It’s impossible to lead a totally ethical life—but it’s fun to try

You can juggle all the complex questions that present every day.
You can juggle all the complex questions that present every day.
Image: Reuters/David Gray
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You want to do the right thing. But in a world where it often seems impossible to eat, shop, drive, travel, or pretty much do anything without causing some measure of harm to others and the planet, leading an ethical life seems like a very tall order indeed.

It’s true that practically everything we do in life has ethical repercussions. “Any decision that has an impact on others now or in the future is an ethical choice,” explains ethicist Christopher Gilbert, author of the new book There’s No Right Way To Do the Wrong Thing. Gilbert says it’s useful to consider ethics like a moral ladder. On the lowest rung, you think only of yourself. Past the middle rung, you’re thinking of the decision’s influence on some. And on the highest rungs, you’re wondering how every choice impacts all affected by it. “When we step up that ladder and consistently strive to stay at the top rung, we are living an ethical life,” he says.

Will we be at the top rung all of the time? Almost certainly not. But the answer isn’t to throw up our hands. Rather, we can keep on trying, every day and throughout our lives, to approach the world thoughtfully and consider the implications of our individual actions on others.

Save the silkworm

Depending how far and wide you extend your empathy and ethical efforts, you may find that  seemingly simple dilemmas, like what to wear or what to eat, become incredibly complex upon reflection.

The clothing retailer ASOS, for example, recently announced it won’t sell silk products anymore out of concern for the welfare of silkworms who die in the material’s production process. But as Marc Bain points out in Quartzy, refusing to buy silk also has an economic impact on workers in India and China, where silk production is a tradition. Add to that the fact that even cotton is problematic—it’s a crop that demands a lot of water, making it environmentally taxing—and you find yourself in a pickle over the simple act of choosing a shirt. Now you’re making a decision that impacts worms, the Earth and your fellow humans.

What do you do? Most of us draw lines, which are arguably arbitrary. Maybe you stop your sympathies at silkworms because there’s no scientific proof they feel pain, but you won’t purchase a fur because foxes howl when trapped. Or maybe you’re a vegan who dresses entirely in synthetics. Unfortunately, in that case, you’re still hurting the earth by purchasing products that never break down and take a lot of energy to make.

Some of us eat fish because they’re supposedly dumb, but not octopuses, who’ve proven to be as clever as humans. Others eat no animals at all, but perhaps enjoy sweets laced with the salty tears of child slaves captured for the Cote D’Ivoire cocoa trade.

Basically, there are no easy answers when it comes to  the ethics of consumption. And even if you can afford to purchase cruelty-free everything, your choices may not be doing much. Conscious consumerism is a lie, according to writer Alden Wicker. Our purchases don’t change the world. “Sadly, this is not the way capitalism is set up to work,” she concludes after years of promoting ethical shopping.

The myth of conscious consumerism

Wicker’s position is supported by ethicist Michal Jemma Carrington of the University of Melbourne in Australia. Carrington contends that there is a persistent myth that consumers are insufficiently vigilant about their purchases. In fact, there’s a much bigger system that needs fixing.

Basically, corporations claim that if consumers wanted to pay for ethically-made products, the companies would produce more of them. Supposedly, companies are just responding to market demands: at the supermarket or in shops, we will often choose the cheaper, less sustainable products despite our convictions, creating an “ethical consumption gap.”

Does that make us all morally bankrupt? In a paper in Marketing Theory (pdf), Carrington and his colleagues contend that it does not. Complaints about the alleged ethical gap in consumers are a ruse, they argue.

Just like Wicker, they think that we can’t change the world merely by exercising our purchasing power. In fact, our individual choices are no match for capitalism. Claims about a gap between consumer preferences and behavior serve a capitalist system, putting responsibility on the individual when markets currently rely on unsustainable growth rates. The paper notes, “[I]n the context of the natural environment, many observers have argued that in order to halt the ecological catastrophe we need not only responsible consumption but significantly reduced consumption.” Put simply, the choice isn’t between silk, cotton, or synthetics. For environmental purposes, we should choose nothing.

