While most of what I write focuses on topics of political and philosophical interest to me in an effort to help change how people think and thus, in the long run, change the world, the personal ethics of the writer, philosopher, and activist are a necessary topic to explore too. If one finds oneself living in unjust times, how should one conduct oneself? That question may seem like it has an easy response: "As best as one can." But of course such a general answer is practically empty and needs to be fleshed out.
It’s not an easy task to live morally even in the best of circumstances, and certainly not when social and systemic pressures work strongly against a moral life. Today's world is full of injustices, and for progressives most of the major trends are going in the wrong direction. While over the last several decades we've made some very laudable, and real, progress on inclusion for minorities, women, and LGBT persons, on economic class and inequality, community, political transparency, democratic participation, and last but not least, the environment, we have gone backwards — and the main trends all continue to go in the wrong direction. As Chomsky wrote last week in an article, “Will Capitalism Destroy Civilization?,” advanced states, while nominally democratic, are mostly governed in the interests of finance and corporate capital, which is on a path of ecological and social destruction. The powers-that-be use a plethora of sophisticated coercive, political, bureaucratic, economic, ideological, disciplinary, surveillance, media, and social techniques to maintain their privileged position, diminishing the material quality of life for all and making a moral life difficult to live.
Capitalism operates according to profit and is indifferent to justice, and that indifference routinely permits or produces grave injustices. With its power to hire or fire, to grant or withhold investment, capital exerts economic control over individuals, communities, cities, and countries, ruining lives along the way. With its control of accumulated wealth it buys enough political influence to steer public policy in its interests. It establishes its norms and ways of thinking everywhere, privileging the commercial class over all other groups and peoples, leaving billions in poverty and billions more unfulfilled and struggling.
As has often been noted, capitalism infiltrates and colonizes most areas of life. Daily life is infused with buying and selling — almost everything that you use, from your clothes and food to your electricity and water to your computer and communications, are all things that have been bought in a commercial transaction. In advanced societies people engage in commercial transactions dozens or hundreds of times a day, and as john Dewey noted nearly a century ago the ways of thinking of the merchant become so ingrained into daily life that they seems nature and normal — doing cost/benefit analyses on everything, seeking to maximize personal gain, career ambition through self-promotion, withholding the truth or outright lying to make a buck. Capitalism extends its reach everywhere, such that it is almost impossible to escape — and even if one could, that wouldn’t help to change the system. One has to have a job; one has to use money; one may even have to invest in stock, and so exploit other people’s labor; one may even end up in a position that demands that you act unjustly against others or, if you refuse, deprives you of your entire income and possibly even everything you have.
Thus it become a moral imperative to develop the ability to see the catch-22s and other traps that the system lays for people, in order to try and avoid or minimize them. The Frankfurt school critical theorists asked how to overcome false consciousness under such conditions, with the hope that increased awareness itself will help change the system. Critical theory does go far to ameliorate this problem, as do other discourses that critically interrogate discourses of power: feminism and the other identity liberation movements have helped teach us how to pierce the fog of conventional ideas that maintain systems of power, which has led to more egalitarian policy over the long run, even when resisted by those in privileged positions. In the end this has led to greater inclusion into the existing economic and political structures of oligopoly capitalism, which is a good thing: more inclusion is obviously better than less. But critical interrogation of the economic and classpower structures and ideology is a tougher nut to crack than racial or sexual identities, for class is where real power and wealth lie. A capitalist can accept letting women and minorities into the system, for he can then exploit them better both as workers and as consumers while giving up nothing material; but he can't let the working class have real political and economic control as the working class, for that would entail giving up every advantage that he has.
The question then isn't merely raising consciousness, but actually changing the economic structures, Unfortunately that's going to take a while, so until we can achieve real change, it is important to find a way to be as moral as possible within them. I recall that Michael Walzer lamented in Dissent some years ago by that he would not see democratic socialism in his time; we younger progressives are not likely to see it in ours either, and even securing rudimentary social democracy and averting environmental disaster sometimes seem like ambitious goals. (I do think that we can potentially achieve great changes in a short time, and should continue to try to do so with all the vigor and confidence that can be mustered — systemic changes can never be predicted, but it is wise to always be ready to promote them.) Our current system seems likely to be around for a while; even if a systemic shift happened tomorrow, the process of building a new way of life would take years or even decades, and anyone forty or older (like me) would have, when the tally is made at the end of our lives, lived most of days in an unjust system.
So how can one live a moral life within an unjust system, even as one works to change it?
Everyone’s experience will differ slightly and there are undoubtedly many ways of doing so, but here are some thoughts:
First, you must earn a living, because the system demands it; but how does one avoid, or at least minimize, the pressures and moral quandaries of the competitive rat race? I think one answer (although I’m sure not the only one) is to accept the need for moderation and incorporate it into your life as a value. Should you choose the career that makes you the most money, or the one that will make you less money but bring you more satisfaction? Should you take an offered promotion, or an opportunity to do morally meaningful work? I think that for progressives, answers to such questions should not be guided by the economic principle of maximizing self interest, but by an idea of moderation. If you can live decently with a lower salary at a job that helps others and/or brings you satisfaction, then that’s the right thing t do!
Moderation actually goes a long way towards undermining the naked self-interest and greed that capitalism promotes, simply by being what it is. But it also has the effect of balancing the need to make a living with other values.
Now, moderation doesn’t mean giving up everything in an act of self-sacrifice; you don’t have to personally impoverish yourself to fight for a more egalitarian society. Those who work to better the world shouldn’t have to be martyrs, according to some quasi-religious way of thinking. That doesn’t entail reducing your own conditions; it entails raising them for others. The idea isn’t to make everyone poor, but to ensure that everyone has a good quality of life — including you.
Should you work inside our outside the system? Some, including many of the Occupy Wall Street organizers, think that only working from outside can be effective, given the ability of capitalism to co-opt everyone inside it. But capitalism colonizes everything outside it too, and attempts to date to change the system from outside through protests and street politics, including Occupy, have failed to have staying power. I think the best approach is both: major change will require both outside pressure and the cooperation of internal actors.
Working inside the system does present greater danger that you will lose your independence of action or, what is worse, be put into a situation of having to choose to either go along some injustice or atrocity or lose one’s position or employment. But I argue that it is better to have progressives in government and private sector positions of power and authority: is it a better idea to have responsible, far-sighted people of good judgment running things, or should we just abandon all the positions of power to the crazy people?
My own answer to the question of how to conduct myself in an often broken and dysfunctional world has been to do “triage work” to help alleviate human suffering to the degree that the system allows, while continuing to advocate for change. I wanted a career in higher education but as academia has become corporatized, academic work has become increasingly scarce and is increasingly proletarianized. So I found a good job promoting human rights, which at least allows me to help prevent and ameliorate real suffering. Then in my spare time I write this blog and a novel, teach political theory classes when I can, and engage in as much activism as time allows in order to help bring about the change that I’d like to see in the world. I don’t focus on my own life in order to be excessively self-expressive, but as an example. It takes a lot of work to carve out such a niche, but it can be done.
And I think that’s doing “as best as one can.” Find a niche from where you can do some good, meet your needs, and avoid getting trapped in moral dilemmas. But most of all, do the best that you can to change the system, remembering that that requires courage, optimism, patience, confidence, and persistence.
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