"I Should But I'm Not Going To"

I'm busy today, so this is an "archive edition" (to borrow Terry Gross's euphemism!)--something I wrote back when I was blogging at Talking Philosophy. 

There’s a way of thinking about morality that is common and, I think, unhelpful. On this interpretation, if you should do something, then “end of story.” You really can’t coherently say “I should but I’m not going to” unless you’re willing to wail and self-flagellate. This way of thinking makes people very resistant to recognizing putative obligations. The feeling is that, once you admit you should do something, you’ve put yourself in a trap.

This sense that obligations trap us might be behind resistance to the view that it’s mandatory to give a lot to the extremely poor. If people are told they should make huge sacrifices, and given good arguments to that effect, they do tend to twist and turn every which way. Hardly anybody will say “I should, but I’m not going to.” In my experience, people will make glaringly bad arguments rather than just admit to not fulfilling an obligation. Arguments about meat-eating meet the same sort of resistance. Rare is the person who can say—yes, the arguments are great, but I just can’t give up meat right now.

Maybe it’s so hard to admit to wrongdoing because we don’t see enough differences between types of wrongdoing. I ought to give my own children adequate food and health care. If I don’t do that, I really am a creep and I really should loathe myself. But if I can’t bring myself to sacrifice things I deeply want every single time there’s a life at risk somewhere—and that’s all the time–I don’t think I should loathe myself. I should try harder. I should back off of the really silly luxuries. But I don’t need to utterly lose self-respect if I don’t always do what I should.

Same goes for meat eating [and eggs and dairy]. I should give it up rather than eat animals who lived miserable lives in factory farms. But if I can’t? Well, meat eating runs deep in a evolutionary, cultural and personal sense. Better to say “I should but I’m not going to” than come up with flimsy counterarguments.

Which obligations are “strict”—you comply or feel very, very bad? Which obligations are “softer”—we should comply, but we shouldn’t hate ourselves if we don’t? What’s the basis for this distinction? It seems like an underexplored question.


Alex Chernavsky said...

"Better to say 'I should but I’m not going to' than come up with flimsy counterarguments."


Animal activists should give up eating all animal products, but many of them don't. Instead, they come up with flimsy counter-arguments about why ovo-lacto-vegetarianism isn't so bad, after all.

Jean Kazez said...

O-L vegetarians prevent a great deal of animal death and suffering. It's just a fact. That doesn't mean there isn't more they should be doing. If you don't think vegetarians deserve credit, then I have to surmise that you don't actually care about animal death and suffering. It's as simple as that.

Tea said...

Well, doesn't admitting that you should do something (all things considered) but refuse to do it anyway imply that you're being practically irrational? And people hate being irrational, and "flimsy counterarguments" are supposed to remedy that, i.e., they make their choices appear rational. I think it's fairly simple.

Jean Kazez said...

"Practically irrational" isn't quite the same as contradicting yourself. It really just means doing one thing while thinking you should do another. People shouldn't be so afraid of it!

I'm suggesting it's better to feel the discomfort than go for silly counterarguments. Plus, we should feel the discomfort to different degrees, because there really are different types and degrees of wrong. When you feel you should have made a donation to Oxfam (instead of buying a new laptop) you should feel uncomfortable (which could spur future change), but not as bad as if you'd been beating your kids. (Why? Hard question.)

Faust said...

For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh), dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would, I do not. But the evil which I would not, that I do. now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.

Romans 7, 18-20

amos said...

Which obligations are strict and which are soft depends on you. There is no rule or rather any rules there are depends on you too.
There ain't no ten commandments written in stone nor in the structure of universal reason.
You decide, you opt, you choose, you are responsible.

Anonymous said...

To all the future ex-vegans -

"When I was vegan, people used to ask me if I felt better once I switched to vegetarianism and then veganism. I would always answer that I didn’t immediately feel noticeably better, but that if you were to compare how I felt now to how I felt before I was a vegan, the improvement would be astonishing. So in other words, I didn’t actually feel better, but I knew that I must.

It was a different experience when I quit veganism. I felt better immediately. I wasn’t tired all the time anymore, I had energy again, and my arms even grew back a little."


rtk said...

