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Davis, California

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

The Ethical Hedonist: The Ethics of My Hedonism

My ideal self — the one who exercises a modicum of self control in the face of a Trader Joe’s sale on Gouda — indulges only in grass-fed beef, free-range chicken eggs and locally sourced milk in reusable glass containers.

I do not object to the consumption of meat or animal products. Rather, I object to raising these animals in dark cages and cramped spaces that impact their welfare — and consequently, that of their consumer — as well as the environment. My limited budget, however means that my most ethical days are usually ones wherein I forego these products altogether as I don’t typically have $10 to spend on a gallon of milk or $5 to drop on a dozen eggs. I acknowledge my privilege in that, though.

I have access to vegetables grown within 20 miles of my house, if not within my own garden, and I live with a group of people who have decided it’s worth their while to buy lentils and black beans in bulk. To that end, I acknowledge that “voting with my dollar” is an inherently bourgeois concept that my socioeconomic status has allowed me to participate in. On some level, my socialist leanings make it hard to advocate for a system where those with means have more votes than those without. More than that, the redistribution of wealth I tend to believe we’re long overdue for is not a capitalist notion, and thus, doesn’t fit at all cohesively with concepts related to consumerism — “ethical” or not.

Political theorist Slavoj Žižek maintains that the notion of “ethical consumerism” is a farce, used to put a kinder, gentler face on the social ills inherent in a capitalistic system. Moreover, he suggests that buying into companies like Tom’s and Starbucks because of their espoused beliefs in “corporate responsibility” only serves to assuage personal misgivings about the ills of consumerism. The implication then being that if corporations didn’t put up a socially responsible front, people would no longer buy from them.

This is where Žižek and I begin to part ways. If consumers without supposedly ethical purchasing options were truly wont to end their purchasing, no one would be buying gasoline. In a similar sense, this is where the logic of antireformism falls short at best and becomes destructive at worst. Our system of capitalism, though ailing, is not on the brink of destruction and to the extent that certain commodities are necessities — such as food but arguably even gas and internet access — for staying afloat in that system, we find ourselves left with a choice between lesser evils.

Not everyone has the time or space to grow their own food — spaces which are all too often threatened by outside forces — and few people have direct access to the farms they want to support. But food is, nevertheless, a necessity.

Vote with your limited dollars where you can so that you might grow big enough and strong enough to fight the capitalist system when that revolution is sparked, and support the companies least likely to destroy the planet before we make it that far.

HILLARY KNOUSE drinks locally sourced, raw milk with her S’mores Pop-Tarts, every morning. Email your questions, concerns and dinner date offers to hkknouse@ucdavis.edu.


  1. Thornstein Veblen (who I swear is not a Dr. Seuss character), defined conspicuous consumption, in his late 19th century “Theory of the Leisure Class,” as “a means of reputability to the gentleman of leisure.” More recently, the “gentlemen of leisure,” by making “being green” a symbol of wealth, appropriated the environmental movement into the system of commerce that the movement first sought to challenge. The conspicuity of ethical consumerism in the American milieu needs no more proof than South Park episodes featuring smug Prius drivers delightedly smelling their own flatulence.

    This dynamic is problematic not only because it denies those most affected by ecological degradation agency for social change (most would agree that spending millions on sustainable communities for high-paying tenants whose class position depends on the wealth generated by building toxic waste plants near low-paying tenants is bad), but also because the status green products give to consumers inflates the price of green products for the rest of us.

    This is not a call to the barricades. I am not suggesting that the only way to live ethically is to throw our lives upon the gears of the machine. But we don’t have to wait for a violent revolution to rid us of the horrors of capitalism. The social movements of the last two centuries, while certainly not bringing a socialist utopia, have given power to the marginalized in ways that those living in earlier eras could scarcely imagine. Atomized shoppers trying to make the right choices did not drive these movements forward; rather, organized, collective actions of political will changed the system by shifting power away from the classes that benefited from the previous system. Buying fair trade coffee will not change the world, but building a social movement from the bottom up that confronts the policies that exploit coffee farmers (while denying the conspicuity of choosing “fair trade” beans) will.

  2. “Vote with your limited dollars where you can so that you might grow big enough and strong enough to fight the capitalist system when that revolution is sparked, and support the companies least likely to destroy the planet before we make it that far.”

    In using the very limited dollars we have to make decisions, we are fighting within the capitalist system, as the capitalist system is where money is power.

    Nonetheless, your points are valid in that the mismanagement and desecration of life in many, if not most companies, is the enemy.


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