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Is Ethical Consumerism an Impermissible Form of Vigilantism?



Many people believe that consumers can permissibly bring about posiitve social change through their decisions to buy certain products rather than others. I argue that this view threatens the democratic character of social life, allowing wealthy and well organized consumers to direct the course of social change, while marginalizing less wealthy and well organized segments of society. If citizens use their consumer power to bring about positive soical change, they must use their power in ways that respect the requirements of democratic respect for their fellow citizens.
Philosophy & Public Affairs vol. 40, no.2
Waheed Hussain
University of Pennsylvania
Ethical consumerism has been around for a long time: many Americans protested against
the Stamp Act of 1756 by refusing to buy tea and other British goods. In recent years,
however, it has become an increasingly prominent feature of social life, as new forms of
technology have allowed consumers to use their choices in the marketplace to address
various environmental, labor and trade concerns.
Surprisingly, people have paid relatively little attention to the moral issues raised
by ethical consumerism.i Suppose that consumers are morally permitted to use their
buying power to pressure companies to treat animals better or to reduce carbon
emissions. Does this mean that they can also pressure pharmacies not to stock the
“morning after” pill? Can they pressure Walmart not to sell books or music they find
offensive? Even in cases where consumers are pressuring companies to do the right
thing, do their actions amount to an impermissible form of vigilantism?
In this paper, I examine the morality of one type of ethical consumerism. Some
ethical consumerism aims to change wider social behavior and practices. This type raises
an important question about the boundary between the public and private spheres. Most
philosophers believe that we are morally permitted to pursue our own ends in the market,
subject to general moral requirements, such as the duty not to lie, the duty to aid, and
perhaps the requirements of an ethos of egalitarian social cooperation. I argue that the
sphere of private choices in the market is itself limited because democratic values play an
important role in determining how citizens in a liberal democracy are authorized to use
the market to pursue social change. If citizens decide to use their bargaining power in the
market as a mechanism of social change, they must approach the task as a legislative
endeavor that is part of the wider political process, not a private purchasing decision. I
call this the proto-legislative view of ethical consumerism.
An implication of my view is that ethical consumerism does sometimes constitute
an impermissible form of vigilantism. But the aim of my paper is to describe a form of
ethical consumerism that is not open to this criticism, a form that respects the privileged
position of formal democratic politics and can therefore claim a rightful place in the
practices of a liberal democratic society.
1. Social change ethical consumerism
Ethical consumerism is the practice of choosing to buy certain goods and services at least
partly on the basis of ethical considerations. For example, when you walk into Starbucks
and face an array of coffee choices, one of them may be fair trade. If you base your
decision to buy the fair trade coffee at least partly on the fact that the growers were
treated fairly in the manufacturing process, you engage in ethical consumerism. You may
also base your decision on the fact that the coffee smells and tastes good; what is
necessary is just that fair treatment for the growers is one factor in your decision.
Ethical consumerism is a very large category, and I will be concerned with one
form in particular. Social change ethical consumerism (SCEC) is the practice of
choosing to buy certain goods and services at least partly on the grounds that doing so
will create an economic incentive for other agents to act in ways that will advance some
moral, social, environmental, or other nonmarket agenda. The most important point is
that the consumer uses her purchases to try and change the way that other people behave.
Suppose in the previous example that you choose the fair trade coffee in part because a
policy of buying fair trade will create an incentive for coffee manufacturers to treat
growers better. Here you engage in SCEC because you base your decision partly on the
fact that buying fair trade could help to change how manufacturers operate by changing
the economic incentives they face.
SCEC differs from other familiar types of ethical consumerism. A consumer
engages in “clean hands” ethical consumerism when she avoids a certain product on the
grounds that she does not want to be implicated as a participant in the immoral practices
through which it was produced. This is different from SCEC because the rationale in this
case is to avoid being implicated in the immoral practice, not necessarily to change it.
A consumer engages in expressive ethical consumerism when she buys a product
to express her approval or disapproval of certain values, beliefs or practices. For
example, she may shop at an organic grocery store to express her disapproval of the
broader culture of mass produced food in this country. This is different from SCEC
because the rationale does not have to do with changing methods of food production, but
rather with expressing certain attitudes and judgments about these practices.
SCEC also differs from what I will call unmediated ethical consumerism. A
consumer may choose to buy a certain good or service because using it will directly
advance some nonmarket agenda, whether or not it affects how other people behave. For
example, you might buy a hybrid car because driving one produces lower emissions and
is therefore less harmful to the environment. This is different from SCEC because your
objective is not to change how manufacturers make cars, but simply to change your own
practices in ways that directly advance the goal of slowing climate change.
SCEC can take the form of both negative ethical consumerism (“boycotts”) and
positive ethical consumerism (“buycotts”).ii Whether the consumer avoids certain goods
or gives preference to them, she engages in SCEC if she bases her decision partly on the
fact that her purchases can influence behavior by changing the incentive structure.
Most importantly for my purposes, SCEC can take the form of a joint effort by a
large number of consumers, coordinated through a certification or labeling scheme. One
of the most significant developments in ethical consumerism in recent years—and in
global governance more generally—has been the rise of certification and labeling as a
way for citizens to assert control over economic life. These schemes typically involve an
umbrella organization that brings several groups together to establish standards for
certification, standards connected to some moral, social or environmental agenda, and a
certifying body that evaluates products to determine whether they meet the standards.
The umbrella organization may include NGOs, industry groups, and government
agencies. Once a product gets certified, the organization makes the certification public,
so that consumers who share the organization’s objectives can use it to promote the
shared agenda through their buying choices. Certification schemes have been used to
advance a wide range of goals, including: promoting fair trade in the production of
coffee, honey, tea and cocoa; promoting small-scale, peasant-controlled, environmentally
sustainable agriculture; slowing tropical deforestation; promoting the ideals of organic
food; promoting healthy workplaces; addressing a wide range of environmental concerns
in the production of detergents, batteries, soap, paint, DVD players, etc.; promoting
environmentally sound energy production; reducing political violence in Africa connected
with the diamond trade; and, of course, encouraging people to “Buy American.”
My approach to SCEC focuses on describing how consumers should assess
various considerations and take them into account in making buying decisions. Some
readers might worry that this places too much emphasis on the motives of consumers
rather than the results of their actions. But focusing on correct patterns of reasoning is
appropriate here. Social institutions and practices play an important role in shaping our
responsibilities, and they often require that we think about certain decisions in certain
ways. A citizen, for example, has a certain role to play in the political process. She could
reach the very same decision about whom to vote for based on her assessment of either
what will serve the common good or what will serve her own self-interest. The
consequences might be the same, but she would be acting wrongly in the latter case
because she would violate an aspect of her responsibility as a citizen.
One of the roles that we play in society is the role of a consumer. As I see it, a
central set of questions about ethical consumerism stem from the fact that some decisions
in a liberal democracy should be made through a market process, while others should be
made through a democratic legislative process, and the role of a modern consumer
effectively straddles the boundary between these two domains. Once we appreciate how
the ethics of SCEC involves a question about the responsibilities of a consumer in a
liberal democracy, it becomes quite natural to approach the issue by asking how
consumers might be required to think about their purchasing decisions in different
2. An unrestricted authorization to use SCEC
When (if ever) is it permissible for consumers to make choices in the market on the
grounds that buying a certain product will generate an incentive for other agents to act in
ways that advance some nonmarket agenda? I will argue that it is permissible under
certain conditions, which I will describe in the next section. But I want to motivate my
position in this section by presenting some arguments against an unrestricted permission
to engage in SCEC. A few comments will help to situate the discussion.
Among the most important values in political morality are procedural values.iii
These values determine how a society should evolve over time. Certain laws, policies
and patterns of behavior may be attractive in themselves, but the processes through which
these develop in society may be morally objectionable because they are inconsistent with
procedural values. For example, if a wealthy person bribes political officials to get them
to increase health-care spending for low-income people, the new policy may be a
substantive improvement, but the process of social change would be objectionable
because it is not adequately inclusive, transparent or public.
One of the central justifying aims of a liberal democratic social order is to ensure
that society evolves in ways that satisfy the requirements of procedural values. A liberal
democratic order has many component institutions and practices, including legislatures,
elections, markets, judicial review, and so on. Each of these institutions and practices
defines various powers, and these powers enable people to influence the course of social
life. The order as a whole is justified (in part) because it structures the processes of
change in society in ways that satisfy the requirements of procedural values. The specific
requirements of each component institution or practice must be understood in light of the
broader procedural aims that justify the arrangement as a whole.iv
When institutions define powers, they typically do so while also specifying how
people are authorized to use them.v This is because institutions could not typically
achieve their justifying ends unless people used the powers they define in the right ways.
