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[personal profile] liv
So I was chatting to my brother Screwy over Christmas, and he asserted that making ethical consumer choices is just a way to express your values, it doesn't really help to bring about change. Now, Screwy is a philosopher and fond of making provocatively sweeping statements, and he's also way to the left of me politically. But when we were chewing over this one, I realized I couldn't entirely refute it. So I'm bringing it to DW, to see what my thinky interesting readers think.

Since I am a capitalist, ethical consumerism is really quite important to me. It just seems right to me to prefer to give my money to people and enterprises that I approve of. I mean, that's not a moral absolute, there's a trade-off between what I want and what I consider ethical. And what I can afford, both in terms of paying a premium for more ethical purchases, and at this point in my life more importantly, in terms of time spent figuring out exactly where my money should be going. Partly cos a lot of the information I want when making purchasing decisions isn't readily available. But ethical considerations are a pretty big factor in how I choose to spend (and invest) my money.

Equally, as a capitalist, I am biased towards considering individual factors and bad at recognizing structural factors. (Some places on the internet, including the subtitle of this journal, I use the handle individ-ewe-al, which is a bit of a silly pun on my name, but it also reflects my politics and my tendency to think about individual human beings more than collectives like countries or women or the often nebulous "society".) I do try to correct for that bias, and a lot of the time that means listening respectfully to my leftier friends. But to a great extent, I tend to see morality as more about repeatedly making good choices rather than bad choices, based on making better what you can influence, not so much in terms of "changing the world".

So I suppose emotionally, I want it to be the case that when I buy fair trade food and put my money in a bank with an ethical policy, it matters, I'm doing some actual good. And in that sense, yes, I am expressing my values by making those choices. To an extent it seems a bit like voting; most of the time a single vote doesn't matter at all, and I do agree that if you really care about democracy and improving your society, you have to do more than just vote. But voting is a way of expressing your values; I believe strongly in the principle of a secret ballot, so it's not about "sending a message" as such, but it's still an expression. I am the sort of person who wants low taxes and lots of individual freedom and innovation / I am the sort of person who wants a strong welfare state and a mutually supportive community. So by voting, you're reinforcing to yourself that you are that sort of person, and that makes it more likely that you will make decisions that relate to those values in the future.

I mean, one of the examples that Screwy gave was vegetarianism. He said that an individual person being veggie does very little for animal welfare, so it doesn't really matter how strict you are about making absolutely sure you have no meat-based ingredients in your food, you're generally expressing your values by choosing not to eat meat. It doesn't matter whether you're vegetarian or vegan or somewhere in between, because you're really just being the sort of person who cares about animal welfare, and any expression of that is about as good as any other. (I hope I'm not misrepresenting him here.) That doesn't seem quite right to me, because surely if enough people stop eating meat, the meat industry will shrink and then fewer animals will be killed for food, so change will in fact be effected.

There's been a lot of discussion on Facebook recently about the possibility of voting Green at the upcoming election. And it's a discussion on Facebook, so of course it's very much about expressing values. Am I the sort of person who rejects the Neo-liberal economic consensus? Am I the sort of person who cares about the environment? I think very few people in the discussion really believe that the Green party is going to be substantial force in the next parliament, let alone that they're going to win the election. But maybe they want to be the kind of people who vote Green, perhaps because they want to protest against the entrenched political system without voting for racists. Several people are very vocal about refusing to vote Green because they're seen as an anti-science party; I think the fact that at some point in the party's history they supported homoeopathy is a very minor issue and the mainstream parties have done far worse things in terms of failing to base their healthcare policy on evidence, but for lots of people, being rational and therefore rejecting homoeopathy and other "woo" is a big identity thing.

For myself, I dislike the fact that the Greens are against genetic manipulation, which is kind of what I do for a living, and nuclear energy, which I am generally in favour of, but that's pretty minor compared to individual policies I disagree with proposed by any of the other parties. A higher value priority for me is that I want to be the sort of person who treats all human beings with respect, including people with disabilities and foreigners, so for that reason maybe it's worth my voting Green even though I have very little time for their economic policy, because they're against austerity and pro immigration. Basically they're kind of positioning themselves as economically left and socially liberal, at least to an extent; lots of people who are economically left tend to be somewhat statist and authoritarian, so they don't quite know what to make of this. I have the opposite problem, in that I'm socially liberal but economically right, so I likewise feel like the Green party is an awkward fit for me, just for different reasons. But the Liberal Democrats, er, basically failed to do anything actually liberal at any point in the last five years, so I am reluctant to vote for them even though on paper I agree with more of their policies.

Of course, when it comes to actual voting, I am aiming to vote for an MP as well as for a party, and I will have to vote tactically to some extent because FPTP forces that. And I doubt that the Green party would enact their somewhat Utopian policies even if they did get into power, which seems pretty unlikely anyway. But in terms of figuring out whether I'm the kind of person who could vote for a party who don't want to invest in science and economic growth, but do plan to roll back draconian laws against "terrorism" and punitive welfare cuts and abusive immigration policies, these considerations are less important.

But precisely because I think of myself as an individual more than a member of an identity group, I feel vaguely uneasy thinking like this. I don't like the idea that my vote is merely a way of being a middle-class over-thinker who likes multiculturalism and dislikes austerity, or who likes science and dislikes wealth taxes if I decide to vote the other way. I don't like the idea that in choosing to be mostly vegetarian, I'm just being the kind of person who cares about animal welfare (and Jewish dietary laws), I'm not actually helping animals or the environment at all. And I don't like the idea that it's not worth making more effort to cut down on the eggs and dairy I eat and prioritize buying produce that comes from decently treated animals. Even though that would make my life easier, I want to feel like I'm actually making a difference, even if it's a small one, even if it's only on balance and the sort of thing that only helps if lots of people do it.

Maybe this is why I tend to put time and effort into community volunteering, and don't feel comfortable with efficient charitable giving. If I do stuff that actually makes people's lives better where I can see it, that is at least satisfying, even if it doesn't have globally significant effects. If I give what I can afford, which is really quite a lot in relative terms, to buying cheap medicines so that children in the poorest parts of the world are more likely to survive treatable diseases, I don't actually change the situation where there's huge global inequality such that a billion people need handouts from rich Westerners to get basic medical care. And isn't picking causes just one more consumer choice, one more way of expressing values without effecting change? The Effective Altruism people are expressing their values, which is that they're rational and care about spending their money where it can do most good and aren't moved by sentiment, and I'm expressing mine by preferring to volunteer and make personal connections with people, because I'm the sort of person who believes in having a strong responsibility to people whose lives I'm directly involved in. Does any of it matter, given that although my friends and I are mostly rich in global terms, we're hardly rich or influential enough to actually have a meaningful effect on international politics?

There's a locked discussion elsejournal to the effect that you have to be either a teenager, or hugely privileged (unattached, high earning 30-something white guy was the sort of example), to be arrogant enough to believe you can change the world. I think I've never been a change the world sort of person, but I do think you can make a positive difference to the people in your life, and if everybody did that, the world would get incrementally better. But I also think there are ways to bring about real change that aren't just consumer choices, or else the kind of activism that you can only engage in if you are really comfortably cushioned and have plenty of spare money, time and energy.

Well, last time I talked about the philosophy behind my politics it went reasonably well, so let's see if this sets off some equally good discussion, even if I am not quite aligned with many of my readers in some ways.
ETA: My brother turned up to explain what he meant a bit more clearly than my summary: his clarification
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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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