Saturday, April 22, 2006

On Vegans, carnivores, and ethics of persuasion

So our little blog has been silent of late. For my part I apologize for falling down on the job. I committed to posting and I haven't been. Consider this my penance.

With Monica Gerrek's permission I would like to recount a conversation we had as a way of opening up a subject for discussion. At the BG conference on Practical Reason, I was eating a delicious buttered scone. I asked Monica if she had tried them. Her response was that she doesn't eat animal products. It was unexpected. (I haven't quite kept track of who's a vegetarian, who's a vegan and who's a steak loving minion of Satan). I immediately felt compelled to apologize. She quickly added, "But are they good? " To which I made a joke and said, "Well they were good, but not now!" She laughed and added to my joke, "I mean you know even though their immoral right?" I laughed and nodded. Then she felt compelled as well to apologize. About that time Michael Smith started talking. But something bothered me and it wasn't M. Smith's take of Davidson. I had apologized for eating the scone and Monica had apologized for pointing out that eating the scone was immoral. But why? What was my apology for? What was hers? Even more important than perhaps the psychological reason why we did apologize, should we? My apology was an instinctive response to causing Monica pain at seeing me eat a scone. Hers, she explained, was a response her past experience with non-vegans. It seems that many non-vegans have said that pointing out that the food they are eating is the result of heinous torture of the animals is not exactly the kind of garnish one wants for the meal. The mere act of convincing or reminding us of the ethics of eating (to use Singer's term) causes the non-vegan discomfort. So Monica said she tends to be sensitive to that.

So here's my question. Did I owe Monica an apology for the pain she ostensibly experienced even though I think (as a non-vegan) such pain is unwarranted? Did Monica owe me an apology for possibly causing me to consider the ethics of eating WHILE I'm eating? After all of this Monica and I considered a different problem. Suppose your a vegan and consider eating butter filled scones a travesty for the cows of the world. Should you apologize for ruining my scone tasting experience? If I say, "Not while I'm eating" are you obligated to reserve your proselytizing to another time when I'm up for debate not scones? Or could she still register her disapproval without giving me details about factory farms. Suppose I say, "I don't ever want to here anymore about the torture of the animals!" You are convicted that my actions are not just callous they are immoral. At what point do you owe me a moratorium on your vegan proselytizing?

The upshot to all of this is that it seems that the question of what tactics, timing, and when to stop are all very ethical sort of issues. They are concerned with what we owe to each other (and to ourselves) when we are strongly convicted of something and another person is not. (if Veganism doesn't engender these concerns insert your own conviction: Libertarians consider the issue was taxes or property rights) Here are some possible trajectories for this discussion. Suppose I'm a consequentialist. How do I calculate the consequences? If we are to maximize something like desire satisfaction who's desire satisfaction counts the most? Vegan, Carnivore, or the animals who would be saved torture if more people listened to Vegans? If respect is most important, doesn't the fact that the vegan seeks to convince the non-vegan by appealing to arguments about morals and animal rights, imply a sense of respect for the non-vegan even if that convincing is offensive. And vice versa? In other words, my offending you has everything to do with which of us is right. So offending you isn't the worse thing I could do to you and it certainly isn't disrespectful. Since I "picked on" consequentialists, I'll pick on my own ilk. How in the world would a virtue ethics approach this? Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the vegan and non-vegan are both phronimoi. They are both virtuous. It seems both could be. They are both respectful and kind, etc. I suppose the phronimoi would just know at what point their discussion was pushing the bounds of . . . what? Friendship? Respect? Magnanimity? If what is important is the kind of people we are supposed to be, then what is more central to character, friendship or our convictions?

I've purposely left any of my own conclusions or arguments out of this for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I'm still working out my thoughts on what we owe to those we are trying to convince. Two, if I had to actually philosophize on every blog, I'd never get these stupid papers finished. And C I'm hoping I've missed something, or assumed something, or annoyed with my diatribe to the extent that it will get us all blogging again.


  1. I recently wrote a paper on the ethics of expression, so let me lay out a 3-minute version of my argument, and then people can poke holes in it.

