Fake Ethics and Fake Handbags: Where Do You Live on the Moral Landscape?

by Dr. Nileema Conlon Vaswani in

I was recently given a beautiful handbag as a present.  When I opened it I discovered that it was a fake designer bag.  Like many women in my position, I did not think much about it except in terms of its aesthetic value.  But this week, Channel Four gave my handbag a whole new meaning.  And it isn't a pretty one.  Channel Four's documentary, A Fake Trade, traced the plight of those who make fake products and handbags like the one I own.  The documentary provided us with a glimpse into the lives of some of the poorest people in the world.  Young children who worked like slaves tied to machines for twenty hours a day were making these fake goods for us to buy at cheap prices and accessorise our evening wear.  These children were chained to machines, fed from dog bowls and not even allowed to visit the toilet.  They just had to keep going.  And for as long as they kept going for twenty hours a day, day after day, behind the closed doors of these factories, it was difficult for us to think about them.  But after watching this documentary I no longer see a handbag before me.  I see a child who is deprived, abused and exploited.  These working conditions are undoubtedly not conductive to the health and well-being of children or indeed that of anyone else.  The documentary took me a few steps away from the handbag and few steps closer to examining what are essentially human rights abuses and concerns for a child's health.

So why is it that some events have a strong impact on us and others simply slide away from our moral conscience?  Those events that have less of an impact on us are usually those that are also morally distant from us.  The idea behind moral distance is that an event that is far away, either physically or psychologically, is likely to have less of an impact on us than one that is closer to us either in physical or psychological terms.  For example, a natural disaster that kills a few people near to where we live is likely to have more of a psychological impact on us than is one that kills many more people in a country far away.  Moral distance can also be altered by lessening either physical or psychological distance.  In the case of the handbag, psychological distance was lessened as I learnt about the plight of these young children who work in factories.

Until what point can we stay detached or distant from an event?  Imagine replicating these working conditions in the UK.  If you are outraged by this suggestion even though it's a hypothetical one, ask yourself why this generates so much moral discomfort. Working conditions are either right or wrong; they do not depend on location.  Either it is right to chain a child to a machine or it isn't and yet, the very idea that such conditions might be replicated in the UK makes us uncomfortable.  The reason for this could be that for as long as something wrong is happening in a place far away, it is easier for us to convince ourselves that it is in fact not happening at all.  

Let us continue with our thought experiment.  I know that there are laws that would, quite rightly, not allow these working conditions to be replicated but imagine for a moment that these fake goods were being legally sold in the towns and cities in the UK.  Would this bring the moral issues a little closer to us?  Further, imagine that the factories were open for us to visit.  How would that impact on our decision to buy that handbag?  Also imagine that instead of having factories that many of us may perhaps choose not to visit, the machinery and the children were on the High Street.  As we walked down it, we would see these children chained to the machines, eating out of dog bowls and urinating and defecating on the pavements.  And in the evenings, when the rest of us return from work, these children are still working, a full twenty hour day.  And finally imagine that like me, you are also gifted a beautiful fake designer handbag that has been made by one of these children whom you see day after day.  What sort of moral impact does this have on you that is different from the way you might have viewed such a bag if it came to you from a country far away?  Does it make you think of your own child and how you might feel if he or she were working in such factories?  

To understand the real moral issues surrounding an event, it is important to minimise the moral distance between us and the event.  If we do not strive to do that then we will be dealing in fake ethics and not merely fake handbags.