Moral redundancy

A few things seem to have coalesced recently to make me think quite hard about “moral redundancy”.

A bit of a trigger for this post was the story about the lorry deaths in Essex (and can I just say that the graphic on that page showing the positions of the people in the back of the truck is strangely affecting for me, perhaps as much as the pictures of the people involved – so terribly poignant 🙁 ).

And then of course the endless stories about groups being taken advantage of, whether Uighurs in China or zero-hours Uber drivers.

And at a stratospherically different level altogether, I’m also spending quite a lot of time thinking about the Nazis: populating a client website about the Holocaust on the one hand, and watching Hunters for the first time..

Now before we all get too depressed: at the heart of it all I am basically fairly optimistic about the human condition. I think on balance people are pretty “good”, and even though we’re surrounded by horrors (and these, of course, get all the reporting because who the fuck wants a happy story?) I think, simply, that our net goodness easily outstrips all the evil shit in the world.

But what I’m interested in here is the switch – in other words at what moment does a person (take the guy in charge of the Essex lorry refugee-importing “organisation”) lose perspective about the impact of what they’re doing on other human beings? Or – how does Uber go from being a cool idea that helps people get from A to B to an organisation that is manifestly and obviously shitting on their workers in order to squeeze the most profit for shareholders?

An obvious starting point is to focus on one’s own existence – so to ask whether any of this is me– I mean, I’m not a fucking Nazi but it’s undeniable that my actions have impacts which aren’t necessarily positive. So when I buy a gadget – for example – there is an environmental impact, a probable negative impact on individuals along the supply chain, an impact as I use the gadget and then ultimately have to throw it away when it becomes out-dated, and so on.

Does this make me complicit to suffering, in the same way that I see the Uber CEO or head of the Essex lorry organisation? I guess in some ways, yes. But in other (I’d argue more important ways) I’d say no. I consider myself to be basically a decent human being, not morally redundant in the way I think of these other examples. I also think I’d argue that there is a limit to how reductionist one can be, particularly in this modern world where it’s becoming easier and easier to trace literally everything as having an impact along the supply chain. I mean, I am struggling to think of any action at all that I can take which when viewed through a reductionist lens doesn’t have some adverse impact on the universe. Sitting here right now typing: using electricity, using a Mac – breathing air, ffs – these are all hurting something or someone if you start thinking in this microscopic sort of way. And – for fear of totally losing the plot – I don’t think this is a useful way of thinking about stuff.

The point is: I simply don’t know how you run an organisation (or a life) which is at its heart fundamentally about making money above all else – fuck the little guys, fuck the planet, let’s just maximise shareholder value, boys!

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

Lord Acton, 1887

The question for me is when does this happen? I know organisations and people are complicated and grow in organic ways that aren’t necessarily a reflection of where they started from – but did Uber start off as a basically good (as in not just “good” as in “oo, nice idea” but “morally ok”), and then down the line a whole bunch of capitalist motherfuckers climbed on board and the distance between the idea and the very real people at the end of it became so wide that the goodness leeched away? When the head of the Essex lorry thing thought “nice one, I can make £10k a pop from importing people from foreign lands” – was there anything about those people’s wellbeing in his brain? Was he originally a fairly decent guy but his idea got screwed up along the way as more people got involved? Or are all these people evil sociopaths from the start?

Is it power? Was Lord Acton right? And if so, what does this say about our modern corporations? Are all big organisations necessarily evil? Is there a tipping point (maybe as soon as shareholder value gets involved?), or am I being much to mechanistic about the whole thing?