Saturday, May 30, 2009

practical ethics & triangulation of desire

There's a profile of Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation and more recently of The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty, in last Sunday's Observer. (Yes, this is a post that has been sitting all week in the drafts folder; was not sure how to go on and so set aside.)

Singer's argument, as first laid out in an essay in 1971, isn't hard to follow. "If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it ... If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing." As he added, however, the "uncontroversial appearance" of this argument is deceptive. Considerations of distance, or of how many potential rescuers there might be, are irrelevant to Singer: the child you see dying of malnutrition or a preventable disease on the foreign news has as much of a claim on you as the child in the pond. Spending your surplus income on consumer treats rather than efforts to end extreme poverty, he concludes, isn't greatly different morally from leaving the toddler to drown.

People in rich countries who wish to act decently should, this implies, be giving away a much larger share of their earnings than almost any are willing to contemplate.

Singer says: When I published Animal Liberation, I thought - and I still think - that the argument was completely irrefutable, rationally, and that people should have just said, 'Oh, yes, well, this is obviously true, we've got to become vegetarian or vegan and change many things.' Well, some people have done that - I have no idea what the tally is, but it must be tens or hundreds of thousands of people. But, you know, it's still a minority view.

That actually is the effect the book had on me. I bought a copy for 10 cents at a tag sale in Townshend, Vermont, while visiting my father in Newfane; read the book overnight; realized my only justification for eating meat was philosophically ludicrous; became a vegetarian overnight.

My justification for eating meat, since you was ask, was (this embarrassing): Non-human animals kill other animals for food. Humans are animals. So why shouldn't we eat meat? (Or rather, strictly speaking: why shouldn't we kill for meat? Why shouldn't we let other people kill animals for us and sell us the corpses?)

Non-human meat, presumably, but this was more in the way of a latent assumption than something I had ever spent much time analysing. Which was exactly the point. When we think about moral questions, we don't normally ask whether something is right by observing behaviour of non-human animals; while a great many people were outraged by a woman who had octuplets she could not afford to rear, no one suggested she should eat 6 or 7 of them ("Nature's solution"), and we can easily multiply types of behaviour we shouldn't dream of taking as models. So what made eating meat a special case? Well, um, the fact that I had been brought up from childhood eating meat and had never bothered to think about it.

The question that let me to file this in the drafts folder, though, was: all right, but why is it that simply seeing that this was a bad argument was enough to make me change? The force of the argument has had no effect whatsoever on any member of my family; my mother, father and sister went on cheerfully eating meat, the arguments as presented by me carried no weight, and to the best of my knowledge none ever bothered to read Singer.

It's not that they thought they had good arguments; arguments are not the kind of thing that matter in my family. All were animal lovers, but love of animals was also not the kind of thing that carried through. The power of convention took precedence over all other considerations - and here we come, really, to the crux of the matter. My family are not people with a deepseated horror of being influenced by mere power of convention; they do not look at each common assumption in the light of millennia of oppression of women, or the longstanding claims for "naturally inferior races", or the still widespread prejudice against homosexuals; their heroes are not people like Socrates, Mill, Shaw, Russell, people with the courage to think through an issue without regard for the habits of their society, the ridicule of their contemporaries.

John Lanchester (yes, it's Lanchester week) recently spoke of René Girard's theory of desire as imitation: we don't simply desire something for itself, but in imitation of a model who desires it. I should like to think I had a love of rationality for its own sake, but that love of reason is indissociable from my love of persons who have loved it and shown courage and resolution in acting upon its dictates.

Mill was brought up by a father with an extensive knowledge of philosophy and commitment to rational argument. (Amartya Sen has pointed out that the rationalism of Mill père did not extend to the use of evidence, hence of primary sources, in his assessment of the peoples of India; as a rationalist, however, Sen is in the happy position of being able to feel that the principles of argument are not discredited by a flawed authority.) Mill's education makes his indifference to conventional wisdom understandable. But Russell!

