I attended two panels at this past weekend’s Society of Christian Ethics conference, and to cut to the chase, both made me wonder why products that are pervasive in our society always seem to be accompanied by horror stories related to the production chain of the goods.

One panel featured two CMTers (Charlie Camosy and John Berkman), explored the question of why care for animals is so neglected by the Catholic tradition – despite the clarity of the edict in the Catechism (#2416-2418):

Animals are God’s creatures. He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory. Thus men owe them kindness. We should recall the gentleness with which saints like St. Francis of Assisi or St. Philip Neri treated animals. … It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly.

Berkman noted that the pre-Vatican II moral manuals gave more attention to this question than do recent texts (though their impact on, say, workers in the Chicago stockyards of the day may have been minimal!). There isn’t much ambiguity in the teaching: Animals should not be subjected to cruelty, but possess a dignity inherent in them as God’s good creatures. At the very least, the practices of factory farming seem impossible to square with such dignity. The panelists spoke of a possible policy movement for the Society to stop serving factory-farmed meat at its gathering. But in effect, this means not serving meat at all, if the conference is held in most major hotels. This is because non-factory-farmed meat is very difficult to find in any corporate setting. But why is this? Why is it that factory farming horrifies so many people, and yet it is so pervasive in meat production that alternatives are thought unthinkable.

More eye-opening for me was a panel surveying the ethics of smartphones. One panelist, Joseph Wolyniak, of Oxford, sought to name the ethical problems in producing smartphones. I expected references to poor, Asian factory workers. Instead, he went even further back, detailing the massive civil war and violence afflicting the Democratic Republic of the Congo in a long-standing conflict amidst mines for coltan, an essential rare earth mineral component, necessary for smartphones. A CNN commentary explains:

A 10-year-old boy, his face still innocent, abducted from his village and forced to kill alongside ruthless militia fighters. A 60-year-old grandmother too ashamed of the injuries caused by a brutal rape to leave her house for five months, even though her wounds worsened. A girl who reminded me of my own daughter, bridging the years between youth and womanhood, who had been dragged into a forest near her house by a group of men and raped, over and over again. … A new documentary film, “Blood in the Mobile,” powerfully addresses both the limits of the imagination and our sense of connection to atrocities committed on the other side of the world. Through a shaky camera in the damp and dark mines of eastern Congo, filmmaker Frank Poulsen introduces us to some of the young men (and even children) toiling at the first stage of Congo’s lucrative business in tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold. But the wealth of this industry doesn’t really benefit the Congolese miners for their back-breaking, perilous and poorly paid work — not by a long shot. Militia groups and factions of the Congo’s army control many mines, imposing heavy “taxes” on miners for whom there are few alternatives for making a living. Juxtapose these gritty images of Congo with shots filmed at the headquarters of Nokia, the electronics powerhouse that sells these minerals in its consumer products, and you have a message that is difficult to ignore: the cell phones, laptops, digital cameras and other products we have come to rely on link all of us to the conflict in Congo.

Interestingly, the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation included a provision that supplies of tantalum are “DRC conflict free,” which has led to attempts at action by manufacturers, though this article warns that such action will be “extremely complicated and expensive.”

So… is it worth it? Is it worth eating meat or buying a smartphone when one knows that the production chain is fraught with these kinds of problems? Another excellent paper, given by Dan Finn, sorted through these questions of responsibility within market chains – and it is certainly a complex question. Finn noted that we surely do not intend such evil when we make our purchases, nor do our single purchases in themselves cause the evil. Yet we do know about it, and it is our desire for these products that ultimately produces these conditions via the market.

But what struck me were the parallels of these two issues: a pervasive product whose pervasiveness depends on deplorable conditions in the supply chain. Why is it so hard for us to imagine a society where the stuff we consume is by and large produced in ways that accord with basic concepts of dignity? There will always be abuses in any economy. But the difference is a kind of blithe acceptance of these abuses as the norm, as virtually inescapable. Why can’t we have an economy where basic dignity is the expectation in the production of our common products?

Of course, what unites both issues is also that strictly speaking smartphones and regular meat consumption are not necessities at all. Both panels pointed out things we already know about how the overeating of meat and the overuse of smartphones causes all sorts of other problems. Yet I don’t think it’s correct to see either of these things as bads – they are clearly goods. The more worrisome question is: if we want these goods, why is it that we are accustomed to accepting these kinds of horror stories about how they are made?

Finn’s paper indirectly provided a possible answer by focusing on the mechanism of price as the causal link between us and distant others in market relationships. Price is what links us – and we want the cheapest price. Because evidently we could get dignified meat (from a small farm) and conflict-free tantalum (from Canada or Australia). But the alternative is cheaper… and we go for what is cheaper. So maybe the solution here is to ask pourselves to pay the right price – the medievals called it the just price – for the goods we think are so important to us.