Saturday, August 20, 2011

Morality (or justice, ethics and fairness) by proxy...

 Morality generally refers to notions about what constitutes 'good' or 'bad' 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 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. 


Andrew Hunt said...

Excellent post! It gets to the core of a central dilemma in human existence. I remember seeing a cartoon with a cow and there were numerous arrows pointing at it listing all the things that human beings take from cows to produce various products, only a small percentage of which happens to be meat. At the bottom of the cartoon it said something like, "The moral of the story: It is impossible to be a vegan." You've raised questions in this post that even ethical vegans would do well to spend more time grappling with. The solutions aren't simple ones, but we can take some solace knowing that if everyone were to adopt an ethical vegan lifestyle, it would be a monumental step in the right direction for the planet and its non-human animal inhabitants.
Well done!

veganelder said...

Thank you for your comment, Andrew. We have gotten ourselves into a serious serious situation and really, in retrospect, it is actually quite easy to see how. How much intelligence to see that if you pay people to do tasks or make things for you and you ignore how they carry out those tasks or make those things...then they likely will behave in ways you disapprove of. This is really not difficult to see at all...the hard part is figuring out to do about the dilemma we've placed ourselves in.

And you're right on the mark...a phenomenal leap in a good direction is accomplished by adopting a vegan lifestyle. A 'no-brainer', if you will.

Have Gone Vegan said...

Scary, isn't it. No solutions here (I'm not quite ready to give up my TP either), but I think a step in the right direction would be for all of us to become more mindful of what our choices actually mean and what the consequences actually are. And this more questioning stance needs to be taught to future generations as well.

veganelder said...

Thank you for commenting HGV. Certainly questioning is going to be required, about lots of things...I would expect lots of resistance to questioning beyond superficialities however.

Bea Elliott said...

I don't know if it's just part and parcel of becoming aware - Or if it's just a quirk built in to just me... But on purchasing nearly every item or service one question leads to the next and next.

Even by buying vegan foods we inadvertently support corporations entrenched in animal use or war against humans.

I try to stay out of the system by purchasing all my needs either used or in the case of foods, at a scratch 'n dent store... Now here's the rub: Even by doing that - I have to consider that it's that much less that someone else cannot buy and they in turn will be "forced" to purchase from those I'm attempting to "boycott".

It goes round and round. There are absolutely no best answers - Just ones of constant compromise.

How can this be so? Every comfort I have I owe to the military/industrial complex - Yet I deplore the system with every core of my being.

Trying to be fair and "moral"... It's filled with contradictions and impossibilities --- The only one absolutely certain positive step I can think of is to avoid products of obvious exploitation as much as reality allows (being vegan). The rest is all a gamble and a hit & miss choice between lesser evils. No surprise - no answers here either. :/

veganelder said...

Thank you for commenting Bea. It's a puzzler indeed. I suspect part of the remedy is going to have to involve a scaling down of our expectations, our numbers and simplifying our lives. It seems to me that complexity has multiplied to the point that many of the benefits afforded by extreme complexity are far outweighed by the drawbacks.

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veganelder said...

Thank you for commenting Anonymous...and for your kind words, please visit more often.