Living ethically in a world of moral ambiguity

Photo illustration by Maia Schwallie and Nicole Surcel

Photo illustration by Maia Schwallie and Nicole Surcel

Maia Schwallie, co-opinions editor

I have a confession to make. My overarching goal in life has always been to live as ethically and sustainably as possible. But to be honest, I feel like I’m failing in nearly every way.

I’m a vegan, but I still wear my old leather belts, I try not to use straws but I don’t like how cold drinks feel on my teeth. And even though I know it takes 1,800 gallons of water to produce one pair of jeans, I still own over a dozen pairs of mom jeans. Yes, I’m aware that’s an exorbitant amount of mom jeans.

However, in all the moral complexity of the 21st Century, I don’t think my inability to live a completely ethical life is really my fault.

In the past couple of years, I have gotten into moral philosophy, the branch of philosophy related to ethics. This obsession forced me into the habit of weighing the positive and negative consequences of nearly every action I take.

My belief is that once I am aware of an inhumane or unsustainable practice, I can no longer support it. I started buying more second-hand clothes when I learned the environmental impacts of the fashion industry, and I recently gave up guacamole because I learned the avocado industry relies heavily on the exploitation of bees.

That one was hard to give up. My trips to Chipotle are so much sadder now.

But anyway, even after doing all of these things, I am still cognizant of all the ways I’m failing. I’m starting to realize that no matter how hard I try, our world is just too difficult to navigate in an ethical way.

For example, I can boycott Jimmy John’s for supporting big game hunting, but if I’m skipping the two-minute walk to Jimmy John’s in favor of the fifteen-minute drive to Naf Naf Grill, I might be eating more ethically, but I just unnecessarily drove so many miles. I have to choose between my social morals and my standards of sustainability. These are the kinds of dilemmas I contemplate every day, and they really demonstrate the moral complexity of our world.

I am aware that my constant ethical quandaries are annoying, time-consuming and a little crazy, but I hope you can now see how complicated our world is. There are so many times we have to sacrifice our integrity in favor of convenience or cost-efficiency. And believe me, I understand those moments all too well.

But when so many things are out of our control, I urge us all to take ownership of what we can control. We have a moral obligation to leave the world a better place than what we came into.

Despite this responsibility, I believe it is alright to let yourself be a moral work in progress. I make ethically questionable decisions all the time, but I have to cut myself some slack because if I got so caught up over every time my integrity has wavered, I would be too tired to continue abstaining from practices I know I can control.

So if you want to be a vegan but cheese is too delicious for you to give up, you don’t have to follow all aspects of veganism. Quit your consumption of meat and eggs, but allow yourself to break your moral code in favor of a little pizza every once in a while.

Maybe you’re as much of a  mom jean fanatic as I am. Shop your jeans from second-hand stores, but if that sale at Urban Outfitters is too good to pass up, don’t sweat it.

Don’t fail to make ethical decisions solely because they seem too drastic. There are always ways to modify an extreme lifestyle.

Humans are far from perfect, so I don’t blame anyone for failing the impossible task of doing what is morally right 100 percent of the time.

Regardless, I still urge you to try to live the most ethical life you can. Give your best effort, but understand it’s okay when you fail. In this wildly unethical world, we all will.