Dave McCourt thinks some thoughts...

My ethical choices

Posted in: Articles, Ethics, Me

I often describe myself as living an ethical life (as well as running an ethical business) but I’ve recently realised that I’ve never really defined what this means. I’ve tried to describe what this means for Bananadesign but there is a blurry crossover between my personal and business life and it isn’t necessarily appropriate to go into great detail for clients and potential clients there.

Defining ethics is a bit of a slippery fish. You grab it, catch it and think you’ve got it, only to see it slide through your hands. Each time I define it for myself, something new comes up that questions an aspect of what I previously thought was clear. I like Simon Blackburn’s attempt in Ethics: a very short introduction, he describes the ethical environment as:

This is the surrounding climate of ideas about how to live. It determines what we find acceptable or unacceptable, admirable or contemptible. It determines our conception of when things are going well and when they are going badly. It determines our conception of what is due to us, and what is due from us, as we relate to others.

Ethics is how we ought to do things, it is about being good, it is about being responsible. We all have our own ideas about these things and herein lies a the problem, as these concepts mean different things to different people. In each society we have shared values and universal truths: you mustn’t kill other people for example is an example of a value applicable to nearly all societies. Most people would agree killing is wrong but it isn’t just about the majority: most people eat meat but a vegan wouldn’t find that an acceptable way to live just to fit in with the masses. Other ostensibly smaller or simpler issues to some are a big deal to others: such as smoking or recycling – many see these as personal choices, usually taking polar opposites in arguments. I think this highlights what we should see ethics as: a framework for how we live our lives – there are some core elements but some things seemingly come down to individual conscience – essentially ethics asks: can you live with each action you take and its consequences for you and others?

My approach is the first, do no harm maxim. The Hypocratic oath includes the phrase ‘abstain from harm’ and so it seems this approach of considering one’s actions has been commonplace in caring for others for a long time. Although doctors do often have to make decisions and take actions that may have positive outcomes they can cause intermediate harm (think of an injection or chemotherapy for example). This just emphasises that life is full of contradictions and of difficult decisions. My dad used to say to me: ‘we can only do, what we can do’ and I think this is apt for an approach to life: we should aim high and have ideals but we must realise that there isn’t always a perfect way to do things.

So my imperfect choices are as follows:

