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From Bounded Morality to Consumer Social Responsibility: A Transdisciplinary Approach to Socially Responsible Consumption and Its Obstacles

Abstract

Corporate social responsibility has been intensively discussed in business ethics literature, whereas the social responsibility of private consumers appears to be less researched. However, there is also a growing interest from business ethicists and other scholars in the field of consumer social responsibility (ConSR). Nevertheless, previous discussions of ConSR reveal the need for a viable conceptual basis for understanding the social responsibility of consumers in an increasingly globalized market economy. Moreover, evolutionary aspects of human morality seem to have been neglected despite the fact that private consumers are undoubtedly human beings. In addition to that, empirical studies suggest that many consumers believe themselves to be responsible but do not act according to their alleged values or attitudes. This raises the question of what deters them from doing so. Therefore, the contribution of this conceptual paper is threefold: we (i) (re-)conceptualize ConSR in terms of a combination of a Max Weber-inspired approach (social action and the ethic of responsibility) with the social connection approach to shared responsibility proposed by Iris Marion Young; (ii) shed light on the previously neglected implications of an evolutionarily induced bounded morality for ConSR, and (iii) identify potential obstacles to socially responsible consumption, particularly against the backdrop of shared social responsibility and bounded morality. In this latter respect, the paper focuses specifically on the obstacles of low moral intensity, moral stupefaction, informational complexity, and the lack of perceived consumer effectiveness. In sum, the paper advances knowledge in the field of ConSR by using a transdisciplinary, literature-based approach.

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Fig. 1
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Notes

  1. 1.

    Some authors even assert that consumer social responsibility is an “under-researched area” (e.g., Vitell 2015, p. 773).

  2. 2.

    See, for example, Brinkmann (2004), Brinkmann and Peattie (2008), Devinney et al. (2006, 2012), Hansen and Schrader (1997), Heidbrink (2014, 2015), Schmidt (2016), and Vitell (2003, 2015).

  3. 3.

    These terminological nuances are, for example, also reflected in the German distinction between Wirtschaftsethik and Unternehmensethik.

  4. 4.

    Please note that non-German-speaking readers might also want to refer to H. P. Secher’s translation of Weber’s Basic Concepts in Sociology (Weber 1962) on this.

  5. 5.

    We come back to this in the section ‘With Power Comes Responsibility?’.

  6. 6.

    In this regard, Heidbrink recently stated that there were constant controversies about the role and status of ConSR in the context of a globalized market economy: “On the one hand, there is the opinion, which is supported by strong ethical and social arguments, that consumers are even responsible for their consumption’s harmful consequences if they have no bad intentions and the harmful contributions of individual consumers are negligible. On the other hand, and with equally strong empirical and psychological arguments, consumers are denied responsibility since they are neither willing nor able to overview the consequences of their actions, and they would also be hopelessly overburdened with taking a stand against the supremacy of corporations and resisting market temptations. Both views are not just wrong due to their one-sidedness but also theoretically narrow” (Heidbrink 2014, p. 2, own translation).

  7. 7.

    See also Mellema (1985, 1988) and Offe (2011, 2012) on related deliberations.

  8. 8.

    In this regard, it is also interesting to note that another (practically oriented) approach to operationalize shared social responsibility has been proposed by Gneezy et al. (2010) in Science.

  9. 9.

    See also alternative concepts and various definitions of ConSR in Caruana and Chatzidakis (2014, p. 582).

  10. 10.

    Note that we follow the order presented by Heidbrink and Schmidt (2011c, p. 35), whereas Neuner himself often lists the second sphere (of the natural environment) before the sphere of the social environment.

  11. 11.

    See also Brinkmann and Peattie (2008), Heidbrink (2014, 2015), Heidbrink and Schmidt (2009, 2011a, b, c, 2012), Vitell (2015), and especially Chap. 4.4 in Schmidt (2016).

  12. 12.

    As Devinney et al. (2010) note, the idea of ConSR can be expanded “to discuss the social responsibility of the citizen … Social consumption then becomes part of the role of the individual in a monitory form of democracy … We can therefore speak about the individual as having a variety of social responsibilities—as consumer, citizen, worker, investor, and so on—each of which gives us a different angle on the complex embodiment of the individual in the different roles and contexts … [L]ooking at consumption is only one window on the individual. But it is a window worth looking through” (Devinney et al. 2010, p. 187).

  13. 13.

    See, for instance, Heidbrink and Schmidt (2011b) with reference to Kneip (2010) and Lamla (2007). See also Barnett et al. (2011), Brinkmann and Peattie (2008), and Heidbrink (2014, 2015).

