Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Addictions: why it is so hard to be good

I want to be a good and responsible person, but it is so difficult. Some things are easy: recycling the waste I produce is a thing I have control over. Using CFL bulbs and watching my energy and water usage has a real (if negligible) impact on the world's resources. I give blood and have a growing stable of regular charities that I donate to. But I still have to watch every single place that I step, every bite that I eat, every thing I buy. Driving a car uses oil and produces carbon pollution. I don't abuse animals, but if I eat butter, then I am giving money to people who do. Buying clothing or electronics will likely give money to abusive and unfair factory owners.

It isn't enough to be a good person - I have to think about everyone else too. I have to consider every single thing I do for what far-reaching impact it may be having. The Western World is addicted to oil. We all talk a big game about pulling the needle out and going cold turkey, but it just isn't possible. I am as appalled by oil companies and pollution and global warming as anyone, but I still drive my own car. It is possible for me to go without, and I have considered it, but it would involve a bicycle or bus or taxi and, frankly, it is too much work for me; I know that what would involve great personal sacrifice would have no measurable impact on the planet. Even if I did sell my car and bike to work, I would still shop at Target and patronize our capitalist system that is the real cause of all of our problems. Trucking goods from one side of the globe to another uses tons of oil and produces tons of pollution. One day, and probably sooner than later, we'll have to switch from oil to some other primary power source, but until that becomes absolutely necessary, I will continue to be a participant in this corrupt and evil system of usage and waste and pollution.

Being a human involved in modern society is startlingly similar to the doctrine of original sin. In fact, this is an idea of guilt that I will even get behind. If I were to go 'off the grid' immediately and for the rest of my life, I would have still been party to irreparable damage to the planet. I have an impact and in my short time I am afraid that it has been mostly negative. As I said at the top, I don't abuse animals. I don't even kill spiders if I can avoid it. I feel a twinge (but just a twinge) of guilt and remorse when I kill a mosquito. I have even taken my love and respect for animals to the point where I no longer eat them. But it has become increasingly obvious that this is not good enough. Sure, not eating chicken is a fine (and essential) moral position, but by simply eating eggs, I am contributing to the suffering of the chickens who lay the eggs in equally (if not worse!) miserable conditions. And then I have to consider not just omelets, but also pasta and bread and cookies. And then - did I just become a vegan?

I don't want to hurt people or animals or damage the planet. I want to be a good person, but the problem is that by simply existing and consuming goods and appreciating art (and you can't convince me that television and video games and movies are not art) I am inflicting harm on someone. We are addicted to harm, hooked on pain. The engines of progress are run on damage and lubricated by blood. That sounds melodramatic, but in a way, it is perfectly true and none of us can avoid it. As I said earlier, even if we stop now, we will always have blood on our hands.

Our generation may be irredeemable. The difference between our guilt and the (false) idea of original sin is that it isn't implicit in our nature to be cruel. Greed and ingenuity have caused us to sidestep our moral obligations. Our participation in society and the machinery of Western society has stained our hands with the blood of the disenfranchised, from genetically modified (but no less sensitive to suffering and torment) chickens, pigs and cows to abused and underpaid workers who make (the regional equivalent of) pennies and dollars a day. If you consider domesticated animals as a part of our society, as I think we must, then the disparity between the richest and the poorest among us has never been greater.

1 comment:

Ed said...

Lovely post!

"I don't want to hurt people or animals or damage the planet. I want to be a good person, but the problem is that by simply existing and consuming goods and appreciating art (and you can't convince me that television and video games and movies are not art) I am inflicting harm on someone."

So true and this is why I resonate with the zen perspective on the precepts:

"There are no moral absolutes in Buddhism and it is recognized that ethical decision-making involves a complex nexus of causes and conditions. ... When making moral choices, individuals are advised to examine their motivation--whether aversion, attachment, ignorance, wisdom, or compassion"

It is impossible to exist without in some way killing or harming another being. A vegetarian diet may include countless unseen field mice caught in threshing machines, insects poisoned or otherwise killed, the destruction of forests and habitat for the production of soy, fertilizer either produced by animals (often in some form of exploitation, subject to culling and confinement) or produced using fossil fuels and all the misery that entails. Eating organic means the animal product (if one eats them) like dairy or eggs, is produced without antibiotics, even if the animal gets sick. Most often they are killed instead of treated.

What all of this comes down to then is rather similar to the hippocratic oath- do no harm, a task that is impossible to achieve, but that can always be further perfected in some way.

The question becomes: How does one choose, in this moment, to minimize suffering and support life? Will it be good enough to save all beings? Of course not, all we can do is our imperfect-failure-ridden best.

The book "No Impact Man" take up these issues in an entertaining way and I heartily recommend it. (it is about 5x better than the movie)

"It isn't enough to be a good person"
No, but one must start somewhere. The important thing is to start, then start again. Then start again...