Jayme is a recently-arrived NYC writer with a focus on fashion and fitness hailing from Melbourne, Australia
Recently, I was challenged to live as ethically as possible for one week. It was a huge idea to try to wrap my head around.
People have been trying to make ethical choices for the good of the community and the self since the beginning of time—it's not exactly something you just jump right into. But I told myself not to freak out; I tried to break down the concept and do right over wrong no matter what the mitigating circumstances.
I confronted my unethical behaviors and tried to turn them around into more moral ones. I tried to stay honest, keep my promises and be law-abiding even in the smallest ways. I even tried not to gossip. It wasn't easy... you don't realize how many unethical choices you make just by leaving your bed (which is probably covered in sheets that were made under terrible labor conditions. Just saying.).
The ethics experts weigh in
I reached out to Kwame Anthony Appiah, Ethics Columnist for the New York Times, who told me that he believes that living ethically is “seeking to develop one’s self and projects of value while doing what one owes others.” He also believes that being environmentally friendly/conscious is a large part of living ethically: “If a sustainable life is one that seeks to secure an ecology within which human beings can flourish, then living sustainably is important to both the self and other, regarding sides of living ethically.”
I also asked Carissa Veliz, a practical ethics doctoral candidate at Oxford, if she could give me a few guidelines. While Velize believes that there are small changes and habits that ordinary people can make to change the world, she also professes that there are no set habits that can make you entirely ethical. She says, “there is no one perfect way to live an ethical life” as it depends on our individual characteristics and resources. Thus, the less fortunate can't be held to the same ethical standards as one who has more means, as sometimes you have to break rules for survival.
Veliz told me that the most common mistake people make that prevents them from living ethically is “thinking or acting as if their lives are more worthy than other people’s lives.” I tried to keep this at the top of my checklist.
I am a consumer whore... but I love the planet
I absolutely hoard clothing and beauty supplies. That is, I love superfluous consumerism. In terms of makeup, my budget is not the biggest; and although I cherish my skin and cute animals and would love to wear organic products that are not harmful to society and those cute animals, I generally find that finances simply don’t permit this. I love to get my nails done, and cheaply at that. Even though I read that New York Times exposé on the horrors of the nail salon industry, it didn’t stop me from getting my regular manicure.
I’m also guilty of “over-sampling.” Like, you know when Whole Foods leaves free food out unattended and sort of depends on the honor system? Sometimes on my lunch break I’ll skip buying lunch and just fill myself on the samples. And just like everyone else in my generation, I download movies and music… which I guess is unethical. It’s not like stealing a car though, folks. Really.
I also never wear my seatbelt, or if a cashier accidentally gives me back too much change, I don’t tell them; I just walk away and say, “this must be my lucky day!” And one thing I never considered were the little ways I break the rules. Like you know how in gyms they usually have the “no cellphones” rule? I almost always have my phone out at the gym—actually I think everyone ignores that rule. I guess I never considered it unethical until reflecting on the idea that I was breaking a rule. I get that it’s for the privacy of others, but how else can you take gym selfies?
As for Captain Planet-worthy sustainability attempts, I truly do my best to participate in the big environment "dos." I manage waste effectively: garbage, recycling, and compostable food all go in their proper receptacles. I limit my showers to six minutes. I walk as much as possible. I always switch air conditioning and lights off before leave the house. Still, I know this is barely the tip of the iceberg in terms of sustainability. At least I live in a city where you can walk everywhere.
Ethics: a lie?
People predict that they will behave more ethically than they actually do, and when evaluating past (un)ethical behavior, they believe they behaved more ethically than they actually did.
— Harvad ethics study [PDF]
Apparently children don't understand ethics
I start my week with more ethical communication. I chose to test this out on the kids I nanny first. I basically completely destroy their belief that naptime will be rewarded with special treat, which I usually bribe them with whether or not there's actually a treat waiting on the other side.
But, bribing = unethical, so when they ask, I tell the truth: “No, there will not actually be any treats after nap. You simply have to nap as it is the right thing to do.” This, of course, starts an avalanche mini tantrums and crying.
I was also forced to truthfully answer their question, “when will mom be home?” I usually lie and say "soon," but the honest answer probably sounds more like "it will be hours before you ever see your mom—or treats—again." More screeching and crying.
