Living with Blood on Our Hands

It's hard to live an ethical life when living in a society that is globalized and not transparent. It's also hard to live an ethical life as an imperfect person.

Close to the end of my internship at Ashoka, I asked about socially responsible investing. In the past, I had done some research and found hundreds of funds that claimed to be socially responsible. I had asked someone who was a leader in socially responsible investing, and the fund that he recommended to me included McDonalds. Other funds that people have recommended to me because they were marketed as socially responsible included oil companies, companies that profit from human rights violations, and some of the world's pioneers in sweatshop labor. My coworkers didn't have one clear answer, and one of the people on the tech team asked me how I deal with these ethical issues. The following is an attempt at an answer.

I think it's helpful to think about a few different ethical challenges. What do I do with my time? What do I do with my voice? What do I do with my money? To be clear, I believe in utilitarianism and Camus' ethical philosophy as established in "The Plague," and the following answers are reflections on how to apply those philosophies to the modern day. This is not a musing on what you should believe. This is a musing on how you should behave in an imperfect world.

Time: Spend your time doing things that you believe in that make you happy.
You have ethical beliefs about the world. Your work should be in alignment with those beliefs. An ethical belief is a statement that you value one thing over another thing. If you are passionate about a particular type of social change (or about social change in general) but spend half of your waking hours working on something else, you are shortchanging the community that is working on that issue by denying them your presence. To do otherwise would be saying that you want to spend your time on something that you don't value rather than spending it on something that you do value. That is a form of cognitive dissonance, which means that you believe one thing and don't act in accordance with that belief. In other words, cognitive dissonance, and working at a job that you don't believe in, is being a hypocrite.

However, you are a human. Humans are imperfect machines, and we can't effectively work on an issue if we're suffering. A lot of people who spend all of their time on really hard problems like relationship abuse get burned out, which I think is very bad. There are hundreds of different types of social change, so if working on one of them is burning you out, then stop working on it and find something else. It isn't sustainable to spend half of your waking hours working on something that doesn't make you happy.

To be clear, this assumes that you have a choice about where you work. As a computer scientist with excellent verbal and organizational skills with a degree from Stanford, I have much more choice than many other people, and I don't plan on working in a place that I wouldn't volunteer my time at for free. If you are an unskilled laborer providing for a family, if you suffer from discrimination, or if you otherwise weren't born lucky, then I think that it's perfectly reasonable for your ethical philosophy to be, "feeding myself and my family is more important than anything else."

That said, for college graduates in America who are willing to work hard, I don't think that there is a lack of opportunity. I got my first $20 per hour programming job after less than 100 hours of experience in programming (less than halfway through my first computer science class), so even if computer science is exceptional, it is also accessible. Outside of computer science, I have a hypothesis: I believe that if you find a company that is currently growing, volunteer to work for them for two weeks for free to prove yourself, and put in 100 hours per week for both of those weeks, they will hire you. Everyone I have talked to that runs a growing company has said that they can't find enough talented people to hire. "Growing" is, of course, the caveat, since they have to actually be able to hire you. And as long as you're putting in 100 hour weeks, you could probably start a pretty decent company, even without much capital or experience.

Voice: Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God.
You might think that the first part of this means "don't lie."


The first part of this is "tell the truth." Silence isn't a lie, but it isn't telling the truth either.

Part of this means living your life in a way that you feel comfortable talking about. I have remarked before that, sometimes when people ask my why I'm vegetarian, I will mention some of the disgusting stuff that happens at factory farms, and people will say that they don't want to hear that while eating. Those people might not be lying (except, perhaps, to themselves), but I think that they are violating "tell the truth" because they are unwilling to speak, or even hear, the truth about what they are putting in their mouths even when they are putting it in their mouths. I have met meat eaters who grew up on farms and know firsthand where their food comes from. I can respect that. I have met people who teach cooking classes and show documentaries like Food Inc but still eat meat for cultural reasons. I can respect that. I cannot respect someone who is unwilling to tell the truth about food at the dinner table.

Part of this also means talking about things that you don't feel comfortable about. We don't often talk about the sweatshops that our clothes or computers come from. We don't often talk about how some of the coltan in our electronics funds the people who abduct child soldiers in the Congo (remember Kony 2012? Well, the LRA might not be active in Uganda, but they certainly are active in the DRC). We might not be able to wash all of the blood off of our hands, but we can't do anything about it if we don't even acknowledge that it's there or, worse, if we call it perfume (wait, was I supposed to avoid mixing metaphors?).

Part of this means that you cannot let your institutional affiliation silence you. A lot of people say that they want to change a company from the inside. I am very skeptical of this strategy because I don't find most of these people making public statements about the changes that they want to make. If you don't feel comfortable critiquing an organization, then working there will force you to abandon part of your ethics. That's among the biggest differences between democratic countries and authoritarian countries -- free speech versus silencing of dissent. I was inspired when I worked at Google because when an employee didn't feel like the company was moving in the right direction, they would publicly speak, and people at the top would listen.

