Ethics begins at home, a personal update

According to the Stoics, a eudaimonic life — that is, a life worth living — is one in which we use reason in the service of the human cosmopolis. Which is why a bit more than five years ago, coming out of a more or less typical midlife crisis, I embraced Stoicism as my chosen philosophy of life. As Seneca puts it:

“Virtue is nothing else than right reason.” (Letters to Lucilius, LXVI.32)

The emphasis, of course, being on right. But what does it mean to live a Stoic life? There are several possible answers to this question. One can, for instance, use the four cardinal virtues (practical wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance) as a kind of a moral compass, paying attention (prosochē) to what one is doing here and now, particularly to the ethical valence of one’s decisions and actions. Is this thing that I am about to do wise, courageous, just, and temperate? If yes, let’s go ahead; if no, abstain. Another approach is to constantly practice Epictetus’ famous three disciplines: desire and aversion, action, and assent.

I do both, by means of a series of more specific techniques and exercises that I have learned and adapted to my own needs and circumstances over the past several years. One additional thing I do, however, is to periodically check with myself in terms of how I am doing, ethically speaking. 

Ethics, nowadays, is the study of right and wrong actions, often couched in terms of philosophically well known frameworks, such as utilitarianism or Kantian-style deontology. But for the ancient Greco-Romans “ethics” meant nothing less than the study of how to live one’s life. That study hinged not on universal abstractions and thought experiments, but on a continuous effort to improve one’s own character. If you gradually become a better person, chances are that your judgments will improve over time, which means that you will tend to do the right thing more often. Right and wrong, in other words, emerge bottom-up from the behavior of individual moral agents, they are not imposed top-down by adopting a general philosophical theory.

Hence my periodical self-check, during which I pick on a number of areas that I think are important, see how I have been doing recently, and explore in which ways I can do better. The most recent checkup had a double trigger, two events I attended in the span of a couple of days, that helped me renew my commitment to do better in certain areas of my ethical life. The first event was an interview I conducted at a local bookstore in Manhattan with the three Pollan sisters and their mother, co-authors of the cookbook Mostly Plants: 101 Delicious Flexitarian Recipes From the Pollan Family. The title of the book comes from the main advice given my the authors’ brother (and son), Michael Pollan, in his famous The Omnivore Dilemma: eat less, and mostly plants.

Why mostly plants? Because vegetarians and vegans very clearly have the upper hand in any ethical discussion about food. If you are not convinced, there is probably not much I can do about it, and this isn’t a discussion about vegetarianism and veganism anyway. But that conclusion — at which I had arrived years ago, and with which the Pollans broadly agree — was dramatically reinforced the very next day, when I attended one of our regular departmental events on campus, which happened to be a discussion on factory farming and food ethics. The speaker treated us to a number of compelling statistics (and accompanying horrific images) that very clearly made the point that meat consumption is bad for the environment, bad for workers’ conditions and rights, and bad for billions (yes, with a “b”) of suffering animals every year.

Given all the above, I decided it was time to check back with my ethical compass, beginning with my diet. I already eat meat fairly rarely, but with my wife we decided to redouble our efforts to follow Michael Pollan’s advice, made easier by his sisters’ and mother’s book of recipes. They even each picked their favorite recipe for me to try: spinach and feta cutlets, orecchiette with Brussel sprouts, red lentils chili, and salmon piccata with spinach and beans (mother Pollan is a flexitarian, not a vegetarian). So far I have tried the red lentils chili one, and I can honestly report that it is, indeed, delicious.

The Stoics themselves wrote about food quite a bit, and even though they were not generally vegetarians (with some exceptions), a strong argument can be made that vegetarianism is logically entailed by Stoicism. Here is what Musonius Rufus, Epictetus’ teacher, wrote on the subject of food:

“Mastering one’s appetites for food and drink is the beginning of and basis for self-control.” (Lectures 18A.1)

Going on to advice us to eat simple foods that are easy to obtain and prepare, and to eat mostly plants. Just like Michael Pollan says.

There are two other areas of ethical improvement that rose to the top of my checklist. The first one concerns charities. It is apparently controversial in certain liberal-progressive quarters whether one should be sending money to charities, on the grounds that writing checks provides one with an easy excuse for not being further involved with ethical issues, sort of like buying an indulgence from the Catholic Church.

Bullshit, I say. Maybe some people use their charitable donations that way, and others just as a tax write-off. But as usual in virtue ethics, it’s all about the agent’s intentions, and I know my intentions are to help people by parting with a bit of money every year that I judge I can part with. And no, I don’t use that as an excuse for behaving unethically for the rest of the year, or for not giving a damn about the issues I choose to focus on when I decide how to allocate my annual charitable budget.

So this year I decided to allocate my resources to four charities: the American Antitrust Institute, because I think big and especially multinational corporations are out of control (more on this below), which is bad for the environment, for workers, and for consumers; the American Civil Liberties Union, because civil liberties have been under renewed attack by the Trump administration and the Republican party in general; Doctors Without Borders, because there are always disasters around the world, and people in need of urgent medical care; and Planned Parenthood, because the Trump administration (again) has made it clear that they don’t give a fig about women’s reproductive rights.

