Why I’m Sitting in this Chair

by Robert Gressis

A couple of months ago, I had a diavlog with our host, Dan Kaufman. In that discussion, we debated what Dan has usefully called the “morality everywhere” approach; roughly, this is the idea not only that just about all of our behavior is morally evaluable, but also that it is evaluable according to very demanding moral standards. In short, for most of what you’re doing, you can do better, so you should do better.

Since I defended that idea, Dan asked me, “why are you sitting in that chair?” What he meant was this: Rob, if you truly believe that you can and should be doing a lot better than you’re doing, then why aren’t you doing it? In other words, why are you sitting in your chair instead of helping the poor?

My answer was that I was weak of will: I believe I should be helping the poor (or whatever) instead of talking to Dan, but it’s more fun to talk to Dan, so I do it.

Dan didn’t buy it. Weakness of will wasn’t a good explanation for what’s really going on with me. His point was this: if a neutral observer were to look at how I lived my life and asked to come up with an explanation of my beliefs and values based on my statements, behaviors, and reactions, what explanation would she come up with? Would she conclude, “oh, Rob really does value morality over most things, it’s just that he’s chronically weak”? Or would she say, “Rob says he values morality over most things, but he actually doesn’t. Instead, though he values being moral to some degree, he values his happiness more”? Surely, the second explanation is more plausible than the first.

I think Dan is right: the best explanation for what I do is one according to which I don’t accept morality everywhere—even though I think I do!

For the last couple of months, I’ve been thinking about this, because it raises a psychologically — and perhaps even philosophically — interesting question: given that I think the arguments for morality everywhere are compelling, but given that my behavior shows that I don’t accept them, what is happening with me?

Let me elaborate: I think the Singerian argument for the claim that we have very strong moral obligations is sound. And yet I don’t do what its conclusion recommends. I don’t even come close. And I agree with Dan that the fact of my not doing it is explained by the idea that I don’t believe it. So, we have this puzzling situation: I think I believe morality everywhere, but my actions belie it. Thus, not only am I wrong about what I believe, I know I’m wrong about what I believe.

It’s this last part that’s so strange: it would be one thing if I thought I believed morality everywhere, but was self-deceived. Yet this isn’t self-deception; for self-deception to happen, you have to end up being deceived. But I’m not! I find morality everywhere compelling, but thanks to Dan, I now know I don’t believe it.

Now, one way of making sense of this is by adverting to what Tamar Szabó Gendler has dubbed “alief” (see Tamar Szabó Gendler, “Alief and Belief”). In her paper introducing the notion, she doesn’t give a pithy definition of it, but an example will help make sense of the idea.

Apparently, there was a psychological study done where people were given bedpans. These bedpans were clearly new – they were wrapped in cellophane – and they were unwrapped in front of the people, and water was poured in them. The people were asked, “do you think that this water is impure?” and they answered that they thought not. Then, they were asked to drink it, and were reluctant. In other words, though they believed that drinking from a new bedpan was no more unsanitary than drinking from a clean glass, their behavior seemed to indicate that they didn’t believe this.

Because Gendler thinks that the people were sincere about their proclaimed belief, she resists saying that they didn’t believe what they’re saying. After all, given their situations, they had no reason to believe that the bedpans were dirty. It seemed instead that they had a felt association of bedpans with waste. So, instead of saying that the people thought they believed that the bedpans were clean but really believed the bedpans were filthy, she concluded that the people did believe that the bedpans were clean but alieved that they were dirty. In other words, an alief is something like a disposition to react and act in certain ways in certain situations, independent of your beliefs about those situations.

Perhaps Gendler’s belief/alief account explains what’s happening with me: when it comes to morality, I alieve eudaimonism but believe morality everywhere.

However, saying this leaves one huge question unanswered: if I believe morality everywhere, then why don’t I do it? With the bedpan case, matters are straightforward: although you judge that there’s nothing insalubrious about drinking from a bedpan, your past associations make you feel disgust, which, in turn, weakens your desire to drink.

Is this same thing happening with morality everywhere? To answer this, we should think about what someone is like whose beliefs mirror his aliefs.

Someone whose beliefs aligned with her aliefs would, upon judging the bedpan to be clean, feel no disgust about drinking it. Now, for most of us, aligning our belief and alief in this way couldn’t be immediate – such associated disgust is cultivated deeply, so overcoming it would take a few trials of drinking from the bedpan. That said, I’m confident that you could train yourself into no longer being grossed out by drinking from the pan. (The mixed martial artist and Army Ranger Tim Kennedy once said in an interview that Army Rangers train themselves to the point where, when they hear gunfire, their first reaction becomes to run toward it. If people can reform their self-preservation instinct to this level, I’m confident they can similarly reform their disgust reaction.)

So what would a genuine morality everywhere adherent — from here on out, a “moral saint” — look like? Assuming that such a person came to morality everywhere accepting eudaimonism, then, upon giving that up and accepting morality everywhere, he may feel guilt for his past life and feel conviction about changing himself. He would also set about changing himself, perhaps giving up going to expensive dinners and buying fashionable clothing, and instead researching what he should devote his time and money to, and then, upon finding that out, doing it. To keep things simple, he would be drawn to doing moral things, averse to doing immoral things (and there would be many such things on a morality everywhere view), guilty about failing to live up his standard, and proud of himself (or at least not guilty) when he made moral progress.

So what happens with me? Occasionally, I find myself drawn to moral things, and sometimes I find myself repelled by doing immoral things, and a lot of the time, I just feel guilty. But the  overwhelming majority of the time, I just feel nothing. I don’t think about it, or, if I do, I guiltlessly shrug off my inaction. It doesn’t register with me. It’s like Dan said, when I asked him why he doesn’t refrain from eating meat: he just doesn’t care about chickens very much. Similarly, not only do I not care about chickens, I guess I just don’t care about morality.

And yet, it really seems to me as though I shouldn’t eat factory-farmed chickens, and it really seems to me as though the arguments for morality everywhere are right. It’s just that these realizations send no electricity through my body. The conclusions are museum pieces, beautiful and cold and I’m not allowed to touch them. They’re real, but they don’t fit with me.

This isn’t weakness of will; this is something else. What, though?

I’ll start by being very honest: besides the guilt I feel for not living up to my ideal, I also feel pleasure for having the ideal. I think I have convinced myself that I am morally ahead of others just in accepting the very demanding standards of morality everywhere. In Collins’s notes on Kant’s 1774-77 lectures on ethics, what Collins reports Kant saying captures well what I have in mind:

Moral philautia [self-love], where a man has a high opinion of himself in regard to his moral perfections … arises when a man holds his dispositions to be good ones, and thinks by empty wishes and romantic ideas to promote the welfare of the world; he loves the Tartar, and would like to practice kindness towards him, but gives no thought to his closest neighbors. That whereby the heart only becomes flabby, is the philautia that consists in mere wishes, and is otherwise inactive. The lovers of self are weaklings, who are neither brave nor active; arrogance, however, is at least still active.

Perhaps, then, what I have done is this: in the past, I read Singer (and, truth be told, Kant) and intellectually assented to it. But I never really did anything about it. At first, I didn’t beat myself up about it because I was a graduate student, and didn’t have the time or money to make much difference anyway. I had a good excuse! But this means I got used to accepting morality everywhere while doing nothing about it. In time, this became second-nature. Whenever the issue of morality everywhere would come up – in discussion or in teaching – I would realize that I still hadn’t come close to living up to my ideal. But most of the time it operated as one part of the elaborate tapestry of my background beliefs. The longer this went on, the more I despaired of ever reaching it whenever I remembered it. At the same time, I comforted myself by telling myself, “well, at least I still have the ideal – unlike almost everyone else. So I’ve got that going for me.” And I also noticed that most of those other people who espoused the morality everywhere ideal were rather like me: deeply critical of how most people (including themselves) lived their lives, but not doing much to change things. So, I was better than non-philosophers, and as good as most of my peers. In the end, morality everywhere became a petrified intellectual artifact: something I would show people on special occasions, but most of the time gathering cobwebs in my attic.

This is why I think I don’t believe morality everywhere: it didn’t serve the purpose of a belief. It was an adornment, an intellectual jewel. It allowed me to virtue-signal to myself. But it didn’t help me to get along in the world or make much sense of things.

I still find myself assenting to morality everywhere when I consider it. Yet it is not a belief, because I haven’t done what I need to do to make it function as one. I have not trained my flesh to go where my spirit wills, and that’s because of character flaws—sloth, conformity, and timorousness. So, consider this confession also a resolution: I’ve messed up, and I have to make some changes.

Whether or not I actually make the changes, though, depends on whether this confession is done just to curry more favor with myself. The jury is still out.

One addendum: throughout this essay, I have acted as though I accept Singer’s version of morality everywhere. In point of fact, I don’t. His is too extreme. Indeed, about Singer’s morality, I accept a kind of inverse of Susan Wolf’s criticism: it’s not that it’s undesirable to be a moral saint because of all the important goods in life they’re missing, it’s that it’s impossible to be a moral saint because of how everyone else lives their lives and because of how we are — or at least how I am — constituted. Let me explain.

Above, I wrote that the moral saint whose beliefs aligned with his aliefs would be drawn to morally good things, averse to morally bad things, guilty for failing to do the good, and proud for refraining from the bad. This, however, is far too simple of a picture of such a person.

First, to become a moral saint, he would have to resist familial love, or at least regularly consider doing so. Whenever he devoted considerable time to his children, not just meeting their needs, but actively improving them, he would have to consider, “is this OK?” (Witness the case of Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift, who fretted that well-off people reading to their kids gave them unfair social advantages; in the end, they conclude that it’s permissible to read to your kids, because the benefits of close familial relationships can sometimes outweigh social justice. But there is something profoundly disturbing to me about grudgingly permitting parents to satisfy their strong desire to love their children in this way.)

Second, being a moral saint would make it more difficult to have friends. Some of your friends would defensively condemn you as a do-gooder, out of resentment; some of them would be reluctant to spend time with you, as you would inspire feelings of guilt in them owing to your moral superiority; and some of them, I assume, would be good people.

Third, and perhaps worst, becoming a moral saint could make you alienated from the rest of the world and despairing of any hope for progress. Let me give you an example: for a brief, five-month period, I went on the Atkins Diet. It was quite difficult at first, but it had very positive results for my weight and sense of well-being. But a surprising result was that I became quite judgmental: I would see people buying huge boxes of cereal at Costco, and shaking my head in disappointment. “I can’t believe that people are filling themselves with carbs like that!” I would think.

As is commonly noted, though, morality is bigger than the Atkins diet. Almost every choice everyone makes, almost every way everyone lives, would disappoint you. Especially if you managed to succeed in your moral aims. “If I can do this, why can’t they?”, you might think. And what other answer would you give, other than “because they’re bad people”?

Moreover, you would likely look at the way society is structured and despair of improvement. When I was on the Atkins diet, it seemed like society was an organized conspiracy of carbohydrate-peddlers. No matter where you went, people were enticing you with bread and candy. Surely the same would apply to moral saints: how could you look at contemporary, consumer society and not conclude, “society is designed to get us to value ourselves over others”?

This makes me worry that Singerian-style morality everywhere is self-undermining: even if you succeed in reaching moral sainthood, your arrival there will be short-lived: you will become a morally worse person in how you think of others, you will distance yourself from society, and you may eventually find yourself succumbing to the pull of self.

