Sunday, 12 June 2016

The dilemmas of trying to live ethically

Eva Wiseman in The Guardian


My friend and I bought the same book on Amazon, and it changed us, but in quite different ways. The book was Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, an examination of the gruesome way poultry and cattle are slaughtered to produce cheap meat for people like me. A quarter of the way through I closed it, tucked it on to the shelf – I knew that if I continued to read I would no longer be able to enjoy roast chicken, or Peking duck, or oily lardons knotted in spaghetti. I knew I’d have to be a better person; I’d have to live a slightly less lovely life. I stopped reading. While it opened my eyes to my failings and limits, Becca, who finished the book, became a vegetarian.

As I read about the ethical problems with Airbnb, Uber and every other smiling company that makes our lives easier, I am under no illusions about my own goodness. I believe it is almost impossible to live ethically as a human being. There is no way for humans to inhabit the world, is there, without spoiling something crucial. We are massive ruiners. If we want to stay clean and warm, and if we want to have a laugh, it is highly likely somebody or something will feel the negative effects of our basic joy. And when we do act ethically, isn’t the main gain simply a “sense of wellbeing”, perhaps the most vanilla of the senses? However hard we try, there will be something we get wrong. Since giving up meat, Becca brushes off regular questions from local bores about things like the carbon footprint of her salad, yet on she crunches, trying.

Here are some of the ways in which I am dreadful. Regardless of the books I buy, whether on meat eating or true crime, I continue to buy them from sites that avoid tax and treat their workers like machines, because they arrive so promptly and because they cost 10p plus postage. I pay that 10p on a phone built under slave-like conditions with materials the profits of which may or may not have funded a genocide. More: our flat is on the market for wild and pretend money, which means I am becoming part of the problem crippling my beloved, disgusting city. I even arranged flowers on our kitchen table with the quiet thought that potential buyers might pay even more for a place that smells of sweetpeas. I am scum. Worse, when I see people trying to be better – when I have lunch with Becca, with her peanut noodles and fishless fingers – I feel a silent judgment. It comes from inside me; she doesn’t care what I eat. It’s me. I feel bad about the route my sandwich filling took to get to my plate, and sitting with her reminds me of that, so I will be tempted to try and undermine her choice by asking about the leather of her shoes. Scum. But I guilt-barter. We each have a certain moral budget, and I choose to spend mine on meat and Amazon. I choose my thing.

When you stare straight into the horrors of the modern world, they can blind you. There’s a moment before I click to buy the 10p book when I begin to add up the wrongs I’ve committed that day, that hour. The long shower, with the exfoliator that kills fish, the bottle of water I bought on the way to work. The £7 dress, the potentially trafficked manicure, the leftover lunch I threw away, the lights I left on, the heating in May. And I vow to be better, soon, as payback. My attempts, however, like signing an online petition, barely touch the sides of my shittiness. It is impossible to live ethically.

But how bad should we feel, really? Surely the responsibility shouldn’t all be ours. Products and services should not come to market if there is any chance they have passed through the hands of a slave. It doesn’t sound like too much to ask. And shouldn’t there be an equivalent to the nutritional facts on tins, a label with quantities of evil? We’d be able to budget more effectively – an Amazon Prime here, a speak-up-when-an-acquaintance-makes-a-racist-joke there. That’s how I’m learning to live. A charity bake sale, an Uber home. A meat-free day, but wearing a really cheap T-shirt.
Putting down that book has made me look at how much I choose not to see. It’s no revolutionary realisation, but as we find increasingly meaningless ways to balance our ethical chequebooks, I am embracing my limits. As long as we try not to be the complete worst and accept our scumminess, then there is little point in asking how to be good. The answer, surely, is to try and simply be good enough.

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