Isn't this a variation on Yoda's advice: Do or do not do; there is no try. If there's anything lamer it's I should try or I'll have to try. Why not just say I won't?

Jean Kazez said...

There are two reasons let yourself think "I should but I'm not going to."

(1) The result is being willing to listen openly and honestly to arguments about what you should do.

(2) Once you admit "I should," that does tend to fester and lead at some point to change, whether minor or major.

Jean Kazez said...

Had to look--


Will I go to hell if I laugh?

Dominic said...


a quick thought.
I think there are a couple of ways of making sense of the admission that "I should X but I am not going to X". Part of it relates to the limitations of the language in distinguishing between different sense of 'ought' or 'should'.

There are degrees of moral obligation, as you point out. Deontologists sometimes make the distinction between actions that are obligatory, those that are permissible, and those that are superogatory (ie good but going above and beyond what is required). So the individual might feel that giving up on meat is in the latter category.
Alternatively, A might claim that there is a prima facie obligation to do X ('I should X'), but that it is outweighed by other obligations such that there is not an all-things-considered obligation to do X ('so I am not going to...').

But actually I think the most likely explanation for this is something that was recognised by Sidgwick as "the profoundest problem in ethics" - the difficulty in reconciling prudential and moral reasons. Many moral obligations conflict with what we fail are our duties to those close to us (family members, friends, others in our society or our community).
There is no easy way to reconcile these two obligations. Some utilitarians might claim that there is no conflict, that we should not favour those who merely happen to be our friends or related to us when we are considering what we ought to do. But most people find such a requirement implausibly strong.
However, while there is no accepted single answer to the question of how to reconcile moral and prudential reasons, to my mind there are some answers that are clearly wrong. It is clearly wrong to give preference to our own minor or trivial prudential reasons in favour of X when there are substantial and serious moral reasons not to X. And that is exactly the situation that is involved in eating meat.

Finally, one of the reasons that the omnivore may resort to what appear to be fairly flimsy arguments in defense of meat-eating, is an attempt to reduce the strength of the moral obligation. If those arguments work, even to a limited degree to reduce the extent of the moral demand, then it may be less clear whether prudential reasons can outweigh them.


Jean Kazez said...

I'm going for the most puzzling possibility--

You see that you should do X. It's not merely supererogatory. It's not merely a prima facie obligation that's overridden by something else. It's what you are required to do, all things considered. And perhaps seeing it as required involves admitting that we can't give preference to our "minor or trivial prudential reasons." So you see X as obligatory in the strongest sense.

But then what? I don't think seeing it must immediately be followed by running out and doing X OR feeling a terrible sense of guilt.

Why not? For one thing, some of what we should do is very hard. The hardness doesn't suffice to alter the obligation, but it does affect how we should feel about ourselves if we don't (yet) meet the obligation.

It also seems like there are differences between different obligations based on my degree of complicity, etc. etc. So "I should feed my child but I'm not going to" is an untenable thought, but "I should give to the point of marginal utility but I'm not going to" is tenable.

There are different sorts of "being bad"...

amos said...

I imagine that you feed your child rather than a hypothetical starving child in Africa (who needs the calories more than your child does) because you love your child. Doesn't Bernard Williams give the example of a man who is confronted with the dilemma of saving his wife or a scientist who will cure cancer and thus save millions of lives? Williams concludes that there is something wrong with a man who even pauses to consider whether he will save his wife first, if we assume that he loves his wife.

Jean Kazez said...

I would say "I should but I'm not going to" is untenable when it comes to feeding your own child because the child is your responsibility. (You may or may not love him!) There's a line to be drawn between what you're responsible for (based on lots of different factors) and what you're not. It would be a mistake, though, to think you had no obligations concerning what's on "the other side" of the line.

amos said...

