September 18, 2007

Moral Superiority: A Recheck

Posted in Uncategorized at 3:59 pm by nevavegan

It occurs to me that the primary problem with feeling we are morally superior to others based on some of our choices is that the feeling of self-satisfaction might deter us from re-examining our lives and trying to do better.

As I said previously, given the preponderance of the evidence I believe veganism to be the best choice available to me now. Through the years I have questioned this many times and always try to learn more and understand more. I do listen to opposing viewpoints. However, study after study pours in supporting veganism, like the UN study on climate change. And when it comes to ethics, we always come back to doing less harm, and that always seems to beat out arguments for doing more harm.

This doesn’t of course mean that I can just rest on my laurels and stop trying. There are still areas of my life I can improve and hope to keep trying to improve.

I think most vegans feel this way: that trying to do better in all aspects of our lives is an ongoing process. We learn more, and we try to do more, do it more efficiently, and do it better.

When one enters the discussion from the viewpoint that it isn’t possible for them to do wrong, true learning and true understanding is completely prevented.

In the recent discussions with hunters over on Mary Martin’s blog they were entering the debate from the standpoint that because they enjoy hunting and they view themselves as good people, then hunting must be a good thing to do. And the ego (which we all posses) resists any suggestion that we might ever had done anything wrong. Likewise, the hunters instead of being able to look objectively at arguments for and against hunting and then debate those things logically must resort to a cry of “you think you’re better than I am!” and “stop judging me; my morals are perfectly valid.”

I think most of us would agree that not all values are created equal. Ok, some will disagree with this. But for example when I was taking my African History and Culture class in college the teacher touched on ceremonies surrounding “female circumcision.” Now any time I talk to males about this topic they always say “but we circumcise males!” So most of us prefer to use the term “female genital mutilation.” Most of the time the procedure involves removing all external female genitalia, and leaving only a small opening for both urination and menstruation. This is typically done using rough, even dirty instruments in unsanitary conditions by people with no medical training. This procedure is done to eliminate all physical sexual arousal in women and to make it physically impossible for them to engage in premarital sex. My teacher defended this as a part of these people’s culture. For most feminists this is seen as not a legitimate part of culture, but as a grievous human rights abuse.

Am I wrong or culturalist or elitist to oppose this practice that is not part of my culture? I don’t know. I just know that the female children subjected to this suffer terribly. I try to look at my own culture first and correct those aspect that are harmful in my own world first. That doesn’t mean I can’t clearly when something is very wrong elsewhere.

Of course luckily when I criticize hunting I’m not talking about somebody else’s culture, I’m talking about my own culture, the culture I grew up in, the culture where I still live and work, and I’m talking about trying to improve my own culture. That really makes things less treacherous I think.

There are hunters who say that hunting is part of their culture and we shouldn’t criticize it. Of course for some, sexism is also a part of their culture, and they will defend hiring male candidates over female, paying men more, and making horrible sexist jokes with the same vehemence with which they defend hunting. Then there are hunters who claim that they love and care about animals, and that hunting is compatible with caring about animals. In that case I’m reminded of some rather ugly incidents of sexism I’ve encountered from men who claim to care about women and women’s issues. There is this subset of fairly liberal males, who will claim to hold feminist values or claim to support feminist causes, but still continue to practice sexism. But should you point out that their actions harm women, they will deny this. They couldn’t possibly do anything to harm women because they care so much about women.

If anyone watches the American version of “The Office,” then you’ll recognize this type in the blatantly sexist boss who proclaims often how great he is to women. Yes, that’s incredibly funny to me because it’s really true to life. It’s exaggerated, but it’s true.

Which brings me back to my original point—if you believe from the outset that there is not anything wrong with anything you do, then you set yourself up to continually harm others. If you won’t listen to anyone else’s viewpoint, and believe that because you’re a nice person, or because you have a degree, or because your kids like you, that this means you’re incapable of ever doing anything harmful, then you will continue to do harmful things all of your life. Some issues are legitimate questions of culture. Some issues reasonable people may reasonably disagree. In other cases culture is just a red herring thrown in to excuse and cover up the irreparable harm being done.

None of us should ever be so smug in their values and practices to completely tune out other views. And it’s not that I’m tuning out the views of the hunters over on Animal Person either. It’s just that none of them is saying anything I haven’t heard at least 500 times before.