The kind of morality everywhere I can get behind is one that makes allowances for our desire to fit in, to love our family, and to look at our flawed fellows with respect and understanding. I think of this as the ethical equivalent of tithing. You should give ten per cent of your income: it’s hard, but it’s doable. You may give more, but not if it causes the problems of Singerian moral sainthood. This allows for what Kant called “Spielraum,” a sphere of permissible enjoyment free from moral criticism. There’s a lot more I would have to say to really respond to Singer to my own satisfaction, but I can’t do that right now. Instead, I think I’ll go play with my son.


124 responses to “Why I’m Sitting in this Chair”

  1. davidlduffy

    Hilarious reiteration of 2000 odd years of response to demands of Christian morality.

    One point I see is the “puzzles” of efficacy of individual versus group action. If I have a disinterested.wish for the life of the Tartar to go well, rather than having to explicitly allocate them 5% of my household foreign aid budget, maybe I can rely on an appropriate proportion of my taxes going my way – I am not a minarchist. This is the usual argument made by the left against the Effective Altruists or any other kinds of private altruists.

  2. Peter DO Smith

    Dan asked me, “why are you sitting in that chair?” What he meant was this: Rob, if you truly believe that you can and should be doing a lot better than you’re doing, then why aren’t you doing it? In other words, why are you sitting in your chair instead of helping the poor?

    To criticise a belief system because some adherents, despite their best intentions, fail to live up to it, is an extraordinarily bad argument. It is so bad I think it hardly needs answering.

    Any position should be examined on its own merits and not the merits of its adherents. Or, as my rugby coach always urged, play the ball and not the man.

  3. Peter DO Smith

    In case it is not clear, I am talking about English rugby where you can only tackle somebody if he is in possession of the ball. Or, to parody another saying, English rugby is a game for thugs played by gentlemen, while American rugby(what they call football) is a game for thugs, played by thugs. The same can be said for some discussions 🙂

  4. There I go, making terrible arguments!

    The only trouble is: I didn’t make the argument you are attributing to me.

  5. Peter DO Smith

    Oh dear, if I got it wrong then I really do owe you an apology. Please help me out and clarify your argument.

  6. Robert Gressis

    I don’t understand your first sentence. Could you unspool it a bit?

  7. Rob Gressis

    Two things:

    1. Dan wasn’t saying, “your conclusion is false because you don’t live up to it.” He was saying, “you live your life in so different a way from the principle you espouse that the best explanation for this difference is that you don’t really believe your espoused principle, but some other principle.”

    2. It’s ok to criticize a system based on how it’s adherents behave if it’s plausible that they behave this way because they try and fail to live up to the principle. E.g., if my system says “never have sex”, and I try to live up to this and fail and then, as a result, become over-sexed, and this furthermore happens to most people who try to live up to my system, then you can criticize the system for being unrealistic.

  8. Hi Peter DO Smith,

    I posted an earlier comment clarifying Dan’s argument, but it didn’t get through. I’ll try again.

    Dan’s claim is not, “you don’t live up to your principle, so it’s a bad principle.” His argument is this: “the way you behave is so far removed from the principle you espouse that we have good reason to think that you don’t actually believe the principle you espouse. You probably believe some other principle instead, although you might not know what it is.”

  9. Robert i have to approve comments before they post, which is why it takes a little time sometimes

  10. Hi Dan,

    In that case, can you delete my comment from 11:10 am?

  11. You know what? Screw Dan.

    Sitting around eating bon bons and holding Robert to his higher moral standards. Inspiring a crisis of belief/alief while basking in the sun and tasting all the delicacies of our post-modern, first-world economy. Dan in this account is just a jerk, am i right?

    If Robert thinks he wants to be a saint, well that is between him and God. Oh, crap, argument breaking down. Quick, someone find me a secular stand-in, preferably one who (strike who, that?) will withhold judgement as long as possible.

    Grumble, who does that Dan character even think he is? Bet he doesn’t even recycle and they even give you the special container for that. So hard to pick this bin or that bin, I mean it’s just the fate of the world. Some people can’t be bothered. Screw Dan.

    PS. Dan and Robert, you’re both awesome, keep it up.

  12. Recycling? That’s throwing your trash out of the car window on the highway, right?

  13. Hi, Robert. I enjoyed this essay.

    Yes, I remember when Dan challenged you on this issue. I thought it was an interesting challenge.

    I’m reminded of my teenage years. I was a Christian back then. And I read of Jesus saying to the rich man “Go sell what you have and give to the poor.” That was tough. I tried to convince myself that it didn’t apply because I wasn’t rich. But I knew that was merely an excuse. Perhaps it is impossible to consistently live to high moral standards.

    And now, looking at recent comments, I’m confused. Are you rgressis? Or are you Robert Gressis? Or are you Rob Gressis? And which of those is sitting in the chair?

  14. Peter DO Smith

    You know what? Screw Dan.

    I’ve tried but his arguments are impenetrable.

  15. Great post, and really nice to see someone go through a real intellectual transformation by responding to philosophical discussion… how often does THAT happen?

    I will say though, that the Singerian/RM Hare style theorist has some well-worn responses to much of this whole line of questioning. In response to your latter worries (about what would happen if people accepted Morality Everywhere) they just trot out that old distinction between standards of rightness and decision procedures, and insist that while extremely demanding forms of utilitarianism represent the correct standard of rightness, they should not necessarily be used by anyone in their everyday life. I.e. people *shouldn’t* believe the theory, but that is no criticism of the theory at all. In fact, the fact that your passions and motivations don’t align perfectly with the theory is good by the lights of the theory itself; you’ll be a better utility-maximizer by (for example) just taking care of your kids.

    The other line of defense, I believe, will involve motivational externalism. They will say that you do in fact believe the theory in the purely cognitive (i.e. not the motivational) sense. You intellectually assent to it, but this does not guarantee anything like the “electricity” you speak of, because moral beliefs don’t necessarily motivate. And then, when you go to act, you’re moved by a motivational structure that, as previously mentioned, isn’t guided by this belief. And that’s fine.

    Now, I think this is all absolute Looney Tunes and I’m constantly working on ways to poke holes in it, but I do think the Singerian will find all of this a little quick.

  16. Peter DO Smith

    He was saying, “you live your life in so different a way from the principle you espouse that the best explanation for this difference is that you don’t really believe your espoused principle, but some other principle.”

    I am sorry to say this but to impugn the sincerity of your protagonist is an even worse gambit.

  17. Peter DO Smith

    It’s ok to criticize a system based on how it’s adherents behave if it’s plausible that they behave this way because they try and fail to live up to the principle.

    Then one should say so straight out instead of using a rhetorical gambit that one can hear in every barroom.

  18. Peter DO Smith

    I am shaking my head in dazed disbelief. I think the right word is discombobulated.
    At a very basic level we are talking about the gap between intent and its realisation. It is a matter of everyday experience that there is ordinarily a gap between an intent and its realisation. This can happen for a number of reasons:

    1) unrealistic intent
    The target is beyond our means.

    2) lazy intent
    We lack the energy to realise the intent

    3) pretentious intent
    We are posturing

    4) insincere intent
    We are deceiving ourselves and others.

    5) deceitful intent
    A gambit intended for dishonest advantage

    6) ambitious intent
    We set targets that stretch ourselves to the limits of what is possible.

    7) realistic intent
    We set targets that are readily achievable but fail because of outside interventions.

    Now it happens that some intentions are, by their very nature, difficult to achieve, but nevertheless worthwhile. Losing weight is such an intent. Most people fail but it never stops being a worthwhile goal. Running is yet another such intent. The benefits of running are immense. Many people try to run but fail because they lack the necessary persistence and determination. Moral behaviour is so obviously another such an intent that I am quite gobsmacked that we are even arguing about it.

    There is invariably a gap between a worthwhile intent and its realisation. But here is the amazing thing. We may never close that gap but we become much better people for determinably and persistently trying to close that gap. In is in trying to close that gap that we find nobility and worth.

  19. David Byrne once sang, “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.”

    Utopia is a place where nothing ever happens twice, because they were worried they hadn’t gotten it right the first time.

    Ethics is expressed in action. Actions are taken when decisions have to be made. Otherwise, moral theory is just modeling in the head.

    Moral saints are people who create moments of decision for themselves, because life doesn’t seem to present enough of these to justify their interest or self-esteem. They are ridden with anxiety that it might be possible to go about one’s business without having to make a decision every few seconds, so they determine in advance the many decisions they can – “ought to” – make on a daily basis. This anxiety is oft experienced as guilt, and, as the OP suggests, the moral saint grows concerned that others don’t seem to feel guilty.

    It would be a wonderful world where everyone shared the same morality, made exactly the same decisions, enacted these appropriately…. No, actually,that would be a horrible world. Variety is the spice of life – cliche, but true.

    I don’t decide to brake at a stop sign, I just do. Habit, y’know. If I’m late to it and drive through, any sense of guilt derives from the worry there might be a police car nearby. If not, I get on with it and drive on.

    Guilt can be healthy is some situations, I guess; but surely too much of it is pathological. I regret many things, but feel very little guilt – I suffer too many other pathologies that need attention.

    Moral sainthood is the vice of certain intellectuals with too much free time on their hands. It is the practice of standing rigidly while unctuous. But it looks like doing something to the practitioners. They could do it sitting down, I suppose.

    Anyway, a reasonable essay, and I am glad to see Professor Gressis making undeniable progress in these matters.

  20. “Variety is the spice of life – cliche, but true.” Gosh, I regret not coming up with something wittier! Am I guilty of wasting the time of my reader? How would I make amends?

  21. Peter DO Smith

    It is worth examining more closely why there is a gap between moral intent and realisation. That there is a large gap should be readily apparent given the appalling number of homicides, violent assaults, sexual assaults, large prison population, endemic white collar crime, unashamed student cheating, corporate exploitation, etc, to name but a few.

    Almost no one advocates these forms of behaviour. They are universally condemned but they happen in large numbers. Ignorance is certainly not an explanation, so what is going on?

    James Rest put forward the four component model for moral behaviour. He argued that moral behaviour is the outcome of an inner progress through four stages:

    1) Moral sensitivity
    The person must heave been sensitised to believe that moral outcomes are worthy goals.

    2) Moral judgement
    The person must have been equipped with an ethical framework that enables him to make moral judgement.

    3) Moral motivation
    Crucially, the person must be motivated to to act on his moral judgement.

    4) Moral commitment
    Finally the person must possess the determination, energy and persistence to act according to his motivation.

    Moral behaviour then, can fail at any of these stages, and it often does. Equipping the person to pass through these stages requires much more than education. It requires a supportive environment that primes, guides and encourages this passage through the four stages of moral behaviour.

  22. I don’t see why. My thinking is this: imagine two people, Smith and Jones. Smith and Jones both espouse morality everywhere, but whereas Smith gives 20% of his money to charity (though he thinks he should do more), Jones only gives 3% (though he thinks he should give more). Before giving money to charity , Smith spent hours investigating the various charities, whereas Jones just sort of picked one that other people talked about a lot. Smith, convinced that factory farming creates great suffering, abstains from factory-farmed meat and dairy products, whereas Jones eat them just as much as anyone else, all the while claiming that he really shouldn’t.

