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Confessions of a Cheeseburger Ethicist
Some moral mistakes matter more than others
Eric Schwitzgebel invokes the “cheeseburger ethicist”—a moral philosopher who agrees that eating meat is wrong, but eats meat anyway—as the paradigm of failing to walk the walk of one’s moral philosophy.
The example resonates with me, since people often assume that as a utilitarian I must also be vegan. It can be a little embarrassing to have to correct them. I agree that I should be a vegan, in the sense that there’s no adequate justification for most purchases of animal products. I certainly think highly of vegans. And yet… I’m not one. (Sorry!)
So I am a “cheeseburger ethicist”. And yet… I’m not unmoved by the practical implications of my moral theorizing. I’m actually quite committed to putting my ethics into practice, in a number of respects (e.g. donating a substantial portion of my income, pursuing intellectually honest inquiry into important questions, and maintaining a generally forthright and co-operative disposition towards others). I’m just not especially committed to avoiding moral mistakes, or acting justifiably in each instance. Something can be clearly unjustifiable, and yet not a big deal.1
If I’m right about this, then even a “cheeseburger ethicist” may still be “walking the walk”, so long as their practical priorities correspond (sufficiently closely) to those prescribed by their moral theory.
But while disagreeing with Schwitzgebel about the significance of self-ascribed error, I take myself to be further confirming his subsequent claim that “walking the walk” helps to flesh out the substantive content of a moral view. After all, it’s precisely by reflecting on how I take myself to be living a broadly consequentialist-approved life that we can see that avoiding moral mistakes per se isn’t a high priority (for consequentialists of my stripe). It really matters how much good it would do to remedy the mistake, and whether your efforts could be better spent elsewhere.
Don’t sweat the small stuff
As I wrote in response to Caplan’s conscience objection:
[W]e aren’t all-things-considered perfect. It’s really tempting to make selfish [or short-sighted] decisions that are less than perfectly justified, and in fact we all do this all the time. Humans are inveterate rationalizers, and many seem to find it irresistible to contort their normative theories until they get the result that “actually we’ve most reason to do everything we actually do.” But when stated explicitly like this, we can all agree that this is pure nonsense, right?
We should just be honest about the fact that our choices aren’t always perfectly justified. That’s not ideal, but nor is it the end of the world.
Of course, some mistakes are more egregious than others. Perhaps many reserve the term ‘wrong’ for those moral mistakes that are so bad that you ought to feel significant guilt over them. I don’t think eating meat is wrong in that sense. It’s not like torturing puppies (just as failing to donate enough to charity isn’t like watching a child drown in this respect). Rather, it might require non-trivial effort for a generally decent person to pursue, and those efforts might be better spent elsewhere.
That doesn’t mean that eating meat is actually justified. Rather, the suggestion is that some genuinely unjustified actions aren’t worth stressing over. On my view, we should prioritize our moral efforts, and put more effort into making changes that have greater moral payoffs. For most people, their top moral priority should probably just be to donate more to effective charities.2 Some may be in a position where they can do even more good via high-impact work. Personal consumption decisions have got to be way down the list of priorities, by contrast. And even within that sphere, we can subdivide it into the “low hanging fruit” of comparatively higher-impact personal choices (generally reduce consumption—especially of chicken and turkey—stick to “pasture raised” eggs, etc.), and note that the final step from a 90% to a 100% ethical diet may offer significantly lower moral returns per unit of effort.
So it’s consistent to simultaneously hold that:
(1) Purchasing meat isn’t justified: the moral interests of farmed animals straightforwardly outweigh our interest in eating them. So buying a cheeseburger constitutes a moral and practical mistake. And yet:
(2) It would be an even greater moral and practical mistake to invest your efforts into correcting this minor mistake if you could instead get far greater moral payoffs by directing your efforts elsewhere (e.g. donations).
Of course, if you’re already vegan, or could easily and persistently become so with very little effort needed, then by all means go for it! Vegans are awesome, everyone should agree. But there are lots of ways to be awesome, and individuals will vary in which pursuits they personally find easy or difficult, so it’s worth thinking about how to prioritize your efforts. The answer doesn’t have to be the same for everyone.
Still, factory farming is an abomination
While I don’t think the occasional cheeseburger is that big of a deal, I wouldn’t want to give the impression that factory farming as a whole is no big deal. Quite the opposite: Bentham’s Bulldog compellingly argues that factory farming is literally the worst thing ever: “roughly as bad as torturing a bit over 24 billion babies each year.”
Changing one person’s diet to slightly reduce this harm is a step in the right direction. Even better would be to donate to effective animal charities to effect change at scale via initiatives like corporate cage-free campaigns, R&D into meat alternatives, and political advocacy for animal welfare legislation. (I’ve donated over $10k to this cause area, plan to give more in future, and think this is vastly more important than personally avoiding meat consumption, even if meat consumption is wrong and failing to donate isn’t. I think the comparison is a great example of why (im)permissibility is overrated.)
Perhaps the strongest case for prioritizing veganism more is to try to build up a social taboo against animal exploitation, like there is against cannibalism. It would indeed be great if everyone were vegan—if I could push a button and make it so, I would. But if I could persuade just ten people either to become vegan or to donate to effective animal charities, I’d prioritize the latter. (Those charities might even include vegan outreach initiatives that, with funding from ten individuals, could convince many more people of the merits of veganism.) And I take it that my actual situation is one in which I might reasonably hope to persuade a few people on the margins, but not anything close to everyone. (Not even Peter Singer has managed that, alas!)
Animals matter. Eating them is (in typical cases) clearly wrong and unjustifiable. If you can avoid it without too much trouble: great! But avoiding wrongdoing should not be our top priority as moral agents. Rather, we’ve more reason to direct our efforts in whatever ways would (expectably) do more good. Like by donating to effective animal charities. So: do that!
You don’t have to feel (very) bad about the occasional burger. But whatever you do, don’t let cognitive dissonance from meat-eating delude you into believing that animals don’t matter, or that you can’t make a difference. They do, and you can. But, as in all areas of life, the main difference you make will not be via your personal consumption decisions. Those aren’t the morally weighty decisions (however clear-cut they may be). If that’s where your moral attention is currently focused, consider shifting your focus to the bigger picture, and how you could have a greater impact there.
This is more obvious when thinking about prudential errors. Sometimes, when I’m already tired, I stay up too late playing computer games in a way that is clearly irrational. It’s all-things-considered the wrong decision. But it’s also not a big deal. Putting a lot of effort into trying to change this akratic disposition, merely to avoid the occasional minor error, would itself be irrational.