Do I HAVE To Be a Vegan?

Since January 1, I've been trying to increase the number of vegan meals and dishes my (vegetarian) family eats.   More than half the time, these vegan concoctions have been taste-challenged. What does that mean, morally speaking?  Do I have a duty to give up yummy food and eat yucky food, for the sake of animals?

This question will be found irritating by fervent vegans.  They will insist that vegan food is delicious.  But their point of view isn't the one that counts.  What matters is what vegan food tastes like to a non-vegan.

Setting aside my own food experiments (maybe I'm just using the wrong cookbook), take someone we'll call "John". This might be a real person I know, but might not (call off the lawyers!).  John is a meat and potatoes guy.  He doesn't even like vegetables on the side.  To him, a vegetarian dinner is dull, and a vegan dinner beyond dull.  And don't say he hasn't tried them--he has.  He finds vegan food austere, weird, just not satisfying.

Please: don't pretend nobody's like that. Don't think all John needs to do is eat at your favorite vegan restaurant and he'll be thrilled.  It ain't so.

What is John morally required to do?  It would be silly to say "if it tastes good, do it." It can't possibly be that taste is completely exculpatory, that you're free to do anything in the service of flavor.  But can it be that a person is required to consistently lower eating pleasure by 50%, or 75%, or 90%, for the sake of animals?

If you look at the matter "from the point of view of the universe," then yes.  Giving no more weight to John's interests than to an animal's, it seems very clear that he should change his ways.  But given all the facts as laid out, it really seems odd to expect this sacrifice from him.

Why is it odd? What's going on here?  I confess that I'm not sure (yet!).


me said...

I'm sure the problem is you're using the wrong cookbook. What kind of food does your family usually eat? What books are you using now? I cook for non-vegans all the time and people invite themselves over to eat my food!

Anonymous said...

What if 'John' is diligent and ethical in his sourcing of the animal products?

Jean Kazez said...

I like Mollie Katzen's vegetarian cookbooks and the "greens" cookbooks. We also cook a lot of Italian, Indian, and Mexican. I'm starting to think I just need to find vegan recipes in the usual cookbooks (there are some) and skip cooking that's "officially" vegan.

For example--right now I'm getting ready for a party and have made dolma from a middle eastern cookbook. That's a naturally vegan dish. The dip I made from a "officially" vegan cookbook (I'm not naming any names) is borderline inedible. That's what inspired this post.

Jean Kazez said...

gapingwhole (what a name!), I'm really thinking the same thing. We may just have to go easy on John, if he would suffer such a huge pleasure reduction from eating vegan, but try to get him to choose the most humane animal products available. I'm not 100% why that's "enough" (in his case) but my gut feeling is that it is.

Kerry said...

There is no such thing as "humane" use of animal products. Even if the animals in question are treated a bit better, they die in the same horrible and cruel way.

I don't think there is any question that "John"'s interest in eating good food deserves second place to an animal's right to live his/her own life free from exploitation. Luckily, there is no need to ponder this question. There are SO many yummy vegan recipes out there. Seriously. I have started cooking from scratch recently, and to say that I am challenged when it comes to this stuff is the understatement o f the year. And yet even I have able to produce some amazing dishes. I have made a point of sharing them with omnivores who had never been exposed to vegan cooking, and I have lost count of the number of times I have been asked whether what I had made was really vegan. Nobody could tell the difference half the time, and the rest of the time they thought it was delicious anyway. Yay!

I would recommend browsing through the many, many recipes on Vegweb.com, as a starting point. :)


Taylor said...

I'm a cannibal. I've tried giving up human flesh, but I really miss the taste. Surely it would be too much to insist that I stop eating people. (Anyway, I can't stand those abolitionists, who insist that even a little cannibalism is wrong.)

Roast leg of insurance salesman -- yum!

Unknown said...


what's going on?
Here are three things
1. Habituation and taste.
Taste is a very curious thing. It is highly subjective, though there are areas of general agreement. Is it correct that meat-containing or ovo-lacto foods are more tasty than vegan foods? Many omnivores would claim this, but vegans often deny it. From the point of view of the universe is there anything to say about the tastiness of different foods? Are the vegans right, or the omnivores right (and the vegans simply biased or in denial), or is this a topic about which there is neither right nor wrong?
One way of making sense of this is to recognise that our palates habituate to different tastes and ranges of flavours. So we can become used to a diet containing large or little amounts of salt, MSG, sugar, saturated fat. If those things are suddenly taken away our palates will find food lacking something. But over time palates adjust and we become used to lower salt/sugar/fat - containing food.
In the same way I suspect non-meat containing food genuinely is satisfying for the omnivore - because of what they are used to and their palate expects. But they are no less satisfying/tasty for the vegan because the vegan no longer experiences those flavours/textures as a regular part of his or her diet.

2. Association and taste.
Among our senses smell and taste are perhaps the most primitive. We often associate certain flavours or smells with particular memories or emotions. Indeed the association between certain foods and positive childhood/family/cultural memories is, I suspect, one of the reasons why people like John find it so hard to renounce those foods.
On the other hand, for those who are intimately aware of the degree of animal suffering associated with intensive farming and food production the scent and taste of meat are associated with quite different emotions - those of visceral disgust, pain and fear.
So the vegan and the omnivore have markedly different emotional overlays to the simple taste sensations associated with meat containing or egg/dairy containing foods. This has a strong influence on what they find 'tasty'.

