Why Activism Is Not A Moral Baseline

Vegan activism is not the moral baseline

Over the last few years the recurring theme of almost every speech by vegan activists has centred itself around, or at the very least mentioned, the idea that “activism is the moral baseline”. The argument makes the claim that the refusal to participate in immoral actions is not enough, that the only actions to be deemed moral are those that actively attempt to physically stop the action taking place.

This can be seen in the “beating of the dog” analogy, that goes like so: Imagine you are walking down the street and you see a man beating a dog, and this man calls out for you to join in. Supposedly there are three options: either you join in, safe in the knowledge that others are doing so, secondly, you refuse to participate making it clear to the perpetrator that this is not acceptable behaviour and that they should stop, or the third option which states you jump in and physically prevent the dog from being harmed. The second option is commonly described as veganism, but it is said this is not enough. The argument goes that inaction is not sufficient and that physical action is the only moral action. Or, phrased differently, “veganism is not the moral baseline, activism is”. Flaws in the analogy aside, I argue in this essay that not only is activism not the moral baseline but that it also contains implications that are themselves immoral.

The activist argument is not a new idea. Similar quotes have circulated the zeitgeist since Desmond Tutu uttered the famous line, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” However, while these ideas are similar, they are in fact distinct. Activism and “taking sides” are not one and the same. One must take sides to participate in activism, but one does not have to participate in activism to take sides. The vegan who does not demand those around him forgo animal products is still aligning himself on the side of the animals, he just does not try to force his will onto others.

Vegans take sides everyday when they vehemently defend the rights of animals in conversations with others, without participating in “activism” per se. Unless, of course, the threshold for what constitutes activism is so low that any and all conversation in support of animal rights constitutes activism, at which point every vegan instantly becomes an activist and the “activism is the moral baseline” argument becomes wholly irrelevant. (It is also worth noting that the proponents of such “Socially Enforced Intervention”, because let’s be honest, that is exactly what it is, do not consider mere discussion of veganism as activism, as evidenced by the dog analogy and other expressions on activist websites.)

While vegans do take sides, we have to ask ourselves if “inaction” is de facto immoral and we have to have to discuss what constitutes a “moral baseline”. To do this, consider the following question: Which scenario constitutes a Moral Society: A society that does not permit immoral actions, or a society that socially enforces the individual to act morally?

The psychological basis of morality

To answer that question, let’s first discuss the psychological basis of morality. Morality has evolved from a system of biological reactions that aid in the function and survival of societies and their individual inhabitants. Through years of selection at both the group and individual level, our morals have evolved to such a point that they are built upon at least six “Moral Foundations”: Care, Liberty, Fairness, Authority, Loyalty, and Sanctity.[1][2] (Note: This is not an ought, but rather, an is. This is a purely descriptive look at cross-cultural morality). From this purely descriptive notion, we see that morality is pluralistic. By this we mean there is a multitude of valid moralities but lacking any objective ordering of importance. The emphasis on which Foundations take precedence varies between cultures and within cultures.

If we decide that the Moral Society is one that socially enforces moral acts, then we become faced with the conundrum of deciding which morality to enforce. Do we enforce WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic) Morality, which focuses primarily on the foundation of Care with support from the foundations of Liberty and Fairness, demoting everything else to matters of “conventional norms”; or do we enforce the non-WEIRD morality that has a more holistic view, incorporating the foundations of Loyalty, Sanctity and Respect for Authority? The seemingly obvious answer would be to enforce the dominant morality of the country in which we find ourselves. The problem with this response is that differences in morality are greater within cultures than they are between cultures. For example, Upper class individuals in Philadelphia (USA), Porto Alegre (Brazil), and Recife (Brazil), are more similar to each other than they are to their lower-class neighbours. One can find greater moral diversity by comparing the rich areas of Philadelphia with the poor areas than they can by comparing rich areas of Philadelphia with rich areas of Recife.[3]

Which morality do we enforce?

So which morality should we enforce? The rich, educated, upper class morality that neglects community, or the working-class morality that also incorporates a greater level of respect for authority. What would our justification for such choice be? By choosing the most prevalent we succumb to the “Tyranny of the Majority” and punish the moral minority. Morality is pluralistic, we cannot escape this, and so any attempt to exclude other conceptions denies the reality of our diversity.

Since Non-WEIRD morality is more encompassing we could simply rely on enforcing this wider conception. However, it is not obvious which principles should take precedence over others. For example, consider the case of the man beating the dog in the street. Consider now that the man involved is your father and that he is demanding you help kill the dog. If we prioritise Care over Authority, the moral act is to intervene and prevent our dad from inflicting any more harm. However, now imagine if Authority takes precedence over Care, then the moral act would be to respect the wishes of our father regardless of how painful the act may be to us, or the dog.

Any simplistic statement of which foundation is “obviously” more important than the others has been determined by years transmission. It is not “obvious” to anyone but ourselves and it denies the validity of other cultures. This is what we mean by a pluralistic morality.

