The perils of trying to do (more of) the right thing

A few weeks ago I quit the messaging app WhatsApp. I explained the decision to my friends and family contacts: WhatsApp is owned by Facebook, and Facebook is one of the worst social media companies, from an ethical perspective. They have engaged in gross and willful violations of privacy (more than most other companies, especially Apple, which has adopted a contrasting business model that banks on privacy), and they have repeatedly refused to do anything about the sort of rampant fake news and foreign-led trolling that we now know had an effect on the 2016 US elections (Twitter, by contrast, has been moving more aggressively in that regard).

Since I was causing some inconvenience, I gave my friends and family five alternative ways to keep in touch with me (other than the old fashioned phone call, of course): the messaging apps Signal and Telegram (which I had researched), iMessage for those within the Apple ecosphere, standard sms, and email.

Several of my contacts understood and respected my decision, and adopted one of the new methods. Some grumbled a little but went along anyway. From some I shall probably never hear again. But one case stood out: an old high school acquaintance (not really a friend), O., went on a rant about how one should not attempt to dictate public morality (I obviously wasn’t), and I could go f*ck myself. Whoa, I thought. Where did that come from?

A follow-up rant by the same guy (it’s almost invariably a man, by the way) shed some light: “Are you implying, Massimo, that I am unethical because I do the job I do?” Wait, what? I wasn’t even sure what sort of job O. does! Turns out, he works for a company that manages one of the state lotteries in Italy. A job that, apparently, he recognizes all by himself is, in fact, ethically problematic. But that had no logical connection whatsoever with my decision to leave WhatsApp (and to drastically reduce, though I can’t quite eliminate it yet, my footprint on Facebook itself, in favor of the much more privacy minded MeWe).

O.’s reaction is not uncommon, in my experience, whenever certain people are faced with someone else trying to do their best to live just a tinsy bit more ethically. They take it as an implied criticism of their own morals. But if we all reckoned that way, humanity would quickly go into a spiral of less and less ethical behavior, because everyone who attempted to act more mindfully would have to check himself in order not to offend other people. A far better response would be, of course, not only to say something along the lines of “Hey, what a great idea, I’ll follow you there!” but also engage in a broader self-reflection on what one is doing in other respects. O. did engage in such self-reflection, but instead of questioning his own choices he attacked mine.

I’ve seen something like this also with dietary habits. I am convinced that the most ethical regime is veganism, though it is difficult (but not impossible) to maintain it in a healthy fashion, especially for kids. Next comes vegetarianism. I am neither a vegan nor a vegetarian, but I behave as an effective vegetarian with some exceptions, essentially following Michael Pollan’s advice: “eat less, and mostly plants.” In fact, I actually have little ethical qualms with fish and even meat that is ethically sourced, meaning that comes from operations that do not impose suffering on animals.

Regardless, I’ve seen vegetarian friends being openly criticized at social dinners, on a number of specious grounds, all highly revealing of the fact that the carnivore who was mounting the attack did sense, deep down, that his (again, it’s usually a man) position is ethically untenable. This sense, however, just like in the case of my acquaintance O., did not lead to self-reflection and a mindful effort to change his behavior. It led to a very unpleasant assault on someone else’s beliefs and pattern of behavior.

Here is another example. Amazon is one of the most ethically problematic of the international corporations currently dominating the market, for all sorts of reasons, including the treatment of their workers (especially, but not only, during covid), their willful undermining of the publishing industry, and their predatory exploitation and destruction of small outlets. So I have decided not to shop at Amazon. And yet, somebody — in an online Stoic discussion group, of all places — accused me of hypocrisy because he (again, a man…) saw my books for sale there.

I explained that I have absolutely no control over where my publisher chooses to sell my books, and that there is no way in hell I can possibly talk them into skipping Amazon. That is, as the Stoics say, not up to me. What is up to me, however, I act on: not only I don’t personally shop at Amazon (at extra financial and time costs), whenever I promote my books in public I use either the publisher’s web site or IndieBound, which allows you to buy books from local, independent bookstores.

Undaunted, people who don’t seem inclined to make any effort on their own are ready to deploy a battery of arguments, such as the “but you’re not perfect!” one. We have already seen examples: I try to eat more ethically, but I must be a hypocrite because occasionally I eat (sourced) fish, or even meat. I try to shop more ethically, but I must be a hypocrite because my books are sold on Amazon. I try to use social media more ethically, but I must be a hypocrite because I haven’t entirely left Facebook (because if I did, I would never hear from some dear friends and relatives).

A long time ago I read the best response to this kind of silliness. Peter Singer, a modern utilitarian philosopher, wrote a book entitled How Are We to Live? — Ethics in an Age of Self-Interest (note the IndieBound link). I read it shortly after it came out, in 1995, for a book club I was then running in Knoxville, TN. It changed my life, because one of its central messages was that it is dangerously self-defeating to try to be perfect, since human beings are fallible and because life inevitably faces us with trade-offs that make our decisions always suboptimal. It is far better to start with small steps and eventually work your way up to bigger ones. And even if you stop at the small steps, Singer argues, you are still doing better than most. And, I would add, that’s apparently enough to piss them off!

Another common argument from the “I’d rather not do anything” crowd is something we hear often also in politics. You know, as if truly there were no differences between Democrats and Republicans, particularly in the Trump era. Analogously, there are differences between, say, Apple and Google, when it comes to privacy on your mobile devices. Or between Twitter and Facebook for social media. And so forth. The difference may be, and often is, one of lesser evil, the least offending of a bad lot. But it is a measurable difference, and it is simply lazy and all too convenient to shrug one’s shoulders and say that it doesn’t matter after all.

Speaking of mattering. Why would we care? Is the world really going to change as a result of an individual choice? No, obviously not. But there are two reasons for exercising our choices nevertheless. They are both analogous to the issue of whether we should vote, considering that our individual vote will simply not make a difference in any election. Nevertheless, we ought to vote. Why?

Because: (i) As members of an open society we have a duty to vote. Many people, especially in the US, regard voting as a right, and it certainly is. But it is also a duty, the duty to do the right thing and contribute to the political discourse of our polis by helping society to choose its elected officials. (ii) It is important that each one of us vote because if more and more people didn’t vote our polis would quickly go down the drain. Indeed, this is precisely what is happening in the US. When President Obama was elected and re-elected it was because he mobilized people to vote. When Hillary Clinton failed to be elected (despite winning a majority of the popular vote) it was because not enough people did their civic duty.

And make no mistakes: Republicans know this very well. Which is why they do their best to disenfranchise people and to undermine the credibility of elections. Don’t let them.

What goes for voting goes for any other kind of ethical behavior: (i) We have a duty to ourselves and to society at large to act ethically, regardless of whether that changes the world or not; and (ii) We set the example for others. An ethical society cannot be imposed from the top down. It can only be built from the bottom up, one person at a time. As Marcus Aurelius put it:

“Set yourself in motion, if it is in your power, and do not look about you to see if anyone will observe it; nor yet expect Plato’s Republic [i.e., a perfect world]: but be content if the smallest thing goes on well, and consider such an event to be no small matter.” (Meditations, IX.29)
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