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Ethics and Buying a Smartphone (with help from Simone and Simon)

Many people have at least a passing concern for where the things they use and consume come from. Was your shirt sewn in a sweatshop? Was your coffee purchased from farmers at a fair price? Is the power being used to light your domicile coming from sustainable resources? “Caring about stuff” is evidently in vogue (and it’s probably in the magazine too).

There’s a certain ethical reassurance that may emerge from such activity, giving a person a sense that their wallet is actively supporting groups/causes with which they agree. For many these “small” steps alleviate some of the fundamental concerns about larger injustices: you might not be able to stop factory farming but you can buy from a farmer’s market or a union factory (there are voluminous texts that have been filled critiquing this “capitalism with a human face”).

And yet a problem can emerge the more that one seeks to broaden their circle of concern. One may start with deciding that it is ethically preferable to buy organic food, move from this to a desire to ensure that one’s electricity is sustainably sourced, but what if while walking from the farmer’s market to the non-sweatshop clothing shop a person receives a call on their smartphone? Was your smartphone (or tablet, or laptop, or e-reader, or game console) ethically sourced?

Such is the topic of George Monbiot’s article “My search for a smartphone that is not soaked in blood,” (posted at The Guardian [it was re-posted later on Alternet]). Which chronicles Monbiot’s belief/worry that he may soon need to buy a smartphone coupled with his desire to buy one that best matches his ethical requirements.

[a brief aside on ethics]

Before discussing Monbiot’s article in more detail it is worth taking a moment to touch on ethics, or at least ethical frameworks. In developing a framework for understanding ethics in a contemporary setting, the philosopher Simon Critchley (in his book Infinitely Demanding) writes that:

“ethical experience begins with the experience of a demand to which I give my approval.” (14).

Critchley explains the above by noting that (italics in original):

“my ethical statement implies an approval of the activity,” (15).

Or, to state it further:

“ethical experience is, first and foremost, the approval of a demand, a demand that demands approval,” (16).


“the demand precedes the approval of the demand, one is obliged to conclude that demand and approval arise at the same time and that the demand is only felt as a demand by a subject who approves of it,”(18).

Or to re-phrase all of this in a simpler way (I hope): ethical actions are based on a person attempting to meet some ethical demand they agree with (a person buys organic vegetables because they believe that this is a more ethical choice), while this demand precedes the action it inspires (a person feels that factory farming and pesticides is unethical which creates a demand on them to avoid such systems and thus they choose organic vegetables). In other words: an act that a person feels they need to ethically take is a result of that person recognizing an ethical demand upon them.

[aside finished, now back to Monbiot]

Monbiot notes in his article (though it could fairly be called an op-ed [it was posted in the “Comment is Free” section]) that smartphones have many issues related to them that cause him discomfort as he looks for the mythical “ethical smartphone” he recognizes:

“There are dozens of issues, such as starvation wages, bullying, abuse and 60-hour weeks in the sweatshops manufacturing them, the debt bondage into which some of the workers are pressed, the energy used, the hazardous waste produced. But I will concentrate on just one: are the components soaked in the blood of people from the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo? For 17 years, rival armies and militias have been fighting over the region’s minerals. Among them are metals critical to the manufacture of electronic gadgets, without which no smartphone would exist: tantalum, tungsten, tin and gold.”

Throughout his article Monbiot further discusses the woe wrought in the attempt to get the metals needed for electronic devices (particularly smartphones). A key focus of the article is Monbiot’s recognition that it is extremely difficult to know with complete certainty whether or not the metals in a given device were obtained in a way that does not directly involve and perpetuate human suffering. Monbiot examines some of the different companies that are now attempting to determine where exactly their metals were sourced from, with some companies trying to draw up extensive supply chain maps. Indeed it seems that many a company is recognizing the existence of concerned consumers like Monbiot, therefore launching various efforts:

“which start at the beginning of the long chain of suppliers, provide an income for local people, while guaranteeing that armed psychopaths have not profited from the sale of your phone.”

