Caring and Catering

by Daniel A. Kaufman


Recently, I was involved in an exchange between several philosophers, on the subject of conversations between ethical vegans and meat eaters about the rightness or wrongness of eating meat. The following remarks by one of the participants caught my attention:

“…it definitely seems gauche to defend eating meat while eating meat (it is asking enough to ask vegans to watch non-vegans eat meat).”

“If you’re having a lunch with a vegan philosopher you don’t know well, and as you bite into a hamburger launch into why it’s OK, that strikes me as similar to arguing that professor/student romances are OK at a party where you are openly flirting with a student and another professor thinks it’s seriously wrong. Which I think is bad not just because the position you hold would be problematic, but also because one shouldn’t flaunt one’s own scandalizing of other people’s consciences.”

“I do think that catering to other people’s sensibilities, within reason, is basic decency.”

Suspecting that most ethical vegan philosophers are pro-choice on abortion, I wondered aloud whether they would be as concerned to cater to the sensibilities of pro-life people in conversations on the termination of pregnancies. Several said they would be, and though I am generally suspicious of these sorts of counterfactual assurances, I did ask, and besides, I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the specific people in question. The similarity between the sorts of media employed by some animal rights activists and pro-lifers (pictures of animals in filthy, over-crowded conditions versus images of bloody, torn up fetuses) is striking, however, and suggests that any number of vegan activists are as eager to “scandalize people’s consciences” as their pro-life counterparts. And who among my interlocutors would accept the following variation on the first quoted statement: “It definitely seems gauche to defend homosexuality while holding your boyfriend’s hand (it is asking enough to make orthodox Christians watch two men holding hands).”?

But never mind that. I’m disinclined to accept the idea that catering to other people’s sensibilities is required for “basic decency” in the first place. (The “within reason” caveat is large enough to drive a truck through, so I am ignoring it.) Indeed, once we have moved beyond our family, friends, working partners and others within our circle of intimates and relative intimates, I think that our obligations to one another are quite minimal, low-bar kinds of stuff and that this gentleman and some of the others in the debate are conflating the supererogatory and the obligatory; what it would be generous to do and what “basic decency” requires. Of course, I am speaking only of our general moral and civic obligations, as people who have to live among one another. There are other stronger, more specific obligations that we may have by virtue of the various roles we play, whether professionally, institutionally, or what have you.

Like everyone else, my concern extends outwards in diminishing circles (‘outwards’ indicating distance on a number of different vectors). Unlike everyone else, I’m quite happy to admit it. I don’t care about complete strangers as much as I do about intimates, and I don’t care about animals as much as I do about people. So, unless you and I are involved in some particular, relevant way, I not only don’t care what you think of me or what I do, I’m also not particularly interested in what you think or do, including the ways in which you may choose to “identify.” I certainly don’t care to know about your personal habits, convictions, predilections, problems, ailments or – god forbid – your kinks.

This baseline concern, how far it extends, and to what degree are fundamental to what I and everyone else find obligatory, permissible, unacceptable, etc. in our interactions with one another. In my case, I don’t feel any general obligation to affirm the opinions, values, or self-declared identities of strangers or otherwise to “cater to their sensibilities.” I do feel obligated not to gratuitously insult or offend most of the people I deal with, in most contexts, but I do not accept the notion that eating a hamburger in front of an ethical vegan or posting a photo of my favorite grilled octopus recipe in reply to someone who has just asserted the monstrousness of eating octopus is rightly characterized as such. (The exchange over the octopus actually happened in a spinoff conversation from the initial one and ended amicably.) At least, not if we are talking about mentally sound adults. Children and those adults suffering some serious mental disability are of course, a different matter entirely.

So it is generosity, not obligation, that is at issue, and while generosity is something we all hope for, it is neither required nor something to be expected from those with whom we do not have any kind of substantial involvement. To demand it of strangers or near-strangers or claim it is somehow “obligatory” is to misunderstand what the thing is.

I’ll also note that in the current climate, the tendency on the part of so many to engage in emotional blackmailing and other forms of manipulative behavior diminishes the inclination to be generous. Once one has been told for the umpteenth time that people are so distraught from hearing or seeing or reading something they dislike that is it is comparable to being seriously injured or that they are going to be driven to self-harm and suicide if anyone fails to affirm their self-identifications and beliefs, the idea of being super-generous as some sort of blanket-policy looks like a sucker’s game.

