Todd Zywicki at Volokh links a recent Wall Street Journal article on “Conspicuous Virtue,” advanced the modern analogue of Veblen’s conspicuous consumption. The article itself is behind the subscription wall, but Zywicki excerpts enough of the core argument to make clear that it’s an instance of the “unmasking” genre, where the putatively high-minded motives of this or that group are exposed as mere expressions of self-interest after all. While this is probably accurate often enough, one suspects that the function this sort of debunking serves is, for the most part, to assure us all that we’re not somehow falling short morally, that there’s no reason to consider whether we ourselves ought to be making such minor changes in how we live, since the folks who’ve already done so are no better than us—indeed, possibly worse, since they’re engaged in some kind of disingenous moral preening.
The thing is, the author focuses on an example signally ill-suited to prove his thesis: Organic or cage-free or otherwise more humanely produced food products, of the kind Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s specialize in. The problem, if you’re trying to make an argument that these are cases of consumption for display, of purchasing choices meant to broadcast one’s virtue to one’s peers, is that there are few commodities whose provenance is less clear to third parties (once purchased) than food. Mostly, it’s consumed at home alone. And even if you’re throwing a dinner party, most of us don’t make a point of announcing the precise origins of the eggs in our cake or the beef in our Stroganoff. If you want to make a show of your great ethical sensitivity, the grocery store seems a poor place to do it.
There is, incidentally, a certain circularity to this kind of argument—not in any discrete case, but as a general account of people’s behavior. For if I buy the cruelty-free beef only in hopes of advertising my virtue to others, I need at least to suppose that (some of) the others genuinely regard it as virtuous to buy cruelty-free beef. But those people, at least, must then think it’s an inherently good thing to do, not just a good way of showing off.