- The human world is a complex and interconnected one, and it grows more interconnected every day.
- It is impossible to make even small decisions without having an impact on other people around the world. An action as simple as buying a banana or a new laptop means supporting an industry run by people in another continent.
- In complex systems like this, a single person making a lazy or malicious decision can have huge impacts down the line.
- We cannot be blameless in how we interact with the world, but we can still take steps to own up to this fact, and avoid decisions that make us complicit.
We live in an interconnected world. This is a clear and evident fact.
Steve Ettlinger’s Twinkie, Deconstructed, set out to examine the exact source of all the ingredients in a Twinkie. As the story goes, Ettlinger was asked by his daughter where polysorbate-60 comes from - so he set out on a quest to figure out. What he found was that the ingredients even in something so simple as a Twinkie can come from all over the world - including raw mineral ingredients which are mined and used to create other chemicals. The reality is that it takes an entire world functioning together to make something as simple as a snack cake.
Thanks to the growing influence of economic specialization, it makes more and more sense for a person to specialize in a single job that they can do well, rather than to train for a variety of jobs. This helps you avoid wasting your limited time and energy on stuff that you’re not good at and don’t want to do. For example, I go to a mechanic every time my car breaks down because it’s much easier to pay someone to fix my car than to go through the long and difficult process of learning how to fix a car myself. Better for me to do my job (which I can do well), and then use that money to pay someone else for my car repairs.
In the same way, countries specialize in industries which they’re suited for. A country with plenty of natural resources is a better source for these resources than a country which doesn’t have them. It makes sense to specialize in major industries which your region can be good at - rather than waste effort creating every single resource locally, inefficiently.
We get all of our bananas from tropical countries whose climates can support banana growth. The town of Sequim, Washington is known for cultivating most of the lavender grown in North America. In Michigan, where I’m from, northern Michigan is known for its cherry production. Floods in Thailand in 2011 caused a huge spike in computer hard drive prices, because many hard drives are made in factories in Thailand. Most quinoa is grown in South America - and its recent status as a popular health food have driven up prices so much that South American farmers can no longer afford to eat the quinoa that they produce. Many more examples exist.
Products are produced wherever it makes the most sense for them to be produced, and then they’re shipped all over the world, since this is cheaper and easier than producing all the products we want locally. When we go into a supermarket to purchase food, what we see is a collection of foods and goods produced all over the world, carefully organized to arrive at our convenience. This isn’t a perfect system by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s how it’s worked up until this point. The world economy is a hugely complex machine, with all of its parts growing increasingly interconnected. Damage to even a small part of that system can have huge influences on other parts, much further away. The decisions of a handful of CEO's or other major business people can cause devastating effects on poorer countries, on the environment, or on their workers.
I’ve also written before about how egotism and altruism aren’t really the right way of thinking about human behavior. All human behavior is cooperative by nature - we may cooperate in ways which are more or less productive, or better or worse for the whole, but this is all just an attitude towards human cooperation. We're social animals.
One important concept is the concept of responsibility.
When we’re talking about individual actions, it's often clear who’s responsible. If I walk out my door and punch some guy in the face for no reason other than that I felt like punching a guy in the face, I’m clearly the guilty party. When it comes to complex human organizations, however, it gets a lot more confusing, and it can be hard to assign responsibility to any particular person in the structure.
For example, the Volkswagen emissions scandal was an event in which the Volkswagen company created models installed with a “defeat device” that allowed these cars to turn on emissions controls during laboratory testing, but which were then turned off when the cars were actually put into use. As a result, these cars were producing up to forty times the emissions - well above the legal limit. This resulted in about eleven million of these highly polluting cars arriving on the market and being used by consumers.