    It takes it's force from a standard harm principle a la Feinberg, where harm is interpreted as a setting back of someone's interests, making them worse-off. Normally we think that there is a prima facia duty not to harm another person physically. This could be overridden by greater concerns, obviously, and is by no means pacifism. If physical aggression can harm, so too, surely, can speech. I could spread defamatory lies about someone and harm them quite severely by sabatoging their chances at a career, etc. I'm hoping this is all uncontroversial so far.

    The next step is to object also to hurting. Not all hurts are harmful, after all, and yet seem bad. Feinberg has an example in "Harm to Others" where he considers that someone has been taken and given excuciating electric shocks for hours, resulting in no permanent damage. The shocked person has not been harmed by most accounts of a harm principle. His interests have not been set back in any real way (he's just been sidetracked for a few hours) and he has sustained no lasting injuries. I think we want to say that something really bad has happened to him, though. He has been badly hurt in an impermissible way. Let's tack this on to the harm principle, then. There is a prima facia duty to refrain from harming and hurting. Again, this is only prima facia, and may be overridden for various reasons.

    Now we apply the "hurt principle" to speech, and this is the controversial part. It requires that I not say anything hurtful to anyone, unless I have a good reason to do so. I think this nicely explains Jonathan's intuitions about feeling compelled to apologize to Monica, and her apology to him in return. The challenging part of this doctrine is knowing how and when speech will be hurtful and when the "hurt principle" should be overriden. For instance, in an academic setting, there is great value in people being able to speak freely. If I have something critical to say about Aristotle, though it may upset Jonathan, I will feel justified in saying it because censoring myself would be detrimental to the open atmosphere of the department. Of course, this has its limits.

    The theory I laid out has some serious strengths, but I need to bite a few bullets. For one, The prima facia duty to avoid hurtful speech holds whether or not the speech is true. That an utterance is true does not, in principle, give me the right to say it. As I have described above, though, that something is true will come into play when balancing the speech-principle against other considerations (in general telling the truth leads to good consequences, rather than bad ones, say). Another difficulty is that the intentions of the speaker do not matter. Just as I should apologize if I accidentally step on your foot, so too should I apologize if I accidentally hurt your feelings. Related to this, I am responsible for my words, even if they are taken the wrong way. If I am misunderstood, I need to make things right until I am understood properly.

    Not falling under a bullet-bite is another objection that Jonathan brought to my attention. Why would we think that an insult, say, hurts a person in the same way that stepping on their foot does? Have I caused someone else to be hurt by calling them a lying son of a bitch, or does the cause of the hurt originate in them? If the latter, then the hurt principle falls apart. I think it's strange, though, to come upon a scene of P crying and to hold that the person Q who insulted P by calling his dead mother a slut, had no causal role. There are interesting issues of psychological elasticity here, but I think there are strong reasons to think that I can cause, and therefore be responsible for, emotional states in others.

    There are more details in the theory to be explained, but that's the basic idea.

  2. I should add that the above requirement is totally consistent with a legal right to free speech. I would not advocate any change in law. As we know, having a right to something does not inform you about when it's morally permissible to exercise that right.

  3. Arthur,

    I think you might be leaving something out of your case against hurtful speech. I have two concerns.

    C1. "The prima facia duty to avoid hurtful speech holds whether or not the speech is true. That an utterance is true does not in principle give me the right to say it."

    Really? Why is this? Whence does this obligation to button your lip come from? Why should I not say true things? Does the "truth hurt?" Sometimes I imagine it does. Does that mean that I should not express it? I find it odd that you think so. You mention two cases in the next paragraph, and I think that you see them as parallel while I think they are quite different, and they comprise my C2.

    In the first case you call someone a lying SOB and in the second you walk upon someone who has just called P's dead mother a slut. In the first case you have (let's say) spoken a truth. R is a lying son of a bitch. Everyone knows it. He spreads lies about people and causes conflict through his crazy lies. We may even suppose that he does this pathalogically, and doesn't really notice when he does it. In this case you call him on it and he is sad. The hurt does originate in him. You are speaking a truth (you might have been a bit nicer, but I don't see any reason to necessarily) and he is hurt by it. Maybe he needed to hear it. Maybe the next time he won't do it.

