Are We Citizens or Consumers? (Blog 11)

Researcher and ethicist, Ernest Partridge, sees the growing divide between what he refers to as citizens and consumers as one of the larger causes of the degradation of our political institutions and system and our society as a whole. Partridge thinks that people are being molded into the quintessential egoists, “motivated by the desire to ‘maximize preference satisfaction’.”[1] We have been reduced to a bundle of feelings and emotions and have been conditioned to ignore the facts, evidence and logic and follow “gut preferences”[2] that fall to the slogans, imagery and other tools of salesmanship that candidates and politiciansconsumerism have mastered.   Mark Sagoff speaks more on the economic aspect of the consumer/citizen question. He says, “The cult of Pareto optimality… has many [devotees]. Where some people see only environmental devastation, its devotees perceive efficiency, utility, and the maximization of wealth.”[3] Sagoff argues that while many see economic decisions and policy decisions as linked or one in the same, when it comes to environmental policies and values we cannot make judgments based on cost-benefit or cost-effectiveness analyses. He argues that economics perceived neutrality among our values is not necessarily a good thing nor is it necessarily true. Economics is not neutral to values, it is indifferent towards them and this type of mechanism can have no place in environmental policy.

I never thought of consumers and citizens as two different (or opposing) beings before. I always used the terms interchangeably as it applied to whatever topic I was speaking on. However, when given the distinction, I find myself to be a mixture of consumer and citizen just as Partridge says that every individual is in some proportion. I find myself agreeing with Mark Sagoff in realizing that I think and act in many ways as a citizen while simultaneously acting as a consumer. Probably one of the funnier examples of this duality, one that my friends still cannot understand, is that I am afraid of all animals (this is not an exaggeration) however, I am pursuing an Environmental Studies minor and want to save the animals. Furthermore, Sagoff says, outreach“Congress should do more to balance economic with ideological, aesthetic, and moral goals, To think that environmental or worker safety policy can be based exclusively on aspiration for a “natural” and “safe” world is as foolish as to hold that environmental law can be reduced to cost-benefit accounting.”[4] I think this is a great analysis of how we’re not working on an interdisciplinary basis when it comes to environmental policy; we cannot rely solely on economics or solely on ethics and philosophy. Each discipline has to play a small role in order for this to work. When we rely on economics and cost-benefit analysis we are liable to treat humans “not as ends-in-themselves but as means for the production of overall utility.’[5] I like to think it’s hard to imagine a world like that, but if you look close enough this is the world we are living in. People have moved away from the idea of community and gone to the individualistic way of living; placing value on what “I want” rather than what “we need.” In this sense I have to agree with the therapist’s approach, “that a value system is not necessarily something imposed from without, but is something experienced.”[6] If society is going to change in the way we view community, in the way we approach politics and in the way we approach ethics, we cannot wait for some big change to come from the outside because it’s never going to happen. We, as individuals, have to look within and change ourselves before society can transform itself. It is only when we as individuals standprint_media_manipulation[1] up and say that we are not going to accept this anymore that change is going to occur, because at that point those who leading the opposition to change will be the minority and no longer have the power of ignorance and false claims to hold over the people. I shall end this blog with the same words that Mark Sagoff ended his article because I believe them to be a perfect summation of the arguments made by myself and the authors. “We cannot replace with economic analysis the moral function of public law. The antinomianism of cost-benefit analysis is not enough.”[7]

Question: Sagoff argues that when efficiency is the criterion, which it is when dealing with economics, then public safety and health is weighed against cost and benefit. What would Sagoff say about recalls (for example on vehicles that are found to have some defect and are deemed unsafe)? In this practice we value safety over cost, or would Sagoff say there is something else motivating this?


[2] Ibid.

[3] Donald VanDeVeer and Christine Pierce, The Environmental Ethics & Policy Book (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomas Learning, 2003), 327-328.

[4] VanDeVeer, 330.

[5] VanDeVeer, 330.

[6] VanDeVeer, 332.

[7] VanDeVeer, 334.


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