Call the Firing Squad, We're Getting Ethical

by Kennedy Anderson '21

          In Peter Singer’s “Singer Solution to World Poverty,” he depicts a character, Bob, who stands awestruck as he watches a runaway train speed down the tracks toward an abandoned baby in a stroller. However, Bob has the power to throw a switch that would change the direction of the tracks. If he pulls the switch, the train will instead hit his prized Bugatti, which he had just spent his life savings on. He doesn't pull the switch, however, and the train hits the baby as a result.

          Peter Singer already expects the moms, dads, and general do-gooders of the world to be horrified at a man who values a luxury vehicle over the life of a child. However, he reminds his readers, myself included, that we are all Bob, and we face this situation every day. In his text, he provides the phone numbers to Unicef and Oxfam America and informs us that a donation of $200 is enough to save a child’s life. I have had these numbers for months, and I still have not called. My three hardcover U.S. History textbooks for the year cost more than $200. If students counted up all that we have spent ordering UberEats and buying hoodies from the bookstore, I wonder how many children we have collectively killed by Singer’s standards.[1]

          I have always considered myself to have strong moral convictions, and I think it is important to deeply consider and question the implications of my own actions and inactions. I spent my fall term at the School for Ethics and Global Leadership, or SEGL, in Washington D.C., where I wrestled with ideas of genocide, U.S. intervention, climate change, gun control, and abortion. I even spent countless weekend nights sitting on the couch of the second floor landing of the girls’ dorm debating whether it is insensitive to use language such as “I’m so triggered,” or whether one can assume responsibility for his or her own birth. For three and a half months, I debated what felt like every ethical topic under the sun.

          So, if I care so much about living an ethical life, why then do I sacrifice my ethics in certain situations? I believe the rich should be taxed more heavily because the impoverished need the money more than they do. But I also don’t sacrifice my own wealth. I don’t need Christmas gifts. I could have easily pulled the switch, changed the direction of the train, and used that money to save the lives of four or five children this year. I believe in workers’ rights, yet I still own an Amazon Prime membership. Why am I complacent about my own inconsistencies?

          These inconsistencies are very normalized. For example, conversation around the ethics of eating at Chick-fil-A often found its way to the dinner table during my semester in D.C. Many of the students in the program boycott the company for their previous public support of anti-LGBTQ+ organizations.[2] Upon learning this, many others decided to follow suit. I thought to myself, “If I were to also join in, would I ultimately be buying into cancel culture?” Since so much of my life is centered around social media, it is terribly easy to bandwagon certain movements, not necessarily for my strong moral convictions, but because these movements have received a lot of coverage. Yes, waffle fries might be revolutionary, but I could boycott Chick-fil-A and feel empowered by my ethical decision to “stick it to the man” and “fight the good fight”. But wouldn’t I be forgetting all of the other companies that have committed equally egregious acts?

          Nestlé, the world’s leading producer of bottled water, has gotten away with unethical acts for decades. In 1974, the company coerced mothers in developing countries into using their baby formula instead of breastfeeding and caused many infants to die as a result.[3] More recently, the company continues to extract millions of liters of water from indigenous communities in Canada that can’t even access this same water to drink or bathe.[4] Ethical consistency in this case would mean boycotting not only Chick-fil-A but also all of the products created by the multitude of Nestlé-owned brands, ranging from various types of baby food, to coffee, to pet care, to almost all popular types of bottled water and candy.[5] This got me thinking: if I deliberately avoided ordering Chick-fil-A for dinner, yet I helped myself to a handful of Oreos for dorm snack, and I later ended a long night of studying with a L’Oréal face mask, wouldn’t my ethics be inconsistent? Sure, anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments might hit closer to home for a member of that community than infant deaths or water crises, but what good are morals if they are only situational? In another instance, my grandparents in Flint, Michigan could argue that it would be much easier to boycott a chicken sandwich than a donated case of bottled water. Sure, this may be a reasonable conclusion to draw, but should they strive to live ethical lives only when it is convenient? If they have the means, shouldn’t they seek to purchase water from more ethical companies?

          The problem becomes this: what company is 100% utterly and completely ethical on all platforms? My roommate in the fall was very much against fast fashion. After many 2:00 AM discussions on the ethics of diamond mining or her leggings made from water bottles, she influenced my thought process about the power I have as a consumer. Even still, it would be naive of me to think that just because a company tells me so, every single step in their production process is spotless. McDonald’s slaps “100% Beef” on all of their packaging, yet we all know that’s not the truth. Maybe the only solution left is to hand sew my own clothing. If so, where am I getting my thread? Who spun it? What were their working conditions like? If the questions are endless, is it even possible to be completely consistent in my ethics? If so, where is the line between consistency and extremism, specifically dangerous extremism? Should I start devising a plan to firebomb Chick-fil-A and Nestlé?

