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Trade justice and individual consumption choices : Adam Smith's spectator theory and the moral constitution of the Fair Trade consumer

By Matthew Watson


A consistent theme of the existing literature is that fair trade consumption practices represent acts of justice. In this article I investigate such an equation from the perspective of the moral theory of Adam Smith. Smith explains the development of moral sensibilities via an imaginative act he calls `sympathy'. For Smith, justice prevails in interpersonal relationships in which the potential for one person to do harm to another is ruled out because their respective imaginations are in perfect accord, thus creating a situation of mutual sympathy. I advance two main conclusions. First, I argue that fair trade consumption is undoubtedly a moral act in the manner described by Smith, as it involves consumers responding to fair trade campaigns in order to trigger their moral sensibilities through exercising their imaginative faculties. Second, though, I argue that fair trade consumption is not specifically a moral act of justice in the manner described by Smith. The structure of fair trade invites the First World consumer to display sympathy for the Third World producer, but it provides no means for that sympathy to be reciprocated. As such, instances of genuine mutual sympathy do not arise. From a Smithian perspective, fair trade consumption practices are an act of beneficence rather than an act of justice. They thereby reside in the realm of private virtue rather than the realm of public duty, with significant implications for the way in which trade justice is conceptualized and studied in IPE

Topics: HF
Publisher: Sage Publications Ltd.
Year: 2007
OAI identifier:

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