Russell was born in 1872. His parents were Utilitarians (J S Mill was his godfather). Russell's mother died of diphtheria in 1874; his father died in 1876. His father's will - I am now relying on memory, since I don't see the details online - assigned guardianship of Russell and his older brother Frank to two Utilitarians; one, his brother's tutor, was an avowed atheist. Russell's grandmother, the Countess Russell, was a devout Christian (a Presbyterian acc. to Wikipedia); she succeeded in having the will overturned and getting custody of the children. And Russell - I suppose it helped that he had an extraordinary gift for mathematics - somehow reasoned his way past the mass of ill-founded, inconsistent, generally accepted beliefs, with nothing in the early years but Euclid, as far as I can see, to stand by him. (His grandmother did give him a Bible with this verse from Exodus inscribed on the fly-leaf: Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; it may have had consequences she did not anticipate.)

At any rate. When I read Animal Liberation I did think that Singer's arguments were correct. If you an accept an argument as correct, of course, you do not have to act on this, and most people don't. The price of failing to do so, though, is that you then have to live with the fact that you are nothing like the people you most admire.

Most of the time, living up to the people we most admire is hard work. How can I ever live up to Mill, who ran for Parliament in 1862 on a platform that included women's suffrage? How I can I possibly live up to Russell? How can I possibly live up to Amartya Sen? But let's say I'm a cash-strapped graduate student. I'm living primarily on peanut butter and jam sandwiches. The only time eating meat is an option is when I go out to dinner. So all I have to do is order vegetarian curries at Indian restaurants, or pasta al pesto at Italian restaurants, and mention to hosts that I'm a vegetarian, and at a stroke I have transformed dietary practices (which never interested me much in the first place) into an expression of solidarity with people of a moral stature I can never hope to attain. Wow. If only life were always that easy.

Now Singer, as far as I can remember, never invoked great rationalists of the past in Animal Liberation; I don't think he said "Those of us who love Socrates, who love Spinoza, who love Mill, who love Russell, will not want to find ourselves, in the face of compelling arguments, siding with the multitude." I also don't think he said "Do not thou follow a multitude to do evil." But anyone who has read, as it might be, Mill on the subjection of women, will be repelled to find him or herself going through the kinds of logical contortion which were once performed to justify denying women the vote, education, access to the professions. The thing that's disgusting is not eating meat; the thing that's disgusting is giving head room to crap.

The thing that's interesting, anyway, is not the fact that this particular reader was influenced in this particular way. The thing that's interesting is that this particular triangulation of desire seems in fact to be more outré than vegetarianism itself, in fact than any kind of mere practical consideration of animal welfare.

Some years ago David Foster Wallace wrote a piece, Consider the Lobster, for Gourmet magazine; the piece went on at great length about the evidence for the sentience of the lobster, the extent to which apparent signs of suffering in a creature being boiled to death should be taken as evidence of suffering, the extent to which this should affect our eating habits. DFW's primary concern, it seemed, was to avoid sounding preachy, to avoid sounding as though he had any answers. To this reader, the piece displayed a startling degree of willingness to give head room to crap. But what's really going on? Well, there is an implied triangulation of desire, in which the desired object is behaving in a way that implies no criticism of anyone else's behaviour. The implied model is not someone who will not follow a multitude to do evil; the model is someone who doesn't want to make the multitude uncomfortable. DFW can't just say: This is the evidence; I love Socrates, I love Spinoza, I love Mill, I love Russell, so I can't eat the fuckers. When I say "can't", I mean: the assumption is, presumably, that the multitude just is the multitude. In 100,000 readers you will get 4 who respond not just to the appeal to reason, but to the reminder of great outliers of the past. (We're talking Poisson distribution, not normal, and the Poisson is not much use to publishers of a magazine.)

Jonathan Safran Foer has been writing about vegetarianism. I read an interview on The Young and the Hungry:

What made you decide to become a vegetarian?

I've become a vegetarian many times in my life. I've gone on and off, and different times have been inspired by different reasons. I started when I was nine, very simply because I didn't want to hurt animals. It was totally uncomplicated. And then as I've gotten older the reasoning has changed. I've thought more about environmental issues, workers rights issues, sustainability issues, the wastefulness. At the end of the day it's probably still, mostly, because of animals. I guess what I mean is the older I've grown, the stronger the argument against eating meat has become in my eyes.

You mentioned that you were vegan for a bit, but it didn't stick. Why didn't it work?

