Division of Caring

Last night I got to see a talk by Greg Mortensen, author of Three Cups of Tea.  A man with an amazing life story, against all odds he's built over 100 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the last 10 years.  He spoke incredibly movingly about the importance of lifting up whole societies by educating children--especially girls.

Next to me at the talk was a woman wearing a fur coat--not a faux fur coat, but a real one. Which got me thinking--if you care about one moral issue, will you care about others, or is there some limit on how many things we can care about?  Do people inevitably become specialists--with some caring about animals, others about the earthquake in Haiti, others about capital punishment, etc?

I suspect it's some of each. If you're tuned in to one moral issue, you probably will care about many others. But passion, commitment, activism, rethinking basic assumptions--all these are another matter.  There are lots of problems in the world, and there's inevitably a division of labor.  Those who are intensely focused on girls in Afghanistan may just not have the energy to also think about animals, and animal advocates may be too preoccupied with animals to think about girls in Afghanistan.

Because of these facts about our moral psychology, it's got to be right for activists to appreciate small contributions.  We went to this event with friends who are extremely tuned in to Afghanistan issues.  They may have been disappointed when we didn't accept their invitation to join a reading group focused on those issues.  On the other hand, I couldn't help but notice the meat they ate for dinner.  Well OK--the truth is that we've each bit off some of the world's problems, because that's just how people are.  

Most animal activists know to accept what each person is prepared to give on behalf of animals--whether it's just meatless Mondays, or adopting a dog, or sending a check to the Humane Society, or becoming 100% vegan. Some don't know it, and demand nothing less than a vegan lifestyle overhaul from all.  Not smart, I wouldn't say.  When they demand that much, they ought to ask themselves "what have I done about girls' education in Afghanistan lately?"  That might make them demand less...and (in the aggregate) get more.


Wayne said...

I think being moral is pretty difficult.... And one reason is because there are so many things that we must do in order to be a moral person. Obligations are obligations.

That said, we can be more moral, or less moral and after some threshold of obligation fulfillment you're a minimally decent person.

But I think the real question is, what would be included in the list of obligations that one must fulfill in order to be a minimally decent person? There are easy ones like murder and rape and such.... But vegetarianism? Fur? Donating to disaster relief? Being an activist at all?

Can someone really be a good person if they promote the suffering of animals, knowingly, but at the same time give lots of money to disaster and hunger relief? Shouldn't we call it a flaw in their character to be so dispassionate about certain moral issues?

I wish I had a good answer to these questions.

Jean Kazez said...

I think it takes a lot of work to retrain yourself to see animals as any kind of moral issue. So the person wearing fur but giving to great charities may just not have put themselves through that retraining.

It's also true that it takes retraining to think of it as your responsibility what's going on thousands of miles away. It's easier to focus (obsessively, even) on how many grams of animal this and that you're imbibing or on avoiding every trace of leather.

Best option: care about both. But inevitably, there will be other very important things you've left off your agenda.

Anonymous said...

I think there are things that require an "active" involvement while others are more passive.

Helping building schools Pakistan, improving water quality in Africa, respect of dolphins in Japan, etc, all require us do go "out" of our daily paths, and actively do something.

On the other hand pretty much everybody goes to the supermarket, so choosing to buy a soy hamburger instead of a meat one is not something that would exhaust our "caring" quota. It's something that you do anyways, you just need to do it differently.


Jean Kazez said...

Gio, That sounds right, but I think it actually takes a lot of mental energy to rethink the status of animals, undo years of habits, and live in a new way. It's a big "project." For people who undertake it, I do think it usually becomes a big part of their lives. There really may not be room for ALL of that if someone's already intensely focused on lots of other issues.

s. wallerstein said...

There has been so much publicity about the evils of wearing fur and leather that I would be ashamed to appear in public with a fur coat or a leather jacket, even if my diet consisted entirely of factory-farmed beef (which it doesn't). Wearing a fur coat is like wearing a tee-shirt that says: "I don't care about schools in Afghanistan". No one in his or her right mind would wear such a tee shirt, even if he or she has no concern about education in Afghanistan. Wearing fur is like spitting in the face of the whole animal rights movement: it's a public insult, unlike eating factory-farmed meat which is basically private. There is a certain value in hypocrisy insofar as it creates or sustains the public illusion that we all care about some issue and that it is deviant not to care.

Jean Kazez said...

I agree there's something ostentatiously "animals don't matter" about fur--for which reason I do find it offensive. So maybe the person next to me was going a step beyond not having time/energy for animal issues. But lots of very good people really do simply not have time/energy for animal issues, because they're busy thinking about and working on something else that matters. At an occasion like that talk, you do get struck by "the varieties of good people."

Melissa said...

In line with Amos's comments, I would be afraid to wear artificial fur in public. For instance, the stunning designs by Carsten Juhl of Copenhagen Artificial Fur are fake but look real. I may care deeply about animal rights, yet if I were to wear artificial fur in public I could very well encounter individuals who would treat me as a vile human being. Indeed, the "public illusion" controls a lot of behaviors.