For example, electoral practices in a liberal democracy define the power to vote, but they
also specify that citizens are only authorized to vote their best political judgment, not to
support candidates in exchange for payment. This restriction is essential because the
democratic process could not achieve one of its justifying ends in a liberal democracy—
protecting the rights of all citizens, rich and poor alike—if the wealthy were allowed to
buy votes to advance their interests.
The market is also a social institution, and it defines various powers, such as the
power to buy and sell goods. These powers enable people to exercise an influence—
sometimes an immense influence—on the course of social life. Putting these powers in
their broader social context, we can think of the permissibility of SCEC in terms of a
question about how individuals are authorized to use the market powers that we
collectively create and maintain in our society. Are people authorized to use these
powers in ways that advance a social agenda? The answer depends, I take it, on whether
an authorization to use these powers in this way would conflict with the broader
justifying aims of our liberal democratic social order—most saliently, its procedural aims.
If we can define the authorization to engage in SCEC so that it is compatible with the aim
of ensuring that society evolves in ways that satisfy the requirements of procedural
values, then we should see ourselves as being permitted to use our market powers in this
way. But if there is no way of defining the authorization so that it is compatible with this
aim, then we should see ourselves as not being permitted to use our market powers in this
In what follows, I will examine two different accounts of our authorization to
engage in SCEC. The first one says that our authorization is unrestricted. This means
that we can treat SCEC as a private purchasing decision: just as we are authorized to
choose between two detergents on price quality grounds, so too can we decide between
them on the grounds that buying one would generate an economic incentive that favors a
certain social agenda. I will argue that we do not have an unrestricted authorization to
engage in SCEC because an authorization of this kind is inconsistent with several
procedural values that are essential to the justification of our liberal democratic social
order. These values include: (a) security for the basic liberties, (b) political equality, (c)
democratic deliberation, (d) justified coercion, and (e) managed politicization. Let’s
consider each of these in turn.
(a) Security for the basic liberties
Every individual has a moral claim to certain fundamental freedoms, including the
freedom of thought and conscience, the freedom of expression, the freedom of religion,
and the freedoms associated with the integrity of the To have one of these
freedoms, individuals must not only have the legal permission to do certain things, such
as hold various beliefs and express various opinions; they must also be free from
significant social pressures that could prevent them from performing these actions.vii
Security for the basic liberties is a fundamental procedural value because society should
evolve over time through a process in which people express their own freely formed
ideas, and people need an adequate set of basic freedoms to form their ideas freely.
The problem with an unrestricted authorization to engage in SCEC is that it would
allow people to use their bargaining power in the market in ways that effectively deprive
others of their basic freedoms. There are many illustrations of the danger, but perhaps the
most disturbing are the boycotts of Jewish merchants in the 1930s. “Don’t buy Jewish”
campaigns were particularly intense in Germany, but similar campaigns occurred in the
United States, Sweden and other European countries.viii These boycotts deprived
members of the Jewish community of their religious freedom by making it exceedingly
difficult for them to practice their religion openly and to associate with their
coreligionists. Many eventually had to hide their beliefs and affiliations. Of course, the
boycotts were objectionable for other reasons as well, such as the fact that they were
motivated by ethnic hatred. I cite the example simply to illustrate how an unrestricted
authorization to engage in SCEC would allow for consumer campaigns that intentionally
or unintentionally deprive others of their basic freedoms.
The danger persists today. In the United States, groups such as the American
Family Association (AFA) have used ethical consumerism to discourage expression that
conflicts with their Christian values.ix In recent years, the AFA has used boycotts and the
threat of boycotts against companies like Walt Disney, Ford, and Walmart for extending
insurance benefits to same-sex partners, advertising in gay media outlets, and sponsoring
TV shows that portray gay people as normal members of society.x An unrestricted
authorization to engage in SCEC would allow for any of these campaigns, regardless of
their impact on basic freedoms.
(b) Political equality
Citizens should be able to participate as equals in deciding how society will address
important issues of common concern. But an unrestricted authorization to engage in
SCEC is at odds with this value. This is because market actors who are better organized
and control more valuable resources can apply enormous pressure on other market actors
to advance a certain social agenda, but those who are poorly organized and control less
valuable resources cannot apply similar pressure. So when everyone is authorized to use
their market powers to advance a social agenda, this effectively allows those who are
better organized and better endowed to play a disproportionate role in deciding how
society will address issues of common concern.
People often miss the point because media attention naturally gravitates to social
groups that are active and mobilized. Take the well-known case of the Mexican tourism
boycott. In 1975, the Mexican government voted, along with 72 other mostly developing
countries, in favor of a resolution equating Zionism with racism and racial discrimination.
American Jews, who were frequent travelers to Mexico, responded with a groundswell
consumerist response: they cancelled their Mexican vacations—the Mexico Hotel
Association reported 30,000 cancellations in one week. Facing significant economic
pressures, the Mexican president eventually conceded that his country should not have
voted the way that it did. If we focus narrowly on the mobilized group, the boycott
appears to be a relatively unproblematic case of citizens “voting with their dollars.” It is
important to keep in mind, however, that many people in the world—rightly or wrongly
—supported the UN resolution. But these people largely lacked the resources to pressure
the Mexican government. Most importantly, Palestinians were not frequent travelers to
Mexico, and not nearly as wealthy or well organized as the American Jewish community.
They had no ability to back their social agenda with a comparable level of economic
pressure, and therefore they could not participate on equal terms in deciding this
important issue of common concern.
The Mexican tourism boycott is a particularly apt example because many people
see SCEC as a way to address the challenges of globalization. In an insightful essay,
Andreas Follesdal argues that a market economy is only justified when there are
appropriate restraints in the background that direct firms to socially valuable forms of
activity.xi The problem is that corporations can now move their operations anywhere in
the world, making it difficult for national governments to regulate these entities
effectively. For global capitalism to be justified, Follesdal argues, consumers must help
to fill the global governance gap by using their economic power to make sure that
corporations respect the interests of workers, communities and the environment.
Follesdal may be right that someone has to fill the global governance gap, but a
system of governance built on consumers exercising their bargaining power in the global
marketplace is essentially a system in which consumers in the developed world are in
charge. Wealthy and well organized, these consumers command the attention of market
actors, including multinational corporations, in a way that consumers in the developing
world do not. One of the fundamental problems with an unrestricted authorization to
engage in SCEC is that, in a globalized economy, this would effectively allow consumers
in the developed world to set the global agenda and to use their bargaining power to
advance this agenda around the world.xii
(c) Democratic deliberation
The course of public life in a democracy should be guided by the public deliberation of
its members.xiii Citizens should coordinate their efforts to address issues of common
concern through a discussion that focuses on finding the law or policy that would best
serve the common good. The outcome, moreover, should be determined by the strength
of the best arguments, not just the relative power of the individuals involved. The
problem with an unrestricted authorization to engage in SCEC is that it would not require
market-based efforts to address issues of common concern to be deliberative.
Consider the case of nuclear power. There are good reasons to be wary of nuclear
technology, including the danger of a large-scale accident and the intractable problem of
how to dispose of nuclear waste. At the same time, there are important arguments in favor
of nuclear technology, especially in the context of climate change. Suppose now that a
group of committed consumers, including some large institutional buyers, decides that
nuclear power is simply not an acceptable option for society and boycotts power
companies that use it. Given their size and importance, this group may well make it
prohibitively expensive for any power company to use nuclear technology to provide
electricity to its customers. But even if these consumers were right that nuclear
technology does not, on balance, serve the public interest, the process of social
coordination in this case would be objectionable. Instead of engaging in a deliberation
with other citizens to find a reasonable energy policy, the group simply uses its
bargaining power in the market to determine the outcome. An important issue of public
concern will have been decided through a bargaining process rather than a process of
deliberation. An unrestricted authorization to engage in SCEC would essentially allow
for most any market-based effort of this kind, regardless of its deliberative character.
(d) Justified coercion
When individuals use their bargaining power in the market to advance a social agenda, it
is important remember that this power is ultimately underwritten by the coercive power
of the state. The coercive power of the state must satisfy the publicity condition, which
says that any exercise of this power has to be accompanied by a public justification that
could be accepted by reasonable people who are subject to it.xiv The problem with an
unrestricted authorization to engage in SCEC is that it is not adequately sensitive to this
To illustrate, imagine after the end of Apartheid, white South Africans decide to
make decisions in the market partly on the grounds of maintaining their dominant
position in society. They make it a point to buy from black merchants and to hire black
workers only when this is compatible with their dominance—they might hire a black
maid, for instance, but not a black CEO. Given that the whites own most of the land,
natural resources, and productive capital in society, their purchasing policy effectively
excludes the black population from much of the benefits of social cooperation.
