Morality generally refers to notions about what constitutes 'good' or 'bad' behavior...in whatever way someone chooses to define slippery words like good or bad.
In general we evaluate our own actions according to our structure of morality, deciding whether something we do is a good thing or a bad thing. Now, how someone goes about determining to themselves what is 'good' or 'bad' is a complex and often murky phenomenon and is an area of interest all its own…but for now let us focus on the use of someone else acting as our ‘moral agent’. For the purposes of this writing, justice and/or ethics and/or fairness are words being used as 'good enough' synonyms for morality. Proxy is a word that means acting for another as an agent or substitute.
The title of this post is a statement about the activity of letting a substitute for one’s self (i.e., someone else) determine what is good or bad...in our name or on our behalf. They act as our ‘moral agent’ and their activity is, morally at least, the same as if we had behaved in that way. Another way of putting this is that in a culture/society configured the way ours is, we often prompt others to act as our agents and their definitions of morality (or justice, or fairness) are substituted for our own.
In a culture where people pretty much do all the things for themselves that they need for living, behaving in ways that are consonant with their own value structure is fairly straightforward. If you think something is wrong, don’t do it. But in a culture like ours, where most of the things we use for everyday living are made or obtained by someone else…things get complicated and out of our control very rapidly.
For instance, I firmly believe that all sentient beings have a right to their own life. No sentient being should be enslaved, exploited or murdered. I can implement those values somewhat (notice that I say ‘somewhat’) by avoiding any food or clothing or anything else made from animals.
Believing that those animals have a right to their own lives includes believing they have a right to live on this planet, to travel around where they want and to do what they want (pretty-much). I also use toilet paper (a quirk of mine). Toilet paper is made from trees, that means that trees are cut down, destroying living areas for those other animals…who then either are killed during the tree cutting, or die from lack of food and shelter or they may be able to move to a different area from where the trees were cut and survive there. But the fact remains that my use of toilet paper means, most likely, that some animals suffer and die.
By proxy, I am encouraging, facilitating, pay for…the destruction of animal habitat and thereby causing the death of animals. I am, via the use of toilet paper, encouraging human animals (likely with no regard for animal lives) to engage in behaviors that cause fear, pain and death to sentient beings. Think of the many components, minerals and materials used in the manufacture of an automobile, think of the energy used (not to mention the pollution caused by its operation), think of the land spoiled because of the chase after minerals, after oil, after coal…each of these activities destroys not only the human environment but the environment for all living things. Yet all of these activities are carried out by people acting on my behalf because I purchased these items.
I can think of numerous examples wherein my using or purchasing items means I am (by the paying of money) facilitating or encouraging behaviors that violate my morals, or sense of justice or ethics or values. I can with little effort or by accident, by proxy, encourage sweatshop labor practices, environmental destruction, environmental pollution, animal suffering, animal deaths, war, obscene executive salaries, racial or sexual discrimination, torture, ignorance and stupidity and ugliness and on and on and on.
It is, when you think about it, amazing and staggering how our culture has ended up putting us in the astonishing position where we each can (and regretfully, does) encourage and reward behaviors that we may actually abhor and reject. In fact, it seems to me, it is much more difficult and laborious to activate, by proxy, behaviors that do minimal damage or harm or maybe even do good.
Be that as it may, it is the case that we live in a setting where we are encouraged to abdicate power over whether we adhere to our rights and our wrongs. Buy this, shop there, live here, drive over yonder…each of these seemingly innocuous decisions and behaviors actually are fraught with questions of morality, of encouragings of some values over others, of harm or no harm, of suffering or pleasure, of life or death…for some being or other. But, and this is a very large and looming but, for the most part these decidings about behaving in accordance with our morals are hidden, or ignored, or ridiculed or lied about.
We are not encouraged to think about these things…in fact we are most often encouraged to not think, to not consider consequences and meanings, to have ‘fun’, to ‘enjoy’, to consume, to live for now and worry about what it all means later (later meaning never or when it is too late). If we want to maximize our ‘doing right’ (behaving in a way consistent with our values), directly or by proxy, then we have a major task because of these ways our culture operates.
In the book Endgame by Derrick Jensen, the author (p. 91) recounts a conversation with John Osborn a Seattle physician and environmental activist. Dr. Osborn pointed out that many environmentalists start out wanting to protect a piece of land and end up questioning the foundations of western civilization.
The cultural (including economic) ways we have inherited of looking at nature, at our fellow Earthlings, at our place in nature and our behavior toward ourselves and toward other living beings…I find most of them profoundly wrong and destructive...and one of the factors that make them so awful is how we are pressured and pushed and seduced into abdicating our own morality and turning over the power of deciding what is good or bad to strangers…and those strangers are almost always motivated primarily by profit…not by minimizing harm or helping the environment.
What’s the solution? I’m not sure it’s time for figuring out solutions yet, we need to do lots more thinking and seeing and understanding just how badly that stuff we call ‘western civilization’ has served the Earth and Earthlings...and by the seeing of the bad and what makes it bad...maybe there will be some clues as to how to remedy our culture and ourselves.