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Unethical Consumption and Obligations to Signal

  • Holly Lawford-Smith
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1 Sarah Silverman, Jesus is Magic (Los Angeles: Roadside Attractions, 2005).

2 The “ideal setting” is not unique: an alternative ideal setting is one in which consumers refuse to buy unethically produced goods, precluding the need for governmental regulation of labor practices. Both the “top-down” and “bottom-up” approaches are fully sufficient to end the relevant harms.

3 Kagan, Shelly, “Do I Make A Difference?Philosophy & Public Affairs 39, no. 2 (2011), pp. 105–41.

4 See, e.g., Avia Pasternak, “The Distributive Effect of Collective Punishment,” ch. 8 in Tracy Isaacs and Richard Vernon, eds., Accountability for Collective Wrongdoing (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

5 See the discussion in David Schwartz, Consuming Choices (Plymouth, U.K.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010); and Kagan, “Do I Make A Difference?”

6 See, e.g., David Miller, National Responsibility and Global Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 86–90.

7 See, e.g., Thompson, Janna, “Collective Responsibility for Historic Injustices,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 30, no. 1 (2006), pp. 154–67; Stilz, Annie, “Collective Responsibility and The State,” Journal of Political Philosophy 19, no. 2 (2011), pp. 190–208; and Pasternak, “The Distributive Effect of Collective Punishment.”

8 See, e.g., Butt, Daniel, “On Benefiting from Injustice,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 37, no. 1 (2007), pp. 129–52; Anwander, Norbert, “Contributing and Benefiting: Two Grounds for Duties to the Victims of Injustice,” Ethics and International Affairs 19, no. 1 (2005), pp. 3945 ; Robert Huseby, “Should the Beneficiaries Pay?” Politics, Philosophy & Economics (forthcoming); and the papers collected in Pasternak, Avia and Page, Edward, eds., “Special Issue: Benefiting from Wrongdoing,” Journal of Applied Philosophy 31, no. 4 (2014).

9 See also Holly Lawford-Smith, “Benefiting from Failures to Address Climate Change,” Journal of Applied Philosophy 31, no. 4 (2014), pp. 392–404.

10 See the discussion in Pasternak, Avia, “Voluntary Benefits from Wrongdoing,” Journal of Applied Philosophy 31, no. 4 (2014), pp. 377–91.

11 Bazargan, Saba, “Complicitous Liability,” Philosophical Studies 165, no. 1 (2013), pp. 177–95.

12 Kutz, Christopher, “Causeless Complicity,” Criminal Law and Philosophy 1, no. 3 (2007), pp. 289305 ; Kutz, Christopher, “Acting Together,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 61, no. 1 (2000), pp. 131 .

13 However, we should not think that we can establish consumers’ responsibility for corporations’ harms simply on the basis of corporations’ expectations of what consumers are willing to accept, because those expectations may be mistaken.

14 See the discussion in Collins, Stephanie, “Collectives’ Duties and Collectivization Duties,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 91, no. 2 (2013), pp. 231–48.

15 Lewis, David, “The Punishment That Leaves Something to Chance,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 18, no. 1 (1989), pp. 5367 .

16 Larry Alexander, Kimberly Kessler Ferzan, and Stephen Morse, Crime and Culpability: A Theory of Criminal Law (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

17 Kagan, “Do I Make A Difference?”

18 Kagan also counts counterfactual dependence as causation in his discussion, allowing that when the threshold is crossed but not overdetermined, each contribution can count as a cause of the ensuing harm, and not just the final contribution which actually triggered the threshold's being crossed (ibid., pp. 125–27). To be clear on how the two proposals come apart, if it's the causing that's wrong, then taking a risk that doesn't result in a harm is nonculpable on Kagan's view, whereas it would be culpable on the impermissible risking view. Likewise, if it's the subjective likelihood of causing that determines the wrong, an action resulting in a harm would be nonculpable on Kagan's view so long as the agent's subjective beliefs made the resulting harm unlikely enough, whereas it would be culpable on the impermissible risking view so long as it posed some risk to the relevant interests.

19 The Fairphone is the first conflict-mineral-free phone, selling out on its first production run in November 2013, and into its second production run as of May 2014. For more information, see (accessed July 26, 2014).

20 See the discussion in Collins, “Collectives’ Duties and Collectivization Duties.”

21 For examples, see Lichtenberg, Judith, “Negative Duties, Positive Duties, and the ‘New Harms,’Ethics 120, no. 3 (2010), pp. 557–78.