Increasingly, we seem to be embracing an ethos according to which we not only are right to impose ourselves on others, but others are obligated to accept and even welcome our impositions. This strikes me as perverse in itself, but it becomes even more so, when the imposition is in the service of some conception of virtue that one has and at the expense of someone who doesn’t share it. I wrote about this strange inversion of values several years ago, in a critique of a Vox article outlining “how to accommodate everyone’s needs and preferences” when hosting a dinner party:

My parents are of a generation for whom virtue is self-effacing and never involves imposing oneself on others, a view that not only no longer holds sway, but is threatening to disappear altogether, in favor of its opposite, as people today are inclined not just to pursue their virtue at others’ expense, but their (usually nebulously defined) “well-being” too. Sometimes I find myself wondering why, at a time of unprecedented freedom, prosperity and long life, so many people are so pissed off so much of the time, and perhaps it’s because of stuff like this. After all, who among us hasn’t found him or herself fuming with aggravation, in an endless snarl of traffic, only to discover that it’s all because of one lone jogger or cyclist, who thought it made perfect sense to make scores upon scores of people late to wherever they might be going, for the sake of his workout? [1]

Indeed, I don’t really see how to take the demand for generosity – rather than the hope for it – as anything other than a mixture of excessive self-confidence, self-righteousness, and self-importance. Non-vegans must be generous with regard to the vegan’s sensibilities, because we are sure that vegans are right about the morality of meat eating and non-vegans are wrong. Gay people, meanwhile, need not be generous regarding the sensibilities of orthodox Christians, because we are certain that the latter are wrong about homosexuality and the former are right, and so on and so forth. Of course, those representing the losing side of these generosity-demanding-equations might just as well think the same thing, but in the opposite direction, and so they do! Come down to where I live in the buckle of the Bible Belt and try to tell people that they are obligated not to display placards of photos featuring bloody fetuses, so as not to “scandalize the consciences” of their pro-choice neighbors, and see where it gets you.

The “solution,” of course, lies in not expecting too much of people whom you don’t know and getting over yourself. These may seem obvious and simple things to tell adults, but they are by no means easy, especially at a time when we are not only encouraging everyone to lionize themselves and share far too much with everyone, but when technology has made doing so far too easy and rewarding.




43 responses to “Caring and Catering”

  1. Peter Smith

    Bravo, I could not agree more.

    But then you lost the plot when you said
    only to discover that it’s all because of one lone jogger or cyclist, who thought it made perfect sense to make scores upon scores of people late to wherever they might be going, for the sake of his workout?

    To be quite clear, I detest cyclists as an arrogant, pretentious breed intent on forcing their will on others. But please do not include the humble, inoffensive and unpretentious jogger in this category. They deserve admiration and emulation. There is no finer group of people on the planet than runners.

  2. Nah, the point is exactly the same. Most joggers and cyclists don’t do this of course.

  3. Peter Smith

    Yup, you are right of course, and you know how seldom I admit to that 🙂

  4. Total agreement with the sentiments expressed. The issue with a lot of these things is — yes, civil people DO and SHOULD attempt in many or most cases not to offend sensibilities, but it is a matter of degree, not just with circles of relatedness, but in actual content, subject matter. The folks in question are asserting a new, more expansive demand, and judging others morally inadequate for failure to abide. What I don’t understand is how they think it should be obvious to the rest of us. If you want to say “not only am I a vegan, but I cannot be present when meat is eaten,” you have to say that up front, and ASK for compliance (recognizing you might not get it). There is a special sense of entitlement here (“you should just KNOW”). “Civility” includes BOTH a good faith effort to avoid offense, AND a good faith negotiation for anything special or unique.

  5. Is there such a thing as ethical NIMBYism? There are people you wouldn’t hang or shoot but you keep them at a distance and stay upwind. Scandalize the conscience, that’s an unusual expression. Scandal is given i.e. certain behaviours we find scandalous because our moral sensibility, our conscience, is affronted. But the scandal or stumbling block is a danger to those whose moral vision is defective not to the person who sees it as a scandal. The graphic images that you refer to are a question put to the purblind – Is this what you are for? The hope is that they will see it as a scandal and dodge it.

    Wikipedia has a nice entry on the topic:

  6. Peter Smith

    It all comes down to expectations.

