Coerced Morality

Is it good enough for a person to stop doing an immoral act at the request of another if he does not believe that the act is wrong? That is the general articulation of the following question that I came across on Facebook recently: my fiancé will stop eating meat because I have told him I cannot marry him if he doesn’t become vegan, but he says that he doesn’t agree that there is anything wrong with eating meat and is abstaining just for my sake. Is that good enough?

First, I want to leave out any considerations of whether he will resent his “sacrifice” and take it out in other ways because such possible consequences depend entirely on his personality and the dynamic of that relationship, which are not pertinent to the general discussion of the morality of doing something when your heart isn’t in it.

The first premise to establish is that giving up meat is a moral action: it is a refusal to participate in or perpetuate the misery, suffering, and terrifying death of conscious, sentient creatures who are animals just as humans are animals. Anyone who doubts the misery, suffering, and terrible death can easily come to understand that reality by the most cursory research and application of imagination.

Desisting from acts of cruelty is moral under any of the following notions of morality, deontological or utilitarian. As for the former, refusing to participate in cruelty constitutes doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, which is the Golden Rule.  Not participating in cruelty is also a maxim (in the terminology of Emmanuel Kant) that you would want as a universal law: you would want everyone, universally, to do the same action and therefore the action is moral. Also, another way of seeing the immorality of participating in the cruelty of meat and dairy production is by evaluating whether a powerful group is pursuing a self-serving action to the severe detriment of a less powerful one. Clearly that is the case because the meat and dairy industries benefit financially from the suffering and death of scores on nonhumans every day.  From a utilitarian standpoint, with its focus on the consequential amount of suffering, the enormity of suffering to nonhumans caused by the meat and dairy industries show the actions of those industries to be immoral as is perpetuating them by consuming  meat and dairy.

Therefore, the fiancé in giving up meat is willy-nilly acting morally; however, is that morality undermined by his state of mind? One response would be a resounding “no” from the Existentialist school of thought. According to Existentialists we are the sum of our actions—the only thing that matters is actions, thus the maxim, “existence before essence.” When applied to everyday examples, the truth of that position appears. If I sat around claiming that I cared greatly about the homeless, couldn’t sleep at night for thinking about them on the sidewalk, and with every bite of food wished I could share with them, but I do nothing at all, my state of mind is morally meaningless. I have to do something or abstain from something, not just think, because morality deals with actions (as seen from the above statements of how to judge morality). Conversely, if I sacrifice my time, money, and comfort to achieve some result that does not directly serve my aggrandizement I am acting morally. (Note, on the topic of whether an action can be moral if you derive some benefit, such as satisfaction, from doing it, Kant argued that any act that is motivated by the desire to achieve a result or is consistent with an inclination is not moral because the only really moral act comes purely from duty.  I think he then went on to conclude that there was no action in reality that could be divorced entirely from self-interest, so I won’t delve into the degree to which giving up meat and dairy is not self-interested in some way).  All of the above ideas about the necessity of an action finds expression in the adage: actions speak louder than words or, in this case more precisely, thoughts.

Last, the fiancé who foregoes meat upon request is acting morally as opposed to hypocritically. Peter Singer wrote that “Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.”  That bit of philosophical poetry expresses the central fact of hypocrisy that the hypocrite knows what is virtuous and what is bad because he gives lip service to the first and acts in accord with the latter; thus, in Singer’s phrase, the hypocrite even while acting badly acknowledges verbally, i.e. pays tribute virtue to, the right action. Every hypocritical action entails words versus deeds, good words and bad deeds — it is never the other way around, bad thoughts or words and good action. The inconsistency between words and deeds runs only one way – why? Because words / thoughts are not important – actions are. In our example at hand, it would be hypocritical if the fiancé voiced his thoughts on animals to express his love for them and concern about their treatment and then ordered the cheeseburger.  It is not hypocritical to say or think whatever he thinks he might believe at some point in time while refusing to participate in animal cruelty.

That digression into the nature of hypocrisy brings us back to morality and the nature of it as something concerned with actions, doing to others, acting as you would have the world act, acting so as not to contribute to the suffering of others.  Where nonhumans are concerned, just get it straight who “the others” are—all sentient beings.

Philosophy aside, there is still the “Dear Abbey” aspect of the question, and in that regard, I have to say that I would like a fiancé who would give up meat and dairy for me. He is really smitten with me, flexible-minded, or maybe even Stoic enough not to think that his palette is of the highest importance; he possibly knows that far from being hungry, he will eat delicious food and be in better shape and health than before. Over time our tastes can change, and the action will become a self-fulfilling prophecy — a moral vegan will be born.

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