The Poverty of Morality A Critical Remark on the Consumer Social Responsibility Debate

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1 Kai-Uwe Hellmann The Poverty of Morality A Critical Remark on the Consumer Social Responsibility Debate Department of Sociology, Washington State University, 17 November 2009

2 Content 1. Some Remarks before the Remark 2. The CSR Debate concerns both the Corporation and the Consumer 3. Three Significant Problems within this Debate 4. Daniel Miller s General Critic of Consumer Critics 5. Its Application on the Consumer SR Debate 6. The Ethics of Unethical Consumer Behaviour 7. Wertbeziehung und Werturteilsfreiheit 8. Conclusions & Implications

3 Research Interest Main field of research is consumer society and brand culture Coming in touch by accident some years ago Empirical basis: articles, some conferences, own presentations & some publications on this subject Just some observations and critical remarks from a sociology of knowledge point of view

4 C ²-SR Corporate Social Responsibility: economical, political, ethical and ecological aspects should be in harmony (Carroll 1999: since the 50ies, very high actuality: the financial crisis) Consumer Social Responsibility: green, sustainable, ethical consumption (since the late 80ies, especially fair trade ) Central benchmark in Germany: LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability)

5 Current Discussed Problems in the Consumer SR Debate A Huge Attitude/Behaviour Gap 1. Financial Constraints (of course) 2. Different Opportunity Structures (No Stores in the Neighborhood etc.) 3. The Knowledge Problem (Asymmetric Information Allocation Uncertainty)

6 Three Significant Problems concerning this Debate 1. Public Required Answers (Political Correctness) 2. Methodological Individualism: Almost No Consideration of Social Networks (Granovetter, Bourdieu etc.) 3. Binary Distinction: the discourse of the ethical consumer implies intentional the notion of unethical consumers but who decides to differentiate this way? Main Question: Is this Mode of Differentiation between ethical and unethical in itself ethical or unethical? (central paradox)

7 The Poverty of Morality: Daniel Miller s Critic of Consumer Critics The Perspective of an Anthropologist (doing Research in Trinidad and North London) The Position of the Critics: Consumption/Materialism is bad. Miller s Critic of the Critics who says: That s the Perspective of Middle Class Academics who live under very affluent circumstances. Approach: The Re-Application of this Critic to the Consumer SR Debate

8 The Particularism of Universalism Karl Mannheim s argument of Seinsverbundenheit : The indispensable connectedness with the existential circumstances of living (cognitive, emotional etc.) Under this condition it can be said very simplified: 1. Traditionally the middle class(es) articulate(s) an universalistic claim (liberty, equality, fraternity) 2. But the upper class(es) and the under class(es) do not at all

9 What does this mean for the main question? Conclusion 1: From a Middle Class Perspective (universalistic approach) this Mode of Differentiation between ethical and unethical is ethical Conclusion 2: From a Non Middle Class Perspective (particularistic approach) this Mode of Differentiation between ethical and unethical is unethical (because pejoratively discriminating / convicting) Sociological Challenge: Correlate real actions and existential possibilities (more intense field work)

10 There is always Ethics in Unethical Consumer Behaviour Looking with Granovetter: Each consumer is embedded in a specific social network Looking with Bourdieu: Each network (class) has its own / genuin morality like its own taste (necessity, conformity, rank) Looking with Miller: Shopping is Love Work (for example) There is no unethical behaviour unlessitisempiricalproved

11 Class, Codes, and Control Consider the distinction between the restricted and the elaborated code by Basil Bernstein: Although the underclass language isn t highly elaborated it still does have a code

12 More Sociological Integrity Max Weber: Each researcher does have necessarily a Wertbeziehung (a personal interest) But as researchers we should try to keep in mind the Werturteilsfreiheit ( Don t stage your personal interest as a scientific truth! ) Respect the difference between morality and ethics : No one acts per se unethical... only from a special point of view (e.g. a middle class perspective)

13 Conclusions & Implications More Consumer Social Responsibility is vital no doubt (child labour, climate change etc.) But this kind of differentiation between ethical and unethical behaviour goes too far: science argues no longer scientific if there remains only one option to act What the Consumer SR debate needs is more existential or epistemological fairness (critical self reflexion) And we need more empirical research

14 All Ethical Consumers Unethical Consumers?

15 Thank you for your Remarks

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