    This seems akin to many other sorts of harms that we do with good reason. If you rob a bank I will lock you in prison. If you need surgery I will do that (assuming that I'm a MD) even though you will be in pain as a result.

    In the second case Q has called P's dead mother a slut. This might or might not be true. It seems that in this case the only objective was harm/hurt.

    There seems to be a difference between my throwing a brick at you and my knocking you down such that you avoid a thrown brick. Both hurt, but only the one is a harm.

    I don't see (1) that we have an obligation not to say true things, and (2) how it is that you can lump the hurt principle in with the harm principle.

    Back to studying for logic. Thanks for the respite!

  4. Ha! I realize that i only responded to Arthur and not to the OP. I don't think that either JMiles or Monica had any moral obligation to appoligize to each other.

  5. A quick response in lieu of a response by Arthur.

    Your first concern, Matteson, may have overlooked a caveat. Let me quote the bit by Arthur: "The prima facia duty to avoid hurtful speech holds whether or not the speech is true. That an utterance is true does not in principle give me the right to say it."

    Actually, there are two relevant caveats here. The first is "prima facie." That prima facie duty could be overridden by the simplest of things. Like, say, certain kinds of truth that help the rest of us even if it harms the subject of the story (like with gossip), or whatever.

    Secondly, the "in principle" bit means that truth alone is insufficient to override the prima facie duty. If I were Arthur, I think I would say something like "truth plus benefit equals possible reason to tell it." But all the work would be done by the benefit, and very little by the truth.

  6. Jaworski's comment is on target. I think Matteson's worries should largely be covered with a fuller explanation of the prima facie status of the principle.

    It seems that matteson also worried about causing mental states in others. I agree that this is controversial. It is certainly true that some people have a great deal of control over how external events alter their mood, emotions, etc. Other people have very little control, and are easily affected by their environment (or other people). I have never bought the radical free-will line that says we are psychologically infinately elastic if we choose to be. It may be possible for some people to train themselves to be immune to outside forces, but this is rare. Everyone, I think, has unchosen emotional reactions caused by forces external to themself. For this reason I think we can say that I can cause (at least be a part cause of) an emotional state in someone else. If we hold a principle that says something like "we are responsible for what we cause" the implication is that I have some moral constraints on what I can say to people.

    I think convention has internalized this principle in most of us already. This is why jonathan apologized to Monica. It's dubious that his eating a pastry actually caused her emotional harm, but if it did, the apology was certainly in order. If he had known about her veganism ahead of time, it would have duty-bound him in certain ways to appreciate her feelings. Remember again that this is prima facie, though. There may be other reasons why the requirement ends up being less strict in practice (imagine the work of researching the anxieties and neuroses of every member of the department - just the people in my office would take weeks!)

  7. I think I may have stated my position less stringently than I intended. I don't think that the rule that "we are responsible for what we cause" is at odds with my claim that I am not responsible for the mental states that you have in reaction to my statements (to draw a slightly determinist picture.)

    If I make a (seemingly) harmless statement to you and you for some reason or other take massive offense to it or break down crying or whatever then I don't know why it is that I am responsible for your emotional weakness. If I say something with the intent to hurt your feelings (or harm your mental state) then I am responsible for that harm. If I make a comment and have no knowledge of your weakness then I do not intuit a connection between my action and your reaction. You are reacting to something else. Something internal to you.

    Therefore, when I say something to you that causes an unintended change in your mental state (or somesuch) I don't see what it is about that which makes it my "fault" in a way that requires an apology.

  8. matteson,

    Your position is a reasonable one, but I want to try to chip away at it a bit. Your intuition that intent should have a role to play is natural, but I don't see that it diminishes responsibility. It certainly may give one less reason to punish or blame you, but it does not change what you have caused, does it? If I react to what you say, my position is that your utterance caused something in me, whether or not you intended it. Now, maybe you want to replace "you are responsible for what you cause," with "you are responsible for what you intentionally cause," in which case that's a different point we can argue. But if we look at the physical rather than mental arena, that you step on my toe unwittingly does not in any way change the fact that you have caused my toe to hurt.

