Monday, April 13, 2009

The Ethics of Consumption: Electric Carving Knives

Most engineering ethics concentrates on the production end of things: how engineers can engage ethically in making products or services. When the general consuming public appears in an ethical analysis, it is usually assumed that they know little or nothing about the technical or even ethical issues involved. Like babies in their parents' arms, the public is thought to be largely dependent on the kindness and forethought of wiser engineers to protect them from harm. But consumers are not always passive recipients of what engineers design for them. As consumers, they have both rights and responsibilities. You hear a lot about consumers' rights but not so much about their responsibilities. And one of those responsibilities may be to avoid buying things that are simply silly or wasteful.

All this is brought to mind by Easter dinner, or rather, one little incident during Easter dinner yesterday. In helping my wife prepare the meal, I got out our electric carving knife and sliced the pork roast.

We received the carving knife as a wedding present 31 years ago. The handle is two-toned plastic—white on top, avocado on the bottom (avocado was a very popular color in the late 1970s), with a red safety catch and knife-release buttons. The knife is a two-part affair consisting of hollow-ground serrated knife blades that connect at the tip with a sliding joint and insert in the handle at the other end. Inside the handle is a 120-V motor (you have to plug it in—today's models would no doubt be battery-powered). When you squeeze the trigger, the motor sets the two halves of the knife sliding back and forth in a reciprocal motion that makes cutting through the toughest meat a breeze, as I'm sure the TV ad said.

It is a General Electric product, model 02EK15, manufactured in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Anyone familiar with New England knows that for much of the twentieth century, Bridgeport was a reasonably prosperous center of appliance manufacturing. Much of the mid-century domestic bounty of irons, washing machines, toasters, and electric carving knives poured from the well-paid hands of factory workers in and around Bridgeport. Of course, the invasion of cheaper imports changed all that, and Bridgeport is now in the news, if ever, primarily as a bad example of a pathologically sick city whose employment base collapsed decades ago.

To some people, the very idea of an electric carving knife smacks of decadence and extravagance. After all, if a piece of roast is so tough the only way you can cut it is with an electric-powered tool, it's too tough to serve to company anyway. And in the fate of Bridgeport they see a just end to a debauched consumer culture that went over the top with ridiculous objects like electric carving knives.

But to others, an electric carving knife could serve as a symbol of a lot that was right about America. Who else was making electric carving knives in 1978? Maybe nobody, and if so, we were first in the world with electric carving knives. You're not going to win a war with electric carving knives, but the kind of economy that gave rise to them was so powerful that when President Reagan threatened the Soviet Union with Star Wars, it set off a chain of events that ultimately marked the downfall of Communism there and in Eastern Europe. After 1990, people in East Germany who could afford an electric carving knife could jolly well go ahead and buy one.

I'm not a party of either camp. I just like to use the knife occasionally when there's a lot of carving to do fast. For all I know, there may be industrial models of electric carving knives that save thousands of dollars a year in commercial kitchens. And since General Electric built this one so well (and we use it so seldom), I'm not going to be in the market for a new one any time soon. This one still works just fine.

The economy worldwide is currently in a funk, and we are hearing advice that it is our privilege, maybe even our patriotic duty, to go out there and spend money, even borrowing it if necessary, and get more of those things that make it such a good deal to be a consumer today. I suppose I could go out and find a newer electric carving knife, cordless, maybe even one with a wireless remote control and Internet access built in and a camera chip so people around the world can get a carving-knife-eye view of our Easter pork roast. But you know, I believe in buying things only when I can see a good use for them. If everybody had my purchasing habits, we'd have a depression so deep that it would make this current slump look like happy days are here again. Fortunately for the economy, for every believer in relative simplicity like me, there are several spendthrifts who have to get the latest things just as they come out, so whenever money starts flowing again, there will be people around to spend it on the 2009 version of electric carving knives.

And so I don't think we can get very far, at least in a free-market economy, with a general theory of consumption ethics. It's so individualized, for one thing, that it is hard to say anything ethics-wise that would apply to most consumers. I'll go along sticking to my ethic of relative simplicity, and my 31-year-old electric carving knife, but I'm sure the slack will be taken up by some of you folks who can't wait to see your pot roast on YouTube next Easter.

Sources: It appears that the direct descendant of my carving knife is still out there: Black & Decker, for example, still makes a model EK700K, and it's not even battery-powered yet (see e. g. Whether the "EK" in the model number indicates that B&D bought the product line from GE somewhere along the line is anybody's guess. And for an interesting view of how domestic consumer products were developed in the controlled economy of East Germany in the 1950s, see Karin Zachmann's "A Socialist Consumption Junction: Debating the Mechanization of Housework in East Germany, 1956-1957" in Technology & Culture, vol. 43, pp. 73-99 (Jan. 2002).


  1. There's nothing like a dose of poverty to re-align your outlook as a consumer. Once I was rich, now I'm on welfare. I have an apartment full of stuff I can't or don't use any more. Buying it all took a lot of money, getting the money took a lot of work. Now I am rich in time so I don't need labour-saving gadgets much. I sweep the floor with a broom, not a vacuum cleaner. I wash the dishes by hand. Life is different but not exactly worse for being poor.

  2. Everything is a matter of outlook and circumstances. I, for example, came across this blog while searching for an electric carving knife for my roommate. She needs it to cut up foam rubber from an old mattress and some cushions so that it can be reused in the seats of her 1957 Landrover. She would be happy to buy a used one from a thrift store, but none of the local ones have any currently available. So rather than as a unnecessary accessory (and therefore decadent), for us the electric carving knife is a tool for recycling and reducing consumption. In the end, that's all it ever was or will be: a tool. It's how and why people use it that determines it's ethical "nature."

  3. I just picked one up at my local thrift store next-door? For for $2.95 complete I was in shock! But tickled pink at the same time, LOL!