Of my four closest friends in high school, two are vegetarians, one dabbled, and one didn’t eat beef because he’s weird. I’ve had conversations with each of them at different times about why they changed their diet and the initial difficulties in doing so, and always at the end of these conversations I have the same reaction as Hank Green in the video above—you guys are right and that’s annoying. But as interesting as that would be to delve into, what I want to really talk about is a broader point made in the video: doing the optimally good thing is impossible.
There are so many problems and injustices in our world. And now, in the 21st century, there are countless iniquities that we’re not even aware of as we are increasingly removed from the means of production. Poverty and disease in Africa, aging populations, unsustainable agriculture, AIDS, energy crises, child poverty, child labor, child abuse, child mortality, climate change, pollution, deforestation, hunger, corrupt governments, human rights violations, sanitation, slums, human displacement, war, discrimination, overpopulation, terrorism, water scarcity and water conflict, gender equality. In everything we do, we’re asked to care about these issues and act accordingly.
Beyond that, sometimes we must decide what good thing is more important because it is mutually exclusive with another good thing. The quickest and easiest way to create energy or grow food may be at the expense of labor rights and the environment. This moves issues beyond simply being difficult to being impossible.
(…and another, similar video by College Humor)
And really, there is no easy answer to this issue. You might be able to find an answer in a discussion of ethical systems and particularly virtue ethics, maybe. You might be sympathetic towards Hank’s proposed answer about community and social standards, maybe.
But really no answer ever seems suitable when resolving to do what you know is wrong. And if you’re looking for a rule of thumb to leave this article with, there isn’t one (though a starter might be: try to do better). At the end of this exercise, situational ethics just become a frustration.
Yet in that frustration, I think their is a latent theological truth: the world is broken. It is not a perfectible system. This handicap of the earth we inhabit is not meant to despair us, but it does require hope in things to come. We continually strive to make the best of what is available, continually redeeming the world to bring it more in line with the coming Kingdom. But we remember that the work will not be done until the Day of the Lord when God will finish our sacred task and perfectly restore his creation to its intended status as a home for the saints.