    We live in a dense network of mutual expectations that are often unmet. That is the nature of society. How we resolve them will determine how well society works. So how can we resolve the question of unmet expectations?

    1) We define our expectations explicitly so that both parties understand them. Implicit expectations are the ones that cause the most trouble because they are poorly understood.

    2) We ask whether the expectations are

    – rational. Are there rational grounds for this expectation?
    – reasonable. Can we reasonably expect the other person to comply?
    – fair. Is it fair to expect this from the other person.

    3) We ask ourselves whether our unmet expectations are

    – core, that important that they are non-negotiable;
    – negotiable. This expectation is important but I am prepared to negotiate a resolution;
    – tolerable. I can tolerate this expectation being unmet.
    – fringe. Nice to have but I can live without it.

    4) Then we ask how we will deal with unmet expectations, considering whether they are core, negotiable, tolerable or fringe.

    – abandonment. We walk away because this is a core expectation that cannot be met.
    – coercion. We try to force the other person to meet our expectations because they are core expectations.
    – manipulation. We use a variety of tools such as threat or emotional blackmail to manipulate the other person into satisfying our expectations.
    – discussion. We try to negotiate a reasonable outcome.
    – toleration. We give up the expectation because its importance does not justify the cost of compliance.

    5) Finally we reflect on the costs that our expectations impose

    – on others. Imposing our expectations on others can have high costs to social capital in general and on relationships in particular. Is it worth it?
    – on oneself. Having high unmet expectations of others can harm our own equilibrium and emotional well being. Is it worth it?

    The key to harmony is to reach agreement at all five levels. This is a vital process for resolving that most dense network of mutual expectations that one finds in marriage.

  7. s. wallerstein

    I’m a vegetarian, almost a vegan and I agree with you.

    I go to restaurants with people who order meat dishes and I never sermonize or preach to them.

    When my partner and her son lived with me, she, like me, followed a vegetarian diet, but her son, then a young child, ate meat. I didn’t feel that I had the right to deprive a child of meat.

    As I’ve expressed previously in this blog, people who preach, including the rabbis of my youth, turn me off and I don’t preach myself, unless I preach non-preaching.

  8. Most of the vegans that I know do not preach. That they are vegans is their lifestyle choice, but they don’t try to inflict it on others.

    I do know one vegan who does preach (and I ignore the preaching). The funny thing is that he owns a dog, and his dog is not given a vegan menu.

  9. The fact that this is about veganism is entirely accidental. And I agree that they are not even close to being the main culprit for this sort of thing.

  10. Gottlob Frege

    Thanks for posting, Dan. It does seem to me that young people are a lot more sensitive and self-righteous than they were when I was in school in the 70s and 80s. They seem more fragile, and this fragility manifests itself as moral indignation. I saw several people interviewed during the riots here in Seattle last summer, and the overall take was pretty clear: If you don’t accept my views on X, you are clearly beyond the pale.

  11. “… At least, not if we are talking about mentally sound adults. Children and those adults suffering some serious mental disability are of course, a different matter entirely.”

    Strangely, more and more people seem to be slipping, if not into the “serious mental disability” category, at least into a sort of arrested development or extended childhood — a phenomenon which the trends described here serve to encourage.

  12. Dear Daniel Kaufman,

    Here is an even more striking scenario, given that bisexuality is often severely frowned upon by both the straight and the gay communities:

    It definitely seems gauche to defend bisexuality while holding your boyfriend’s and girlfriend’s hands (it is asking enough to make straights and gays watch two men and one woman or two women and one man holding hands).

    Yours sincerely,

  13. Peter Smith

    Moral signalling is important and so is the way we do it.

    A young friend boasted to me how she would get a new lens for her camera by dropping an old lens on the tiled floor and claiming on the insurance cover.

    Another friend regaled me with stories of his sexual conquests, oblivious of the fact that I knew his wife.

    Yet another friend told me how he had inflated his company expenses claim.

    Another told me he was able to get a free product by claiming a refund after it was delivered late.

    And so it goes on. How should I have reacted? We are exposed all the time to accounts of moral wrongdoing, of various shades of severity, from the obviously wrong to the hardly questionable. How we react to these accounts matters. We may convey approval/disapproval implicitly or explicitly, tacitly, covertly or overtly. These moral signals are, for the most part, what regulates the moral conduct of society. They ripple through the societal web, conveyed by the electrical impulses of narrative gossip.