3. Prudential vs moral reasons
Is it supererogatory to give up meat, or to become vegan rather than vegetarian? (ie does it go above and beyond what is morally required, is it in the category of moral sainthood rather than ordinary virtue?)
When John finds that the sacrifice in his dietary preferences is too great for him to become vegan is it that the level of personal sacrifice is sufficiently great that he is not morally obliged to make it? That is certainly the way that many feel about this question. But my suspicion is that from John's point of view it is not that the personal sacrifice is too great - it is that the moral reason to renounce all animal products (particularly to forsake dairy and eggs) does not seem strong enough. It is not the taste that is the issue - it is that it does not seem morally important enough that he stop eating eggs and dairy.


Jean Kazez said...


Re: taste. Yes, what John is up against might be just a transition period. But only might...

I'm inclined to think there are some taste universals, despite cultural variation in what people enjoy eating. As far as I know, there isn't a single vegan culture. I've never heard of a person who chose a vegan diet just for taste. Plus, much vegan cuisine is "imitation" cuisine. The aim is to create the taste of animal products using substitutes. This seriously undermines the claims of some vegans not to miss animal products.

Anyway, let's just stipulate that John would in fact suffer a permanent 75% reduction in taste pleasure by switching to a vegan diet. For John, the presence of eggs, dairy, and meat is pivotal. Everything tastes very bland to him without those ingredients. Does he have to give them up?

Surely yes, from the point of view of the universe. If an impartial observer cared equally about John and animals, he would not let either eat the other. But on the other hand, I do find it odd to expect veganism from John.

I don't think that means I have to say veganism for John is supererogatory. It may just be at the very demanding end of the moral spectrum. Thinking about it in utilitarian terms, it's more like "giving to the point of marginal utility" than pulling one kid out of a shallow pond. Both obligatory, but not equally "expected."

A lot of "vegan education" is focused on trying to convince people that vegan food TASTES FANTASTIC (really, just try it!!!!). But what if it doesn't to a lot of people? Then what? I would encourage some of the commenters above to entertain that possibility. I think it's realistic, but at the very least, it's philosophically interesting.

Kerry said...

Jean - you state:
"A lot of "vegan education" is focused on trying to convince people that vegan food TASTES FANTASTIC (really, just try it!!!!). But what if it doesn't to a lot of people? Then what? I would encourage some of the commenters above to entertain that possibility. I think it's realistic, but at the very least, it's philosophically interesting."

But you're assuming that a taste for meat is by necessity the "norm". In reality there are plenty of meat-eaters who dislike several types of meat and never touch it. Add to that vegetarians and vegans and you have a large segment of the population who actively dislikes the taste or texture of flesh (I would also argue that most people's taste for flesh is, to a great extent, socially conditioned from a young age).

As I mentioned in my comment above, the greatest and most complimentary comments I received when sharing vegan dishes I've made with omnis were actually the comments made by the latter - not by fellow vegans. This, in turn, confirms my belief that we develop a taste for flesh eating because we are socially conditioned to it, not because we find food devoid of animal products unpalatable.

So when I say that vegan food tastes fantastic, I mean that it CAN taste fantastic - both to omnis and vegans. In the same way, animal products can taste good and can also taste bad. And omnis eat vegan food at various points in their lives, even when they're not really aware of it or don't think of it in those terms. A good salad, a pasta dish, etc. But, as I understand it, the question you posed originally was one based on ethical considerations. So the issue as far as I can see is simply to make good food - and since it is possible to make vegan food that omnis love too, there really is no ethical dilemma here, as far as I can see...

Jean Kazez said...

Kerry, I'm not sure why you think we are "socially conditioned" to like meat. If, past and present, all cultures consume animal products, it looks much more like doing so is innately pleasing. It doesn't follow, of course, that every person likes every animal product.

Taking meat, milk, and eggs out a diet means a reduction in dietary possibilities. It's like taking a few colors out of an artist's palette. For some people, those were unimportant colors to begin with. For some, they were very important colors. It makes sense to think that a vegan diet represents a serious sacrifice for some people--maybe even many people.

Imagine we were talking about music instead of food. What if you had to take stringed instruments out of your music diet? For some people that would be a very big deal. It would be unpersuasive to say they could listen to brass instruments instead, and learn to love them. Sure--there's good brass music. But some people would feel a big loss if they didn't get to hear strings.

The question I'm posing is really about expectations. It's one thing to say that X is obligatory, a somewhat different thing to form attitudes of approval, disapproval, etc. towards ourselves and others. I don't think it's obvious I should be sharply critical of John if he won't become a vegan--assuming he would lose 75% of eating pleasure by doing so. In one sense he still has to be vegan (objectively, from the point of view of the universe, so to speak), but in another perhaps he doesn't. It seems like a lot to expect.

Faust said...

As usual Dom lays out the issues nicely. They are:

1. The subjectivity of taste.
2. The effect of conditioning (association) on our taste.
3. The "weight" of our moral obligation: does it or does it not supersede our taste “requirements”, whatever they might be.

