Let’s say I believe it would be good for my health to go running every day. But I quickly realize that I don’t want to run every day, and that realistically I’ll only run a few times a month. It’s embarrassing to think of myself as being inconsistent, so perhaps I decide that running isn't actually good for my health after all. In short, I come up with new beliefs to suit the action I was already planning to take.
It's obviously silly to come up with new "facts" for the sake of convenience. Is it any better to come up with new moral beliefs for the same reason?
Sometimes I hear people say, "It seems reasonable to believe that people on the other side of the world matter as much as anyone else. But if I believed that, I should be trying a lot harder to help them, and that would require drastic changes to my life. So that's why I don't believe we have the same responsibility to help everyone." This way their actions are consistent with their beliefs—or at least, their beliefs are consistent with their actions.
Let’s take the question, “Is it wrong for me to eat meat?” Upon hearing the question, I immediately translate it as, “Do I want to stop eating meat?” The answer to that is, “No, I want to keep eating it.” So it’s tempting to answer the first question as, “No, animals don’t really suffer, so it’s fine for me to eat meat.” Very tidy.
Inconsistency, in addition to feeling icky, opens you up to criticism. People love to catch vegetarians eating things they’re “not supposed to,” while catching an omnivore eating a turkey sandwich gives no such pleasure. People love to criticize Peter Singer because he wrote an essay saying we should give money to poor people rather than buying new clothes and cars for ourselves, and yet he personally doesn’t wear rags or live in a hovel. (People rarely talk about the fact that he would find it harder to work as a professor and would persuade fewer people if he wore rags.)
And yet people might accomplish more good if they were willing to set high goals and fail sometimes. Give yourself permission to go partway. I’ve often heard people say, “I couldn’t be vegetarian because I’d miss [particular food] too much.” I felt that way about ice cream. So I spent a summer eating vegan - except for ice cream. It was morally inconsistent, and it felt much less morally pure to say, "I'm eating vegan ...um, except for ice cream," but it resulted in me eating far fewer animal products than I usually did.
And maybe if I'm honest about what I believe is right, someone else with more willpower or different life circumstances will be persuaded and go farther than I will. Certainly Peter Singer has persuaded many people that giving money is a good thing to do, even if he hasn't given away every last penny of his own.
In the end, it’s about what your goals are. Is your goal to be able to take pride in how consistent you are? To be irreproachable because your standards for yourself are low enough that you can easily meet them?
Or is it more important to be honest about your moral beliefs and make some progress toward them, even if you don’t get everything done as well as you would like to?
Reminds me of a saying. Aim for the moon, because even if you miss you'll be among the stars.
Human progress has always be try steps forward, one step back.
As one book put it, "slouching towards utopia."
The goal of life is to constantly be striving for improvement and to improve our relationships and how we impact others.
The value isn't in actually achieving a perfect world, but in making the would better, bit by bit, forever.
Together humanity can compound improvement.
Imagine if we can make the world 1% better every year.
That's improving life 2x every 72 years.
If we can achieve 2% improvement each year, on average, it's a 2x better world every 36 years.
And if you're an optimist then maybe we can improve the world 3% per year, doubling our global standard of living every 24 years, or 8x every century, and 64x every 200 years.
But as long as we all work together, and do our part to make forward progress, we're always striving, and succeeding, on the path to utopia.
Not giving yourself an option of a little mistake is certainly a way to burn out completely. This also works for substance withdrawal. It is much harder, yes, when a friend of yours goes: "I thought you have quit smoking!".
Thanks for this post. :) I wrote a similar comment here.
Singer is criticized for spending tens of thousands of dollars on his ailing mother, but if he hadn't done so, he would have been condemned as cold-hearted and cruel.
Great article! I have recently had success in reducing my intake of unhealthy snacks by setting a $20 fine (to be donated to an EA charity) for each time I ate one for a one-month period. This meant that I could easily get 'back on the wagon' by paying the fine, and continue to aim high. I imagine a similar system could be used to transition into veganism.
Slightly off-topic, but are you aware that there are brands of vegan ice cream?
I've also found that sorbet hits the sweet + cold buttons and I tend to find it tastier than soy or rice milk ice cream.
Have you tried coconut milk ice cream? I think coconut milk makes for better ice cream.
Yes this is pretty good - not quite as good as dairy, but close.
In the UK I like "Swedish Glace" as a non-dairy ice cream. Not sure if they have it over the pond though.
Tofutti is amazing, better than regular ice cream. And there are many other brands out there in the US and around the world – just check the freezer isle in Trader Joes and organic/health food stores
I am aware but not a fan of the vegan ice creams I've tried. :-)
Great article and good points. I have felt that way about both the percentage I give every year as well as the number of animal products I consume. I find it better for me to slowly increase the percentage each year (decrease in the case of consuming animals!). Just because it's not where I could be, doesn't make me stop from aiming high..I will get there.