Vegi-quette

A group of us often meet at our friend Mohammed’s place – and we normally order in a takeaway. Mohammed’s a devout Muslim, but I always get a pepperoni pizza. I did this again last night. We use Mohammed’s plates and cutlery, and he looks a little pained at having pork in his house, but I figure as I’m not forcing Mohammed to eat it himself, he’s just being silly and over-sensitive and there’s no reason for him to be offended.

Actually, all that is fabricated. I would consider it very rude and disrespectful for someone to order a pepperoni pizza in a Muslim household. But I’m a vegetarian and when I have friends round and we order a take-away, few of them seem to have any qualms about selecting meat dishes. Now, of course I could try and insist on a vegetarian-only meal, but (a) I’m reluctant to cause any upset, and (b) as they would order meat if we were at a restaurant, and it wouldn’t occur to me to protest, it seems irrational of me to complain when they order meat in my home.

As an atheist I believe most religious dietary laws are absurd (though in the distant past they may have had a hygiene rationale).  My vegetarianism, by contrast, is based on what I believe are the compelling arguments put forward by Peter Singer and others. However, it could be said that there’s an irrational component to my approach to food. After being a vegetarian for over 25 years, I have developed an aesthetic aversion to meat – I don’t like the idea of lumps of bloody animal on my crockery, even though the plates and cutlery are later thoroughly cleaned in the dishwasher.

What should I do, dear reader? Should I deny my guests their preferred meal option?

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26 Responses to Vegi-quette

  • Do you think your guests are bound to respect your aesthetic aversion to meat? Does it have the same moral standing as Mohammed’s religious aversion to pork, or your own ethical objections to eating meat? What if your aesthetic aversion was to green peppers, and you couldn’t abide the idea of the horrible decaying lumps of moist green pepper on your crockery?

    I honestly don’t know whether religious aversions deserve any respect, even by your own friends visiting you in your own house. But it seems that even if they do deserve some kind of respect, it will still be true that there are certain kinds of aversions that don’t. Frivolous aversions. Racist aversions. And so on.

  • Kent says:

    Always hold tightly on to your rationalism. The idea of insisting on vegetarian dishes does have a good but small effect, in a bit less meat is purchased – i.e. voting with your (and their) wallet(s) – however, the negative effect would be worse – that of appearing to be irrational to your friends and thereby to them associating that perceived fundamentalism with vegetarianism.

    So don’t do it, as tempting as it is to score a short term victory. Rather, if you can, as the host, make a very good, very big vegetarian meal and ask each person to bring a few bucks towards it. If the food is really good, you may change the minds of the carnivores (but don’t count on it).

  • Peter Wicks says:

    I think it’s important to distinguish between “irrational” in the sense of “non-rational” and “irrational” in the sense of “anti-rational”. Your aesthetic preferences are non-rational, but they are not anti-rational. They are just preferences.

    That being said, it’s from a utilitarian perspective (which I understand underpins Singer’s advocacy of vegetarianism) the aesthetic issue may not in itself justify putting constraints on your guests eating habits. But if you are really convinced by Singer’s arguments then maybe they do. From this point of view I disagree with Kent: it’s not “fundamentalism”, it’s leveraging your largesse in inviting your friends for dinner to promote a practice you believe is right. It really depends on how offended your guests are going to be, and how important it is not to offend them (from a utilitarian perspective of course).

  • From my lens, setting limits on foods that are acceptable in your home, based on your beliefs, is not irrational. To borrow from the Kantians, an act should be universalizable in order to be morally justified; and if we suppose that vegetarianism can indeed be universalized (to avoid controversy) then your beliefs are valid . Therefore you can rationally conclude that vegetarianism is universally “right,” and automatically infer that consumption of meat is universally “wrong.”

    Furthermore, as the master of your own household, you can set basic rules rules about which products are allowed inside the home – so there is no reason to feel like a tyrant because you disallow meat. Your scenario is like someone who restricts the consumption of marijuana, and/or alcohol in their home, which are reasonable stipulations for guests.

    However, rationality is not the sole basis of a take-away dinner with friends – perhaps such restrictive demands would discomfort your guests, which is something that any host ought to avoid. Politically (rather than rationally,) allowing your guests to eat the food of their preference seems to be a fair solution.

