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Ashley Elsey

Consumption Ethics


John Ruskin presents multiple concepts that are founded on his multifaceted view of “virtue”. He

distinguished two types of virtue; things’ virtue and human virtue. Ruskin takes a big tern in his

central understanding of virtue by distinguishing things’ virtue and human virtue.It’s virtue also

lies in the qualities of the substance (123). Virtue of people are moral, aesthetic, with intellectual

excellences and ability to do good. Virtues as ruskin explain ultimately support human activity.

The connectivity of things’ virtue to human virtue, is that good consumption of things requires

and cultivates human virtues. It asks the question of what activities do we value, which goods,

does it exemplify integrity? Therefore, things are naturally giving intrinsic value, and obtain

virtue, in their ability to promote human virtue.

To look at three concepts through ruskin perspective and the moral guidance these preach

to consumer ethics, we must understand ruskin as a teleological thinker who is an expressive

christian and art critique, which effects his outlook and lexicon. In setting up to explore Ruskin

concepts, we must state that the theme of Unto this Last in a political economy is that under

riches what is truly desired is the power over men (182). The first concept of Ruskin’s political

economy I want to explore is intrinsic value. In Ad Valorem (which means according to value)

focuses on the definitional and sociological errors in conceptions of value. The popular ideas of

value he dismantles (commonly given by Mill) is that value is in the exchangeability of the

object or strictly in its utility. This idea means that the usefulness of a thing indication it’s vape is
not by the nature of the object but by the number of people who can, will, and agree to want to

use it. He explains that things have value in physical properties it uses, and that the value of a

product needs to use the natural world well (example: iron values oxygen “breath of life”).

Ruskin’s overall tone in talking about intrinsic value is demanding a reverence for not just the

ability of things and people, but the entire process of how that thing came to be, what it is

composed of, what physical, spiritual, and emotional contributions it makes. Intrinsic value is

therefore prized on its contribution to life.This is highly related to Ruskin’s views of wealth as

not being given by the participation and desire of people, but rather being intrinsic. In Ruskin’s

breakdown to what is valuable, he deconstructed the definition to being something that promotes

and gives way to life, as taken from its root; valor. He explains the connectivity and distinction

of intrinsic and effectual value. In Munera Pulveris he says, “Intrinsic value is the absolute power

of anything to support life. A sheaf of what of given quality and weight has in it a measurable

power of sustaining the substance of the body; a cubic foot of pure air, a fixed power of

sustaining, its warmth; and a cluster of flowers of given beauty a fixed power of enlivening or

animating the senses and heart” … “The value of a thing, therefore, ‘is independent of opinion,

and of quantity.’” This concept influences ethical consumption by seeing things as contributing

to human life. By treasuring things for each of their properties, and what they enable people to

do. The moral concerns include not neglecting natural elements and placing importance on the

promotion of life. This would give deeper wonder and benefit when consuming objects by

recognizing all their natural value.

Next, I want to explore Ruskin perceptions of wealth. In Ad Vorlem Ruskin sates that

“Wealth, therefore, is the possession of the valuable by the valiant. On wealth Ruskin critique
most economists views of wealth and says ““There is no wealth but life. Life, including all its

powers of love, of joy, and of admiration. That country is the richest which nourishes the greatest

numbers of noble and happy human beings; that man is richest, who, having perfected the

functions of his own life to the utmost, has also the widest helpful influence, both personal, and

by means of his possessions, over the lives of others.” His critique of wealth shifts the focus

from acquiring, to a system of sustaining life with things that are useful and usable. Ruskin takes

a holistic full cost look at wealth that places value on not only ‘availing nature but on the

availing hands”. He ultimately believes in the strong connection between life promoting things

by life promoting people. This concept makes us rethink as consumers what it means to own a lot

and attain things. In the example of the man with gold who drowned in the water, that questioned

if the gold had him or he had the gold, it questions what wealth is. This would promote in ethical

consumption to attain useful things and learning to effectively use the things you attain. The

example would be knowing to play a guitar and owning a guitar that plays well. Rather than not

knowing how to play it and hanging it on your wall, the object can be in availing hands that

brings human activity and creativity.

Lastly I want to look at the concept of imperfect labor, which Ruskin explains thoroughly

in Stones of Venice and in other places throughout Unto This Last. It is powerful to introduce

this concept by his saying perfectness is a sign of slavery. He talks about labor as making a tool

of a creature or a man of him. When imperfectness is not only essential to life, “It is the sign of

life in a mortal body, that is to say, of a state of progress and change. Nothing that lives is, or can

be, rigidly perfect; part of it is decaying, part nascent.” There is a need to allow and aid people to

think and imagine which dismantles the perfect engine like machinery production of men. This
however is good. “. . . no good work whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is

always a sign of a misunderstanding of the ends of art. . . . no great man ever stops working till

he has reached his point of failure: that is to say, his mind is always far in advance of his powers

of execution, and the latter will now and then give way in trying to follow it; besides that he will

always give to the inferior portions of his work only such inferior attention as they require; and

according to his greatness he becomes so accustomed to the feeling of dissatisfaction with the

best he can do, that in moments of lassitude or anger with himself he will not care though the

beholder be dissatisfied also”… “if we are to have great men working at all, or less men doing

their best, the work will be imperfect, however beautiful. Of human work none but what is bad

can be perfect, in its own bad way.” In Ruskin’s perspective, imperfection of labor is good. In the

current market and perspectives of a competitive economy, a laborer who offers themselves for

less will be chosen by those employing the labor meaning that the richer are always gaining

while labor is getting cheaper. In the imperfect labor model it would state that the same labor

gets paid the same across the board. Imperfection is in summary good because it’s a sign of life

in a mortal body. Ruskin believes that “all things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved

for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed, that the law of human life may be

