First orient, then express: Charles Assisi, on the ethics of everyday choices

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You have likely already encountered this statistic: Half the world’s population will go to the polls this year. More than four billion people across 60 countries, including India, will cast their votes and elect national leaders.

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Any major turning point is made up of scores of littler ones. A still from Oppenheimer (2023), a story of science and war; and of human frailty, vanity and regret.

Whether you vote will be one of the biggest decisions you make in 2024. How you vote will be another.

It is inevitable that citizens will ask: What difference does it make? Leaders that are larger-than-life loom on the horizon. Events often feel beyond our control. But when it comes to questions such as “Does my voice matter?”, may I submit that the answer is always “Yes”.

Not just because single voices add up to form a clamour. But because the decisions we make, large and small, singly and in groups, are also the true litmus tests of our character.

It is a theme we don’t contemplate enough: the ethics of everyday choices. I’ve often pondered the invisible threads that connect our daily choices to our ethical stances. How does one’s preference to shop at a chain of stores, or the decision to ignore an unhoused person, contribute to the larger ethical portrait of our lives?

These questions aren’t merely rhetorical; they form the weave of our societal fabric.

It is easy to stand in judgment over grand scandals and overt acts of moral failure. But when thought about deeply, the real measure of an ethical framework is not taken during high-stakes moments. Rather, it resides in the mundane, quiet decisions we make when no one’s looking. This is where our true self reveals itself, in the quiet alleyways of our day-to-day existence.

Consider the simple act of purchasing a cup of coffee. Where do the beans come from? Are the farmers paid a fair wage? What is the environmental impact of its production and transportation? Each choice might be a drop in the ocean. But collectively, they can create a storm.

Similarly, our engagements with strangers reflect deep truths. How we treat waiters, interact with taxi drivers, respond to a street vendor, all offer clues to where our moral compass points. This is why I find brand-consciousness so disturbing. Why should I choose coffee from South America, simply because it is advertised widely and forced into my line of vision, when beans from south India have a far lower carbon footprint?

In an age of rampant consumerism and individualism, there is a tendency to reduce life to a series of transactions, devoid of ethical implications. But this is a narrow and impoverished view of existence. Our lives are not just about exchanges; they are about connections. And every connection carries with it the weight of moral consequence.

It is imperative, then, that we reflect on daily choices. They shape not just our lives but the world around us. The clothes we wear, the food we eat, the products we consume, are all silent testimony to our values and ethics. They are votes cast for the kind of world we wish to live in and leave behind.

How do we navigate this complex landscape? It begins with the awareness that every choice has a moral dimension. This means developing a habit of reflective consideration, taking the time to frame the right questions, and seeking answers that align with one’s deepest values.

In this way, ethics become a profoundly social affair too. They are the channel by which we see beyond ourselves, consider the impacts of our choices, and make that vital shift from a mindset of consumption to one of contribution.

Of course, navigating this path has its challenges. There are often no easy answers. Where there are answers, ethical living involves trade-offs and compromises. One must part with a measure of vanity, self-indulgence, comfort. Even then one will necessarily make missteps.

But the pursuit of an ethical life is not about perfection. It is about direction, and about making choices that are more deliberate, compassionate and coherent.

If nothing else, start with the decision to vote. Think about the world you want to inhabit, and leave behind. Do you want it to be kinder, more wholesome and more balanced? Or do you want to end up with demagogues in power, and no one to blame but yourself.

(Charles Assisi is co-founder at Founding Fuel & co-author of The Aadhaar Effect)

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