    On the same note, as a guest, I would not object to your requests (or friendly demands) based on your vegetarian beliefs, as I see them as valid; and I understand that I have the choice to skip your gathering altogether. In the same way, I see a Muslim’s request for non-pork dishes as valid. If you do decide to waive restrictions on your guest though, I would suggest using paper plates as a way to practically reconcile your comfort with the pleasure of your guests.

    P.S.
    As a native of South Los Angeles, I am not averse to paper plates. Hopefully the thought of paper plates at a dinner party does not repulse anyone in this discussion, in fact, some paper plates are fancy.

    • David Edmonds says:

      Thanks for all those comments.

      Neef-buck, yes, I think everyone should be vegetarian. However, I also have liberal instincts: people ought to make their own mind up on the matter. I particularly believe this about vegetarianism because there are so few vegetarians. It is hard to be too harsh on people much for engaging in a practice that almost everyone engages in.

      Peter, my friends would probably not be massively offended if I prevented them from bringing in meat – but (Peter and Kent) though I appreciate the weight of these utilitarian considerations, it somehow seems a bit clinical to reduce the relationship between host and guest entirely to such a calculus.

      Bennett, I’m puzzled that my friends (I think they’re typical), who would never import pork into a Jewish household don’t have the same instincts with vegetarians. You’re right, not all aversions are worthy of equal respect – but why would they believe that the practices of a faith (which they almost certainly don’t believe in) are deserving of more respect than my ideology. Possibly it’s to do with notions of the sacred, and also to how central faith is seen to a person’s identity (my vegetarianism is not central to my identity).

      Excellent tip on the paper plates.

  • Ted Tofield says:

    I’m interested to know your feelings upon eating in Restaurants as obviously their plates will have been used for meat dishes in the past before cleaning…. and likewise a Muslim eating in a Restaurant will be eating off plates that may have once served Pork.
    Your own home is obviously different to a restaurant but once again the Philosophy of the argument is really a discussion of where a line is drawn…..

  • Rebecca Dyer says:

    What I think is interesting here and in my own discussions about vegetarianism is the political idea that as consumers we are totally individualised, and shouldn’t be allowed to dictate or influence the ‘free’ choices of our peers. But it goes without saying that consumption has social effects, from deforestation, to fairtrade issues, to obesity, down to how we treat each other as in the situation above, how we ‘eat on the go’, watching tv over dinner, the potential loss of family time etc. Food used to have all sorts of ritual meanings and social significances that it has lost now: perhaps religion preserves that in an important way (the Passover meal, Eid, Communion) and that is why these dietary rules are considered sacred?

    I myself am trying more and more to eat sustainably-sourced, organic and largely vegetarian food. I don’t have any hard and fast rules about diet, but I’d want to know my friend who bought battery-farmed eggs did so because of a considered and informed decision-making process, not because she was lazy. I think there should be a recognition that the act of eating is not just personal: what is important is not just satiating my appetite.

    What I’m suggesting is that diet and meals are a political issue, and should be something we should interrogate as a part of our identity that has importance to our community. I say rock the boat!

  • Jordi Casamitjana says:

    I am vegan, and if I have someone eating at home, they are “obliged” to eat vegan food. This is not really a big deal since I always warn anyone before they come that this will be the case, so they have the chance to change plans. I am a non-smoker, and if I have someone staying at home, they are “obliged” to abstain from smoking. For me it’s the same thing.

    You may argue that it is not, since the smoking “objection” tends to be related to “secondary smoking”, which would damage me in addition to my guests, while in theory my guest’s non-vegan eating is not damaging me. But, is this true? It may not damage my lungs, but it does affect all my digestive system. We all know that eating is more than just swallowing. The looks and smell of a meal are crucial for triggering the right hormones and “juices” in our digestive system to start the proper physiological process of digestion, and the proper behavioural process of “eating”. Therefore, this may be “disrupted” by the presence of the “wrong” sights and smells.

    Myself, if I see a bit of a cadaver (no matter how disguised), or a shelled pre-embryo (no matter how blended), does “affects” me not only physiologically by its appearance and smell, but also “intellectually”, since my brain associates it to a world of suffering and abuse (which is the last thing I want in mind if I want to enjoy a meal). This association, as the red light in the infamous Pavlov vivisection experiments, has a direct effect on my digestive system, and my “mood”. So, I do suffer from “secondary omnivorism”.

