How to Live with a Progressive Conscience

Many progressives reading this post are, like me, privileged members of highly unequal societies. Although precarious employment with limited benefits afflicts many others, we are in secure jobs with secure futures. We can look forward to retirement. We do not need to worry that one bad illness will drive us into bankruptcy. The economies from which we benefit and our daily activities and pleasures also spew out prodigious volumes of carbon dioxide. Yet we are fairly well insulated from global warming, whereas the poorest and most carbon-frugal people, at home and abroad, are not. Most of us would welcome a drastic leap to a more egalitarian, secure, just and sustainable world, but that leap isn’t likely to happen soon.These realities weigh on people with ethical commitments. Tolstoy’s questions – how shall we live and what should be done? – assume existential importance. We may be unsure how to respond to the big question of what should be done. But we cannot avoid the second issue – how shall we live – even if we vacillate on the question of strategy, because it involves a personal choice.

Like many others, I fret about whether the way I live actually accords with what I believe. This world of massive inequality without justification and of environmental decline is propelled, in part, by the consumption demands of the wealthy and influential minority. We are members of that minority. So how should we live in this situation?

Many of us want to do the right thing, but, quite rightly, we also want to enjoy life. So how do we reconcile a progressive conscience with a carefree enjoyment of everyday life?

Well, of course, we do a number of positive things to quiet that conscience. We sign on to countless good causes through Avaaz and Leadnow. We donate, though in my case in a scatter-gun approach, to many advocacy groups and charities engaged in good works. We always vote in whatever election comes along, and try to vote in a way that advances progressive agendas. We (think we) treat other people with respect and do our best to oppose discriminatory practices (while sadly acknowledging that much bias actually occurs at the sub-conscious level). We enter into earnest debates on issues of the day, knowing where we stand. We try to travel less, especially by air, but we find it hard to resist invitations to speak or the prospect of interesting vacations. We fulminate against the one percent, but in reality find some of its members quite congenial. Professors like me can also choose to focus only on research topics that come from the heart, and teach the same way (while worrying about ideological rigidity).

We may even be ambitious and, believing that grassroots action is the most effective strategy, try to become an activist. But we may discover, as I have, that the life of an activist is highly demanding in time and energy, and find ourselves withdrawing, even with the best of intentions.

It never seems enough. So how should we live?

Yes, we must strive to live according to our principles, but we inevitably fall short. We may blame the system, capitalism, for placing us in this situation. But inequality and injustice have always been with us, and always will be. We may also assume a self-righteous attitude, as if adherence to a progressive outlook confers grace. Yet self-righteousness is not only obnoxious, as many can testify, but also delusional.

To live well surely requires us to accept, even embrace, our contradictions. Our actual yearnings, fancies and needs, irrespective of our commitments, are part of the human condition, This ordinariness is what unites us with our fellows. To live well is to live with empathy, which is more important than any doctrine. And it is precisely our recognition of our contradictions and the ordinariness from which they stem that foster this sense of solidarity.

Living with a progressive conscience does not mean we should shirk responsibility for our acts. It does demand, however, a capacity for gentle humour – as we find ourselves in the midst of the human comedy of which we are all part.

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About Richard

I am a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto. I am currently interested in understanding how the humanistic tradition of the left can be adapted to fit the realities of the 21st century. I am particularly concerned with how we can deal equitably with the deadly challenge of climate change and live with globalization. My most recent academic research has focused on the Left’s experience in the Global South and on counter-hegemonic globalization. Africa has been the major site of my field work; I have also travelled widely in Latin America and Asia. My most recent books include Reinventing the Left in the Global South: The Politics of the Possible (2014), a revised and expanded edition of Civilizing Globalization: A Survival Guide (co-editor and co-author, 2014), and Social Democracy in the Global Periphery: Origins, Challenges, Prospects (co-author, 2007).

6 thoughts on “How to Live with a Progressive Conscience

  1. Cornelia Baines

    An Interesting exposition and not unique to you Richard. I can add a few other things that people who worry about this issue can do: use public transit or bicycles; drive slowly, keep house cool, be stingy and light only the room you are in; recycle obsessively; collect compost, plant trees, don’t pave driveways, Don’t eat meat; don’t be a shopaholic; go geothermal…I have run out of ideas, most of which we have implemented including just buying a Toyota hybrid. And we still eat meat but not every day. I also try to inform people about relevant political issues – most particularly the huge injustices wrought by the current Israeli government – so sharing relevant information on all topics is also a measure to try to improve, minutely, the current situation. And of course donations of services, goods and money to good causes.

    1. Richard Post author

      I do most of the things you mention, even though I know the net effect is minimal. To maintain elan in the midst of it all is still not easy, however.

  2. Bill Barnes

    Amen. Ought we to thank Donald Trump for forcing us to face the music sooner than we otherwise might have? Not that I know what to do. But perhaps greater clarity is coming, like it or not.

    1. Richard Post author

      To live in a country in which the president in every instance exacerbates problems by pursuing a reactionary course is a constant affront for anyone like you, who is aware of the limited time we have to block catastrophic climate change. We do what we must do, and beyond that, for our own sanity, we need to foster that gentle humor.

  3. franklyn griffiths

    dear richard, thank you for this but should we gently go? recognize our contradictions yes yes but deeper and should we not also seek ways to resolve them, to become not gently amused by the human condition but aroused to blunt if not resolve contradictions that are lethal to much if not all of life on earth? where is your attack? frank

    1. Richard Post author

      Frank, as usual, you state your point persuasively. I do state in the post that we should try to deal with contradictions in ourselves, to in effect try to be better people. But, when you have lived for a while in this world, you come to realize that life is not so simple. Self-knowledge is the humble realization that we are inherently contradictory beings, and it is this shared condition, this participation in the human comedy despite ourselves, that makes us human.


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