    Seeing these two characters, it seems clear that Smith does a much better job of living up to morality everywhere than Jones. No one would disagree with that.

    But the thing about Jones is that, though he espouses morality everywhere, he doesn’t behave noticeably differently from people who don’t espouse morality everywhere. It seems as though morality everywhere makes him feel a little guiltier than the average person, and he’ll proclaim it when it comes up, but other than that he doesn’t behave any differently from an average person. In such a case, I think it’s perfectly fair to wonder: “does Jones *really* endorse morality everywhere, or does he just like saying he does?”

    I think that’s what’s going on with Dan’s challenge.

  23. Well, that wasn’t *Dan’s* view. I was just adding that as a possibility. It’s one of the main reasons I criticize communism, for instance. Even if you think its ideals good, it seems to bring with it the same mess whenever it’s tried, which suggests that there is something bad about even trying to live up to such ideals.

  24. I think this is a very helpful list of intents (though I would relabel “realistic intent” to something else, like a “dashed intent”). But my question is, how can we tell which intent someone has? Imagine someone intends A but doesn’t realize it. Why did he not reach A? Was it because he had a lazy intent, a pretentious intent, a deceitful intent, an unrealistic intent, or a dashed intent? To answer this question, you have to use evidence, and the kind of evidence in question will have to do with the manner in which a person fails to achieve his intent, his feelings about it, how he lives his life in general, what the comparison class is, etc.

  25. s. wallerstein

    Perhaps the problem isn’t with the idea of morality everywhere, but with Singer’s conception of morality everywhere. Singer is very narrow-minded and priggish: maybe morality is everywhere, but it doesn’t obey Singer’s dictates. No, I don’t have an alternate conception of morality everywhere, but it could be developed by someone younger and brighter than me like yourself, Professor Gressis.

    Some moral saints do ok. Look at Greta Thunberg. I think that moral saints turn you off if their values aren’t yours, but when moral saints push a system of values that you agree with, you and at least I tend to find them likeable.

  26. Peter DO Smith

    Perhaps the problem isn’t with the idea of morality everywhere, but with Singer’s conception of morality everywhere

    Yes, I agree that is the problem.

  27. Peter DO Smith

    I notice the term ‘moral saint’ is being thrown around with quite reckless abandon and even being used as a pseudo imprecation. This is surprising in a philosophy forum. Philosophers are after all supposed to be noted for their care and precision in using terms.

    Pope Francis spoke of ‘everyday saints’, people whom he described as showing courtesy, consideration, care, respect, giving affirmation and recognition, in the ordinary course of daily life. He urges us all to strive to be ‘everyday saints’. This surely is a worthwhile goal.

    It is important to understand that the Church recognises that extraordinary sainthood is not in the reach of most people. We are called upon to do the best we can within our own context and circumstances. My wife helps the beggars who come to our front gate with such patience, kindness and understanding. She manages my mentally handicapped sister with great tenderness and love. In her own way she is an example of an everyday saint.

    In our parish church we have the teams running the soup kitchens, people consoling the bereaved and helping the depressed or destitute. These are the people with the time, aptitude, means and energy to do more. They are greatly to be admired.

    At the other end of the spectrum we have the example of Sister Ethel Normoyle, who, as a young Irish nun, came to this country some forty years ago. She set about with love, determination and energy to help our starving, suffering thousands in the vast township slums. Her impact has been quite extraordinary. I mention her because this lovely, wonderful woman is in my locality.

    From my examples you can see that there are many gradations of moral sainthood. What they all have in common is a deep, abiding concern for the wellbeing of others. This concern is expressed in concrete everyday actions. They don’t necessarily require complete self-denial or giving away one’s possessions. It is important to note that this is not “chequebook charity”, though of course we give money as well, in moderate amounts that take into due consideration our own needs and circumstances.

    Located on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, Missionvale is a township of an estimated 100,000 people. Like much of the African continent, Missionvale has been ravaged by disease, unemployment and malnutrition. The HIV/Aids virus is affecting 70% of its population, including children. Almost 75% of the adult population of Missionvale is unemployed.

    Yet, amidst the apparent hopelessness, the amazing story of Sr. Ethel Normoyle and her team of Care workers brings a glimmer of hope and comfort to the inhabitants of this shantytown


  28. Peter DO Smith

    The Greeks defined the four primary virtues as being prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. These are inner qualities or dispositions that regulate the manner in which we interact with the world. Some people have listed as many as 52 virtues but they can all be derived from the four primary virtues. However these inner dispositions are more concerned with the self than the other.

    Christianity adopted this scheme. This is not surprising. Even a cursory reading of the Bible, especially the New Testament, reveals that it is infused and suffused with the language of virtue ethics. The great change that Christianity made was that it added Love as a primary virtue, indeed the first and most important virtue.

    This change refocussed virtue ethics on the other person and away from the self, which is the primary concern of Stoicism. And this is where moral sainthood begins, in a real concern for the wellbeing of others. The rest is a matter of gradation in the way we express the depth of our concern and the extent of our concern.

    Next, it should be noted that not only do we live in an imperfect world but that we are also imperfect beings. We all have our foibles, our shortcomings, our defects and fractured personalities. Perfection is not possible. But if we have matured sufficiently we will have embarked on a journey towards perfection, however we define it. We will never get there, nor even close to it but this journey towards perfection is what truly defines us. What matters is starting this journey with sincere intent. We may be taking baby steps but each step is to be applauded.

    These are the lenses through which moral sainthood should be judged.

    How should we deal with the imperfections of others? The Church is very clear about this – “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”. In other words we are called upon to extend tolerance, understanding and forgiveness towards others, since we are also imperfect beings.

    And so, when Robert was responding to Dan’s rhetorical ploy, by replying that he lacked the willpower to leave the comfort of his home to help in a soup kitchen, that was not an occasion for gleeful condemnation. Perhaps it should instead have invoked sympathetic understanding since we all display lack of willpower in some situations. Yesterday I did not go for my usual long trail run. What conclusion can be drawn from that? Is trail running wrong because I can’t maintain it? Am I insincere in my intentions to do trail running? The answer is really simple and it is the same as Robert’s. I lacked the willpower. Today I hope to do better.

  29. davidlduffy

    I would have thought it completely self-evident.
    “The rigorism of the gospel ethic and its failure to make concessions to even the most inevitable and ‘natural’ self-regarding impulses…Men are enjoined to ‘love their enemies,’ … to bless them that curse you and do good to them that hate you…The self is not to assert its interests against those who encroach upon it, and not to resent the injustice done to it. The modern pulpit would be saved from much sentimentality if the thousands of sermons which are annually preached upon these texts would contain some suggestions of the impossibility of these ethical demands for natural man in his immediate situations.” [Niebuhr 1935]
    Or how about the Boy Scout Oath?
    The problem with putting scare quotes around “saints” is that there many individuals who come close to some of these ideals, so we have the question of what our attitudes about such people should be – resentment, resignation, self-disgust, deconstruction, support, imitation?

  30. Bunsen Burner

    ‘Then, they were asked to drink it, and were reluctant. In other words, though they believed that drinking from a new bedpan was no more unsanitary than drinking from a clean glass, their behavior seemed to indicate that they didn’t believe this.’

    I bet they would have gotten a different result if they used beer.

  31. Thanks. You didn’t explain the hilariousness, though. Is it my general cluelessness? My fecklessness?

  32. There are no individuals that come even close to the ideals of a moral saint, as Wolf understands them.

  33. You should try a gentler touch. Maybe a warm-up cocktail.

  34. I enjoyed this very much. By the end, I would say that Robert has found his way to a pretty normal — though perhaps, somewhat square — place. He gives morality a significant but not exclusive or even necessarily overriding place within his priorities.

  35. Hi Peter,

    First, thanks for bringing to my attention Pope Francis’s notion of everyday saints. I’ll have to look into that.

    Second, the sense of ‘moral saint’ I’m using comes from Susan Wolf’s article, “Moral Saints”, of which Dan is most fond, and which he brought up in our diavlog. Wolf distinguishes between two kinds of moral saints: the loving saint, who wants always to do the morally best thing, and so does it, and the rational saint, who believes that he ought always to do the most moral thing, and so does it. She argues that both saints miss out on valuable things in their lives, and so concludes that no one should want to be a moral saint.

  36. Hi Avalonian,

    Yes, those things occurred to me. I think the motivational externalism (ME) line is a little quick, though, in that I’m not sure it’s what’s at issue here. ME claims that you can have a reason to do X even if, owing to your psychological profile, it could never you. Consequently, it can be the case that you believe you ought to do X even if you aren’t motivated at all to do X.

    The question I have, though, is: even if ME is true, can’t it still be the case that you can be self-deceived about your own beliefs? ME’s truth doesn’t guarantee luminescent self-knowledge. So, what evidence would you have to have to know that you’re self-deceived about what you believe as opposed to just having an unmotivating belief? Perhaps ME makes answering this question even harder than motivational internalism.

    Re: the Hareian response: yes, that’s also lurking in the background here, and I suppose I’m giving a morality everywhere reason to not believe morality everywhere. It should be noted that Singer himself doesn’t appear to accept indirect consequentialism, though (does he?). I’m not sure he thinks that it is self-undermining.

  37. Peter DO Smith

    Great idea. I m partial to a good cocktail.

  38. Peter DO Smith

    one take the extreme form of any position and argue that it is ludicrous, which it usually is, almost by definition. But it is an argument utterly lacking in nuance and context, therefore largely useless. There are people drawn to be moral saints, and we celebrate them. Take Sister Ethel Normoyle as a wonderful, beautiful example. People like her illuminate our ordinary lives with their greatness. They are the compass that give direction to our lives. They are the beacon that draws us on, motivating us to be more than we are. That does not require us all to be moral saints but it does motivate us to make a net positive contribution to goodness in life.

    She argues that both saints miss out on valuable things

    I can assure you that Sister Ethel Normoyle does not believe she misses out on valuable things in he life. She believes she has discerned the most valuable things in life.

    And I agree with her.

  39. Peter DO Smith

    He gives morality a significant but not exclusive or even necessarily overriding place within his priorities.

    I think that your distinction between moral reasoning and prudential reasoning is fundamental to the way you judge the issue. I won’t deal with that distinction now. I hope, as I have said before, you will write an essay that explains the distinction, with your take on it and then we can debate it more completely.

  40. I like Negronis. What’s your favorite?

  41. Yes, i know it’s a problem, if left unspecified. My discussion with Robert is over duties in the modern sense — i.e. a la modern moral philosophy — where the distinction between moral and prudential is sharp. It is not sharp or even sustainable, necessarily, in a virtue theoretical context. But then again, the morality everywhere position is difficult to articulate, let alone sustain in a virtue theoretical context.

  42. I don’t think Sister Normoyle would count as a saint in either of Wolf’s senses, but I could be wrong. If she does count as a loving saint (who, on Wolf’s view of the matter, is someone who acts such a way as to maximize happiness in every action he takes), then that would be very interesting empirical evidence against Wolf’s judgment, but I doubt she’s that kind of saint.

