Morality is commonly understood to entail principles that help us to distinguish between right and wrong, or good and bad behaviour. It’s a fluid concept, vastly influenced by cultures and eras. We now live in an information age with information technology advancing exponentially. Computers and the internet have revolutionised communication, and information processes have become a driving force of social evolution. We are, in fact facing an information explosion, and as data availbility increases, so do data management challenges. Within this turbulent sea of knowledge, it’s easy for inaccurate data to masquerade as the truth. This is why information must be constantly checked for accuracy, and false information must be challenged.
Despite it’s daunting volumes, this information does put humans in a better position than ever before to make up their own minds about what is right and wrong. I’m not implying that your parents were wrong when they raised you. They probably told you things like stealing is bad and sharing is good. However, they mostly learnt these morals by what was taught to them by the society they lived in, and they did not have access to the kind of information we have today. Years ago, slavery was an acceptable norm and only when people started questioning whether it was right, did things change. It’s a hard fact to accept that not so long ago, women were not allowed to vote. The first country that allowed women to vote was New Zealand in 1893, and the most recent country was Kuwait in 2005. America allowed women to vote in 1920 and England granted women the vote in 1928. This gives you an idea of how slow positive change can happen – powerful and influential countries like America and Britain only changed this policy less than 100 years ago. We still have a long way to go.
We continue to question our daily living, and here we are in an age of capitalism where most of us know how to lead ethical lives. Yet we live in a society that has become so used to convenience – especially the middle and upper classes – that making the right choices require more effort. Not only does leading a good life require more effort, but it also exposes the individual to ridicule, slander and negative comments by those who are still in denial or who haven’t connected the dots between their daily life and what they perceive to be right.
Let me give you a detailed example. Let’s say someone sends you an e-mail about a petition to act against the palm oil industry because it’s causing massive virgin deforestation and orangutans, amongst many other forest inhabitants, are losing their habitat and being abused, or starving to death. Furthermore, locals of that area were being taken advantage of by the large corporations exploiting them. And so the list of atrocities goes on. For the ordinary person with an average amount of empathy, this is a no-brainer – they sign the petition.
But, for a lot of people, that’s where their concern ends. It’s different ball game if you really have to take action. You may receive another e-mail asking you to pledge to never buy products containing palm oil, or to check first whether the palm oil is certified sustainable. Easier said than done. For instance, you go to your local grocery store for the usual shopping routine. Let’s say you start at the bakery section. You buy your bread like you always do, except this time, you start checking the ingredients. As you read label after label, you realise that every single type of bread on the shelves has palm oil in it, and there is no indication that the companies who used the palm oil acquired it ethically.
Now what do you do? You could just resign yourself to the fact that doing the right thing in this case was too much of an effort and that government or the organisations fighting against the injustices of the palm oil industry must do something about it. You probably have children to feed, so you just buy the bread and maybe make a mental note to support palm oil-free bread if you ever come across it.
But, another option for those who don’t like to give up too easily, is to ask – at the risk of feeling humiliated or petty in front of other customers waiting for service at the bread counter – whether there is palm oil in the freshly baked bread. When the answer is ‘no’, you could feel a minor victory and so you buy the freshly baked bread, feeling content because you did your bit for the greater good. (That is, until you get home to make your lunch, realise the bread is not sliced, and end up eating sandwiches that look like doorstoppers at work the next day.)
This is not over yet, so bear with me here.
You may have signed many petitions or been alerted to some other unsavoury problems by social media, like beaches that are littered with washed-up plastic, or child slavery that is rife in the coffee and chocolate industry, or Nestlé being responsible for river dumping and a host of other unethical business practices. And so it goes on. You push your trolley onward to complete the list of things you need to buy and, as you pass the children’s toys, it suddenly occurs to you how much plastic there is there. Some of you may ask yourselves, where will this plastic end up when the child gets tired of the toy? Will it be recycled? Will it end up in a landfill? Will it get thrown out the car window on a vacation trip?
You need coffee. You look at the all the packaging and nothing indicates that no-one was treated unfairly during the process of getting the beans off the tree and to the grocery store you are now in. You want to buy rusks and notice that they all, too, contain palm oil, and at this stage you are getting tired of reading labels. This mission you have undertaken to do the right thing is impossible, and since you work long hours and barely have enough time to yourself, you realise that making this all from scratch at home would be torturous. And so you give up. It’s not your fault after all. It’s the government’s fault or it is the fault of the big company that made that product, and you can only hope that some organisation like Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth will do something about it.