  14. 14.

    According to Anna Coote (2011), “[c]o-production embodies shared responsibility … Co-production extends beyond user involvement and citizen engagement to foster the principle of equal partnership. It is not just consultation, nor even just participation. It is, quintessentially, about shared responsibility between people who are regarded—and treat each other—as having equal worth and being able to make contributions of equal value to a shared enterprise” (p. 291). See also Parks et al. (1981) on a related note.

  15. 15.

    See also Lusch and Vargo (2006, p. 284) on a possible distinction between those two concepts.

  16. 16.

    See also Heidbrink and Schmidt (2011b, p. 98) and Schmidt (2016, p. 219) with reference to Shaw et al. (2006).

  17. 17.

    This connection to the previous domains results from the fact that the element of disposal can have a feedback on the decisions related to (pre-)purchase as well as to usage.

  18. 18.

    This is due to the prospective ex ante dimension of social responsibility which includes taking into account (and avoiding) the (negative) impact of one’s actions on future generations. Moreover, with respect to the third sphere, we can also identify a social element related to this duty of care for oneself. We can easily imagine cases where unhealthy or unaffordable consumption habits will also be at the expense of others (e.g., family, healthcare system, creditors), not just the respective consumers themselves.

  19. 19.

    Note that the examples presented in Table 1 are an extension of the ones outlined by Webb et al. (2008) and should be considered non-exhaustive.

  20. 20.

    According to Schmidt (2016), “it seems important to stress that, basically, consumption serves one’s own interests which should also be its primary goal. It cannot be the objective of an economic or business ethics that individuals consume for moral ends. This would reduce the discussion to absurdity” (Schmidt, 2016, p. 295, own translation with corresponding emphasis). In a similar manner, Neuner (2004) argues that “[t]he motivation in responsible consumer behaviour … exclusively originates from the satisfaction of individual needs” (Neuner 2004, p. 210; see also Neuner 2006, on an ethics of needs (Bedürfnisethik) based approach to consumer ethics).

  21. 21.

    It should be noted that it may additionally require institutional support (e.g., through consumer education) for consumers to develop the capability for taking on responsibility in some of the ConSR-Domains.

  22. 22.

    However, note that the power concept used by Rezabakhsh et al. (2006) is based on French and Raven (1959).

  23. 23.

    As an alternative to boycotts (i.e., punishing certain corporations for unacceptable behavior by not buying their products or services) Friedman (1996) has discussed the “buycott” as a positive strategy of consumer activists trying to “induce shoppers to buy the products or services of selected companies in order to reward them for behavior which is consistent with the goals of the activists” (Friedman 1996, p. 440). Recently, according to Hoffmann and Hutter (2012), “the carrotmob evolved as a new subtype of buycott. … More specifically, a group of consumers swarms a predefined store at a predefined time and collectively buys its products. In return, the company engages in actions the activists ask for” (Hoffmann and Hutter 2012, p. 216, italics in original).

  24. 24.

    #FitchTheHomeless (https://twitter.com/search?q=%23fitchthehomeless) is the Twitter hashtag of a campaign that went viral in 2013 after a video posted by Greg Karber where he urged “the public to donate any unwanted Abercrombie & Fitch clothes to the homeless, after one of the brand’s district managers said that its collections weren’t intended for ‘poor people’. The company reportedly burns faulty clothing, rather than giving it to charity” (Alexander 2013).

  25. 25.

    Note that although the focus of this paper lies on private consumption, this does not imply that public and governmental institutions or business organizations could not be change agents in the context of a shared social responsibility.

  26. 26.

    See also Banerjee et al. (2013) on the diffusion of information on and participation in microfinance in Indian villages and the respective importance of centralities of leaders (in this case especially eigenvector centrality; see also Banerjee et al. 2012).

  27. 27.

    Nevertheless, despite all criticism (see, for instance, Zimbardo et al. 2012, p. 372 et seq.), it is worth mentioning that Douglas Kenrick and his coauthors have recently proposed a revised version of Maslow’s pyramid of needs based on findings from evolutionary psychology (Kenrick et al. 2010). Although their approach has been rather controversial as well (Ackerman and Bargh 2010; Kesebir et al. 2010; Lyubomirsky and Boehm 2010; Peterson and Park 2010), the pyramid/hierarchy of needs still has its supporters that present valid arguments for a hierarchical approach to human needs (e.g., Schaller et al. 2010).

  28. 28.