Moreover, if a black person tries to gain access to the land or to work in a professional or
managerial capacity in a firm, against the wishes of white landowners or shareholders,
the state will use its coercive power to defend the legally defined ownership rights of
white citizens. Apartheid may not be the official policy of the state, but the coercive
power of the state clearly stands behind the market-based efforts of white South Africans.
We have, in effect, a quasi-Apartheid regime indirectly enforced by the state.xv
More generally, for most any pattern of social rules S, there is a substantially
similar pattern of social rules S* that could enter society through the decisions of market
actors. Even if the state does not directly adopt and enforce S*, it may effectively
enforce S* insofar as it enforces legally defined property rights. This fact should place
significant constraints on what people are authorized to do in the market. If the publicity
condition would not allow a group of individuals to enact certain rules through
legislation, then it should also prevent them (in some way) from imposing these same
rules on society through nonstandard uses of their market powers.xvi
(e) Managed politicization
The last procedural value I will consider is managed politicization. Married people will
inevitably disagree about many aspects of their life together, but if they brought these
disagreements up all the time, they would undermine the many valuable, everyday
interactions that make up the fabric of the relationship. They have good reason, then, to
show restraint in bringing up their disagreements and to set aside appropriate times for
the hard conversations.
Managed politicization reflects a similar concern in political life. Citizens in a
liberal democracy disagree about important issues of public concern, but if they brought
these disagreements up all the time, they would undermine many of the valuable forms of
interaction that make up the fabric of social life. Since these valuable interactions tend to
generate mutual trust and good will, they might also undermine the background of fellow
feeling in society that ultimately helps them to reach compromises on difficult issues.xvii
As a way of preserving these goods, the ideal of managed politicization says that citizens
should limit the extent to which they allow their political disagreements to come between
them outside of the sphere of formal democratic politics.
The problem with an unrestricted authorization to engage in SCEC is that it puts
no conditions on when and how people can pursue their political disagreements with each
other in market life. It does not restrict the practice to cases where the disagreements are
particularly serious or to cases where the formal democratic process is unavailable. It is
therefore insufficiently sensitive to the importance of managed politicization.
An interesting illustration involves the Ford motor company. When Ford began
advertising in gay media outlets, the AFA and 19 other groups organized a boycott of
what they saw as an effort to normalize gay and lesbian lifestyles. Prior to the boycott,
people could interact as Ford customers, employees, retailers, suppliers, and so on,
without much thought to where they stood on the issue of gay rights. This created the
space for many patterns of mutually beneficial interaction, patterns that encouraged good
will among citizens. Once the boycott started, however, many of these patterns came to
an end, as those who opposed the integration of gays and lesbians into the mainstream
avoided Ford. To make matters worse, the AFA boycott drew a response from 41 civil
rights groups, who lined up to pressure Ford not to cave in to the Christian groups’
demands, and this pushed the level of acrimony even higher. An unrestricted
authorization to engage in SCEC would allow anyone to start a boycott for almost any
reason, and therefore does not pay enough attention to the importance of managed
3. Restricted authorization: proto-legislative SCEC
In the last section, I argued that an unrestricted authorization to engage in SCEC would
be inconsistent with some of the most important procedural aims of a liberal democracy,
including securing people’s basic liberties and ensuring that they can participate in social
decision-making as equals. We are therefore not permitted to treat SCEC as just another
private purchasing decision. I turn now to a more restrictive account of the permission to
engage in SCEC.
According to what I call the proto-legislative account, we can permissibly use our
market powers to advance a social agenda under certain conditions that I will outline
below. These conditions effectively limit us to proto-legislative” SCEC. We are
morally permitted to engage in proto-legislative SCEC because an authorization to use
our market powers this way is consistent with the central procedural aims of a liberal
democracy. We not morally permitted to engage in other forms of SCEC because an
authorization to engage in most any other form would be inconsistent with these
procedural aims.
Let’s start with an important background idea. The examples in the last section
basically draw attention to the limitations of the market, understood as a mechanism of
social change. Even when the changes that people want to bring about through the
market are good ones, the processes involved tend to be inconsistent with procedural
values. A society in which the market was the sole mechanism of social change would
clearly fall short of these ideals.
The procedural shortcomings of the market provide one important rationale for
treating the formal democratic process as the supreme system for making and changing
social rules (including the rules of the market itself). Formal democratic politics
incorporates various measures—including a bill of rights, universal suffrage, equally
weighted votes, and so on—that are designed to address an array of procedural concerns.
When we embed the market in a democratic system of government, we help to ensure
that society will not only achieve good outcomes, but will also evolve towards these
outcomes in ways that satisfy procedural values. We might say that formal democratic
politics occupies a privileged position in social life because procedural values demand
that a process with these features should function as the highest order system for making
and changing social rules (though not necessarily the only system for doing so).
Taking the privileged position of formal democratic politics as background, the
proto-legislative account says that citizens are authorized to use their market powers to
advance a social agenda when they treat their buying choices as part of the wider
democratic process—a kind of ongoing, informal prologue to formal democratic
lawmaking. An analogy will help to explain.
When a parliamentary body faces a large array of regulatory tasks, and it cannot
complete all of them, members may form one or more ad-hoc committees to deal with
particular issues. On one model, an ad-hoc committee will draw its members from the
wider parliament, making sure to include people who can represent the most important
perspectives in the larger body on the issue in question.xviii The committee then frames
rules for the issue area through a process of reasoning in which members try to identify
what rules they think the full parliament should adopt if it were to consider the issue
formally. As part of their responsibilities, committee members prepare evidence and
arguments to justify their rules, and they make this material available to the rest of the
parliament. Once the committee frames a set of rules, these rules may, in some cases,
serve as the authoritative pronouncements of the parliament, backed by the usual
sanctions, though the rules would not have the full binding force of law unless the
parliament as a whole were to explicitly endorse them.
The proto-legislative account says that citizens who engage in SCEC must
conduct themselves as a kind of ad-hoc committee, working on behalf of the citizen body
as a whole. They must use their bargaining power in the market to frame a set of rules
for a certain issue area, where these rules are determined through a process that involves
parties who together represent the most important perspectives on the issue in society.
Those involved in the process must frame rules that they believe the full citizen body
should adopt, if it were to consider the issue formally. As in the case of an ad-hoc
committee, citizens must prepare evidence and arguments that justify the rules that they
frame, and they must make this material available to the wider body of citizens. The
rules that citizens frame are authoritative, but they do not have the full binding force of
law unless the citizen body as a whole endorses them. In the absence of legal penalties,
the bargaining power of citizens as consumers serves to give market actors subject to the
rules some reasonable assurance that other market actors will also comply.xix
Stated formally, the proto-legislative account says that citizens (acting alone or in
concert with each other) are authorized to make purchasing decisions on the grounds that
these will change the incentive structure in ways that advance a social agenda when:
(1) The exercise of bargaining power does not deprive anyone of their basic
(2) The exercise of bargaining power is directed at (significantly) advancing an
agenda framed in terms of a reasonable conception of the common good.
(3) The formal democratic process has not already addressed the issue in
(4) The process that guides the exercise of bargaining power is appropriately
representative and deliberative.
(5) The process that guides the exercise of bargaining power generates standards
and arguments that can be the basis of future legislation.
(6) The overall effort aims to raise awareness of the issue and (if necessary) to
put it on the formal legislative agenda.
The first two conditions are relatively straightforward: we are not authorized to
use our bargaining power in the market in ways that deprive others of their basic
freedoms or advance a social agenda built narrowly around our own self-interest. In
approaching SCEC as part of the democratic process, citizens must use their bargaining
power to promote a reasonable conception of the common good.xx
The third condition recognizes the privileged position of formal democratic
politics and rules out attempts by citizens to use their bargaining power in the market to
overrule the legislature.
The fourth, fifth and sixth conditions require citizens to use their bargaining
power in ways that express democratic respect for their fellow citizens. Instead of simply
imposing rules on society, citizen-consumers must involve other people in the rule
making process, people who can effectively represent the most important perspectives in
society on a certain issue. All those involved must deliberate and come to a reasoned
agreement about the appropriate rules, and the process should aim to produce standards,
arguments and agreements that can eventually form the basis of formal legislation.
