Making Ethical Choices: Nobody’s Perfect
I genuinely, whole-heartedly believe in living in a less wasteful, more environmentally friendly life. I subscribe to the idea 100%. Yet there are days when I am confused about what is ethical and what isn’t, days when I don’t bother making ethical choices at all and days when I wonder whether I am just being a pretentious twat.
But I pick myself up, dust myself off and try again.
However, there are some people that would have you believe that if you’re not 100% ethically perfect, you are a fraud.
I’ll give you an example.
I went to someone’s house for dinner a little while ago. They’d cooked something for me that I wouldn’t necessarily choose to eat, but they’d gone to a lot of effort and I didn’t want to offend. However, as I began to eat, she shot me a look and said scornfully, “I didn’t think you’d eat that, not with all your ‘morals‘”.
I was a little taken aback. If she suspected I wouldn’t want to eat it, why did she cook it for me? Plus, I knew full well that if I had refused to eat it, she would have taken offence.
It was evident that the meal she’d cooked was actually a test of my ‘morality’ and an opportunity for her to label me a hypocrite.
And it’s not the first time this kind of thing has happened; I once got told that I obviously don’t really care about the welfare of bees because I occasionally eat almonds.
I shit you not.
But it did get me thinking about this impossible standard of ethical perfection that seems to exist solely to demoralise people who are trying to make more ethical choices, or discourage people from even attempting to do so.
I’m not sure who it is that creates this impossible standard, but it’s perpetuated in the media, with headlines such as “Stella McCartney admits that even she is not 100% eco-friendly“. Now, you could interpret that as saying “therefore, don’t worry if you’re not perfect either”. But the word “admit” has connotations of guilt and wrong-doing, so it does have a touch of “therefore, this casts doubt on everything she claims to be”.
I don’t know much about Stella McCartney, but I find the news that she’s not ethically perfect hardly surprising, given that no-one is.
Conflicting personal priorities aside, it is not possible for anyone living in modern society to be 100% ethical. Let me think of some kind of contrived example to illustrate my point.
Okay. So, an animal activist and an environmentalist walk into a bar…
Not really, they walk into a shop.
An animal activist and an environmentalist walk into a shop.
The animal activist buys a jumper made from polyester because she believes that the wool industry is cruel and that buying wool is unethical. The environmentalist buys a jumper made from wool, because the microfibres released when washing synthetic clothing are poisoning the oceans.
Both of them are acting ethically, however they have made opposing ethical choices because each of them have different ethical priorities.
This is why you can’t be ethically perfect – because there is no universal standard.
Yet people seem to have this idea that if you can’t live up to the unrealistic ideal of ethical perfection, you shouldn’t bother at all.
I think, with ethical choices, there can also be an element of choice paralysis. This is the idea that having too many options makes us stressed and completely unable to make a decision. When it comes to ethics, I think we’re sometimes so overwhelmed by other people’s ideas of what’s right and wrong and which ethical issue should take priority, that we can’t decide what to do for the best and just switch off completely.
And then there’s just the classic ‘head in the sand’ type scenario.
Either way, I think it would help if we recognised that we are never going to be perfect and that we should just focus on making decisions that sit well with our own conscience.
To echo an article written by The Ethics Centre, we should take time to reflect on how our actions align with our own values, principles and sense of purpose. Occasionally we can’t live up to our own standards anyway, but that still doesn’t mean we’ve failed. Our small, day-to-day choices do make a difference, so we shouldn’t feel dejected when we’re unable to achieve an impossible ideal.