I'm going to try it again now. It didn't stick because my wife became pregnant and she had to eat certain things, or we felt at the time that she did, and it wasn't fair for me to take a step in a direction that I think she would want to as well. Also it's very hard. Vegetarianism is very easy. Anyone who says it's hard really isn't trying, in New York. Veganism is hard. It separates you from a lot of social occasions. I don't think there's any restaurant in the city where you can't eat easily as a vegetarian. Any steakhouse will have enough good things to eat. Eating as a vegan would preclude a lot of restaurants and a lot of occasions.

Anyone familiar with JSF's style of interview will know that he - I was going to say goes out of his way to sound like a friendly, accessible, normal human being, but maybe that's just rampant intentionalism. My understanding is that JSF studied philosophy at Princeton; it's not, I take it, that he is unfamiliar with philosophical rigour in ethical matters; it's just, it seems, that this is a style of discourse that might come across as judgmental and unfriendly. So the implied object of desire is not action chosen for the right reasons, following the example of past rejecters of ill-founded convention; the implied object of desire is action which implies friendly accommodation to others who act differently, following the example of unthreatening people who pursue courses of action without "imposing their views".

Have not read Singer's new book so am in no position to comment on it, and the battery is about to go.


Anonymous said...

It seems you think much as I'd like to think I think, in these matters; so I'll say, don't read Singer's new book unless you feel able to convince yourself that you don't need most of your money.

ned said...

Perhaps you've already seen this, but what you said about your versus your family's heroes made me think of it:

I like to couple this with an idea i got from Jared Diamond's Collapse. He introduces the idea starting with the fact that the Greenlandic Vikings ended up starving after the collapse of their agriculture, even while the Inuits continued to thrive on fish and whale meat. He suggests that early on in the settlement of Greenland, a couple people may have gotten very sick eating fish; in any case, it becamse a strong taboo -- that's what the Inuit ate, not good Christian men, etc.

But the idea is that the living conditions in Greenland were so tough, and life so precarious, that they couldn't afford to experiment with lifestyles. A kind of social conservatism was all that kept them on the straight and narrow path through the long winters. (Until things changed, and then they were fucked.)

Anyway, with that long introduction, you can then marry the two ideas: that there has to be a dynamic balance between right- and left-ies to both maintain social order, and to adapt to changing circumstances. If you were to let the lefties loose, we'd probably tear everything down and start from the very beginning -- but then start bickering among one another about how best to rebuild, since we can't agree on anything; there're too many good arguments to consider. And so we need the right to hold us in check.

Jonathan Haidt in the link above refers to it as stepping out of the moral matrix. I like that idea.

Also, Helen, a personal question -- why do you own a copy of Lang's Formulae? *laugh*

elfvillage said...

Of course, it could just be that refraining from eating meet really does muddy one's pants in a significant way. In my case, I like it. And that is enough. (I'm a brute.) But if I wanted more reason, I might say: And the social bother of being a vegetarian carries more moral weight with me than the slaughter of animals. If I said that, I should be capitulating to convention—but *not* because I failed to think the matter through and to act on that thinking. In doing this, I am not giving head room to crap; I am simply acting on the same sort of moral intuitions to which Singer appeals—intuitions, which, in my case, happen to make bothering myself and my neighbours a greater moral bad than bothering animals.

Besides, I believe that Singer's response to the observation that, in addition to his large salary, he also enjoys a very large trust fund was, "Yes, but my ideals are only workable in a world in which everyone follows through on them. Everyone should." True enough but rather less than heroic.

Helen DeWitt said...

Ned, Thanks for the link. I forget to bring my head phones to cafes so end up never catching podcasts, but this looks interesting.

I like Lang because he not only explains the equations and the phenomena they describe, but also gives the literature showing the history of the research underlying current understanding. It's fantastic.

Helen DeWitt said...

elfvillage, I can't see that Singer is appealing to moral intuitions at all; he considers whether there are relevant criteria distinguishing humans from animals which might justify killing the latter but not the former in the interest of convenience and concludes that the differences between humans and non-human animals don't do the work they're being asked to do.

Espressonist Artist said...

Hi Helen,

A folk singer from Michigan that I've known for years, Joel Mabus, wrote a pithy, humorous tune, "Hitler Was a Vegetarian". Lyrics at:

He used to lead in with the statement, "I can think of a lot of good reasons to be a vegetarian, but moral superiority is not one of them".

Hope all is going well.

Helen DeWitt said...