The sixth condition addresses the danger of social cocooning.xxi Market-based
strategies for addressing collective concerns do not require participants to engage
democratically with the wider community—small groups of consumers may formulate
product standards and enforce them on their own. The sixth condition addresses the
danger. It says that citizens who come together to enforce product standards must be
open about what they are doing, so that the wider community knows (or could easily
learn) about their actions and the issues they are addressing. Citizens engaged in these
projects should also be prepared to put their standards and arguments before the full
public and seek approval through formal democratic channels, if this becomes necessary.
I want to emphasize that the proto-legislative account does not require that
citizens actually get formal approval for their actions before they engage in SCEC. Nor
does it require that they act only in ways that they predict would be approved by the
majority, given the current state of knowledge and public opinion. Instead, it says that
citizens who engage in SCEC must do so with the understanding that they are acting on
behalf of the citizen body as a whole, and that they are introducing rules that they believe
the full citizen body should adopt on full consideration of the facts.
The proto-legislative account contrasts with perhaps the most important,
contemporary normative conception of SCEC, a view that I will call common good
anarchism.xxii This view says that if individuals see that some activity is damaging the
common good (e.g. harming a shared natural resource, violating basic rights, etc.), they
can use their bargaining power in the market peacefully to pressure those engaged in the
activity to stop what they are doing. The common good anarchist thinks that we each
have the authority to act privately in defense of the common good.
The proto-legislative account rejects common good anarchism in favor of a
democratic conception of SCEC. The common good is certainly a shared concern, but so
are procedural values, such as political equality, deliberation, and justified coercion.
When we act in defense of the common good, we must not lose sight of the fact that other
citizens, who may have different views about what would advance the common good,
also have a claim to participate in deciding important issues of common concern. The
proto-legislative account allows people to use their bargaining power peacefully to
pressure those who are damaging the common good to stop what they are doing, but it
says that direct action in defense of the common good must also respect a series of
constraints that reflect the importance of democratic ideals.
Why are we morally permitted to engage in proto-legislative SCEC? The basic
reason is that an authorization to use our market powers in this way is not at odds with
the central procedural aims of a liberal democracy. Take political equality, for instance.
The privileged position of formal democratic politics ensures that all citizens have a basic
capacity to participate as equals in deciding important issues of common concern. The
restrictions of the proto-legislative account reinforce this equality by not allowing
wealthy consumers to use SCEC to challenge the formal democratic process.
Furthermore, the representation and deliberation conditions ensure that all of the
important perspectives in society are represented in the process that directs consumer
bargaining power, which means that a wealthy and well-organized minority could not use
SCEC to simply impose their views on the rest of society. The authorization defined by
the proto-legislative account is therefore consistent with political equality. Similar
arguments can be made with respect to the other procedural aims of a liberal democracy.
Could there be other forms of SCEC that are also compatible with these
procedural aims? This is unlikely. Proving the point would require examining every
possible formulation of the authorization to engage in SCEC and showing how each one
is inconsistent with some procedural value—this is beyond the scope of this paper. But I
would argue that once you take certain values seriously, particularly deliberation and
justified coercion, most any authorization that is consistent with the procedural aims of a
liberal democracy would have to incorporate significant proto-legislative requirements.
The precise requirements could vary, but they would effectively limit people to proto-
legislative forms of SCEC.
4. An illustration: The Forest Stewardship Council
An example will help to illustrate the proto-legislative account. I discuss here the
consumer campaign coordinated by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). I argue that
the joint exercise of consumer bargaining power in this campaign meets conditions (1)-
(5) listed above, though it is not entirely clear whether it meets condition (6).
The FSC was established in 1993, following a period in which the public became
more aware of the dangers of tropical deforestation, and activists became disillusioned
with inter-governmental policy making mechanisms on forestry issues (particularly the
1992 UN Conference on Sustainable Development).xxiii An independent,
nongovernmental, nonprofit organization, the FSC is committed to promoting the
responsible management of the world’s forests. It promotes this goal mainly by
certifying wood products as having been harvested consistently with its “basic principles
of responsible management.” These principles include: respect for local laws and
international treaties; respect for the rights and interests of workers, indigenous peoples
and the local community; equitable sharing of the benefits of the forest; and the
conservation of biological diversity, water resources, soils and fragile ecosystems.xxiv The
FSC accredits independent certification bodies to carry out annual inspections and spot
checks, and to certify forests, manufacturers and products as FSC compliant. FSC
product labels are widely recognized, and many governmental and institutional buyers
will not buy wood products unless they come from FSC-certified forests.
The highest decision making body in the FSC is the General Assembly. It has the
ultimate authority to make decisions about the proper articulation and interpretation of
the principles of responsible management, policies regarding accreditation, and so on.
The Assembly is divided into three equally weighted chambers: Environmental, Social
and Economic. Each of the chambers is itself divided into two equally weighted sub-
chambers, North and South, in order to ensure that perspectives from the developing
world are fairly represented. Among the environmental groups that participate are
Rainforest Action Network, Greenpeace, and the Sierra Club. Social groups include the
Alliance of Forest Workers and Harvesters, the National Aboriginal Forestry Association
and the Taskforce on the Churches and Corporate Responsibility. Economic groups
include retailers such as Home Depot and Homebase, and forest management companies
such as Northland Forest Products and Sweden’s Sveaskog. The Board of Directors
manages the day to day operations of the FSC and answers to the General Assembly in
biannual meetings that are posted on their website.
The joint exercise of bargaining power coordinated by the FSC meets the first
three conditions of proto-legislative SCEC. It does not limit fundamental freedoms, and
aims to significantly advance an agenda for forest management framed in terms of a
reasonable conception of the common good. The principle of respect for local laws
ensures that the consumer campaign does not attempt to override the will of democratic
What is most distinctive about the campaign is that it meets conditions four and
five. The FSC process is representative because the General Assembly includes
organizations that represent the most important perspectives in different societies about
how to properly manage and exploit the world’s forests.xxv The process is also
deliberative. Though it would take some close observation to verify this, there are good
indicators of deliberative engagement. For one thing, “there is a certain common
acknowledgment—one may even say respect—across actors of the broad range of
interests and values involved in forests besides forestry: tourism, recreation, wildlife,
cultural values and so forth.”xxvi Background inequalities in power are also not excessive
because the economic power of the forestry companies is balanced by the important
“social” or “symbolic” capital of the social and environmental organizations.xxvii
With respect to condition five, the FSC process generates standards and
arguments that can provide the basis for future legislation. The FSC has national
initiatives in over 50 countries, and many of these initiatives include working groups that
develop more specific standards and criteria to apply the general principles of responsible
management to specific geographical areas and forests. These particular standards and
criteria, along with the underlying principles, provide a rich basis for democratic
A more difficult question has to do with the sixth condition. To what extent does
the campaign aim to raise awareness and (if necessary) place the issue of responsible
forest management on the formal legislative agenda? There is a certain anarchist
tendency in the FSC-led campaign—after all, it was frustration with governmental and
intergovernmental policy-making procedures that led the movement to embrace a kind of
direct action. Though the campaign respects local laws and regulations, the proto-
legislative account says that the campaign would be on a stronger moral footing if it were
more clearly oriented to seeking public approval for its standards through formal
democratic channels if this became necessary.
5. The good of SCEC: “waiting rooms” for democracy
I have explained the central features of the proto-legislative account. Citizens are
morally permitted to use their market powers to advance a social agenda when they
respect the six conditions outlined above. But in order to fully understand the practice, we
must understand what makes it good. What makes proto-legislative SCEC a worthwhile
Proto-legislative SCEC essentially creates arenas of informal democratic self-
governance that operate below the level of formal democratic politics. We might think of
these as the “waiting rooms” of democracy. In a large, complex and technologically
sophisticated society, citizens cannot make all of the rules necessary to direct market
activity to desirable outcomes through the formal legislative and regulatory process. As
things stand, when issues do not make it onto the formal democratic agenda, they are left
to the unregulated market. But with proto-legislative SCEC, citizens can address issues
that need attention but do not get on the formal agenda through informal self-regulation
in secondary arenas such as the FSC. This secondary form of democratic governance has
several benefits.
One has to do with perpetually secondary concerns. Deforestation, for instance, is
a real problem and citizens may agree that it is, but they may not think that the problem is
as urgent as other issues on the national agenda—e.g. issues of war and peace.
Unfortunately, political mobilization in a mass democracy typically focuses on a small
number of issues that can move people to the voting booth, and since deforestation
figures lower on the list of citizens’ concerns, it will get pushed aside in national debates.