Moreover, capitalism and all systems are bigger than us individuals. By virtue of accidents of birth, we find ourselves unfairly profiting from all kinds of inequalities, depending on where we are born, who our parents are, our racial or ethnic backgrounds, and more. Your passport determines more than just access—it means you are the beneficiary, albeit abstractly, of actions you may not approve. Most of us, wherever we live, are funding wars or policies we disagree with. We can’t help but do wrong.

“Evil lives in the conscious desire to act solely for oneself”

The answer isn’t to despair and ignore morality, however. Gilbert advises looking at the small picture rather than being overwhelmed by the big one.

“As much as we’d love to believe bad ethics come from bad people and good ethics come from the rest of us, our everyday choices such as cutting someone off on the freeway, fudging on our taxes, taking credit for something someone else did—these are all ethical choices,” he tells Quartz. We don’t think of our individual acts as having major implications, but those are the things we can control.

In his research, he’s found that people are outraged by ethical abstractions and don’t think a lot about simple things they might be doing wrong. “When people list unethical behavior, they often cite the illegal actions of corporations or the heinous decisions of politicians–these are strong examples of a growing disregard for ethics, but what’s missing on the list are the smaller and far more numerous everyday choices we make,” Gilbert says.

He suggests using ethics as philosophical and existential guardrails that guide us as we try to climb the rungs of the moral ladder. By extending the consideration we give our actions to an ever-wider group, we succeed in being more ethical, if not perfectly moral.

So, take the silk shirt question, for example. An unethical approach would be to totally disregard the dilemma and be solely concerned for your smooth and shiny style. But a more moral way to handle the problem would be to attempt to resolve it—to think of the worms and workers who are affected, production processes, supply chains, and the nature of capitalism itself—and to reach a reasoned conclusion that at least takes others into consideration. Ultimately, you may buy no shirt at all, because what the environment requires is “degrowth.” Or you could determine that maintaining the traditions of making silk and supporting the work of laborers who make the material is important. There isn’t a simple answer to complex questions, but the ethical approach is to engage with the difficulties rather than avoiding them.

“When considering ethics, good and evil become limiting concepts,” Gilbert says. “Instead, it’s far more beneficial to consider our ability to make personal choices that [correspond to] either our higher or our lower nature. From that perspective evil lives in the conscious desire to act solely for oneself.”

Good fun

There’s no need to feel bad about failing to live a perfectly ethical life. That would be counterproductive. Feeling guilty doesn’t actually make us more moral. Oxford University ethicist Carissa Veliz explains in Practical Ethics that guilty feelings about wrong actions don’t make us more inclined to do better.

Not only that, feeling guilty is a selfish response. It’s more self-involvement, which is pretty much the opposite of ethical living. Veliz argues that guilt is only a boon for guilty people’s egos, and will make you more likely to look away from injustices. The ethical response to bad acts is considering how to right them, rather than thinking about your personal feelings.

Moreover, Veliz supports the Aristotlean view that figuring out how to live the good life is fun. The more you enjoy morality, the more likely it is that you’ll live ethically. “In that sense, learning to feel pleasure about morality (more specifically, about acting virtuously) may be a necessary condition for moral excellence, and guilt seems to be the opposite of pleasure,” she writes.

In order to develop more moral behavior, it’s much more important to focus on the things we do right, and the good we can bring about—even if that’s just redress after making a wrong. The ethicist contends that there’s no need to get “snooty or grumpy” about morality. A truly ethical life is joyful, lived with a clear conscience, “knowing that we are doing the best we can, even if that means our behavior may be unsatisfactory at times,” she writes.

Like Gilbert, she argues that ethics are a tool. We use notions of right and wrong not to flog ourselves but to “help us lead happy lives in harmony with the environment, animals, and people around us.”

The moral of the story?  The best way to live an ethical life isn’t to find all the answers, but to be willing to wrestle with difficult questions.

“We need a new conversation about ethics,” Gilbert says. Ethics aren’t terrible constraints. On the contrary, he considers them a privilege. We’re lucky to have the opportunity to consider the effects of our actions on others, and we can do the right thing, at least sometimes. As Gilbert says, “We can each take concrete steps to re-align our moral compasses, give ourselves control over fairness and equity and in the end, create the healthier world we actually want to live in.”