I wanted to pull up a thought from the end of the Vegan Envy post below, because it strikes me that it’s of somewhat wider application. As everyone presumably knows, the expression “sour grapes” comes from the old Aesop fable about a fox who, after struggling and failing to reach some tasty-looking grapes, scoffs that they were probably sour anyway. Usually we apply the phrase in the realm of mundane desire, when people persuade themselves (or try to persuade themselves) that what they can’t have is of little value. But it strikes me that there are aesthetic and moral versions of the phenomenon as well.
Go browse Amazon sometime and pull up one-star reviews for the works of a filmmaker or musician considered “artsy” or otherwise imbued with snob appeal: Karlheinz Stockhausen or My Bloody Valentine or even someone with the mass-appeal of Radiohead good bets. You’ll invariably find a series of indignant reviews declaring that the emperor has no clothes, that it’s nothing but noise, and that moreover, all the folks swooning with four-star reviews don’t really like or understand it either, but are sheep affecting appreciation so as to seem highbrow and refined or some such thing. Now, certainly we all know that people do this sometimes: I’m pretty sure I that, as a teenager, I professed to find Benjamin Britten just delightful years before I actually enjoyed anything he’d composed. But it seems odd to suppose that this describes grown people who make a habit of listening to something on their own initiative. Of the trio mentioned above, I like Radiohead and MBV a great deal, but have never really gotten any pleasure out of Stockhausen. But I assume that most folks who claim that they do are telling the truth, and indeed, that I could probably extract some reward from his work, could come to see at least some of what they see in it, if I were inclined to invest the time and energy. I don’t understand vector calculus either, but I don’t therefore presume that mathematicians are just faking a lot of odd squiggles. In the short term especially, as aesthetic bubbles rise and pop, the emperor sometimes really is naked, but with respect to works that have won the consistent regard of afficionados of the form over time, aesthetic sour grapes usually just bespeaks a kind of insecurity—a refusal to admit that one doesn’t instantly and automatically “get” every single work with any real artistic worth.
The moral version is similar, albeit a bit more understandable. I can say, with aplomb: “You know, my ear just isn’t trained to the point where I really appeciate Harry Partch. I can tell he’s doing something interesting, I know it takes some adjustment to really get on his wavelength, and it seems like the investment would probably be well repaid if I gave it a proper go someday, but for right now he’s not doing much for me.” This is not the proper response to the thought that we are failing to respond to a genuine moral value. The unfortunate result is that, faced with moral demands that we’re not prepared to fully meet—or even to meet to the extent we might be capable of—we find ways of convincing ourselves that the purported value is no value at all. So instead of doing something—not all we ought in princple to do, perhaps, but something—we conclude we’d better not do anything. So, from the comments below:
Vegetarianism for health or economic reasons makes sense. Hyper-vegetarianism for moral-purity one-upsmanship does not make sense. Why value animal life over plant life? That’s just neuro-chauvanism. [sic]
It’s possible, I suppose, that this is someone who sincerely cannot fathom why anyone might take the suffering of pigs and cows to be morally salient in some way that the welfare of zucchini is not. If only for my own peace of mind, I’ll assume that this is instead a confused attempt at a glib slippery slope agument. But there’s a second implicit argument: That people who profess to care about animal welfare are just looking for an excuse to engage in moral preening. I see this attitude directed, with surprising frequency, not just to hectoring evangelical vegans, but ethical vegetarians as a class. One possible reason is that, unlike with Harry Partch, we’re less comfortable saying that we simply lack the time or inclination to think seriously about the proposition that some widespead behavior is morally problematic. But if a significant number of reasonable people have come to this conclusion, then thinking seriously about the question carries a real risk of being persuaded—and perhaps of feeling obligated to change one’s behavior. Which is no fun if you like burgers. Moral sour grapes in this case provides an ex ante ground for avoiding that risk—just as we don’t give serious thought to the plausibility of claims that the pope is beaming alien sex videos into the neighbor’s brain through the teevee.