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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.