Sunday, August 22, 2010


"...until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go."

Elizabeth Bishop, from "The Fish"

There is a book out that purports to demonstrate that fish feel real pain, which is not a mind-boggling surprise. At Salon Linda Kernohan discusses her vegetarian vicissitudes, including occasional ambivalence about fish, experiences that are pretty similar to my 18 years of meat-avoidance. The main difference is that I never aspired to veganism--it always struck me as too fanatical and puritanical and, ironically, as a kind of denial of the intricate web that we cannot help sharing with other creatures.

To live is to do damage, even if it is to the insects trodden unawares underfoot. There is also the fact we all benefit, as eventual patients, from animal-related medical experimentation. We affect animals by doing anything that emits carbon. It is disingenuous to suppose that in any aspect of our lives we do no harm. That is no argument, of course, to abandon harm-reduction.

I think vegetarianism turned me off on pure philosophy forever. Let me explain. When I first encountered Peter Singer's Animal Liberation in my early 20's, his arguments seemed so prodigious, and ultimately so irrefutable, that I was converted and remain so to this day. However, it didn't take long to realize that not only friends and family, but the vast majority of the human race, remain unmoved by such arguments. I am hard-pressed to think of any other routinely accepted behavior that has such little ethical justification. (Friends and family remain non-vegetarian, which I fully accept of course, and I do not foist my diet upon my children).

The only competitor to meat-eating as mainstream ethical violation may be the blithe acceptance of vast swaths of absolute poverty by prosperous first world citizens, of which I am every bit as guilty if not more so than the next person, so my ethical achievement, such as it is, is selective. Interestingly, Peter Singer has written passionately and prolifically about that issue too. At any rate, these examples convinced me of the relatively small role that justified reasons play in human conduct. So much the worse for philosophy, which always sends me back to religion, literature, and psychology, that is, to the constellation of contingent human needs, among which formal ethics constitutes only a minor part.

Kernohan's vegetarian experience is interesting in a couple of respects. She mentions not missing meat, so it's not as if her day-to-day life is some kind of triumph of self-denial. I recall enjoying meat twenty or more years ago, but it does not feel like a privation. Like her, I eat fish rarely, maybe once every month or two, and it's hard to say why. Maybe it is knowingly wicked self-indulgence (vice on a very small scale indeed).

Kernohan also raises the intriguing issue of depression and vegetarianism, in this case wondering whether subtle dietary deficits could affect mood in ways we don't yet fully understand. However, while she acknowledges other factors that of course may be related to depression, I wonder if she has it backwards. That is, could a depressive tendency and a certain moral and emotional squeamishness predispose to vegetarianism? Who knows, maybe not only vegetarianism, but political liberalism as well, could for some be outgrowths of Melanie Klein's depressive position, a morbid intolerance of suffering? As Nietzsche wondered, if one is virtuous at all, is one virtuous from a position of strength or from one of weakness?


Anonymous said...

Vegetarianism in itself is not ethical. There’s a hierarchy of vegatarianisms that are ethical in varying degrees. Vegetarianism as a ‘pure philosophy’ is not just an ivory ideology, but an integrated activism that is socially, politically and ecologically mindful. Whereas vegetarianism as just a differential food preference can be highly unethical (think of the ecological devastation due to excessive palm oil production and use in foods, or unfair trade practices exploiting primary farmers in third worlds).

Unfortunately, this is where the smug, condescending meat eater tends to come in rationalising their otherwise mindless eating habit on the grounds that a pure ethics of eating is unsustainable. And don’t get me started on the evolutionary argument of being ‘on top of the food chain’ and humans are ‘meant to eat meat’... what does that even mean? ‘Meant’?, as if cows came labelled as edible... yes, and humans are ‘meant’ to die when they become old, decrepit, burdensome, and are not ‘meant’ to be sustained by medical intervention, too...

Vegetarianism has more moral legs to stand on than omnivorism. It’s not a perfect mode of being, but it’s more sustainable, healthier and philosophically more sound.

Any diet nutritionally deficient may cause depression (malnourished meat eaters would be at risk) - nothing to do with the lacking meat component, since nutrients are sufficiently obtainable from various other sources. But carnivores with their big highly evolved brains would already know this....

Having said that, I don’t grant vegetarians a higher ontological status than their meat eating human counterparts. All humans equally partake of beingness, plotting their coordinates of fallibility in their own unique way.

And of course, ethical existence is not always viable especially for those who have not had their basic needs satisfied. Not everyone has the luxury of choice.

Virtue as weakness or strength? Vegetarianism as an unintended consequence is not virtuous.

Retriever said...

I was vegetarian (and anemic) for years in youth. Inconsistent (I wore leather, used gelatin, owned (secondhand) fur. But basically was convinced by the More with Less Mennonite school of thought. "Live simply that others may simply live." Also, extreme poverty as a student and young chaplain.

Went back to eating meat when I was pregnant with my first and the iron supplements didn't work.

I don't much like meat, but that's because I can't afford to eat good meat usually. So we eat a lot of stir fry, etc. It does seem (now) that when I go back to my youthful vegetarian food (a lightened Mooswewood type) that I am sleepy, unable to get as much done, and gain weight, so I stick now with some meat.

ALl the rest of my family are carnivores, and one in particular has her black moods helped when she is eating a very high protein diet. Altho she also gorges on carbs to soothe herself as well. Food is a drug for some.

I'm inclined to feel that kids should eat tons of animal protein (organic if possible) until their brains have finished growing, and they have attained their adult height. Thereafter, a THird World Diet is okay (of the type that people in the THird WOrld abandon the second they have two cents to rub together). I personally like beans and rice and the like, but my family hate it.

Sigh. Food. A consuming passion...And I haven't even begun to maunder on about what it MEANS to people. The associations of different foods with family get togethers, appalling family dinners, romantic tete a tetes, school slop, etc.

Some harsh words against locavores ,etc over at Little Miss Attila today. She is a friend, and I agree with some of their criticisms, but not all. I think everyone should have a garden and try to be as self-sufficient in their food as possible...And have goats and chickens, too. Not good for property values, tho!

Novalis said...

Links repaired--sorry!

Retriever said...

Just wanted to add that it was primarily an inconsistent, sappy love of animals that started me being vegetarian, and feeling that large scale meat eating used more resources that could otherwise feed a hungry world. My father was a fish farmer and I was horrified by what went into the fish food (contracts with BP to dispose of petroleum byproducts), and read many accounts of what cattle, chickens now eat. So a kind of selfish concern for health, love of my own pets, and fear of eating garbage. Not virtue.

In my family (and I think metabolisms and dietary needs vary hugely between people) meat eating seems in moderation to help our health generally, in excess to have a direct effect on mood and other stuff. So I was speaking from a very limited perspective, not my usual grand theorizing...:)

Novalis said...

Right, fortunately I'm no self-congratulatory Pecksniff--otherwise I would give more to public television, help more little old ladies cross the street, etc. It's issue-specific for me.

I'm no nutritionist, but isn't the evidence for health benefits of meat-eating per se pretty slim?

Dr X said...

Great post. It triggers a flurry of thought.

I am more and more inclined to believe that pure philosophy (or pure theology or ideology) inevitably veers into to immorality as human beings serve idealized constructs in ways that lead to self-righteous cruelty. Rational extravagance, can effectively bar empathy, as a well as a rich, felt sense of our own less than attractive, unconscious intentions. Philosophy can serve as an overcompensatory disguise for ignoble motives. Perhaps we can call it benighted enlightenment.

Where psychology comes into play for me is that attitude and intent are themselves so complex. Behavior is overdetermined. Intent has both conscious and unconscious elements. This is where I believe intellectual Puritanism may function in much the same way that attention to the letter of the law over the spirit of the law can serve the cruelest ends while masquerading as moral perfection.

With respect to religion, consider the NT stories of the Pharisees criticized by Jesus. He used a number of metaphors to describe moralistic deception. An example that comes to mind is drinking from cups with clean rims, but filthy contents.

This is a critical aspect of Christian morality that often is paid lip service or even entirely misunderstood. The reality of moral discernment is that it is difficult, ongoing, vulnerable to self-deception and too context-bound to be adequately represented by a rule book. Rules can serve as of rough guidelines, but adherence to the rules is no guarantee that one is living a moral existence. Sometimes, the case is quite the opposite.

Where you might say that Christian moral teaching falls short is that it offers no road map or guidance on the problem of identifying unconscious evil intent. One could read the entire NT assuming that the dirty contents of the cup refers only to knowable, conscious, deliberately concealed ill will.

Perhaps the biblical Paul can be seen as alluding to unconscious life when he talks about the necessary centrality of love because all of us, even the most learned and religiously fervent, see through a glass darkly. That is far from an explicit reference to unconscious motivation, but it does say that there is much we don't see. His prescription is love, which he says serves better than endless intellectual pursuit of theological perfection. We also see biblical references to knowing the truth of the heart and the truth of God, but again, no direct description of bedeviling unconscious motives that so often render application of the love prescription all but impossible.

And what of moral accountability when so much is driven by unconscious factors? For me, personal moral accountability is more deeply connected with the habit of moral self-skepticism and the difficult pursuit of self-knowledge rather than external laws, philosophy or airtight ideology. On a social level, the law, at its best, places consensual, necessary limits on behavior, but morality as an individual matter is more about the truth of the heart and the often elusive spirit of love than it is about any codified law.

I realize that there is nothing earth-shatteringly original about what I’m saying. Arguably, many adults understand all of this intuitively, even if they can’t articulate it in every case. But I can’t think of a more widely shared but regularly ignored insight. It’s almost completely absent from the popular public discourse on culture and morality, except to self-righteously dismiss it as postmodern, moral relativism. That’s another subject I could go on about far too much.

Dr X said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Novalis said...

