I have an environmentalist friend who is constantly espousing the virtue of “doing without”. His dream is to live in a very small house, built all of natural materials, located on a piece of land that he would be partly cultivating and partly renaturalizing. Another friend wrote me this past week to tell me that he will now be doing without email in order to spend more time reading and writing in other ways. A third friend has recently decided to do without alcohol as a way of supporting his brother-in-law who is a recovering alcoholic. None of these choices is what I would call an ethical absolute, because it is not doing without itself that is the question but the reasons for doing without them and, conversely, the reasons for doing with them. Email is not essentially unethical, but it may be unethical for me if what I am doing with it is distracting myself from more important things. Alcohol is not essentially unethical, but it may be unethical for me if it shows disregard for the struggle of a friend.
If I follow this kind of reasoning consistently, however, it often puts me into apparently contradictory positions. For example, my wife and I have chosen to do without a car, without cable, without a dishwasher, without a clothes dryer, without a power lawnmower, without a cellphone, without air conditioning, without fast food, without commercial pesticides and fertilizers, and without many other things too small or too obvious to mention. On the other hand, we have also chosen to have a fairly large house in downtown Guelph, and many people see this as contradicting a lifestyle that seems otherwise to be based on the principle of doing without. In actuality, however, both our choices to do with things and our choices to do without them are based on the same principle, which is the choice to act ethically and purposefully and intentionally, and to let this principle determine whether we will do with something or without it.
In this sense, I choose to do with a large house for many of the same reasons that I choose to do without a car, because I want to live a more convivial, familial, neighbourly life. I do without a car so that I can walk through my neighbourhood and come to know it, so that I can make this place a home, so that I can make its inhabitants my neighbours. I choose to do with a house so that I can live with my extended family, so hat I can live with others who happen to need a place to live, so that I can open my home and my table to those who need a place to sit and eat and be at home. It is not the with or the without that is important here, but the doing that informs these decisions. It is not simply about having something or not. It is about being able to do something with what I have and with what I do not have.
To give a second example, I choose to own many films and books, not because I need them all for myself, though I do use many of them from day to day, but because I want to be able to share them with people, to lend as a way of introducing people to things that I think are worth reading and watching. I do not simply have them. I choose to do with them, to do something with them. The choice to have them or not is secondary to the question of what I want or need to do with them. The with or the without is secondary to what I am doing, and this enables me to do with things or without them purposefully, to do with them or without them while avoiding the temptation to take the with or the without as a commandment, whether it be materialism’s commandment that I need something or it be radicalism’s commandment that I do not. The with and the without become intentional expressions of what it is that I choose to do.
This is to do with. This is to do without. This is to do ethically. This is to do.