In such a model, who’s responsible for the resulting pollution to the environment? Is it the consumer, who personally drives the car which produces the pollution, even though they’re not aware of the issue? Is it the CEO of the company, who may not have had any personal hand in the production of the defeat device, but may have signed off on this decision? Is it the people who collectively created the device, even though they may have only done it under orders, under threat of losing their job? Is it the responsibility of the manufacturing workers, who don’t even know about the defeat device, but are personally the ones creating the cars? Is it the responsibility of the companies which ship these cars all over the world? Or the salespeople who sell them? Or the government, for not ensuring strict enough testing to catch this earlier? Or the shareholders of the company, who require the company to continue to turn a regular profit and thus pressure the CEO's to take the necessary steps to ensure that continued functioning? Or other people in the organization, who may not have personally made the decision or known about it, but created a social environment that encouraged it? Or… and so on.
In complex systems, responsibility and fault can travel along long chains and hierarchical organizations such that a small decision from one person in the right place can have an outsized effect further on down the line. These decisions may be intentionally malicious, they may be intentionally malicious (but with the intent of creating some other good elsewhere), they may be unintentionally malicious, they may simply be motivated by laziness. They may even just be errors. All the same, these decisions can have a huge impact.
A small group of people made a decision to save money by creating defeat devices instead of researching real emissions improvements, and while only a few people may know about this decision, it ultimately ended up affecting the entire world - eleven million individual car drivers, plus the eventual impact that this has on the environment for everybody.
At the same time, this decision was probably made with the good of the Volkswagen company in mind - and thus, over 600,000 Volkswagen employees. Some may have benefited more than others from this decision, but it would definitely suck for those people if Volkswagen closed its doors tomorrow. We call certain companies "too big to fail", because they have such an importance on the local and worldwide political system, that their outright destruction would have disastrous effects.
It’s impossible to make perfectly ethical choices, when it comes to complex systems like this. Clearly, we can’t have expected those 11 million consumers to have known about the unethical decisions of a handful of Volkswagen workers. The amount of research that it would take to understand every single interaction we make with the world around us would span several lifetimes.
Worse, this means that we sometimes collectively arrive at actions or decisions which are ultimately harmful to our long term interest as a species. We may be collectively responsible for our own destruction, even in ways that we can’t understand or avoid.
In 2016, an interview with Nazi Joseph Goebbel's former secretary, Brunhilde Pomsel, revealed that she still felt that she had been entirely ignorant of most of the crimes of the Nazi state while she worked there, despite being a central worker in its propaganda machine.
She recalls an event in which she was asked to handle important documents without actually reading them - and at the time, she did so with pride, because she felt that this proved her trustworthiness as a worker. That file was in fact the file of a student activist, who was shortly executed. She wouldn't find this out until later.
Pomsel insisted that she was ultimately not guilty for many of the terrible activities that she facilitated - and that she couldn't have been expected to know about the terrible atrocities that her actions enabled. I don't think that we're all secretly Nazis, or that Pomsel wasn't complicit in her actions, but this sort of story helps us understand how we can often be complicit in crimes without feeling any personal responsibility for it.
"Going with the flow" can have terrible consequences, even if we aren't the person shouldering the majority of the responsibility. Sexual abuse scandals like those being highlighted in the recent #metoo movement and the Harvey Weinstein scandal reveal that in many cases, the rich and powerful are capable of using their influence to convince others to be complicit in their crimes.
Ultimately, I’d say that the only thing we can really do is admit that we all share responsibility. We’re all complicit in something or another, whether knowingly or unknowingly, and that’s a given. It just isn’t actually possible to avoid participating in the systems that we live in.
There’s no point in denying this fact, or pretending that we’re completely free from guilt. Be honest about your mistakes, own up to them, and make improvements where you can: slowly, carefully, and with as much reflection as possible. Who knows - we might all depend on some choice you end up making.
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- Is Ethical Egotism A Possibility? (Part 1)
- Is Ethical Egotism A Possibility? (Part 2)
- Do You Really Understand Science?
- I Don't Think We Should Glorify Hard Work
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