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9.3.07

Moral Relativist Anti-Vegetarianism

Elizabeth199 asks a question I've often wondered:

Is there ANY way for a vegetarian/vegan to suggest that vegetarianism/veganism is the best option for eating without it coming across as obnoxious proselytizing?


Sadly, I think the answer is no -- the stereotype of the obnoxious crusader for vegetarianism is so deeply entrenched in some minds that even the most conciliatory discussion of the issue can trigger feelings of being preached at.

I think part of what's happening is that people deal with their anxiety about diversity by invoking moral relativism. We humans like to have our way of doing things endorsed by others. It gives us independent confirmation that the way we do things is reasonable, and perhaps even self-evidently correct. So there's some discomfort involved in discovering others who quite sincerely pursue a different way of life. There are various ways of dealing with this diversity, the healthiest being critical engagement and humility. But it's psychologically easier to resort to imputing ulterior motives or a defecit of rationality. Another common strategy in the modern era is to invoke moral relativism -- the idea that no way of doing things is better than another, and therefore one should avoid passing judgment on others' lifestyles.

The proselytization charge deflects the focus from engagement with the substantive issue, declaring it to be an off-limits matter of taste. That's a bit of a concession, since the ideal (from a psychological standpoint) would be to regard one's own position as morally correct. But it enables a charge to be flung back at the other -- they're trying to violate the moral relativism code by proselytizing, asserting that their way of doing things ought to be adopted by others. The other becomes the bad guy, waving his or her difference in our faces.

The proselytization charge gains force from downplaying the range between convincing and coercing. Convincing is about using the power of the better reason (either passively through stating one's own position, or actively through engaging others in debate) to win others over. Coercing is about using any other form of power -- from mild informal social pressures to jackbooted thugs -- to gain compliance. Thus even passive convincing is interpreted as medium-strength social pressure.

The function (conscious or unconscious) of the relativism response is twofold. First, it offers psychological comfort to its user by placing the other person in the wrong for their supposed resort to proselytization (and may even give a backhanded justification to one's own lifestyle as a form of spite -- e.g. the "for every animal you don't eat, I'll eat three" bumper sticker). And it puts the other person on the defensive, leading them to soften their expression of their position in order to avoid being accused of proselytizing.

So what makes vegetarianism especially threatening whereas diversity in other parts of life evokes less hostility? One inescapable part of the picture -- which unfortunately vegetarians spend a lot of time disclaiming in a usually futile effort to avoid the proselytizing charge -- is that vegetarianism is a moral position. Aside from the small number of people who are vegetarians purely for health or henotheistic religious reasons, to become a vegetarian is to implicitly endorse a non-relativistic moral code*. Second, vegetarianism is threatening -- becoming a vegetarian involves a significant change in a fairly fundamental part of one's lifestyle. Third, vegetarianism is realistic. For all the joking about how life wouldn't be worth living without bacon, vegetarianism is within reach of the majority of developed world adults. (It's not without hardships for some, and I'm not endorsing a purely personal-lifestyle-change-based policy, but the fact remains that most North Americans could drastically reduce their meat consumption if they really put their minds to it.) Adding to the realism is the surface plausibility of the vegetarian position -- it's comparatively easy for even a committed omnivore to understand what makes vegetarians think they're right. And finally, vegetarianism is encountered relatively frequently -- something like 1-2% of Americans are vegetarians, and the idea is an obvious one -- so a clear stereotype and pattern of response can develop.

*I think of this as the "Schwyzer Fallacy," since Hugo so often seems to want to state a moral principle, yet disclaim responsibility from the implications of universalizing it to apply to non-Hugo individuals. It makes baby Kant cry. Of course, the Schwyzer Fallacy is only a fallacy when it's proposed as an ontological statement. One can have an epistemological Schwyzer Non-Fallacy, in which one declines to universalize because of a lack of information that would allow accurate application of the principle to another person's circumstances.

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