That's why people critique the idea of accepting blood money. If someone accepts money from an organization, they become less likely to critique that organization (there's a wonderful scene in "Thank You For Smoking" about this). That's why people critique politicians accepting campaign contributions. As a result, with Code the Change, I won't accept sponsorship money if I would not feel comfortable critiquing the organization giving it. And, when asked, I have critiqued some of the companies that gave us money.

Your voice is powerful. That's why social movements work. People joke about the inefficacy about online petitions, but even little things like have a huge impact. Don't silence yourself.

Money: Spend your money on things that you are glad exist made by companies that you are glad exist.
I am not glad that sweatshops exist. I kind of think that they're bad. As a result, I will not buy any product that is made in a sweatshop where a sweat-free alternative exists. I don't buy any item of clothing made in a sweatshop, and most of the companies that make my clothes are ones that are doing cool things and to which I would feel comfortable donating my money. Rise Up International uses their profits to help get kids in the developing world an education, and their t-shirts look awesome. Tom Bihn's employees love their jobs and love the products that they make, and as a result, their backpacks are durable, keep my laptop secure, and make me barely feel the weight. Wigwam is a workers' collective that makes the first pair of socks that I have truly felt was comfortable and warm. My shoes from Hersey Custom Shoe aren't finished yet (they take some time to make since they're custom made for my feet), but I have nothing but the highest expectations from them.

Even in electronics, there is more of an alternative than you would think. It is untrue that all electronics were made in sweatshops. Until 2010, all of Intel's chips were fabricated in the US, Ireland, and Israel, and AMD is split between Germany and Singapore. No, it isn't all companies, and it isn't all off the manufacturing of most companies, but there are sweat-free chips out there. After fabrication, there's assembly. Union Built PC does their assembly in Detroit, and even though they use union labor to assemble their computers, they're still cheaper than a mac. With coltan, only 1% of it comes from the DRC and funds child soldiers. The rest is mostly from Australia. The problem is that we don't know which 1% it is, so it's safe to assume that your computer, phone, and monitor contributed at least a little bit to warlords. Thankfully, some people used their voices and convinced US lawmakers to require companies to say if their minerals have blood on them, and some companies started ethical / transparent sourcing initiatives (initially, HP, Intel, and GE. Since then, a few others have joined on).

Despite that hopeful paragraph, there is blood on my hands because I don't know that every mineral in my computer was humanely mined or that every chip in my computer was humanely fabricated. I would guess that there doesn't exist a PC that was made ethically from start to finish. Right now, I don't think that there is an ethical alternative. Gandhi said to be the change we wish to see in the world. I don't think that a world without computers is the change I wish to see; I think that computers have an amazing power to liberate people. Also, because there is no ethical alternative and people rely on computers for everything, it would be hard to get people on board with a boycott. As I said at the outset, I am a utilitarian, which means that I am only concerned with how I can make the world a better place, and I don't think that going without computers would make the world a better place.

I am not glad that we get our oil from authoritarian regimes or that most of our energy is causing hurricanes, droughts, ocean acidification, and species extinction. I turn the lights off when I'm gone. I run air conditioning fairly warm when given the option. I don't have a driver's license, opting instead for trains, buses, and subways. I eat organic when I can. I also am vegetarian, and a vegetarian who drives an SUV uses less energy than a meat eater who drives a Prius.

However, when I need to travel far or fast, I do take a plane. I live in places that probably use coal for electricity rather than renewable energy. I accept car rides from other people. And, while I am vegetarian, I am not vegan. Once again, there is blood on my hands. Similar to my stance on computers, I think that airplanes are a positive force for the world. They connect people, and they are marvelous pieces of technology. I don't think that our current oil usage is sustainable, but I also think that denying people the ability to see the world and its people would be a terrible loss. And I do (without data) believe that people could sustainably use planes for education, work, and family if we reduce our consumption in other sectors (like food and local transportation). Especially if, like me, people offset over 100% of their emissions.

I also have more money than I need, which is to say that I have enough money to live a good life and there are other people who don't. As a result, I donate a few hundred dollars a month to charity. And I am frugal. And since I still have more money than I need, I look for excuses to give more -- occasions like my birthday or when I make a purchase that isn't completely ethical.

But What About the Blood?
Still, even as someone who spends the vast bulk of his time trying to make the world a better place, who speaks out, who tries to purchase ethically, and who donates money to charity, there is blood on my hands.

Even as the information age is expanding choices, the market is not free, transparent, or ethical enough that a person can easily make the world a better place without blood on their hands, and that is a part of the wonder of globalization. This is not a musing on how to get your hands clean. This is a musing on living with blood on our hands. Or, to be precise, this musing is about how to behave according to our ethics and how to believe in our ethics without compromising even though we know that our individual ethical stances will never be enough.

I shall offer no defense of why I am only vegetarian and not vegan. There is a tendency in people to want to believe that they are ethical. As a result, people change their ethics to align with their actions rather than changing their actions to align with their ethics. I might have done so above, but I have tried not to, and I could not offer a defense of my being vegetarian rather than vegan without making my beliefs worse. As per the voice section, I think that it is important to speak honestly about uncomfortable things, and I think that, because of that honesty, I am more likely to be more ethical in the future. My reach exceeds my grasp, and I hope that it will until the day I die.