    They have a regulatory effect by imposing costs on misconduct or approval on desirous conduct. They have a moral priming effect by keeping alive the social memory of moral standards. They inform, so that we know what the group standards are.

    Whether we know it or not, we participate in moral signalling all the time, mostly sotto voce. It can be as simple as a raised eyebrow, a turning of the head or a failure to smile. These are the signals that matter because they are the most readily absorbed. It is the explicit, blunt signals that arouse ire and opposition, making them counterproductive. But moral signals matter. The cumulative effect of a multiplicity of moral signals is like the tide, shifting the sands of moral behaviour to new contours.

    How well we receive or send moral signals depends on our social sensitivity. Today changes in technology is diminishing social sensitivity. The result is blunter and crasser moral signalling, which increases dissension.

  14. Kanthelpmyself

    “I’ll also note that in the current climate, the tendency on the part of so many to engage in emotional blackmailing and other forms of manipulative behavior diminishes the inclination to be generous.”

    Yes, and the emotional blackmailing and manipulation embraces both others’ presuming to oversee one’s own conduct and comment and their expectation that one will genuflect before their choices. The moral primping and self-congratulation are suffocating and ubiquitous.

    American culture no longer affirms the personal boundaries and the corresponding mutual tolerance that creates the space for genuine association. Instead, control from the state; control from our neighbors.

    It brings to mind Orwell’s comment on socialists:

    “The present state of affairs offends them not because it causes misery, still less because it makes freedom impossible, but because it is untidy; what they desire, basically is to reduce the world to something resembling a chessboard.”

  15. Maurice Minnifield

    I’ve been a vegetarian (sometimes vegan) for 25 years. I don’t try to persuade others (unless in a philosophical context, perhaps). I don’t know any vegetarians who do. I agree, it’s annoying. However, it’s also annoying being made fun of and ridiculed for not eating meat. That happens to me *far more* frequently than I’ve tried to convince someone to abstain.

  16. The essay is not about veganism. As I said in another comment, that it involves veganism is entirely accidental.

  17. Kanthelpmyself

    It seems ironic that a piece about the presumptuousness of expecting others to observe a safety zone around one’s favored practices has triggered such a spate of defenses of favored practices, from diet to exercise.
    Regarding the larger issue of caring and catering, the apparent starting point for many seems to be an a priori confidence in their own rectitude, so that adoption of this or that belief or practice constitutes a rearrangement of the moral furniture in which others are expected to find their place. The flaw in that approach is the mistaken belief that we all occupy the same room, when in fact we each have our own dwelling.
    The 400 years of unparalleled civilizational progress we have enjoyed began with the agreement to renounce religious wars, in which aggressive material expansions proceeded under a moral veneer. Putting aside others’ convictions that their practices and beliefs represent the zenith of moral probity, their moral imperialism is incompatible with the principle of a pluralistic society that each has the right to be “wrong” in his/her own way. Generosity is fueled by the modesty of one’s expectations.

  18. Peter Smith

    However, it’s also annoying being made fun of and ridiculed for not eating meat.

    Given that this is not the point of Dan’s essay, I nevertheless agree with Maurice’s sentiments. Vegetarianism is a wholesome practice that I support. It decreases the demand for red meat, lowering the price and increasing the availability of prime cuts for red blooded, meat loving predators such as myself.

  19. I have no problem with veganism myself. Indeed, my dept. head and friend, Elizabeth Foreman is a vegan. She’s been over to our house and we’ve cooked vegan meals together.

  20. Peter Smith

    Generosity is fueled by the modesty of one’s expectations.

    Wow, that is such a pithy, insightful one-liner.

  21. Peter Smith

    Oops. I attributed that to Dan when in fact it came from Kanthelpmyself. It sounded just like the kind of thing that Dan would say.

