If you're an anticapitalist in the West or Global North you're an unwilling participant in the prevailing hegemony (capitalism), but usually without much choice. You can't find shelter without engaging with a for-profit housing market, you can't buy food without earning money, and the vast majority of jobs involve a massive waste of resources to enrich a few. All the commodities you have to buy to survive in the world are part of a complex and opaque global supply chain usually involving some combination of child labour, over-exploitation or slavery.

The TV show "The Good Place" investigated this, concluding it was basically impossible to participate in global capitalism without being implicated in unethical practices. So I'm wondering what main schools of thought there are on the ethics of participating (under effective coercion) in an unethical system.

A few options come to mind:

  • Presumably a Marxist/Socialist would say the ethical course of action would be to work towards revolution. But do they talk about the participation up to the point of revolution?
  • One option is to try to escape the clutches of capitalism entirely, by living in a cabin in the woods and growing your own food, making your own clothes, building your own house. But this is unobtainable without having first participated for long enough to save enough money to buy (very expensive) land, since the hegemony treats land as a commodity.
  • One option is to try to be as ethical a consumer as you can, perhaps buy fairtrade coffee, or choose only organic natural fibre clothes rather than plastic. But that relies on there being enough capitalists trying to capture the "ethical" market and so disclosing what their supply chains are like. This is an impossible option for the vast majority of commodities most people buy.

Is there an established literature on the ethics of this participation?

  • 1
    It is a broadly accepted principle of ethics that "ought implies can", if the participation is unavoidable one is not morally responsible for the unethical practices participated in. However, to the extent that one controls the nature of their participation, the responsibility for minimizing the damage remains. As for Marxists, their approach is typically broadly utilitarian, if one can leverage their participation in capitalism to help bring about its downfall such participation is not just permissible, but commendable and morally obligatory.
    – Conifold
    Commented Nov 16, 2023 at 11:03
  • 1
    You may find a study of Gandhi's methods useful. The exact methods may not work today but it may be worthwhile to remember that that Churchill who could stand up to Hitler was ultimately knocked down by Gandhi by only what he called 'non violent' means — I'd rather say 'civil'. Important world modifying figures like MLK, Mandela have drawn leaves from Gandhi's book.
    – Rushi
    Commented Nov 16, 2023 at 11:19
  • @Rushi interesting thanks. Presumably that's partly the inspiration behind Extinction Rebellions "non-violent direct action". However that's taking us more down the lines of methods of resistance rather than any ethical imperative to resist.
    – thosphor
    Commented Nov 16, 2023 at 11:23
  • Giving up on chocolate would already be a good first step... (at least until they cut down on all the child labour)
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Nov 16, 2023 at 14:27
  • @NotThatGuy This fits into my third option. But I'm not so much interested in individual actions as the ethics of any participation at all. (In fact my question was prompted by a question on sustainable living about buying solar panels; technology and the mining that supports it is rife with child labour and slavery)
    – thosphor
    Commented Nov 16, 2023 at 14:54

1 Answer 1


You cite some good examples. If you look at Das Kapital by Karl Marx, you can see that it is implicit that the worker is forced to participate in the capitalist system. They are metaphorically in chains. The socialists that I know all participate in global capitalism. They have no choice. They also push for ethical practices and reform. Socialist revolution now looks remote. Some socialists are very wealthy. They tend to be benefactors and speak out on issues of concern. I am not familiar with the literature on participation. There is a book called "How Capitalism Forms our Lives" by Alyson Cole and Estelle Ferrarese. This seems to look at capitalism as a form of life, which was a concept developed by Wittgenstein.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .