|The Ethics of Waste, Gay Hawkins. Image from Amazon|
In this book, morality is a grand discourse centred on righteousness and guilt. This is the "Do the right thing" sort of messaging, and it is the most common mode of communication adopted by centralised communication around waste. If you don't do the right thing, then you are a bad person.
Morality is then contrasted against ethics, which are a series of actions which define the self. One's self is defined by one's actions. And so how one deals with waste becomes a matter of self definition and self expression, centred perhaps on generosity, on giving, on acknowledging one's transience. For waste is, ultimately, a demonstration of our own passing.
It is not a straightforward distinction. Maybe it can be boiled down to moralising is intended to have you comply with an external norm, whereas ethics is a norm formed of your actions. But I think the point is that it resists boiling down.
Gay quotes David Halpern's "incisive description" of the difference between ethics and morality in relation to waste:
The difference between ethics and morality lies in their differing attitudes to value and to waste. According to a moralistic perspective, life is not wasted if it is lived in the service of value. Value gives transcendental meaning to life and redeems the loss of it. An ethical perspective, by contrast, is one that measures, assesses and adjudicates among the diverse concrete practices of living one's life, the various calculations used to determine how exactly to throw it awayTo be honest, I'm not sure that helps a lot read cold. Coming at the end of the book, it made sense when I first read the book.
One of Gay's points is that the guilt associated with moralising could be avoided by taking a gentler, more generous tone in our communication. This would ultimately be more effective. Rather than referring to what we should do, perhaps we could refer to what we could do, and that discourse would be firmly rooted in the physicality of waste. A simple (but a little unsatisfactory) example: "you should not waste food" can be contrasted with "your garden wants your waste food".
I will return to this again, as Gay's book is quite lovely and a nice application of cultural theory, perhaps quite clearly located in a postmodernist school of thought. At less than 150 pages, I thoroughly recommend it if you are prepared to open your mind to new ways of thinking about something you probably thought you already knew.