The argument for doing what you can

The pandemic is still raging on, in spite of everything we’ve done for the last two years.

We’ve had wide vaccine availability for months and most of us are still wearing masks in an attempt to get “back to normal.” But the government refuses to enforce a vaccine mandate or pay people enough so they can safely quarantine so there doesn’t seem to be any real leadership in this crisis. Capitalism certainly isn’t coming to the rescue.

On top of that, 30% of the country actively refuses to help in the effort to move on and because of that, there’s a new variant that’s partly vaccine-resistant. All of this wears on people who do care and forces them to consider an enticing argument:

“If no one else is taking this seriously and there’s no end in sight, why should I continue doing my part?”

It’s a great thought and appeals to our sense of fairness. Why shouldn’t you enjoy the bars or go to a crowded concert venue? You’re all vaccinated and if everyone is going to get COVID eventually, why not just get it now?

“After two years, mental health and optimism have understandably run out”

There’s a spreading nihilism in this country that’s forcing well-meaning people to give up on their ideals because after two years, their mental health and optimism have understandably run out.

Unfortunately, this line of thinking isn’t unique to COVID. From climate change to political activism, it’s getting harder and harder to justify putting effort out for seemingly no return. This isn’t an article claiming you’re immoral if you’re one of these people about to give up nor is it passing judgement on anyone who’s caught COVID despite their best efforts.

This is just the argument for doing what you can.

Nihilism isn’t the answer

One of the biggest reasons not to fall into a pit of nihilistic pessimism is that nihilism is practically very stupid. Nihilism is largely associated with Friedrich Nietzsche, a man so ethically corrupt it’s surprising he managed to get a cult following a century later.

On its face, the concept isn’t so bad: it asserts that there isn’t an absolute truth or objective morality. Not only is that true, it also ensures society will progress intellectually and morally as it ages.

Unfortunately, people use it as an excuse to sink into “moral nihilism.” Moral nihilism claims that since there isn’t an objective morality, there are no immoral actions. That’s an overly simplistic summary, but it’s what most adherents mean by it.

In fairness, many people who fall into this trap believe they’re practicing moral relativism, which asserts that morality is highly contextual depending on when and where a person lives. People naturally want to be respectful of the culture they’re visiting, so this is a useful worldview, but the nuance between relativism for other cultures and nihilism for your own is a harmful practice as we’re seeing right now.

We need to stop thinking of ourselves as islands.

No one person exists on their own. We are all part of a whole, whether we want to be or not, which is just one of the many reasons Libertarianism is the dumbest political ideology in America.

Collectivism is an ideal most of us strive for and is the founding principal of most progressive politics. The downside of it means the collective also includes the people making the problem worse. “Why should I continue to tirelessly work towards what’s best for the world when there are so many fighting in the exact opposite direction?”

It’s an attractive argument, but it isn’t practical.

Collectivism and doing your best for the group isn’t a new idea. It’s one of the founding principles of Buddhism, the cornerstone of modern socialism, and even the central thesis of High School Musical: we’re all in this together.

Individuality shouldn’t be discouraged, of course. If societies and ideology are homogenous, there won’t be any change to push it forward. However, abusing that concept to make selfish or shortsighted decisions is all too common.

Even if we were all on our own, what is the advantage for living entirely unto oneself? You can pursue every hedonistic urge you desire, even the ones that are also good for the group, but it doesn’t change the fact that you’re all alone.

No one should half-ass their own existence because they falsely believe their actions are meaningless.

We can all pretend we’re on our own in life (and a lot of us wish we could be), but that isn’t the way society works. Society, government, family, and any other collective institution only exist because of the inherent understanding that no one is equipped to survive alone.

The causes you believe in need you to remember that fact every chance you get, especially when it’s as bleak as it is right now. Here are just a few examples:


“Why should I recycle, eat less meat, or otherwise help fight climate change when 100 companies make up 70% of carbon emissions?”