Let us first note that there are some questions here for which we could gather empirical evidence. Jean does this when she points the fact that "there are no vegan cultures." True? Surely it is hard to think of any (though surely modern vegan subculture counts!), but perhaps there is some obscure exception. Kerry provides some anecdotal evidence (danger!) that "confirms his belief that.." and so on.

Surely we can all agree on the following:

1. Some tastes can be acquired, more or less easily.
2. Some tastes are very hard to acquire (or let go of).
3. Some tastes are tied into the structure of the organism.

An example of (3): phenylthiocarbamide and 6-n-propylthiouracil are bitter to some people, but have essentially no taste to other people. This has to do with the genetically influenced morphology of the taste receptors. It is a "deep structure" in the organism that provides a fundamental capacity/lack of capacity affecting taste. No "cultural conditioning" could affect it. You either taste it, or you don't.

So we have something of a continuum: on the one hand, taste tied into the basic physical structure of the organism, taste that is “deeply” conditioned by “association” as Dom puts it (or by other factors), and taste that is more or less easy to acquire or dispense with. The question is: how do animal products relate to this continuum? How much of our lust for animal products is related to our basic physical structure, how much to deep conditioning, and how much could we could dispense with quite easily?

When Jean suggests points to the fact that many vegan/vegetarian foods have an “imitation” component, where animal products are simulated, she is pointing out that vegan/vegetarian foods are still tied to a deep structure (whether that deep structure is physical or cultural is an empirical question) that these food must simulate in order to preserve eating pleasure. But this does not necessarily mean that the deep structure is physical. Cultural conditioning can go very very deep.

Faust said...

Let us note that to whatever degree social conditioning or cultural association IS a factor, that it remains a factor no matter what the diet. To whatever degree we currently like animal products because of “social conditioning” then a switch to veganism is simply an alternative form of social conditioning. In this case a re-conditioning motivated by moral obligation. The argument is: taste for animals is programmed by a morally bankrupt carnivore culture-->vegan moral culture is superior-->we should re-program ourselves with vegan values, including vegan taste values.

This brings us to the final point that Dom makes:

”But my suspicion is that from John's point of view it is not that the personal sacrifice is too great - it is that the moral reason to renounce all animal products (particularly to forsake dairy and eggs) does not seem strong enough. It is not the taste that is the issue - it is that it does not seem morally important enough that he stop eating eggs and dairy”

I think that this mostly right. Let us take myself as an example. I eat ludicrous amounts of cheese. I should not do this, if for no other reason that it will probably cause my death to arrive sooner rather than later. I have strong reasons to eat less cheese to preserve my own health, let alone for reasons having to do with animals. But I haven’t stopped. I’m addicted to cheese. Since I won’t stop eating cheese despite knowing that it may adversely affect my own person, what would it take for me to stop eating cheese? What if I knew that for every bite of cheese I eat not only some animal suffers, but a child dies? It’s an absurd enough example that it’s hard to entertain, but one would certainly hope that if it were in fact that case that I would stop, at long last, eating cheese. So I think Dom is right that there are certain thresholds where moral consequences outweigh all taste considerations, but it remains a difficult question, because the argument then simply moves to the question of moral worth as such, which remains contentious. Implicit to Jean’s entire argument is that animals are simply not as important as people, and that therefore taste can be a factor to some degree. If animals were just as important as people, we would not be discussing taste. Of course this is precisely what abolitionists argue: that the moral equivalence is almost total.

Faust said...


Anyone heard from Amos? I hope he's OK.

Jean Kazez said...

"implicit to Jean’s entire argument is that animals are simply not as important as people, and that therefore taste can be a factor to some degree. If animals were just as important as people, we would not be discussing taste."

Faust, Hmm. I'm really trying to assume as little as possible. Here's the thing--arguments that people should be vegans are standardly coupled with a whole bunch of talk about how delicious vegan food is. I'm just asking--what if that's not true? What if there are people who really do dislike vegan food (as I believe in fact there are)?

How should the conversation with a person like that go? Should you tell them that they simply have to make the sacrifice? Should John be told that his 75% reduction in food pleasure is just the price he has to pay to do right by animals? Just for fun, make it a 100% reduction. Pretend the only food that has any flavor for him is animal-based food. At some point, taste starts to seem like a pretty serious matter.

I'm not sure that taste would be no issue at all if we transposed this into the key of eating people. Suppose people innately liked eating each other. We evolved to like the taste of human flesh over other tastes. So cannibalism was universal and entrenched in all human cultures. It was so entrenched that most people found it hard work to see it as any problem at all. Some very good people started to see it as wrong and abstained. Others cut back. Etc. Etc. Etc. Would we really be totally disapproving of a person who couldn't give it up? This involves imagining a world so different from ours that it's hard to say.

Jean Kazez said...

Yes, heard from Amos on the previous thread. He's fine, but picking lots of books up off the floor.

Diana Meinor said...

I am not feeling "the bite" of this question...the fact that nonvegan food is purportedly not tasty to an individual strikes me as irrelevant...it's relevant in the practical sense of trying to change that person's behavior, clearly they will be less apt to adopt a vegan diet, but it strikes me as carrying almost no moral weight whatsover. The interests of the animal being killed are so much greater that John's palate preferences don't come close to tipping the scale.

