Ethics of Consumption: The Good Life, Justice and Global Stewardship.
Consumption is a hot topic in many fields right now, from literary studies to anthropology to history. What once seemed beneath the gaze of scholars in the humanities and social sciences has emerged as a central site of analysis. Furthermore, the disdain for marketing and popular culture that characterized much basic scholarship of this century--in particular the Frankfurt School of critical theory--has transformed somewhat into a more complex blend of critical inquiry, celebration, and passionate interest. Ethics of Consumption: The Good Life, Justice and Global Stewardship represents a much needed collection of readings aimed at thinking philosophically about consumption, as well as articulating an understanding of consumption beyond a traditional, strictly economic model. The book joins several recent collections that analyze consumption and the consumer society (e.g., Goodwin, Ackerman, and Kiron 1997; Howes 1996; Stern 1998).
Ethics of Consumption, edited by David Cracker and Toby Linden--both of whom have ties to the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland--brings together a diverse group of authors, including philosophers, social scientists, legal scholars and theologians. Toward the goal of contributing "to empirically informed and policy-relevant ethical reflection on consumption" (1), the book aims to present philosophical essays that provide consumers, regulators, and researchers with guidelines based on ethical analysis for living in the world of consumption. According to the editors, consumers "need a better criterion for selection than advertising's image of the good life"(1). In addition, a number of the book's chapters address environmental problems and international justice issues that stem directly from consumption and its effects.
One goal of the volume is to understand and normatively assess the causes, nature, and consequences of American (and other) patterns of consumption from non-economic points of view. Furthermore, the book tries to distinguish the many meanings of consumption within a philosophical framework. Most of the authors' positions depart from mainstream economic theory that emphasizes "production of goods and services rather than their consumption. Until recently, those concerned with the limits of growth and the effects of human beings on the environment tended to blame production technologies or exploding populations rather than excessive or unbalanced populations" (3). The authors stress social, psychological, and philosophical concepts within consumption research, and most are not afraid to make normative judgments--many essays judge the worth of consumption choices.
Ethics of Consumption is divided into six parts, each containing several essays, some of which have appeared elsewhere. These previously published pieces include classics, such as The Living Standard by recent Nobel prize winner in Economics, Amartya Sen, and Delectable Materialism: Second Thoughts on Consumer Culture by cultural critic Michael Schudson. Part I: Consumption, Natural Resources, and the Environment is perhaps the most narrowly focused section, but it serves to present many of the book's main arguments via case studies, including meat consumption, energy use, and agriculture. Given the text's potential for classroom use, these essays might have been placed to follow the later sections' broader consideration of consumption.
Part II: Explaining Consumption includes essays by economist Juliet Schor, sociologist Colin Campbell, philosopher Judith Lichtenberg and Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy scholar Jerome Segal that theorize consumption from neo-psychological and economic perspectives. As varied as their explanations are, none seems to give enough credence to the role that marketing plays in creating needs and generating consumption. This lacunae is often reflected in economic thought--economists often have difficulty fitting advertising into neat models of rational man. Part III: Assessing Consumption takes aim at consumption and its effects on psychological and general human functioning--the good life of the book's title. This group of authors argues that ironically consumption often leads to lowered psychological and spiritual outcomes in our daily lives and personal relationships. Happiness stems more often from having meaningful work, being with friends, or feeling part of a community than from acquiring material goods or consuming to satisfy fantasies of the good life, according to several essays in Part III. The phenomenological distinctions between consumption practices and making friends require further elaboration if we are to truly understanding the relationship between friendship, consumption, and happiness. (We do note that it is interesting how television viewers are often more committed to Friends, the popular primetime show, rather than to their actual friends.)
Alan Strudler and Eleonora Curlo have contributed one of the most interesting and entertaining essays in which they examine the ethics of water use as Arizona dwellers attempt to transform their desert yards into the lush green lawn of home. This section reflects one nagging concern we have with the book--its overemphasis on individual consumers rather than the political, economic, and market systems of global capitalism (e.g., Sassen 1996).
