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16.2.09

Is veganism an act or an omission?

In my previous post I referenced the act-omission distinction. At least in the modern West, this is a powerful moral intuition that holds that it's more significant to do something than to merely let it happen by failing to do something else. So killing someone is worse than standing by while they die, and saving someone is better than declining to take an opportunity to kill them.

One of the more troublesome aspects of this distinction is how you can decide which things are acts and which are omissions. Discussions tend to center on cases where there's consensus about how to describe things -- e.g. pushing a boulder down a hill onto someone is an act, but failing to move a second boulder to block the path of a naturally falling boulder is an omisison. The great variety of explanations that philosophers have come up with to justify the act-omission distinction only complicate the process of boundary-drawing.

One example that occured to me today is veganism. Let's assume for the remainder of the argument that we have some good reason to see not eating animals as better than eating them, and that we're talking about people who are medically and socio-economically able to be vegan without extreme hardship, and that "veganism" in this argument is referring to a dietary choice, not any additional activism for the cause. Is veganism then a praiseworthy act, or merely an omission of animal cruelty? Conversely, is omnivory merely an omission of a higher moral calling, or is it an active violation against animals?

The simplest case for the "act" side is that veganism seems to involve a great deal of conscious effort. People who never put any thought into the idea that there might be some moral issue about eating animals slide easily into omnivory. To be a vegan requires looking up recipes and nutritional information, reading food labels, dealing with temptation, dealing with unsympathetic friends and family, etc. But this effortfulness is not intrinsic to veganism -- rather, it's a product of the social situation that is set up on the assumption that everyone eats meat. In a vegan society, it would be effortless to remain vegan but would require effort to eat meat. Following this line to its logical conclusion, "acts" end up defined as "things that go against prevailing custom" and "omissions" as "conformity." It seems odd that a distinction so allegedly significant to moral action would be so deeply culturally relativistic and conservative.

The most obvious case for the "omission side" notes that veganism is most commonly defined by a negative fact -- vegans are people who don't eat animals, that is, people who decline to commit a wrong. After all, the slogan is "meat is murder," not "meat is manslaughter." However, it would be easily enough to reframe the definition of veganism in positive terms -- "vegans eat only plants and minerals." This suggests that negative facts, which often play such an important role in the act-omission distinction, may often be a matter of framing and linguistic convenience rather than a metaphysical truth about the event being described.

4 Comments:

OpenID bryucca said...

I find your premise assumption to be the height of arrogance. Just for the record.

5:23 AM  
Blogger Christina said...

"arrogance?" I get that you can disagree with the statement that eating animal products is good or bad, but I'm not sure about the arrogant part, unless you think Stenny's implying that people should go forth and convert the unwashed meat eating masses, which I don't see.

FWIW, I eat animal products, and I think there are some arguments about food and culture to take into consideration when thinking about remaking the world into Veganland.

6:11 PM  
OpenID bryucca said...

I just have a stick up my craw when the argument is basically laid out thusly: "I have a personal belief. Let's assume that my personal belief is the correct one. So, if you do not believe the same thing, are you immoral or just ignorant?"

I appreciate the waxing of philosophical and all that to a degree, but why not occasionally take the path where you argue against your own beliefs or at least entertain the thought that they may not be the one true set? Because if it is constantly in support of your own beliefs, it's not a fair philospohical problem, it presupposes a moral rightness and indignation towards the other side. And that I think, it at best a misrepresentation and at worst arrogance.

So nothing against anyone as a person, but these arguments are really frustrating to read. It's a sledgehammer that thinks it's a scalpel. And yes, I know I don't have to read it, but I'd like to without feeling bad about myself on occasion.

9:18 PM  
Blogger Lynn Gazis-Sax said...

I think part of the intuition between the act-omission distinction is that omission is usually easier than an act (although, as you point out, that raises its own can of worms as to how you draw the distinction). Another part is whether my not doing X allows for other alternatives.

Take my assisted suicide example in the last thread. Assume that the doctor with qualms about assisted suicide is wrong in his or her qualms, that from a proper philosophical perspective, assisted suicide (under some circumstance or other) is just fine and dandy. Is it still possible for the patient to commit suicide, if this particular doctor won't assist? Yes. But if we look at the omission side, it may not be possible for the patient to die peacefully if the doctor can't be persuaded to follow the patient's wishes and discontinue certain forms of medical care.

That part of the act-omission distinction, at any rate, works for explaining why in some cases one might be ethically obligated to some omission, without being ethically obligated to an act that achieves the same effect. It doesn't explain the part of the intuition where an act might be judged actively wrong, while an omission that accomplishes the same thing isn't similarly condemned.

10:03 AM  

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