I have legal, social and ethical responsibilities. Obviously, I have a legal responsibility to feed my children, whether I love them or not and also a social responsibility: society expects me to feed them. Ethical responsibilities are ones that I assume as such, perhaps out of love, perhaps out of concern for others, perhaps for other reasons. However, there are no ethical responsibities per se:
if I don't love my children nor do I care if I go to jail nor do I care what others think of me, I have no responsibility to feed my children. Similarly, if I feel no concern for children in Africa, I have no responsibility towards them. In fact, I do feel concern, but many people don't. Let's say that I feel so much concern for children in Africa that I decide to give my children a minimal number of calories sufficient to survive (and skip the braces on the teeth, the special classes, etc.)
and dedicate the rest of my income to assure more calories for the children in Africa. I might end up in court because of insufficient child support, but I would be fulfilling my sense of ethical responsibility towards the children of Africa.

Jean Kazez said...

Yes, if you've already made up your mind to be an extreme relativist, then you can dismiss all notions about obligations and responsibility, but I'd hate to see that metaethics prevail. We'd then have deadbeat dads talking about how "there are no ethical responsibilites per se" and we'd have Exxon refusing to clean up oil spills because all responsibilities are chosen, etc. etc. Big mess.

Faust said...

Well your response to Dom is interesting. I don't think you escape his comment that

the difficulty in reconciling prudential and moral reasons. Many moral obligations conflict with what we fail are our duties to those close to us (family members, friends, others in our society or our community). There is no easy way to reconcile these two obligations. Some utilitarians might claim that there is no conflict, that we should not favour those who merely happen to be our friends or related to us when we are considering what we ought to do. But most people find such a requirement implausibly strong.

The way I see it you are establishing (at least) a "two tier" aproach. Let us say on the one hand we have a scale that measures the "hardness" of obligation. So at point 1 on the scale that are "wrong but trivial" e.g. like our Hotel Oreo (lets give it to the "Oreo swaping is wrong people" for now). At level 100 we have "wrong and serious" murdering friends and family on a whim.

Now normally one might think:

I should feel guilt in proportion to the "hardness" of the moral "seriousness" often referred to as "obligation" though I be leary of equating the two.

But no you say. There are some things, like eating the outputs of the factory farming that have a very high or "full" hardness, that are "100" serious, but that we should not feel nearly as guilty about as we would about neglecting our children.

One alternative axis is our "degree of complicity." So child neglect is extremely direct, while eating an omlette is fairly oblique. So shall we also have an axis of "complicity" that also runs from 1-100? 1 being "tax dollars used to drop bombs on children in other countries" and 100 being "walking up to a child and pulling the trigger yourself?"

One interesting question here is the question of feeling of guilt itself. You clearly think we should feel guilty about some things. So about some things we should feel terrible terrible terrible. But other thing we should say "this is definitely 100% wrong" but that simultaneously it's "not as wrong as child starvation," and therefore we shouldn't feel as guilty.

All of the above makes me think that in terms of practice the hardness scale is irrelevant. Who cares how wrong something is? We only need consider how guilty we should feel about it. Because that is our guide to action. We DEFINITELY don't want to starve our children. That's HORRIBLE. But an ommlette once a week is definitely wrong in a "full" (but in the end meaningless) sense, but not HORRIBLE. Not worth feeling REALLY guilty about. Not the ammount of guilt we would feel over "reall" bad things. But then "badness" is quite seperate from moral "hardness."

I think the vegan priesthood is protesing precisely this lack of guilt over this full level 100 infraction.

Alex Chernavsky said...

"I think the vegan priesthood is protesing precisely this lack of guilt over this full level 100 infraction."

I'm not sure if that was directed at me, but that statement doesn't capture my views.

I am opposed to the promotion of vegetarianism (or the promotion of other non-abolitionist "reforms") because I think that engaging in such activism does not further the interests of the animals. Indeed, such measures ultimately hurt the animals. For both theoretical and empirical reasons, vegan education is the best way to end the exploitation of animals.

Whether any given person feels guilty or self-satisfied or what-have-you is of no concern to me.

amos said...

Jean: I'm not a moral relativist and still less an extreme relativist. I'm a moral skeptic, which is quite different.
Unlike a relativist, I believe quite fervently in my moral postures, but I understand that those postures have no basis in the universe: that it is up to us to defend them, that ethics is politics. As to what metaethical theory should prevail (your words), that depends on what metaethical theory is true, not on what is most convenient for promoting the ethical goals that in general you and I share.

