People should be judged by the amount of good that they do (or the amount of bad that they avoid), not by how closely they adhere to their stated principles. I say that as a hypocritical vegetarian liberal who wants to be judged according to objective standards, not by his own.
I’ve had dinner recently with groups of politically-minded folks who act on their beliefs re: consumption to varying degrees. Let me try to break the groups down for you:
- Hedonistic Conservatives. People for whom selfish overconsumption presents no moral problems, unless the Chinese do it. (These people are Japanese, but American conservatives see China in similar ways.)
- Coasters. People who haven’t thought about what level of consumption would be problematic and simply abide by patterns and implicit rules from the society around them.
- Inactive liberals. People who talk about the problems of overconsumption between bites of imported sea bass.
- Opportunistic liberals. People who tend to take action on the most visible, social media-friendly progressive causes. People who eat imported sea bass with their group of upper middle class homeless shelter volunteers.
You’ll have noticed that among my friends there are no liberals (or conservatives) who truly act on their principles in considered and logical ways – presumably they would find most dinner parties problematic. Not one of the liberals in my current circle of acquaintances lives by their principles completely, including me. I still consider these people morally superior to Hedonistic Conservatives and Coasters because their level of hypocritical, self-aggrandizing liberal activism still results in objectively less harm to other people and a human-friendly environment.
Let me define what a consistent display of progressive ideology would be with the help of a paraphrased example from the philosopher Peter Singer. Imagine you are walking in the park wearing a pair of expensive leather shoes that you just bought. In a pond in the park you see a child thrashing in about a foot of water. To save the child from drowning, you would need to wade into the water, ruining your new shoes. Would you accept that cost to save the child?
Of course, everyone accepts the $50 or so that shoes cost as negligible to save a life. The point though is that we are actually in this position every waking minute, just indirectly; and every time we spend money on upgraded phones, premium coffee, or really anything besides our basic living necessities instead donating to charities like Oxfam we are in effect choosing our “shoes” over other people’s lives. The fact that we don’t know and can’t see these people doesn’t change the lives-money exchange. Many educated liberals know this point and have internalized it to a degree, and especially vegetarians and vegans know Peter Singer’s work in animal welfare. Almost no one applies it rigorously to his or her own life. My point is that an incomplete application of the principle that you should prioritize other people’s (and animals’) lives over your temporary material comfort is still better than rejection of that principle altogether, although people who reject this principle may be able to live more consistently with their stated beliefs. That is, imperfect or even cherry-picked philanthropy is better than no philanthropy at all.
I count myself somewhere between numbers 3 and 4 from the above list, by the way. I wouldn’t eat sea bass but still consume enough not to be counted as living by my own principles – my cupboard is full of cans of imported tomatoes and I am personally responsible for quite a bit of calf and chick suffering through my ovo-lacto eating habits. The point of this post though is that although I’m clearly hypocritical in this regard, I still regard my haphazard eating habits as superior to those of a carnivore who believes sincerely in the rightness of his carnivorousness. My lifestyle produces more CO2, methane, and pain than a vegan, but less than a carnivore, and this is a good thing.
Vegetarianism also offers the benefit of coming with a social capital-producing identity. It frames the act of choosing a soy patty as a plus – “doing something to help animals and the environment” – a friendlier message than what it really is, avoiding an activity that hurts animals and the environment. Sometimes the ability to send a visible, positive and memorable message makes a bigger difference in behavior than actual physical environmental effects. Although this displays a priority placed on appearances over strict adherence to the principles that underlie vegetarianism, it is still objectively preferable to meat-eating.
Liberals are to environmentalism what many conservatives are to their religion or ethnicity – liable to misinterpret a combination of verbal and behavioral signs of loyalty to your group as devotion to a cause. Just like a cross worn around the neck works much better as an identifier than time reading the Bible, the visible trappings of being part of the environmentalist movement often take precedence over preventing actual CO2 or methane from entering the air. These often take the form of ready-made suites of behaviors like buying faux fur, driving Priuses and yes, vegetarianism. These have currency in our cultures in a way that reducing your beef consumption 20% or backyard composting don’t; they are generally binary rules of thumb that are easy to remember and recognize in others.
You know, I like this post less and less the more I write, because I realize how self-serving all of this is. I started this post with the intention of excusing liberals with even less environmental bonafides than I do, though, not to excuse my own haphazard patterns of behavior. The thing I’m often having to remind myself of is: Be kind to people sympathetic to the same causes you are even if you think they’re not taking the most basic and effective steps to bring that cause to reality. A sometimes startlingly low level of real commitment to an openly espoused liberal cause still represents good intentions, and bullying people for not meeting your standards of real action runs the risk of generating antipathy. Plus, everyone has a different litmus test of progressive commitment – for many of my friends it’s belief in the exclusive power of culture in shaping observable differences between populations of humans, for others it’s helping local homeless (often through a church), and for many more it’s naming and shaming big game hunters. All liberals fail other liberals’ tests of ideological purity, like the organic yogurt companies that sell to Wal-mart, but by objective standards a little liberalism is better than none at all.