Thursday, March 11, 2010


is one of the most common measures of morality; it's about cultivating virtue and keeping out the things that don't belong. Among liberals and leftists it is often manifested through food. Veganism is not for everybody--only for the virtuous, those who care about ethics, those who are willing to sacrifice. Eating local, organic, produce and excluding whatever is ethically dubious will make you skinny and healthy and. . . virtuous. Right?

Maybe. If one is concerned with animal welfare and the environment, having a lifestyle that supports that is a spectrum, not a step, and it isn't just food. As humans in the first world, virtually everything we do has a detrimental environmental impact. How does your veggie burger hold up against your refusal to take the bus? The clothes you bought new at Wal-mart? Your soap from the dollar store? Do you know what oilfield your 100% vegan fleece came from? Is it really better, just because the bodies of the dead are rotting in the Niger delta instead of marinating in tariyaki sauce?

I don't mean to belittle the efforts of really dedicated environmentalist vegans. They have my admiration and support. I also don't mean to imply at all that any effort which doesn't cover everything isn't worthwhile. I even believe in being vocal about your ethical choices, and I want people to hold each other (socially) to a high ethical standard with regards to environmentalism.

My beef with this comes in when people think it's ok to try to invoke other people's sense of purity. Moral reasoning, I'm fine with. If you want to stop me from eating meat because of justice--because by eating it I'm doing harm to people and creatures who deserve no violence from me--I am absolutely fine with that. However, I'd rather have vegetarianism forced on me by violence than have people appropriate my understanding of virtue to get me to adopt it on my own.

When we disagree about what priorities are appropriate for the wider society to accept, that effects me but it is not an attack on my identity. When it comes to individual choices, there is only person one who should be allowed to decide what belongs in me--in my body, in my ethics--and what does not. This person is me. If I adopt an ethical standard based on selfish and inconsistent hedonism, as an individual you can think less of me, and as a citizen you can help enact laws that curb my outward behavior--and that's all.

I feel very strongly that trouble comes when outsiders try to arbitrate an individual's sense of purity. Religious readers might disagree with this, but I see this as a major problem in religious practice. When the emotional and ethical development process have not taken place for a teenager to reject pornography of their own accord, based on their own moral foundation, others will often attempt to impose this conclusion socially. The result is a massive cycle of guilt and shame. I don't know if it works or not, but guilt is an ugly motivator--and when allowed to fester and spiral into something huge, it does terrible damage to the person experiencing it.

The thing to be avoided is manipulation--projecting your values over someone else's, or usurping their values so that they will act in support of your preferences.

Besides its modern incarnation, there's a very long spiritual tradition of using food to establish or symbolize moral superiority, using purity. My first bout with severely disordered eating was triggered--after many other things had been set in place--by a sacrament meeting devoted to how fasting can make you pure. You don't stop eating because of things you think; you do it because of things you feel. You do it because you want to feel pure and you don't feel like you deserve to live. When you associate purity with restricting food, you can get a double dose of self-destructive relief from one tragic course of action.

When others try to appropriate my sense of purity for their cause, I get defensive quickly. The idea that veganism isn't for everybody--only for the virtuous--pushes all the wrong buttons. I like to see myself as virtuous. I like to feel myself as pure. I enjoyed exercising for seven hours a day on a 1200 calorie, mostly-vegetable diet, and it makes me angry that people who were supposed to be my friends encouraged me to do so.

I think in dealing with these questions it's terribly important to get in touch with your own sense of virtue, your own sense of purity, your own moral reasoning--and to get in touch with your own judgmental side. Saying "I think you are in the wrong" makes it much clearer whose values are whose than saying "you could be pure if you were like me."

Someday, when there are less triggers associated with it, I'd like to become vegan with the exception of
a) foods I've raised myself humanely, and
b) significant cultural and culinary experiences.

I want to eat at the French Laundry, learn to make a spectacular saag paneer, and taste peeking duck when I'm in China. These moments will not come often, and I choose not to miss them.

My values lead me to think a lot about the ways my time and money impact other people and creatures, but they also lead me to assert my own claim to a rich and full existence. I am willing to take a stand for the things I care about. I am willing to make sacrifices, and I care passionately about changing the world for the better. I am not, and do not plan to be, vegetarian or vegan. This is what I believe about the purity and virtue of the way I eat.


SAC said...

From the vote: I wasn't thinking that my problem with it was that it was a pain to read, but then I read for a bit and I realized that it's kind of a pain to read. At least it is in white-on-black. Also, kinda visually cluttery-- you of all people know that I'm not exactly enamored of All Things Modern, but I feel that in this case the extra serifs detract from the overall effect.

Rob Tenken said...

Well, I have no idea what you're talking about with people thinking that veganism is only for the virtuous.

Or . . . *cough* . . . you weren't happening to refer to this quote of mine, were you? "It's not for everyone. It's just for those who want to take a stand. It's only for those who are willing to make a sacrifice. It's reserved for those who want to change the world - even if only a few hundred lives at a time."