But let’s look at this more closely. We have become so used to the convenience of pushing our trolleys down the isles of grocery stores that it seems inconceivable to do our shopping another way. Perhaps we should ask ourselves whether other options are actually available and whether we have tried looking for them. Did you use a Google search? Did you join a relevant Facebook group and post a question to the right people? Did you write to the store or speak to the manager? If we all did one or some of these things, then surely there would be better options?
People have become so busy in their personal lives, trying to keep up with work, chores, administration, social media and finding relaxation time, that we do many things in autopilot mode, without slowing down and actually asking ourselves the question, “Is what I am doing, right?” Giving money to a company that tests on animals or steals land from tribes is not the right thing to do. You are using your purchasing power to make that company stronger.
Those companies that monopolise industry have currency in the millions to run ad campaigns to play on your emotions, give you the impression that you need their product, and that it’s as ethical as the mother’s love portrayed in the advert. It’s a big ask to get people to see through all that marketing propaganda and make the effort to support more ethical options.
We’re a product of a society that loves to tell us how to live, what kind of careers to choose, what to eat, how to behave, and when to get married and procreate. The average person accepts this path as the done thing without giving alternative options much thought. We are raised in a society where we get different people to do different jobs, and where we outsource just about everything. Someone else will always do the job that needs to get done.
The change, and real power to make a difference for the better, comes from those who think for themselves. Who evaluate actions from a new perspective, not from the habitual thoughts and acceptance of the old way of doing things. We can no longer leave the mess or injustices for others to clean up and challenge. We need to start with ourselves: being the only person with a higher sensitivity to moral implications can be a tiring task, but when more and more people start questioning and reasoning and taking some form of objection, then things will start tipping in the right direction.
We’ve ended up in the labour-enslaved, greedy and destructive mess that we are in by just following the norm and doing what we are told. Climate change is starting to rear it’s big ugly head, and people are already having to evacuate their homes. And this is only the beginning. If we continue to live in denial and avoid reality, we are in for a serious rollercoaster ride. If we don’t change, it may be too late to make a difference for our children. Always stop and think. Know that, although you feel very isolated in your quest to make the right choices, you are not alone; courtesy of this amazing information age we live in, we can find others like ourselves and be offered support on our journey to a well-lived life.
So where does one start? Here are some pointers:
Open up the boundaries of your respect – You don’t have to only respect the elderly and give them a seat on the bus; you can offer your consideration for so much more. Respect the person of another race, class or religion. Respect the wildlife, respect the environment, respect all the animals and do not objectify them.
Don’t stop learning – Keep reading, stay informed and question everything. As I said previously, with an information overload, there is inaccurate information out there. Study the basics of science and develop a filtering system. There are even books and websites to give you the skills to do this. Use them – they will empower you with the wonderful asset of not being easily fooled. A great and entertaining book to start off with, is Bad Science, written by Ben Goldacre. Be open to hard truths; it’s not always going to be a positive experience, but keep an open mind. If you are unsure, do research and ask questions. Don’t make assumptions. The foundations of your belief system may be compromised but it will make you a better person to decide for yourself, rationally, what is right and what is wrong.
Ask yourself whether you are doing your part to influence good over evil – I am not talking about carrying holy water around with you. Have you volunteered for an organisation that is fighting for positive change? Are you making an effort to buy ethically produced goods? Don’t leave the world’s problems to someone else to fix. Do your part and do it often, even if it is a small objection here and there.
Be truthful and use your voice – Be open to positive criticism. See and say things as they are. Find your truth and live it. Without it, you will most likely end up a miserable person.
Empower yourself by becoming independent – You may have a job, pay the rent, put food on the table ,and even have some money left over. But how independent are you really? Do you have an anxiety attack if your house runs out of power? I’m talking about not needing a government or the services of another. It’s impossible to be totally self-reliant; we will all need a doctor at some time, or advice or help of some sort. But the notion of trying to do things yourself will make you stronger. You are more capable than you think. When you can do many things on your own, you have the power to survive when things go south. This may take some time, but it will be rewarding and excellent for your self-confidence. Ultimately, when you are more independent, you’re in a better position to do things the right way without being told what to do.