All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized parties are at-bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something they do not really wish to destroy. They have internationalist aims, and at the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible.

—George Orwell, A Collection of Essays

Yesterday I wrote an essay trying to answer this question: What’s the right thing to do in morally compromising circumstances? This is one of the oldest and most vexing questions of human existence; and there’s no way I’m going to crack this nut in one blog post. That’s why I’m writing another one.

As George Orwell points out, this question isn’t confined to any one sphere of our lives, but confronts us every day, in manifold and invisible ways. When we go to the grocery store, when we buy a shirt, when we download a song, when we get the latest model of smartphone, we are supporting business practices that are largely hidden from us, but which may be morally repulsive.

What is life like for the factory workers who made my computer? What are the conditions for the animals whose meat I eat? Where does the material from my jeans come from, how is it processed, who are the workers who make it? For all I know, I may be patronizing exploitative, abusive, oppressive, and otherwise unethical businesses—and, the more I consider it, the more it seems likely that I do.

Unethical business practices aside, there is the simple fact of inequality. On the left we spend a lot of time criticizing the vast wealth inequality that exists within the United States; and yet we do not often stop to realize how much wealthier are most of us than people elsewhere. Is the first situation unjust, and the second not? Is it right that some countries are wealthier than others? And if not, can we logically desire our present standard of life while maintaining our political ideals?

To the extent that opponents of inequality are immersed in a global economy—and we are, all of us—they are participating in a system whose consequences they find morally wrong. But how can you rebel against a global paradigm? You can try to minimize your damage. You can try to patronize businesses who have more humane business practices. You can become a vegan and buy second-hand clothes.

And yet, it is simply impossible—logistically, just from lack of time and resources—to be absolutely sure of the consequences of all your actions in a system so vast and so complex. It would be a full-time job to be a perfectly conscientious consumer. You can’t personally investigate each factory or tour each farm. You can’t know everything about the company you work for, the bank you store your money in, the supermarkets you buy your food from.

This is the enigma of being immersed in an ethically compromising system. To a certain extent, resist or not, you become complicit in a social system you did not design and whose consequences you don’t approve of. It is one of the tragic but unavoidable facts of human life that good people can still do bad things, simply by being immersed in a bad social system. An economy of saints can still sin.

In economics this has a technical name: the fallacy of composition. This is the fallacy of extrapolating from the qualities of the parts to the qualities of the whole. A nation full of penny-pinchers may still be in debt. A nation full of expert job-seekers may still have high unemployment. Morally, this means a nation of good people may yet do evil.

The question, for me, is this: Where do we draw the line separating the culpability of the individual from the culpability of the system? To illustrate this, let me take two extreme examples.

Since teaching, as a profession, tends to attract idealistic and left-wing people, I think many teachers, old and young, think that the educational system in the United States is deeply flawed. The standardized tests, the inequality between school districts, the way that we evaluate kids and impart knowledge—many aspects of the system seem unfair and ineffective.

And yet, I think very few people would condemn the teachers who continue to work within this system, even if the system tends to reproduce inequality. We naturally blame the policy-makers and not the teachers, who are only doing their best in compromising circumstances.

Take the opposite extreme: soldiers working in a concentration camp. Now, it is clear that these soldiers were not personally responsible for creating the camp, and were following the orders of their superiors. Like the teachers, they are immersed in a situation they did not design, in a system with morally reprehensible results. (Obviously, the results of a concentration camp are incomparably worse than even the most flawed school system.)

In this situation, I’d wager that most of us would maintain that the soldiers had some responsibility and, at the very least, some of the blame. That is, we do not simply blame the system, but blame the individuals who took part in it. The whole situation is so totally, fundamentally, indisputably unacceptable that there are no extenuating circumstances, no deferment of guilt.

Now, there is obviously a very big difference between a system that is (ostensibly at least) designed to reduce inequality and provide education, and a system that is designed to kill people by the thousands and millions. As a result, in both of these situations, the moral verdict seems relatively clear: the noble aims of the first system excuse its flaws, while the horrid aims of the second system condemn its participants.

The problem, for most of us, is that we so often find ourselves in between these two extremes (although, admittedly closer to the case of teachers than Nazi soldiers, I hope). But where exactly do we draw the line? Where does our responsibility—as participants in a system—begin? And in what circumstances are we morally excused by being immersed in a flawed system?

The more I think about it, the more I am led to the conclusion that being alive requires some ethical compromise. In this regard, I often think of something Joseph Campbell said: “You yourself are participating in the evil, or you are not alive. Whatever you do is evil for somebody. This is one of the ironies of the whole creation.”

And this quote, I think, is where I have to stop for now, since it brings me to another Quotes & Commentary.

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2 thoughts on “Quotes & Commentary #49: Orwell

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