  22. Really enjoyed this essay!

  23. Dan,
    diversity seems to scare the bejeebers out of a lot of people – perhaps most people. I mean here cultural diversity, and moral or ethical diversity. It seems many people are annoyed, to the point of self-righteousness, even anger, at the very thought that we don’t all share the same values, that we don’t all share the same diets, the same entertainments, the same ethical practices when it comes to major decisions of life, such as abortion or military service, or educating the young. Differences seem threatening to them; almost as if there were some ontological or even cosmological aspect to human behavior in shared localities – as if there must be something wrong about the universe that could be corrected if we were all to accept the same values and ethical practices. But of course, the human animal is not built this way. Its fundamental evolutionary advantage has been adaptation through diversity of response, multiplication of ethical choices and behaviors. Learning to live with the differences of choice, recognizing the opportunities they present, has been difficult for many, for centuries. Its initial tribal motivations acquired focus in the development of religions, and still today, even where religion per se is not an issue, the public presentation of this in speech and action manifests a certain religiousity. But if the stakes are ontological or cosmological, this is to be expected. Eat the unsanctioned food and the universal balance of ‘wrong and right’ is unsettled; kiss the prohibited person in public, and ‘good and evil’ erupt and threaten the community – or so it is held. Even a musical preference seems to threaten to rock the foundations – Beethoven or hip-hop? Does the world we live in really depend on which choice we make?

    Ultimately, as you say: “The “solution,” of course, lies in not expecting too much of people whom you don’t know and getting over yourself.” The universe will not fall to ruin if my neighbor eats beef instead of pork; and what he or she eats presents no threat to me or mine. ‘Live and let live’ is the guiding principle of a heterogeneous liberal state that stands on law and not tribal custom. The principle of free speech allows anyone to paint pictures or sing songs that offend someone, somewhere. The art, in a liberal society, is learning to shrug at whatever does not do real harm.

    “”I accept the universe” is reported to have been a favorite utterance of our New England transcendentalist, Margaret Fuller; and when some one repeated this phrase to Thomas Carlyle, his sardonic comment is said to have been: “Gad! she’d better!” At bottom the whole concern of both morality and religion is with the manner of our acceptance of the universe. Do we accept it only in part and grudgingly, or heartily and altogether? Shall our protests against certain things in it be radical and unforgiving, or shall we think that, even with evil, there are ways of living that must lead to good?” – William James, Varieties of Religious Experience.

  24. Robert Gressis

    I think there are two elements here: a moral story and an abductive (in the inference-to-the-best-explanation sense) one.

    The first story is simply: my positions are obviously correct, so much so that denial can be explained only by malice; not even by stupidity! These things are so clear that even the most dull notices them (and while we’re at it, the very notion of stupidity smells offensive).

    The second story is just: my in-group talks and thinks this way; my in-group is far more highly educated than the out-group; consequently, it’s very likely that the reason my in-group has unanimity is that they have discovered the truth about these things. I want to be with the smart, the right, and the righteous, not the dumb, the wrong, and the wicked.

    Consequently, if you’re in my out-group, then your acceding to my demands is a sign that you have at least a little good sense; but my acceding to your demands would be cooperation with evil. And you should know this, just as anyone who has a vice should not want others to indulge him in his vice, nor should he want others to share his vice.

    What is striking is how similar this attitude is to people who have lived all their lives in isolated enclaves away from any contemporary, pluralistic society. Functionally, it’s equivalent to: our ways are good because they’re our ways; your ways are bad because they’re not our ways. And yet, this is the outlook, at least in day-to-day practice, of so many of the most educated members of the most pluralistic, modern society in history.

  25. Functionally, it’s equivalent to: our ways are good because they’re our ways; your ways are bad because they’re not our ways. And yet, this is the outlook, at least in day-to-day practice, of so many of the most educated members of the most pluralistic, modern society in history.

    This is the core of civilization.

    Most of us don’t want to go back to the stone age. However, most of what we do, such as buying food at the supermarket, is just because they are our ways. We don’t fully examine the reasons for them. They become entrenched as social conventions. Most of our knowledge is knowledge of social conventions (or conventional practices).

    This is pragmatism at work as a group dynamic for the society as a whole. Ways of doing things that work well are absorbed into the conventional practices. And, over time, society improves.

    The more extreme conservatives tend to hold onto older ways beyond where they are beneficial. And the more extreme progressives want to go with new ways without first testing whether they are beneficial. But I suppose the presence of the extremes is what leads to some churn, and in turn that churn is what allows slow progress.

  26. Peter Smith

    Increasingly, we seem to be embracing an ethos according to which we not only are right to impose ourselves on others, but others are obligated to accept and even welcome our impositions. This strikes me as perverse in itself, but it becomes even more so, when the imposition is in the service of some conception of virtue that one has and at the expense of someone who doesn’t share it.

    I agree, but then it gets even more complicate when we talk about art.

