The Contradictions of Thinking and Living Ethically

Fran Hawthorne discusses how hard it is to consistently live by one's values.

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Fran Hawthorne, a self-professed liberal, found herself arguing one day with a like-minded friend over the selling points of Whole Foods. Her friend praised the food chain’s organic, green products, but Hawthorne criticized the company for being against unions and for leading to the closures of small local stores. “It really struck me that two people in basic agreement in their ethical views could be so opposed on a supposedly progressive store,” the author and journalist says. Her latest book, The Overloaded Liberal: Shopping, Investing, Parenting, and Other Daily Dilemmas in an Age of Political Activism, expands on that realization. Hawthorne, who has written for the New York Times, Newsday, and The Scientist,  recently chatted with U.S. News about the difficulties of living ethically in a time of heightened political awareness. Excerpts:

What do you mean when you say liberals are “overloaded”?

I’m examining living by certain values, and not just earning a paycheck, keeping your house clean, and taking care of your kids, but also trying to make sure that, in the process, you are not adding to the garbage or carbon emissions that are hurting the Earth. Cutting back on your use of resources, trying not to harm animals, trying not to exploit the people who make the things that you buy. You’re trying to help the local storekeeper, but you’re also trying to help the subsistence farmer in Africa who needs Western markets to survive. It’s trying to do all these things you believe in, and many of them are contradictory. You might have 10 priorities that matter to you. If you were trying to follow all these values that you care about, then every time you went to the store just to buy apples, you might stand there for several minutes, debating.

What types of contradictions do you mean?

For example, do I want to buy imported organic apples from New Zealand or the local New York State apples that are not organic? Organic is good for the Earth and body, but I don’t want the carbon emissions from shipping it.

Is it just liberals that are facing these dilemmas? Why not, say, conservatives?

I’m looking at what are typically seen as left-wing values. But many of these are shared by people who are more centrist, even right-wing. People on the right, of course, might have vales of their own. I’m sure that everybody who tries to live by ethical values beyond their basic practical needs faces some degree of overload and contradiction. I wouldn’t want to measure who has more. But it’s the liberals who I know best.

Give me an example of a daily dilemma that an “overloaded liberal” might face.

Take the issue of who makes your clothing. It’s really hard to find clothing that wasn’t made in a sweatshop in Bangladesh or Vietnam or China. However, I do know that people overseas in very poor countries desparately need to sell to me. What looks like a sweatshop job to us might actually be a desirable job compared to the alternative—starving on the farm or prostitution. I want to support these workers overseas, but then I think of all the carbon emissions to ship those products. Shopping for clothing is stressful enough already because it has to look good, it has to fit well, and it has to be affordable. And then you’re going to worry about who made it and where? Thinking along these lines, you might never buy anything. There are too many issues to worry about.

How do you reconcile all those competing interests? Does it boil down to one’s own priorities?

It’s a constant juggling act, and you’re right—each person has different priorities. In some cases you might make carbon emissions more important, or you might make supporting local goods more important. You might not be consistent all the time. Usually there is no easy answer.

Is there a point where you have to draw the line and stop thinking about ethics?

I would never want to say, “The heck with it. I’m just going to buy what makes me happy.” I don’t think that’s a good answer. I do resent a lot of the books out there that make it sound too easy. Sure, there will be times when you’ll have to put ethical values aside. But if two ethical values are contradictory, you don’t have to throw them both out the window. I’m not saying I have all the answers, what I’m really trying to do is to point out the questions.