Welcome to the upgraded version of the CYM website! We still have a few kinks to work out, but let me know what you think and if you have any suggestions.
In the spirit of renewal, at the beginning of each post, I will now put a one sentence summary of the post along with a suggestion on how you might apply these ideas in your life. Let me know what you think of this approach.
Summary: My son’s antics lead me to question my ethical ideas and whether I can ever make the “right” decision.
Application: these reflections could lead you to be more humble and less judgmental.
After making it into our “forbidden electronics corner”, he became obsessed with it. I pulled him away into the other room several times, only to have him scream and then make a beeline back to the outlets.
Finally, I resolved to rearrange the furniture such that it would be physically impossible for him to fiddle with the plugs. When he went back the next day to find his access blocked, he looked at me with an expression somewhere between surprise and fury.
Problem solved… or so I thought.
Giulia walked into the room and was not happy with the new configuration (not very feng shui). She was right- our couch now took up half of our already small living room. We finally settled on a compromise that would balance the needs for baby blocking and maximizing living space.
I stood back and reflected how often it happens that when I try to ‘fix’ one issue, I inadvertently create another problem.
For example, last week, I attended a workshop on ecoconstruction at Quebec’s first earthship house. I learned all sorts of useful and practical ways to transform materials that would otherwise rot in landfills into efficient, low cost, beautiful housing. I was really excited about the prospect of Giulia and I building a house and artistic/spiritual practice center using this approach.
The last few days, though, I began to think this idea through a little bit more. There are certainly many positive aspects of an ecologically friendly house, but are these benefits offset by the fact that rural inhabitants generally consume more resources per capita than their urban counterparts? If my goal is to be as environmentally conscious as possible, then am I better off staying in the city, where I ride my bike, walk, or take public transit to get around? Country living would require a car, as well as participating in food, water, and electricity networks that are less efficient as a result of lower population density.
Giulia mentioned, though, that if we go through with our plans, our lifestyle would presumably enrich and enhance the wellbeing of ourselves and others in a way that would likely be greater than staying in the city. Would that justify a potentially larger environmental footprint? Can the earth deal with a little bit more pollution if it creates healthier, happier people who would be less likely to harm themselves and others in other ways? Is it mistaken to even think about this question in terms of ‘greater’ and ‘lesser’, as though we could measure out units of harm and benefit to establish a quantitative basis of what’s right?
This is parallel to other questions I’ve been thinking about in terms of food. The last few years have seen me move more and more toward a vegan diet as a result of my growing concern about the consequences of consuming animal products for health, the environment, and animal welfare.
But on my weekly shopping run, I noticed that a packet of organic mung beans in my cart originated in China, propelling me to question whether the positive effects of not consuming animal products is offset by the fact that some of my vegan diet comes from far flung places. I try to eat as local as possible, but maybe a local chicken would have less environmental impact than a dish made with Turkish chickpeas and Mexican avocados. (Of course, there’d still be the ethical problem of killing the animal, as well as the possible adverse effects on my health that could result from eating it).
This has led me to feel paralyzed, wondering what exactly I should decide. There is no right way, so how to decide which is the “least wrong?”
Even to say “what really matters is that you’re thinking about it and you’re trying to do the right thing” isn’t really satisfying either. Intentions surely count for something, but what to make of religious groups that murder people who don’t agree with them, or corporations who think they’re doing the right thing by exploiting the environment?
This whole line of thinking sometimes makes me want to throw my hands up and say “fuck it,” and renounce my efforts to have my life choices conform with ethical ideals. Why should I even bother to make the effort of trying to think things through when it seems so few people are interested in doing the same?
I don’t really have an answer here, other than to report that, as usual, the process of raising these questions is transformative in itself.
What this flirtation with nihilism has taught me is why Jesus invited anyone without sin to cast the first stone. I’ve been reminded of the extent to which my perspective is profoundly limited, and how all of us are participating in something we really don’t understand.
None of us can claim to lead a life that’s entirely ethical. Even the most conscious hippie-eco-fruitarian is still causing harm in some way. This is something we have to accept about the way this life is set up. We cannot live without harming others, so the question is not whether, but to what extent, we attempt to mitigate the negative consequences of our actions.
No one has clean hands, no one can see the full picture, no one can anticipate all potential consequences. This should lead us to think twice about condemning others acting in ways we don’t necessarily agree with.
This can only lead to greater humility. I try to act in the way I think is best, but perhaps someone from the outside would look at my choices and spot deficiences and inconsistencies. I might look at their lifestyle and think the same. Before judging others, we should work on ourselves (or not, since that itself is an ethical claim 🙂
My attempt at baby-proofing led me to understand that even if I can’t have perfect integrity in all my actions, it’s really important to keep trying. Our current furniture arrangement won’t work forever, but it does the trick for now. Perhaps I can say the same about my current conceptions of what I think is the most ethical life.
I’ve been reminded about how this type of active, engaged questioning is really difficult. I’ve observed feelings of sadness, confusion, and angst arise frequently these past weeks. But this is the price that one must pay for trying to lead an examined life- the only one really worth living.