Is it Moral to Shop at Walmart? ~or~ On Cooperating with Evil Through Everyday Purchases

Sometimes the number of companies I should be boycotting because of their support of abortion, contraception, or gay marriage seems overwhelming. Is there any store I can buy from without supporting something immoral? This has been something I’ve been thinking about since I got home. At school, I simply made my weekly trip to Walmart (the only superstore in our town of 10,000) and didn’t think too much of it. But does shopping there, or perhaps another store, mean I am cooperating with evil or in some other way sinning?

There are many facets to the issue of “ethical consumerism” and I probably don’t know them all. Neither do I pretend to be a theologian. These are just my thoughts and questions. I’ll be drawing a lot from this article and its discussion on immediate vs mediate material cooperation in evil.

To start, I want to talk about Walmart.
Plenty of people shop at Walmart regularly, even good Catholics, and never think anything else about it. I did. I mention this because of something obvious yet often overlooked: Walmart sells contraceptives. I don’t know this for definite fact but they do have pharmacies and no reason not to stock your basic supply of the pill, and probably Plan B as well. That is to say, they sell “medications” that can kill an unborn child. Moreover, I know for a fact that Walmart sells condoms (and other things). A quick look around the sexual health page of the pharmacy section on their website reveals that. This all leads to the question: is it morally acceptable to shop at Walmart? Aren’t we then supporting a company that supports things that we as Catholics see as immoral?

According to the above-linked article mediate material cooperation means that “[w]hile doing something that is in itself good or indifferent, a person…gives an occasion to another’s sin, or contributes something by way of assistance.” and this can only be done if the principle of double effect is met. Double effect means, among other things, that the evil is not intended and that there is “sufficient reason”.

Now, honestly, when I’m at school Walmart isn’t my only option and the prices at the other stores (there are 2 within walking distance) certainly aren’t exuberant. They could also give me most of what I need. So any argument that Walmart is my only choice or that there’s “sufficient reason” for me shop there seems invalid.

In a way this leads to my next topic.

Money vs. Support
I used to think that buying something from a company that took a pro gay marriage stance was immoral. But really, when you think about it I’m not sure if this makes sense, after all no money is going towards, say an LGBT activist group, right? But it may not be that simple. So, does shopping at a store that takes an immoral stance (but doesn’t give money in that direction) equal mediate material cooperation?  Well, are we providing an occasion for sin or contributing something that assists another in sinning? Well…if this business keeps getting customers they’ll stay in business, and if they stay in business they can continue to publicly promote immorality. Right?

Now what if the company did give money to something immoral, say Planned Parenthood (the country’s largest abortion provider), but we weren’t buying from that company directly? Let’s say they had a how-to video up on youtube. If we watched that video (and thereby gave them a view) would we be giving occasion for sin or assisting in some way? Would we be giving occasion for someone else (another consumer) to sin?

What about lesser sins?
We tend to make a big deal about what companies are supporting abortion or what TV show is featuring a set of lesbian moms. But what about the shows that constantly encourage cohabitation and the messed up hookup culture? Or just a show where people lie all the time and get away with it? Or what if we have a company that doesn’t support abortion but provides insurance benefits for contraception or unmarried couples living together? Or what about a company that in some way could be seen to support the horrible labor conditions in China?

Where do we draw the line?
Now what if we have a company that gives to an organization, like the Susan G. Komen Foundation, who in turn donates to Planned Parenthood? Do we stop shopping there too? What about (follow me) a company that is partnered with a company that donates money to an organization that donates to Planned Parenthood? Odds are I’ve described most major companies. They are all interconnected right? So how can we know where we should shop, who we should buy from? If a store sells items from a company that has a connection (direct or indirect) to abortion, gay marriage etc can we shop at that store?

I don’t have all the answers. Not by a long shot. And I’ve certainly got plenty of questions. I will offer some advice my priest gave me regarding this once: not to become zealous. Also, you should know, I have a tendency to be scrupulous so please consider that in regards to what I’ve said. In fact, set what I’ve said aside for a moment and read this piece from the National Catholic Register. It’s a lot more reasonable than my rant. As the author notes “ethical consumerism is a field ripe for scrupulosity, and a miserable, hysterical, paranoid [person] can’t follow her vocation.” So where ever we shop or don’t, whatever we choose to boycott, we shouldn’t make ourselves hysterical.

I wish there was a way to wave a magic wand and change the world, to eliminate evil so we don’t have to have these dilemmas. But this is the world we live in. And, as I have been reminded recently, we are called to be in the world though not of the world. I must remember this even though my introverted and contemplative soul can kind of hate the world sometimes. The world is wrong and it’s confused. But this is where God put us, and not so we could run away and go live in a cave surrounded by no one but fellow faithful Catholics (though that sounds pretty amazing). No, we mustn’t turn our back on the world. It needs us because it needs the message we are meant to share with it. We must work to change the minds and hearts of others, while always working on perfecting our own hearts and minds. That is how we change the world…rather than with a magic wand.