First and foremost, this claim is just false.

People spout this statistic because the Guardian incorrectly summarized the 2017 Carbon Majors Report, which listed 100 companies as the biggest contributors to fossil fuel emissions. But the Guardian, and everyone who sites this figure, fail to add the nuance that 90% of that 70% are actually emitted downstream by consumers. Sure, Chevron makes up a huge proportion of the total, but we’re the ones actually using that gas, so it’s a little more complicated than simply blaming the company.

To be clear, we should still blame the company considerably.

If you want to learn more about the nuance in this statistic, check out this article by Treehugger from 2020.

But even if this claim were as true as it appears on its face, that still leaves 30% of emissions up to us. And opting out of your part, leaves it to the other several billion of us to pick up the slack. It doesn’t seem like much, but that’s the entire conceit of collectivism: all of us doing our extremely small parts.

“Why should I continue to vote for Democrats when both parties are equally bad?”

Once again, this is blatantly untrue and if you still believe that you’re either not paying attention or just as simplistic as the Republicans you criticize.

This doesn’t mean Democrats aren’t bad. They’re more concerned with moral victories than actual ones and seem to be functionally incapable of governing, but let’s not pretend that’s on par with the other party. For example, the Biden administration has racist policies at the border and in the Middle East, which are inexcusable.

Acknowledging those facts without also pointing out that the administration has made the biggest achievements in climate change, LGBTQ+ protections and rights, racial equity, diverse judicial appointments, and other progressive politics we’ve ever seen in our lifetimes is irresponsible.

No one should be happy with the administration because it’s truly failing in key aspects, but that doesn’t mean giving up on the whole party.

“the people Republicans kill and victimize won’t care about ‘the message’ you send by voting third party or staying home on election night”

If you really care, vote blue all the way down the ballot because the presidential election isn’t the most important one for your community. Local and state elections are where you have the most input and if you think both parties are truly the same try electing a Republican governor and watch your schools become even poorer.

Sure, be mad on Twitter that this isn’t perfect, but still do your part because voting is the lowest level of activism, but it’s still necessary. Because the people Republicans kill and victimize won’t care about “the message” you send by voting third party or staying home on election night.

“Why should I check my friends and family’s problematic if they aren’t actually hurting anyone?”

This is more common for white people and racist beliefs, but it extends to every community for a number of bigotries.

Does your friend from a rural area think they can say a slur because it’s in a song? Do your parents misgender someone you know? Does your coworker think homeless people don’t deserve housing because they may have made bad choices?

These are topics we tend to avoid because it feels shitty to call out someone you’re close to.

Most of these people mean well too. They grew up in America which indoctrinates terrible worldviews in people from the moment they’re born. You know they don’t mean to hurt anyone, but that’s exactly why it’s your job to correct them.

Because you aren’t always going to be nearby to apologize for them if what they say and do actually hurts someone.

We all know that words matter, but that doesn’t make it easier to call out other peoples’ core beliefs if you love them. So, rather than ignore microaggressions because it’s easier than causing a sticky situation, have an adult conversation that might solve the problem.

Even if it doesn’t work, having someone they care about check them is a lot less likely to push them deeper into their own implicit bigotry.


Just doing what we can

Doing your best in the face of insurmountable challenges is a disheartening philosophy.

Challenges like wealth inequality, climate change, bigotries, and more are never going to be solved in our lifetimes. Honestly, it’ll probably get worse for some issues. But we can’t think in absolutes if we’re going to move forward.

Nuance is hard and doesn’t fit in 280 characters, but it’s the way things actually are. We can’t afford to sink into moral nihilism because we’ve had the ethical shit kicked out of us for the last few years…or even our whole lives.

Don’t stop getting angry and rightfully calling out when solutions aren’t perfect, but we need to stop letting perfect be the enemy of the good. And we desperately need to start doing our own, seemingly infinitesimal, parts to move forward.

Because what other choice do we have?

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