Julian Sanchez header image 2

photos by Lara Shipley

Sour Grapes

May 13th, 2009 · 12 Comments

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.

Tags: Moral Philosophy



12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Chip Smith // May 13, 2009 at 3:33 pm

    Yeah, people are often quick to play the “moral preening” card when confronted with arguments for ethical vegetarianism, but this is nothing compared to the hostility reserved for expositors of philanthropic antinatalism.

    I’d Love to hear your thoughts on that subject, by the way. Benatar’s book is a gem.

  • 2 Ben // May 13, 2009 at 5:37 pm

    So, are you going to do a post on why vegetarianism is morally preferable?

    Also, I suspect that some of the animus directed towards vegetarianism and veganism is a result of the fact that animal rights groups and others who advocate it are often unpleasant, e.g. PETA.

  • 3 the teeth // May 13, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    The phenomena you talk about is real, and ‘moral sour grapes’ is a great label for it. In the specific case of ethical vegetarianism, though, I think dismissive responses that looks like moral sour grapes are sometimes something a little different. Dietary decisions are among the most important moral decisions we make, if only because of their frequency. It’s quite possible for someone who has spent a lot of energy thinking deeply about sincerely about food to be entirely comfortable with killing animals for meat. Such a person could think, further, that a moral approach to food which begins and ends with ‘killing animals is bad’ is not just wrong, but also lazy, and encourages the adherent to blithely make all sorts of immoral decisions about food.

    I’m not this person — I believe that while a vegetarian diet allows tons of crummy behaviour, it also by necessity prevents most of the nastiest results of our meals, so it’s hard to get indignant. Factory farms are dreadful for all sorts of reasons, and the cruelty inflicted on animals is one of the biggest problems with them. Still, I’m comfortable with shooting a deer or eating pork (from an admittedly very intelligent, and adorable hog) raised on an ethical farm (an admittedly fuzzy and undefined porn-like quality). An ‘ethically-vegetarian’ diet that consists mostly of processed foods produced in a petroleum heavy, highly-polluting fashion still gets most of the biggest things right — but it’s hard not to be annoyed & maybe a little dismissive if this person acts as if his decisions are far more enlightened than our principled carnivore.

  • 4 Adam // May 13, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    Contra Ben, I don’t think the animus toward vegetarians has much at all to do with the histrionics of groups like PETA. As a meat-eater myself, I’ve long been puzzled by the depth of antagonism of many towards a lifestyle (or moral choice, or what have you) that at worst is entirely harmless. Often this hostility is coupled to a bizarre and tedious form of compensatory machismo: “I like to kill the cow myself and gnaw a chunk out of its hide har har!”

    I’m pretty sure I saw this sort of stuff going on long before I knew anything of what PETA was about. I suspect the issue is that food is entwined deeply with cultural and social considerations, many of which are subtly threatened or undermined by vegetarianism. Of course, in this day and age, it’s a bit rich to suggest our social structure is in any meaningful way threatened by vegetarianism, which is why self-conscious “carnivores” usually come across as boors.

  • 5 LP // May 13, 2009 at 6:42 pm

    “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.”

    I think this is right — an awful lot of people are making significant choices about their lifestyles without ever really feeling like they’re making choices — they’re just doing what ‘everyone’ does. When ‘everyone’ isn’t doing it anymore, the need to actually determine their own preferences, moral intuitions, etc. is thrown into sharp relief, which is an uncomfortable feeling. I think this fear of having to consciously make decisions is part of what underlies this and other forms of rabid intolerance (like homophobia), especially among people who are old enough that they’re pretty committed to the lifestyle they never really experienced choosing.

  • 6 the teeth // May 13, 2009 at 6:42 pm

    Adam: or not so subtly. There are good reasons why some societies consider dietary restrictions or food allergies rude. Participating in a communal meal and refusing to share the food everybody else is eating is hostile, and on some basic level, uncivilized. Or at least it is if it is — this mostly is not the case in the U.S., which is (mostly) for the good.

  • 7 PJ Doland // May 13, 2009 at 11:30 pm

    On an unrelated note…

    I’m looking at your Last.fm widget, and I see entries for three movements from two different Philip Glass string quartets, followed immediately by “CD Laser Lens Cleaner.”

    I know this not to be the case (because I know we both share a fondness and appreciation for Glass, Adams, Reich, etc.), but the playlist leaves me with a comedic mental image of someone naively listening to Philip Glass for a period of time, thoroughly convinced that their CD player is skipping, to the point where they deem in necessary to give “CD Laser Lens Cleaner” a spin in hopes of fixing the problem. Fruitlessly.

  • 8 Mack // May 14, 2009 at 10:26 am

    Sure, but sometimes the emperor really is naked under those grapes. As evidence, I give you $7000 “danceable” speaker cables. The words “gullible fool” are aptly used to describe the reviewer (google Pear Cable and David Clark).

    I have no doubt there are golden-ear audiophiles who hear subtleties I cannot, just as there are oenophiles who sense in wines what I cannot. But beware the temptation to extend that too far.

  • 9 Julian Sanchez // May 14, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    Absolutely. And there’s every reason to think that a lot of that insanely high-end stuff is pure placebo. But there are also folks out there who will insist that if *they* can’t tell the difference between MP3s encoded at 128 vs. 320, nobody else can either.

  • 10 Ewe // May 14, 2009 at 5:28 pm

    Maybe we just weren’t built for veganism.

  • 11 Steve // May 17, 2009 at 10:07 am

    Kudo’s to the author and comments, this is a great discussion.

    The link above about being “not built” for veganism is an oft used link, that doesn’t list any information on the childrens diet etc…or the mothers implementation of a smart vegan diet. Imagine the malnutrition and obesity we have here in America (alone)….yet no one say’s we’re not meant for milk!

    Here’s the American Dietetic Association on a vegetarian (+vegan) diet :


    Remember when discussing veggies having “feelings” that it’s really not the issue. Animals WE KNOW are able to suffer, and feel, so let’s address them first. Don’t let the argument for plants rights devolve into veggie rights…..and remember if it does, and if what you “really” want to do is save plants, then going vegan does that as well, given 60%-80% of our farm land is used for animals feed…..

    Being vegan is easy, it’s convenient, and it’s a pipeline to fantastic food. It’s strange the talk about it’s difficulty, because, it’s really just not hard to implement…I’ve not seen a vegan perspective here yet…..and when you remove the ease, the ethical, and the taste argument, I think all that’s left is the fear of a social stigma, and a label…and it’s sad to me, if we’d let that interfere with compassion.

  • 12 Mike // Jul 28, 2009 at 10:11 am

    I think the vegetarian cultural issue is really more about two things:

    1) The implication inherent in veganism of being judgmental. I think it is wrong to eat animals, therefore you are being wrong when you eat animals every day as a core part of your culture and lifestyle. Sometimes this view of conflict is defensiveness on the part of the omnivore, sometimes it is proselytizing on the part of the vegan, but a basic conflict often develops.

    2) The social inconvenience. I know when I invite people over I normally cook a roast or grill hamburgers. If there is a known vegetarian on the guest list I will need to add something else to the menu, and as a good host I would like it to still be something tasty. Since I don’t eat anything vegetarian that one could consider a main course, this will require some research, experimentation, and extra work. I understand this is as much of a hassle for the vegan as it is for someone hosting, but overall the inconvenience can still grate.

    Personally I have examined the moral issue in depth and decided on something approximately summarized as”my ancestors didn’t claw their way to the top of the food chain so I could defer to a chicken’s feelings when it comes to my food.” Although I do think that animals should be raised when possible in a relative lack of pain and should be killed quickly and efficiently.