EA: If I understand you correctly, you believe the following two claims to be equivalent:

1. Vegetarianism is morally preferable to non-vegetarianism.

2. Vegetarianism guarantees the moral superiority of all actions by a vegetarian to those of a non-vegetarian.

I believe 1. to be true. This is not a particularly good reason to attribute to me a belief as self-evidently silly as 2, nor does the self-evident silliness of 2. do anything to discredit 1.

The Steve said...

Mark Bittman, author of cookbooks and NYT blogger, has often discussed his habit of being a vegetarian until 6 pm. I believe this has something to do with vegetarianism not being a sustainable option for everyone while acknowledging that everyone ought to at least reduce their meat intake. He mentions the case of Ghent, which you might have heard of, encouraging people to be vegetarian at least once a week:

The defensiveness I've encountered when identifying my vegetarian proclivity, whether or not I was being confrontational or preachy about it (not much anymore), has led me to believe that the eating of meat is as much a status thing, as perhaps only the Chinese are willing to admit, as it is about taste. Apparently, my erstwhile colleagues in Japan were offended by it, as I later found out, though they said nothing at the time (surprise). Other non-Westerners, in East Asia particularly, regard it as a form of penance, though few cultures consume giant steaks and entire chickens, etc., the way we do in the West.

Avoiding contention in this matter is usually easier, but, as you point out, so goes the courage of your convictions. On the other hand, eating is so fundamentally a part of life, people tend to take it quite personally, and alienating other people is no way to advance your cause. So morality aside, we also need to consider what is effective for convincing people to adopt at least partial-vegetarian habits. I think Peter Singer's arguments are probably too simplistic except where they address the particular excesses of affluent nations.

And I generally regard any weak yin-yangy talk of "dynamic balance" between two opposing sides to be crap. The law of the excluded middle raises again its ugly, Greek head. Contrarily, I certainly wish there were, in fact, "too many good ideas to consider." More like too many feckless excuses to debunk.

Helen DeWitt said...

My assumption is that nothing will advance the cause with the majority of non-vegetarians - alienating won't, but nothing else will either. The people I know who did become vegetarians, though, did so because at some point they became aware of arguments they had not previously considered. So it's good to bring the subject up from time to time.

George said...

Jonathon Safran Toer's position is a reasonable one.

I'm what I describe as a "social vegetarian", someone who is vegan for most purposes, but eats vegetarian when eating out. People who put themselves into sharp moral categories, and then try to impose them no matter the circumstances don't seem to realise that the world is complicated and the 'moral' act is not always the best one.

The Steve said...

Like with torture?

Helen DeWitt said...

With regard to trade-offs in social nicety, my feeling is that the Aristotelian view of ethics is probably right: one tries to cultivate good habits. If you work out, rationally, that a certain type of behaviour looks morally right, you are not necessarily going to feel that it is right - on the contrary, in the case of vegetarianism, the social norm with regard to animals' lower status may go on feeling natural for a long time. The fact of practising respect for animal rights, though - even in this extremely diluted, non-activist form - will itself strengthen one's feeling that one's feelings.

When people talk, anyway, about trade-offs between social inconvenience and veganism or vegetarianism, what they tend to do is assume precisely the thing that is disputed. We don't normally think mere social inconvenience justifies the killing of humans; our society does countenance homicide in certain circumstances, but the requirements for justification are very high. The requirement for justification for killing an animal, on the other hand, is extremely low, and in some cases non-existent. Someone who thinks the vegetarian or vegan extreme in causing awkwardness in, um, choosing a restaurant is really just repeating what we already know, that they think the killing of animals so trifling it takes a back seat to minor social annoyance.

I'm a bit taken aback, anyway, by the way people immediately leap to language like "impose" when the subject under discussion like picking a restaurant. It seems to me that, when a group of friends are thinking of going out for a meal, it's perfectly normal for someone to have preferences that exclude certain types of restaurant - X doesn't like Thai food, Y doesn't like tapas, Z is very conservative and doesn't like any foreign food at all. My ex-father-in-law, my sister's significant other and my mother's best friend all hate a wide variety of restaurants that my ex, my sister, my mother and I all like - but it would seem silly to talk of their "imposing" their preferences. If we're going out, why shouldn't we look for a restaurant that serves food they will enjoy? I can't see that rejecting certain restaurants because they won't have vegetarian or, as it might be, vegan food causes any greater inconvenience.