Friday, May 11, 2012
The Impossibility of an Ethical Life
Many of the most popular tweets were similar to this:
I saw this sentiment shared hundreds of times. It's blatently stupid* but it did make me ask a question to myself: how could we create meaningful change without simultaneously contributing to the very things that are so hateful and destructive to the world?
We see this all the time from the right**: accusations of hypocrisy for living in a capitalist society while protesting the excesses of capital. This argument exists to try to scare the left into submission. Even still, it must be addressed in some form. Put simply, the right is somewhat right about this as we are all living lives that are highly unethical and do far more harm than good. That they try to shut up any that would try to change that is quite vile, doubly so as they often celebrate the destruction capitalism brings.
Think about it, our very life in the West is harmful to the world in any number of ways. Consumption of energy and fossil fuels is driving climate change that will surely devastate the lives of potentially billions. Our diet consists of an industrialization of meat production that is the farthest thing possible from anything resembling ethical treatment of animals (I'm not a vegan but we all have to admit that the current state of meat production is awful). We consume products and services from exploited labor throughout the world. We all pay taxes into governments that use that money to bomb and otherwise cause destruction. Our lives are immediately and directly responsible for wars, death, starvation, and a future that is looking increasingly dim for much of the world.
Even those that try to live a more sustainable lifestyle are going to fall short. I don't say this as someone that thinks individual efforts shouldn't be taken, we all owe it to ourselves and our worlds to constantly grow into better people, but without real collective action it won't do much to turn back the tide of despair we are infliecting upon the world. It is this very collective and democratic action that many on the right fear and it is why they try to use the most sophist of arguments to beat down any that would try to advance that action.
To those on the right we should all abandon cities and towns and live in the forests. Only then could we approach something resembling an ethical lifestyle. The part that they never address, or even imply, is that by doing so we would become not only impotent to create any collective action, but that we would also become part of the world that is so negatively affected by the actions of the first world.
That is the dichotomy we are facing, there are only exploiters and exploited. This goes throughout capitalist morality and can be seen when starting a business, and eventually owning a business where others work and generate profit for you, is seen as the greatest moral good. That is the promise capitalism gives: each one of us can stop being exploited and instead become members of the exploiter class.
It is time for us all to embrace our own unethical lives and to actually do something about it. Simply shirking from the task and feeling bad for our contributions to the evils of the world is not enough. The gears of capital will inexorably grind forward and it is only through collective action that we can ever stop them and reshape the world in a positive way.
*This is even more stupid than someone like me yelling at a Tea Partier for using their weekend, which unions won for the working class, to protest government involvement in the economy. Or for me to yell at an elderly Tea Partier for using Medicare and Social Security while simultaneously protesting their very existence. The big difference here is that these people want all the benefits of the labor movement while trying to deny those benefits to the younger generations, while many on the left just want production to happen in a way that doesn't involve child labor, environmental devastation, or mass exploitation that resembles slavery.
**Again, I don't think this is an ideological issue. More and more I'm seeing people express such hateful feelings towards those on the left and I'm becoming increasingly baffled as to why. I don't think that there is a coherent ideology that drives many on the right, but simply a desire to hate on those they feel are at war with them and their culture.