    Surely, in most cases, verbal causes (especially unintended ones) will be only part causes. As you say, you are not responsible for my emotional weakness, which stems from something else entirely. But you are involved in the causal chain that resulted in my hurt feelings.

    Here's a vintage Frey example: one man throws a container of gas in the woods, and a day later another man throws a cigarette in the same location, resulting in a forest fire. Both are necessary conditions for the fire, but neither is sufficient. They are both part causes, and so share responsibility (who we want to punish is complicated, and can be worked out by someone else). Say the container of gas is some trauma I've suffered in the past resulting in a weak emotional disposition. Your utterance (intentional or not) is the cigarette. I think the cigarette thrower, though his act alone (let us suppose, for the argument) could never have caused the fire, bears some responsibility. I'm suggesting that he apologize (at least).

    I think this analogy works. Where I acknowledge the theory is weaker is whether utterances can really cause mental states (though I certainly think they can), and whether we should favor "intentional causes" over mere causes in generating responsibility.

  9. The example that you use is an interesting one. I don't think it works though. I want to make the case that my "mere" utterances don't saddle me with responsibility in a necessary manner. For this to be shown in its own light we need to make it truly unintentional.

    The man who throws a cigarette into the woods is taking an action that Smoky the Bear would not approve of. It already bears the chance to start a forest fire regardless of the presence of a can of gas. Statements don't have to have this sort of built-in recklessness.

    If I say "Wow, those are some nice shoes" whilst pointing to some loafers in a store and you collapse into tears because your father used to kick you while wearing loafers then I have merely said something about shoes and your innate weakness to talk about loafers has caused you to react. Would you say that I should appologize to you? (Probably so if you are one of my friends and I don't want you to feel bad, but suppose that you are a stranger who is standing next to me in the store. I think it simplifies things.)

  10. ok, I take your point about the cigarrette throwing already being sort of irresponsible. I tried to stipulate that neither act was sufficient to start the blaze, but it's fair enough that you might think the cigarette alone is irresponsible. Since you haven't yet disagreed with the rule "you're responsible for what you cause," I'm trying to describe a situation in which you unintentionally cause something awful. Suppose you lean against a wall, and because of decades of structural failure, it falls and crushes my foot. I don't think you should be charged with anything, but friend or stranger, you were a part cause, and I think you should apologize.

    The parallel to your loafers example is identical unless you deny that one person can cause mental states in another. It sounds like that's the way you want to go. Either that or you have to adopt "you're responsible for what you intentionally cause."

    I'm sympathetic to your point that your role in my "loafer tantrum" seems minor, but I don't think you can show that you play no causal role at all. Though it is minor, it is part of the causal chain, and hoists some responsibility upon you. I'm fine with responsibility varying in degree relative to causal role. That's why I don't think we should lock you up. An apology will suffice.

  11. You know, I could have sworn that I said "you're responsible for what you intentionally cause" somewhere in one of my posts. I don't see it now. If I had added that in there than we might have skipped some of these posts. We would have missed my loafer example though, so I suppose all worked out well. ;)

    It may be that we disagree on the extent of the causal responsibility that I bear for the wall coming down, but I don't know that I bear any more responsibility for it than a strong gust of wind or an errant bird.

    Maybe I just want to say that an apology is only necessary when I have done something wrong or negligent. I would sure feel bad about your crushed foot, but I don't know that I would feel a need to apologize for my action. Maybe I just need to express dismay at your poor luck?

  12. Has anyone seen the New Hummer H3 commercial entitled, "Restore your Manhood"??? I am disgusted by General Motors. It shows a man purchasing Tofu at the grocery store, and behind him another man is purchasing a large amount of meat. The Tofu man is embarassed because of his "choice" in veganism SO has to promptly leave the grocery and purchase a new H3 in order to "Restore his Manhood." This is very repulsive!!! If a person comes to the enlightened state that they should not eat meat for ethics or ANY other reason, do you think he'll be embarassed by that choice??? GM has now fallen below the point of no respect from me!

  13. You're suprised and shocked that an advertiser would play on a social stereotype in order to enforce the image of a product that they are selling? It seems to me that an advertiser is wise to play on the stereotypes that exist rather than attempt to create new ones. That's our job. ;-)