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Hypocrisy is an Unavoidable Part of Life

January 31, 2013

…Or at least, it’s an unavoidable part of being human and having any kind of conscience.

This is an idea I’ve bumped up against repeatedly whenever I’ve been forced to take a close look at almost any of my beliefs and convictions. I like to think of myself as someone with a fair amount of personal integrity, and I used to get defensive about being called hypocritical, in the way that only people who harbour a secret unease can get defensive. But I’ve come to accept this criticism as both having a seed of truth, and being mostly irrelevant to how I choose to live my life.

For example, I don’t eat meat; short of verging on starvation, I don’t think I could personally kill an animal for food, so buying cut-up animal parts in the grocery store that someone else has conveniently killed for me doesn’t sit well. I made this choice about ten years ago, and as all who join the ranks of the newly-converted, I was quite militant about the whole thing for awhile. Nothing that came within ten metres of a dead creature was going anywhere near my digestive tract! I even tried out veganism, but was tempted back by the siren song of fancy cheese and ice cream.

At some point in the middle of my militant phase, I had a very compelling discussion with someone about the ethics of being vegetarian and owning a cat. I do own a cat. Cats have to eat meat, or they’ll die. I don’t want my cat to die. So I feed him meat. It’s a bit of a conundrum for an animal lover. Should all domesticated cats be turned loose to fend for themselves? Of course not; that would be horribly unethical for numerous reasons. A similar line of reasoning comes up in almost any discussion of ethical food consumption. Vegans aren’t off the hook; the machinery that harvests grains kills ground-dwelling animals. The farmland that vegetables are planted on takes away from animal habitat. The trucks that transport food contribute to air pollution and roadkill. Even purely self-sufficient homesteaders will by necessity cause death to small creatures. And the most Zen of fasting Buddhist monks will unwittingly step on an ant from time to time. This is the reality of our existence: by the very fact of being alive, we make other living things die.

It doesn’t end there. Buy only fair trade? You might be contributing to increased poverty amongst farmers who can’t meet certification standards. Buy only local? Depending how they’re grown, certain foods might have a smaller environmental footprint when grown in their native ecosystems. Buy only organic? Unless you exhaustively research every company you buy from, you might not be doing as much good as you think. And it goes beyond food, too – drive only electric cars? They may cause more pollution than you realize. Recycle dutifully? You’re probably starting to get the picture.

Basically, because we are forced to operate from within preexisting sociocultural contexts and infrastructures, and because these contexts and infrastructures are interconnected in so many incredibly complicated ways, it’s impossible to take any kind of action without causing butterfly-effect ripples in unexpected directions. And sometimes these ripples will have consequences that are in direct opposition to our intended purpose. There we find our unavoidable hypocrisy.

I do not consider this a free pass to do whatever I want. I still think it’s worse, overall, to eat overprocessed pesticide-sprayed junk food that has been flown to my doorstep via jumbo jet. I still think it’s worse, overall, to not recycle than to recycle. I’m not going to start buying sides of beef because a family of bunny rabbits may have perished on the farm that grows soybeans for my veggie burgers.

I do, however, consider this a strong argument in favour of not judging other people for their choices. I tend to avoid calling myself a vegetarian because it often puts people immediately on the defensive (“Oh, you know what, I really don’t eat that much meat… and only chicken… and only free range…”), when truthfully I feel no moral superiority over my many carnivorous friends and loved ones. I’ve simply made a decision that feels right for me. I’m happy if other people make an effort to be informed about their choices. In the end, it’s up to each individual to draw the line wherever they’re comfortable doing so.

  1. January 31, 2013 9:25 pm

    This is certainly a point that people should think about more often. The true difficulty lies with what you do afterward realizing this. You obviously don’t see it as an excuse to do nothing, but there are many who do. The argument that I’m just one person so what does it matter(?) is one of the more pervasive in our society.

    I guess what I am trying to get at, is while I share your opinion on whether or not one should look down on others for their choices, I am still left with the question of whether or not we should not at least attempt to begin the discussion and at the very least provide some mild education as to why you choose to act the way you do?

    • February 1, 2013 7:07 pm

      Definitely, more discussion and more education! I just think that the judgement and self-righteousness that often come along with such discussions turn people off from being open to listening and learning.

      And in fact, I’d even say that acknowledging that there will be some elements of hypocrisy in any choice or action erases it as an excuse. Instead of giving up because our choices may have negative consequences, we can openly acknowledge that, yes, making ethical decisions is difficult and complicated – but we can still work towards figuring out how to cause the least harm.

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