    Ok, you may say that this is just me, or even that this is just vegans and not vegetarians, since it could be argued that we are more prone to be “offended” by other people’s behaviour (or at least to complain more). But would not be wrong to assume that, when invited at someone’s home, we should not presume that what we order and eat is not affecting the mind of hour host, who may go out of his/her way to hide it for the sake of hospitality? Should “do as you see” be the default in these situations?

  • Peter Wicks says:

    David. On the issue of it being “clinical” to reduce the relationship between guest and host to a “utilitarian calculus”, I of course see your point. On the other hand, if we are to take utilitarianism seriously then I think this is what we must do, and if we don’t then we must consider what alternative ethical framework we want to apply.

    Actually I don’t think there is anything wrong with applying utilitarian calculus to our relationships, even our most intimate ones, but with two important caveats. The first is to apply rules: in our relationships as in other areas of life we cannot afford to do a cost-benefit analysis every time we make a decision. Furthermore, these rules need to take account the (utilitarian) purpose that relationships serve in increasing well-being, and also *how* they serve this purpose.

    By the way, I’m not a vegetarian myself, and while I would like to say that this is because I am not fully convinced by Singer’s arguments, I fear the causality may be the other way round…

  • flesh-o-phile says:

    Fascinating discussion. I wonder if I could ask one or more of the thoughtful meat rejectionists here to explain how they relate to the cruelty, pain and suffering that exists in natural schemes of predation in the “wild”. I suspect philosophically this is trivial but I have always been fascinated to understand why, at the most ridiculous level – you aren’t in Africa attempting to prevent lions from disembowelling their prey while not quite dead in a display of gratuitous speciesism? There is far more suffering caused to animals in this environment than in agriculture (and I would be first to acknowledge that intensive farming practices have been responsible for appalling cruelty – and luckily there does seem to be a move towards improving welfare, husbandry, food-miles, where your food comes from etc.)
    I have absolutely no objection to people having a “preference” to not eating meat, and I gladly attempt to create interesting veggie dishes when entertaining, but I do strongly reject the argument that it is morally wrong for me to eat meat, or below me as a human being in some way. It is simply a highly organised and refined form of predation.
    I look forward to my amateur and confused views being unpicked.

  • Peter Wicks says:

    @flesh-o-phile: there was a post on this blog some months ago precisely suggesting that we should make it a priority to reduce the amount of suffering in the wild essentially by eliminating predators. It was a thought experiment rather than a practical suggestion (you would have to take account both of realism and of ecological consequences etc), but to at least consider such a move does seem to be a logical consequence of morally-driven vegetarianism.

    One commenter at the time took this as a “reductio ad absurdum” against utilitarianism, but I don’t agree. If you accept Singer’s arguments, then the obvious response to your “but it’s natural” argument is to say that just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s good. After all, in a sense one can say that all conscious endeavour is an attempt to improve on “nature”. In another sense, all conscious endeavour and human ingenuity is “natural”, and therefore “nature” is just whatever happens, whether wilderness or cities, war or peace. While there are good reasons to protect at least elements of our “natural” (i.e. pre-industrial) heritage, it seems to me that trying to identify “natural” with “good” can only lead down a blind alley.

    As noted above I’m not entirely sure that I *do* accept Singer’s arguments, but the fact that predation is natural is certainly not the reason I don’t. Just because bad things are happening doesn’t mean we have to perpetrate more of them; and in the mean time we can indeed consider options aimed at reducing predation in the wild, if that is where our philosophy takes us. But like you I’d be interested to read other reactions!

    • Simon Rippon says:

      Since I’m probably the commenter you have in mind there, Peter, I can’t resist replying to this comment. The “reductio ad absurdum” argument against utilitarianism was not in any way based on the premise that it’s “natural” that animals eat each other. It was rather based on the thought that if your argument leads you to the conclusion that *we morally ought alays and everywhere to intervene* to prevent animals eating each other, then you have evidently made a mistake somewhere along the way!