Maybe that’s something that derails discussions sometimes between ethical vegans and people who know nothing about veganism. To the person who really doesn’t understand veganism and has done no significant research on the topic, they generally feel the first thing that pops into their head is not only incredibly clever, but also the clincher argument that no vegan can refute. In this case it was “I didn’t claw my way to the top of the food chain to be a vegetarian.” Ha ha. I’ve heard this or some version of it pretty much continuously since I was 16 years old. Trust me, not only was it not funny then, it’s even less funny now. And it’s hard to respond to it, because I’ve gone over it so many times, and it’s not a value or culture or belief, it’s a stupid quip coming from a place of true ignorance. Who is being disrespectful of whose values here? I suppose the way to respond is a) there’s no such thing as a top of a food chain, in a true food chain everything goes in a cycle, you eat something, something eats you., b) what does that have to do with the way we live in the modern world with houses, cars, airplanes, a huge population, and intensive animal agriculture?

But sometimes I can’t muster up that kind of energy, so I just stop responding. I usually feel like I’ve already typed or said everything that’s relevant and it quickly becomes clear that the other person has not listened at all. I’d rather talk to people who are listening.



  1. Gary said,

    Good post! I agree with all your main points. Let me add this thought, which I admit is not original and I’m sure is nothing you don’t already well know.

    Nonetheless: Deep down, most people, including hunters, have consciences, basic principles not unlike yours or mine, and a desire for peace of mind. To needlessly commit violence against innocents violates all those deep-seated concerns, values, and desires. However, as you know, people engaged in violence or wrongdoing for one reason or another (often it is some sort of habitual pleasure, heavily enabled and encouraged by peers and society) are frighteningly adept at relying on rationalizations and denial to perpetuate their guilty and/or destructive and/or immoral activities.

    So the debate on hunting (in the modern West, anyway, where it is, above all, a form of recreation) IMHO, comes down to: hunters’ consciences and anti-hunting advocates on one side and hunters’ excuses (and perhaps solidarity with each other as a result of feeling attacked) on the other.

    In that light, I tend to look at pro-hunting arguments as self-protective devices rather than consider them strictly on face value. I also presume inner conflict on the part of the hunter, based, in turn, on the presumption that he/she has the aforementioned conscience, desire for peace, and so forth. “It’s our culture,” “We need to hunt to control populations,” and so forth are such weak and desperate arguments that I’m certain the hunters themselves could easily rebut them were they not so vested in (and defensive about) hunting.

    So, as with discussions with omnivores about veganism, I try to leverage the hunter’s own deep-seated (though suppressed) values in hope that his/her conscience and desire for peace will be my ally in convincing him/her to do the right thing and to favor compassion over brutality.

    Of course, this is easier said than done, and to generate changes in behavior may require lots of time, periodic doses of inspiration, guidance, and support, and occasional reminders of the weaknesses of pro-hunting arguments.

  2. Canaduck said,

    Defending the abuse of humans or animals as “just part of another culture” is really just intellectual laziness. The abuse of the unwilling is abuse regardless of whether its practiced as part of a religious ritual in Africa or by a sadist in the United States.

  3. bazu said,

    Oh man… it is so difficult, as you say, to respect cultural differences and still assert any sort of ethical or moral claims. While coming from the culture one is critiquing can be useful and helps make arguments much stronger in some cases, I hope it’s not a requirement- you know much more about hunting than I do, but we both have the same moral objection to it, same with genital mutilation, someone else might be closer to the cultural context, but we might both feel the same opposition to it.

  4. Anonymous said,

    Feelings of moral superiority indicate a profound lack of spiritual (and mental) development.

  5. Neva Vegan said,

    I’m so bad about responding to comments!

    Thanks Gary. I think you’re right and I hinted at the idea in my post, making this a question of culture is a red herring and takes the discussion away from ethics. People feel that “culture” is some kind of wall they can hide behind, even when they themselves are troubled by their actions.

    Thanks Canaduck, yes, it’s an effort to not debate on merits but to shut down discussion.

    Bazu, it is tricky. We don’t want to be cultural elitists, but some practices, like genital mutilation are just so harmful.

    Anonymous, I really prefer people at least put a name so I know what to call them and can tell them apart from other anonymous comments… I’m not sure what you’re saying. I felt I was pretty clear in what I wrote that I feel I can debate the ethics of a practice without feelng morally superior. So I have to assume that you’re talking about others here, not me, and stating something about their mental development. I’m not sure if you’re saying hunters or other animal activists lack spiritual or mental development, so it’s hard to respond. I just have to assume that you mean hunters who hide behind claims of culture and won’t question their actions and thus feel morally superior to animal advocates are lacking mentally and spiritually. I would refrain from making such assumptions. I take issue with their practice of hunting, and while it’s true that many hunters also engage in other harmful practices, I would not want to call any of them stupid or spiritually bankrupt. In fact many hunters have decided not to hunt any longer because something else in their lives woke them up to the suffering of animals and they decided to no longer add to that suffering.

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