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05 May 2012

It's What's Inside That Counts

Written by Published in Issue 32 - Beyond Duty Read 4714 times

As society moves away from the individualism and overt consumerism of recent decades, and we are being led to examine our actions and their effects on others, could it be that a new and more ethical background to our decision-making is emerging?

If we could only persuade people to be more dutiful, more moral, more ethical. The trouble is – on the evidence of numerous past attempts – we can’t. And the irony may be that we don’t have to. Armed with the right information and understanding, most people will do the decent thing, most of the time. We’ve spent decades preaching when we should have been teaching. There are various ways by which people arrive at ethical decisions.

First, there is duty – the feeling that society expects me to do something. I may have few feelings about the issue per se, but I would fear social approbation and shame if caught out of step with prevailing social standards.

Second, there are morals. These are based on mores – rules, norms and customs – that we have internalised from moral teaching and upbringing, often religious. If we do something immoral in those terms, we would commonly feel guilt. Guilt is an internal emotion, a matter of individual conscience rather than social shame. But it needles us all the same, perhaps even more acutely.

Third, there are rational ethical choices based on our own reasoning about right and wrong in human behaviour. Philosopher Immanuel Kant proposed that we should always act in a way that we would want in turn to become a universal ethical law. For instance, we back out of a promise only if we think that breaking promises should become generally permissible.

This isn’t to say that one of these approaches is better than another. Often we aren’t that consciously aware of how we come to a decision or take action; it is simply part of an internal script of ‘how I tend to act’. I didn’t want to compare these approaches, which we all probably combine for different purposes (duty for simple everyday choices stuff, moral for deeper cultural habits, ethical for ‘do I or don’t I’ dilemmas).

Rather, I wanted to highlight what ‘make people more ethical’ actually means. We would either be trying to change internal belief systems, which even the Jesuits thought could only be inculcated up until age seven. Or we would be trying to bend the social reality around our audience, to conform with our view of what their duty should be. Nonetheless, it is these three models that dominate attempts to change public behaviour.

Duty is the standard approach of campaigners against 4WD vehicles – they try to make it another ‘fur coat’. For instance, the plucky girls and boys of Climate Rush took it upon themselves to furtively swap the rear licence plates on those ‘Chelsea Tractors’ in their native postcode for plates reading CO2 KILLS. The trouble being perhaps that, within the worldview of the drivers of these cars, being targeted by ‘anarchists’ only confirms that you belong to a privileged elite. And it almost certainly doesn’t override the fact that ‘everyone like us drives one’.

Morality is the underpinning of campaigns about dangerous driving – seeding the anticipation of the guilt you will feel if you kill someone in an accident when driving over the alcohol limit. This makes for compelling TV commercials (imagine being guilty of murder – it’s the idea that made Hitchcock’s Psycho so gripping!). But the statistics suggest that around 100,000 people per year in the UK are convicted for drunk-driving, and that there hasn’t been that much change in those levels since the early 1980s, before which the figures were substantially lower.

The typical ethical strategy is to attempt to reframe the values projected by public media, imagery and language, so that ‘bad’ values are not perpetuated. The World Wide Fund for Nature report Common Cause suggested ‘working to activate and strengthen a set of helpful “intrinsic” values, while working to diminish the importance of unhelpful “extrinsic” values [because] … communications, campaigns and even government policy inevitably serve to activate and strengthen some values rather than others’. I hardly need explain the problem with political correctness. Its proponents also miss the fact that we human beings are freer thinkers than they give us credit for.

Throughout the 1980s, UK newspaper the Sun promoted Margaret Thatcher’s Tory party. But during that whole time, an academic study showed that a steady 60% of its readers voted Labour. They knew the paper was a rag, it seems, and hardly took its political views into account when compared with generations of working-class allegiance.

If none of the well-meaning propaganda campaigns telling us how to think and act seem to work, then what is the alternative? My own view is that the alternative is lifelong learning. It’s not just about the information, but it’s people taking it in and adjusting their worldview accordingly. This doesn’t involve changing their values or morals, nor creating a climate of social pressure. They are the same people, making decisions in the same framework, but they just know a little more. A good example was Hugh’s Chicken Run, a 2008 UK TV programme in which celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall highlighted the unacceptable conditions in which most birds are reared. You might read these exact words on the page and not be moved. But actually seeing the conditions in battery-farming sheds, introduced by a familiar trusted figure (not an animal rights activist, whose views some might discount as extremist) was something else altogether. Over 120,000 viewers took the pledge to buy only free-range birds from then on. And following this TV show, a survey by animal charity RSPCA found that 73% said they would only buy chickens reared in ‘higher welfare conditions’.

This example came to mind over the last week when I was reading a New York Times article (‘In China, Human Costs are Built into an iPad’, 25 January 2012) in which one former Apple executive commented that ‘most people would still be really disturbed if they saw where their iPhone comes from’. Workers are exposed to inhumanly long shifts, sleep in cramped company dormitories and during work hours endure punishing conditions like standing for so long that they suffer from swollen legs. Workers are killed and maimed by accidents (aluminium dust explosions, for example) that, as well as poor standards, seem to be the inevitable consequence of the pressure on the factories and the volume of throughput during times such as the launch of the iPad. At least 18 workers at one supplier, Foxconn, committed suicide during one year when the pressure was really on.

These Apple factory insights might be inconvenient for those of us who have benefited from their innovative yet affordable lifestyle products. That’s the point about ethical decisions – they run against what may be our own self-interest and tastes. But I was shown the article by a friend in the creative industries who has nonetheless decided, based on these hidden costs, to stop buying Apple products as a result. ‘You wouldn’t buy it if you knew’ was key to the chicken documentaries, and to classic examples such as the 1996 photo in Life magazine of the child in Pakistan stitching a football with a Nike logo on it. In all models of ethical decision-making that I know of, the distinction is drawn between the culpability of knowing versus unknowing acts.

None of this is entirely new. The insight that lifelong learning could turn subjects into citizens was the motivation behind Enlightenment projects such as the encyclopedia. But we now live in a world where information is increasingly out in the open, and in the hands of creative individuals who want to help you understand it. No amount of legal threats from organisations such as corporate-funded climate-deniers the Heartland Institute can put a lid on it.

From The Story of Stuff movie to the speeches of Ellen MacArthur, from WikiLeaks to the Walmart Index (a plan to score everything Walmart sells on objective and comparable criteria covering energy, climate, efficiency, materials, nature, people and communities), it’s a whole new world. And, potentially, a better one.

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