  • Jordi Casamitjana says:

    Replying to the issue of cruelty in the Natural world, I can answer since I am aslo a Zoologist.
    The answer is that there is far less cruelty and pain in the Natural world than in the “unnatural” one, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

    Regarding numbers, for each antelope killed by a lion, you will find thousands of cows killed for human food. It is just a matter of number. Count how many humans there are, how long they live, how many cattle, sheep, chickens, etc are killed per human, and then compare it with how many natural predators exist of the same type of animals, and how long these live. Which other predator out there is responsible of extinguishing so many species, destroying so many ecosystems (with all the species living in them), and keeping breeding so its negative effects increase rather than find a natural ecological ballance?

    In Nature, to keep the ecological balance, there are very few predators in comparison with prey (and they also tend to live shorter lives). The immense majority of the animals in the world are, in fact, vegans (in the sense of not eating other animal products), and from the very few predators that exist, even fewer are “multi-prey” predators covering an ample range of prey. Even the animals we associate more with the archaeological predators, such as for instance lions, more often than not rely on carrion rather than in actually killing.

    Qualitatively speaking, the suffering in Nature is less intense than the one caused by humans. “Suffering” is a biological mechanism to inform the organism which feels it that it is in an adverse situation that needs to urgent change. The animal in question, now informed, will either try to leave the scene (flee) or try to change the situation (attack the animal causing suffering, find shelter, leak a wound, migrate, eat, etc). In Nature, predators and prey have evolved together, so for each cause of “stress” that a predator may present, the prey has evolved an efficient solution. This means that, in real terms, the efficiency of the relationship between predator and prey has minimized the need of prolonged suffering. The prey has lots of resources to avoid the predator before it feels intense suffering, and the predator is very efficient in killing the prey so reducing also its suffering when it is actually caught (and biology has also provided the physiological “state of shock” to help). In other words, from a biological point of view, “suffering” is an alert mechanism to warn that “something is wrong”, and if your are a prey being attacked by your natural predator, this is actually “normal”, rather than “wrong” (so you will have an appropriate “deference”).

    However, since the prey human “uses” has not evolved to deal with the type of conditions human keep and kill them, the animal is not equipped to present efficient responses to deal with the suffering, which ends up being more intense and last longer.

    This is simply in absolute terms, without considering issues such as “cruelty”. One could argue that this concept does not occur in the Natural world, where most confrontations tend to be ritualised to avoid physical injury, and where fights and killing hardly ever occur in a context where the animals involved had a better alternative (which of course we do have, as the existence of healthy human vegans prove).

    • flesh-o-phile says:

      I think you may have made an error of scale here. Whilst I accept that humans kill more cows than lions kill antelope, I suspect birds eat more insects. Obviously antelope die in a more emotionally charged way which is easier to cite “empathically” in my argument that predation is just as “cruel” as agriculture, but I’m not sure that negates the argument for smaller less cuddly prey.

      I appreciate that octopi (octopoda?) are a special case but the spread of welfare concerns in research to invertebrate species is consistent with the idea that it’s not just furry mammals that are relevant in this debate.

      • Jordi Casamitjana says:

        My comment still stands going into invertebrates. No species kill more invertebrates than humans. Just think insecticides. Think how many agriculture fields are in the world (looking out the window when flying anywhere gives you a good idea), and think how many insects per meter square they may hold, and how many may die because of insecticides.
        If you share the amount of insect killing of all humanity so you can calculate how many insects are killed per human being during its life, I have no doubt that this would outweigh the average number of insects killed by any species of bird, reptile or amphibian.

        And if we take all the birds together, comparing them with humans (thousands of species compared with just one), I suspect that we would still "win", considering that many birds do not eat insects, but seeds. And most insects do not any insects either. The model predator prey where herbivores greatly outnumber carnivores works at all levels, because it actually follows ecological "laws" (if that would not be the case the ecosystem would not find an equilibrium)

        I myself do not have any problems in not drawing a line between invertebrates and vertebrates. I personally do not draw it, and I am happy to go beyond cephalopodes into insects in considering their welfare, since I believe that insects do have the capacity to suffer too. As a vegan I do not kill insects either, although I cannot help to live in a modern world where others kill insects in my behalf, so I am not completely blame free.

