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I posted an old essay of mine the other day with this preface:

I wrote this years back and have not looked at it since. A few week ago, I was approached by “Philosophical Vegan” (PV) who told me that when you search for veganism an philosophy on Google, my essay is one of the first search results. That’s pretty cool, unless, of course, the essay has problems. PV seems to think it has many, and that it may. You see, it was written pretty hastily and a long time ago, and I may well have refined my views since writing it. It was more of a psychological reaction to what I perceived was a pretty psychological position. Anyway, what I want to do is post my original article, with those caveats, and then post PV’s rebuttal to it, before writing a rejoinder to sum it all up.

I think this sort of thing is important. Doing philosophy, for me at least, is rather like the scientific method: you put your views out there to be challenged and attacked, and in so doing find out whether they are lacking. If they are, you adapt them accordingly. As time goes by, your views become more refined and more robust.

You can also discuss with him at his website. The first part and second parts to his response was posted previously and can be found here and here. Here is the final part to his response, after which i will post the thing in its entirety, and respond myself:

  1. How do we judge a person as better or worse than another.

I’ve said this is the more complicated issue, and it is, but I’m going to keep this short and leave it a bit open ended, because while we can make quite objective evaluations on how much harm something does compared to its utility, judging human beings based on the effects of their actions is a sensitive matter.

I’ve examined animal agriculture from three perspectives: Harmful to animals, harmful to the environment (more so than any other easily preventable cause), and harmful to human beings presenting no practical utility in the first world to make up for those harms (I can say it’s a lot easier to respect pescetarianism, though, since it at least has less negative utility).

Animal products are bad. But does that make everybody who buys them in any amount bad?

2.A. Progress & Means

We don’t all have equal means, and the way you have postulated the “moral high ground” evaluation misses that entirely: this is not how we deal with judgement in reality, and it’s not something we think of as fair or reasonable.

I would submit that it’s much more impressive to meet a vegetarian from Texas than a vegan from San Francisco. What I’m talking about here is not crude harm footprint, but the margin of effort the person made to be a better human being considering his or her circumstances.

Two lacto-ovo vegetarians, one born vegan and one raised on steak and potatoes, represent a massive difference in moral vector: one has become a worse person, and one has become better. And that, I say, is how we should evaluate people: not as numbers, because if we play the number game we all may be losers, but in terms of willful change. It’s not where somebody is, but how far that person has come, and where that person is going still. Regardless of their respective harm footprints today, a complacent vegan who has no interest in learning more about what foods are the most sustainable, how to reduce energy usage, or otherwise help the world (“I’m good enough already, I’m vegan”) is probably a worse human being than somebody who is every day willfully improving: cutting down on meat, dairy, eggs, palm oil even; advocating to help others; and all around making a persistent effort to always be better today than he or she was yesterday.

There are no obvious arbitrary lines of “good enough”, we all can and should keep working on doing a little better all the time.

“I must also reiterate that vegetarianism is beneficial, in my opinion, to society as a whole. What I should not do (if I was one) is to automatically assume the moral high-ground over those who were not vegetarians without knowing their ethical repertoire, if you will.”

Based on your premise of evaluating harm footprint, I disagree entirely. It’s one of the safest assumptions I could possibly make that any given meat eater (organic bike riding habitual recycler he or she may be) will have a larger harm footprint in this world than any given vegetarian. I might be wrong one in a million times, but I’ll take those odds. I have worse luck at assuming a person’s gender.

However, based on how I judge people, I completely agree that it’s an inappropriate assumption. I don’t need to know their current “ethical repertoire”. I just need to have a very general sense of the effort they’re putting in to become a better person. Where are they from? How were they raised? Are they reducing animal products? Are they working on being more destructive instead? This is the real relevant information that tells me about who they are as people — what their moral characters are really like, apart from the matter of circumstance.

“Vegetarianism is fairly obvious and a relatively easy decision to make. It is ethically beneficial on several levels, and most people choose not to be vegetarian out of the love of meat, the variety of food this enables you to have and most prevalently, the laziness of the meat-eater. It takes a large effort to change one’s entrenched behaviours. I am one of these people: I ethically approve and would like to be a vegetarian, but am honest enough to say that I am a meat-eater still.”

It seems like you saw something difficult, were discouraged by an all-or-nothing attitude or the fatalism of a self-fulfilling prophecy (the mere deceptive thought of “I can’t”), and gave up. This is a common problem in the way people think about going vegetarian. Leaping from the bottom to the top of a mountain may be an impossible effort, but you can take a step, right? And then another step. And another. If you had started slowly reducing and replacing meat products when you wrote the original article, you might be practically vegetarian today without having ever extended any inordinate effort in the process. Why not start doing that today?