    In the NY Times Critic’s Notebook, Holland Cotter reviews the Gardner Museum exhibition of six magnificent paintings by Titian:
    Ah, I thought, an insightful aesthetic feast. But the title of the article struck a jarring note:

    Can We Ever Look at Titian’s Paintings the Same Way Again?

    Why? I wondered, were they fakes? Then the subtitle disabused me
    Great is what this art is, yet it raises doubts about whether any art, however “great,” can be considered exempt from moral scrutiny.

    Puzzled, I read on

    Yet the same exhibition raises troubling questions about how, in art from the distant past viewed through the lens of the political present, aesthetics and ethics can clash.

    …can’t help but put us on red alerts today, when accusations and verified reports of sexual assault on women appear almost daily in the news. In fact, the whole cycle[of Titian’s paintings], with its repeated images of gender-based power plays and exposed female flesh, invites #MeToo evaluation, and raises doubts about whether any art, however “great,” can be considered exempt from moral scrutiny.

    My first reaction was to be gobsmacked by this politically correct gobbledegook. Then my outrage boiled over. How dare this little moral pedant lecture me and put me on a red alert? And tell me that this superlative art should be subjected to a “#MeToo evaluation” That, I thought, was presentism gone amuck.

    Then I sipped my glass of red wine, calmed down and decided that this is where I ask our resident aesthete/art critic, Dan, am I wrong to react this way? Am I morally deficient because I see beauty on it own terms in its own historical context? And am amazed, awestruck with delight at the sublimity of Titian’s paintings without a moment’s concern for #MeToo?

    Rescue me or condemn me but I need an answer. Should paintings of great artists be the subject of moral scrutiny or aesthetic scrutiny?

  27. s. wallerstein

    Peter Smith,

    I like to look at the nude women in Titian’s paintings and I don’t see what’s wrong with that.

  28. The person who wrote that piece is so stupid and philistine that the only appropriate response is ridicule.

  29. Then I sipped my glass of red wine, calmed down and …

    That was the right response.

    For me, the value of art is in how I appreciate it. I don’t pay attention to what art critics say.

  30. One of the finest critics in the English language, a writer of beautiful essays and an accomplished painter had this to say on Titian:

    There is a gusto in the colouring of Titian. Not only do his heads seem to think — his bodies seem to feel. This is what the Italians mean by the morbidezza of his flesh-colour. It seems sensitive and alive all over; not merely to have the look and texture of flesh, but the feeling in itself. For example, the limbs of his female figures have a luxurious softness and delicacy, which appears conscious of the pleasure of the beholder. As the objects themselves in nature would produce an impression on the sense, distinct from every other object, and having something divine in it, which the heart owns and the imagination consecrates, the objects in the picture preserve the same impression, absolute, unimpaired, stamped with all the truth of passion, the pride of the eye, and the charm of beauty. Rubens makes his flesh-colour like flowers; Albano’s is like ivory; Titian’s is like flesh, and like nothing else. It is as different from that of other painters, as the skin is from a piece of white or red drapery thrown over it. The blood circulates here and there, the blue veins just appear, the rest is distinguished throughout only by that sort of tingling sensation to the eye, which the body feels within itself. This is gusto. — Vandyke’s flesh-colour, though it has great truth and purity, wants gusto. It has not the internal character, the living principle in it. It is a smooth surface, not a warm, moving mass. It is painted without passion, with indifference. The hand only has been concerned. The impression slides off from the eye, and does not, like the tones of Titian’s pencil, leave a sting behind it in the mind of the spectator. The eye does not acquire a taste or appetite for what it sees. In a word, gusto in painting is where the impression made on one sense excites by affinity those of another.

    (from William Hazlitt’s essay ‘On Gusto’)

  31. Let’s face it, art often comes down to the desires of the consuming patrons. I particularly enjoy Titian’s tits and ass…. He had a remarkable eye for the kind of women I find attractive. That’s great art that excites me sexually from six centuries ago – his portrayal of pagan mythology is exceptional (Venus and Organist and Little Dog, c. 1550), all the more reason to think (as he suggests) pre-Christian culture can be recognized as having understood something about human nature that we do not.

    In the ’70s and ’80s, Robert Mapplethorpe became famous/ notorious for photographing male genitalia. I’m not a big fan, but I understand that gay men could admire (and be excited by) the representation of their values and desires. Is it art? What is art? But that’s a different discussion.

