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? 
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.