Depending on what kinds of trouble a society gets into, the deforestation issue may
stagnate this way for decades. Proto-legislative SCEC can help to fill the governance gap
by giving citizens another avenue for democratically regulating market activity, an
avenue that would allow them to address deforestation and other perennial “also-rans” in
mainstream politics.
Another benefit of the practice has to do with the formation of a legislative will.
Currently, when issues do not break into the sphere of formal democratic politics, they
languish in the market, a sphere in which consumers, workers, and corporations typically
meet each other as groups with competing interests, locked in competitive bargaining.
Over time, these antagonistic relationships can harden people’s positions. The advantage
of proto-legislative SCEC is that the “waiting room” for democracy does not have to be
just an arena for conflict. While parties are waiting for an opening on the formal agenda,
they can work towards agreement on various principles and rules, and the progress they
make can eventually form the basis for a legislative consensus.
A closely related benefit is increased governability. Corporations are powerful
social actors, with privileged access to political authorities, and they often oppose laws
that would protect the rights and interests of weaker players in the market. But the
orientation of corporations is closely connected with the orientation of consumers. If
consumers are narrowly interested in price and quality, without regard for how a firm
delivers these goods, then firms stand to profit from reduced protections for weaker
players. But if consumers are sensitive to whether a firm respects the rights and interests
of others, there will be less profit to be made in taking advantage of weaker players, and
this in turn will make firms less hostile to regulatory efforts to protect these players.
Finally, proto-legislative SCEC can expand the sphere of citizen engagement. As
Michele Micheletti and others argue, many people who care about the common good but
do not participate in formal democratic politics will find it more natural to participate in
market-based decision making.xxviii Someone who cares about tropical deforestation may
not identify with a political party or have general views about economic policy, but she
may find it quite natural to connect her social concerns with choices about what furniture
to buy or what paper to use. A forum such as the FSC offers this person a way to
participate in collective self-governance: she can go to the website to explore the issue,
participate in wider discussions about appropriate standards, and contribute to social
change by making better purchasing decisions. Her involvement with the FSC may
eventually lead her to take a more active role in formal democratic politics.
6. Is the proto-legislative account too restrictive?
I have argued that citizens must approach SCEC as part of the broader democratic
process rather than a private purchasing decision. Many readers may be sympathetic to
the proto-legislative account, but object to it on the grounds that it is too restrictive.
I want to emphasize first that the proto-legislative account says that we can and
should engage in proto-legislative SCEC. Citizens should use their bargaining power in
the market to address a wide range of social concerns by directing corporations and other
market actors to better forms of productive activity. All that the proto-legislative account
requires is that when citizens use the market this way, their actions must conform to a set
of requirements that ensure proper respect for democratic values.
Some may object that the proto-legislative account puts too many demands on
consumers. I disagree. The account says that consumers can participate in SCEC much
as they do now, that is, by doing things such as buying products that conform to the
requirements of an appropriate certification or labeling scheme. What the account
stresses is that these schemes must live up to certain standards with respect to
representation, deliberation and transparency. Since a certification scheme directs
consumer bargaining power, the restrictions of the proto-legislative account are necessary
to ensure that this exercise of power is consistent with the democratic character of
Some might object that the proto-legislative account puts too many restrictions on
how we can use our bargaining power in the market to challenge unjust regimes. Here it
is important to emphasize that the restrictions of the proto-legislative account apply only
in cases where political morality actually directs citizens to treat the formal democratic
process as authoritative. Clearly there are cases where injustices are so severe that
morality does not require citizens to give formal democratic politics a privileged position
in social life. In the case of Apartheid, for instance, the laws were so unjust that even
undemocratic measures would have been permissible to change them, and the formal
democratic process did not answer in even basic ways to procedural values such as
equality. Under these conditions, the restrictions of the proto-legislative account would
not apply: South Africans living under Apartheid had a much more expansive permission
to use their bargaining power to generate social change—for example, consumers could
boycott companies for complying with Apartheid laws, even if these laws were enacted
through the formal legislative process.xxix
On the other hand, the restrictions of the proto-legislative account do apply in
most affluent liberal democracies today. There are significant injustices in both the laws
and political processes in countries such as the United States and Canada, but these
injustices do not rise (for the most part) to a level where undemocratic measures would
be permitted to change them. The political process in these countries answers in some
basic ways to procedural values and nothing would be gained by setting up a competing
rule-making system. The central role of SCEC in these societies is to provide citizens
with a way of working within the existing authority structure to steer society to better
Proto-legislative SCEC is similar, in some ways, to more radical forms of political
action, such as civil disobedience and nonviolent noncooperation: proto-legislative SCEC
also involves citizens acting directly in defense of the common good while also making
their reasons public. An important difference, however, is that citizens generally use civil
disobedience and nonviolent noncooperation to challenge legislative decisions made
through the formal democratic process. Although citizens may also use SCEC in this
way, what is most distinctive about this form of political action is that citizens can use it
to supplement the existing authority structure: emerging practices such as environmental
and free trade labeling give guidance where none (or almost none) is given. This
represents an important development in the repertoire of contemporary social activism.
7. Price-quality consumerism
Some readers may be sympathetic to the proto-legislative account, but they may think
that my argument does not leave enough room in society for private purchasing decisions.
Consider that ordinary price-quality consumerism involves the use of our market powers,
and it has an enormous impact on the course of social life: new forms of work, housing,
and social interaction—even new cities and towns—are in large part the product of price-
quality decisions that people make as consumers. When consumers engage in price-
quality consumerism, however, they do not focus on the common good, deliberate with
their fellow citizens, or make their reasons public. If, as I argue, the requirements of the
proto-legislative account are necessary to ensure that SCEC is consistent with the
procedural aims of a liberal democracy, then it seems these same requirements should
apply to price-quality consumerism as well, and this would effectively rule out price-
quality consumerism as we know it. So my argument seems to have the counterintuitive
implication that consumers must approach all purchasing decisions as part of a
deliberative process that aims to find the allocation of resources in society that best serves
the common good.
The objection raises an important question about the boundary in market life
between the public and private spheres. In order to answer the objection, I need to say
something about the rationale for a sphere of private decision-making in the market.
In every society, there are many possibilities for generating Pareto improvements
in welfare by transferring resources from one person to One vast pool of such
possibilities exists in virtue of the fact that workers and investors are often willing to
make products at prices that consumers are willing to pay. The market exchange process
is a process of bargaining and exchange that, under the right conditions, will carry out all
of these Pareto improving transfers. Over time, the process can maintain a Pareto optimal
distribution of resources in society, a distribution that is sensitive to the constantly
changing preferences of workers, investors and consumers.xxxi No other plausible method
of social coordination could perform this complex task as effectively.xxxii
It is true, of course, that the market exchange process generates significant
changes in society through a process of bargaining, and in this respect it conflicts with the
procedural aims of a liberal democracy. But the procedural defects of the market
exchange process are justified because the process can (if reasonably well managed)
generate profound improvements in people’s lives, improvements that meet the very high
threshold necessary to justify certain departures from procedural ideals, and in addition,
no procedurally sound process could achieve comparable results. So the market
exchange process may have certain procedural defects, but incorporating this process into
our basic practices does not undermine the justifiability of our liberal democratic order.
What makes price-quality consumerism different from SCEC is that price-quality
consumerism is internal to the market exchange process. The price-quality preferences
of consumers are an essential component in the vast social opportunity for Pareto
improving transfers that I mentioned—it’s the correspondence between these consumer
preferences and the preferences of workers and investors that creates the opportunity.
Under the right conditions, the market process will generate all of the Pareto improving
transfers that make up this social opportunity, but in order for the process to work,
consumers must actually make buying decisions based on their price-quality preferences.
If they do not signal their price-quality preferences and pursue these preferences through
their purchasing decisions, the market exchange process will not achieve its justifying
By contrast, SCEC is not internal to the process in the same way. The social
change preferences of individual consumers tend to conflict with the social change
preferences of workers, investors and other consumers. These preferences do not present
a significant opportunity for Pareto improving transfers, and as such, SCEC does not
contribute to the market achieving its justifying end.
We now have a response to the objection. Ordinary price quality consumerism
and SCEC both involve people using their market powers in ways that bring about
significant social changes, but the special restrictions of the proto-legislative account are
not necessary with respect to price-quality consumerism. The reason is that price-quality
consumerism is internal to the market exchange process: it is part of a social practice
whose procedural defects are justified because they are necessary to generate an
overwhelming improvement in people’s lives.xxxiii
Just to be clear, the fact that the market exchange process generates this
overwhelming improvement does not mean that its outcomes are always justified or even
neutral—far from it. My point is only that the market exchange process generates an
overall improvement in outcomes that is substantial enough to justify its procedural
defects (including those associated with price-quality consumerism). This leaves open
the possibility that many market outcomes will fail to satisfy certain moral requirements,
and that we will have to intervene in the process through formal legislation or proto-
legislative SCEC.
