Ethical Consumption Before Capitalism (2023)


Is it ethically permissible to sell, buy, and use luxury goods? What labor practices do we tolerate to make these goods available? In the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, England was faced with an ever-growing supply of new and exciting goods, made possible by new trade routes to the New World, the African Continent, and India as well as by the exploitation of indentured and enslaved laborers. Investors were asked to contribute to financially-risky ventures; prospective settlers of the New World colonies were enticed by promises of moral as well as economic improvement. In the propaganda of the period, the inherent risks and hardships of these ventures were glossed over or diminished to highlight the potential economic and spiritual profits to be made.

However, the goods cultivated and traded through these new global markets were viewed with suspicion: from exotic dyes to tobacco and opium to enslaved persons, the act of buying and selling in Early Modern England  represented an uneasy mix of economic opportunity and ethical risk. How can “godly” English merchants trade in goods that require exploitative labor? What kind of profit can be ethically justified? These and similar questions have shaped our own modern understanding around the ethics of consumption and global trade, making it critical to understand how premodern people understood the relationship between consumer culture, trade, and living ethically.

Students will learn to use word embedding models and sentiment analysis to connect the ethical dimensions of the discourse on consumption with gender, race, and religion. The final product for the project will ask students to experiment with interactive visualizations (such as a Shiny app) to track the changes in the language of ethical consumption in our period of interest.

Project Leads: Astrid Giugni, Jessica Hines