Taking Consumers Seriously: Two Concepts of Consumer Sovereignty

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Abstract

Governments, producers, and international free tradeorganizations like the World Trade Organization (WTO) areincreasingly confronted with consumers who not only buy (or don'tbuy) goods, but also demand that those goods are producedconforming to certain ethical (often diverse) standards. Not onlysafety and health belong to these ethical ideals, but animalwelfare, environmental concerns, labor circumstances, and fairtrade. However, this phantom haunts the dusty world of social andpolitical philosophy as well. The new concept ``consumersovereignty'' bypasses the conceptual dichotomy of consumer andcitizen.

According to the narrow liberal response to this newconstellation, with respect to food one should conceptualizeconsumer sovereignty as the right of the individual consumer toget information on food products and to make his or her ownchoice on the market of food products. In this conception, thereis a very strong emphasis on rules and principles with respect tothe autonomy of individuals.

I argue that these narrow liberal concepts are not sufficient forappropriate public policy-making in democratic societies, andthat they only enable us to identify problems; they do not helpnon-experts (and experts, if it comes to that, as well) inweighing the different ethical claims. Besides, not onlyprinciples play a role in the outcome, but all kinds of ideals aswell, like roles, values, and norms. My principal argument isthat analysis or justification of norms or principles is notsufficient to get a synthesis or construction of ethicalsolutions: we need some value orientation to guide us inbalancing the different ethical claims by solving an ethicalproblem. Moreover, this balancing is something that requiressocial space and social time, i.e., public debates. With theconcept of public debates a whole new dimension enters ethicalanalysis, because the attention of ethicists shifts toformulating criteria of successful and rational public debates.

However, in the broad liberal view these concepts aresupplemented with values, preferences, practices of care, andinvolvement. I argue firstly for a broadened perspective on foodas an integral part of life styles and not only as something thatpresents risks. That is the reason that food gets such intensiveattention from the public, which is summarized in the concept ofconsumer concerns. Secondly, I defend the argument that not only(rational) public debates, but intensive commitments of bothproducers and consumers in every link of the chain in so calledcare practices or consumer councils can enhance confidence in thefood production system and the way we extract our daily intakefrom nature.