Very well put. There is a plurality of moral goods that corresponds to a plurality of both conscious and unconscious motivations.

Of course, many philosophers have argued that one cannot arrive at ethics via logic alone, but I think this line of thought has grown more sophisticated in recent decades, in step with evolutionary psychology and other empirical investigations into moral reasoning. Basically, as the kind of primates we are, we are biologically and socially given to cooperation and altruism (up to a point), and ethics merely seeks to optimize these basically well-intentioned impulses.

The most compelling moral argument imaginable will have no impact upon a severe psychopath (I remember reading somewhere that the prominent moral philosopher John Rawls was asked what arguments could be produced if, in fantasy, Adolf Hitler were to show up for his ethics seminar; Rawls supposedly said something to the effect that nothing could be said, Adolf would just have to be asked to leave the room).

There is also the fact that ethical values conflict with personal and aesthetic ones. I mentioned Singer's work on global poverty. Consider what vast suffering could be prevented if the large sums devoted to, say, art museums, symphonies, and opera houses were diverted to providing aid to the third world. Untold millions of dollars are paid for a single Van Gogh--how many villages would that feed for a year?

The point is that while suffering is real and terrible, we resent an ethical system in which nothing is worth doing beyond the relief of suffering. And as you say, there are psychological and cultural risks that a too narrow and extreme emphasis upon one ethical imperative will end up having unforeseen consequences.

While writers are supposed to eschew cliches, I think they do reveal much about human nature. "Exception that proves the rule." "Rules are meant to be broken." "It's complicated."

Flaffer said...

Let me put in a point here: the notion that "pure philosophy" has not changed all into vegans, etc. can easily be seen as fallacious, namely that the rightness (or wrongness) of an action cannot be vetted by some majority of actors, whether by assent (or dissent). Same with actions: merely because people do not act in a certain way does not justify or negate any particular take on whether an action is right or wrong. I also think that such an objection lies in an assumption of relativism (cultural or otherwise).

And, of course, there is a vast literature on weakness of will, ignorance, etc. that play into an action being done or not. As far as I can tell, meat eaters tend to either be ignorant of the arguments involved (so have not really examined the ethics of their action) or they fall back to "Meat tastes good" or some other egoistic justification. I am not a militant vegetarian, but I have not met someone who can make a compelling ethical case for meat eating (i.e., that it is somehow a good or right action).

Novalis said...

Good points, and "pure philosophy" is of course a straw man inasmuch as any competent philosophy should take into account complexities of human psychology. But I've always been struck by the way in which both philosophy and poetry aspire to speak to a world that is largely heedless of their claims.

Flaffer said...


I think the question, namely why the " largely heedless of their claims" is important. Nietzsche in particular has been viewed to be skeptical about ethics generally and that is one of his reasons (see Geneolgy of Morals). My point is that practitioners of "pure philosophy" would agree with you, though I, being a moral realist, would not.

Mijnheer said...

Although I teach philosophy, I agree that good philosophical arguments by themselves are unlikely to convert many people to vegetarianism. One has to be psychologically ready and have one's heart in the right place, and then philosophy may, at least for some intellectually inclined, be the switch that turns on the light and leads one to say, "Yes, this is where I want to go."

It's not clear what you mean when you say, "Friends and family remain non-vegetarian, which I fully accept of course, and I do not foist my diet upon my children." Surely most of us would find it odd to hear of someone two hundred years ago who said, "I have come to believe that slavery is wrong, and so I freed my slaves. Friends and family remain slave-owners, which I fully accept of course, and I do not foist my abolitionist views upon my children."

You might reply, "That's not a good parallel: animals are not people, and slaves are." But isn't that the meat-eater's response? If you are vegetarian for ethical reasons, then you already accept that, though animals may not have the same intrinsic value as humans, their lives and their suffering matter enough to make it wrong to kill and eat them when we have no need to do so. Unless there is some morally relevant difference between you and your friends and family (e.g., their health would worsen significantly without meat), then as a matter of logic you must believe it equally wrong for them to eat meat.

Perhaps you simply mean that lecturing friends and family about vegetarianism is likely to be counter-productive and that if your example doesn't have a positive influence on them, nothing will. If that's what you mean, you are probably correct.

I doubt that many vegans believe it is possible to live without doing any harm. Veganism too is about harm reduction. Yes, it is harder to practise than lacto-ovo vegetarianism is, but to dismiss it as "too fanatical and puritanical and, ironically, as a kind of denial of the intricate web that we cannot help sharing with other creatures" is, ironically, exactly the sort of thing meat-eaters say about vegetarians in general.

With the limitations of pure philosophy firmly in mind, you may be interested (or not) in this website:

Novalis said...

Points well taken, and in your analogy with slavery you illustrate the tension between moral judgment and cultural acceptance. As you say, ovolactovegetarianism is a moderate position; similarly, the arguments that a moderate liberal might make against the far left are parallel to those that a conservative might make against moderate liberalism.