Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Anti-vegetarian argument #1: "Aren't you morally condemning most people?"

Megan McArdle says she's morally compelled to be a vegan, but she's uncomfortable with the implication that she's morally condemning people who aren't vegans.

How do vegans or vegetarians resolve this dilemma (if it is a dilemma)?

On the one hand, she says:

Like most vegetarians, I suspect that my angriest critics are those who, like me, feel that eating meat is wrong--and therefore want me to do it too, so that they don't have to think about their own choices. Well, apologies, but I think that I have a moral obligation to be a vegan.
But on the other hand:
Obviously, having decided that it's morally wrong to eat animal products, I can't exactly say that I think it's perfectly okay for other people to do so. On the other hand, I recognize that the universe is a complicated place, and my moral judgements are imperfect.

Or maybe a better way to say it is that there are moral judgements, and then there are moral judgements. I wish more people would stop eating meat, but I also think it is possible to be a perfectly good, moral human being and still eat meat, in a way that I don't think it is possible to be a good moral human being and still rape twelve-year olds. I have judged the behavior and found it wanting, but I do not judge, in any way, the people who indulge in it. I think there's something wrong with eating meat, but I don't think there's anything wrong with meat-eaters.
(By the way, she says she wouldn't raise her kids vegan, because she doesn't think that's healthy. But she would consider raising them vegetarian. And she obviously thinks it's healthy for an adult to be a vegan.)

I admire her attempt to resolve this issue through some kind of middle way. And she seems close to the right answer with her distinction between "the behavior" and "the people who indulge in it." But that still strikes me as too facile, because it begs the question: "Well ... why not judge the people who indulge in it?"

I think McArdle is making two key mistakes:

1. Even though she's trying to point out a grey area, it's just not enough of a grey area! I can't imagine that meat-eaters will be thrilled to learn that they aren't as bad as child rapists. She's still implying that she draws a big dividing line of moral judgment, with herself on the good side of the line, and meat-eaters on the other side. Now, she does explicitly contradict this. But I don't see her resolving the contradiction -- it just hangs there.

2. She's focusing on the negative. The whole theme of her post is moral condemnation: should we judge such-and-such people as immoral, or not?

Here's what I propose instead:

1. Don't compare one group of people vs. another group; compare how someone stands if they take one path vs. how that same person stands if they take another path.

And this is key: remember that there are millions of moral decisions any given person faces.

Whether to eat meat is a moral decision. You don't get to just walk away from it -- unless it's truly impossible for you to live a healthy vegetarian lifestyle, which is doubtful. But it's just one of many. There are lots of personal decisions that might matter more. There are social or political movements you might be involved with. And on and on and on. The world is complicated, and there are too many moral issues out there to divide people into good vs. bad based on one issue.

All I know is that I'm a better person than I would have been if I'd been eating meat for the past 17 years. But this in no way implies that I'm a better person than any particular other person who eats meat. After all, they might have their own cause that's dear to their heart that I haven't been active in doing much about.

I mean, if you have a friend who contributes a lot of time and money to fighting malaria, would you even think of saying, "Hey, you can't think it's a good thing for you to be doing that, because I've barely lifted a finger to do anything about malaria, and it would be highly presumptuous of you to think that you're better than me!"?

Of course not. You would just say, "Well, that's great. Good for you." In other words, you would stay POSITIVE! And that would be the end of it. No one's condemning anyone. And that leads to my second point...

2. Being a vegetarian/vegan is contributing to a good cause.

We need to put aside any notions of "Meat is murder!" (Whether such extreme views are nearly as common among vegetarians as they're often portrayed is another question.) The fact is, in our society, eating meat is the default, the baseline, the path of least resistance.

If you're utterly unconvinced by the arguments for being a vegetarian, then fine -- there's nothing more to the analysis. For you, that "baseline" is all there is.

If, on the other hand, you're (at least somewhat) convinced, then it's up to you to judge for yourself what's worth doing to go above that default baseline.

Maybe you'll be a vegetarian (like me) or a vegan (like McArdle). Or you might be a "flexitarian" instead. (Michael Pollan, the author of the popular book In Defense of Food, has endorsed this idea. See item "6" under page 11 in this article.)

Given how strong the message is in American society that eating inordinate quantities of meat is the norm, I consider any effort at cutting down on meat consumption -- even if it's not totally eliminated from your diet -- to be a contribution to a good cause.

It just so happens that I've "cut down" by 100% (just for meat -- there are plenty of other areas where I'm far from pure). If I could (somehow) convince two people each to cut down by 50%, I'd consider that to be exactly equivalent to convincing one person to do what I've done. I don't care about any given person's moral purity; I care only about the actual consequences for the world as a whole.

But now here's the meta point: who cares what I think? Who cares what Megan McArdle thinks? We're just random bloggers. We don't have any authority over how you live your life. So even if we're judging you, why does this matter?

Maybe you're thinking, "Well, you two specifically don't matter a whole lot, but you represent what most vegetarians do, and that certainly matters, doesn't it?" Well, no, I don't think it does. If I don't have any authority over you, then neither does the aggregate of all vegetarians in the world.

You might also be surprised by how little they're even thinking about you at all. Meat-eaters sometimes seem to forget that vegetarians live in the real world, where 90-something % of people eat meat on a regular basis. It's just not remarkable in the slightest to see someone eating meat. Based on everything I've ever experienced in real life, the image of vegetarians who are easily shocked or offended at meat, or who go around condemning people they see eating meat, is a myth.

But let's suppose, just for the sake of argument, that they are condemning you.

Well, they haven't really perceived you. I don't have the information I would need to judge you even if I wanted to. You're the only one who's seen how you've lived throughout your whole life. So the only person who can fairly judge your moral character is you.