Monday, March 23, 2009

Social Responsibility

I am taking an intro to psych course online through the excellent website Academic Earth. Its been really interesting, I listen to it while doing housework or walking to German class. But today's lecture was on morality and I found it troubling.

Part of the controversy revolves around an experiment. Subject A is led into a room with a large dial. A person in a lab coat explains that this is a learning study. A window is uncovered to show subject B in the next room hooked up to electric diodes. The subject A is told that subject B will be asked a series of questions, and should he get them wrong, it is the subject A's responsibility to turn the dial and deliver an electric shock. The shocks will increase each time, and the dial is marked at the point of lethal exposure. The lab coat-clad scientist assures subject A that he will assume full responsibility for the consequences. Subject B gets each question wrong and as the voltage increases, displays various pain reactions starting from "Ouch, I don't want to do this anymore" to convulsing and losing consciousness. But under directives from the lab coat man, the vast, vast majority of Subject As would deliver a lethal dosage of electricity. Of course it was all an act, subject B was not really getting shocked. But those who participated in the experiment came to know a shocking fact about themselves: under instruction (not even threats or coercion) they would kill another person.

Everyone hears about this and claims "not me! I would never participate in such a thing!" and I feel the same way. But statistically speaking this isn't true. Most of us would rather conform to social norms than do the right thing, even if it is as simple as choosing not to kill a person.

And in many ways we unknowingly contribute to the misery and harm of others. Tonight I feel very convicted. How often has my preference for cheap clothes supported sweatshops? Even though I don't believe in the war in Iraq, my tax dollars are funding it. And the realization is that my money makes me complicit. Is that the horror of the 21st century? Buying a stock, a t-shirt, a banana, paying taxes, makes me a co conspirator in the evil perpetuated by these corporations and governments?

So tonight I desperately search the websites of companies I buy clothes from. The offer chipper assurances of their third-world factory inspections, but can I believe them?

The other main source of my shopping, Express, doesn't list information online but I have emailed them regarding factory conditions, wages, etc. If any of you have any information regarding sweatshops or responsible shopping, I would be excited to hear it:

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