8. Redrawing the public-private boundary in market life
An important implication of my argument is that consumers must distinguish between the
different grounds on which they make decisions in the market. When they make choices
based on price-quality considerations, they can approach their choices as private
purchasing decisions: they are not required to focus on the common good, deliberate with
their fellow citizens, or make their reasons public. But when consumers make choices
based on social change considerations, they must shift gears and approach these choices
as part of the legislative process: they must focus on the common good, deliberate with
their fellow citizens, and make their reasons public. The role of the modern consumer
effectively straddles the boundary between the private and public spheres.
The case of consumers is one instance of a more general pattern. For example,
the market also gives citizens the power to lend resources to each other, and their lending
decisions can also have a powerful impact on issues of common concern. According to
my argument, lenders can approach their lending decisions as private choices when they
make their decisions based purely on their risk-return preferences. This is because the
risk-return preferences of lenders form part of the same, vast social opportunity for Pareto
improving transfers, an opportunity that could only be realistically exploited through the
market exchange process. But when lenders use their lending decisions to try and change
society—for example, by using “red lining” policies to preserve the racial composition of
a neighborhood—they must switch gears, focus on the common good, deliberate with
their fellow citizens, and make their reasons public. This is because there is no market
exchange-based argument to justify treating these decisions as private ones. Similar
implications follow for the institutional powers of shareholders and workers.
The argument does not extend, however, to all market powers. For example,
market institutions give citizens the power to make charitable contributions, and these
contributions can also have a powerful impact on issues of common concern. But
charitable contributions are different from purchases because they do not involve Pareto
improving transfers: when donors donate, they sacrifice their own welfare in order to
improve the lives of others through a charitable organization. The case for a sphere of
private decision-making about charitable giving has little to do with the market exchange
process, and mostly involves expressive concerns and the value of decentralizing the
delivery of social services.xxxiv In the end, some decisions about charitable giving may
also be subject to proto-legislative requirements, but whether this is true or not will
depend on how best to understand the distinctive arguments for treating these decisions as
private ones.
9. Issues of application
I want to turn in this last section to some important issues relating to the application of
the proto-legislative account to actual consumer campaigns.
(a) The duties of NGOs
Let’s say that an NGO plays a coordinating role in a consumer campaign when (1) it
shares the social concerns of a wider body of consumers, and (2) it provides information
to these consumers for the purposes of getting them to act in ways that advance the aims
that the NGO and consumers share. Most NGOs running a certification or labeling
scheme play a coordinating role in this sense. On my view, these NGOs are not like
newspapers, disseminating information about companies and products in a more or less
disinterested way. They are more like volunteer coordinators, who step forward from a
particular community to broadcast information to the other members of the community in
order to direct everyone to conduct that will advance their shared aims.
When an NGO plays a coordinating role in a consumer campaign, it has a duty to
coordinate the campaign in such a way that the joint exercise of bargaining power by
consumers will satisfy the requirements of the proto-legislative account. This follows
from what I take to be a more general moral principle of leadership. Military planners
coordinating an assault have a duty to coordinate it in such a way that it satisfies the
requirements of a just military campaign. A union coordinating a strike has a duty to
coordinate it in such a way that it satisfies the requirements of a permissible labor
boycott. And similarly, an NGO coordinating the application of bargaining power by
consumers has a duty to coordinate the campaign in such a way that it satisfies the
requirements of the proto-legislative account. In practice, this means that an NGO
running a certification or labeling scheme will have to develop internal structures like
those of the FSC, though the scale of the campaign would dictate how extensive these
mechanisms have to be.
(b) Buying as political expression
Every year on Black Friday, the magazine Adbusters sponsors a national “Buy Nothing
Day,” where participants go out into stores and very publicly refuse to buy anything.xxxv
This boycott is essentially a market-based performance, protest, or “happening,” where
the goal is to generate social change, not through a strategic use of bargaining power, but
by posing a question about hyper-consumerism and getting people to think more about it.
“Buy Nothing Day” is one example of a special category of expressive ethical
consumerism that I will call political expressive consumerism. Citizens engage in this
form of consumerism when they make buying decisions to change society, but their
purchases contribute to this goal because they serve some expressive function. Many
boycotts are instances of political expressive consumerism in that they are mainly
intended to draw attention to the bad conduct of a firm and to shame it into changing its
As a general matter, political expressive consumerism does not have to satisfy the
requirements of the proto-legislative account. The requirements of the proto-legislative
account are necessary because when social change comes about through bargaining
interactions in the market, the process tends to be inconsistent with procedural values.
Political expressive consumerism, however, does not bring about social change through a
bargaining process; when citizens engage in this kind of consumerism, they are
essentially participating in social deliberation about important issues of public concern.
People can participate in social deliberation in many ways, including through formal
argument, protests and artistic expression, and commerce represents another possibility.
Since a liberal democratic society is supposed to evolve over time through a process of
free and open reasoning among citizens, the restrictions of the proto-legislative account
are not necessary when it comes to consumerism that amounts to deliberative
The fact that political expressive consumerism does not have to satisfy the
requirements of the proto-legislative account does not mean that it does not have to
satisfy other requirements. It can be wrong, for instance, to mislead people in
deliberation, or to attack the reputation of a company or product without sufficient
reason. My point is only that the relevant restrictions are not those of the proto-
legislative account.
What about consumer campaigns that combine some form of expression with an
exercise of bargaining power? Here we have to balance two competing concerns. On the
one hand, a liberal democracy must provide citizens with an adequate sphere for political
expression. On the other hand, a liberal democracy must not allow people to use their
bargaining power in the market in ways that undermine the democratic character of
society. I argue that any consumer campaign that generates significant economic pressure
on other actors must meet the requirements of the proto-legislative account, even if the
campaign also has a significant expressive element. Since citizens can usually express
the views that they want to express through their purchasing decisions in some other
medium—e.g. pamphlets or a Facebook page—this restriction would prevent
undemocratic uses of bargaining power without constraining the sphere of political
expression too severely.
(c) International SCEC
Finally, many consumer campaigns involve influencing behavior in other societies. I
cannot address all of the important questions that arise when we consider the proto-
legislative account in the global context, but the following may serve as a useful guide.
Citizens in one political community are not necessarily citizens in another, and
people must respect the different relationships that they have with different societies. The
proto-legislative account basically says that whenever citizens in one community use
their purchasing decisions to advance a social agenda, and advancing this agenda
involves using their bargaining power to shape behavior and practices in another
community, they must respect the institutions and processes of democratic change in the
other community.xxxvii For example, as part of an effort to improve labor standards around
the world, consumers in the UK might try to enforce certain labor standards in the
Philippines by pressuring multinationals that sell goods in the UK to comply with these
standards in their Filipino factories. This approach, however, would fail to show
adequate respect for Filipinos’ views about labor safety and for their processes of
democratic change.
How might consumers in the UK advance their labor agenda while also being
respectful of democratic self-government in the Philippines? One way would be for UK
consumers to “lend” their consumer power to the people of the Philippines by making
purchasing decisions that enforce labor standards that Filipinos have established through
legislation or informal standard setting in civil society. If no appropriate standards exist,
consumers in the UK could announce a new purchasing policy: from now on, they will
give preference in their purchasing decisions to those goods made in the Philippines that
are made in factories that conform to standards formulated through democratically sound
processes. This policy would create incentives for companies and civil society groups in
the Philippines to work together to set up appropriate standard-setting mechanisms.xxxviii
Another possibility is for consumers in the UK to use their purchasing power to enforce
international standards established through an international process (e.g. the FSC, the
ILO) that properly incorporates democratic processes in the Philippines. These options
do not exhaust the realm of possibilities, but they do illustrate the basic principle of
respect for democratic self-determination.
10. Conclusion
As more traditional modes of governance have failed to address various social,
environmental and trade concerns, citizens have come increasingly to see their buying
power in the market as a mechanism of social change. The argument of this paper has
been supportive of this movement. We must never lose sight of the dangers of SCEC.
But within the constraints of the proto-legislative account, the practice is morally
permissible and substantively advances the project of democratic self-government.
SCEC can amount to an impermissible form of vigilantism, but within the constraints of
the proto-legislative account, it has a legitimate place in the practices of a liberal
democratic society.