Many of the contributors attempt to specify what Amartya Sen, drawing on Adam Smith, and Martha Nussbaum, drawing on Aristotle, call human capabilities--those capacities essential for living a fully human life. That is, when we try to understand concepts, such as standard of living or quality of life, we must look beyond economic preference satisfaction to conditions of human flourishing, or full development. In Part IV: Consumption and the Good Life: The Capabilities Approach," philosophical analysis serves as the basis for judging the tension between living a good life and living in a modern consumer society. Nussbaum argues that if we can accurately define human flourishing, then we can understand what is good or bad in consumption patterns. Oddly, her conclusion that freedom to choose is perhaps the most fundamental human capability leaves us with no guidance in dealing with the disturbing consequences of consumption. That is, she fails to distinguish between choices based upon needs and desires that affe ct human flourishing and needs and desires generated by the mechanisms of consumer society. This is a crucial distinction, for without it we cannot see that some freedom to choose is not worth having. For example, our choices as consumers are strongly influenced by market conditions, often leaving us free to choose among Burger King, McDonald's, and Wendy's.
In Part V: Consumption and the Good Life: Religious and Theological Perspectives, the three chapters focus upon concepts within Jewish and Christian traditions that help guide people in their roles as God's creatures, living on God's gift, the earth, and with a God-given sense of virtue and vice. For example, by focusing on what the virtue of frugality would require of us, these authors express a global sense of responsibility for the Earth's future within a religious framework. These essays provide a useful perspective rarely found in books about consumption. Part VI: Consumption and International Justice takes a global perspective as well, comparing and analyzing consumption and resource exploitation patterns of developing versus industrialized countries. Though one might take issue with the polarized designations of North and South, these multinational perspectives on the flow of production and consumption are essential for any meaningful understanding of the choices and consequences involved in a modern c onsumer society.
One of the book's major claims is that a systematic theory of consumption ethics is needed. Readers will tend to agree, for each of the authors seems to work with a slightly different concept of consumption. Many do concur that consumption in general is not to blame for psychological dissatisfaction, rather, how one consumes is the central problem. That is, which aspect of consumption one emphasizes is critical for assessing consumption's negative psychological impact.
Ethics of Consumption: The Good Life, Justice and Global Stewardship focuses heavily on the U.S. Many of the essays tend to underestimate the role that marketing and, more specifically, advertising plays and has played in fostering the consumer lifestyle. There is a distracting variation in the cone and organization of the essays, which makes the book read more like a collection than a well-integrated volume. Concepts and vocabulary from the diverse fields represented are not always well explained, which may make the book less accessible to undergraduates. Furthermore, the book assumes knowledge of the historical background of political economy as well as social science debates that many students may lack. The book is curiously optimistic given the dreary picture that is the cumulative effect of the essays. In some ways it reads like an early 1970s green tome--full of hope that if only people would realize the scope of the world's environmental problems, they would gladly adopt a frugal, ecologically sound li festyle. Perhaps what is needed is a more fully articulated understanding of how the consumer society assures its own growth, and the barriers that have been erected to sustainable consumption. Given the amount of useful and insightful material here, these are issues for another volume.
Ethics of Consumption is an excellent start at taking consumption and the consumer society seriously by making connections between the life consumers live and the world consumers live in. It would make a useful, if somewhat difficult, supplementary text for undergraduate courses in consumer affairs, consumer behavior, and applied ethics, as well as a good basic text for graduate seminars on those topics. One only wishes it would become part of the MBA curriculum, for it makes exceedingly clear how consumption--as the end product of business--gravely threatens our vision of the good life.
Goodwin, Neva R., Frank Ackerman, and David Kiron, eds. 1997. The Consumer Society, Washington DC: Island Press.
Howes, David. 1996. Cross-Cultural Consumption: Global Markers Local Realities, New York: Routledge.
Sassen, Saskia. 1996. Losing Control: Sovereignty in an Age of Globalization, New York: Columbia University Press.
Stern, Barabara B., ed. 1998. Representing Consumers: Voices, Views, and Visions, New York: Routledge.
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|Author:||Schroeder, Jonathan; Borgerson, Janet|
|Publication:||Journal of Consumer Affairs|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2001|
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