The audacity of the following argument deserves the satirical notice of a Jane Austen:
“Are new clothes a right, or a privilege? One of my friends (university-educated, politically and culturally liberal) only ever shops in H&M. Her reasoning: I deserve to look good. But do we? Is access to new clothes a human right?” (http://www.refinery29.uk/2017/04/149877/fast-fashion-social-issue).
I am no Jane Austen so I will rely on the Scottish philosopher, Sir W. D. Ross (d. 1971) to help me out.
I discuss the ethics of fast fashion in V&R Chapters 3 & 7 but I admit I do not there consider so novel an argument as the above.
It is a little hard to unpack the precise claim in: “I deserve to look good.” What could that argument be? The argument is more radical than: I want to look good and my money gives really poor people a bit of money: a sort of asymmetrical win-win proposal. I take it the argument isn’t this either: because I am liberal and support all the right progressive causes, then even really poor people should be happy to slave for me. That’s just too absurd.
Unsure of the claim, let’s settle on this: minimally, the claim is it is owed to me to look good at the expense of the young girls who make most of H&M’s clothes. The person refuses to spend money on clothes pricier than those at H&M even though she knows that more costly clothes oftentimes reflect better working conditions. Somehow, she is owed, and they are not.
Sir W. David Ross is famous for his original contribution to the theory of moral intuitionism. It’s a tradition of thinking stretching back at least to one of this blog’s heroes: Shaftesbury (http://www.ethicsoffashion.com/why-do-women-buy-kate-middletons-nose/). Ross formulated the theory as the claim that there are seven evident moral demands. Let’s look at each in turn and see if this “I deserve to look good” argument is moral.
If you make a promise, then you have made a moral commitment to someone. Clearly, no young girls in Cambodia, or elsewhere, have made our ever-so-progressive fashionista a promise. They owe her no duty of fidelity.
Having done someone wrong, you owe a duty of reparation: again, clearly, the young girls of Asia have done this woman no wrong.
Having received services, you owe a duty of gratitude. The relationship between our fashionista and the factory workers is not one of service but contract. The young girls in the factories owe no debt of gratitude.
Ross has a most interesting account of justice: observing a distribution of unmerited happiness, there is a duty to upset or prevent that distribution. Our factory workers deserve more for their work, in fact: all the injustice is on the side of the fashionista.
There is a duty of beneficence: to improve the virtue, intelligence, or pleasure of others. Though Ross says little about this in his classic work, The Right and the Good, he surely has in mind something like the role of teacher or mentor. Our factory girls cannot have this relationship with our avid shopper.
You and I owe ourselves the duty of self-improvement, and work — under certain conditions — does contribute to this duty. Ross specifies that this duty is in matters of virtue and intelligence. Virtue and intelligence are both goods able to be common and shared but it seems clear that our H&M shopper is not pursuing a common good but believes someone owes her a duty of making her look good.
Lastly, there is a duty, put in the negative, of not injuring others. Again, our young factory workers do not harm our shopper rather does the harm move in the other direction.
Our fashionista’s claim that she has a moral right to look good through buying fast fashion fails all seven intuitions of duty.