How can we behave ethically in a complicated world?

A little while ago I read an article in the Guardian, which could be described as environmental clickbait: “Almonds are out. Dairy is a disaster. So what milk should we drink?”

I’m sure you’ve seen similar articles before, with headlines like: “Revealed: you thought you were doing good but you’re actually killing cute animals”.

It reminds me of an episode of the Good Place where the characters realise that the accounting system for sorting good people from bad people can no longer accommodate how complicated and interconnected the world is.

So what’s the best way of dealing with all these choices? Like: Which type of car should I drive? Which type of plant-based milk is best? Is it okay to fly to Europe for a holiday? Can I justify buying this expensive luxury when people are starving in the world?

To behave ethically in a complicated word, I try and focus on the big picture.

For me, that means paying attention to the big issues like climate change over plastic pollution. I still like to recycle, but I think in the long run plastic pollution isn’t a fundamental threat to humanity and ecosystems.

It also means focussing on systemic change over individual actions.  In other words, it’s more important to lobby politicians and vote for change rather than taking individual actions. But that’s not to say individual actions can’t help. As I’ve already said, I like to recycle, I catch the bus to work, try not to fly too much, donate to charities and subscribe to various news organisations.

Finally, I also try to be understanding and accepting of other people’s values. A lot of New Zealanders really care about plastic pollution, often ranking it ahead of climate change as their biggest environmental concern. It’s not my place to police other people’s judgements about how to behave ethically, so long as they’re not being total assholes. Everyone sees the world, it’s problems, and solutions in different ways, and that’s okay.

What do you think? How do you behave ethically in a complicated world?

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