  • Greg says:

    “On the other hand, if we are to take utilitarianism seriously then I think this is what we must do”

    Easy solution…stop taking utilitarianism seriously. 😛

    I think Jordi’s post covered a lot of what I would have said in response to flesh-o-phile, great post! But I do think I can add something here, and it relates to my gentle ribbing of Peter above. Though I was a utilitarian for a while I have recently rejected it for some form of virtue ethics. On this account, it’s not the action that we judge moral or immoral but the person committing the action, it is people* who are our locus of evaluation. The answer to your question follows from this. We can judge people who raise animals for slaughter in inhumane ways, people who kill animals in inhumane ways, and people who eat animals knowing what has gone into bringing this food to their table. We cannot judge a lion in this same way, and I imagine anyone trying to explain to a lion the error of their ways would not receive a warm welcome. We humans knowingly do things that not only cause suffering, but unnecessary suffering.

    *I said people, but a better definition would be any organism capable of self awareness and structured thought.

    As for the original question, that’s a tough one. I happen to be a vegetarian that doesn’t mind people eating meat around me. But even if I had reasons to be turned off by people eating meat in my home (and take out and possibly a potluck would be the only times this would happen), I think there’s an issue of efficiency and effectiveness of belief persuasion to think about here. I became a vegetarian for personal ethical reasons, but of course I’d like to live in a world where meat consumption was minimized. This necessitates other individuals changing their beliefs and their behaviors. For that to happen those people need to go through a process that leads them from their current beliefs and behaviors, to those. While I’m not advocating compromising your principles, there are certainly ways of interacting that could put guests on the defensive, and less likely to be curious or inquisitive about your beliefs. Not allowing outside meat in your home may or may not be something like that, but it’s worth considering.

    • Greg says:

      as an addendum, we can make a utilitarian argument that the suffering caused to animals raised for consumption AND the energy use needed to feed them and transport them AND the land use needed to raise them (and this includes growing food to feed them) and the damage this does to our environment and the sustainability of our species far outweighs the utilitarian considerations of animals killed in the wild by other animals

  • Peter Wicks says:

    OK I can’t resist responding to the ribbing 🙂

    Greg, I don’t have a fundamental problem with the idea of judging people (or as you put it: organisms capable of self awareness and structured thought) rather than actions, but doesn’t it depend on the purpose for which one is doing the judging? If the question is, “Out of these two people, X and Y, who is the better person?”, then fine, we’ll be judging the people rather than individual actions. If, one the other hand, the question is of the form, “What should I do?” (as in the case of David’s original question, then surely judging the worth of different “organisms” becomes somewhat irrelevant. We need a framework for evaluating the different options (in this case: restrict guests’ choice or not). And even if our focus is on judging people rather than actions directly, presumably we are judging them on the basis of their actions (what else would we judge them on: the colour of their eyes?), in which case we still need some framework for deciding what actions are to be considered more “virtuous”.

    To be honest my commitment to utilitarianism is by no means absolute, but I at least think that some kind of consequentialist focus is the only type of ethical framework that can really be considered responsible. (How else can one be responsible other than by considering the consequences of one’s actions?)

    No strong views at the moment on whether cruelty and pain is less or greater in the “natural” world than in the “unnatural” one. Perhaps Jordi is right. (Do we have an agreed yardstick for measuring this anyway?) But even if that was not the case, I don’t think we need to move away from utilitarian framework to avoid flesh-o-phile’s conclusions.

    • Greg says:

      Hey Peter! I think that someone who does not take into account the consequences of an action is rather unlikely to be a moral person in how they behave, but even accepting that consideration for consequences is one of the more significant elements of a moral decision, I don’t think it’s the only one. Decisions are made in the now, with insufficient information about the future and what the eventual consequences are. “Consequences” also presupposes some sort of static set of results of an action, but consequences are rarely discrete and finite in that way.

      I go into some detail here about some issues I have with utilitarianism. The post was about Harris’ The Moral Landscape, but I focus on utilitarianism for some time. I think virtue ethics does give you a framework for addressing “what should I do” in so far as virtues can be viewed as properties, as ways of interacting with the world, that can help determine (or lead you to) what the best course of action is. I think we’d all agree that intent is to some significant degree an essential part of moral judgment, consequentialism has a hard time accounting for that. But as you touch on, the very purpose of moral behavior, of moral judgment needs to be defined. Justification for moral action can only be as strong as our justification for the goal itself.