Perhaps a more powerful dilemma would be if veganism wasn't as healthy of a diet as it actually is. If veganism required a modest reduction on one's overall health would it still be morally required? That would at least merit discussion...even then I would tend to see veganism as morally requisite (perhaps we could scavenge meat from animals that died of natural causes to supplement our diet...but that's it).

Jean Kazez said...

Ian, How about if we take it to the limit and assume that John gets no pleasure from any food unless it contains an animal ingredient? Or we take it even further, and assume food tastes disgusting to him, unless it contains an animal product? Maybe his brain is oddly wired...

In every case, we can look at the situation "from the point of view of the universe" and keep saying John ought to be a vegan, but "ought" loses oomph. I think it's puzzling that this should be so...but that's how it seems to me.

Faust said...

I just don't think you would be making this argument if you didn't have a background acceptance of DeGrazia's "sliding scale model." You concur that "Animals seserve consideration in proportion to their cognitive, emotional, and social complexity."

People like Ian are not going to, as he says, find any "bite" to this question. It's simply unacceptable, even if vegan food tastes like cardboard. He's even willing to say we should become ONLY foragers, even if we needed the food at a nutritonal level where it really counts.

Here are the variables that you are running:

Degree of tastiness lost in eating: 0-100%

Degree of moral wrong: 0-100% (white lie - child raping axe murderer).

People who think animal exploitation can and should be compared to muder and rape are not going to be swayed even if you up the taste loss to 100%. Even if your loss of pleasure is total, it still does not justify doing something 100% wrong.

This is the basic calculus abstrated away from animal specifics: If there is an activity that you must engage in on a regular basis in order to be happy, but this activity causes pain/suffering/and or death to any sentient creature, does the pleasure you derive from that activity justify the pain/suffering/ and/or death that results from it?

The only conterfactual we need to take these variables to the extreme collision point is a guy who only is happy when he is torturing someone. The rest of the time he is depressed. His life is 100% devoid of hapiness when he's not engaged in acts of horrific sadism. He's just wired that way. Is it OK for him to capture and torture people? No. It's too bad for him, but he's just out of sync with the basic fabric of the moral universe (or, out of sync with the moral fabric of our community).

You can run a counterfactual world full of people that somehow integrate and accept cannibalism, but on MY metaethics, that's just changing the moral framework, since ethics is tied to communities. In OUR society, entities with "human level" worth get elevated to the doesn't-matter-even-if-you-lose-100%-of-your-taste level of morality.

But if you think there is a sliding scale (I do) then perhaps there is a bit of a conundrum here, as animals are not on par with humans, even if they deserve a little (or a lot!) of respect.

Jean Kazez said...

Hmm. Maybe some notion of animals having lower status than humans is creeping into my reasoning, but I think just about everyone does believe that in one form or another, and it will creep into just about everyone's reasoning. People who think they're utterly egalitarian just aren't thinking things through...imho!

For example--take health reasons. Just about anyone will say that if you had a serious health reason to eat meat, you could. For example, suppose someone had allergies to all plants. Nobody's going to say they have to lie down and die rather than have a hamburger.

But now suppose a person has health reasons for eating people. They're allergic to everything but freshly killed human. Nobody thinks we can go murder our neighbors to save our lives.

So everyone thinks there's some difference between humans and animals, if they're honest. There are lots of ways to explain that, but everyone thinks it.

So yes--maybe at certain points that thought is entering into my reasoning, but not rampantly! If you imagine a world of innate cannibals instead of innate omnivores, you will have pretty much the same intuitions about the significance of taste. You will think it's hard to break away from natural, inborn preferences, and believe in some level of tolerance for people who are particularly addicted to the flavor of...um...human.

That world is morally the right one to think about, not a world where there's an occasional nut who likes to eat people for completely insane reasons (like Jeffrey Dahmer). Surely John is not like Jeffrey Dahmer, on anyone's theory. People throw around comparisons between carnivores and cannibals as a rhetorical flourish, but I don't think they're really serious about it.

Diana Meinor said...

Jean -

I would be reluctant to suggest that someone need to accept death before consuming animal products but I would suggest that one would be required to accept a significantly reduced state of overall health and perhaps a shortened lifespan prior to the consumption of animal products being justified.

Regarding the possiblity that all food without animal products actually disgusts John...I am still not very moved. I can't imagine that his level of disgust could possibly be so severe as to do him a greater harm than what is done to animals being transformed into food...and that is what I think it would take. If it were humanly possible to experience that level of disguest, perhaps the scales would tip.

Also - since you didn't find the cannibalism example convincing, perhaps John could only derive sexual satisfaction from violent interactions with children. Sexual desires are fairly significant to have them frustrated for one's entire life would constitute a sizeable harm and yet we would not allow John to have free reign of the school playground.

Jean Kazez said...

Ian, I think you are simply sticking with that highly objective "point of view of the universe" and not allowing yourself to respond to John with any empathy with his point of view. Maybe that's good of you...but possibly you are missing something.

As to a pedophile equivalent of John--you really have to imagine not just a pedophile, but a pedophile in a world extremely different from ours. You have to picture a world in which those sexual desires are the norm. They've got to be imagined to be innate, just like the enjoyment of animal products, and in fact once necessary for survival. You have to imagine them being so entrenched psychologically that it's difficult for most people to see any problem with them. If you imagine a world like that (which is very hard), it's not so immediately obvious what to think about someone who can't change their ways.

