Thursday, January 24, 2008


Recently I wrote a paper for Peter Singer’s course “Practical Ethics” that attempts to answer the question: “does taking morality seriously mean alienating oneself from some of the most essential aspects of human existence?”

The quick answer for most people I think is of course a definite “No.” We can all think about modern moral issues without becoming completely absorbed in them to the point that we lose focus on other interests—art, athletics, careers, etc. Most of our blog readers, I bet, are vegetarians or vegans who have made that serious ethical commitment without separating themselves from anything else important in their lives (except, perhaps, a carnivorous boyfriend.)

But what about taking morality so seriously that it begins to take over other parts of your life? One philosopher we read thinks that moral saints (people whose actions are as morally worthy as possible) cannot lead a full human existence. They cannot be world-class violinists or into high-end fashion or excel at athletics because to pursue these nonmoral interests would take time away from moral actions. A moral saint can’t even take a nap because she could be using that time to serve soup to the homeless. A world of moral saints would be a sad, unfulfilled, and boring place.

And, more importantly, a moral saint would not create positive change in the world because her sad life would not inspire others to make ethical choices. Being a moral leader requires living a happy fulfilled life that others want to emulate.

So moral sainthood is not good – but does that give us an easy way out? Can we stop feeling guilty for not living up to the utilitarian theories that tell us we are ethically obligated to donate 10% of our income to the impoverished or to be completely vegan (or dare I say, even completely vegetarian)?

We can't be self-righteous moral saints if we want to create positive change in the world, be we also can't take the easy way out and be moral slackers. What we can, and should, do, is strive for a different kind of perfection, one that looks at overall impact rather than individual actions. A life that has the most positive impact overall is a life of ethical moderation that others will want to copy.

So what does this mean for animal rights ethics? Should an animal rights activist aspire to perfection? To veganism? How can our lifestyle choices have the biggest impact both in terms of individual impact and the indirect impact it has through influencing others? Is veganism, "the moral baseline of the movement," the obvious answer?

Or sometimes—like in certain eating clubs where the only vegan food day in and day out is old hummus and wet spinach leaves—is veganism too much of a sacrifice that will turn observers away from animal rights? In these cases, might striving for “perfection” be counterproductive?

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