      • Greg says:

        another addendum, I thought I’d just really briefly expand upon the point I make above. Even if we put aside many of the issues I have with the temporal aspect of consequentalist evaluation or the practical aspect of weighing different types of suffering against each other, it’s useful to focus on the fact that while a judgment can be made after the fact, a decision can only be made before seeing all the consequences play out. Given this, even if we accept that the consequences are the sole deciding factor in how to act, what we need are ways of interacting that will more reliably lead to utilitarian outcomes. What if random factors come in to play that lead to unintended and undesirable outcomes? What if, barring really extraneous circumstances, the action decided upon would normally lead to the desired outcome. I think that the purpose of a moral judgment is not simply a label to bestow, but part of an interactive process that helps people make other moral decisions in the future. If this is the case, than judging the action to be immoral because of the undesired outcome is not useful, especially if it causes the person to change what would otherwise be a reliable behavior or way of addressing moral dilemmas, as a result. But if we are judging the person, and judging the virtues they act in the world with, then the moral judgment is useful in the role it plays in future moral decisions.

        It seems that the properties of the individual making the moral judgment are where we should be focusing moral evaluation. In this sense, consideration for consequences would be a virtue that allows someone to interact in moral ways, rather than the consequences being use to judge the actions of the person. On this account, the judgment of whether someone was moral after the fact might be different, but the thought process that goes into making a moral decision and even the decision itself would be the same under both consequentialism and virtue consequentialism as it can be viewed. It’s just a different perspective on evaluation. Now…because of the problems I touch on and go over in the post I linked you to, I would reject virtue consequentialsm as well, and embrace a virtue ethics where consequences played a large role, but where some of this issues I find are better addressed.

        This train of thought is all very new to me so it’s not quite fleshed out. Any back and forth we have will hopefully help me figure out how to expand on this idea more effectively (or ditch it if turns out to be untenable).

  • Arif says:

    As someone who is both Muslim and vegetarian (for ethical reasons), I can say that some people show respect for my “muslimness” more than my vegetarianism, and vice versa, and some respect both and some neither.

    I have attempted to make some rules at times but they are hard to sustain when people take them in a way I do not intend. For me it seems a very simple and painless thing to abstain from meat or drinking alcohol, but for others who have a different life experience it may not be so, and in fact the question for them becomes why it is so hard for me to tolerate their consumption choices in my home, as the original question suggests.

    I have two answers, both of which turn a bit more on an assumed psychological framework (so apologies if this sounds a bit flakey), but hopefully draws light on some inportant dynamics.

    The first is how I construct and defend my identity. As someone who is ridiculed and baited far more for being a vegetarian than for being Muslim (in my particular society), I feel a bit more embattled in that aspect of my identity. I am therefore more concerned to create a sanctuary for myself where vegetarianism is respected and want to make my home that place. Compromising that choice feels like a greater erosion of identity as I am allowing the values of a society which I experience as painful to intrude to the last place where I may be able to stand up to them. It is a loss of identity. This is not a frivolous thing to me like which football team’s paraphanelia pass my threshold, it is an important moral commitment I have made similar to opposing slavery or torture of human beings, but it is just a commitment with less social support. If my Muslim identity were more under threat (and for some people it undoubtedly is), then I would expect the relative psychological importance of defending its rules as well as the frequency of having people thinking it okay to ignore such rules would increase.

    The second is how I construct the identity of the person who is making the imposition. Where the “rule-breaker” is someone who I know actually does respect my religion or my ethical commitments, but just feels as comfortable in my home as in their own and they open an alcoholic drink or orders a meat pizza, I am much less disturbed. Again, it is probably to do with sensing that my identity is not being disrespected as part of their decision, and part of that is also knowing that if I do show any of my shock or sadness they would immediately and without question avoid doing so. As I wish to avoid subjecting them to any embarrassment as much as they wish to avoid causing me any, I feel this is a fairer than someone who I sense is assuming, because they have either not asked, or when I have shown discomfort in the past have responded by making me feel illiberal.

    Finally, on flesh-o-phile’s question, I would say my vegetarianism is based on how I construct myself as someone capable of moral choices. When I am faced with a decision in my everyday life where either I contribute to suffering or I do not, I feel it is important to choose the one which does not. So my dietary choices reflect what I consider to contribute to suffering. I do not deny situations exist where I would suffer for not eating meat, and in those circumstances my decisions would be different. (A situation analagous to many predators in the wild).

