Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Vegetarianism & Hypothetical Imperatives

Tomorrow I'm examining in class an argument by Kathryn Paxton George (KPG) which suggests that "Singer-Regan" style arguments for (ideally, strict) vegetarianism may not apply to the vast majority of the world's population. Furthermore, treating veganism as a moral ideal is discriminatory. Here's the abstract:
The vegan ideal is entailed by arguments for ethical veganism based on traditional moral theory (rights and/or utilitarianism) extended to animals. The most ideal lifestyle would abjure the use of animals or their products for food since animals suffer and have rights not to be killed. The ideal is discriminatory because the arguments presuppose a male physiological norm that gives a privileged position to adult, middle-class males living in industrialized countries. Women, children, the aged, and others have substantially different nutritional requirements and would bear a greater burden on vegetarian and vegan diets with respect to health and economic risks, than do these males. The poor and many persons in Third World nations live in circumstances that make the obligatory adoption of such diets, where they are not already a matter of sheer necessity, even more risky.Traditional moral theorists (such as Evelyn Pluhar and Gary Varner whose essays appear in this issue) argue that those who are at risk would be excused from a duty to attain the virtue associated with ethical vegan lifestyles. The routine excuse of nearly everyone in the world besides adult, middle-class males in industrialized countries suggests bias in the perspective from which traditional arguments for animal rights and (utilitarian) animal welfare are formulated.
There are features of this argument that are interesting and important. In a sense, those who argue for "moral vegetarianism" are, as KPG notes, willing to allow for exceptions--people who cannot, or would be unduly burdened in attempting to, obtain vital nutrition from non-animal sources. However, KPG points out the strangeness of treating strict vegetarianism as a moral ideal if the feasability of meeting it is limited to a minority of the world's population--and limited not because of their special moral strength, but because of their particular nutritional needs and socioeconomic place in the world. I've thought of something like this puzzle, too: in some places in the world, a diet that includes meat makes sense (and in certain conditions may be more sustainable, I believe); how are those people to feel about "Singer-Regan" arguments? Are they a moral underclass? That seems wrong.

However, in the excerpt I'm discussing with my class, KPG moves from the claim that many people likely do not have an obligation to abstain from animal products to the claim that no one has such a duty, and that we should not view vegans as going "above and beyond the call of duty." She does acknowledge that, for many reasons, a semivegetarian diet is probably ideal. (Part of the implied point here is, I take it, that people in the U.S. tend to overconsume meat. For the record, I currently find myself a semivegetarian, or pescatarian, though I'd settle for lacto-ovo-shrimpatarian.) Something seems too quick here, though, and I think it's this:

KPG reads the "Singer-Regan" arguments as positing strict vegetarianism as the moral ideal. This is probably truer of Regan than Singer (because Regan views killing itself as a harm in a way that Singer doesn't), so I want to drop Regan for the time being. I think KPG's argument depends on construing the argument for vegetarianism as positing a moral ideal, rather than generating a conditional duty (or, as my title suggests, a hypothetical imperative). As I see it, a Singer-style argument does generate a conditional duty (if the argument is sound) of the form:
If one meets such-and-such conditions, then one has an obligation to abstain from animal products.
We could even qualify this with "as much as possible." Of course, doing so re-inserts the notion of an "imperfect duty" which can be fulfilled to a greater or a lesser degree, but there is some point at which we needn't feel guilty about "not doing more." (E.g. the less privileged cannot sensibly feel guilty for not giving away as much gross income to charity as Bill Gates does.)

KPG acknowledges that in industrialized countries like the U.S. a vegetarian diet is available and safe. She suggests even then that groups with "special" (i.e. non-healthy-young-to-middle-age-white-male) dietary needs, such as growing children, women, and the elderly, will incur a greater burden in giving up animal products. This is probably right. But as alternatives become more available (and free information more readily available), there's a legitimate question about where the variation in burdens becomes negligible. And certainly, the more affluent a person is, the more the varying burdens are arguably negligible when compared to animal suffering. Given that, there might still be a case to be made, which takes KPG's concerns into considerations, that most (and not just male) people in a country like the U.S. do have a conditional duty to abstain as much as possible from animal products in exchange for alternative foods.