I tend to think that those who demand 100% veganism unconciously project their own hurt/emotional wounds/vulnerabilities onto helpless animals and are therefore totally emotionally invested in that cause, which results in some nonsensical behavior. And of course there are others who are financially invested in veganism. Some individuals involved with animal rights charities make some big $$ for themselves.

Wayne said...

I'm still not completely sold on the idea that leather is as morally corrupt as eating meat. I keep seeing it as a by-product... But I suppose if I took that stance, I might have to say something like Hot Dogs are acceptable to eat.

Grah! I'm having a crisis of vegetarian reasoning.

Jean Kazez said...

Melissa, There's something amiss with the demanding vegancentrists who obsess about every milligram and think they're the only ones whose diet does any good. I have spent a lot of time wondering what's with them!

Wayne--Lately I've been having a crisis along these lines-- Suppose that someone has a taste disorder and all food tastes just like cardboard to them, except food containing animal products. Would that person really be required to be a vegan? (Point of the question--to wonder whether taste is really as trivial a consideration as it's usually made out to be in arguments for vegetarianism.)

Now for the kicker. Despite being perfectly normal, to many people vegan food does taste much worse than most food. If Cardboard Guy's loss of taste may enter into his decision-making, how can it really be true that taste is basically trivial, and can't justify the ordinary person in continuing to be an omnivore?

In short--are we perhaps too quick to dismiss issues of taste when thinking about the ethics of what we eat?

Melissa said...

"In short--are we perhaps too quick to dismiss issues of taste when thinking about the ethics of what we eat?"

There seems to be very little discussion of that and some vegans dismiss the entire topic. And some vegans go so far as to deny their omnivorous/carnivorous pets non-vegan food, with complete disregard for the animals taste preferences.

But this kind of self-imposed sensory deprivation might explain why we see ex-vegans. I recently watched a video blog of a vegan practically drooling over a vegan cupcake, it was absolutely bizarre.

I was 100% vegan (though I never identified as a vegan) for about 3 years. It was the soy yogurt that finally broke me. I forced myself to buy it, but when the health benefits of veganism peaked after 2.5 yrs and I started to feel unwell, the first non-vegan food I purchased was an organic yogurt. Even now I feel nauseated just thinking of soy yogurt.

Pregnant women especially understand food cravings/aversions and it's amazing how powerful such cravings can be!

I'd like to add something regarding my previous comment about those financially invested in veganism. Not long ago a "vegancentrist" admonished me for using honey. This same person is the president of an AR organization and earns over $100k. Is this person motivated by a deep concern for honeybees? Perhaps, but I doubt it.

s. wallerstein said...

Soy yogurt isn't available where I live nor are most other soy products, besides imitation hamburger, which isn't bad if you mix it with enough onions and tomato sauce, but from this conversations and others in this blog, I get the impression that most soy products aren't very tasty. Now, food is an important source of pleasure for most people, perhaps the chief one in life, given that active sexuality, in the male at least, extends, say, from age 15 to age 60, that is, 45 years and people live almost twice that length of time. Hence, if vegan foods do not provide pleasure (yes, brown rice and beans are delicious, but you can't eat them three meals a day, 7 days a week), those who follow such a pleasureless diet would tend to develop certain personalities traits, which I will not attempt to catalogue, although Freud's studies of those who deny and/or
repress the sex drive might throw some light on those who deny or repress the need to derive pleasure from food.

Wayne said...

Honey as an animal product.... It never really occured to me.
Although technically, no honeybee needs to die or even be all that cruelly treated to get honey. I wonder what would make someone abstain from honey.

Jean Kazez said...

Food pleasure runs kind of deep...as much as it's hard to admit that! I don't have a problem with my vegetarian diet--the loss of options isn't really that extreme. The thing about a vegan diet is that it affects so much of what you eat. And no--all the substitute thises and thats don't appeal to me, except for a veggie burger now and again (good place to put ketchup and mustard--that's the main appeal). One vegan meal is fine, a vegan day is fine, but full time veganism seems hard to me. Maybe like deciding to eat Indian full time. I love Indian food...but can't imagine having a full time Indian diet. It were ethically required (for some obscure reason!, I just might not be able to do it. Must...have...coffee.

Jean Kazez said...

I know some small-scale beekeepers and nothing nasty happens to the bees. They do get "treated as a means" but I'm not prepared to be a full-blown Kantian where bees are concerned.

Melissa said...

There's a term for vegans who consume honey: beegans. I did not make that up.

Jean Kazez said...

Perhaps we need the word "megan"--I'm a megan if I'm as close to vegan as it's possible for ME to be right now.

rtk said...

A real true genuine honest-to-goodness concern about the pain and unfairness of animal eating animals would certainly cause the moral vegan to be appalled at the sight of a bird tugging mercilessly on an earthworm. That guy down in Florida was not the first piece of meat those sharks chewed to death. Throughout the wilderness are mean and lean lions and tigers and bears oh my. What are those earnest vegans doing about all this evil? Nothing, of course. It’s all about self-deprivation, not concern for animals. Grandin has alleviated more suffering than any holier than thou vegan. There are exceptions, of course, and a couple of them have been on this blog, so don’t sue me.