The Butterfly Effect: The Challenge of Characterizing an Ethic of Consumption

Laura Cannon, Arizona State University

The interdependencies that now exist between consuming and producing societies create the following question for those of us living in a consuming culture: How are we to behave ethically in a global age in which the summation of our personal actions can result in the gravest of consequences in places remote in time or space from ourselves? I will offer an ethical analysis of consumerism in the global economy that will address this question and that will be both an answer to, and an expansion of, Samuel Sheffler’s work entitled, “Individual Responsibility in a Global Age.” Firstly, I will argue that the economic and social complexities that Sheffler identifies as ethically problematic exist primarily as a function of the consumption habits of Americans and others of the developed world. Secondly, I will briefly summarize Sheffler’s arguments and offer my own towards the conclusion that neither our common sense notion of responsibility nor the theories of our most well known ethicists are helpful in the development of a practical consumer’s ethic. Lastly, after analyzing the nature of consumption in the developed world I will offer an alternative theory to those discussed that is not based on rules and principles but on virtue ethics.

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