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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: Start questioning your beliefs, including your politics

opinion-uncomfortable-with-politics
Photos courtesy of Adobe Stock.

You are a bad person. At least a little bit.

It is definitely (morally) not okay, but it's understandable. I am also a bad person. For example, I am wearing Nike shoes, despite Nike using forced labor in factory in the past. When I drive, my car burns fossil fuels, contributing to our eventual extinction. I am even typing this out on a laptop that almost certainly uses child-mined cobalt, as does my phone. 

Making modern electronic batteries requires cobalt, and to function in today's society, you need a phone. Unfortunately, much of the world's cobalt supply is mined by child and forced labor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

So-called artisanal mining produces nearly 13% of the world's cobalt supply, and because of how the industry works, there are almost no Congolese cobalt mines that aren’t at least partially artisanal. This is why even Fairphone, a company that produces “ethical” smartphones, recognizes that their cobalt isn’t child- or forced labor-free.

It’s hard to say if I’m the one at fault for any of this. Many of these issues are products of the capitalist system. Dealing with this ethical quandary gives a few options:

  1. Say it is all the system's fault; there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, and we are all morally blameless for everything. It’s revolution or bust, and the revolution will be fought with a SHEIN bag in one hand and Starbucks in the other!
  2. You are the system. It’s your fault. Retreat into asceticism and scavenge your food from the forest floor while apologizing to the trees for existing in their space. 

I don’t like either of these. There's truth in the idea that it’s the system's fault, but it’s also important to recognize that the system exists because of individuals making choices. Do you drive to campus because you really have no other option or because you’d rather drive than take the bus or walk? Is it ExxonMobil's fault you’re making that choice? 

The question left is clear: How do we reconcile personal moral responsibility with the reality of the unethical systems we need to engage with? 

I’ve got a theory; if you want the philosophical basis, I’m pulling from Rawls' theory of reflective equilibrium, so read "A Theory of Justice." 

We all must be more uncomfortable with our morality and politics. You are probably wrong if you are convinced you are a morally good person with fully coherent moral and political beliefs. Do some reflection. What are some beliefs you hold? What questions do you have about them? Take them to the extreme; what does your ideal world look like? Who's left out? Who's hurt? Why? When you buy something that is made unethically or with violence, why did you do it? Was it required? What are you actively doing to rectify that harm?

Interrogate what you believe, and interrogate why. Find someone you disagree with and have them tell you everything about why they disagree. 

I want to be clear — this doesn’t mean we should all be wishy-washy moderates. Strong beliefs and convictions are good things. But you should be questioning why you have them and the blind spots they give you. 

And then, after all that, act on your morals and keep reflecting on if you're being consistent with them. The process shouldn't end. And it's not just about issues coming from the capitalist system. We should be interrogating most, if not all, of our belief systems. 

Like any other skill, your morals should be a lifelong project, something to hone and finetune with time. Reflective equilibrium gives us the tools to engage with a deeply unjust world and come away better.

@samadran

@dthopinion | opinion@dailytarheel.com

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