For their very helpful comments on previous drafts of this paper, I would like to thank: Andreas
Follesdal, Sandrine Blanc, Michael McDonald, Josiah Ober, Eric Orts, Rob Reich, David Silver, Debra
Satz, Alan Strudler, Maja Tampe, the Editors of Philosophy and Public Affairs, and audiences at The
Program on Global Justice at Stanford University, the annual meeting of the Society for the
Advancement of Socio-Economics in Madrid, the W. Maurice Young Centre for Applied Ethics at the
University of British Columbia, and The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Thanks to
Anna Cremaldi and Daniel Albornaz for their hard work as my research assistants. Special thanks to
Joshua Cohen for his support for this project.
For the morality of consumer choice in general, see David T. Schwarz, Consuming Choices (Plymouth:
Rowman & Littlefield, 2010).
See Monroe Friedman, Consumer Boycotts (New York: Routledge, 1999).
A procedural value is a nonconsequentialist ideal that makes wide-ranging demands on how members
of a society should think and act. For this general view of value, see T. M. Scanlon, What We Owe to
Each Other (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), chapter 2; Elizabeth Anderson, Value in
Ethics and Economics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993); and Michael Walzer, Spheres of
Justice (New York: Basic Books, 1983). For a somewhat different account of procedural values, see
Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999).
iv My “interpretive” approach to institutions follows Ronald Dworkin, Law’s Empire (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1986), chapters 2 and 3.
v See T.M. Scanlon, “Due Process” The Difficulty of Tolerance (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2003), pp. 43-4.
I have in mind the freedoms that Rawls refers to as the “liberty of the moderns.” See John Rawls, A
Theory of Justice, revised edition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999) (hereafter cited as
Theory), Part II. I assume that our claims to these basic freedoms also imply a claim to control over
our sexual preference.
vii Rawls, Theory, p. 177: “…constraints [defining a lack of liberty] may range from duties and
prohibitions defined by law to the coercive influences arising from public opinion and social pressure.”
Michele Micheletti, Political Virtue and Shopping (New York: Palgrave, 2003), p. 67.
See Friedman, Consumer Boycotts, pp. 167-71.
Friedman, Consumer Boycotts, p. 170; “Still Advertising to Gays; Ford Under Boycott Again” New
York Times (March 15, 2006); “Wal-Mart Boycott Over Gays Called Off” Even those who use SCEC to defend their rights may at the
same time use it to threaten the rights of others: see Cheryl Greenberg “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t
Work” Consumer Society in American History: A Reader, ed. Lawrence Glickman (Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 1999).
Andreas Follesdal, Political Consumerism as Chance and Challenge” Politics, Products, and
Markets: Exploring Political Consumerism Past and Present, eds. Michele Micheletti, et. al. (New
Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2004). See also Waheed Hussain, “Stepping Up: Ethical
Consumerism in a World of Diminished States” Leadership and Global Justice, eds. Douglas Hicks
and Thad Williamson (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
xii For a discussion of north-south tensions in the fair trade movement, see Christopher M. Bacon,
“Who decides what is fair in fair trade?” The Journal of Peasant Studies vol. 37, no. 1, (January 2010).
xiii See Joshua Cohen, “Deliberation and Democratic Legitimacy” Philosophy, Politics, Democracy,
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009); and Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms
(Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996).
See Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), pp. 67-8.
This example builds on observations from G.A. Cohen, “Capitalism, Freedom and the Proletariat” On
the Currency of Egalitarian Justice, ed. Michael Otsuka (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011);
and Jeremy Waldron, “Homelessness and the Issue of Freedom” Liberal Rights (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1993).
xvi This does not mean that we must satisfy the demands of publicity every time we make a market
decision. The market is a social institution that has an appropriate public justification—i.e. it provides
the institutional setting for an exchange process that tends towards a Pareto optimal outcome (see
section 7 below). “Standard” uses of our market powers are those uses, such as making purchases on
price-quality grounds, that are essential for the market to achieve its justifying aim. When the state
enforces outcomes that result from standard uses of our market powers, its enforcement satisfies
publicity in virtue of the fact that it s only enforcing the rules of a social practice that has an appropriate
public justification. But state coercion would not satisfy publicity in the same way when the outcomes
in question result from nonstandard uses of our market powers—e.g. those designed to maintain a
quasi-Apartheid regime. State enforcement of these outcomes would have to satisfy publicity
independently of the justification for the institution.
xvii See Rawls, Theory, pp. 409-413 and 429-434. For the importance of everyday interactions, see
also Habermas, Between Facts and Norms, pp. 17-27; G.W.F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of
Right, ed. Allen Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), §§ 182-208; and Marcel
Mauss, The Gift (London: Routledge, 2001).
xviii The ad-hoc committee is representative in the sense that it attempts to adequately reflect the
diversity of perspectives in the full parliament: it is a “mini-public.” The committee is not
representative in the sense that its members exercise some authority delegated to them by members of
parliament. See Robert Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), p.
340; Robert Goodin and John Dryzek “Deliberative Impacts: The Macro-Political Uptake of Mini-
Publics” Politics and Society, 34 (2006).
xix See Rawls, Theory, pp. 211 and 238.
xx When acting in a group, citizens can satisfy the second condition (as well as conditions 4, 5 and 6)
by relying on a coordinating agency to direct their joint exercise of bargaining power in the appropriate
xxi See Andrew Szasz, Shopping Our Way to Safety (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
xxii I take this view to be implicit in how many activists think about SCEC.
The international website of the FSC is The US chapter: In addition to
the FSC’s publications, the account in this section draws on: Fred Gale, Caveat Certificatum: The
Case of Forest Certification” in Confronting Consumption, eds. Thomas Princen, et. al. (Cambridge:
MIT Press, 2002); Michele Micheletti, Political Virtue and Shopping; Mikael Klintman, “Participation
in Green Consumer Policies: Deliberative Democracy under Wrong Conditions?” Journal of Consumer
Policy 32 (2009), pp. 43-57; and Benjamin Cashore, et. al., “Legitimizing Political Consumerism: The
Case of Forest Certification in North America and Europe” in Politics, Products and Markets, eds.
Michele Micheletti et. al..
xxv A fuller treatment of the FSC would also consider whether the mini-public formed by the General
Assembly is adequately representative of the relevant communities: Are all important perspectives
represented? Are all of the NGOs involved genuine? Etc. (See also note 18 above.)
Klintman, “Participation in Green Consumer Policies,” p. 48.
See Micheletti, Political Virtue and Shopping, pp. 34-6.
The circumstances in Israel and the Occupied Territories today, though not equivalent to Apartheid,
also fall far short of what is necessary for people to be morally required to treat the formal democratic
process as authoritative. Israelis and Palestinians therefore have a much wider permission to use their
bargaining power to bring an end to the Occupation. The Israeli Knesset has recently taken a different
view. See Isabel Kershner, “Israel Bans Boycotts Against the State” The New York Times (July 12,
2011), p. A8.
By a “Pareto improvement in welfare” I mean an increase in one person’s preference-satisfaction that
does not lower anyone else’s preference-satisfaction.
See Allen Buchanan, Ethics, Efficiency, and the Market (Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Allanheld, 1985).
Friedrich Hayek, Individualism and the Economic Order (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1948); see also Buchanan, Ethics, Efficiency, and the Market.
SCEC can also generate improvements in people’s lives, but these improvements are not nearly as
profound as those of the market exchange process, and there is no reason to think that we could not
achieve similar results through a procedurally sound process such as proto-legislative SCEC.
For a helpful discussion, see Rob Reich, “Toward a Political Theory of Philanthropy” Giving Well:
The Ethics of Philanthropy, eds. Patricia Illingworth, et. al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
Some political expressive consumerism constitutes a threat by consumers to make certain purchasing
decisions in the future. Since these threats are basically a way for consumers to exercise their
bargaining power, the restrictions of the proto-legislative account do apply to these forms of
Assuming these meet the minimum standards outlined in section 6.
See Follesdal, “Political Consumerism as Chance and Challenge,” p. 14.
... The responsibility of consumers in a liberal democracy is thus to find a balance between effecting change through (a) the market process and (b) the democratic process, which is informed by procedural values, institutions, and practices (see Table 1). Both approaches confront power with the former focused on marketplace power and the latter on political power (Hussain, 2012). Hussain (2012) further explained that both the market and a democracy are mechanisms of social change but cautioned that relying solely on market transactions requires processes that threaten the principles of democracy. ...
