I’m tentatively working on a paper on ethical consumerism and duties to fellow citizens. One question that’s particularly exercising me right now is whether, if individuals have duties not to buy certain things, might that entail a duty in the seller not to offer to sell those things to me and visa versa?
I’m writing the paper in the context of several newspaper articles complaining that the rising popularity of quinoa in the West has made it less available to Bolivian citizens, who have eaten the seed since the time of the Incas.
Currently I’m unconvinced it’s unambiguously bad that Bolivians can’t afford or source their grain. So far, this is something the some journalists telling the tale have assumed. Why might it not be bad? Well, for one thing, the increased price of quinoa means more profit for the Bolivian farmers that grow it, and more spending by them in their local communities. There are also plentiful and cheap high-protein alternative staples grown locally (such as soya) that can be bought instead.
Nevertheless, if we assume that Bolivians not being able to buy quinoa is an overall bad state of affairs – perhaps they gain more utility from eating it than those who it’s exported to, or perhaps their conceptions of the good are bound up in eating their traditional foods. If this is so, then maybe Western consumers should not be buying quinoa as part of a duty to maximise the good or to avoid harming distant strangers. Given that Bolivian farmers have, I assume, freely sold their products for export, I’m not sure it’s straightforwardly right to boycott quinoa, but let’s put that objection aside and assume that it is for now.
If it is wrong for me to buy quinoa from Bolivia, then presumably it’s also wrong for Bolivian farmers to sell their quinoa to me. However, there are a great many problems with this position, and that’s what’s really troubling me. For one thing, this position may mean that producers of goods are required only to sell where doing so might produce the overall best state of affairs. I can see that this could be the case if the producer is selling goods he or she knows will be used to do some terrible wrong (such as guns to a murderous regime), but is an apple producer only to sell apples to people he or she knows to enjoy apples the most or are most in need of the nutrients the apple contains? There’s a lot of freedom sacrificed in that position. A further problem I see is that it means the producer must avoid selling to anyone he or she thinks may sell or give the product to anyone else. Again, it would seem strange for the apple seller to be required to refuse to sell his or her apples to someone who might give those apples to a third party who might like the apples less than some other person, particularly when none of the intervening transfers are likely to be unjust. What’s more, it seems rather strange to think that private producers have duties to their fellow citizens to give them first right of refusal on any product they want to sell, and that the duty requires offering the product at a price their fellows can afford even if they can sell it for much more elsewhere. If there are such duties then those the product was sold to would also acquire a duty not to transfer their purchases out of the community. All of that looks to be an unacceptable set of constraints on freedom and rife with epistemic problems for the duty-bearers.
Let’s remember, Bolivian farmers aren’t forced to sell their quinoa to people who will export it, and they benefit substantially from doing so. Nor does it seem plausible to me (I’d love some input on this) to suggest that they have a duty not to sell to anyone but their fellow citizens. If it’s not wrong for Bolivians to sell their quinoa, then just what makes it wrong for me to buy it? I’m quite puzzled by the idea that it might be permissible for Bolivian farmers to sell their quinoa to me, but impermissible for me to buy it from them. Anyone care to help me out on this one?
If quinoa is so important to Bolivians, might I even be required, if I am able, to purchase their exported quinoa and then give it back to them (or sell it at an affordable price)? That might be a position utilitarianism requires, but it looks highly implausible to me.