Could I have chosen other charities? Perhaps using Effective Altruism-type algorithms to pick the charities that have the most impact according to some kind of universal criterion? Sure. But I like to do my own research and set my own priorities. After all, it’s my money.

Finally, I needed to re-evaluate where I was in terms of social media and Big Tech companies and how I use them (or am being used by them). I mentioned above my concern with large, and particularly multinational, corporations, which I consider one of the gravest threats to democracy and the environment, worldwide. A particularly relevant subset, for me, is that of the large technological companies, especially those that dominate our social media.

Almost two years ago I read and wrote about “The” Four: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google, and their detrimental effect on society at large. The book by Scott Galloway by the same title makes for fascinating reading. I decided then to minimize my exposure to The Four as part of my quest to live more ethically because, again, ethics begins at home. 

It was immediately clear that this wasn’t going to be easy, unless I was willing to do without a smart phone and completely erase my online presence, both professionally and in terms of family and friends. When I suggested to my wife that I was going off Facebook she very calmly asked: “so, what happens to all our memories accumulated there?” Shit, she had a point.

Okay, so a complete out was not practicable. Hence the following dual strategy: at a broader level, I now give money to antitrust organizations (see above), and of course I pay attention to the issue when I vote. I welcomed, for instance, the recent coordinated antitrust move against Facebook by 47 attorneys general in the United States, as well as the European Union beginning to heavily fine companies like Google for their anti-competitive behavior.

But what about at the personal level? There I had to compromise, because of the demands of my profession and the needs of my family and friends. Which is what anyone into virtue ethics would do, the approach being inherently more flexible and pragmatic (while still retaining a principled stand) than universalizing systems like utilitarianism or deontology.

Here is my current implementation of the plan. I welcome readers’ suggestions on how to improve it, including additional alternatives I may not have thought of and different patterns of trade-offs among The Four from the ones I am currently adopting:

Amazon: Jeff Bezos’ giant — arguably the most obnoxious of the four in terms of workers rights, business practices, and environmental impact — is on its way out of my life. I buy my books at IndieBound or on Apple’s Books; I do my online shopping by using the DuckDuckGo engine and avoid the Amazon results; and I am finishing my last three streaming series on Amazon video, after which I will use Netflix and Apple TV. I do occasionally shop at Whole Foods, which is now owned by Amazon, but seek local or national (e.g., Fairways) alternatives whenever possible.

Apple: this has actually become my default tech company, because it is —in my judgment, based on the research I've done — the least problematic in terms of privacy, and the most responsive when it comes to public pressure. I’m sure they do it because they care about their image and bottom line, not out of their goodness of heart, but that’s fine. Their products are also unquestionably excellent, and since I decided that I don’t want to do without a smart phone and a few other electronics, this is so far my least offensive choice. Of course, the situation could change in the future, so this is open to revision.

Facebook: Zuckerberg’s social network is highly obnoxious, and it has done more than anyone or anything else online to downgrade our public discourse and to undermine our democracy (think 2016 US elections, Brexit, and the upcoming 2020 US elections). After painful examination, though, I decided that the cost of entirely leaving Facebook was too high. On the one hand, I have many friends and family members abroad or who live in different cities, and they would scream bloody hell if I left (not everyone of them is as polite as my wife), since the platform is a major way for us to keep in touch and abreast of developments in each other’s lives. But I also have a significant professional and outreach component on Facebook, primarily my almost daily participation to the Stoicism group, the Stoic practice group, and the Italian Stoic group. Perhaps I’m deluded, but I genuinely think I am making valuable public contributions on these sites, so I decided to stay. However, I have deleted my professional page and moved all my communications in that regard to my Twitter account (yes, I know, Twitter ain’t without faults of its own, but this isn’t about purity — the perfect is, after all, the enemy of the good). I have also set up a number of filters that have significantly decreased traffic on my wall, which allows me to reduce my presence while still interacting with those friends and family I actually care for. Finally, I have “unliked” all pages except the ones mentioned above, again in an effort to decrease my Facebook footprint.

Google: here I managed what may seem impossible, I basically eliminated Google from my life. I don’t use their Chrome browser, preferring Firefox and Safari instead. I don’t use their search engine, going for the above mentioned DuckDuckGo instead, since they don’t track your visits (the new Ecosia one is also an interesting possibility — they plant trees every time you search). I don’t use Google Maps, though the major alternative, Apple’s Maps is honestly not quite that good yet. And I don’t use any of their office suite-type software, staying with the Apple alternatives and open source software.

Oh, and I don’t use any of those user-friendly self-surveillance systems known as Alexa, Google Home, and so forth. Talk about invasion of privacy!

I’m still not entirely happy about where I am in terms of my food habits, my charitable contributions, and especially by Big Tech / social media usage. But I think I have been making progress, and I don’t feel hypocritical when I complain about these issues, since I’m doing my best to address them in my own life, all things considered. Ultimately, of course, these are national or global problems that are not going to be solved by way of individual action. We need a social movement that triggers extensive political action. That may or may not happen, it is outside of my control. Making decisions about my day-to-day life, by contrast, is entirely under my control. So that’s where most of my efforts go.

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