    In the 17th century, Shakespeare was condemned by the puritans, because, they held, his presentation of romantic relations excited fornication among his audience.

    Hedonism is not the only foundation of art – religious longing certainly is another. Nevertheless – Thank god for hedonism! It may be the downfall of the West, but it has added much beauty to the world.

  32. Peter Smith

    This is lovely.

  33. Peter Smith

    I found myself re-reading Dan’s essay, because I enjoyed it, because I think it is a gem but also because more and more I am intrigued by the phenomenon he describes so well.

    Increasingly, we seem to be embracing an ethos according to which we not only are right to impose ourselves on others, but others are obligated to accept and even welcome our impositions. This strikes me as perverse in itself, but it becomes even more so, when the imposition is in the service of some conception of virtue that one has and at the expense of someone who doesn’t share it.

    I have been in discussion with my German sister who had sent to me a photo of herself sipping Starbuck’s coffee. My anguished rejoinder had been an accusal of Germans succumbing to America’s cultural imperialism. Her defence, that it was pleasurable, made me cringe.

    And that led to another thought. What Dan describes can be called a form of moral imperialism(ironically I was practicing it!). As I have said earlier, we all practice moral signalling. Moral signalling tends to be discreet, non-intrusive and focussed on what used to be a well defined set of moral standards centred on the Seven Cardinal Virtues and the Ten Commandments. You were held accountable in the privacy of the confessional booth or your conscience. And if your transgressions became overtly offensive you would be punished by amplified moral signalling, that is by community gossip.

    But things have changed. The well defined moral standards have fallen into disrepute and no-one feels accountable any more, certainly not to God or his representative, the priest, and last of all, not even to your own conscience, since that was an artefact of misguided religious thinking 🙂

    But the inchoate need, to hold people to be accountable to a set of moral standards that define the community, still remains. You might say that morality abhors a vacuum. And so accordingly, new standards are evolving to fill the moral vacuum. But these new standards are tentative, without the binding power of consensus. They also lack the explanatory cohesion of a well defined narrative.

    We are therefore in a phase, which I call moral imperialism in which new standards evolve to fill the moral vacuum. Because there is not yet much consensus nor any persuasive explanatory narrative, these standards must needs be imposed by supposed thought leaders. Which is why I call it moral imperialism. Consequently “we not only are right to impose ourselves on others, others are obligated to accept and even welcome our impositions.

    The moral imperialists would add that we are entering a new age of moral sensitivity, an age of reformed moral enlightenment. The fact that insensitive, regressive dullards like myself cannot see this, is what makes moral imperialism necessary.

  34. […] Caring and Catering by Daniel Kaufman. […]

  35. Kanthelpmyself

    “What Dan describes can be called a form of moral imperialism.”

    Indeed, it was: see Aug. 10 post.

  36. Peter Smith

    Yes, indeed. I see your description predated mine.

  37. Kanthelpmyself

    Glad to see the term catching on!


  38. Rollo Burgess

    Personally I find vegans offensive and veganism ethically repugnant. The stance that one should stand outside nature, denying ones physiology, and also hold oneself morally superior to the vast majority of people who have ever lived or who live now is pretty gross.

    But I am prepared to tolerate vegans in a spirit of live and let live… although it would be better mannered of them to refrain from shamelessly displaying their depravity.

  39. Peter Smith

    I admire your intuitive anticipation of my comment 🙂 . Nah, I will concede the truth and admit that I read your comment and so I must have absorbed your apt term. Good ideas become viral.

  40. Peter Smith

    To build on my comment above about moral imperialism(thanks to Kanthelpmyself) there is what I call the special insights/needs hypothesis:

    There are a small proportion of people blessed with special insights denied to the rest of us. Possessing special insights results in special needs which drive their behaviour:

    1) they need to inform/educate those lacking these insights.
    2) they need the affirmation of others to confirm the specialness of themselves and their insights.
    3) they need to impose these insights on others as the conclusive affirmation of their specialness.
    4) failure to comply is a denial of their special insights and an assault on their dignity.

    And so my hypothesis is that there is a personality disorder, that we may label the Special Insights/Needs Disorder, and that this personality disorder is a driving force behind moral imperialism.

    Owing to its recent emergence, this disorder has not yet been described in the DSM. I think that might be because this disorder has already infected the editors of the DSM 🙂 A feature of this infectious disorder is that the symptoms are invisible to the infected.