Maybe young children don’t need to learn the truth all the time. They don’t need to know of the injustices of the world (or in this case, that mom simply won’t be home until after they go to bed) and that people go back on their word. It also brings to question, if someone doesn’t realize you are being unethical and is happy to stay in the dark, then does it count as a wrongdoing? Does ethical and honest communication sometimes come at a cost of hurting someone? In the case of children, being totally honest is hurtful to them...and my ears!
84% of parents in the US and 98% of parents in China lie to their children to get them to behave better.
Acknowledging my addiction to gossip
I know that gossip is deadly (loose lips, etc.) and can weaken a society or relationships, but tend to partake anyway, because it's always easier to fit in. That week, I took the opportunity to truly put my foot down against unethical gossiping while vacationing with friends. I jumped into this experiment knowing that, for four out of the seven days, I would be surrounded by friends for this beach weekend. Social situations always create changes in behavior; it is simply human nature to want to fit in, even if it means compromising your moral compass.
The group was talking about another friend who they hadn’t invited on the weekend; although very good friends, they always snark about his habits ("He probably wouldn't have brought anything to share this weekend, anyway") and his love life... or lack thereof. Frenemies, basically. They say how they feel sorry for him, but that he really only had himself to blame. Usually I would probably jump in and laugh, too, but my mind was in serious moral police mode so I tried to defend him saying, “You guys don’t know what his real financial situation is and as for girls he might just be shy. You can’t be mean to someone about that.”
I could feel the metaphorical hand patting my back for choosing a different and more understanding view, but my friends totally slapped it away: “what are you talking about?! His money comes from the parentals, he ain’t broke.” At this point I knew there was no point in continuing to uphold my ethical words when all they would do is add fire to the gossip. No wonder people don't defend others; apparently it makes you a quick target for gossip, too.
So I decided to stay silent. Perhaps silence is one way to be ethical. "Silence is golden," as they say, or, "if you have nothing nice to say" and all that.
Also, the guy I just started dating at the time came along with me and I really had to check myself in the honesty department. You know when you first start dating someone and you sort of stretch the truth so you can impress them, or at least not scare them off? There were a few occasions with him where I caught myself about to say something dishonest to do just that. He made me this Bloody Mary and it was just awful, and so I said, “Oh, this is just awful.” It definitely offended him.
My friends thought I lost it when I refused to jaywalk
I most certainly could not go around breaking the law, so I stopped jaywalking. This made my friends think I had gone insane, especially because we're in quaint Newport, RI, where cars will actually stop if a pedestrian as much as sets foot in the gutter. As I waited patiently on the corner for the light to change, my friends started yelling, “what the hell are you doing?! There are no cars on the road at all!” They continue to walk further away from me: “Why are you just standing there?! You usually almost kill yourself crossing the road in the city! The streets are so much quieter here!”
I calmly yell back to them, “I am abiding the law, and to be ethical one must uphold it.” In the mean time I'm thinking this is insane, there is literally not a single car in sight. Is this actually a better way to live?
My second law-abiding weekend decision was choosing to adhere to state laws and not partake in the smoking of weed. I don’t generally smoke weed anyway but when I'm with a group of friends, it’s sometimes hard to resist peer pressure. "Ethical week" gave me a solid and steadfast reason not to partake made me feel strong and decided. I liked the fact that I actually had a reason to say “no” rather than my usual “Ummm…I’m just not sure how feel about weed… maybe later… ok, maybe just one smoke."
Once again I’m the party pooper, “letting the team down” and being no fun. Am I going to lose all my friends over this?
A jaywalking theory
Jaywalking laws are a result of the auto industry lobbying effort to switch the blame for pedestrian deaths on the road from the driver to the pedestrian.
Weed "ethics" vary from state to state
In the US, recreational weed use is legal in 4 states, medical weed us is legal in 19 states
My body was hungry and it needed fried chicken
Now let’s focus this ethical week on to food. Oh food. Glorious food. Going on vacation I was worried I'd fall into bad habits since I'd be following the pack, but it turned out that both my hosting friend and her mom are vegan. I was thrilled! No party pooping necessary to stay ethical here!
It was only when we left Newport that the challenges began to occur. I was starving on our carpool ride home. We hadn’t had time to eat breakfast at the house, so the guys decided to stop at a service station along the way. The choices were: McDonalds, Subway, Starbucks, and the worst...Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. The actual smell of the place made me feel sick after my very vegan weekend.
But I was starving and hunger was beginning to get the better of me. I tried to resist, but me physical body was telling me to no longer care. It was hungry and I needed fried chicken. I suddenly understood Carissa Veliz when she said that, sometimes, ethics must be compromised for survival.