22 See also the discussion in Stephanie Collins and Holly Lawford-Smith, “The Transfer of Duties: From Individuals to States and Back Again,” in Michael Brady and Miranda Fricker, eds., The Epistemic Life of Groups (forthcoming, Oxford University Press).

23 The solar roadways project needed $1 million, and as of July 2015 had raised $2,257,768. See and

24 Emily Steel, “‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ Donations for ALS Research Top $41 Million,” New York Times, August 21, 2014,

25 Elizabeth Anderson, “Social Movements, Experiments in Living, and Moral Progress: Case Studies From Britain's Abolition of Slavery,” The Lindley Lecture, University of Kansas, February 11, 2014. See especially p. 9.

26 Robert Frank, Passions Within Reason (New York: Norton, 1988). See also the discussion in Gintis, Herbert, Smith, Eric Alden, and Bowles, Samuel, “Costly Signaling and Cooperation,” Journal of Theoretical Biology 213, no. 1 (2001), pp. 103–19; and Eric Alden Smith and Rebecca Bliege Bird, “Costly Signaling and Cooperative Behaviour,” in Herbert Gintis, Samuel Bowles, Robert Boyd, and Ernst Fehr, eds., Moral Sentiments and Material Interests (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005), pp. 115–50.

27 Frank, Passions Within Reason, ch. 6.

28 Smith, Eric Alden and Bird, Rebecca Bliege, “Turtle Hunting and Tombstone Opening: Public Generosity as Costly Signaling,” Evolution and Human Behaviour 21, no. 4 (2000), pp. 245–61.

29 It's better to put this in terms of the deliberate buying of ethically produced goods to the exclusion of unethically produced goods, because a public act of buying sends a clearer message than a public act of not buying, if there can be such a thing (it's harder to communicate our omissions). I'm grateful to Ulrike Heuer for the suggestion in the context of another paper that sometimes we can signal our conditional commitments most clearly by acting unilaterally against the harm, which was the start of my thinking about obligations to signal as an alternative to the deontic “duty not to harm” justification of not buying.

30 As Patrick Tomlin pointed out to me, this argument has implications for the practice many “moderate” environmentalists have of eating a vegan or vegetarian diet at home, and consuming meat only when in restaurants. Given the social nature of eating out, with its potential effects on dining partners, restaurant staff, and menus (e.g., if enough people ask whether the beef is organic and free range, the restaurant is likely to secure organic free-range beef for its menu), it would be significantly better to switch the order, and eat a vegan or vegetarian diet in restaurants, simultaneously signaling one's ethical commitments, and eating meat only in the home, where no one else has to know.

31 Schwartz also points to the consequentialist justification for an individual's unilateral actions, via those actions’ impacts on those around her. Schwartz, Consuming Choices, see pp. 47–67, especially p. 65.

32 Note also the implication that she can satisfy her obligation by signaling dishonestly, so long as the signal does the required work. That is to say, she can signal a commitment to the reduction of methane emissions by publicly refusing to eat meat, even while she secretly buys steaks to cook at home. She should, of course, factor in the risk of the backlash that inevitably follows the discovery of hypocrisy. By signaling dishonestly and being found out, she could do more to hurt the cause than had she not signaled at all.

33 Kagan, “Do I Make A Difference?”

34 Ibid.

35 Cf. Miller, National Responsibility and Global Justice.

36 Narveson, Jan, “We Don't Owe Them a Thing! A Tough-Minded but Soft-Hearted View of Aid to the Faraway Needy,” Monist 86, no. 3 (2003), pp. 419–33.

37 Goodin, Robert, “Demandingness as a Virtue,” Journal of Ethics 13, no. 1 (2009), pp. 113 .

38 John Broome has suggested in conversation, relative to his own work on the negative duties of citizens to offset their greenhouse gas emissions to zero, that this should depend on what the alternatives are, e.g., the expected utility will be insufficient to make it the thing to do when the alternatives are acting against poverty, or malaria, but they won't be insufficient to make it the thing to do when the alternatives are the pursuit of one's own gain well above a threshold of well-being, or luxury goods. This seems right to me. See also John Broome, Climate Matters (New York: Norton, 2012).

39 Anderson, “Social Movements,” pp. 10–11.

* This work is supported by the European Commission and the Australian Research Council. I am grateful to the audiences at the Centre for Moral, Social and Political Theory Seminar at the Australian National University, July 14, 2014, and the UK-China Network on Climate Ethics meeting in Reading and Oxford, September 22–23, 2014; and to Richard Healey, Stephanie Collins, Jeremy Dunham, and three anonymous reviewers for EIA for helpful comments and discussion.

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