Moral concerns in the consumer world

by Christopher Dodson


Christopher Dodson

On the liturgical calendar we are entering a period of reflection, simplicity, and humility. On the secular calendar we are entering a period of dinners, parties, purchasing, commercials, sales, and consumption.

Every year our spiritual leaders urge us to focus on giving thanks, preparation, and the Incarnation. Most of us, however, will also spend this time buying things for ourselves and others. Because purchasing is something we cannot avoid, we should examine how we buy and sell in the marketplace and the role of government in regulating and shaping commercial activity.

Catholic social doctrine has much to say about the how consumers — us — should act when it comes to buying and investing. St. John Paul II especially understood that in a world of free markets, consumers themselves have an important role to play in making sure that their activities conform to the common good.

Our challenge begins with rejecting a reductionist and materialist view of the world. Everything has its origin in God’s creation and everything that comes to us touches human hands through the community. Modern economists, so-called financial experts, and advertisers tell us to look at the “bottom line.” We are told that an item is just the item and that we should buy and sell according to what is the best deal economically.

What I have written elsewhere about food applies to all goods:

“Just as work is not just work, food is not just food. Indeed, from the Catholic perspective, nothing is just its parts and the value of something is not just its utilitarian benefit. Food, because it originates in Creation and is the ‘fruit of human hands,’ it is one of the goods essential to human life that touches upon a multitude of Christian concerns. Indeed, food touches upon almost every principle of Catholic social doctrine. From the earth to the table, food passes through a multitude of activities that may or may not be just and proper according to Catholic doctrine. Was the original source appropriated in a manner respectful of Creation? Was the property owner’s rights respected? Was its nurturing or acquisition done in a manner harmful to humans? Were laborers, processors, transporters, and preparers justly rewarded and given safe working conditions? Did they have the right to form worker associations? Was the food supply subject to a system of concentrated ownership that violated the universal destination of goods? Was the system consistent with the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity?”

North Dakota’s economy is based on commodity production, especially agriculture and energy production. There is a temptation, therefore, to view our economy as producing mere commodities. An economist may do that, but we should not. We should be ever mindful that what we produce is more than an economic unit. Our government officials should do the same.

Just as food is not just food, a smart phone is not just a smart phone, a business investment is not just a business investment, a toy is not just a toy, and a turkey is not just a turkey.

Sections 358-360 of Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church summarize the Church’s teaching on consumer responsibilities and rights. In summary:

(1) In addition to evaluating cost and return, we should make value judgments about what our actions would finance.

(2) The decision to invest and buy is always a moral choice.

(3) Purchasing power must be used in the context of the moral demands of justice and solidarity, including consideration of working conditions and impacts on the environment.

(4) Consumers can and should influence behavior of producers.

(5) Consumers have a right to know the information needed to make such decisions.

The last point raises several public policy issues. In recent decades laws have been enacted to give consumers better information, especially as it relates to health and safety questions. That is good. Some powerful interests are pushing to keep additional information unavailable to consumers.

Consumers, knowingly or not, are following the Catholic Church’s call to ask more questions. Consumers are asking: Where was this made? Did the production involve child labor? Is it a “fair trade” product? Were “sustainable methods” used? Does the company support Planned Parenthood? Will my investments contribute to the scandalous arms trade? Are the owners local? Does the company treat women fairly?

The list of questions being asked could be lengthy. To the producer, they might seem irrelevant. We are witnessing that debate over labels about GMOs and the use of antibiotics in some livestock and poultry. Producers must remember, however, that the consumer should be able to ask and act on questions beyond health and safety issues. Policymakers must reject attempts to prevent advertising and labeling about such questions, even as they continue to protect truth in advertising.

Consumers, for their part, must remember that in this age of rapid and massive information transfer, “fake news” also exists. The consumer has the primary responsibility to sift through the information, find the truth, and then act on it. Government’s role is to help create a system that aids the consumer in that task.

In one sense, advances in technology and globalization have given consumers new powers to make choices beyond mere cost and benefit. At the same time, forces to mislead consumers are stronger than ever. Our responsibility as Christians is to never become complacent consumers but to become moral agents for good.