When I got back to NYC, eating organic and vegan became another type challenge; mainly, that the cost of ethical food shopping basically drained my bank account. I bought only organic fruit and vegetables (double the price), coffee, tea and vegan chocolate (triple the price), ice cream (quadruple the price) and snacks. I managed to avoid animal cruelty by going vegetarian for the week (besides the Popeye's incident, ew); actually, I had tried to go vegan, but I have an overwhelming sweet tooth and I refused to give up chocolate. However, I did feel empowered that my choices were helping preserve resources and cut back on the harming of animals. It was addictive to feel that way. Perhaps this is how doing this should feel, addicted to the feeling of goodness in knowing you are helping others and yourself?
Does "organic" mean "ethical?"
Widespread, collaborative and pervasive industry marketing activities are a primary cause for false and misleading consumer health and safety perceptions [about organic products]... multiple studies show health and environmental claims frequently included on labels of products carrying the USDA organic seal are frequently false or misleading.
Organic certification does not cover issues such as fossil fuel used for food production or food transport. Many organic food growers and companies ship organic food products thousands of miles from farm to warehouse to store and elsewhere.
I'm wearing no makeup and it's terrifying
I focused on my beauty and bathroom cupboard. My make up and skin cleansing products are far from organic, and that there was probably some animal testing involved in making them.
So factoring in my limited budget, I decided to skip makeup for the whole week (with one exception for a fancy cocktail party... but I had promised to go, and isn't breaking a promise even more unethical??).
I feel stripped naked on my first trip out to run some errands. I wanted to hide my face away on the street. I think I look ridiculous and that everyone will be thinking how ugly I look bare faced.
However, after a few blocks outside with no make up I realize that no one actually cares. The folk of New York have no time to look at my face.
Cruelty-free is relative
Animal use per cosmetic test: Skin sensitation: 1-3 guinea pigs or 16 mice. Skin/eye irratation: 1-3 rabbits. Acute oral toxicity: 7 rats. Acute dermal toxicity: 20 rats, rabbits or guinea pigs. Accute inhalation toxicity: 20 rats.
Largest cosmetics companies that test on animals: Olay, Avon, L'oreal (Garnier), Neutrogena, M.A.C. (Estée Lauder) One Green Planet.
Designation as 'cruelty-free or 'not tested on animals'... may only refer to the finished product, when in fact, most animal testing occurs at the ingredient level... while a company may claim, 'We do not test on animals,' it could still contract other companies to do the testing.
Thanks, Captain Planet!
I also eliminate any behaviors that are damaging our environment. I cut my delightful six-minute showers down to a challenging three minutes and decide to turn off my air conditioner for the week, which I'm sure my friends truly appreciated in the middle of June.
I had a strict "no-taxi" policy, and spent hours walking everywhere. Somehow I effectively used up all my groceries so there was no waste, which made cooking ridiculously complicated by trying to figure out how to cook meals where no ingredient goes unused. So basically being ethical takes a whole lot more time. I can clearly see how being ethical at all times is a hassle to most. It slows the process of life down, as we are forced to be more thoughtful in our decisions.
The worst part was living with my roommates though, because they are not really big into recycling. And while I usually just shrug it off, they might as well as had a giant "Environmental terrorist" sign over their heads while I was in moral police mode. One of them had just started getting the New York Times delivered right when I started the experiment, and she actually just chucks the paper into the garbage. Not wanting to start any drama I would just seethe inwardly, dig it out, and put it in recycling. She obviously never caught on to my passive aggressiveness, because it continued to happen every day.
Did I earn my ethical gold star?
Ethics is a tricky business, and I have by no means solved society’s problems in my habit-changing week. I felt overwhelmed at a lot of times actually. It's a hard balancing act being ethical as it often really requires a lot of personal sacrifice; you have to ignore any sort of "what's in it for me" mentality.
The biggest challenge ended up being an entirely honest person. I think it is part of human nature to tell small lies or exaggerate to save face, and it was difficult every time I realized I was stretching the truth. I would either have to go back and say what I was actually thinking, or simply not say anything at all.
I did however find that making ethical choices also meant asking myself many more questions than I ever had before. But maybe that is just it. It's really about taking the time to answer questions that you never considered before.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American produces about 4.4 pounds (2 kg) of garbage a day, or a total of 29 pounds (13 kg) per week and 1,600 pounds (726 kg) a year.