  43. I suppose whether morality everywhere is articulable or defensible in a virtue theoretical context depends on the virtue theoretical context you’re discussing. I take it that you favor an Aristotelian one, according to which virtues are excellences that are necessary conditions for and contributing conditions to individual flourishing? Thus, since beneficence to the extent that Singer recommends most likely undercuts individual flourishing, it follows that it would be vicious to be so beneficent? (Unless it turns out that being so giving actually contributes to one’s flourishing, I suppose.)

  44. Arguably, intellectuals like Bentham and Mill (at least the former of whom would probably favor the ideal of a loving saint) probably didn’t have too much time on their hands, given all the positive social reforms they pushed. Bentham, at least, seemed to be someone whose ethical theory affected his actions in pretty positive ways, despite his moral theory being very off-putting to common sense.

  45. Peter DO Smith

    but I doubt she’s that kind of saint.

    She is the kind of saint that matters. A wonderful, beautiful person who lives her faith and dedicates her life to helping the suffering. She makes a real difference to thousands of people. All of Wolfe’s abstract theorising counts for nothing in the face of the extraordinary reality of what she is and does. In person she radiates love, kindness and intelligence. She is the shining example we need in our lives to show what is possible and motivate us to do more.

  46. Peter DO Smith

    But then again, the morality everywhere position is difficult to articulate, let alone sustain in a virtue theoretical context.

    The problem here is that you and I attach quite different meanings to morality everywhere. The meaning I attach to the phrase should have come through in the general tenor of my earlier comments which I don’t think resembles the meaning you attach to the phrase. But I am willing to be corrected(and indeed learn).

  47. Peter DO Smith

    I take it that you favor an Aristotelian one, according to which virtues are excellences that are necessary conditions for and contributing conditions to individual flourishing?

    You should note that the Christian promotion of love to a primary and preeminent virtue fundamentally changes the emphasis from individual flourishing to group flourishing. The whole point of love is to promote the other person’s flourishing.

  48. s. wallerstein

    If all Wolf is saying is that most people don’t like priggish, sanctimonious, “holier than thou” people, well, that’s hardly news. Peter DO Smith gives us an example of a saintly person (I say that as an atheist, but I’ve known similar Catholic priests and nuns who worked in the worst slums in Chile), who is not priggish, sanctimonious or “holier than thou” and if she does not fit Wolf’s categories, well, maybe the problem is with Wolf’s categories

  49. Peter DO Smith

    Turning now to Singerism, which is really what underlies this debate.

    First I admire the man. I think he is brave to articulate his vision and I think he is sincere, even if inconsistent(that sounds like most of us). I think he has done us a great service by bringing moral behaviour back to the forefront of debate in philosophy.

    But I also think he is mistaken in some ways.

    1) his insistence that his vision if true for all and should be adopted by all flies in the face of common sense. We all vary in our degree of moral sensitivity, motivation and commitment(to use Rest’s framework). We ought to respect this and only expect from each what they are reasonably capable of in their context. A nursing mother of five children must necessarily place her family interests first. There are some with extraordinary moral vision, moral sensitivity, motivation and commitment. They serve as role models. They are our compasses and beacons. They are our moral leaders and exemplars. I greatly admire them, but we, the great majority, must balance the demands of our roles in family, work and society with the higher calling that these role models represent. This is a necessary condition for the healthy functioning of society.

    2) The economic consequences of giving a large portion of our income to some overseas charity would be disastrous. If we, or even just a large proportion, did this the result would be a large slump in domestic consumption. The knock on effect of a large slump in consumption is a decline in manufacturing and services output. This is serious recession territory that will cause wholesale loss of jobs. Now people without jobs consume even less and we enter an economic death spiral.

    3) Giving money to remote charities is both inefficient and fuels corruption. Africa is visible testimony to this. Charity must be local for all sorts of reasons, chief of which is that local charity is less vulnerable to corruption because it is more visible to donors.

    4) Giving money to remote charities feeds dependency as well as corruption. Ultimately the solution to a country’s problems must be found by themselves. Our interventions delay their acceptance of responsibility.

    5) Sincerely loving charity reaches out to touch the suffering and feel their suffering. It is involved. It looks in the eyes of suffering and understands their suffering. This matters because the suffering have built a hard shell of resentment about them which is the chief obstacle to their rehabilitation. It takes exposure to sincere, caring people to dismantle this shell so that they can resume a useful place in society.

  50. The question is whether Bentham himself either was, or saw himself as, a Moral Saint. I am not that familiar with his life or work, but I rather doubt it. Generally, practical reformers don’t have time for posing or for stroking their own egos. They may be motivated by a utopian hope, but generally they are involved in fairly mundane politics and efforts at improvements rather than world-transformation. Their personal moral theory may derive from any of a number of sources – far more than the Kantian or the Utilitarian are available in the world. But their actions express their ethics, not their theories.

  51. Ed

    I understood it perfectly.

  52. davidlduffy

    Hi Robert. Not so much cluelessness, but as one whose childhood was spent in the Catholic church, I was aware of the fact that everyone brought up in such a totalitarian ethical system that makes difficult demands will reach some kind of modus vivendi. A small proportion of each birth cohort will take strenuous vows of chastity, poverty and service – we are currently acutely aware of failure modes of this option; a proportion violently revolt to hedonism, godless atheism, or what have you; a proportion attempt back-to-basics-but-not-US-style-fundamentalism, say Liberation Theology or Anglican-style social liberalism; some drift away but often drift back later in life; others remaining observant and sorting out into a range of seriousness of involvement in institutionalized good works that always, in some sense, represent compromise with the acknowledged ideals of the movement (consider use of the oral contraceptive among Western Catholics, the Vatican Bank, or the historical papacy; I was recently rereading Anatole France’s Revolt of the Angels, where a specifically worldly French doublethink is highlighted very fondly). You can see the same compromises in, say, Buddhist laity taking a year or two off to become monks before resuming an everyday life, or how few became Shakers. But this is not philosophy, but moral psychology or sociology. Anyway I see you more as at step one on a further evolution.

  53. davidlduffy

    How is EA and “Singerism” different from

    Elsewhere, Politifact estimates that the Catholic church provides “17 percent to 34 percent of all [US] nonprofit social-service charities”.

    I’m not aware of how much Peter Singer actually has done in terms of setting up institutions to realise his ideas, but one could argue that his writings and examples have been reasonably efficacious in inspiring others.

    Ah, the Wikipedia answers that he co-founded Animals Australia and set up The Life You Can Save (which points to those charities which seem objectively effective AFAWCT, getting around objections 3 and 4), and did stand in the Australian Senate for the Greens.

  54. For several years before and after my conversion to Buddhism, I was a vegetarian, for all the “moral” reasons popular to that practice, and then because of certain Buddhist interdicts against eating meat. However, I pursued this practice on the basis of guesswork and without the kind of medically informed understanding of proper nutrition. I ended up with a profound deficiency of various B vitamins that damaged my metabolism, and was warned by a doctor that the path I was on, however noble, would destroy me. The had an important impact on me, because the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment is that Siddharta, then a committed ascetic, was effectively – and somewhat intentionally – starving himself to death, when he was offered a rice-ball. Without thinking, he grabbed it and shoved it into his mouth and ate it. His shock at this – at the realization that his body’s will to live overwhelmed his rational decision to die – brought about his enlightenment. I was willing to die by practicing my ersatz vegetarianism, but, yet, I was not. The experience forced me to rethink my commitment to Buddhism from the ground up, and I ended up a secularist, and I eat some meat once a day, as little as I need (although that took some time to determine, and I ended up somewhat overweight). In the process, I also learned not to be hypercritical of myself, nor of those around me. “When in Rome, do as the Romans” is also cliche, but actually good advice. In our societies we are but guests and yet host to all those around us, who are also guests. It is unmannerly to demand of others perfection, when have none to offer.

    For that was the great lesson I learned from the Buddha. He did not achieve enlightenment by realizing his perfection, but, on the contrary, by realizing he was as imperfectly human as all the other suffering souls on this planet. The eight-fold-path is not about achieving perfection, although certain sects assert and promise this. It is simply a means of reducing the sufferings that all of us inevitably experience (although there are degrees of individual experience, which is why I never proselytize Buddhism, since it is really not the panacea some sects claim for it, but can be useful to those who need it.

    Any moral theory that demands perfection from us is utopian fantasy. And adherence to such a moral theory is pathological. Ethics begin with our socialization as children, and returns as socialization within our communities. As both a Pragmatist and Buddhist, and as just the guy next door trying to get on with life, I am dismissive of grand moral theories and the rigidity these evoke from certain adherents. I admire practical reformers and others who make the effort to participate in the providing succor to those who suffer, and I do what I can when I can. However, as a student of history, I’m keenly aware that “the best-laid schemes of mice and men gang aft a-gley.” Prohibition largely came about through an unholy alliance of left-wing suffragette social workers and conservative fundamentalist temperance “teetotalers.” The amount of unhappiness that brought into the world haunts us still. “‘Tis better to light a candle then curse the darkness;” but be sure you’re not lighting a fuse instead. “To save a life is to save a universe.” If we remember that’s all we need to do, and in some circumstances that’s all we can do, we’ll be all right.

  55. ombhurbhuva

    Very true what you say international charity. In any case it is well known that the remittances of emigrants far exceeds the sums given by governments and aid organisations.

    I think that we are being presented with a false antithesis between the strenuous moralism of Singer and the flimsy insouciance of Wolf. Following the duties of your station in life, as spouse, parent, friend and so forth is a course which aligns with our common sense intuitions and the wisdom traditions. Plato and Aristotle too have this notion of the good as incarnated in the good horse trainer, sea-captain etc. Supererogation by definition cannot be a duty and yet some people manage it. How? By it being the next step. The boundary of virtuous action and duty is pushed out until at some point we have passed into the supererogatory almost by baby steps.

  56. Bunsen Burner

    I find this topic puzzling. You have written an entire article rationalising your hypocrisy rather than change your behaviour. This is not how we normally discuss moral issues. No one would ever accept a rationalisation for continuing to rape children for example.

    Furthermore the so called moral issues that are always under discussion in such situations seem strangely selective. Take animal welfare. Why do the lives of animals bred for eating have more weight than the animals killed by pesticides used for growing vegetables?

    I don’t buy the Alief analogy either. These results are often accompanied by a visceral reaction in the participants. People concerned with hygiene may very well end up vomiting if forced to drink from a bedpan. This is not the case here. No one is stopping you from helping the poor or going vegan. There is no powerful psychological urge to kick a homeless person or tear a chicken apart.

    My own explanation based on observing people with excessive moralising traits is a much simpler one – narcissism. We all have an internal model of ourselves, and most of us embellish it a bit since we like thinking we are better people than we actually are. In our current world how moral you look has currency. It quickly signals to people what are our partisan associations are, our social status and level of education. Social media has made this signalling behaviour the dominant form of discourse. Some strong personalities, such as Dan, can simply not care about any of this. However, many people do feel the need to display their loyalties and signal their status. This is why actually modifying their behaviour isn’t important. Its just a display of in group commitment.

  57. Peter DO Smith

    How is EA and “Singerism” different from

    First of all, thanks for that find. It is good reference. Second, the numbers are even larger, as the article notes, because most parish level charitable efforts of the Church fly under the radar.

    How are they different? The answer is that this is not remote cheque book charity. The Church has a large presence around the world and it operates its charitable work locally, under direct supervision. They feel, taste and smell the dust of the earth.

    one could argue that his writings and examples have been reasonably efficacious in inspiring others.