We all have improvements to make, and a long way to go to “perfection”. There’s nothing to say we’ll even reach it, but the measure of our ethics — of who we are as people — is the effort we put in to make continual progress.

2.B. Perfection & Fatigue

As to the project of moral perfection, you summarized your position on fatigue:

“There is no ceiling to consequentialism, so it comes to where we draw that arbitrary line. We should probably all be Jains, but somewhere along that continuum, we give up the moral project.”

Over many generations in some hypothetical future of world peace, maybe we could imagine something like that being good. But it isn’t today. There’s a calculus to moral behavior.

While there’s a lot to potentially disagree with on PETA’s positions, their position on practicability (which is an essential part of the definition of veganism) is spot on:

“We discourage vegetarians from grilling waiters at restaurants about micro-ingredients in vegetarian foods (e.g., a tiny bit of a dairy product in the bun of a veggie burger). Doing so makes sticking to a vegetarian diet seem difficult and dogmatic to your friends and to restaurant staff, thus discouraging them from giving a vegetarian diet a try (which really hurts animals).[…]

Remember that every vegetarian saves more than 100 animals a year from horrific cruelty—and by encouraging people around you to follow your lead, you can save many more.”

Our influence upon others in the context of the society we live in does a lot more good than anything we can personally do, so sometimes doing a little less (in terms of being a practicable example) is actually doing more. We must be careful not to make the perfect the enemy of the good. In this sense, there is a very strong argument for not being obsessive, and remaining an example people can see themselves following. Mercy for animals even has an article on why they ask people to go vegetarian, and avoid the “v-word”, “vegan”:

With psychology and statistics, we’re getting a better idea of what effective altruism means. And in terms of serving an optimal example and having the best positive impact, it means there are diminishing returns — and perhaps even harmful ones — from obsessive and impractical behavior.

In all of these respects, Jain monk behavior is not optimal, and the excess caution they take today probably morally useless. Remember, Jains are after personal spiritual purity, not necessarily doing their best to make the world a better place by practical methods. It may be the least harm they can do personally, and if humans were totally isolated from society there may be an argument for it, but in terms of systemic consequence, it’s probably much worse than vegetarianism.

Similarly, 99.9% vegan (avoiding the obvious things) is probably better than 100% in reality because of the obsessive effort 100% takes that would rub people the wrong way, and that would be better devoted to making up for that otherwise unavoidable harm with more good. It may not go so far as eating a steak under the excuse of a “Paris exemption” when you’ve already made the change (eating something obviously meat would probably strike people as more hypocritical than relatable), but if it comes to making a hard sell, it’s better somebody does that than nothing by a long shot. Ongoing study into what people find compelling and are able to imagine themselves doing is important.

We should model behavior that can catch on: there’s a limit to how much dedication is actually useful in a social sense. Perfection is a concern for people in a hypothetical utopian future, not for today. This probably goes for rate of change in the judgment framework I suggested too. As far as it stands now, we should make an ongoing effort to improve by cutting out animal products, and reducing our footprint in other ways — week by week, year by year, and at a reasonable pace that can inspire rather than intimidate others.

If, for example, we go vegetarian one year (the biggest positive change we can make with the least effort), go vegan the next (probably the second largest), then the next year work on composting, then recycling greywater, etc. This would be a pattern of ongoing progress that builds upon the prior year in terms of knowledge and infrastructure without demanding too much of us at once, never sabotaging our moral project out of fatigue. It’s a story that can encourage others, while if we were to do (or try to do) all of those things at once or recommend the same of others, the effort may seem (and even be) insurmountable.

There’s a serious risk of people, daunted by the sheer magnitude of the tasks before them, succumbing to an all or nothing psychology and choosing to do nothing or, as you said giving up on the moral project at some arbitrary point along the way, rather than pacing themselves to achieve everything they can over time. So, please don’t be daunted: be inspired. Don’t condemn or make things look difficult: be inspiring and show others a practicable model. We may all be at different points along this road, the important thing is being on it. As long as you’re making progress, that’s what matters.

At a certain point it is sensible to judge people for dragging their feet, but we had better be familiar with their situations and the amount of effort they really have to spare if we do: people who are barely surviving may not have much energy or time to dedicate to moral improvement. That would be somewhat like judging a poor person for not donating as much to charity as a rich person. But anybody with the interest and time to have made it through this article isn’t in that situation: it’s important to be honest with ourselves and hold ourselves to standards of a certain amount of effort put into personal change: to set goals and make sincere effort to meet them.

Go vegetarian, then later go vegan, then don’t stop there, but don’t burn yourself out either and model behavior other people can follow. In a few hundred years we should be so lucky to deal with the “problem” of worrying about how to become more perfect in a utopia.


A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...

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