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Moral Moments

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The Etiquette of Ethics, or Morality as an Affliction: the Feeling Fallacy

by Joel Marks

“Guess who’s coming to dinner: the ethicist. He doesn’t eat meat, so we’d better prepare a separate dish without meat. We don’t want to hurt his feelings.” Sigh. That’s the treatment I often get. I guess I’m lucky to be invited to dinner at all since it probably puts many hosts out to come up with a non-meat dish. The whole business of social eating becomes problematical for a person who is concerned about animal welfare and animal rights. You see, becoming an ethical vegetarian involves much more than deciding that meat-eating is morally wrong, and even altering your whole diet accordingly. You also have to re-think your interactions with other people.

There are your hosts: Do you make your preferences known to them? There are your own guests: Do you ‘impose’ your ‘taste’ on them? There are your spouse and your children: Ditto. Even that is not the end of it. Suppose you, the vegetarian, adopt a ‘live and let live’ attitude (an expression that I find ironic in this case, however, since to let other people ‘live’ in this metaphorical sense – i.e., to ‘let’ them eat meat – is not to let other animals live in the literal sense!), so you watch out for your own diet but leave others to decide their own. Should you, at the minimum, express your disapproval of their choice?

To someone who is not concerned about the issue of nonhuman animals’ ethical standing, or who just hasn’t thought about it, all of these questions may seem absurd … no-brainers. Simple etiquette, simple courtesy, yes, even simple morality dictates not making a social pain of oneself. Show respect for the other person, just as they are showing respect for you. Especially if the other person has expended the effort to make a dish just for you, you should be showing gratitude, not voicing condemnation. It is the reverse of the reality to be airing your own supposed moral superiority when it is your host who has displayed the superior sensibility by accommodating your wishes.

But if you do take the plight of other animals seriously, then the situation looks very different. Now it’s a matter of life and death, of pain and suffering. No amount of social pleasantries can change that fact. But then do not expect your hosts to sit idly by while you chastise them; for example, they might retort in kind, “Ah, but aren’t you wearing leather shoes?” So before you have even started on the salad, a social evening has become an ethical dialogue … and, more likely, an emotional confrontation, with hurt and embarrassed feelings all around.

I acknowledge, of course, that there are two sides to the vegetarianism debate. For instance, the production of meat in fact brings about more animal life, for if we were not eating animals, we would not be ‘manufacturing’ them in such quantities. Nevertheless, I find the counter-arguments more persuasive; for example, we would not condone the eating of humans just because more humans might be brought into existence to satisfy our appetite for them. In any case, the issue is a serious one, not to be shrugged off, which is my main point. Why is it any more appropriate to acquiesce in the eating of meat, even by another, than, say, to stand idly by while somebody else is beating a child? Or than to admire the lovely lamp shades if you know they were made from the carcases of exterminated Jews?

Of course, this particular dilemma of the dinner table is but the tip of the iceberg for anyone who is not a moral relativist: How do you conduct yourself in a world of absolute values when there will always be other people who disagree with you? If you take your own ideas seriously (as you should), aren’t you obligated to try to influence (indeed sometimes even to coerce!) the behavior of others? Yet, if there were not also an overriding etiquette, wouldn’t we all just go around glaring and growling at one another all of the time (that is, more than we already do)? Civil relations would become impossible. So that might be the answer right there, at least according to a utilitarian. But if one happens to believe that matters of right and wrong do not reduce to matters of social welfare, then the problem remains. But perhaps even a Kantian could allow that the recognition of one’s own fallibility justifies giving others sufficient benefit of the doubt to recommend overlooking most differences of ethical opinion on most occasions.

My own presumably moral discomfort vis-a-vis dinner hosts might even have psychological roots, tracing to a squeamishness I have felt since childhood about uttering literal untruths, such as, when somebody asks, “How are you?” and I’m not feeling particularly gay, to answer, “I’m fine, thank you.” Nevertheless, I adamantly reject the general reduction of ethics to emotions. My hosts usually know me well enough to understand that my objection to eating animals is not just dietary or health-related, but moral. My main reason for trying to do entirely without meat, and for believing that all of us ought to, is that I am convinced that the animals are treated improperly as a result of human omnivorousness.

Despite this awareness of the basis of my position, my wellmeaning hosts often act as if it were solely a question of my sensitivities. It is not the animals they are troubling to spare any pain or disrespect, but their guest – me. Indeed, even that characterization sometimes falls short of my hosts’ concern about me, for the suggestion may be conveyed that my predilection is some kind of disability or affliction for which sympathy is due. It is not only that my moral stance is rooted solely in subjectivity, they believe, but it is a debilitating and unfortunate subjectivity that should elicit pity for me!

I call that the Feeling Fallacy. Although such solicitude manifests a regard for the feelings of others and hence constitutes an admirable part of the civilized landscape, it also, I maintain, represents a moral evasion. It is all well and good for my hosts to care about me … but what about the animals?

© Joel Marks 2002

Joel Marks is Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. www.moralmoments.com.

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