    I agree. As I said in my comment, I admire the man.

    which points to those charities which seem objectively effective AFAWCT, getting around objections 3 and 4

    I agree there are some exceptions but they are hardly the rule.

  58. My only objection to this is the example you give at the beginning is a little much.

  59. I actually think this way about many of the appeals to moral philosophy that I see very extreme moralist/activists engage in. It almost seems like the philosophy gets in the way of people “thinking things through” in the ordinary sense.

  60. “And now, looking at recent comments, I’m confused. Are you rgressis? Or are you Robert Gressis? Or are you Rob Gressis? And which of those is sitting in the chair?”

    I contain multitudes.

  61. I would like to think I’m a better person than I am, but I can’t.

  62. Bunsen Burner

    Agreed, I was trying to shock people because I think we need morality to stop people doing truly awful things. It shouldn’t be reduced to a semantic game.

    I also second your ‘the philosophy gets in the way of people “thinking things through”’ comment. It’s not like I like the way our agriculture is set up, or think pharmaceutical companies are wonderful, or enjoy large amount of pollution. It’s that I think these need to be dealt with by serious proposals at the political, social and institutional levels. Turning everything into a game of who is the better person doesn’t strike me as capable of solving anything.

    Likewise, I know I am as broken and imperfect as most human beings. I am ok with that. I’ve lived too long to not understand why so many people’s decisions are sub optimal and that regret is nothing to be ashamed of.

  63. It’s not like I like the way our agriculture is set up, or think pharmaceutical companies are wonderful, or enjoy large amount of pollution. It’s that I think these need to be dealt with by serious proposals at the political, social and institutional levels. Turning everything into a game of who is the better person doesn’t strike me as capable of solving anything.

    = = = =

    This is exactly right.

  64. Peter DO Smith

    yes, signalling without substance is ever present. This is why I love the example of Sister Ethel Normoyle. This young nun put up a small table under a stunted tree on the dusty street of a rambunctious slum township. And then she got to work. It was hard, thankless work under arduous conditions, but she persisted. Slowly she won the trust and respect of those she was trying to help, but it was a long, uphill battle.

    Everyone engages in some form of signalling. It is a necessary part of cooperative, collaborative society. But the signalling must reflect substance.

  65. Peter DO Smith

    I would like to think I’m a better person than I am, but I can’t.

    That is because your commentariat won’t allow it 🙂

  66. Peter DO Smith

    It’s not like I like the way our agriculture is set up, or think pharmaceutical companies are wonderful, or enjoy large amount of pollution. It’s that I think these need to be dealt with by serious proposals at the political, social and institutional levels

    This is the problem I have with street protests and with social justice warrior activism in general.

    If one cares enough one must seriously engage with the system, making serious, carefully thought proposals and motivate support for them.

  67. s. wallerstein

    My guess is that Dan is actually a better person than he pretends to be, but he is so turned off by people who pretend to be better than they are, at their virtue signaling, that he pretends to be worse than he is.

  68. This is a good, troubling comment. It shows to me that I’m a lot more unsettled about these issues that I was when I sent Dan this article to post. Let me respond to what you’ve said point by point.

    “I find this topic puzzling. You have written an entire article rationalising your hypocrisy rather than change your behaviour. This is not how we normally discuss moral issues. No one would ever accept a rationalisation for continuing to rape children for example.”

    That’s one way of looking at it. But there’s another way: there were two issues I was trying to get clear on in my post. First, given that it seems that I believe morality everywhere, but don’t come close to following it, what should I conclude from this? Should I conclude that I do believe it but just fail utterly to live up to it? Or should I conclude that I don’t believe it, despite thinking that I do? I opted for the latter: I don’t believe it, even though I think I do. If I’m right about that, then I don’t think it’s *completely* right to describe what I’m doing as rationalizing my hypocrisy; since I don’t even *hold* the standard, then I’m not hypocritical in failing to live up to it (that said, I do/did espouse the standard, so I am hypocritical in not living up to what I espouse).

    “Furthermore the so called moral issues that are always under discussion in such situations seem strangely selective. Take animal welfare. Why do the lives of animals bred for eating have more weight than the animals killed by pesticides used for growing vegetables?”

    I imagine what moral issues are under discussion is always strangely selective. But the example you give doesn’t seem so strange to me. The reason that the suffering and deaths of animals bred for eating is given more weight than the suffering and death of animals killed by pesticides is that the former deaths seem a lot more optional than the latter. If we decided to forego using pesticides, then billions of people around the world would die. If we decided to forego eating animals for food, then possibly no one would die, and indeed, perhaps more people would live (owing to the negative environmental consequences of eating animals for food).

    “I don’t buy the Alief analogy either. These results are often accompanied by a visceral reaction in the participants. People concerned with hygiene may very well end up vomiting if forced to drink from a bedpan. This is not the case here. No one is stopping you from helping the poor or going vegan. There is no powerful psychological urge to kick a homeless person or tear a chicken apart.”

    I can see problems with the alief analogy, but I don’t think you’ve found them with your examples. I don’t kick homeless people or tear apart live chickens with my bare hands. I find resisting those things quite easy. But I do find eating delicious meat hard to resist because it tastes very good. I also find keeping my money and spending it on myself and my family hard to resist because doing so gives me a lot of pleasure. I don’t think I’m abnormal in either of those ways.

    “My own explanation based on observing people with excessive moralising traits is a much simpler one – narcissism. … actually modifying their behaviour isn’t important. Its just a display of in group commitment.”

    You might be right about this; in which case, this article I’ve written is merely a display of narcissism; and, if the article is right, then my previous adherence to morality everywhere is *also* a case of narcissism. This makes me wonder: how do I avoid narcissism? Perhaps it’s unavoidable — I may just be a narcissist, irrevocably so. If so, then anything I say can be dismissed as a mere expression of narcissism (although, if the narcissism is as widespread as you think, then such dismissals are also expressions of narcissism). For some reason, though, *Dan*’s positions are *not* expressions of narcissism; why is this? Is it that he doesn’t use moralistic language? But he does use the language of virtues and vices — why can’t narcissism reveal itself there too? Is it his manner? I suspect this is the answer, but I’m not sure what it is about his manner that shows him to be non-narcissistic while most others are.

    There’s a lot more I’d like to say about this, but this comment is already far too long.

  69. I’m rather surprised you agree Bunsen Burner’s comment (save for the analogy at the beginning). I thought you thought my article represented a change in view rather than an instance of hypocrisy.

    That said, I am beginning to think Bunsen Burner was right and I was wrong: perhaps I do still believe morality everywhere, and I was trying to tell myself that I don’t really believe it just to get myself off the hook.

    Along these lines, Kant thought there were four responses to the severity of the moral law’s demands:
    (1) Try to meet them
    (2) Despair of meeting them, while nonetheless accepting their reality (he called this “timorousness”)
    (3) Tell yourself that, though you don’t meet them, you’re not a bad person thereby, because you still meet them about as well or better than your peer group.
    (4) Change what morality demands — it turns out that morality isn’t as severe as all that, so you’re not as bad as all that, because you meet fairly non-demanding standards.

    If Kant is right about the content of the moral law, then I went from (2) to (4), which is actually (like Bunsen Burner says), a step backwards rather than a “normal” way of responding to a moral issue. (Though going from (2) to (4) is probably depressingly common, and so, normal in that sense.)

  70. To the extent that the hypocrisy charge implies intent, I certainly do not agree with it. But I do think we are maximally self-deceiving in this area.

  71. Peter DO Smith

    he pretends to be worse than he is.

    I am relieved to know that he is not worse than he pretends to be.

  72. Peter DO Smith

    First, given that it seems that I believe morality everywhere, but don’t come close to following it, what should I conclude from this?

    You are one of us. We are imperfect beings desiring to be more perfect beings.

    Terrific! I applaud your search for better modes of leading one’s life. We might agree or disagree with the manner of your search but we can only commend you for embarking on this search.

  73. Part of the issue, Robert, is the initial entry point. If someone tells me that he wants to try and be more involved in a local charity or that he has made a New Year’s resolution to argue with people less, I don’t even blink at it. But when someone says that he’s wracked with moral guilt over being a teacher, I’m immediately struck with the feeling that something weird is going on.

  74. Bunsen Burner

    ‘If we decided to forego using pesticides, then billions of people around the world would die’

    What a peculiar hyper-utilitarian rationalisation. First of all its not obvious at all that eating strawberries and cucumbers is less optional than eating kangaroo. Some of the most environmentally destructive crops are coffee and soy and yet I doubt you have any such moral worries when you buy your soy latte. In fact its possible to feed quite a lot of people with a single cow so the calculus of trying to optimise food production for the greatest number certainly is not as simplistic as no animals and all vegetables.

  75. Bunsen Burner

    ‘But I do find eating delicious meat hard to resist because it tastes very good’

    That’s just not true unless you are morbidly obese and your death bed. You resist the urge to stuff yourself all the time. Anyway, if what you say is true then it does point to a problem of will power, doesn’t it?

  76. Robert also ignores a very obvious problem. The elimination of all meat, fish, and dairy eating will have a gigantic, negative impact on the well-being of tens of millions of people — many, many of them poor — who depend on these industries, and I would rate their well being as far more important than that of chickens and clams and trout.

    There are further issues regarding human culture and the place of cuisine in it, but those are exactly the sorts of considerations the “morality everywhere” crowd are never going to accept as significant, so I will leave them to the side.

  77. Bunsen Burner

    ‘how do I avoid narcissism?’

    You don’t avoid it, you grow out of it. It is mostly an adolescent affectation and should disappear with the development of a greater degree of self awareness. I found backpacking around the world to be helpful. But each person has to find their own way.

  78. Put another way, I would prioritize the well-being of Maine lobstermen over lobsters.

  79. This is kind of you, but in my case, it’s really more “radical” than that. I think the entire moral scale is lopsided, as a result of “morality everywhere.” As I indicated in my essay of the same name, I think the invocation of morality should be somewhat rare — a view shared by Joan Didion in her excellent essay “On Morality,” which I’ve cited before. From my essay:

    “It strikes me as unlikely that most of our mundane, daily business should have any moral valence whatsoever, even when it involves the little kindnesses and slight cruelties, with which our ordinary lives are filled. Our moral meters should not be such sensitive instruments, and moral praise and blame should be infrequent; saved, as it were, for “special occasions.” For one thing, there’s something absurd about suggesting that every kid’s bologna sandwich or family barbecue or utterance of “Thank you, sir” constitutes a moral offense. For another, there is a real futility in targeting basic, common activities for moral condemnation. The point of moral praise and blame is to get people to behave better, and not only are most people not going to stop fishing or eating bologna sandwiches or saying “Excuse me, ma’am,” regardless of how often they are condemned for doing so, but one runs the real risk of affecting a general moral exhaustion amongst the public that will make it more difficult to persuade people, when the important issues come along.”

