Sunday, February 11, 2018

Luxury Ethics

This, as the saying goes, is why we can't have good things.

Back in the real world, it’s up to consumers to make shopping choices that feel somewhat ethical. But those decisions are constrained by a lack of great options.
At some point, convenience and cost win out, even when it makes you feel a little queasy. Jeff Bezos is training me to get all of my material desires met more or less instantly using his wondrous fulfillment network. Am I going to fight it by paying more for delivery or grappling with my fellow shoppers for bananas? Absolutely not. While I wait for someone to come up with and implement a 21st-century antitrust policy that assuages my fears about corporate hegemony, I’ll try to enjoy having my wild-caught Pacific salmon brought to my front door free on short notice. Maybe I’ll be contributing to the slow ossification of the American economy. But it’s still better than getting ripped off at the co-op.
Jordan Weissmann "Yes, I Will Let Amazon Deliver My Whole Foods Produce Even Though I Know It’s Bad for the Country"
Want anti-trust policy that prevents corporations from taking over? Just wait for it. And in the meantime, contribute to the pile of money that those selfsame corporations will use to fight anti-trust policies that damage their interests.

From time to time I make people angry with me by saying this, but I am of the opinion that poeple who see themselves as impoverished tend to lack ethics in a way that people who see themselves as better-off don't. A lot of people take this as a slam against the poor, or a sort of victim-blaming that posits that people are poor because of a poor ethical compass; this is, perhaps a testament to poor communications skills on my part. Because it's really just an articulation of the idea that a drowning person will grasp at whatever may save their lives, without regard for the consequences of that action. Because they're, well, drowning. Not dying of water-induced suffocation isn't simply their immediate priority, it's their only priority. Ethical considerations simply don't have any room in the equation.

So in the case of a drowning person, or someone who is truly in dire straits, it makes sense. Where things become wonky in my understanding is when it's difficult to see, from the outside, the situation is being serious enough that ethics need to go out of the window. "A lack of great options" shouldn't be enough to create a "Get Out of Ethics Free" card, if for no other reason than why bother to celebrate people who consistently make ethical choices, if the only reason they do is that there is no cost to themselves? And I don't think that I'm overstating the case in the understanding that Mr. Weissmann seems to be saying that his own somewhat ethical-feeling shopping choices will wait until someone puts something in place to ensure that he doesn't have to make any sacrifices for them. Now, I don't know, maybe Slate just doesn't pay well these days, and having to buy lower-quality food from the sub-par grocery stores near his home, deal with the limited selection at the local co-op or carry Trader Joes bags home on the New York subway is such dismal state of affairs that while throwing the unionized workers of grocery outlets that pay better under the convenience bus is ethically distasteful, it's a move born of necessity. It sounds like rationalization to me, but that's simply me projecting my circumstances on to Mr. Weissmann's. I don't have any reason to doubt that Mr. Weissmann honestly understands that he must contribute to Amazon's hegemony, even as he wishes it would end, and so to do so would be unfair. And since the details of his life are unknown and are generally inaccessible to me (after all, I'm genuinely on the other side of a continent from him), I can't effectively argue that he's taking an overly pessimistic view; not of the potential effects of Amazon on the country, but on the circumstances of his own life. And it's this pessimistic view of life, and the future potential of life, that undercuts ethical considerations.

The ability to place ethical considerations at a high point is a luxury. One not everyone can afford, or, perhaps more to the point, not one that everyone believes they can afford. And as the understanding of what constitutes an inability to pay for luxuries grows, a commitment to ethical behavior shrinks in comparison. Not because someone can't live in poverty and still have enough to give, but because the perception of poverty entails, in an of itself, the understanding of constrained choices. For Mr. Weissmann, someone who understands that they face "a lack of great options" can legitimately see themselves as impoverished enough that ethical concerns about feeding the beast that bites others can be put aside. But that seems like a really low bar for such a thing. Granted, I understand that we tend to use the phrase "that's not great," to mean "that's actively bad," but is the fact that the local co-op has a limited selection that terrible?

I have a higher personal bar for what constitutes poverty. This doesn't mean that I always do what other people might consider to be the ethical thing, but it does mean that I tend to frame my actions as choices, more or less freely selected from the available options, rather than born of external constraints. I understand that there are things that are out of reach, that, given more resources, I would partake of, but I'm okay where I am, ethics-wise, in that I don't feel forced to forgo acting on things that strike me as important. To the degree that people undermine others' (and their own, for that matter) sense of being well-off enough to have options, they create a society in which winning isn't everything, it's the only thing, because the consequences of loss are seen as being, at best, stuck in a situation where there are no options.

Between waiting for some sort of anti-trust action, and moving our shopping to places that align with our personal sense of ethics, voting with one's wallet is the more effective, on the grand scale. One a small scale, it's a waste of time. Most businesses can't sustain themselves with only a handful of loyal customers. I understand this. I stopped in a business that was closing, and the owner lamented to me that I was one of his most loyal customers - there when he opened his store, and now there when he was closing it. I could have bailed much sooner. And in the end, there was no hope of saving his business, only to project the message that I valued what we was doing enough to support it. And in so doing, hopefully convey to the next person that what he had done was worth trying again.

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