After ethical consumption

Tom Whyman

Photo by Lukas Budimaier, Unsplash

Photo by Lukas Budimaier, Unsplash

‘What the philosophers once knew as life,’ Adorno writes in the opening passages of Minima Moralia, his great work of exile in America during World War II, ‘has become the sphere of private existence and now of mere consumption, dragged along as an appendage of the process of material production, without autonomy or substance of its own.’

Under capitalism, Adorno tells us, everything we do is infected with badness. Capitalism is bad – it eliminates freedom, eliminates individuality, perpetuates mass violence, cements inequality. And nowadays, of course, it is known to be destroying the planet. If we act to prop it up, we become complicit in this badness. But, because we are human beings – with needs and desires – we cannot help but act to do so. Everything we do to sustain ourselves in our animal being, every small comfort we might take from the world, is tangled up in the great sprawling web of Capital and thus works to perpetuate it.

It thus goes without saying that for Adorno, there can be no such thing as 'ethical consumption' as traditionally understood. Ethical or, more recently, 'woke' branding is not only used as a way for big brands to advertise themselves in a sympathetic light but as an implicit recognition of moving beyond past stages of an inhumane capitalism. Yet the 'good' done by buying ethically-branded products is often vague when at best, the bulk of 'ethical' products simply do the world less net overall harm. Ethical consumerism conditions us into believing that systemic problems such as climate change are ones individuals can solve by themselves – without our needing to exercise any more agency than the capitalist state is comfortable with us doing: we need only be able to act as consumers. It helps exculpate individuals – buying ethically-branded products can convince people they have 'done enough' to help, and thus feel like they have licence to behave selfishly in other aspects of their lives. After years of more and more brands becoming ‘ethical’, and climate change becoming increasingly urgent as deadlines for irreversible changes to the planet pass by, scientists led by a researcher at Johns Hopkins have even designed a 'scientifically' sustainable diet designed to help us limit environmental catastrophe – while still allowing us, of course, to eat some red meat: guiltless as long as we also consume enough legumes.

As another line from Minima Moralia has it: ‘There is no right life in the wrong one.’ We cannot do good – given how the world is, we can only do wrong. But then we should... what, give up? Accept we're doomed to a life of total and permanent wrongness, no matter what we do?

Adorno is often stereotyped as one of philosophy's most consistently whingeing miseryguts, a title he's probably only pipped to by Schopenhauer. This is the Adorno who (in an oft-cited exaggerated version of his position) 'thinks that jazz is fascist', who complains that ‘Every visit to the cinema leaves me... stupider and worse.’ The Adorno who built his career around critiquing the excesses of capitalism, only to settle after World War II in the liberal West and not the Communist East; who spent his final years squabbling with the West German student movement to the point of calling the police when they occupied some of his department's offices. The Adorno whose enthusiasm for the alienating, disorientating art of Schoenberg or Beckett makes Lukács' quip that he had spent his life checked into the 'Grand Hotel Abyss' feel all the saltier (‘.. a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothing, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered’).

Adorno might not have been ultimately vindicated in all this, but it's worth bearing in mind that he had genuinely considered reasons for challenging the activists of the student movement, whom he believed – as he writes in a late essay on 'Resignation' – prioritised a naive 'doing something' in the immediate present to disrupt capitalism over the hard thought, reflection, and organisation which, he believed, were necessary to actually change it. For their hot-headedness, the activists were inevitably drawn into, could not escape, capitalism's inexorable logic of the individual.

In particular, Adorno helped do this through interventions in popular media – radio addresses and newspaper articles. One such popular address, 'Education After Auschwitz', examines the role of the education system in making the Holocaust possible – and in continuing to promote proto-fascist attitudes after the war. In this essay, Adorno points to what he calls Mündigkeit – intellectual autonomy – as one of the key virtues that any good-enough education system ought to foster. ‘The single genuine power standing against the principle of Auschwitz,’ he writes, is this Mündigkeit, ‘the power of reflection, of self-determination, and not cooperating.’ The power to identify and call out evil, even if no-one else around you seems to be able to see it; of never giving in to the comforts of self-satisfaction, never simply 'going along with things'.

The virtue of Mündigkeit is of great importance for Adorno. It also, in my view, can help provide us with a model for ethical consumption. I'd also like to point to the aphorism 'For Post-Socratics', from Minima Moralia. ‘Nothing is more unfitting for an intellectual resolved on practising what was earlier called philosophy,’ Adorno writes here, ‘than to wish, in discussion... to be right. The very wish to be right, down to its subtlest form of logical reflection, is an expression of that spirit of self-preservation which philosophy is precisely concerned to break down.’

And so, Adorno argues, philosophers ‘should always try to lose the argument, but in such a way as to convict their opponent of untruth.’ The point can be extended to intellectual activity in general: when we reflect, we should never do so in order to feel that we are right. We should engage in intellectual activity with a stance not only open to, but actively welcoming the possibility of, our being wrong – our being illuminated in the ways that we are going wrong; although of course this should not serve as an excuse to demure to any opponent, but rather as a reason to help them see how they are going wrong as well. An observation from Negative Dialectics is important here: ‘The chances are that every citizen of the wrong world would find the right one unbearable. They would be too damaged for it.’ When we think, we should do so with a view to thinking our way out of an otherwise crippling inheritance. According to Adorno at least, it's only thought we've got. ‘Thought is happiness, even where it defines unhappiness: by enunciating it. By this alone happiness reaches into the universal unhappiness. Whoever does not let it atrophy has not resigned.’

Let's add this up. Ethical consumption, as we have seen, gives way to self-righteousness, the last refused of the atomised individual. But in large part, this is because it is an attempt to consume, as it were, 'rightly'. For Adorno, this is impossible – given that the world is how it is. And so in buying Fair Trade, Apple Red, Nike, or Gillette products, for example, we are still really only seeking to exculpate ourselves from an evil we can never escape, whose taint will always be branded on our souls. Oddly enough, this is not too far from the approach of the resurgent fascist right, which attempts to justify the present evil by leaning into it: Jordan Peterson's all-beef diet, objectively disastrous from both a personal and planetary point of view, is just as much an attempt to purify the soul as much as any 'scientifically' sustainable one.

But luckily, there is another way. We must, given the creatures that we are, consume – and so we must always participate in evil. But of course, there are relative evils – we must be able to identify them. And as we strive to always do the least evil that we might, we can – if we are ethically-minded people – reflect on our role in it, exercising that Adornian Mündigkeit. If the goal is not to exculpate but to escape, then this might – in the end – point the way towards definitively doing less harm than good. This can help inform our choices: not only as consumers of course, but as political actors. There are no guarantees, but we nevertheless have hope. Given how wretched our situation is, I’d take that as a win.

Tom Whyman is a philosopher and writer interested in why our world is terrible and what we can do to make it less so. His Patreon can be accessed by going to

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