The beginning of ethics in a “first world” (wealthy, consumption-based, imperial) society is ethics in what you buy, don’t buy, and who you buy and don’t buy from. You can be saving kittens, helping grandma across the street, or donating time to a soup kitchen, but if you aren’t paying attention to your consumption, you aren’t even attempting an ethical lifestyle.
Ethics, first and foremost, is about paying attention and taking the other little pains that are yielded to an amoral world in small increments throughout the day. It is, at the core, an ascetic phenomenon. The person who doesn’t care where things come from, doesn’t care about anything – not really. The person who will do business with anyone, and whose only considerations are pleasure and convenience, isn’t a hedonist but a nihilist – a person who denies any transcendent meaning in the concepts of good and bad, and ultimately a solipsist – a person who acts as if he or she is the only person that exists or needs to.
As consumers, the beginning, baby steps of ethics are boycotts and ethical selection. Boycotts amount to rejecting a benefit that comes from exploiting others. Ethical selection is choosing those benefits that do not exploit others. Both are essential.
I have always boycotted, and I have in recent years engaged in ethical selection. I suppose I include it with my experiments, because the nihilists portray such a life as unlivable and without pleasure. This demonstrates that they really do think enjoyment and life itself depend on exploiting others. That is their core belief. In that sense, again, a nihilist is really a solipsist who is pretending. I find that I’ve yet to experience an unsuccessful experiment in ethical consumerism – I am still alive and I still enjoy myself. I enjoy myself more, because I am free to do it without the expense of inflicting suffering on others. I am more alive, because I have not inflicted death on another person.
I have not yet succeeded in being perfectly ethical, of course, and a nihilist would rush to say “See! Perfection isn’t possible, so ethics itself is meaningless – the experiment is pointless.” Every nihilist hides an absolutist who insists perfection is the only source of meaning and, since perfection cannot be found, meaning doesn’t exist. But this denies the meaning in honor and in increments of ethical behavior.
I think each 5 year old in Ghana and Ivory Coast who isn’t forced into slavery to make chocolate is an ethical win, a success. And I think honor has transcendent meaning so vast it can’t be calculated – honor is the willingness to do the right thing even if you are absolutely certain that you will not succeed in it. A nihilist cannot be consistent and coexist with the concept of honor. It’s nonsense to him. But to me, it’s a continual, experimental way of living, constantly seeking refinement of one’s impact on everything and everyone else. And perfection, instead of being an absolute, is each win along the way, each time we take an ethical stand.
This Experiment: Success.
PS. If you’re interested in getting started in ethical consumerism, I recommend starting a personal campaign. It’s just like a marketing initiative, except your campaign is aimed at yourself. For instance, the last time I gave Walmart a nickel was 10/25/2009. About 30 days from now it’s the two year mark. They’re not the only personal campaign I’m running, and mine tend to be permanent, but they’re my favorite, because they’re the longest running next to maybe Radio Shack. The cool thing is that I didn’t have to tell you about it for it to have been a success, and it doesn’t have to have been a lot of money, and it doesn’t have to have been missed by Walmart or to have changed anything for someone else. It changed it for me.
But since I’m telling – it’s been two years – three, if you count dramatically slowing down in 2008 (by 66% on the way to 100% boycott by the following year), and we were spending about $1800/year if you go by my receipts in 2007. I’m not missing out on the diapers rotting in the glare of the parking lot, or the great fashions, or the healthy food, or the ubiquitous plastic crap. I’m enjoying my life better than I was by then by far. And my life is richer. So I would say that even by a nihilist’s standards, the experiment is a success. That’s something that really frustrates those guys – people that are pursuing an ethical lifestyle actually are having more fun and are living happier lives, on the whole, and nihilist dogma says it shouldn’t be working that way. The poor wankers.