    For another discussion of the basic needs approach as well as its potential weaknesses and its relationship to the capability approach, we would also like to refer to Stewart (2006) and D. A. Clark (2006); for an overview see also van Staveren (2008).

  29. 29.

    According to Ilse Oosterlaken (2012), “[c]apabilities are often described as what people are effectively able to do and be or the positive freedoms that people have to enjoy valuable ‘beings and doings’. These beings and doings are called ‘functionings’ by Sen” (Oosterlaken 2012, p. 4).

  30. 30.

    For a brief overview of theory, discussions, and findings with regard to cultural evolution, see Mesoudi (2011, 2015) and Mesoudi et al. (2006), including commentaries, as well as the contributions in Richerson and Christiansen (2013).

  31. 31.

    Moreover, with an eye to the above Weberian paragraph, we may remember that Weber (2013, p. 24 et seq.) states that social action may be oriented in four ways, namely instrumentally rational (zweckrational), value-rational (wertrational), affectual (especially emotional; i.e., determined by the agents’ affects and feelings), and traditional (i.e., determined by ingrained habituation). We could, therefore, argue that bounded rationality may be considered to focus primarily on decision-making related to the first two (ideal) types of social action, whereas bounded morality also leaves room for focusing on affectual and traditional social action.

  32. 32.

    In an economic context, which is the case when we are studying consumption, this moral issue may also be conceived as what Josef Wieland (2014) has called the moral dimension of an economic transaction (e.g., see Schramm and Seid 2008, p. 225, or Chap. 2 in Wieland 2014, in this regard).

  33. 33.

    However, although we are inclined to support the ontological assumption that there are no moral facts, we have to acknowledge that various scholars, especially theologians, also adduce good reasons for a position called “moral realism,” that is, the metaphysical point of view that does not regard the universe as being inherently devoid of value and thus argues that morality and virtue cannot solely be treated as some kind of human invention (Schramm 2013). However, we can also see that “despite this moral realism in a theistic ethics, epistemically there is no difference to any other ethical approach. … [Hence,] the point of ‘moral realism’ does not obviate the need for rational deliberation about ethical issues” (Schramm 2013, p. 830, italics in original).

  34. 34.

    Note that these two evolutionary processes and their interrelation are also the subject of dual inheritance theory or gene-culture coevolution. See, for example, Boyd and Richerson (1985), Richerson and Boyd (2005), and, most recently, Paul (2015) and references herein.

  35. 35.

    Note that an alternative model of ethical decision-making, which, to a certain degree, also overlaps with Jones’ (1991) model (e.g., especially with regard to the probability and desirability of consequences as well as the relative importance of victims/beneficiaries/stakeholders) has been proposed by Hunt and Vitell (1986, 2006).

  36. 36.

    For a criticism of this conclusion and arguments against Falk and Szech’s (2013) interpretation of the results see the comment by Breyer and Weimann (2014). For Falk and Szech’s reply to that comment see Falk and Szech (n.d.).

  37. 37.

    Probably not for those who regard mice as pests and kill them with deathtraps and pesticides; however, this may still be an issue for Neuner’s norm of natural compatibility.

  38. 38.

    For example, Akerlof (1970) has shown that in a market without informed consumers no optimal decisions can be made.

  39. 39.

    The term ‘greenwashing’ is often used “to describe the practice of making unwarranted or overblown claims of sustainability or environmental friendliness in an attempt to gain market share” (Dahl 2010, p. 247).

  40. 40.

    Moreover, it may make sense to differentiate between (a) the case of primarily self-interested SRC, where there is often a direct and immediate gratification in terms of a “warm glow” (Andreoni 1990) or a sense of belonging to a ‘more responsible’ group (cf. signaling/image motivation; Ariely et al., 2009), and (b) the case where the positive impact of genuinely ‘morally interested’ SRC in terms of an observable improvement for others (e.g., of working conditions of exploited workers, or living conditions of future generations, etc.) often remains rather abstract or deferred (which also holds true for many of the negative consequences of non-SRC).

  41. 41.

    For example, it may often be impossible to avoid ‘bad’ news (thereby ‘avoiding’ moral stupefaction) or increasing spatial proximity, temporal immediacy, or probability of effect (thereby increasing moral intensity).

  42. 42.