Effort and the law of human judgement, Mercy.” This means go labor is good unless it is also

imperfect. All said is the imperfection of labor reflects a moral that there must be kinds of

engaging labor that are good for men. In applying this concept we place value not on the amount

of goods produced, but the men producing the goods. There is a moral to support human life, and

in the absence of perfect machinery there is craft which is beautiful. This concept applied may
influence consumers to seek fair trade operatives that ensure craftsmanship and fair wages are

being encouraged.


Vincent Miller believes consumerism and consumer culture jeopardized the power religious

communities have to counteract the injustices and costs of contemporary consumption. Miller

explains that religious tradition can no longer resist consumer culture’s negative aspects,

including it’s making people into consumers. He first explains that it is impossible for a person to

be in continuous full awareness of every input of their consumption in the moment of exchange,

since contemporary consumerism is so deeply layered in injustices and costs. We can think of

why the authority of religious traditions has given way to the habits and structures of consumer

practice by understanding Miller’s ideas of seduction and misdirection. “The real problem with

consumer culture lies in the structures and practices that systematically confuse and misdirect

well-intentioned people seeking to do good things such as show solidarity with others, find

spiritual transformation, and practice their sincerely self beliefs”(225). Seduction is the constant

stimulation of desire by sheer profusion of possible purchases made available made possible by

marketing to niche audiences and appealing to the senses. Misdirection is the marketing strategy

that associates “ commodities with needs, desires, and values that are not directly related to the

given product” This breeds a habit of self satisfying and identifying of the self with a practice of

purchasing (109). This is the issue of using consumer goods to signal values and means. Miller

explains that there are many factors to a product being brought to the market including the place,

people, and transportation. Consumer culture strategically doesn’t let consumers know all the
details of production. The authority of religious traditions have declined with the progression of

consumer culture, because consumer culture has become a big part of religious function. This

concept is applicable to most religious traditions, especially when culturally significant. Miller

talks about the original sacred contexts of cultural objects being commodified and stripped of

their significance. We see this with western yoga being stripped from its eastern Hindu roots. The

core concept that Miller communicates is that “religion is as susceptible to abstraction and

reifications other aspects of culture. Religious beliefs and practices are in danger of being

extracted from the complex cultures, institutions, and relationships that enable them to inform

the shape of daily life. As a result, they are in danger of being reduced to abstracted. virtual

sentiments that function solely to give flavor to the already established forms of everyday life or

to provide compensations for shortcomings.” This directly relates to the rise of autonomy and

self spirituality that is independent of religious groups and community. Without a community and

religious structure of superiority that you get in religious tradition, there is more room for

religious seekers to emerge, causing picking and choosing religious practices and morals. This

consumer based take of religious paves way for cultural exploitation and appropriation.

Consumer culture also promotes self purchasing identity which runs parallel to corporate

production of religious objects and alienation of religious interpretation and practice. These are

isolating religious practices to consumable, independent processes that dismantle the validity and

group power of religion as an institution. Ultimately, Miller argues that it isn’t the intention of

people that have made an oppressive and flawed regenerative consumer culture, but rather it is

systematically flawed and even positive movements are at risk of being commodified- causing

religious traditions to become more purchasable and self focused.

Though Miller has strong arguments for religious traditions and communities losing their

power to serve injustices and costs of consumerism there are more optimistic authors who

explain religious practices of good consumption. One critique offered is voluntary simplicity and

group discipline rooted in religious tradition rather than consumer practice or trend. One article

that described good religious practice is A. Whitney Sanford’s article, “Ghandi’s Agarian

Legacy: Practicing Food, Justice, and sustainability in India”. The Ghandian values are

exemplified in this example of food production and consumer practice. They ultimately operate a

fully sustainable environmentally sustainable farm that counteracts in a religious founded

practice the injustice and negative systems of modern production. The ashram-agricultural

communities act as social experiments to approaching issues in a spiritual way. The intentional

agricultural community grounded in Ghandian Hindu beliefs is one example of a good religious

practice, in terms of consumption. Though this is a counter cultural amazing model of

sustainability and stewardship, it is unrealistic to apply across the world as it requires same

belief, same consumption styles, and same commitment. Though it is an inspiring successful

solve, it is realistically only able to be implemented in intentional communities. Another example

of of a religious practice of good consumption is Islam’s views of consumption. Islamic

consumption is influenced by the three pillars ; consuming what is “lawful and wholesome”,

giving a portion to the poor (zakat), and not wastefulness with one’s goods. This is directly

applicable to not over consuming and contributing to the consumer culture norm of buying as

source of identity. In fact in the Islam tradition, denying yourself certain goods and excess may

be seen as a way to elevate your spiritual life.

“Munera pulveris; six essays on the elements of political economy : Ruskin, John, 1819-1900 :
Free Download & Streaming.” Internet Archive, 1 Jan. 1969, archive.org/details/