    And from Didion’s essay:

    “Questions of straightforward power (or survival) politics, questions of quite indifferent public policy, questions of almost anything: they are all assigned these factitious moral burdens. There is something facile going on, some self‑indulgence at work. Of course we would all like to “believe” in something, like to assuage our private guilts in public causes, like to lose our tiresome selves; like, perhaps, to transform the white flag of defeat at home into the brave white banner of battle away from home. And of course it is all right to do that; that is how, immemorially, things have gotten done. But I think it is all right only so long as we do not delude ourselves about what we are doing and why. It is all right only so long as we remember that all the ad hoc committees, all the picket lines, all the brave signatures in The New York Times, all the tools of agitprop straight across the spectrum, do not confer upon anyone any ipso facto virtue. It is all right only so long as we recognize that the end may or may not be expedient, may or may not be a good idea, but in any case has nothing to do with “morality.” Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble, And I suspect we are already there.”


    So, when I say “I’d like to say I’m better than I am, but I can’t,” I don’t mean to say, thereby, that I’m bad. Rather, that most of what I do is just the stuff one does, and while it may be, in Didion’s frame, “a good or bad idea” on any number of grounds, most of the time, it’s not moral ones.

  80. I see–so you think the reason that I feel guilty about being a teacher is not that it’s not very effective, nor that my research doesn’t make much difference, nor that I see lots of students wasting their time and accruing debt while there, nor that making a difference through administration is exceedingly unlikely; it’s that I’m a narcissist?

    For what it’s worth, you could be right, but I don’t think so in this case. I still believe that the evidence for the ineffectiveness of teaching is quite strong, and it still seems to me that higher education is wasting a lot of people’s time and money all while it holds the mantle of ennobling them.

  81. No, I don’t think you are a narcissist, either in the clinical or ordinary language sense. I think your moral compass has been thrown out of whack by the “morality everywhere” view that moralizes the mundane, the common, the ordinary, etc. I talked about this in my last comment to Bunsen Burner.

  82. Aren’t there environmental effects of eating meat, fish, and dairy as well? I was under the impression that it was well-established that methane from cows was one of the leading contributors to global warming, which has a decidedly negative impact on the global poor.

    At any rate, my main point was to explain why people are selectively outraged about animal suffering owing to slaughterhouses rather than pesticides. Since people have to eat, and since people are important, it’s important to make sure that they have some food that will allow them to live. However, it’s far from clear that most adults, at least, need meat to be healthy (I concede that it’s probably quite important for children to eat meat to develop properly, and I encourage my son to eat a lot of meat), or at least: I don’t think most American adults need as much meat as they consume. I’m no expert, of course.

  83. Sorry, I mean in my last reply to Peter Smith.

  84. I find it hard to put into serious competition hypothetical global warming harms, with millions of people being unemployed and deprived of their livelihood right now.

  85. Is there any amount of lobsterman well-being that you wouldn’t prioritize over any amount of lobster suffering (assuming they can significantly suffer, of course)? In other words, imagine that a lobsterman gets an incredibly small amount of pleasure over boiling a lobster and then throwing it away, whereas the lobster gets an incredibly large amount of suffering over being boiled. Does that matter?

  86. No. And I’m not talking about their eating. I’m talking about their way of life and source of livelihood. Lobster fishing is one of coastal Maine’s main industries, and the tradition of it goes back generations within families. All of which is a thousandfold more important than the well being of lobsters (at least in a person with a normal moral compass, as far as I’m concerned).

  87. Oh boy, I didn’t realize that I’d be held to such a high standard of precision. Did you really have no idea what I meant when I explained why I find eating delicious meat hard to resist? Did you think that what I was claiming was that at all times, no matter what I’ve eaten or how hungry I am, that I find it difficult to resist eating delicious meat?

    What I meant was this: usually, when I’m hungry, and I’m deciding between what to eat–and there are at least two options available to me, and at least one of them contains meat (and I have the means to purchase both of them without worrying about my personal finances)–I find the option with meat in it more attractive than the one without meat. Is that a failure of willpower? Yes! But I thought you were saying that you didn’t buy the idea that psychological obstacles could explain why I don’t live up to morality everywhere. I was trying to explain that psychological obstacles (e.g., lack of willpower) could indeed explain things.

  88. Ouch. I guess I’m stuck in an adolescent phase, then.

  89. We all are, to a certain degree. That’s the ongoing struggle of adulthood. Don’t personalize so much.

  90. In my own case, the struggle with adolescent tendencies has more to do with obnoxiousness and gratuitous combativeness. It is a daily struggle, and I probably will never succeed entirely.

  91. The issue here, ultimately, is the proper scope of morality and the very subject matter of moral philosophy. I think this is incredibly important and that Robert should be credited not just for pushing in a way that brings this to the surface, but doing so in a manner that is personal and accessible and thus, amenable to discussion in a way that academic treatments often are not.

  92. Peter DO Smith

    you have been coming in for some stick, and, as Dan noted, the matter has been personalised. That is a great pity. I for one, am deeply appreciative of the way you have shared the first tentative steps of your moral journey with us. I am sure we can all learn from this. The really important thing is that you have started your moral journey. You have demonstrated a moral sensitivity and awareness that most lack. I applaud this. Your moral journey is still uncharted and it may take you to surprising destinations. I admire you for starting this journey and wish the best on your journey.

  93. I don’t think anyone here means it unkindly, Peter, and I also think that everyone here would admit — as I have — to fighting their own battles in their ongoing pursuit of maturity.

  94. Peter DO Smith

    I don’t think anyone here means it unkindly, Peter

    Yes, and no. But you are allowed to hoist me on my own petard. I have often advocated for the adversarial system where the cut and thrust of opponents in debate is the best means of refining ideas. Debate, if it is to be effective, must one of emotional commitment where we fully engage with all the means at our disposal. This can be a painful, and indeed unkind process, as I have found to my cost. It requires a kind of resilience, which sometimes I lack.

  95. Well, I guess that knowing the people here, I can’t imagine any of them not liking Robert, so I instinctively interpret them benevolently!

  96. s. wallerstein

    First of all, I don’t think that anyone, even Peter Singer, claims that every daily action is literally a moral decision. Whether or not I put on my grey socks or my blue ones in the morning (both of the same brand, with the same fiber content, bought at the same store) is not a moral decision in anyone’s book.

    So the debate is around which of our daily actions are moral decisions and which not. There we might differ.

    Anyway, there are a lot of “bad dudes” (Trump’s phrase) walking around: people who kill, who beat their wives and their children, who deliberately and massively pollute the environment, who swindle consumers, who exploit their workers, who rape women, who rape or abuse children, etc. There are lots of them and if we compare your life as I imagine it to theirs and that of many others who live lives of constant selfishness and/or violence, you’re probably in the most ethical 25% of humanity according to common criteria.

    This whole discussion started when Professor Gressis commented that he didn’t see teaching philosophy as an ethical way of making a living. I disagree. Someone as intelligent as you or Professor Gressis could be earning 10 or 20 times what you earn as philosophers convincing consumers to buy product that they don’t need and are harmful to their health. We should compare our lives to the rest of humanity, not to that of angels (who don’t exist anyway outside of theological literature).

    In my book, to dedicate yourself to teaching philosophy is an ethical decision and a very positive one. Combating stupidity and mental confusion is a loable project. By the way, there’s also the Electric Agora. Do you make any money from that or do you just dedicate your spare time to getting us readers to try to think more clearly because you believe that the world should be a more intelligent place, even if you at times doubt that it will become a more intelligent place. I’m not claiming that the unexamined life isn’t worth living or that the examined life is the royal road to virtue, but combating stupidity, as I said, seems like a very worthy goal to me.

  97. Eh, I can imagine ejwinner not liking me. But I’m not for everybody!

  98. I don’t think that anyone, even Peter Singer, claims that every daily action is literally a moral decision.

    = = =

    Actually they do. As Eric Schwitzgebel put it:

    “Every decision is a moral decision. Every dollar you spend on yourself is a dollar that could instead be donated to a good cause. Every minute you spend is a minute you could have done something more kind or helpful than what you actually did. Every person you see, you could greet warmly or grumpily, give them a kind word or not bother. Of course, it’s exhausting to think this way! But still, there is I believe no such thing as a morally innocent choice.”


  99. EJ doesn’t like anyone. Me he barely tolerates. 😉

  100. The rest I agree with almost entirely. And no, I make no money on EA. It costs me about $400 a year to run, for the WordPress subscription. As for my reasons for doing it, they are several. Actually, I discussed them in my interview with Richard Marshall, to which I linked in my latest “From Around the Web” post.

  101. The discussion concerning the suffering of animals versus that of human beings, and of environmental concerns (such as the methane produced by cows), leads me to wonder what kind of discussion such really might be about.

    Assuring that *no one* ate meat, or that *we all* engaged in environment-friendly agriculture and industry, would require subversion of every democratic institution on the planet,and total deconversion out from a number of influential global religious beliefs.

    So it seems like the debate concerns what sort of utopia we would prefer to imagine even should we never have it. I don’t really see the practical politics here.

    I know some want to translate this as a matter of personal responsibility – “others might eat meat, but I won’t;” “others might not recycle, but I do.” But no utopian theory is needed to reach such decisions, Indeed, no moral theory is needed, although there are obvious certain moral theories that promote vegetarianism and others care and concern for the environment. But if it does come down to a matter of personal responsibility, it must also come down to a matter of personal motivation.

    Treating others with pity or contempt because they don’t share our motivations, or show no interest in our detailed arguments for them, is a step in possible directions towards politics either dangerous or self-defeating.

    I accept most of the warnings concerning climate change; indeed, I suspect that we’re probably too late to take any major action that would reverse it, although we could delay it while we worked on technologies of reversal,or at least of survival. So I would support politicians willing to work for projects of delay, reversal, or survival. But I’m also aware that in a representative democracy such politicians must compete for votes from an electorate that is by no means unified by interests. In practical politics, rhetoric must be deployed as well as reason, and negotiation undertaken with the knowledge that compromise is inevitable, barring a lapse into civil war.

    But there are also some “nevers” one must accept beforehand, to determine appropriate political strategies on the world stage. We’re never going to persuade Muslim cattle herders to stop eating beef; and preventing them from herding without offering employment they would accept is a non-starter, unless we’re committed to establishing and enforcing laws against their wishes. Is that the route we want to take? I hope not.

  102. s. wallerstein

    This is stupid. Every dollar that I spend could be donated to a good cause? I just went to the supermarket; I walk by the way. Instead of buying food, should I have donated the money to a good cause? Did I buy anything “unnecessary”? Maybe, but it seems that everyone has a “right” to suit their own tastes in food. Not killing endangered species of course. Could I be doing something helpful for others at every second of the day? Not really because I need to sleep, eat, clean my apartment, wash, go to the bathroom, do exercises prescribed by a doctor, work to pay the bills, etc. Could I help others more? Sure, but I could also help them less. Could I greet everyone pleasantly? That would be difficult living in a city of several million people and walking down crowded sidewalks. Could I greet everyone whom I know or with whom I come into frequently contact pleasantly? Yes and I generally do so. There’s no point in coming up with ethical rules that no one is going to live up to. That just makes people feel guilty. Maybe a good ethical rule would be to help others, insofar as possible, to live pleasant lives without making them feel guilty unnecessarily.

  103. Peter DO Smith

    I have sat through so many corporate meetings where everyone was talking past the point. It is a strange phenomenon where the real point, the central point, somehow becomes invisible and we only discuss the peripheral matters. And this happened in the three different countries where I worked.

    Today I am reminded of this in our discussion of ‘morality everywhere‘. This is a nice catchy title that seems to encapsulate the matter rather nicely.