I suppose, though, that I am now complicating things a bit. It's not just John's taste preferences that make me sympathize with him, but those taste preferences together with a whole lot of background facts about the origins of those preferences.

In any event, getting back to John (and away from pedophiles and cannibals). I do have the intuition that it would be very odd to expect someone to cut their eating pleasure in half. It's a bit like expecting people to take food away from their own children and give it to much worse off children in far away places. From the point of view of the universe, that's what they should do, but what we really expect from people has to take into account human instincts, feelings, tastes, etc.

Unknown said...


I think your two continua help explain exactly what is going on in this debate. Some of the disagreement is about how much taste reduction is involved in becoming vegan. Much of the disagreement is about the moral wrongness in eating meat. I think Jean is right to push the taste question as far as it can logically go - since in that way we can get a sense for just how morally significant taste is. This is the fundamental question. How does a human's interest in having their taste preferences fulfilled weigh up against an animal's interest in not being killed, or in not suffering.

just to return briefly to the taste question. Jean is puzzled by the claims of (some) vegans that vegan food is just as tasty as omnivorous cuisine. This seems to be in conflict with 'taste universals' and a widely held view that vegan food is not as tasty.
There is an interesting parallel between this debate and one about wellbeing and disability. So, for example many disability rights activists try to overcome negative perceptions of disability by pointing to the lives of some extremely accomplished (and happy) individuals. Look, they say, being in a wheelchair, or being blind, or being quadriplegic doesn't make your life go badly.
But others (usually unimpaired) find this puzzling and say, "but from my perspective it would be bad to lose my sight, or to lose the use of my limbs, or to become quadriplegic."
Two points to note. One is that there is a difference between losing a capacity and never having a capacity, in terms of wellbeing. So we might think that it is considerably worse to lose ones sight that to be born blind - because of the awareness of what you are missing. So we might think similarly that losing foods that you like is much worse than, say being brought up as vegan.
But the other, and more important, point to note is that there is often a bit of talking past one another going on in this debate. Disability rights activists want to claim that disabilities (at least of certain types) do not *necessarily* make your life go badly. In some cases individuals with disabilities claim (and they may have good reason) that their lives have gone better since their accident/illness etc. But those on the other side of this debate are not arguing that losing your legs necessarily makes your life go badly, or necessarily makes your life go worse. They are claiming that such disabilities are (overall, across a population) likely to make your life go somewhat worse than it would otherwise.
So, as Kerry points out above, vegan food is not necessarily bland, tasteless or much less satisfying than meat-containing food. (It is not *necessarily* bad). But Jean's claim is not that vegan food is necessarily bad or worse - but that it is probably going to be less tasty for some omnivores, or many omnivores than their usual diet.

I tend to think that the taste loss is much less than omnivores think. But I am happy to admit that there is some taste loss in becoming vegan. That loss diminishes over time (particularly as you get better at vegan cooking). And I think the moral significance of that taste sacrifice is pretty minimal compared to the moral reasons not to cause animals to suffer.

Diana Meinor said...

I am indeed, as you say, sticking with "the point of view of the universe"...that is so long as the question we are trying to answer is a moral question: what morally ought John do given his peculiar position?

We can depart from "the point of view of the universe" if we want to consider other questions such as: what do we think John will in fact do? what do we think we can realistically convince John to do? what will it take for others to consider John to be a generally good person?

These are all interesting questions but they are not the moral question of what John ought to do.

When you suggest departing from the point of view of the universe and suggest we empathize with John, I interpret that as an invitation to weigh John's interests as greater than the equal interests of others. What you are calling empathy strikes me as prejudice.

(If it is not clear by now, my moral thinking is strongly consequentialist in nature.)

Unknown said...

I think I agree with Ian that how others behave is largely irrelevant to the question of what John *ought* to do.

There is a distinction that is often made between our judgements about actions and our judgements about agents. When we talk about blame, exculpation or guilt it is often the latter that we are getting at.
Perhaps what Jean is referring to is about our judgement of John as an individual. In a world of omnivores, faced with a large reduction in his personal pleasure from food we might not judge John harshly for failing to become vegan. In the same way, we might not judge John harshly for failing to make significant donations to relieving third world poverty. But that does not change what he ought to do in either case.

Diana Meinor said...

Yes - I think Dominic has it right.

We may not condemn John too harshly because he may in fact be making a greater effort than others to which veganism comes more easily. He may be of high moral character...but being of the highest moral character generally doesn't preclude the commissio of some morally wrong actions.

The example of poverty relief is a good one. It is difficult to blame someone who donates "only" fifty percent of their income to poverty relief even if they could without too much difficulty donate more and are therefore prioritizing their own comfort over the actual survival of others.

No one is morally perfect and so it seems strange to point out the failings of someone who is doing better than most...and is making a concerted effort.

Jean Kazez said...

I'm happy to look at this in consequentialist terms and say that John should become a vegan, regardless of his pleasure loss. I was trying to raise a more nebulous question about "expectations"-- how John sees himself, how we see John, how we should feel about him, how we should treat him, etc.

It is not enough to resolve strictly moral questions, especially if you're a consequentialist. That outlook is going to lead you to think morality is extremely demanding. Inevitably you will be doing less than you should. So we need to think carefully about when to "insist" and when to tolerate.

