An ethical epiphany

Something important happened to me last week. I realised that I was guilty of doing something in one area of my life that I have become increasingly angry about others doing regarding climate change: acknowledging at one level the ‘facts’, but at another level somehow managing to continue acting as if those facts did not exist. My particular epiphany came courtesy of a Bridport Literary Festival event and related to my practice of shopping on-line at Amazon.

I got enticed into the Amazon habit through books; over the years I have bought a large number of them. When Amazon started their on-line business they very quickly offered, for a relatively modest annual fee, free postage and packing and guaranteed next day delivery on books. Not only that, they seemed to have whatever obscure book I was after, and on the rare occasion when they didn’t (because it was out of print) they had links to second-hand dealers who nearly always did. This seemed a great service to me. Over the years, of course, this book service has greatly expanded to encompass not only just about any item you could want to purchase, but television and film streaming as well. I’ve since heard that this was a deliberate and planned strategy. Never-the-less, I became impressed by just how easy and relatively cheap shopping became. What I chose to ignore, however, was the fact that this was a cost picked up by Amazon workers. In hard economic terms, these costs are termed ‘externalities’, but in reality they are the lives of fellow human beings.

The Literary Festival event was an interview with James Bloodworth about his recently published Hired: six months undercover in low-wage Britain. As the subtitle suggests, he spent six months working in various minimum wage, zero-hours contract jobs – the first of which was a spell at Amazon’s distribution warehouse (sorry Amazon, I forgot, you instruct your workers – no, sorry again, associates, I forgot that you tell every one the are all the same no matter how much they earn – to call their place of work a ‘fulfilment centre’) in Rugeley. I will not go into all the details of disciplinary points awarded for daring to be ill or for being lazy by exceeding your overly generous half-hour lunch break and two fifteen-minute drink breaks, with little or no time to go to the toilet because they are too far away, because I would urge you to read it for yourself. But to be honest there was little that I had not heard before. The difference was that I had heard it before in very abstract terms. James Bloodworth was now describing the lives of real people.

Sitting in the audience listening to a verbal description of these experiences (I have since read them) I first went through various attempts to justify my shopping habits but eventually a loud and crystal clear thought emerged: “how can you possibly claim to take ethics seriously if you continue supporting such employment practices?” What made the difference, I think, was the very real description of the effects of these practices on actual lives – in this case the author who was sitting on the stage talking about his lived experiences, in the case of the book the various characters described. When you hear descriptions of working conditions on the news they tend to be relayed in very matter of fact terms. There is little opportunity for feelings of empathy with the workers to emerge.

The thought that is taking longer to emerge, that I’m struggling to articulate, concerns how to expand what I’ve learnt here into the wider ethical arena. On the one hand my experience reiterates something that I’ve talked about quite a lot recently (particularly with regards to climate change), and that is the importance of emotion, particularly empathy, to ethics. On the other hand, it also suggests a willingness to develop a personal ethics. And here my emphasis is strongly on the active development of an internal ethical process rather than the adoption of an ‘off the shelf’ set of ethical principles. I think that what I’m trying to say is there needs to be some effort from all of us to place ourselves in situations where we receive some empathic stimulation, but also to recognise the importance of developing our receptiveness to such stimulation. Facts are important, but so to are the actual lived experiences of people affected by those facts. And these lived experiences need to be real life stories, not stereotypes or caricatures.

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