Is “perfectly ethical” possible?

Casually strolling across a beautiful campus after teaching two courses that morning, I was thinking about how lucky I am.  I have, literally, everything and I need, and then some.

It started me thinking about a topic I always return to:  How does the way I live help or hurt others?

As I’ve written in earlier blogs, we make choices with our dollars everyday that count as votes for certain products and companies.  Those products and companies have vast and complex ramifications.  Participation in their existence makes me culpable.  By patronizing a particular store or purchasing a certain product, I am endorsing everything about it.

The problem is that we consumers are mostly ignorant about the products we buy.  And it’s often too much work, or it doesn’t even occur to us to wonder about the origins of our purchases.  Corporations make great efforts to put on a happy face, both figuratively and literally (Walmart, anyone?).  But I really believe that we have a serious responsibility to act wisely; to do this, we have to be informed.  We can’t allow our privilege to be both a physical and intellectual shield from those who are victims of economic, political, or environmental powerlessness.

Meanwhile, I have doubts that our society allows for us to change so drastically.  Our lifestyles are such that we consume more than anyone else in the world.  We have large homes, drive big cars lot of miles, spend lots of money on lots of things…  I thought I was doing well, actually, until I took one of those on-line quizzes and found that if everyone in the world lived like I do, we’d need 3 Earths to support us all.

Is it possible, then, to make choices that, at the very least, hurt no one and at best, help people?

Clearly, there are obvious answers and then some not-so-obvious ones.

Obviously, anything produced by people who are exploited and abused is unethical.  Anything that degrades our environment is unethical.  And so some of my choices are clear.

In an all or nothing scenario, however, there are some murky areas where I feel I’m a bit tied down.  Is it realistic to investigate every purchase I make or store or restaurant I patronize?  I suppose it’s possible…

And then there’s the matter of opinion or values of varying weight.  For example, some would argue that it’s better to buy local than organic.  Some would argue the other direction.  If I buy clothes at a second-hand store but those clothes were still made in a sweatshop somewhere, am I immune from responsibility?  I kind of think, “No.”  Here, my values will be differently ethical from someone else’s.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be concentrating on lots of stuff and sharing my victories, defeats, and questions.  I’ll be thinking about my consumption of resources, behavior, spending, and we’ll see what else.

Stay tuned…


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