I think the analogy with giving is very apt. Peter Singer has pretty much persuaded me that we should all "give to the point of marginal utility." By that measure, I'd have to judge him quite the scoundrel, because he gives only around 20%. But that would be the wrong reaction. There are lots of reasons why we should tolerate failures to reach that high standard, even if it is the right standard. The same is true in the food case.

Dom, What you said above about disabilities is interesting. It might help to distinguish pleasure from happiness. There are many pleasure sensations that can be taken away by a disability--it would be impossible to deny this. What stays more constant than people realize is happiness--general positive mood and satisfaction with life.

I think the same is surely true with giving up food pleasures. I do think my pleasure in food is a bit lower because I've give up meat (I like meat a lot!), even though I've had 17 years now to adjust, but I'm certainly no less happy.

Wayne said...

I think this is a fairly easy question.... but then again I've got heavy consequentialist leanings. Sometimes morality demands much of us, things that we don't like to do. That doesn't get us off the hook.

Jean Kazez said...

Wayne, I'm suggesting there are many ways of being "on the hook." So John's "on the hook," despite his taste preferences, but they enter into the way he should look at himself and we should look at him.

I mean really--what if you had a strange brain that made you experience vegan food as tasting like cardboard? Should we really expect you to give up ALL your food pleasure? I think this is like expecting a person to take food from their own child and give it to a hungrier stranger. It may be required strictly speaking, but it's so contrary to human psychology as not to be something we can expect.

"Required" vs. "expected"-- maybe an important distinction?

rtk said...

Culinary history is long and is intrinsic to the cultures and climates of its origins. The great cuisines of China, Italy, and the Arab world have come down and spread out, sometimes by the travels of royalty or other big movements. It has been developed with the historical color one expects from science or art. There is almost a philosophy underlying the most basic ideas, such as the use of local foods in California to produce dishes with French or Mexican names because fresh and local are essential ingredients to their ideas.

So how would you expect some new social movement to pop up with recipes that can be taken seriously, much less respected. Far far better if one's concerns are with these social ideas (don't kill living beings or don't use abundant fuel to transport food) to search in the traditional places for those foods that don't conflict with your ideas. Vegetarians didn't invent vegetables. They only made up (ugh) fake meat. Veggie burgers would never be served by Escoffier, but his recipes for vegetables are superb.

Wayne said...

Jean- No we can't draw the line between required and expected. Expectations are built along the lines of social norms. Its not expected that I'd be a vegetarian, even though I think we are required (on some level).

I think the cardboard taste bud just makes the duty more difficult to achieve. And its unfortunate that its the case for John. It would also be equally unfortunate for my Bugatti to stall out on some railroad tracks, and I was forced to pick between saving my car and a child's life. But the the moral duty doesn't change just because its a Bugatti versus a Ford Pinto.

Jean Kazez said...

Wayne, I'm not saying the "expected" determines the "required." Not at all. I'm saying once you're done figuring out what the moral requirements are, there's further work to be done concerning what we expect from ourselves and others.

Take the Bugatti case. Unger made that argument, but does not actually make the massive contributions he considers required (I wrote to him and that's what he told me). It's not a simple question of hypocrisy--it's a lot more complicated than that. Nor do I think it's a simple matter of "social norms" telling people which lapses are intolerable and which are forgivable. I think it's a complicated matter how we should look at a person who falls short of doing everything they're required to do.

Here's just one factor. Some obligations are obvious. Some involve seeing things in new ways. The new way can be so hard to hold onto that it doesn't have much traction. It's actually very hard to see drinking a glass of milk as a terrible moral error. It's also very hard to see failure to contribute to Oxfam as being like letting the train hit the baby instead of the Bugatti. So that's a factor that should play a role in the way we assess people.

On the other hand, it's very easy to see that you have to wade into the puddle and save the drowning baby. That has lots of traction. You simply have to do it--no excuses are going to be accepted!

But that's just one element. Without appreciating moral psychology, you don't know how to look at your own lapses or the lapses of others. Just saying "right" and "wrong" is not the whole story.

Diana Meinor said...

From a consequentialist perspective, praise and blame should be doled out based on consequences as well.

We praise if we think that will encourage future optimific behavior and blame to discourage suboptimal behavior.

For example, we may blame someone for drinking milk with the hope that they will not do it again...

We may even blame people for committing actions that strictly speaking are right actions...if the act-type is one that generally does not produce good consequences and we want to discourage people from engaging in it. Murder, for example, could be the right action in a very narrow range of circumstances but we might blame whoever performed that act because we don't want it to be repeated (because generally it won't produce overall good consequences).

Jean Kazez said...

When I praise/blame, I feel more that I'm trying to be fair to someone, rather than just influence them. (Maybe the praise/blame is in my own head, and so not in a position to influence).

But consequences matter hugely, even if they're not all that matters. It's interesting how Peter Singer's (consequentialist) writing about both vegetarianism and poverty has become more psychologically realistic in the last five year. There is far more praise for people doing as much as they can as opposed to black and white talk about what is required. (That's true in both "The Ethics of What We Eat" and "The Life You Can Save"). So even from an entirely consequentialist point of view, we might want to get inside John's head and see what changes he's likely to make. I think we may have to skip the "vegan education" in his case, and try to get him to switch to
"more humane" animal products. Like Singer, I think this would be real progress. I think the abolitionist crowd couldn't be more wrong when they profess that all ways of animals for food are basically equivalent.

me said...

