–Arts and letters for the modern age–

Cathode Ray Zone

–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Caring and Catering

by | Jun 13, 2024

As I was nearing retirement, I found myself in an exchange on social media with several philosophers on the subject of conversations between ethical vegans and meat eaters about the rightness or wrongness of eating meat. The following remarks by one of the participants caught my attention:

“…it definitely seems gauche to defend eating meat while eating meat (it is asking enough to ask vegans to watch non-vegans eat meat).”

“If you’re having a lunch with a vegan philosopher you don’t know well, and as you bite into a hamburger launch into why it’s OK, that strikes me as similar to arguing that professor/student romances are OK at a party where you are openly flirting with a student and another professor thinks it’s seriously wrong. Which I think is bad not just because the position you hold would be problematic, but also because one shouldn’t flaunt one’s own scandalizing of other people’s consciences.”

“I do think that catering to other people’s sensibilities, within reason, is basic decency.”

I asked whether those of my interlocutors who agreed with this kind of thinking were inclined to apply it generally. The similarity between the sorts of media employed by animal rights activists and pro-lifers is striking (pictures of animals in filthy, over-crowded conditions and posters of bloody, torn up fetuses) and suggests that a number of vegan activists are as eager to “scandalize people’s consciences” as their pro-life counterparts. 

Regardless, I’m disinclined to accept the idea that catering to other people’s sensibilities is required for “basic decency” in the first place. (The “within reason” caveat is large enough to drive a truck through, so I am ignoring it.) Indeed, once we have moved beyond our family, friends, working partners and others within our circle of intimates and relative intimates, I think our obligations to one another consist of quite minimal, low-bar kinds of stuff and that this gentleman and some of the others in the debate are confusing the supererogatory with the obligatory: what it would be generous to do with what “basic decency” requires. Of course, I am speaking only of our general, moral and civic obligations to one another, as people who have to live with one another. There are indefinitely many other stronger and more specific obligations that we may have by virtue of the various roles we play, whether professionally, institutionally or what have you.

Like everyone else, my concern extends outwards in diminishing circles. Unlike everyone else, I’m happy to admit it. I don’t care about complete strangers as much as I do about intimates, I don’t care about animals as much as I do about people, and I don’t care about strange animals as much as I did about our late pet Bichon Frise. So, unless you and I are involved in some relevant way, I not only don’t care what you think of me or what I do, I’m also not interested in what you think or do, including the ways in which you may choose to “identify.” That you are x, y, or z or may be something I have no choice but to consider, depending on the circumstances – if you are a policeman and I am involved in a traffic stop, for example – but the various things you might think you are need not mean anything to me or anyone else not personally involved with you. 

These sorts of feelings and concerns are fundamental to what I and everyone else find obligatory, permissible, unacceptable, etc. and with regard to what we are inclined and disinclined to do in our interactions with others. In my case, I don’t think I have any general obligation to affirm the opinions, values, or self-declared identities of strangers or otherwise to “cater to their sensibilities.” I do feel obligated not to gratuitously insult or offend most of the people I deal with, in most contexts, but don’t accept the notion that eating a hamburger in front of an ethical vegan or posting a photo of my favorite grilled octopus recipe in reply to someone who believes that eating octopus is monstrous are rightly characterized as such. (The exchange over the octopus actually happened in a spinoff conversation from the initial one and ended amicably.) At least, not if we are talking about mentally sound adults.

So it is generosity, not obligation, that is at issue, and while generosity is appropriately wished for by everyone, it is neither required nor something to be expected from those with whom we do not have any kind of substantial involvement. To demand it or claim it is somehow “obligatory” is to misunderstand what the thing is.

I’ll also note that in the current climate, the tendency on the part of so many to engage in emotional blackmailing and other forms of manipulative behavior substantially diminishes my inclination to be generous in my engagements with strangers or near-strangers. Once one has been told for the umpteenth time that people are so distraught from hearing or seeing or reading something they disagree with or dislike that is it is comparable to being seriously injured or made an invalid or that they are going to be driven to self-harm and suicide if anyone fails to affirm their self-identifications and beliefs, the idea of being generous as some sort of blanket-policy seems like a sucker’s game. 

Increasingly and with alarming speed, we seem to be embracing an ethos according to which we not only are right to impose ourselves on others, but others are obligated to accept and even embrace our impositions. This strikes me as perverse on its own, but it becomes even more so, when the imposition is in the service of some conception of virtue that one has and is at the expense of someone who doesn’t share it. 

Indeed, I don’t really see how to take the demand for generosity – as opposed to the hope for it – as anything other than a mixture of excessive self-confidence, self-righteousness, and self-importance. Non-vegans must be generous with regard to the vegan’s sensibilities, because “we” are sure that vegans are right about the morality of meat eating and non-vegans are wrong. Gay people, meanwhile, need not be generous regarding the sensibilities of orthodox Christians, because “we” are certain that the latter are wrong about homosexuality and the former are right, and so on and so forth. Of course, those representing the losing side of these generosity-demanding-equations might just as well think the same thing, but in the opposite direction, and they often do.

The “solution,” of course (scare-quoted, because the alleged problem is a product of wooly thinking), lies in not expecting too much of people whom you don’t know and getting over yourself. These may seem obvious and simple things, but they are by no means easy, especially at a time when we are not only encouraging everyone to lionize themselves and share far too much with everyone, but when technology has made doing so far too easy and rewarding.