... Both approaches confront power with the former focused on marketplace power and the latter on political power (Hussain, 2012). Hussain (2012) further explained that both the market and a democracy are mechanisms of social change but cautioned that relying solely on market transactions requires processes that threaten the principles of democracy. Instead, people should treat "the formal democratic process as the supreme system for making and changing social rules (including the rules of the market itself)" (p. ...
... She maintained that some procedural norms are essential to arguments justifying liberal democracy, asserting that "only democratic consumption respects [these] norms" (Hassoun, 2020, p. 150). Basic liberties (procedural norms) include freedom of thought, movement, assembly, and expression (Hussain, 2012). Hassoun (2020) posited that "consumption that promotes social change must respect [these] basic liberties and advance a reasonable conception of the common good" (p. ...
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This think piece explores the idea of democratic consumption. After explaining its etymological roots, 12 principles of democracy are described. A narrative of the review of literature (organized by century 19 th , 20 th and 21 st) is followed with an analysis of common threads and emergent patterns. Five ideas were associated with democratic consumption with nominal agreement on how and in what direction: common good, economic freedom and capitalism, welfare state, ethical consumption, and diverse consumer interest. Although the focus of democratic consumption has changed over time, it is consistently linked with several principles (e.g., economic freedom, equality, freedom and rights, and the rule of law) and it eschews others (e.g., an independent judiciary). Consumer, philosophy, political, social welfare, economic, and peace theorists are encouraged to empirically explore what constitutes democratic consumption defined tentatively as behaviour having to do with consumption reflective of and influenced by democratic principles for a myriad of reasons.
... These events invite reflection on an understudied topic: the ethics of boycotting by commercial corporations. Although the broader category of value-driven consumerism has generated significant recent discussion in applied ethics, 1 that discussion has focused predominantly on the consumption choices of individuals (Friedman, 2001;Stoll, 2009;Hussain, 2012;Beckstein, 2014;Radzik, 2017;Barry and MacDonald, 2018;Beck, 2019;Hassoun, 2019;Mills and Saprai, 2019;Peled, 2019;Weinstein, 2019;Fischer, 2020). As this article underscores, boycotting by corporations complicates these issues, as the features of corporations, such as concentrated power and competing interests, can create morally relevant differences that alter judgments about the permissibility or desirability of boycotting. ...
... Although they naturally contribute to the ebb and flow of supply and demand, they are not intended to have public expressive effects, and their broader consequences are limited. By contrast, boycotts are a species of what Waheed Hussain calls "social change ethical consumerism" (Hussain, 2012). Social change ethical consumerism is intended and designed to serve an expressive purpose and change the behavior of others. ...
... Hussain holds that even if it is undertaken with good intentions, achieves its outcomes effectively, and minimizes collateral damage, boycotting can raise democratic concerns (Hussain, 2012). Rather than pursue social change through the standard political process, boycotts seek to accomplish political change by marshalling economic power, which can threaten aspects of democratic legitimacy. ...
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In July 2020, more than 1000 companies that advertise on social media platforms withdrew their business, citing failures of the platforms (especially Facebook) to address the proliferation of harmful content. The #StopHateForProfit movement invites reflection on an understudied topic: the ethics of boycotting by corporations. Under what conditions is corporate boycotting permissible, required, supererogatory, or forbidden? Although value-driven consumerism has generated significant recent discussion in applied ethics, that discussion has focused almost exclusively on the consumption choices of individuals. As this article underscores, value-driven consumerism by business corporations complicates these issues and invites further examination. We propose principles for the ethics of boycotting by corporations, indicate how these principles relate to different CSR paradigms, and show how these insights can help assess recent instances of corporate boycotting.
... Given the importance of what markets provide, this implies that "we should prefer institutions that maximize the domain or scope of social interaction for mutual advantage which do not themselves require broad consensus" (Coleman, 1987: 86). Hussain (2012b) also expresses worry about the implications of "disagreements" being "brought up all the time," holding "that citizens should limit the extent to which they allow their political disagreements to come between them outside of the sphere of formal democratic politics" (123). ...
... Some foundational work in consumer ethics, conducted by Hussain (2012b), raises the possibility that certain consumer movements do indeed transgress liberal-democratic political moralities as they resemble a kind of 'vigilantism'-an effort to change society using economic power, without the recourse to formal democratic procedures that liberal-democratic procedural values would demand. While I do not have room here to hash out differences between impersonalism's Friedman-and Hayek-inspired argument for restrictions on vendor refusals and Hussain's liberal-democratic argument against some consumer movements, I note in impersonalism's favor that Hussain has already established strong precedent to question consumers' autonomy in the purposes and aims of their consumption. ...
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Business owners sometimes refuse to transact with certain customers on principle, given some normative (political, personal, moral, or religious) commitment which they hold. I call such refusals ‘conscientious refusals.’ Evaluating two possible positions on the permissibility of vendor conscientious refusals, I argue in favor of an impersonal market in which vendor conscientious refusals are generally not justified. I argue impersonal norms, which crowd out conscientious considerations, support pluralist, healthy markets from which we reap individual and communal benefits; further, impersonal markets buttress individual freedom by providing a distinctive sphere of activity characterized by norms of radical inclusivity. These considerations constitute a strong case that vendor conscientious refusals are ceteris paribus unjustified. I conclude by addressing several potential objections to this view.
... Waheed Hussain (2012) argues that "social change ethical consumerism" must not deprive other citizens of their basic liberties, must be based on a reasonable conception of the common good, must only deal with issues that have not been addressed in formal democratic processes, and must be guided in a manner that is appropriately representative and deliberative. Vegan consumer campaigns that seek to abolish factory farming, or even all animal husbandry, would accordingly not be legitimate, as they aim at the institutionalized treatment of animals, which is not only addressed in formal democratic procedures but which may enjoy wide public support. ...
... More and less restrictive normative principles have been proposed by moral and political philosophers. According to the "proto-legislative" account of Hussain (2012), ethical consumerism must respect the basic rights and liberties of those affected, be based on a reasonable conception of the common good, and should comply with principles of democratic representation. The last criterion is the most controversial. ...
... As presented, among other places here:(Hussain, 2012;Hussain and Moriarty, 2018) 4 Christiano's views are presented here(Christiano, 2016(Christiano, , 2018 ...
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Hassoun argues that the poor in the world have a right to health and that the Global Health Impact Index provides consumers in well-off countries with the opportunity to ensure that more people have access to essential medicines. Because of this, these consumers would be ethically obliged to purchase Global Health Impact Index-labeled products in the face of existing global inequalities. In presenting her argument, Hassoun rejects the so-called democratic account of ethical consumption in favor of the positive change account. Two versions of the democratic change account are relevant. One underscores the importance of democratic procedures and institutions, while the other stresses our fundamental moral equality. While at least one prominent institutionalist account has problems, revised versions would be less vulnerable to Hassoun’s counterexamples. Furthermore, institutionalist accounts come with the epistemological gains from democratic procedures and deliberations, which may be especially important under uncertainty. Finally, and perhaps more challenging for the Global Health Impact index project, this measure may place the burden unfairly on those who need to buy medicines. This is a pivotal insight from the non-institutionalist version of the democratic account of ethical consumption.
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Political parties are important for the functioning and consolidation of democracy – citizens should defend their rights against parties with agendas that conflict with the principles of liberal democracy – the types of actions that are permissible for citizens depends on the conditions of political legitimacy and the closeness to power of non-liberal-democratic parties – theories of both (un-)civil disobedience and violent self-defence are relevant here
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Democratic theorists often place deliberative innovations such as citizen's panels, consensus conferences, planning cells, and deliberative polls at the center of their hopes for deliberative democratization. In light of experience to date, the authors chart the ways in which such mini-publics may have an impact in the “macro” world of politics. Impact may come in the form of actually making policy, being taken up in the policy process, informing public debates, market-testing of proposals, legitimation of public policies, building confidence and constituencies for policies, popular oversight, and resisting co-option. Exposing problems and failures is all too easy. The authors highlight cases of success on each of these dimensions.
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Claims for the involvement of societal stakeholders in processes of knowledge generation abound in discussions about sustainability science and new modes of scientific research. Their participation is seen as a means for empowerment and education as well as for increasing the legitimacy of scientific research. In addition, proponents of sustainability science regard stakeholder participation as a way to integrate municipalities, interest groups, industry, and environmentalist groups into both the generation of knowledge and its practical implementation. Meanwhile, there are numerous examples of participatory approaches in scientific knowledge generation that allow for a first review of the experiences gathered so far. The paper gives an account of a number of these experiences and analyses these procedures in the light of criteria derived from the discussions around sustainability science. It is the objective of the paper to deduce lessons for future approaches to participation in sustainability science.
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