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12 thoughts on “Is it Moral to Shop at Walmart? ~or~ On Cooperating with Evil Through Everyday Purchases

  1. I’m not going to respond to everything here because that would be too long 🙂 But I’ve definitely had some of the same thoughts as you.

    I was never a Starbuck’s drinker, but made a point to never go there after hearing that gay “marriage” was integral to them as a company. And I stopped going to Target for a while when they sold a line of LGBT shirts which proceeds went to a LGBT group. I went back after they began supporting moral things as well. You’d be extremely hard-pressed to find a pharmacy that didn’t provide contraceptives…

    I try hard to not go to a place that I know funds immoral things. That would be directly supporting those things. The other thing I’ve run into is that so often it is extremely hard to figure out who a company supports. Financial information is not always easy to access. It was really frustrating when I was trying to find out about a few companies in the past…

    When you think about it, though, somehow your money always has the potential of going to something (or someone) who is going to use it against our beliefs, unless you spend it at a specifically Catholic place. We do need to be informed consumers and know enough to not fund abortion, etc. But this is, like you said, an issue many people can get over-zealous and over-scrupulous about, which we do need to watch out for. Be informed, but don’t freak out 😉

    • You’re right, sadly, our money always has the potential of going towards something immoral.

      I’ve also been wondering if it would be a mortal sin to support a company when we *know* they fund abortion and *we have* other options. On one level, you could argue that it’s not as if you’re donating to PP. But on another you could say that letting any of your money get back to abortion is immoral.

      But, I guess as long as we are consciously trying to avoid funding/supporting immoral things then God will understand.

      Honestly though, I still don’t know the answer to my question. Walmart has a pharmacy and sells contraceptives. Other grocery stores don’t, but of course, they might sell products from a company that donates (indirectly) to PP or something else. It seems like the best choice would be to avoid Walmart, despite the fact that it’s convenient and everything. At the same time, if that’s right than why hasn’t a faithful Catholic stepped forward to propose a boycott or something?

      • For Walmart, you’re saying you think it’s bad because they sell contraception, right? Thinking about that, I’m not sure how that could be a mortal sin. You’re not paying for it, and the gravity is rather fuzzy. And as far as I know, they’re not giving money to PP or anything like that. The point is that your money would be going to a company that uses it to pay for contraception….and that’s when it gets messy with indirect support 🙂 I wouldn’t stop shopping there until you talk with someone more in depth – I should look up the name of that professor I went to a talk from!!!

      • That’s right: that tricky, gray, indirect support. I’ve been thinking about it more. I do remember bringing something similar up with a priest one time. He made the point that if we followed this idea of ethical consumerism we wouldn’t be able to go to any pharmacy. (Which is of course kind of ridiculous.) But if there was a pharmacy that didn’t sell anything immoral we should of course go there. I Can’t remember if he said we should only go there, but, I don’t think so.

        I know I can be scrupulous and that most of the time I need to lighten up, but you’re probably right and I should try to avoid Walmart until I’ve fully figured this out.

        What professor’s talk would that be?

      • Oh ok. I’d love it if you have any notes or his website (if he has one) or something like that. Let me know!

  2. Also, don’t forget that if you really want to become over-scrupulous, you could say that any time we spend anything anywhere within the United States, our money is going to support immoral things, such as abortion and contraception and to promote things such as the LGBT lifestyle and cause because a portion of what we spend is going to pay taxes to our government. I think that we need to understand that each person is responsible for following his own conscience as far as making final decisions regarding secondary support of immoral things and causes, but that all of it must be taken with the proverbial grain of salt when living in a society such as ours. I personally take the line of not shopping at stores that are blatant about their support of things I am against as a Catholic, i. e. I won’t support Star Bucks and Susan G. Komen, I didn’t shop at Target for that same period of time when they were openly pushing LGBT on their customers. I do however buy products from other companies who are less blatant and pushy about it at times.

    • That’s a good point about taxes, while at the same time we do have an obligation to “render onto Caesar”. But you’re right a grain of salt may be necessary since it’s practically impossible to avoid supporting these things in our culture. I do admit my usually scrupulous mind has calmed down some since I wrote this post. Sometimes it’s just so frustrating to realize how difficult it is to not support (in some way) these immoral things.

      What you say about avoiding the more blatant companies appeals to me. I still wonder about the moral culpability of indirect support. At the same time though, shopping at Walmart or some other similar place is not the same as donating to Komen.

      Thank you for your comment. It’s given me something to think about and pray about.

      • I understand the predicament because I face it myself constantly. I have to remind myself to calm down and focus on the ways in which I can have an impact on society. Boycotting something alone doesn’t effect change, but it can make me feel better about my own complicity in evil. I try to remember that for my own sanity I must “pick my battles” wisely and well and pray for the times when I’m not sure which one to pick.

      • That’s good advice. Thank you. Sometimes prayer and picking our battles is all we can do. For me, the issue is choosing a morally gray store simply because it is more convenient or cheaper. It’s difficult for me to reason that out. At the same time though, if this was a real issue you would think someone in the church would be saying something. I guess we’re picking our battles and trying to change society as best we can.

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