There was a time when I imagined myself a vociferous rebel, the kind who might perhaps take to the streets to mobilise people, and voice collective anger at the immoralities of those in power.

Man, Controller of the Universe (1934) by Diego Rivera; a depiction of a turbulent world in which one must constantly steer between right and wrong. (Google Arts & Culture)

Time has its way of taming the naïve. Today, I am an altogether different person; examining, questing, questioning, but with the lens often turned within.

Lately I have been fascinated by how even the smallest questions inform the ethical landscapes of our world. Consider the act of brewing the tea I start my day with every morning. It is a simple daily ritual replicated across millions of homes.

The younger me didn’t think much about it. The older me has come to acknowledge that the tea leaves arrive through a long supply chain, with all the ethical considerations that this implies. When I zero in on a brand to drink, the choice is a silent but potent statement of my stand on fair pay, working conditions, environmental impact.

I submit that these seemingly trivial decisions hold profound ethical weight at the personal and societal levels. They shape our individual character and, as decisions coalesce into systems, they alter the fabric of the societies we inhabit.

It is thus incumbent upon us to examine the ethical dimensions of our most mundane actions, whether when using the internet, planning a vacation, or picking a fitness regimen. There is no such thing, at least not any more, as the purely personal.

Consider the simple act of buying a shirt. This object again tells a story of global interconnectedness. Most garments are designed in one part of the world, woven together in another, the dyes sourced from someplace else, and the final sewing done perhaps on a different continent. Each step comes with labour and environmental implications.

Opting for a garment made under fair working conditions over one produced in a sweatshop turns clothing into an endorsement of a philosophy of fairness and equity.

Such an approach may shrink the list of available choices. The higher price points of fair-trade goods may narrow one’s other options too, starting with how much one may now consume.

But imagine the collective impact if millions made similar choices. Such actions have the power to transform industries, uplift communities, promote sustainable practices.

Set purchases aside and consider our interactions with those who offer us services. The disrespect extended to waiters, taxi drivers and housekeeping staff goes unnoticed, by us. But these are acts of profound ethical significance too. They reflect a lack of acknowledgment for the dignity of labour and a lack of respect for the service provider’s humanity. In a country like India, where economic disparities are stark, such interactions create vast divides within communities.

Reflect on our interactions with telemarketers. These are often characterised, on our part, by extreme impatience and even outright hostility. What if we were to view each call as a moral opportunity, and remind ourselves that there is a human being on the other end of the line, whose workday tragically involves being rejected over and over?

Declining the offer being made by a telemarketer does not require us to decline our humanity. A simple “No, thank you” can uphold our ethical standards while accomplishing the objective of ending the call swiftly.

To illustrate the impact of how our ethical choices multiply, consider the Kudumbashree women’s empowerment initiative of the Kerala government. Now a little over 25 years old, it used the cooperative model to offer microcredit to women members. Each of the women contributed to the fund, borrowed from it, repaid their debt, contributed again, and so on.

The body has evolved into an entity that gives back to more than its immediate community of members. The Kudumbashree cooperative society contributed to the Kerala chief minister’s relief fund, in the aftermath of the 2018 floods. It ran community kitchens during the pandemic, to feed migrant workers who had been rendered jobless overnight.

The point here is that by choosing empathy, respect and integrity, whether in larger systemic contexts or in actions that may appear inconsequential, we forge a path towards a kinder, more ethical and more sustainable world. Our choices do more than define us. They also define our reality.

(Charles Assisi is co-founder of Founding Fuel. He can be reached on [email protected])

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