Ethical vegetarianism and compromise

Early last week, I had a little chat via Twitter with the Spark The Conversation crowd on the matter of choosing between a principled but poor life, and selling out your morals to be wealthy. Notably, I’m a piss-poor lumpenprole.

I’m not sure what the boundary between developed-world poverty, and developed-world getting-by is in monetary terms, but I’m close. I get by on less than the aspirationals, although it helps that I don’t have a housing loan or children to burn money on.

So what would be the upside of my selling out? Well, I’ve been told it’s not too late for me to enter into the world of professional fishing. I could probably still make quite a bit of money this way if I applied myself to it.

There’s the obvious barrier of course. I don’t kill animals if I don’t have to, and I don’t get other people to do it for me; I’ve made an ethical decision not to be a party to inflicting this kind of suffering. Obviously, this rules out fishing.

There are degrees of commitment, and a spectrum of values in relation to the matter. Some people are weekend meat-eaters attempting to lower their environmental footprint, while others are lacto-ovo vegetarian every day of the week because it forms a Diderot unity with their newsboy caps and teashades. Others again won’t drink milk in order to keep the fairies at the bottom of the garden happy, and then of course, there are those who eat meat with an array of motivations for doing so (and those who don’t think about it at all).

Now unless you’re the vegetarian Übermensch (is that even possible?) or the last human on Earth, you’re going to have to deal with other people holding at least some of these values. You’ll have to treat these values as either rationally non-binding (within practical or definitional boundaries – I’ll spare us all the meta-ethics), or even just practically outside the realm of discussion. You’ll have to compromise at some point (even ending your association is a kind of compromise).

Which brings the discussion up to about last Friday night, when I was out having dinner with a couple of local Humanists. Vegetarians outnumbered meat-eaters two-to-one, and a conversation was sparked!

I was the overzealous new guy on the vegetarian block (it’s been about two years now), being a bit of a know-it-all (not that it got me into trouble), when I had the issue of compromise raised smack bang in front of my face. I managed to swerve at the last-minute, only clipping the corner of my ego.

I was feeling pretty happy with myself, having been able to say (to Spark The Conversation) that I’d chosen not to compromise myself, that this had saved me having to engage in all sorts of mental gymnastics, and that I had no regrets. But at what juncture can you practically compromise with the rest of the world, without compromising your values?

I have for example, let someone eat a hamburger in my house – months ago, mind you. Just how much then, has my moral agency contributed towards the demand for beef? What percent (if any) of a dead cow am I responsible for on account of this tolerance?

What if I did have kids? What if they refused vegetarian meals?

What happens if in the workplace, I become part of the chain-of-custody of an animal-product that involved suffering?

The rule I think, in preventing compromise from becoming moral bankruptcy, is down to how much agency you’re allowed by other people. That without allowing yourself to become too small, you make sure undesired moral choices are reasonably outside your control, and that within the scope of your agency, you consistently make decisions in-line with your values.

Then the question then becomes one of how to get on with other people in a way that either increases your agency, or at least doesn’t see it sidelined, in addition to challenging other people to think critically about ethics. Welcome to politics (and confusion).

~Bruce

Note: Spark The Conversation will be holding an event at the Melbourne Fringe Festival on the 1st and 2nd of October, where ‘Eloise Maree facilitates the participant’s engagement with their own personal truths and subjective opinions’. The event will be live streamed, and involve online participation via social media.

(Photo source: Davide Vizzini)

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