All the interesting values are univeral values

I was baffled by the New York Times‘s article on vegan weddings that revealed many vegans opted to serve meat at their wedding receptions.  The article dwelt on the question of whether the vegans and vegitarians ought to serve meat despite their own preferences.  Guests who were not placated with meat tended to be quite upset.

When Patrick Moore, a salesman from Attleboro, Mass., arrived at an old friend’s wedding in 1999 to discover nothing but vegetarian options, he made an excuse about leaving the gift in his car so he could visit a sandwich shop across the street…

“I know it’s your day, but it’s not all about you,” he said. “Why have a wedding if you’re going to be like that? Just print a bumper sticker.”

Most vegans I know have given up animal products on moral grounds.  In some cases they believe that using animal products causes harm to the environment, but, in more extreme cases, vegans believe that killing animals for human use is intrinsically evil, regardless of environmental impact. For vegans of the second variety to serve meat at their weddings is roughly similar to pro-lifers asking that, in lieu of gifts, wedding guests donate to Planned Parenthood.

A number of the misunderstandings between different religious traditions stem from this seeming inability to believe that the opposing tradition has a different hierarchy of values. Convenience and taste matter little to a vegan who is trying to avoid doing violence to suffering animals. Similarly, we cannot expect Catholics to be moved by an argument that marriage ought to be available to everyone when their religion praises those who are called to religious life and serve in chastity.

Although we may know on an intellectual level that other people hold different premises than we do, most of the time, it is extremely difficult to comprehend that they can therefore rationally come to different conclusions. Or, in a milder case of this problem, we can’t really imagine that our opponent believes his or her values to be universally applicable.  Like Patrick Moore, we’d prefer not to have other people’s values imposed on us, or, if we must be exposed to them, we prefer that it be in the anodyne, impersonal format of a bumper sticker or some other non-binding declaration of beliefs.

While reading Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, I found plenty to disagree with, but I found him to be spot on in his opening chapter, as he discussed how a desire for ‘tolerance’ was fostering relativism.

“The danger [students] have been taught to fear from absolutism is not error but intolerance. Relativism is necessary to openness; and this is the virtue, the only virtue… The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think that you are right at all.”

Bloom is correct that we have tried to make a right out of our desire not to be offended. This is a mistake. We ought to be confronted by the beliefs of others, even if the contact may be offensive, so that we are forced to consider them. It is better for us to struggle with these ideas so that, if we are in the wrong, we have the opportunity to mend our ways.

If it turns out we are in the right, it is better to be confronted by the errors of others, so that the offence may serve as a spur to correct our fellow men, rather than to remain quietly insulated from the harm other people do to themselves.

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  • Anonymous

    Hey Leah, me again,So whether or not it is prudent of vegans to have an alternate meat option at an otherwise vegan wedding is an interesting strategic debate, which would be more appropriate between ethical vegans.More importantly, I wanted to address two of your points.First, you seem to imply that like people of different religions, vegans and non-vegans have a "different hierarchy of values", or hold different premises. I would like to strongly contest this point. I think the reason you err here is the following: you mention two reasons people you know have gone vegan – environmental reasons and the belief in the impermissibility of slaughter – but have neglected to bring up the reason that by far is the primary motivator for a grand majority of vegans nowadays: a belief that unnecessary animal suffering is bad (and the recognition that 99% of animals we eat suffer tremendously in their lifetime).You'll find that over 95% of Americans profess to believe that unnecessary animal suffering is bad. So to claim that this is an extreme view is a bit off mark.Secondly, there is a large difference between ethical debates between people who agree on empirical facts and empirical debates (which translate themselves into ethical disagreements. Illustration: Case 1: A: "Given that animals suffer in meat production, we should eat meat".B: "Given that animals suffer in meat production, we should not eat meat".Case 2: A: "Given that God exists, we should not have homosexual intercourse"B: "Given that God doesn't exist, we should have homosexual intercourse"You see the difference? Each ethical prescription is preceded by a set of empirical facts which it is dependent upon. The disagreement in case 1 is a true ethical disagreement, whereas the disagreement in case 2 stems from different empirical beliefs. The normative/empirical distinction here is critical.-Eitan.

  • I'm wrestling a little with this post as well with respect to how this plays out. I wouldn't say that relativism encourages that no one is right but perhaps instead can encourage tolerance when the answer is non-obvious. The wedding situation is a toss-up. I completely see that the hosts set things up according to their rules. This would be like complaining when over at a friend's house because they didn't put out place mats and fine china when it just isn't their practice. Dinner settings are far less "moral" (if at all) than killing animals, but the point is that it seems to reduce to preferences or at most a particular way of viewing things.Given that, when not at one's own vegan wedding, does one bomb meat sandwich shops? Meat markets? Pull together vegans from all over to physically stop others form doing what is immoral? No. We discuss how we came to our views and let it be. We hope others will understand but in the absence of being able to put forth a conclusive case we are left to see this choice as a matter of moral preference.I realize that sounds like hell, as what's the case for killing humans or not. I'm not there yet in my moral system research and/or subscribing to a particular method of establishing moral claims. For now I'll just say that the two are quite different in most people's eyes and the government has only found one compelling enough to enact laws against.Where is this going? I guess I'm only putting forth that a quasi-relativist approach or at least one of recognizing differences in a respectful way strikes me as the best approach. I do not see this as the case with religions either within themselves or toward outsiders.Those within who deviate are considered "not true believers" or excommunicated.Those outside the bubble are judged, sometimes harshly and sometime less so, as not having "the full Truth", as lost, as broken/damaged, ignorant, having hidden moral agendas and so forth.With an absolutist view toward matters low on the certainty scale, horrid things result. The fact that there are so many diverse views should be a hint that the matter is non-obvious. Sure, condemn or reprimand believers in the green-sky. But good luck finding any. With the landscape so divided, why encourage a view that one small subset is actually right and the rest are idiots in danger or eternal peril?