          By some definition, many of the life choices I have already made can be classified as extreme. For example, I have been vegan for almost three years now. Likewise, another classmate from D.C., Rosie, is extremely passionate about climate change and made a decision to start cutting out all single-use plastics from her day-to-day life. She could also be labeled as an extremist. Martin Luther King Jr. labeled himself as an extremist for love. However, I would argue that when my ethical choices begin to harm either myself or others, they have become dangerously extreme.

          If I believe the earth is overpopulated, should I start mass-murdering individuals who give birth to more than one child? Should I go after whole families next? This may sound silly, but Thanos—a fictional villain in Stan Lee’s Avengers movies—held this same belief and literally wiped out half of the human population with the snap of a finger. I could try to duplicate this, but I would ultimately be a hypocrite. I can’t go that far to repudiate overpopulation while actively occupying the earth myself. Therefore, is suicide the best solution? If so, what makes my ethics any different from those of Eldridge Cleaver, who as a black man in the 1960s was so consistent in his hatred towards white America that he became a serial rapist against white women.[6] Eldridge Cleaver was what I would call a dangerous extremist. He may have accepted his life as an iconoclast, but I have no plans to emulate his actions. How, then, do I avoid this?

          I don’t know the answers to these questions. I have reached what is supposed to be the “conclusion” of this essay, yet I have gotten nowhere. I’ve diligently dug my little rabbit hole and returned to the exact place I started with a lot more thoughts and still no answers. Was thinking through all of this even worth it? I have spent hours thinking about ethics instead of acting on ethics, but that’s just the thing: it’s easier to act without thinking, to say, “I’ll do a good deed a day.” In the past, I could give a dollar to a man in the street or recycle my Starbucks cup and feel like the Good Samaritan because it was easy, it was a cop-out. By following the “deed-a-day” mantra, I opened the door for subjectivity in my ethical values. Instead of setting an objective standard to live by, I conformed my morals to the way I lived my life at the time. Now that I have come to recognize this flaw, what are my options for change?

          I could debate every decision of mine to the bone, but I would make myself vulnerable to dangerous extremism, like Cleaver. I could disregard all ethical questions and live my life in moral apathy as a hedonist, but that would technically be a form of extremism as well—do you see the nuance now? If I have now established that centrism is just as dangerous as extremism, where do I find my place on the spectrum?

          I thought that through SEGL I would find all of the answers to my most pressing questions about the world around me and I would leave D.C. having been gifted the keys to unlock the pearly gates of morality. Sure, there’s something to be said for the fact that I might not have ever pondered the ethics of something so trivial as a chicken sandwich before fall term, and I could pat myself on the back for becoming more pensive. But I’ve been stuck with my thoughts on loop since September, and all of my thinking seems prefatory if I have yet to determine how to act on it. I feel deadlocked. Did I gain anything conclusive from my time in D.C.?

          If ethical congruence isn’t actually possible, I still don’t know the point of striving to make ethical life choices. If it is, in fact, possible, where is the line between consistency and extremism?

          I may never answer this question, because ethical congruence might not exist. But I think even striving for it says enough about who I am and how I want to live my life. And while that’s not the most satisfying response to come up with after 1700 words, it’s the best I’ve got right now.

          You try racking your brain for five pages straight.

 

 

[1] Singer, Peter. “The Singer Solution To World Poverty.”

[2] Valle, Gaby Del. “Chick-Fil-A's Charitable Foundation Kept Donating to Anti-LGBTQ Groups.”

[3] Neslen, Arthur. “Nestlé under Fire for Marketing Claims on Baby Milk Formulas.”

[4] Shimo, Alexandra. “While Nestlé Extracts Millions of Litres from Their Land, Residents Have

     No Drinking Water.”

[5] “Our Brands.” Nestlé Global

[6] Cleaver, Eldridge. Soul on Ice.

 

Bibliography

Cleaver, Eldridge. Soul on Ice. New York, NY: Delta Trade Paperbacks, 1999.

Neslen, Arthur. “Nestlé under Fire for Marketing Claims on Baby Milk Formulas.” The Guardian.

Guardian News and Media, February 1, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/ business/2018/feb/01/nestle-under-fire-for-marketing-claims-on-baby-milk-formulas.

“Our Brands.” Nestlé Global. Accessed February 28, 2020.

https://www.nestle.com/aboutus/overview/ourbrands.

Shimo, Alexandra. “While Nestlé Extracts Millions of Litres from Their Land, Residents Have

No Drinking Water.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, October 4, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/global/2018/oct/04/ontario-six-nations-nestle-running-water.

Singer, Peter. “The Singer Solution To World Poverty.” The New York Times. The New York

Times, September 5, 1999. https://www.nytimes.com/1999/09/05/magazine/the-singer- solution-to-world-poverty.html.

Valle, Gaby Del. “Chick-Fil-A's Charitable Foundation Kept Donating to Anti-LGBTQ Groups.”

Vox. Vox, March 22, 2019. https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/3/21/18275850/chick-fil-a-anti-lgbtq-donations.