    Batson challenges “the common Western presumption that humans are always motivated by self-interest by providing experimental evidence that altruism does exist, and that it arises from feelings of empathic concern” (Batson 2015, p. 15, emphasis removed). Batson defines “altruistic motivation” as “a motivational state with the ultimate goal of increasing another’s welfare” (Batson 2011, p. 20; and 2014, p. 43, italics in original) and hypothesizes that “empathic concern produces altruistic motivation” (Batson 2011, p. 11). This “empathic concern” is in turn defined as “other-oriented emotion elicited by and congruent with the perceived welfare of a person in need” (Batson 2011, p. 11; 2014, p. 41, italics in original).

  43. 43.

    On a very general level, it can also be argued that “[e]mpathy and moral reasoning have in common that both reflect a concern for others” (Bierhoff 2002, p. 109).

  44. 44.

    For example, empathy can further be distinguished into (a) cognitive empathy, which is not an emotion but an understanding of others (see also Maibom 2014a, p. 2) that is closely related to Theory of Mind—in fact, according to Rogers et al. (2007), cognitive empathy and Theory of Mind “are often used synonymously” (p. 710), and (b) affective empathy and empathy-related emotions (see also Maibom 2014a, p. 3).

  45. 45.

    The Paradox of Choice is the title of a book by the American psychologist Barry Schwartz where he argues that people can feel overwhelmed when having too many options to choose from. Hence, Schwartz (2004) argues, for instance, that reducing and prioritizing (consumer) choices may mitigate the problems of anxiety, regret, and dissatisfaction the choices entail.

  46. 46.

    Other examples that specifically aim at the provision of (reliable) information on labels include smartphone apps such as the German “Label-App” (http://label-online.de/label-app/), which allows consumers to get quick and easy access to information on various labels, as well as websites with information on eco-labels (http://www.greenerchoices.org/eco-labels/), among other things.

  47. 47.

    For example, the Ministry of the Environment, Climate Protection and the Energy Sector Baden-Württemberg has published a cookbook that, next to many CO2-neutral recipes, gives consumers sound information on the relationship between food (production and consumption) and climate change (https://um.baden-wuerttemberg.de/de/presse-service/publikation/did/primaklima-kochbuechle-nachhaltig-geniessen-und-co2-sparen/).

  48. 48.

    If ConSR is implemented and understood in the context of a shared social responsibility, trust-related information problems would be rather irrelevant as the information provider (e.g., corporation) has the responsibility to provide accurate and reliable information to the consumer.

  49. 49.

    According to Ragin, “[w]hen a causal argument cites a combination of conditions, it is concerned with their intersection. It is the intersection of a set of conditions in time and in space that produces many of the large-scale qualitative changes, as well as many of the small-scale events, that interest social scientists, not the separate or independent effects of these conditions … The basic idea is that a phenomenon or change [nota bene: in our case SRC] emerges from the intersection of appropriate preconditions—the right ingredients for change. In the absence of any one of the essential ingredients, the phenomenon—or the change—does not emerge. This conjunctural or combinatorial nature is a key feature of causal complexity” (Ragin 1987, p. 25).

Abbreviations

ConSR:

Consumer social responsibility

CSR:

Corporate social responsibility

EoPC:

(The) ethic of principled conviction

EoR:

(The) ethic of responsibility

GDP:

Gross domestic product

IMF:

The International Monetary Fund

PCE:

Perceived consumer effectiveness

SRC:

Socially responsible consumption

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Acknowledgments

We have benefited from presenting an earlier version of this paper at the Annual Conference of the European Business Ethics Network (EBEN) on “Business Ethics in a European Perspective,” June 12–14, 2014, at the ESMT European School of Management and Technology in Berlin. We are grateful for helpful questions, criticism, and suggestions from participants of our session. Special thanks to Michael Schramm for valuable advice, comments, and support. Moreover, we would like to thank Lisa Angerer, Elisabeth Berger, Jessica Kuntz, Mark Newman, Michael Volz, Adrian Walton, and four anonymous reviewers (two for the EBEN submission, two for this journal submission) for contributing to the evolution of this paper in various, often substantial ways. It should go without saying that all remaining confusion and mistakes are exclusively our own responsibility.

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Schlaile, M.P., Klein, K. & Böck, W. From Bounded Morality to Consumer Social Responsibility: A Transdisciplinary Approach to Socially Responsible Consumption and Its Obstacles. J Bus Ethics 149, 561–588 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-016-3096-8

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Keywords

  • Bounded morality
  • Bounded rationality
  • Consumer ethics
  • Consumer social responsibility
  • Ethical consumption
  • Evolutionary ethics
  • Moral intensity
  • Moral stupefaction
  • Perceived consumer effectiveness
  • Socially responsible consumption