other kinds of food. So long as they aren’t misleading consumers, they can exercise their rights to name their product whatever they want.

Complicating the issue is in vitro meat—a new product that has many meat producers very concerned. The current system of animal agriculture is cruel and inhumane to the animals involved, it contributes substantially to climate change, and it delivers a product that can be unhealthy for consumers. In vitro meat can potentially solve all of these problems. Instead of producing, raising, and slaughtering animals in order to consume their flesh, in vitro meat is produced by taking a biopsy from an animal and then culturing the cells. In this way, meat can be created without causing animals any significant harm.

Legislators are eager to ban the use of the word “meat” for this kind of product as well (though it is not yet on the market). But it’s harder to see the rationale here. After all, cell cultured meat is meat, if what it is to be meat is to be animal flesh. Despite this fact, the Missouri law, for example, bans the use of the word “meat” for in vitro meat as well as for vegetable-based meat products. The takeaway seems to be this—if the product isn’t part of the corpse of a slaughtered animal, it isn’t properly designated as “meat.” This is much harder to defend. Meat produced in a lab could be engineered to be much healthier, so concerns about consumer nutrition and health wouldn’t apply. Transparency concerns may make it important that the product is labeled as cultured, but perhaps, for similar reasons, the conditions under which factory farm meat is produced should also be listed on the package. 

The existence of this legislation, and of other proposed legislation like it, speaks to the power that animal agriculture wields in state legislatures. The fear that motivates these legislative changes may also clue us into something about the future of food.

Look Inside: The Moral Implications of Personal Choice

Back when Microsoft Windows XP and Intel’s Pentium 4 Processor were technology du jour, not much was known about the origins of the raw minerals integral to the technology we depend on daily or about the horrendous labors that made possible the innovations of the day. Ethical concepts of blame and praise did not make a lot of sense to the consumer faced with no choice but to buy electronic devices manufactured by laborers cheated out of a living wage and f rom raw materials that fuel atrocities in the eastern remote province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This is based on the understanding that one cannot be held morally accountable for something they have no control over.

The complexities of the ongoing conflict in eastern DRC, and the role of student activism in addressing the role of conflict minerals in the deadly conflict have been well documented here, here, and here. Fast forward to 2014, with Intel CEO’s announcement that all Intel microprocessor chips manufactured from this year will not contain raw materials originating from mines that bankroll atrocities in eastern DRC and neither will every Intel product by the year 2016. Consumers are now faced with a choice. As the global market for commodities becomes increasingly competitive, consumers are inundated with choices, most of which present tough ethical challenges. For example, whether or not to buy the warm sweatshirt that robs factory workers of safe working conditions, or the chocolate bar whose cocoa ingredient was harvested through child labor in West Africa.  Even more familiar to the everyday American consumer is the choice between organic or conventionally grown produce. For me, it’s the choice between picking a Styrofoam cup or bringing my own re-usable coffee mug to the office each morning. These choices are personal, but our free will to act upon them implies a moral responsibility.

However, such choices are neither simple nor removed from other moral imperatives. To be fair, Intel’s efforts to manufacture “conflict-free” products highlighted in the short video above are commendable and praiseworthy, but to be sure, a reform at one point of a product’s manufacturing supply chain does not guarantee that the product becomes conflict free. To put this into perspective, imagine technology products manufactured from ethically sourced raw materials but through unfair labor practices, or in factories powered by mountain-top removal coal. Many are the challenges we face in today’s world of ever increasing global demands. Faced with this reality and with the holiday shopping season fast approaching, do we have a real ethical choice over what we buy? What choices do we have? As consumers, how do our personal choices affect the lives of millions of people across the world and around us, and are we morally culpable? Weigh in your comments below.