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, I think there was more to my response to Dom then the "hard-easy" business. There are issues about responsibility, complicity, etc. Then, yes, there's the seriousness of the issue--is it about snitching oreos or keeping children alive? Etc.

So--using all of that-- we can explain why people should go immediately from "I should feed my children" to feeding their children. All the factors are there that make this a case where dithering would be terrible.

You've got responsibility and complicity in the case of meat/milk, though it could be worse--you could be the one running a factory farming and keeping conditions for animals as bad as possible for extra profit. There's a difference between a slave owner and someone using slave-produced goods, isn't there? At least some difference! So-just a little wiggle room there.

Then there's hardness and seriousness. I wouldn't dismiss hardness as a factor. You're used to putting sugar in your tea. Can you make yourself stop, just because you learn all sugar is slave produced? It's not that easy. Food is addictive. It's like smoking. Isn't it terrible how the smokers support that evil tobacco companies? Yes, but they're addicted.

Seriousness. It's probably true that I'd push my self harder to stop drinking human milk. I don't think the dairy industry is as bad as that would be.

All in all, I think people should be vegans. I don't think they must have the most acute sense of guilt for not doing so (yet).

By the way, if I did become a vegan, the next question would be whether I should even shop at regular stores and restaurants. If it's seriously wrong for them to be selling this stuff, surely I should stop giving them my money. I'm complicit every time I pay my bill at Chile's, even though I personally have the bean burger (and no eggs or dairy). This would be the next "I should, but I'm not going to."

Jean Kazez said...

Amos, What I was trying to do is bring to your attention what a fundamental concept it is that you're rejecting. Do you really want to deny that Exxon, not the govt, should clean up their oil spill, since it was their responsibility? Do you want to deny that dads should pay child support, not the govt, since their kids are their responsibility? Those are the implications of asserting that ethical responsibility is something chosen, not something real.

But maybe we should drop that. The nature of morality is a huge subject. It was a presupposition of the post that there's a reality to our obligations, and a real basis for taking some as being more pressing than others.

amos said...

Ok. I agree that the idea that ethical responsibility is something chosen, not something real, that there are no objective ethical facts, has serious consequences. I think that we need to face up to those consequences. One way to deal with those consequences is to pass good laws so that parents pay child support and that companies don't pollute. However, I'll not press the point, as it's not the central issue here.

Faust said...

"Whether any given person feels guilty or self-satisfied or what-have-you is of no concern to me."

I find this response to be quite perpelexing. I'm not sure what it would mean to be concerned about a moral issue and then not to be concerned about the kinds of emotional responses people have to it.

To make an extreme example:

"I am opposed to the activities of wife beaters because I think that the activities they engage in do not further the cause of women. Indeed such activities ultimately hurt women. For both theoretical and empirical reasons, X method is the best way of ending violence against women. Whether wife beaters have remorse for what they do is of no concern to me."

But of course someone who commits regular domestic violence and who feels NO remorse is a very different creature than one who commits violence and desperately wants to stop but feels "out of control."

I think the point that you would like to make is that you are simply trying to make clear to the very confused vegetarians that they are factually wrong and have inchoerent reasonsing. Once that gets cleared up they will of course come to understand that the best pragmatic course of action is to pursue abolitionist strategy.

But to seperate this shift in point of view, this convergence on right action after grasping all the relevant non-moral facts, from any emotional response strikes me as utterly bizarre. Perhaps you subscribe to some alternative psychology where emotion and motivation are radically disconnected from each other.

In any case the rhetoric of the abolitionst sites I have visted belies your claim. The rhetoric employed is clearly designed to stir up powerful emotions. Slavery. Rape. Torture. These are the key metaphors in play. Indeed they are not intended as metaphors, but as close-if-not-precisely-literal descriptions of the plight of animals. But apparently the emotions that such words conjure up are not of central concern to you.

But then, as you noted when you compared vegetarians to embezzlers, you "simply wanted to run with [Jean's] analogy of donating money to a charity. I wasn't trying to offend. Well, maybe I was a little."

But why would anyone be offended if guilt wasn't a targeted emotion?