I still think you have a wrong cookbook problem. The moosewood cookbooks are great vegetarian cookbooks, but mediocre vegan ones. They're highly dairy dependent. Vegan is a different style of cooking- an art to use your metaphor. You need a cookbook by someone who is trained in that art. Check out Veganomicon or anything else by Isa.

Jean Kazez said...

I'm very sorry to say that Veganomicon is the vegan cookbook I have and that I'm finding so hit or miss. No offense--I love her writing.

me said...

Yeah it can be a taste thing. Have you tried Bryanna Clark Grogan's stuff? She has several cookbooks in different styles and also has a newsletter, which I highly recommend.

Please make the chickpeas romanesco from veganomicon. mmmmmmmm! :)

Jean Kazez said...

Okay, I'll try it. I haven't give up yet on the book, but perhaps just need pointers!

I haven't seen the other author--will look next time I'm in a bookstore. It's probably time for me to expand my horizons.

Wayne said...

Hmmm I feel kinda bad that the veganomicon is letting you down, since I suggested it. I have to admit though, that I haven't cooked through the book. I pick and choose what sounds really appealing to me. Ingredients appeal to me more than pictures, so thats where I focus in choosing...

When I think of vegan food, I don't think tastelessness.... I think, "I need to seek out the tasty." Lets face it, most veggies are pretty bland when cooked. So you have to spice it up. Curries, Salsas, vinegrettes, herbs and spices that have powerful kicks to them. Garlic, raw onion, saffron, thats what I think of when I go for vegan food.

Back to the moral question at hand... I would agree that evaluating the individual would be different... If something is difficult for someone to do, and they still do it, then they have a better more praiseworthy moral character than say someone who finds it really easy to do it. The KKK member who becomes tolerant of minorities is in a way more praise-deserving than the card carrying ACLU member.

But isn't that a different question than what a person's obligations are? Do you HAVE to be a vegan? Lets say for the sake of argument yes, so long as you are physically capable of doing it. Now it might be more difficult for John to do it... And if he does it, then he should be praised higher than someone who finds it easy to do. But thats a question of character, not what their duties are.

Ultimately some interests are more important than other interests. The interest to live an unconfined life is more important than the kinds of pleasures of the palate. If it was a question of whether chickens should be kept in battery cages versus feeding them corn or worms.... We could easily say feed them corn, but let them go free from the cages.

Now lets say that John gets almost all of his enjoyment from eating. His life is not worth living if he isn't eating wonderful food. We could evaluate his character in a different way. There is something deficient in a character that places so much emphasis on the pleasure of the palate over things like the suffering of animals.

Jean Kazez said...

Wayne, Don't feel bad about suggesting the book. We've had lots of fun with it--it's provoked lots and lots of dinner table conversations. Interesting ones! There's one recipe so far I like a lot, and it turns out the dip I made for a party mellowed nicely and was a big hit. I am still trying things from it and it's making me think hard about this taste issue!

Faust said...

I've been thinking about this thread a lot, and I think it has helped me understand better some of my metaethical notions and the way they relate to the "puzzle" in question.

Most people here accept the notion of a "point of view of the universe." I think this notion is a useful fiction, but that "the universe" has about as much of a point of view as "God," which is to say: there is no such point of view. Only agents have a point of view. The universe is not an agent.

Nevertheless, the "point of view of the universe," carefully interpreted by the special priest class known as "applied ethicists" tells us "what is required of us." On this point, that there is an absolute "what is required," there seems to be something close to agreement. Jean wants to go a bit further and explore our judgments about people who fail to live up to what is required (virtually all of us seem to fail here). To use religious language, what do we do about our “sins?”

The division between our judgments about “what the universe sees” vs. “how we see (judge) people who fail to do what the universe requires of us” has been framed above as “judgments about actions and our judgments about agents” as Dom puts it, or “required vs. expected,” as Jean subsequently suggests. While what is required is binary (it’s either required or it isn’t), it appears we might want to be (or at least CAN be) softer in our expectations. Based on Jean’s counterfactual examples of cannibal societies where taste for humans is both “innate” and “entrenched,” we might just be inclined to think that straight up “harsh judgment” is simply not appropriate in those cases. We just might be sympathetic about wrong moral behavior when an agent is conditioned both physically and culturally to engage in that behavior. Ought implies can, and there can be some pretty big obstacles in the way of “can.” If someone manages to overcome these obstacles, it is as Wayne notes: we will give them high praise.

It would appear then that there is an additional layer of morality: a layer where we judge ourselves on how we judge agents that are failing to behave as “required by the universe.” Is there a correct way to judge them? As Ian points out consequentialism itself tells us that we are morally obligated to not judge people too harshly IF a softer judgment can be hooked up to a program that outputs more correct behavior at the end of the day. On the flip side if harsh judgments are going to produce better outcomes in the long run, then harsh judgment is morally required. For a confirmed consequentialist, this would seem to be the only legitimate way to pursue this question, at least insofar as the judgment is an action (vocalized or acted on in some other way).