  • I’m a vegetarian. To me this is a fundamental choice: do you value life or not? I’ve never purposely killed a spider or a fly: they like any other creature deserve the same right to life as me. This is known as the do unto others principle or the Golden Rule: treat others as you would like to be treated. Not eating meat (I don’t eat poultry, fish, or any byproducts but I do eat dairy products) is a moral choice – I do not want to be responsible for the usually awful life a for-meat animal endures, it’s fearful ending and death. I’ve been vegetarian since 1996 due to a programme I watched which made me realise that I didn’t need meat. If I wasn’t veggie for this reason, I would probably have switched for environmental reasons: being vegetarian is far more eco-friendly than eating meat. I remember hearing Tony Benn say this is why he turned vegeatarian. Here are a few fairly staggering facts: ‘The amount of land used to grow crops to feed livestock is 10 times we need to grow crops for human consumption.’ [source] ‘A totally vegetarian diet requires only 300 gallons of water per day, while a meat-eating diet requires more than 4,000 gallons of water per day.’ [source].
  • I and my family eat mostly organic food. We do this not for any nutritious claims but because a natural approach to farming is better, better for the land and the environment, better for the animals and ultimately better for us.
  • I buy fairtrade. It’s not always easy but if there is a fairtrade option, I’ll take it.
  • I recycle a lot. I’m lucky to live in an area where the recycling facilities are excellent. I have a weekly kerb-side collection thanks to Cae-Post Recycling (a charity that provides jobs for disabled and disadvantaged people) and a local, community-recycling-centre, Potters which seemingly recycles everything (they even do asbestos). As a family of four we have half a bin-bag a week  everything else is recycled or composted. I feel proud of the effort we make as some neighbours do nothing at all and bin all of their waste that could easily be recycled (it can’t be made much easier for people, it is even collected from their door step). My children enjoy recycling and love taking things out to the Cae-Post man on a Wednesday morning. Recycling is a part of our routine and we have always done it, even when it involved a lot more effort than it does now. Potters is doubly great because it also provides an informal way to share old stuff that would otherwise would go into the skips. They have an area where things that maybe useful to someone can be left and taken for a very small fee: a lot of stuff is taken and this is a great social way to pass on items that might be useful to someone who couldn’t otherwise afford them. As a family and a business we also ebay or Freecyle old but working equipment including computers and we also pass on kids’ clothes and toys to other friends with children or to our local charity shops. We also buy a lot of our children’s clothes from charity shops as well. Re-recycling.
  • I donate to charity. Charities fill a lot of gaps that I think shouldn’t need to be filled but the reality is the gaps exist. People commonly donate to charities because of a personal connection but my choices are based on a range of reasons. The ones I donate to regularly are: Hope House (a charity running children’s hospices), Medicin Sans Frontières (they are amazingly always the first on the scene of a disaster), Campaign Whale (I think the battle against whaling is emblematic of human cruelty to animals), Peta and Compassion in World Farming (for obvious animal welfare reasons).
  • I use cruelty-free toiletries and household products. I’ve done this since my early teens. Manufacturers don’t make their animal testing policies easy for people to identify, as labelling is usually unclear and the onus is on the consumer to find out. In my experience most people assume products aren’t tested when the reality is, they are. I’ve used Body Shop products for a long time and whilst I’d rather L‘Oreal hadn’t bought them out, I think it is still important to have an ethical retailer on the high street so I do still shop there. I also use Fudge, Honesty Cosmetics and Weleda products. At home we use Bio D, Ecover, Astonish and some M&S stuff for all our home cleaning. We are Ethical Consumer subscribers as well which is always a highly interesting and depressing read.
  • I cycle the kids to school. I recently bought a bike trailer to take Z and M to school each day (the fantastic AT3). It is only a few miles but it has revolutionised my life – and the kids love it too. It minimises short, wasteful car journeys and it is making me fit – very fit in fact as the extra ‘ballast’ adds up to 34kg. I am disappointed at how few parents cycle their children to school; I think there are just three of us. As Holly said when she arrived by bike one day, every one looked at her as though she’d arrived by camel.
  • I work form home. Thus I don’t use energy commuting and don’t need to heat and light separate buildings. I also get to see my kids growing up around me which makes me very lucky.
  • I use energy efficient light bulbs and devices. I monitor all of our energy usage and being the dad, am always turning things off that others have left on. Tut. I have turned into my dad.
  • I collect wood to burn in our wood burning stove (and firepit). This has become a bit of an obsession: it started out as a way to reduce our oil usage (we live in the sticks so no gas here) and our costs. We live near a forest and there is a lot of dead wood about – and I am constantly on the look-out for it. I’ve ended up buying a woodstore, a chainsaw and an axe but I really enjoy the whole process from foraging, to sawing to chopping and storing – it really makes me feel I’m making a hands-on difference plus I like to get out of the design dungeon and into the fresh air. I can’t help but feel every time I use the axe each piece of wood is fifteenth century monarch – it must be due to all of those costume dramas I’ve watched with Holly. I now even trawl through the timber skip at the recycling centre to find more wooden gems for burning. We only have one stove, in one room but it is the biggest room in the house and takes a lot of heating. Burning wood releases carbon and so isn’t carbon-neutral but it is carbon that has been captured by the tree during its growth and is therefore recent (compared to fossil fuels) and would be released during rotting anyway.
  • I volunteer my time. I’m happy to help others when I can and I’m currently working on the village website with a bunch of people hoping to slowly drag Leighton into the 21st century.
  • I use public transport. I don’t travel much but when I do go to meetings I nearly always go by train (sometimes it isn’t possible to get to places in a timely way thanks to a rural train service). When we travel as a family we do use the car but it is for four of us and the amazing amount of stuff needed for kids. I could do better on this but even the real eco-friendly people I know who have kids also travel by car. We rarely fly and it is normally short-haul for our once a year holiday to Europe. I’m in two minds about carbon offsetting as Ethical Consumer had an interesting article on whether it actually made any difference environmentally and suggested it only existed to make people feel a bit better about traveling: their advice was to support charities campaigning against climate change [my partner Holly supports Greenpeace].
  • I use socially responsible or cooperative companies. We use the Phone Coop for our phone and the Environmental Transport Association for our car breakdown cover.
  • I bank ethically. I use Smile for my personal accounts and the Cooperative Bank for our business. We don’t want our money used for weapons and the like thanks.
  • I support our local Post Office. This may sound odd but I think Post Offices are really important for a lot of people (and especially some vulnerable people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to a lot of services): if we don’t use them they will disappear. I was very sad to see that the Tories/Lib-Dems will part privatise the Royal Mail as I think this is the slippery slope to offloading the Post Offices as well. Privatisation just makes services into a joke: look at the railways.
  • I try to be a reasonable, honest and helpful person. I think being good is often overlooked but it is the easiest and most direct way to have an impact on someone else. I’m always surprised at how rude and unhelpful people are sometimes: I’m not perfect by any means but some people just seem miserable and inconsiderate. I try to be nice and hopefully it rubs off occassionally and makes someone else’s life a little bit happier too.