Max Fisher apparently shares my own occasional pangs of conscience about not being vegan. I’m a vegetarian of some 17 years now, but realized long ago that what really follows from my own commitments is that I should be fine with eating (most) fish but cut the dairy out of my diet—or at the very least, the factory-farmed stuff. My only excuse, which isn’t much of an excuse, is that keeping vegan is a much bigger pain in the ass, to oneself and others. Fisher happily sheds his guilt by the end of his essay, though:
My mistake–and the mistake of anyone bothered by the diets of others–is placing an objective value judgment on what a person chooses to eat and not eat. […] Diet, like any personal choice, is just that–personal, one of many facets through which we interact with the world, compromising as we always must between doing good for others and making life livable for ourselves. Whether we eat meat or dairy or neither, whether we take time to help needy in Guiana or just a needy friend, whether we sacrifice for animals or for strangers or simply for our own family, all choices are legitimate and all lives valid. Live and let live. Eat and let eat.
This is just lazy reasoning. There is, of course, a limit to the amount of good any of us can do, and each of us has to make tradeoffs and find the point at which we’re content to simply worry about our own good. I expect I’d do more for mankind on net by going to work for McKinsey, renting a studio, and giving the surplus to Muhammad Yunus. I’m not going to, and having struck that paticular balance, don’t plan on losing any sleep over the choice. We may think there’s an important distinction between the obligations to help and to avoid inflicting harm, but even restricting ourselves to the latter category, I suspect few of us can be certain our consumption choices aren’t underwritng some kind of misery somewhere. We all do what we can. Fair enough.
But if these were really just “personal choices”—each a precious, individually-tailored snowflake precisely as legitimate or valid as any other—we wouldn’t use words like “compromise.” Presumably at some point—dogfighting? snacking on great apes? dolphin sushi?—Fisher too is willing to simply say flat out: “No, that’s wrong, nobody ought to do it, and if someone does, the rest of us are obliged to try and make them feel badly enough about it to stop.”
Of course, there are tradeoffs with badgering other people too. I’m not an evangelist vegetarian; I don’t recall ever trying to press a carnivore of my acquaintance to give the stuff up. This isn’t because I think it’s a matter of pure pesonal aesthetics: In fact, I think they all ought to stop. But part of “making life livable for ourselves” means not turning into the sort of noodge who browbeats friends and acquaintances about their dietary choices—at least until they start ordering the Flipper Tempura Roll at Nobu. But let’s not coat this in self-deluding horseshit about pluralism or tolerance or “live and let live.” That debases our ethical impulses by making concern for animal (or, indeed human) suffering one more matter of taste—like a preference for anchovies. Respecting other people’s right to make a different choice—at least within certain broad parameters—shouldn’t mean denying we can judge some choices better than others.
Instead, let’s simply admit that there are things it’s not worth becoming a scold about—not least because you’re more likely to alienate folks than make Tofu Americans of them. Let’s even say that, having drawn our personal lines in the sand, there’s not much point agonizing over the choice or self-flagellating about the next steps we’re failing to take. But let’s not kid ourselves that tradeoffs, once made, cease to be tradeoffs. Fisher thinks factory farming is cruel and, I’m inferring, wrong. Whether cruelty is bad is not a matter of personal taste. Or at any rate, it shouldn’t be: I kept getting the sense, reading Fisher’s piece, that he sees ethics as a kind of self-esteem program, the point of which isn’t reducing the unnecessary suffering of others, but enabling you to feel good about yourself. Relativism is the consolation prize he accepts once it’s clear he’s not a gold contender in the Smuglympics. This, of course, makes no sense: If you didn’t think limiting your subjective pleasures (mmm, burger) served some “objective value,” what would you have to feel good about?
Few of us are saints; few of us are as good as our own moral commitments suggest that we should be. Vegans are, by my own lights, doing a better job of living up to my own commitments than I am. I’m not going to don a hair shirt over it, or start hectoring others. But to then conclude that we might as well muzzle that pesky conscience, that any ideal we can’t quite live up to is just another lifestyle choice, is moral sour grapes and simple cowardice.