But Jean notes that “when I praise/blame, I feel more that I'm trying to be fair to someone, rather than just influence them. (Maybe the praise/blame is in my own head and so not in a position to influence).” If the question can be “internalized” then the consequences of the judgment can be set aside, and we can focus on the “fairness” of the question. What does this “fairness” consist of? I take it to consist of a of a thorough consideration of what the “realistic” possibilities are for the agent, a full consideration of what they are giving up to do “what is required,” and how much conditioning (whether that be physical or cultural conditioning) they are “overcoming” in their submission to “what is required by the universe.” Someone who has to give up a great deal to “do the right thing,” should perhaps be forgiven when they don’t manage to be perfect in their pursuit of the ideal.

Faust said...

But it does seem that some types of morality have so much weight that no forgiveness is possible when a given agent fails to do what is required. Jean suggests that one possible way of thinking about these cases is under the rubric of “obvious vs. not-obvious oughts.” It’s obvious I have to save the drowning baby from the shallow puddle, but maybe not obvious that I shouldn’t buy that carton of milk. Certainly the former “intuition” will be shared widely, even across all cultures, while the latter is a point of contention at best.

I think the “obviousness” that is being exploited here to undergird our sense that some items have a clear indisputable moral weight, while others may not, parallels precisely the degree to which moral intuitions are shared across a community (or even all communities, thus becoming “universal” intuitions) and those that are intensely contested within a community, either because some sub section of that community is fighting for a new way of looking at things, or because they are fighting to preserve an intuition that is slowly (or quickly) falling out of favor.

It is typical in those cases where there are strong, widely shared, “obvious,” intuitions to say: “there is broad agreement on this point because it is clearly correct from ‘the point of view of the universe,’” while in the case of contested intuitions we want to say: “we the small minority have ‘seen clearly’ what ‘the universe’ intends but the majority has not yet seen the light,” or conversely: “we the small minority watch with horror as the society slowly slides into horrific behavior that fails to align with what is ‘required by the point of view of the universe.’” But in my view we are simply confusing the strength of our conviction that something is amiss with an ascription to a mega agent that is simply not there. Or rather, we imagine an agent that is simply US at our best, externalized and writ large. I of course anticipate that all of this will be hotly denied by the realist cohort. No such agent is there! Of course! It’s just “Reason,” or “Logic” or whatever. If so let us agree to drop metaphors such as “point of view of the universe” from our toolkit of metaphors. Best to make sure we have the foundation of our putative Archimedean point better articulated.

To tie all the preceding together I note simply that the two layers here between “what is required” and “what is expected of the agent given their particular circumstances and capacities,” is simply the inevitable confusion (or puzzle) that arises when one insists that there is “point of view of the universe” that requires ALL of us to do the same thing. But WE are many different things. And we are the only agents in the vicinity of the question. The question of how we should judge each other for failing to live up to the standards we set for ourselves and each other ultimately comes down to more and more permutations of the essential question: “what do you think is the best way to judge this situation/action and why?” It is possible that eventually the questions may be settled such that all members of our community will find the answer obvious. But the universe won’t care either way—except insofar as we are manifestations thereof.

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, Great summary. I just responded at length, and accidentally deleted the whole thing. So--to be brief..

I think the point of view of the universe is just what you get when you realize that no person (or animal) is "special." So--I want X, you also want X, what should we do? If I remain within my point point of view, I might conclude "grab it fast." But when I adopt the "point of view of the universe" I recognize that my vantage point is just one of many. I wouldn't say that transcending my viewpoint is just a matter of projecting my certainties into the beyond. In fact, sometimes I see something new when I adopt that standpoint. It might be something I'm not certain about, or don't even want to believe. Like that I shouldn't drink milk. That's just bad news, and not at all an idea I come by naturally.

It's certainly puzzling whether we are required to do what comes out being right, from that external standpoint. Why not take my own inner perceptions as having authority over what I'm required to do? Well, when you "get past yourself" it seems like you're being more objective.

Which is not to say there isn't a huge mystery about the very idea of anything being "required" at all. I'm not exactly sure what I think about moral properties and their fundamental nature. That's "the hard problem" in ethics.

Faust said...

Thanks, I'm glad you thought so.

I hate losing posts ton internet crashes. I write my posts in word docs if they are going to be longer than 3 paragraphs now.

So to be brief:

I do get what the "point of view of the universe" is supposed to mean, i.e. that it's about adopting impersonal standards. But I still think it should still be inadmissable as a metaphor. I think it does too much stage setting, and pumps intuitions that piggyback on latent Judeo-Christian structures that naturalists are not entitled to.

Further, I do not think even jettisoning the metaphor provides the kind of results that realists are hoping for, as there is simply another principle behind every impersonal principle namely:

(P) Principles that are impersonal are better than principles that are not.

This principle is justified by arguing that impersonal principles are more universal (this no doubt is where “point of view of the universe comes from), and thus will produce more stable, coherent, and broadly applicable moral systems. But why should we pursue more stable, coherent, and broadly applicable moral systems? Because incoherence is bad. Why? Is that a MORAL position? Are rational people MORALLY superior to irrational people? Is Rationality Morality? Is that a function of facts? Or because certain communities decided that their lives would be better if they started checking for incoherency in their moral beliefs?