    Except that it doesn’t.

    This is not morality everywhere but is instead a narrow conception of morality that refuses to look at the central issue.

    What then is the central issue? I discovered that some four years ago when I was stoned nearly to death(it has taken four years but I have nearly fully recovered from my injuries). Attacks on our person are the worst moral affronts we will ever have to face and this is the central issue we must solve before all else. The US has about 5.3 homicides per 100,000 people(2016), which is bad for a developed country. Then count in the far greater number of violent assaults(386.3/100,000) and sexual assaults(29.6/100,000) and you begin to understand quite how appalling the problem is. Millions upon millions are affected.

    One day, if you are unfortunate, the problem will touch you and you may have to endure the unendurable, the desperate, unending grief of loss. Then you will fully understand what I mean.

    This is not a problem that can be alleviated by cheque book charity or soup kitchens, except perhaps indirectly. It doesn’t lend itself to easy solutions and so we look past it to the easier problems. But that is a mistake. This is the central problem we must address before all else. Poverty does, of course, contribute to the problem and so structural measures to address poverty will help, perhaps quite a lot. Ownership of guns is part of the problem and we should restrict ownership of guns. But that is still not nearly enough because the very root of the problem is a violent American culture that worships the right of the individual to seek redress through violent means.

    This problem has no easy solutions but our failure to even attempt changing the culture is a damning indictment. It is a kind of moral blindness. This discussion is a perfect illustration.

  104. You’ll get no argument from me.

  105. I actually think that characterizing it as a form of narrowness is a good way of looking at it.

  106. I see here nothing more than an intersection of two systems. One is cultural, in which parts are meant to cohere with one another. The other is genetic, where no coherence of parts is to be expected. Sometimes these two systems clash. Nothing surprising about that. A bedpan is usually associated with urinating which is somewhat associated with defecating, and we share with other omnivorous mammals a distaste for our own feces, leading us to bury them, certainly to avoid licking them. In one culture bedpans will carry an association with feces, in another the right hand carries such an association and it is said that offering a business card with the right hand will be experienced as distasteful. These are expressions in culture, bedpans and right hands, but with meanings very closely associated with a genetic meaning, distaste for feces. So they will share the genetic system’s lack of coherence with most cultural meanings.

    Other examples are mental, such as our desire for leisure and our fear of heights. I think science’s limiting of genes to the coding of proteins shields us from recognizing how subtle the meanings expressed in genes can be. Recall how astonishingly similar are the faces, and hence the skulls, of identical twins, entirely a product of their identical genes. The genome’s ability to code so precisely for an extremely complex three-dimensional form should warn us that it can code for just about anything, fear of heights and a host of other mental talents and flaws. Knowing ourselves to be products of a genome should warn us not to expect meanings coded for in that genome to cohere with those in our shared cultural system.

  107. Bunsen Burner

    ‘Aren’t there environmental effects of eating meat, fish, and dairy as well?’

    There are environmental effects to everything we do. You take an incredibly one-dimensional attitude to this argument. Why stop eating all animals if only some of them under some conditions contribute to some environmental problems? Why ignore environmental problems with many vegetables and fruits, especially those not necessary for human survival? What makes beef threatening the Amazon nefarious and Soy not?

    ‘…well-established that methane from cows…’

    Yes, it is. How is this relevant to the eating of other animals though? Rice paddies also emit methane. What is your conclusion from that?

    ‘Since people have to eat…’

    People don’t have to eat strawberries, bananas, or almonds. Why aren’t you arguing for only growing staples like rice and wheat and nothing else because of the damage to the environment and the death of animals from pesticides?

    In fact, I see here something I notice a lot in this type of debate. The constant bait and switch. Argue for one reason, then switch to another when the first is countered. With me you’ve moved onto environmental concerns, not animal suffering. With Dan you bring up the suffering of lobsters. Which is it? In fact tell me this, how much animal suffering is a human life worth?

    ‘Did you really have no idea what I meant when I explained…’

    No. I thought you brought up the work on Alief as a substitute for the lack of will argument. As I’ve stated I don’t believe Alief is just a lack of will. There are strong visceral responses that for some people are impossible to control. An arachnophobe is not someone who just lacks the will to not be afraid of spiders, their body can take over and completely override and attempt at rationalisation. I agree that you probably lack the will to change your behaviour, I just see it as completely different from the Alief examples.

    ‘Ouch. I guess I’m stuck in an adolescent phase, then.’

    As they say, the first step is to admit you have a problem.

  108. Bunsen Burner

    My take on this is purely taking aim at the moral question. How did such complex issue get reduced to simplistic rights and wrongs? If I buy my meat at a Farmer’s market and never eat fruit or vegetables out of season, does that really make a worse person than a vegan buying kale and strawberries throughout the year? We all have an effect on the environment, but for some reason, some behaviours have been deemed odious and some noble even though their effects are identical. What I am trying to understand is why that is.

  109. davidlduffy

    Bunsen Burner engages in some false equivalences – for example Amazonian deforestation for soy as opposed to beef farming. A “morality everywhere” type calculation regarding eating one hamburger takes facts into account, viz most soy is used to fatten meat animals, and if redirected to humans would be far more (say 30-50 fold) efficient in terms of the environmental burden. In this case, we are talking simple prudential morality, once we have set our future discounting rates.

  110. Irrelevant. There are many more non-false ones.

  111. Peter DO Smith

    My municipality should more promptly repair the many potholes in the city. I should drive more carefully to avoid the potholes. These are the kinds of things I consider ‘prudential’ and in the same way I consider the eating of meat to be a prudential matter. Or to look at it in a another way, if I commit only one fraudulent act, I am already guilty of a clear moral wrong whereas if I eat only one steak I am not guilty of a clear moral wrong.

    Then we must acknowledge that we are carnivorous animals, one of member of countless carnivorous species. We are not morally wrong by virtue of our membership of a carnivorous species.. With these understandings in mind we should accept that eating of meat is not per se a moral wrong. We may eat too much meat, processed under questionable conditions and even be disturbing planetary balances but this remains a prudential matter and the act itself is not a clear moral wrong.

    I think that we should eat less meat so that we do not disturb our ecology unduly. I think that meat production should be changed so that we find it less offensive. But attaching the taint of a moral wrong to this issue is a dangerous tactic that redirects societal concern away from severe and pressing moral concerns.

    And we must be clear about it. This tainting of an ordinary act with the odour of moral wrong is nothing less than a tactic designed to mobilise public concern and public action. Perhaps it is a useful tactic but it is a false tactic, itself tainted with the odour of dishonesty.

  112. Bunsen Burner

    David, I wasn’t making any equivalences at all. I just want to know, why if both things contribute to Amazonian deforestation how is it only one is considered bad? According to you there is some kind of purely utilitarian calculus involved. Well lets see it then. Where is the dividing line? Also, how is it that the utilitarian calculus never applies to realistic strategies. For example, it might be better and easier for people to give up eating fruit and vegetables out of season and always make sure they are locally sourced. Why is that not part of the moral equation but eating beef is?

  113. s. wallerstein

    I just read this short review of a biography of the painter Lucian Freud.

    He really wasn’t a very nice person at all. I’d rather have Peter Singer as a room-mate or a neighbor than Lucian Freud because Singer seems more considerate, but I’d rather spend an afternoon looking at Freud’s paintings than reading Singer’s books. In that sense Freud made more of a contribution to humanity or at least to my humanity than Singer did. Life is complicated and overly strict moral rules do not take that level of complication into account.

  114. davidlduffy

    Hi BB. I have trouble understanding your point. “What if everybody (or even, enough people) did X rather than Y?” is usually the question, and in many cases, the technocratic solution is for the true costs to be reflected in prices eg carbon taxes. Does that mean it is no longer morality? It is the case that shipping produce (by boat) the long distances from good growing areas can actually be better than consuming locally.

  115. Peter DO Smith

    thanks for the link to the review of Lucian Freud. It made for enjoyable reading. But then you say:-

    Life is complicated and overly strict moral rules do not take that level of complication into account.

    I am always troubled when phrases such as “overly strict moral rules ” are bandied about. What do you really mean by that?

    Most people, when pressed hard on the issue, eventually concede that they are rules that unduly confine themselves(usually their sexual needs) while they do in fact expect those rules to be observed by others.

    For example, have you had a sexual affair?(don’t answer). When your wife has a sexual affair it will occasion great hurt and disappointment and will usually result in a permanent rift. When you admit a guest do your home you would be greatly angered if at the end of the evening he walked out with your wallet in his pocket. If your daughter is sexually exploited you will become incandescent with rage. If a friend blackens your name through malicious gossip you will be greatly angered and hurt. If someone borrows money from you and fails to return it, will you like that?

    These are all moral failures that you will strongly condemn. Are these “overly strict moral rules “?

    The bottom line is that we are crucially dependent on trust. We trust others to be loyal, faithful and respectful. We trust them to keep their word. We trust them not to take advantage of us. Are we applying “overly strict moral rules “?

    The entire edifice of morality is built upon this simple word “trust“. Our hugely complicated society of cooperation, collaboration and specialisation is enabled by trust. Once you start to betray trust you erode the very foundation of society.

    Have you wondered how Lucian Freud’s wives felt about his betrayals? It almost certainly occasioned great hurt. They would have looked at you with profound disbelief if you had accused them of having “overly strict moral rules “.

  116. s. wallerstein

    Life is complicated.

    First of all, you don’t know me. Please don’t assume that you know what my reactions will be if someone blackens my name or if my partner (I’m not married and I have no intention of getting married) is unfaithful.

    People vary in their emotional reactions.

    I’ve know a lot of creative and artistic people, none so creative as Lucian Freud, but they often evince an anarchic creative energy which spills over into their lives and leads them to live lives that are non-conventional and in many cases, amoral by normal moral standards.

    I live near a fairly talented and well-known (in Chile) painter. He’s in his 60’s, but leads the life of a teenager: sex, drugs and rock and roll. I like to chat with him although he seems to consider me as hopelessly “square” because I don’t drink and I don’t use drugs, but I would never lend him money or trust his promises. Still, I’m glad that he paints and his paintings contribute to my life. I sense that if he were expected to live the kind of orderly life that you probably do, his art would dry up.

    I was married to a musician for a few years, from a family of musicians. I counsel you to never lend a musician money nor to trust much of what they say, but all in all, over 35 years after the marriage, I’m thankful for having met all of them, much more thankful than I am for having met some very conventional people who screwed me much more seriously and with infinitely more hypocrisy.

    The important thing is to honest about who you are and to be honest with yourself about what you can expect from an given person. My basic rule is that if you can’t trust someone with your 50 cent bic pen, don’t trust them with anyone bigger (that’s a metaphor).

    One size doesn’t fit all in life.

    I’m sorry if I haven’t answered your questions directly, but I sense that we’re coming from such different places that I can’t answer them directly and honestly. I’m sure that your moral code suits you well and potentiates your flourishing.
    I doubt that it would potentiate the flourishing of many creative artists and probably not even of myself, although I don’t pretend to be especially creative.

  117. Peter DO Smith

    I’m sorry if I haven’t answered your questions directly

    You have not answered them at all.

    I can’t answer them directly and honestly

    Why ever not? Your reasons make no sense to me.

