Taking Consumers Seriously: Two Concepts of Consumer Sovereignty
Author: Korthals, M.
Source: Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, Volume 14, Number 2, 2001 , pp. 201-215(15)
Abstract:Governments, producers, and international free trade organizations like the World Trade Organization (WTO) are increasingly confronted with consumers who not only buy (or don't buy) goods, but also demand that those goods are produced conforming to certain ethical (often diverse) standards. Not only safety and health belong to these ethical ideals, but animal welfare, environmental concerns, labor circumstances, and fair trade. However, this phantom haunts the dusty world of social and political philosophy as well. The new concept ``consumer sovereignty'' bypasses the conceptual dichotomy of consumer and citizen.
According to the narrow liberal response to this new constellation, with respect to food one should conceptualize consumer sovereignty as the right of the individual consumer to get information on food products and to make his or her own choice on the market of food products. In this conception, there is a very strong emphasis on rules and principles with respect to the autonomy of individuals.
I argue that these narrow liberal concepts are not sufficient for appropriate public policy-making in democratic societies, and that they only enable us to identify problems; they do not help non-experts (and experts, if it comes to that, as well) in weighing the different ethical claims. Besides, not only principles play a role in the outcome, but all kinds of ideals as well, like roles, values, and norms. My principal argument is that analysis or justification of norms or principles is not sufficient to get a synthesis or construction of ethical solutions: we need some value orientation to guide us in balancing the different ethical claims by solving an ethical problem. Moreover, this balancing is something that requires social space and social time, i.e., public debates. With the concept of public debates a whole new dimension enters ethical analysis, because the attention of ethicists shifts to formulating criteria of successful and rational public debates.
However, in the broad liberal view these concepts are supplemented with values, preferences, practices of care, and involvement. I argue firstly for a broadened perspective on food as an integral part of life styles and not only as something that presents risks. That is the reason that food gets such intensive attention from the public, which is summarized in the concept of consumer concerns. Secondly, I defend the argument that not only (rational) public debates, but intensive commitments of both producers and consumers in every link of the chain in so called care practices or consumer councils can enhance confidence in the food production system and the way we extract our daily intake from nature.
Document Type: Regular Paper
Affiliations: Professor Applied Philosophy, Wageningen University and Researchcentre, Wageningen, Netherlands E-mail: email@example.com
Publication date: January 1, 2001