One problem with this is that internalizing such a view may tend to make people neurotic about what they eat. But perhaps there's a line to be discovered between neuroticism (and the undue feelings of guilt mentioned above) and simply being more conscientious. This argument assumes that meat-eating cannot be justified on grounds of pleasure alone; the primary considerations should be nutritional needs and probably also ecological sustainability. Importantly, those who do not satisfy the antecedent of the conditional principle cannot be viewed as a "moral underclass" or as doing something morally bad. And so accepting this kind of position would entail that one could not go around universally condemning animal agriculture and slaughter. This is compatible with being troubled by the violence inherent in animal slaughter, and advocating for the most humane methods, and even seeking ways to make transitions when appropriate. But the "duty" to make such a transition at any point would depend upon changing features of the person's social and economic circumstances, so not of the form, "I can now afford to eat ethically," but rather, "The new conditions of my life make a different pattern of food consumption ethically preferable." This would preserve (I think) KPG's view that, at least as things stand, a vegan diet is not "higher" on a moral scale that most people can't reasonably ascend due to factors beyond their control.

But I'm not sure any of this is right. Thoughts? (Maybe my hedge "as much as possible" just means that I basically agree with KPG.)


  1. I'm inclined to side with Singer here, although I haven't read KPG's paper. Surely he thinks that we should do as much good as we can and as little harm as we can. It doesn't seem discriminatory to say this, even if some people are in a better position to be able to do good/avoid harm than others. Your Bill Gates example is a good one here.

    The question of guilt is a big one for Singer though, it seems to me. No one helps as much as they could, and not saving a life is as bad as taking one, on Singer's view. If he were right we might have to turn off our consciences (if that were possible) or else go mad. This burden of guilt might fall more on the poor than on the rich, but since it's pretty much unbearable anyway I don't know how important that is.

    So I think the question of neuroticism is a good one to bring up in connection with Singer, but I'm not convinced that KPG does as much with it as she might. (It's also possible that I've missed her point.)

  2. I've thought about the neuroticism bit before. Especially in connection with my own shifting views about eating animals. I think the neuroticism issue applies to many "modern" moral issues (environment, global poverty, disasters in faraway places) because there's always something else we could be doing. I console myself with Thoreau's remark that one should at some point live one's own life and try not to do so while standing on others (in the bad sense).

    In a way, KPG seems to think we should do what we can, but with burdens evenly distributed, so that, I take it, the ethically ideal diet would vary. (That's sort of what I was suggesting, which is why I thought maybe I agree with her.) But maybe that means we would all just have a different ideal to feel guilty about not reaching (if we're the sort of perfectionists who can't settle for falling predictably short).

    Hal Herzog--author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat--gave a talk at EKU today and I brought up the issue of neuroticism because he was talking about how trying to be overly consistent in our thinking and treatment of animals can drive us crazy and seems to make some of the activists he knows miserable. And even if happiness is overrated, that seems not good.

  3. Right, it doesn't seem good. I wonder what Singer would say (or perhaps has said) about this. Perhaps he thinks that conscience is bad because it makes us unhappy (despite also being good because it prompts us to do good things). This might not be a fatal flaw in his thinking, but it is a major problem, it seems to me.

    And maybe that's what KPG is getting at. Singer focuses on an end that is impossible to attain (maximum possible happiness), and says that we should do as much as we can to get close to it. KPG, by the sound of it, translates this into an account of what each of us should do and notes that it seems more burdensome for some than for others. That is, Singer's account of what we should do is pretty minimal: whatever you can to reduce suffering and increase happiness. KPG's is much richer. I'm not sure whether it's fair or not to criticize Singer for what the richer account turns out to be. He doesn't see it as being his decision--it simply follows from (what he takes to be) an objective ideal and whatever the contingent facts on the ground happen to be. But perhaps this does show that there is something wrong with his whole approach.

    Utilitarianism is often criticized for being too demanding, and maybe this is a version of that criticism. But you can be demanding without being a utilitarian, as Elizabeth Costello's "degrees of obscenity" comments (about being a vegetarian but wearing leather shoes) shows. Maybe neuroticism is the right response to the animals question.

  4. Your point about other ways of being demanding is well made. It seems like we could perhaps be more conscientious without being neurotic, which would involve a kind of openness and willingness to acknowledge the imperfections in the systems from which we benefit.

    It's funny you mention Costello because Herzog appealed to the Emerson line about consistency that the university president in Coetzee's story misquotes--the UP says that consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, but Emerson said that it's a foolish consistency that's the hobgoblin. The relevant challenge seems to be to figure out where that line is between necessary and foolish efforts to achieve greater consistency.