On Morality & Ethics & Butter & Stuff

Just some thoughts about moral struggles and such.

*   *   *

A few evenings ago I stood frozen in the dairy aisle of the supermarket, my mind racing, torn between two different butters. These innocent -looking little packs of rich yellow dairy produce had triggered a moral dilemma as my various values clashed and fought for supremacy.

In one corner in the Great Battle of Butters was a fairly small foil-wrapped pack from Denmark. In the other corner was a pack of Italian butter mixed with various oils to make it spreadable.

So here was my dilemma: on the one hand, the spreadable butter contained less actual dairy product than the Danish butter. I’m against consuming a lot of dairy products, because I view the modern dairy industry as basically unethical. Intensive farming is destroying the planet and encouraging antibiotic resistance, so I don’t want to support it. Also, cows are living, feeling beings, and we treat them with incredible cruelty: First we impregnate the cow using tools, then when she gives birth we take her baby from her, shoot it in the head with a bolt gun, and then push the mother’s nipples into a machine and suck the milk out. When put in those stark terms, it’s horrifying. Sometimes, though, we don’t shoot the baby. We kill it and eat it, perhaps after a short life in a tiny crate. This is why eating dairy products makes me feel like a total asshole, and I think – if they could comprehend the system that exploits them – all the cows in the world would agree with that. The actual butter content was lower in the spreadable butter, which is why I was considering it as the better option.

But the spreadable butter was far from a good solution, as it was mixed with palm oil. Palm oil is the stuff that they are slashing and burning the Indonesian rainforest to grow, by which the wild orangutan will soon be made extinct. And I don’t want to support that. Besides which, the spreadable butter pack was slightly larger, and we almost certainly wouldn’t get through all of it before it went off. Food waste is a huge problem in the western world. So by these lights, I began to think that the more ethical option was the Danish butter.

After a few moments of serious consideration, I started to wonder if I shouldn’t just not buy any butter. But we were having corn on the cob for dinner and I didn’t want to disappoint my partner by coming home butterless. What is corn on the cob without lovely creamy butter? Nothing. Nothing at all. At least, I knew that’s how my partner would feel, and we all do crazy things for love sometimes, like buying butter and stuff.

Eventually I chose one, but by then I’d spent almost an hour on what was supposed to be a quick visit (I only bought like five things). And when it got to dinnertime, all the residual stress from the supermarket trip earlier made the corn taste like cardboard.

I’m not the only one who has this kind of dilemma almost every time I go to the supermarket: Was this chocolate made using child slavery? Is this cleaning product harmful to aquatic life? If I buy this bag of quinoa am I condemning Peruvian villagers to malnourishment? Is Nestle still evil? At least, I hope I’m not the only one who experiences this. Maybe it is just me and Armando Iannucci (please watch The Armando Iannucci Shows. It contains the immortal line: “…if I buy one thing that’s tested on chimp’s gonads, I get a free thing that’s killing the live music industry!”).

Even if not everyone is neurotic enough to turn their grocery shopping into a scene from Sophie’s Choice, everyone makes moral and ethical decisions. We base these decisions on underlying moral beliefs, like:

Anything is justified to protect my children.

Or

Life is sacred.

I like to think that the underlying beliefs that guide my decisions are:

It’s right to seek to minimise my involvement in actions that cause untold physical and psychological harm to animals 

It’s wrong for humanity to wipe out an entire species of great ape

However, based on my butter-buying trip, both moral beliefs do inform my ethics but still lie somewhere lower on my belief priority list than:

It’s important to me not to disappoint my partner

and

I like eating delicious food 

…which is why I tend to think that, ethically, I’m a work in progress.

I think I often suffer from choice paralysis. They say that North Korean defectors to South Korea find the amount of choices they have to make in a day to be cripplingly unbearable, and it might contribute to their high suicide rate. I’m nowhere near that despairing, but I can see why it would be a major stressor. When you have to figure out not only your preferences but ethical considerations too, it gets even worse.

So why bother making choices based on moral and ethical considerations? I once had a conversation with a (Christian) guy who asked that exact question. It’s great to be vegetarian or vegan, he said, but if there’s no ethical system or moral framework involving God from which you derived the moral imperative to treat animals kindly, then why bother?

As an response to an actual, concrete ethical issue, this seemed completely absurd. I mean, this guy – who as far as I know consumes as much meat and dairy as he wants and always has done – was criticising vegan atheists for making what he acknowledged to be better ethical decisions than his, purely because those decisions weren’t based on what a magic invisible man would supposedly have them do.

However, regardless of who asked it, it’s still a valid question: how do atheists make moral assessments? What’s our framework for doing so? Ultimately, there’s a lot I don’t know about morality. I don’t know whether it is subjective or objective. I try to just live in a way that doesn’t leave my actions weighing unbearably on my conscience. People – theists especially – can get really tied up in the question of why we should be moral if there’s no God. To me, this confusion seems unnecessary.

Why? Because, well, here’s a question for you: Can you think of any benefits to individuals that come from living in a society where people don’t freely murder each other without consequence? Yes? Then you have a basis for at least one moral action (don’t murder), no gods required.

To me, it’s as simple as: I’m a work in progress, and society is a work in progress, too. But for a much fuller and more enlightening debate on this topic, you can’t go wrong with listening to Dr Shelly Kagan debate Dr William Lane Craig on this topic..

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