Consumerism and Christian Ethics

By Himes, Kenneth R. | Theological Studies, March 2007 | Go to article overview

Consumerism and Christian Ethics


Himes, Kenneth R., Theological Studies


SOMETIMES THE MOST OBVIOUS MATTERS get the least attention from moral theologians. Consumerism is a hallmark of American life. Indeed, many commentators consider the United States the exemplar of the consumer society. Yet the topic has never been the subject of the moral notes.

The English word "consume" has its origins in the French consumer and farther back is rooted in the Latin consumere, meaning to devour, waste, exhaust. Its English usage (consume, consumer, consumption) was negative, with consumption being popularly employed to describe tuberculosis. During the 18th century the word began to be used by political economists without the negative connotation: a consumer was distinguished from a producer, and consumption became the counterpart to production. (1)

In the mid-20th century the word became commonly accepted as a replacement for customer as the buyer or purchaser of goods. Raymond Williams sees this as significant since "customer had always implied some degree of regular and continuing relationship to a supplier, whereas consumer indicates the more abstract figure in a more abstract market." (2)

Today the words consumption and consumer remain contested. For many social critics the terms still have a negative tone, while economists tend to ignore this and use the term in a neutral sense. The other word, consumerism, has an equally confusing meaning. One usage of consumerism refers to a social movement; as such, business and economics generally view the word favorably: "it is about the empowerment of consumers as citizens, upholding their rights, protecting them from abuses of power, and supplying them with objective information that will help them to make rational choices." (3)

Another way of seeing consumerism is as an ideology. In this sense, consumerism is a way of talking about a market mentality that defends individuals' freedom of choice and entrepreneurship while criticizing economic models like communism, socialism, or other approaches that interfere with rational agents making decisions in minimally regulated free markets.

Understood in yet another sense, consumerism is a way of life. And while some celebrate it, citing the benefits and pleasures of material affluence, most writers who think of consumerism in this way, tend to view it as unfortunate: "an excessive, even pathological preoccupation with consumption." (4) This third understanding of consumerism, as a way of life, will be the main focus of this moral note, though the other views of consumerism will also be found in the literature under review.

In this section of the notes I will highlight some recent studies in the area of consumerism, touching upon literature beyond the theological and ethical due to the prominence other disciplines have given consumerism. The relative lack of attention given it by theologians is striking when compared to the attention given it by social scientists. Historians, sociologists, economists, and anthropologists have all given significant attention to consumption, consumers, and consumerism. Of late, however, the theological community is beginning to contribute to the vast literature. Before addressing these recent contributions, it will be helpful to review some of the studies in other fields.

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES

Although many commentators focus on consumerism as a 20th-century phenomenon, various historical studies have argued that the roots of consumerism can be seen in colonial America and that consumerism's origins can be traced back to 17th-century England and Holland. (5) Still, post-World War II American consumerism is a predominant focus of much study due to the difference of degree, if not difference in kind, from other cultures where consumerism was prevalent.

Today many historians place consumption at the center of their work, no longer confining it to popular culture or the history of business. (6) The lenses of consumption and consumerism have become ways of understanding much of what has transpired in American history. …

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