    And I also think if I felt threatened this response would be likely to overwhelm my moral reasoning.

    Having visited farms I have not felt that by eating meat I would avoid a situation I dread, but I have felt that I would be taking a very minimal step towards avoiding contributing to a great deal of suffering that is being caused. Possibly there is also a more “aesthetic” element to my judgments as well because I do feel I would be avoiding supporting various forms of cruelty. And I think I would argue that yes, nature is cruel and it does sadden me (though others might argue that nature is a concept which can only be attributed to human actions and intentions). This does not make me feel it would be right for me to be cruel myself (and therefore to harm animals for food when vegetables are available).

    And while I try to alleviate some forms of cruelty, I feel even if I could stop predation by merely pressing a button I would not as;

    1. It would cause so much suffering by its knock on ecological consequences and
    2. It would be so hypocritical given how I have not made my moral commitments more important than my most intense physiological needs for survival and self-protection.

  • Peter Wicks says:

    Many thanks Greg for these thoughtful replies – was offline for the weekend so only just saw them.
    I aim to come back with a more considered response in a day or two. I certainly agree that intent is important: when I say “consequentialist” I mean an action needs to be based on an honest assessment of likely consequences, not that we become responsible for consequences that could not reasonably have been foreseen. So intent is indeed important.

    • Greg says:

      But Peter, then you’re drawing a sharp divide between moral judgment and moral action, aren’t you? When you are deciding how to act, yes, all you can do is make a decision based on an honest assessment of likely consequences, I agree wholeheartedly. But how do we judge an action within a consequentialist framework? If consideration for consequences is how we decide how to act, then do we also judge consideration for consequences? But then we are no longer judging consequences, the actual consequences are irrelevant, we are judging the process by which someone decided how to act. I have not seen something like this made explicit in consequentialist writing.

      Is this a misrepresentation of your position? If not, are there writings you have been influenced by or is this something you have put together yourself?

  • Peter Wicks says:

    Hi Greg, this is very much something I’ve put together myself, and you’ve made me curious now to look in more detail at consequentialist (including utilitarian) accounts to see whether they really fail to distinguish between foreseeable and unforeseeable consequences. But I guess there are also two separate distinctions to be made, one between the foreseeable and unforeseeable, and the other between (foreseeable) consequences and intention per se.

    In a more general sense, I think my defence of utilitarianism over the past months has been motivated in part by the fact that it seems to embody most closely the concept of the “common good” (basically “that which maximizes overall well-being” in some sense or other) as a criterion for judging not only actions and people but also various rules, moeurs, moral beliefs and so on. If we accept the idea that people tend to be moral to the extent that it makes the happy, then perhaps we should be promoting such concepts. The more we talk about the common good, the more our psychological well-being will depend on the extent to which we are serving it, which in itself will contribute to overall well-being (essentially by eliminating the prisoners’ dilemma).

    • Greg says:

      I guess that when I think about pure consequentialism, a deeper argument needs to be made for the considering the role of intent. Which is not impossible. For instance, lets say the consequence of an action is such that the action would be judged immoral. But the intent was good, and the consideration for the consequences was taken into account by the person committing the action, but unforseen events lead to a negative outcome. It seems that the consequentialist then needs to ask themselves, “well, what would be the consequence of labeling this action as immoral?” If the consequence is such that it changes the way the person behaves and leads to them acting in less moral ways, then you can maybe make a consequentialist argument for not labeling the action immoral even though the immediate consequences of the act were negative.

      But that’s a tricky tightrope to walk. Once you head down that path you get into the problems I mention above. How large a consequentailist net do you throw? For how long? What is the justification for the goal and method of evaluation itself?

      Let me know what you find in your searches!

  • Peter Wicks says:

    Hi Greg I think you’ve just described very well how I do see intent as finding it’s place within an essentially consequentialist framework. I agree it leads to the questions you raise, but I don’t see them so much as “problems” as choices to be made. It’s also related in my view to issues of identity and the extent to which we are / should be willing to suffer short term pain in return for long-term gain (which is kind of individual version of the end justifying the means, a concept that I think tends to be unfairly villified).

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