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The unintended consequences of ethical choices

·1551 words·8 mins

Over the years, I’ve noticed an unintended side effect: my ethical tenets simplify and harmonize my life and my choices. Let me provide two examples:

1. Veganism #

As a side effect of being vegan, I skip the most unhealthy aisles at the supermarket; the ones with all the ultra-processed food. Almost invariably (original Oreos are an exception), these products contain ingredients derived from animals (milk solids being a common one). They also contain long lists of ingredients I am not always familiar with, forcing me to look up names of chemicals whose names sound like they might summon demons if repeated enough times. Extremely inconvenient.

Likewise at restaurants, the most unhealthy dishes are usually within the non-vegan options. I also don’t eat at junk food restaurants, whose dishes are usually made of animal parts and secretions (McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, Dairy Queen, and Dunkin’ Donuts come to mind. Come to think of it, I don’t even know if there’s a McDonald’s restaurant in this city). If we ever go to the mall (something I try to avoid because I feel the energy being zapped in real time while I’m in there) we can skip the whole food court. Nothing for vegans to eat.

As a result, most of the products that I consume are more simple than they would have otherwise ever been. My kitchen is full of unprocessed ingredients in jars. I know the cashew jar contains only cashews, the hemp seed jar only hemp seeds, etc. The same happens with cosmetics. The easiest thing to do is to buy essential oils. I’ll buy a carrier oil (I like argan, jojoba, sweet almond, or musk rose) and use it alone or mix with another essential oil if there is something specific I want to address (geranium, tea tree, lavender, etc.).

A couple of months ago, I met a friend at the airport who happened to be on the same flight as me. As we passed the duty-free shops on the way to the gate, he went in and “tested” some expensive lotions. He travels frequently and told me this way he got a dose of good stuff for his skin. I asked him if he knew what was in the lotions. He did not. The small bottle cost hundreds of dollars, but why would I put anything on my skin when I don’t know the ingredients? He thought he was showing me a life hack. And it is a life hack, but only if you measure the quality of things based on the price tag or commercial prestige (on sale to the highest bidder in our society).

I would have probably never come to these realizations if I was not vegan.

2. Free Software Activism #

As a side effect of using free software, I’m spared from most of the barrage of flashy proprietary apps, services and gadgets. Sure, free software can also be a time sink, as is the case with Emacs, but I would contend that it is in one way or another, a useful time sink.

In the past I used to be adept at several proprietary programs that I’ve since abandoned (Photoshop being the one that first comes to mind). Learning to use these programs now, feels as silly as the hypothetical idea of learning music on a Adobetar™ or a Guitapple™ instead of a guitar. Once I’ve learned the guitar, I know I’ll always have access to one (even trying to make one myself if it comes to that). Learning to use a proprietary thing means I have no control over the corporation or whatever it may do to the instrument or tool I’ve learned to use if and when they deem it necessary for their bottom line, or customer adoption, whim, or whatever.

In any case, as a result of my choice not to use proprietary software, I don’t even look at the functionality of a program until I’ve verified whether it’s licensed with a free software compatible license. Whenever there’s a choice, I prefer a copy left license, because I know it will add to the commons instead of (perhaps) preparing the way for a greedy corporation to take the permissively licensed work and build a proprietary program on top (or proprietary plugins, as is the case with LLVM).

As a result, I have no subscriptions except for my email and servers (where I run only free software), and I don’t depend on any program that I cannot tinker with or fork if I so desire. I avoid most expensive gadgets (many of them are now embedded with full operating systems containing proprietary programs). I rarely change my phone or my computer because I don’t need more computing power and because I’ve customized the software so much that I’m lazy to start again (Lineage OS for phone and tablet, Arch GNU/Linux for computer, Debian for servers).

I confess, I do use some proprietary programs: Wi-Fi firmware, phone modem firmware, computer bios (though I do own an X200 whose chip I flashed with Libreboot years ago, but it now belongs to my daughter), and Whatsapp (some people just refuse to install another chat program, though fortunately Cambodia adopted Telegram as the norm). I keep Whatsapp isolated in a work profile using Shelter (available in the F-Droid app repository).

For business proprietary software cannot altogether be avoided. Engineers and architects use Autocad, Sketchup, and Revit; programs that have achieved almost monopoly control over their respective niches. Of course, these programs only run on Microsoft OS (and maybe Apple OS?). I’m sure we could get away with using LibreCad and SketchUp 3D. Unfortunately, we don’t work in a vacuum. We consult in large projects where, not accidentally, the monopoly programs are the consensus.

Isn’t it inconvenient? #

People always ask whether veganism or free software activism are inconvenient, and I always respond saying they’re a joy. It’s a joy not to participate in the senseless exploitation of sentient beings, and it’s a joy not to participate in the commodification of software and the controlling of people through the programs they use. The programs I use are not products, they are projects, they are communities, they are hobbies, they are created by people who have itches to scratch. As such, they feel real, and they are in the control of the users. Are they less powerful? Maybe, but I agree with Stallman when he said it’s a mistake to sacrifice freedom for computing power. Are my programs substandard? Perhaps some are. Do I care? No.

One of the marketing ploys of our system is to place an emphasis on tools. Then, everyone with a bit of money goes out and buys professional equipment (the equipment we see professionals use, because they’re paid by the companies that make the tools to pose with the branded items) which they then use (primarily?) to showcase the products. There’s nothing wrong with appreciating a well-made object. There’s nothing wrong with investing psychic energy in objects. But we must wake up and realize that most of the objects we invest the most psychic energy into, end up being proprietary objects pushed and peddled by supranational corporations that don’t give a hoot about us, the environment, or anything other than the legal obligation they have acquired to maximize profit for their shareholders. We have been duped by powerful marketing. As Thoureau presciently wrote, we “have become tools of our tools.” I admire the man who can score par while hitting the ball with a shovel much more than I admire a man who can shoot birdie using state-of-the-art golf clubs purchased from another. Alas, the system cannot commodify skills, only the objects that it intends to convince us will lead to those skills.

Years ago, a world famous violinist visited Mexico and was toured around by my violin teacher. He took the visitor to a small touristy town called Tequisquiapan, where one of the traditional souvenirs were small toy violins. The violinist approached a shop and asked for the price. He asked if he could play it. He played it for a couple minutes and it sounded quite good. When he stopped, the shop keeper told him that particular violin was more expensive. I guess he thought he’d somehow done a better job crafting that one.

The best tools are tools that can be shaped by the hand of the artist, artisan, technician. I like Gibson’s quote on the matter, “The handles of a craftsman’s tools bespeak an absolute simplicity, the plainest forms affording the greatest range of possibilities for the user’s hand. That which is over-designed, too highly specific, anticipates outcome; the anticipation of outcome guarantees, if not failure, the absence of grace.” That said, if you’re a world class violinist, chances are some rich dude will lend you his fancy violin and it will sound nice. If you’re a beginner or amateur violinist, almost anything over a certain threshold will sound reasonably good.

Ivan Illich put it well his excellent book, Tools for Conviviality: “Societies in which most people depend for most of their goods and services on the personal whim, kindness, or skill of another are called underdeveloped, while those in which living has been transformed into a process of ordering from an all-encompassing store catalogue are called advanced.”