  118. Peter DO Smith


    Because Gendler thinks that the people were sincere about their proclaimed belief, she resists saying that they didn’t believe what they’re saying. After all, given their situations, they had no reason to believe that the bedpans were dirty. It seemed instead that they had a felt association of bedpans with waste. So, instead of saying that the people thought they believed that the bedpans were clean but really believed the bedpans were filthy,

    I think your example(which grounds your subsequent reasoning) is faulty. Gendler seems to think we are animals entirely driven by belief – “but really believed the bedpans were filthy“.

    But that is not true. Our cognitive engine acts on information delivered to it by our emotive and intuition engines. This information is not subject to conscious, rational examination. It arrives whole in the conscious mind. Intuitions and emotions are very powerful and easily distort rational processes. They might rationally believe that the bedpans are clean but their emotions and intuitions say otherwise. This is not a matter of belief, alief or any other kind of contrived belief.

    Let me give you an example. I was standing in the checkout lane of our local supermarket. In front of me was a policewoman with a gun at her waist(all our police are armed). I went into a cold sweat, my pulse raced and extreme panic gripped me when I saw that gun. The sight of that gun had triggered my PTSD. I was helpless in the grip of a truly awful experience. Since I know guns I could see the gun was not loaded and the safety catch was on. I trust the police, like them and respect them for the way they protect our community. Rationally I had no reason for panic. But buried deep inside me are other kinds of intuitions, powerful enough to overwhelm my rational believing mind. They are too deeply embedded to be reached by the conscious mind or therapy and so I can do nothing about this.

    Your bedpan example is an extremely mild example of this process whereby emotions and intuitions override a rational process. Seen in this light I fail to see how it could explain your failure to act on your rationally held moral beliefs. Similar emotions or intuitions are simply not involved. Your original explanation, when you were confronted by Dan, was to claim lack of willpower. This is the explanation I believe, and I say it sympathetically because we all confront the willpower struggle, as I stated earlier, with my trail running example. Your riposte at the time was to draw a comparison with the struggle people have to control their weight. Dan energetically resisted your comparison but I thought his reasoning was weak and yours was correct.

  119. So, my attitude to this issue is the following:

    I begin with the proposition that the suffering of animals matters (or at least; it should matter to us). If, for instance, we could greatly minify the suffering of animals at no cost, then we should do so. Indeed, if we could greatly reduce the suffering of animals at a small cost, then I think we should do that too.

    Now, with regard to my claim about animal suffering, there is the following problem: what about the suffering of animals caused by other animals? if we can greatly reduce that, should we? What about the suffering of animals caused by disease? If we could reduce that, should we? At what cost?

    These are all very difficult questions to answer; and I don’t have good answers to them. It doesn’t follow from that, though, that’s I shouldn’t form an opinion on *any* issue regarding animals until I have an answer to all these issues regarding animals. For instance, my son once pulled one of our cats’ tails. I told him he shouldn’t do that. I think I was right about that! But my son enjoyed pulling the cat’s tail, so I deprived him of a pleasure for the sake of the cat. I don’t think I did anything immoral in so doing, and I don’t think I was *just* virtue-signaling in telling my son to privilege the cat’s suffering above his own pleasure (I’m sure I was virtue-signaling to some degree; I was probably worried about what other people would think, and I want him to be able to fit in to society without running afoul of certain norms surrounding how we treat animals, but I *think* that I also cared about my cat’s suffering). So, it seems to me, that there are at least *some* occasions where it’s the morally, or if you prefer, the ethically right thing to say: “you should value animal welfare over human welfare.”

    Now, how does this relate to the consumption of meat? From what I understand — and perhaps I’m misinformed about this; you seem to know a hell of a lot more about the issues here than I do — there exist large-scale slaughterhouses that kill very large numbers of animals. And furthermore, from what I’ve heard the animals slaughtered in these facilities, those animals seem to suffer greatly before they die. What good do these slaughter-houses do? Well, they provide plentiful and cheap meat to a lot of people, people who in the past didn’t have nearly the access to so much meat. Moreover, they provide jobs for a lot of people The abundance of meat also allows for a lot of people to develop skill in cooking, to entertain their friends, and to enjoy some high-level aesthetic pleasures Against this, they cause a lot of suffering to a lot of animals. From what I (thought I) know, these slaughter-houses have negative environmental effects, greater than the negative effects of farming any kind of plant (again, I’m willing to be corrected here — you seem to know the issues a lot better than I do). In addition, I’ve heard that slaughter-house jobs aren’t great jobs: the pay is good, but the working conditions are terrible, not only having to do with killing lots of animals (which might trouble some workers), but also with the smells and the ever-present risk of losing digits and body parts. Of course, having such a job may be (probably is) a lot better than the alternative for most of the workers, but I’m not super-confident about that. I think it’s possible to take a job thinking it will be good for you and to make a mistake. Consequently, it’s possible that taking a slaughter-house is actually *worse* than the alternative, and that people on average make irrational decisions when choosing to work for one (they may, for example underrate the risk of losing a body part). If that’s right, then the value of having a job at a slaughter-house may be overstated, though I concede that’s easy for me, a professor, to say. (And not just any professor: when with significantly less experience in the real world than almost anyone any of you have met.)

    So, I’m sorry if it appeared I was moving the goal-posts. My view is that both animal suffering and environmental consequences matter. (Indeed, I’m even open to the possibility that a lot of Americans eat *too much* meat. If that’s right, then eating meat at the rate many of us do may not be good for us.)

    What is to be done about this, though? Is there any reason to moralize this issue, as I have? i think there is some reason to moralize it for some people. If you’re someone barely making ends meet, and to you eating a nice steak or roast chicken is a real pick-me-up, then I think the moral case against your eating meat is rather weak. I realize I’m talking like a utilitarian here, but I’m not using utilitarianism with regard to animals; first, I don’t have any inclination to eliminate all predator-species, as Jeff McMahan does, and second, I don’t think we’re obligated to go out of our way to make distant animals *happier*. I suppose my moral principle with regard to animals is something like: “you shouldn’t cause a great harm to an animal for a small benefit to yourself.” For the person just barely making ends meet, then the benefit to himself in eating an animal is greater-than-small. And of course, in all these cases, the person eating the meat isn’t *killing* the animal–he is buying the flesh of the animal, and someone else (someone who is often of a low socio-economic status) is killing the animal. Still, he is supporting that practice.

    (What about the stuff I said about the environment? Well, it appears to me that I don’t know enough about environmental consequences to formulate a principle about it, so I’ll forfend from that for now)

    Anyway, what I think, then, is that *people like me*–well-off people who can afford humanely raised meat–should (morally should) forego factory-farmed meat. I supposed that the rest of the people around here were well-off enough to fall into that category, but that was an unjustified assumption and I shouldn’t have made it. I apologize for that.

    In regards to your question about how many human lives I’m willing to trade off for animal lives, I don’t know how to answer that. I realize that for many people, my saying that shows how corrupt I am — I should not be willing to sacrifice any amount of human lives for any amount of animal lives — but I don’t know if that’s the issue that comes up. Like, I think it’s a terrible shame that the Amazon rainforest is burning, and I furthermore think that we shouldn’t willy-nilly log the Amazon (even though that would great improve the lives of some human loggers). And I furthermore think that we shouldn’t hunt animal-species to extinction (even though that would greatly improve the lives of those hunters). But I haven”t thought deeply about why I believe those things.

  120. s. wallerstein

    As I said, our viewpoints are so different that I would do violence to my own way of thinking if I answered your questions because I would have to put myself in your mental space, which is very alien to me. Now if you can’t understand that, that just shows that we have nothing to say to one another on this point at least.

    By the way, I always read your comments with interest and I greatly respect your intellect, but we travel to the beat of a very different drum.

  121. Robert, since I’m one of the people who challenged you on this point, let me just say a few things.

    First, I am most inclined to agree with regard to factory farming, the cruelty of which is difficult to justify, but that inclination is balanced by a concern for the human dislocation that would be involved in its elimination, and especially among that section of humanity that is least skilled, poor, and most desperate. People don’t work in chicken processing plants, because they have a lot of great options, but just like wading in chicken blood.

    I prefer to focus on the Lobster fishing case, because it is much smaller, more contained, and because it is sufficient on its own to dismiss the utilitarian argument for veganism, given the latter’s totalizing content. I spent most of my childhood and adolescence vacationing in coastal Maine, and have come to a relatively deep understanding of the culture surrounding lobster fishing. To my mind, the destruction of this distinctive way of life, one that goes back many generations, is just obviously — not to mention easily argued for — far more important than the well-being of lobsters, however one might want to construe that.

  122. Joe Smith

    I tend to agree. If the argument is that people who don’t live up to their own moral judgements and commitments, simply lack such commitments on account that they do not act on them, then this does seem rather weak as an explanation. It would seem to go against a lot of what we know about moral psychology. Even theoretically, Donald Davidson in an early work(1969) allowed room for akrasia (which he often called ‘incontinence’). Alfred Mele and many others have written extensively on how akratic actions are possible, parsed from different belief-desire models.

    Certainly there seems to be some pushing and pulling going on between desires and beliefs within people who fail to act on at least some of their moral commitments, giving way to weakness of will.

  123. I’m certainly NOT making the claim, “if you claim to believe X, but don’t act according to X, then you don’t believe X.” That would be far too bald a statement. Instead, I’m making this claim:

    If you claim to believe X, but never or almost never act according to X, then we have good reason to believe that you probably don’t believe X.

    Take weakness of will. I’ve been on diets before. I don’t think I’ve ever been on a diet such that I never strayed from that diet while I was on it. Such strayings are instances of weakness of will. But imagine that I said, “I’m on a low-carb diet” or “I’m a vegan diet”, but ate carbs or meat & dairy just as often as I did before I claimed to be on the diet. And imagine this went on for, say, four weeks. Surely at some point it would be fair to say, “Rob, you’re not on the diet you claim to be on!” So, it matters the time-span we’re talking about, and it matters the frequency with which you act at odds with your beliefs.

    I found Dan’s claim that I don’t really believe morality everywhere compelling because my alleged belief in it made so little a difference to my actual behavior that I thought the best explanation was that I didn’t believe it at all, but instead believed something else.

  124. Joe Smith

    Hi Robert. Thanks for the clarification. I will have to go back and watch the podcast with you and Dan again, but my initial recollection was that it wasn’t clear how often you actually acted on ‘morality everywhere’. If it’s never, or almost never, then I understand your point.

    But regardless, I don’t think frequency of action ultimately changes the equation. I could tell myself I ought to call my mother, but I never or almost never get around to it, mostly because I don’t like her, and talking to her is an unpleasant experience. Yet whenever I think of calling her and then fail to do so, I still feel tremendous (moral) guilt, since after all, she is my mother and I feel the tug of obligation born out of deep familial bonding.

    This brings up another aspect of your clarification. It’s one thing to tell yourself ‘I am a vegan’ and not actually be a practicing vegan in any way, or for any length of time. It’s another to tell yourself ‘I ought to be a vegan’. One is descriptive (or perhaps wishful thinking), the other is prescriptive.

    In other words, one can believe in a moral obligation (whether set by one’s self or by others) and fail to act on it at all, yet still truly believe it. I suppose we could explain this as either an extremely weak belief, or an extremely weak will.