This entire project was prompted by a simple discussion in my freshman year Ethics 101 class. The professor had asked us about our views on sweatshops in the developing world that produce our favorite shoes, belts, phones etc. The class, a bunch of ‘woke’ liberal arts students, instantly went into defensive mode and started announcing how they shop only from brands that are ‘responsible, sustainable, fair-trade’ or the other buzz-words you would probably hear in your local Whole Foods. Owing to time-constraints, the professor quickly moved on to some other topic but this question refused to leave my mind for the rest of the class.
I went about with my day and quickly forgot about the discussion when all my ire shifted to the lunch lady who messed up my order. However, the thought came back when I lay in bed that night, and it occupied my brain like an annoying squatter. I was under the impression that at least some of the critical problems associated with sweatshops had been resolved after the first wave of anti-globalization protests brought them to the forefront, but a quick google search in an attempt to quell my moral dilemma revealed the complete opposite. I was struck in the face with these images and articles that detailed in length the horrors of global capitalism, and I was shook. I was even more perturbed by the fact that I had lived in the developing world all my life and was still so blissfully unaware of these issues. This series of events prompted my long inquiry into the ethicality of consumers living in ignorance of what they consume. After nearly 2 years since that lecture, I think I have the answer.
In these last two weeks, I spent my time talking to multiple business-owners in Delhi, along with ordinary consumers just like me. The entire country saw the migrant labor crisis unfold on national television when lockdowns were imposed and that memory was still very fresh in the minds of my subjects. The consumers shared their moments of pain and agony when they saw migrant workers walking for hundreds of miles with little kids and no food or water. They echoed the same concerns about how there was a desperate need for change in the system, how we must treat these workers better, and surprisingly most also agreed that consumers had a moral responsibility to check how their products were made. I could understand their emotions because that is exactly what I went through as well. Migrant workers are the backbone of the city– without them everything ceases to function. Everyone I talked to had a sense of helplessness in their voice, a feeling of insignificance in the face of something huge and beyond their control. Everyone felt horrible about what had happened, but even more so about the unfortunate reality that everything would go back to the way it was when the pandemic dies down. And it was in that moment of despair that I came to my conclusion. A conclusion that would only add to their woes.
In his famous New York Times article, ‘The Moral Instinct’, Steven Pinker claims that “people don’t generally engage in moral reasoning.” Instead, they engage in something he calls “moral rationalization: they begin with the conclusion, coughed up by an unconscious emotion, and then work backward to a plausible justification.” The systems of global capitalism take advantage of this tendency and act just like drug cartels. They first get you to try something great without fully disclosing the associated costs, they then flood you with the product at cheap prices to get you addicted, and once that addiction sets in, you are a repeat customer no matter what anyone says. An addict’s mind will do, say, and believe anything that could justify his addiction. This backward reasoning is what most consumers do. Without realizing it, they’re addicted to their phones, or their cheap, trendy clothes, and now when someone tells them about the costs and consequences of their actions, they look for reasons to justify their addiction. Sure, sweatshops provide valuable employment that lifts people out of poverty, but if someone gave you this reason and disclosed the conditions of their work before you bought your phone, would you still buy it? The problem is that people look at the issue with the perspective of an addict, not an informed decision-maker.
While it is certainly not the fault of the consumer that he was lured into this grand trap, he is not completely innocent either. Even though it was not an informed decision, the agency still lied with the consumer and no amount of moral rationalization can change that fact. Because you made a conscious decision, you cannot choose to live in ignorance of the consequences of that decision. People are being exploited because of choices that you make. You can provide arguments for why that exploitation is better than the other alternatives, but you cannot choose to shut your eyes to what your choices have brought upon the world. If you act as just a consumer that pays the market rate for a product and goes back home without batting an eye, you are not living an ethical life.
Now that this part of the equation is solved, I need to examine what a consumer can do once he is aware of the consequences of his decisions. Since these systems are now already in place and we are all a part of it, can one lead an ethical life within the system? For example, the Bangladeshi economy has entirely adapted itself to this form of production, and if we stop producing there, literal lives will be at stake. This part of the dilemma still needs some more thought, but I hope to crystalize my ideas in these last two weeks.