Ethical Dilemmas in the Modern Age

Ringling Brothers/ Barnum & Bailey tout themselves as having “The Greatest Show on Earth.” While starry-eyed kids come to enjoy the spectacle and wonder of the circus we all grew up loving, the reality of the situation becomes a little more mundane as we get older.

I work a little part time job in the winter at the Gwinnett Arena. I help out in the parking lot getting all the guests in, and when the circus comes to town things get busy. With almost twenty shows over two weeks, countless families came to see the circus. As hectic as it was, I had a lot of downtime in between shows, and I had a lot of time to think.

It was during this time that the ethics and moral grey area of going to the circus or even working at the circus came up between a co-worker and I. He posited that we were in a way helping to support the circus industry by working there.

The circus is an industry based on breeding exotic animals in captivity and having them perform pointless tricks all for the entertainment of, well, us humans. Even with their recent announcement that they will be phasing out the use of their elephants by 2018, there’s no denying that all circus animals are treated a bit like slaves, the elephants just being an easy target.

I want to make it clear upfront that this article isn’t written to judge everyone that I saw at the circus the past two weeks. Nor is it to definitively reason whether or not each individual going to the circus contributes to the mental and physical abuse of circus animals.

What I want to pose to you is the idea of what it means to be ethical – and with that the way in which it is becoming increasingly impossible to lead a purely ethical life. Lastly, while this is ‘Dollars and Sense’, I won’t be opening the can of worms that is the financial gains of being ethical (of which I am convinced there are diminishing marginal returns).

So lets use the circus as a jumping off point. Let’s assume that society tells us (or maybe just PETA) that going to the circus is unethical. So this is easy to cure – just stop going to the circus. But only if you feel bad about going to the circus in the first place. See, ethics is interesting because it’s completely subjective. While we all like to think we can spot an unethical person when we see one, what you find unethical might just be a way of life for me.

But ethics get trickier when we bring in a more complex issue. Take eating food. If you look at the barrage of ethical issues that arise just from the idea of what food we eat, it can make your stomach curl.

Many would agree that the conditions cattle, poultry and other livestock live under is inhumane at best and intense animal abuse at worst. Yet to help alleviate this ethical dilemma, we would need to choose to stop eating meat, poultry, fish, eggs, etc. and become a vegan. The vegan movement is definitely a growing part of society, and rightly so, but is it worth it? Does the benefit–the ethical burden it removes from us–outweigh the cost of such a drastic change in lifestyle? I don’t think so.

This discussion quickly escalates down a slippery slope of paths we take in life to avoid participating in unethical activities, but when does it stop? As far as I can tell, it doesn’t.

After a while you start to realize that literally everything you do could in a way be argued to be unethical. From brushing your teeth (they might test that toothpaste on animals!) to eating dinner (is that pork tenderloin farm to table free range organic?). It’s enough to make your head spin.

It has all gotten out of hand. You would effectively drive yourself insane trying to keep up with being as purely ethical as possible. If you devoted your entire life to this cause and spent lots of money to afford the ideal ethical lifestyle, then maybe you might feel at peace with the world knowing you aren’t doing anything unethical.

When you start comparing ethical behavior, things get really murky- and that’s just with something as simple as saving dogs and trees. Where do the ethical comparisons come into play in Angola? Angola has one of the world’s highest starvation rates in the world with 34 people in 100,000 dying of malnourishment.

A vegan here in Atlanta might feel they are doing their part to change the world by refusing to eat anything produced by animals. In turn, they might look at someone grabbing a Big Mac at McDonalds as being unethical and supporting the meat industry. But would they think a child in Angola was being unethical for wanting a Big Mac? Or you might be against Nike for making shoes in Chinese sweatshops, but are you opposed to Nike giving everyone in Haiti free shoes to wear after an earthquake?

Or maybe you could care less when you’re eating a steak at Ruth’s Chris. You might think cows don’t have the mental capacity to feel stress, anxiety, and fear when heading towards the slaughterhouse. In that case, what does it matter if they’re just raised to kill, living in uncomfortable conditions?

These answers to many ethical dilemmas might be better left to a philosophy major. I’m simply an economist that happened to work a part-time job in a parking lot. My advice, to bring it full circle, is to stop going to the circus. It’s easy to do, you’ll save some money, and it’s an easy step on your path to ethical nirvana. But decide for yourself what you find important, and do your best to make that part of the world a better place.

I’ll say it again- ethics are subjective. You might see going to the circus as ethical. Besides, those elephants might be poached in the wild! Ringling is protecting the species, if anything.

To each his own, but I will leave you with a quote by philosopher Peter Singer:
“That’s a central part…of ethics. What do I owe to strangers? What do I owe to my family? What is it to live a good life? Those are questions which we face as individuals.”