Okay. Let me expound on a few of my thoughts.

The path of veganism is one that I feel strongly about (as you well know). That said, I rarely advise veganism and I try to break the stereotypes people have of vegans. I do that by trying not to an ass-hole about things.

At the same time:

You talk about usurping values of others and projecting your own values onto the values of others. I can absolutely see how this holds water. If we agree that there is no objective morality or no real fundamental right and wrong, then all morality becomes essentially personal and, ultimately, subjective. Morality mixed in with subjectivity can be tricky.

One can say "I think this is right," or "I think this is wrong," and from a diplomatic standpoint - from a human relationship standpoint - this is almost always best. However, linguistically, the different in excluding that "I think" in place of a statement of declared fact is that it indicates certainty.

When it comes to issues of importance, especially issues where indecision becomes a moral decision in and of, this certainty has an effect which I find useful.

What I mean to say (though sometimes fail to say) is not that one thing is right and the other is wrong. It is that there is something happening that I feel very strongly about.

Does this attempt to hijack the morals of others? Well, that's definitely not what I'm attempting to do. What I'm attempting to do is plant my feet and say, not "this is the subjective world I choose to buy into," but "this is the world as I see it and it matters." It's more aggressive, it's more decisive, and absolutely, it's more offensive.

It is all these things because it is a call to action. That call is not a call to "believe what I believe or feel impure," but a call to questioning. If this is something that I don't merely "think," but believe strongly enough that I am willing to declare it vehemently, then what is there in this situation which has called for such strong emotions from me? I want other people to question it - to examine it - and inevitably, to come to their own conclusions.

Passion and certainty can be risky things to play with. That being said, a part of morality for me is that we are each ultimately responsible only to and for ourselves. A part of the interconnectivity of people means that the responsibility to the self will inevitably become responsibility to the other, but it will always be responsibility to the other for the sake of the self.

The point of these statements to me has always been to raise a question. I make no claim to provide the appropriate answer for another person, although I can show them the path that I took, the one that was right for me, and why I feel it was right for me.

Rob Tenken said...

I don't like some of the language I used in my own entry (the one that quote came from). I think the part I like least is "transcending human nature." A celebration and fulfillment of what human nature seems far more fitting. The idea of purity and transcendence are linked for me. The very concept of transcendence declares that human nature is insufficient. Well, these days, I'd have to disagree with that.

I don't believe in Universal morality. I believe in choices and consequences, and those will be different for everyone. What I believe, strongly, is that each person should question the environment in which they live and the basic assumptions that they have. Under a microscope, I myself have found that many of my assumptions took my a long ways away from what I believe is right. I think everyone should ask these questions, and my approach is "designed" to raise questions and start conversations.

I sound like I'm trying to defend myself here. ^_^ Maybe I am.

Enough on the hijacking of morals and all that. Other comments.

I think that your specific exceptions are very good ones. I have considered having "breaks" from veganism when traveling, but decided against it simply because my body would handle that kind of food so poorly if I started having it all of a sudden.

The categorization of titles, like vegan and vegetarian, and the implied definition of "one who is vegan is moral and one is not vegan is not moral" is something I also disagree with. To me, this sets of definitions also implies an assumption of Universal morality. For that, and many other reasons, I reject categorical definitions of this kind from the ground floor. Being vegan does good things in the world (in my view, which is why I do it), but as you pointed out with such finesse, there are a massive array of other choices which also have positive and negative impacts on the world we live in. Limiting the scope of what is right to such a narrow view is foolish. Declaring immorality as anything outside such a small scope seems dangerous.

What I meant by the quote I snagged above is that I acknowledge veganism is difficult. It's strenuous. It's something that comes at a cost that is not negligible. However, the consequence of the choice to become vegan is also not negligible. There is a lot to be gained from it in the consequences for other creatures in the world, the environment, and on a health level for the person going vegan. Maybe it's not worth it for everyone. Everything needs to be weighed into the balance, and in the end, only one person judges for themselves. Yes, I strongly prompt other to question things. I didn't question things myself until I was called on to do so by a person who felt passionately on the subject.

I hope I never guilt-tripped ya over veganism. :) I'm sure I did, at least once or twice. Like I said, though, I try not to be an ass-hole about it. Also, for the record, I've always had a lot of respect for your view of the world and what morality is in your own life.



___________________________ said...

Interestingly there is a sacredness survey that was done here: It was part of a study about what values a person considers sacred and how much money it would take for them to violate.

It was based upon the ideas expressed here:

Apparently conservatives have the highest view of sacredness, followed by liberals, and followed by libertarians, who had the lowest view of sacredness of any group. (random, but I read about it on a blog)

Also, the font is annoying. It is your stylistic choice, but I still think it is annoying to read.

Day said...
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Day said...

Rob--to be fair, I do the ethical-manipulation thing as well. One of the things I'm trying to sort out about myself. And thank you for the apology, I know you weren't trying to.

________________, good links, thank you. One complaint/interesting observation, they really don't have anything set up to deal with left-republicans.