At the end of his article Monbiot notes that he has not made his mind up about whether or not he will buy a smartphone, but based on reading his article it is clear that he is more likely to buy a phone made by one company over another. Or, maybe he just won’t buy a smartphone at all. The article gives off a sense of: “well, if you’re going to buy one anyway, then “Brand Q” is slightly preferable.”

The ethical demand that Monbiot is wrestling with is his notion that it is not right for him to buy a device that further perpetuates suffering (a demand that he shows agreement with by expressing it as an ethical demand), and his investigation is leading him to conclude that there just might not be a smartphone on the market that gels with the ethical demand he has set for himself.

Furthermore, Monbiot’s question about where the metal comes from is only one condition that worries him. He does not even delve into the other ethical issues that he mentions at the start of his piece: environmental worries, questions of working conditions (in the factories where the devices are assembled out of those metals), and so forth. After all, if the metal was sourced “ethically” (whatever that might mean) would the phone not still pass ethical muster if it was assembled using exploitive labor practices?

Clearly when trying to think through the ethics of electronic technology (and many other things) the ethics can get a bit muddled, so let us turn to a book with a perfect title for this situation: The Ethics of Ambiguity by Simone de Beauvoir, in which de Beauvoir writes:

“ethics does not furnish recipes any more than do science and art. One can merely propose methods.” (134)

and yet – despite ethics not supplying a clear “recipe” de Beauvoir still goes on to write that (italics in original):

“the value of an act lies not in its conformity to an external model, but in its internal truth.” (138)

And I think that this “internal truth” of which de Beauvoir writes could be understood in line with the “demand” about which Critchley writes.

Monbiot’s article demonstrates the challenges inherent in many of the decisions that contemporary capitalist society seeks to confront people with, and it is a society that seeks to hide much exploitation and suffering behind a façade of useful technological glisten, and yet we should bear in mind – to quote de Beauvoir:

“oppression tries to defend itself by its utility.” (95)

Towards the end of his article Monbiot writes that maybe he will just wait until such a time as “FairPhone manufactures a handset,” which would – one assumes – be a device that would meet Monbiot’s own ethical demands. And yet this wish at the end of his article seemed to deflate (in my opinion) some of the moral weight of his larger argument. As it seems to me that a “fair” certified phone would be little more than the equivalent of the “organic” labeled groceries that sit next to the regular groceries. Instead of representing an actual shift in the larger trends or forcing a change all that this would represent is another option.

It would be an ethical half-step, one that would allow a person to satisfy a narrow personal ethical demand without seeking to broaden this demand to the larger world. Such would be a step that would seek to bring the action into “conformity with an external model,” while only addresses the “internal truth” in a paltry, surface level way. After all, if Monbiot (or you [or me]) were suddenly able to buy a more ethical phone it would be just another “ethical” product to be sold alongside the unethical products, just another coat of shiny varnish to help disguise the rotting wood beneath. Or to put it another way: “fair trade” products do not mean the cessation of “regular trade” products, it only strengthens the “regular” system by perpetuating the myth that the market can ethically regulate itself.

This level of truly recognizing the elements of an ethical demand is expressed by Critchley, near the end of his book, where he writes:

“On my view, ethics is the experience of an infinite demand at the heart of my subjectivity, a demand that undoes me and requires me to do more, not in the name of some sovereign authority, but in the namelessness of a powerless exposure, a vulnerability, a responsive responsibility, a humorous self-division. Politics is not the naked operation of power or an ethics-free agonism, it is an ethical practice that is driven by a response to situated injustices and wrongs.” (132).

In other words, really engaging ethically must go beyond just buying a “less bad” phone. Nevertheless, ethical actions frequently follow from early questioning of the sort that is found in Monbiot’s article, as it is through the act of pondering the demand that it may become clear what manner of ethical action is truly required.

Ponder away.

But don’t stop at pondering.

About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

9 comments on “Ethics and Buying a Smartphone (with help from Simone and Simon)

  1. oneofthelibrarians
    March 14, 2013

    Ah, I love de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity so hard.

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