Even if we could solve the issue surrounding which morality to enforce, it is still not obvious that its enforcement would constitute the moral baseline. I argue that not only is the enforcement of moral acts NOT the moral baseline, but it is, in and of itself, immoral.

What is a Baseline and is Socially Enforced Intervention ethical?

First of all, the concept of a moral baseline needs to be articulated. A baseline is the fundamental position with which all improvements are built upon. It is the fundamental unit of measurement with which comparisons are made. It is the very least one can do.

So does activism form the baseline or does the refusal to participate in immoral action form the baseline? The rhetoric coming from many parts of the political spectrum would have us believe that we must take action when faced with other people’s immorality. Failure to act leaves us complicit. We see this in the belief that oppression and bigotry should be called out wherever it is seen, without fail. We see it in the attitude that we must denounce the offender, report them to their employer and start a twitter crusade against them. If we fail to speak up, we become an “apologist” or some other -ist­. Association becomes guilt. This is the same attitude that was fostered during Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. It led to individuals reporting family members for fear of being seen as complicit in the “crime”. Trust was eroded, and some the most fundamental familial relationships became untenable.


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The argument that one must jump in to stop harm and oppression and that the failure to do so is considered immoral would not only foster a climate of fear, but would also deny the individual the right to its own sovereignty, autonomy and self-determination, while forcing the individual to prioritise the welfare of others ahead of their own. This argument implies that we have ownership over the moral and physical labour of others. Therefore, I argue it is itself immoral. Believing we have ownership over the labour of others, who have not entered into this agreement voluntarily, tears up the moral foundation of Liberty. It erodes the core fundamental principle that western society has been built upon and it is this principle that has paved the way for the greatest developments in LGBT+ and Civil Rights throughout history. (There are however some circumstances in which inaction can be immoral, and that is where one has a “Duty of Care” for another e.g. parent-child, doctor-patient relationships etc.)

Socially Enforced Intervention ensures we become responsible for the mammoth task of ensuring the well-being of everyone, and everything, we happen to encounter. This argument puts the individual in servitude to the society around them, denying them the liberty to act (or not act) in the manner they see fit. We are no longer the arbiter of our own lives and we no longer have the room to withdraw into our own personal space and address the issues in our own life. Sometimes we need this space to back off and detach. Activism is tiring, it is emotionally draining, and sometimes it just does not fit in with our abilities, sensibilities, or anxieties. For our own sanity, we need the space and freedom to pick our battles without feeling pressured to speak out on all counts. Sometimes inaction is nothing more than well practised emotional management, but in a world where the failure to act is immoral we must make the decision between prioritising our emotional wellbeing and prioritising our “morality”. Activism is a fantastic vehicle for moral improvement, but Socially Enforced Activism risks the very principles we are fighting for. How can we fight for the liberty of animals if we deny the liberty of fellow vegans?

I would like to take this time to express that while I may disagree with some of the finer points of fellow vegan activists I have nothing but love and respect for all their hard work. What they do is truly amazing, and it IS a moral good, it’s just not the baseline. A baseline is there to build the foundation for future action. It should be the very least we can do, and veganism fulfils this criterion. It is also worth noting that just because I argue that this idea has immoral undertones it does not mean that I extend this perception to those who hold such ideas. Again, I have so much love and respect for all those who go out and fight for a better world and I do not wish this to be perceived as some form of “call out”. I make these arguments only because I see a much needed side to the discussion that has been neglected over the last few years. 

Veganism is enough

We influence the lives of others far beyond our expectations. In 2007, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler conducting a study evaluating data collected from over 12,000 individuals between 1971 and 2003 as part of the Framingham Heart Study. Controlling for a whole host of extraneous variables, they found that an individual had a 57% greater than average chance of becoming obese if they had a friend who became obese in the given interval. Not only this but their friends’ friends were 20% more likely to become obese and their friends’ friends’’ friends (3 Degrees of Separation) were 10% more likely to become obese.[4] This result was found for a whole host of different behaviours and beliefs including political views, back pain and suicide, albeit with varying degrees of efficacy.[5] It has now become known as the “Three Degrees of Influence Rule”, and it will almost definitely apply to going vegan.

I’ll leave you with one last thought. Imagine a friend was out walking and stumbled upon a lake. However, on closer inspection, she saw a person flailing about in the water struggling for breath. Your friend calls the emergency services and frantically searches for anyone else in the area who can help but to no avail, the person drowns. What reaction do you want society to have towards your friend? Do you want them to criticise her, labelling your friend immoral for not jumping in and attempting to save the drowning person or do you want society to look favourably upon her for she tried to help? What society would you rather live in?

 

References:

[1] Graham, Jesse, et al. “Moral foundations theory: The pragmatic validity of moral pluralism.” Advances in experimental social psychology. Vol. 47. Academic Press, 2013. 55-130.

[2] Iyer, Ravi, et al. “Understanding libertarian morality: The psychological dispositions of self-identified libertarians.” PloS one 7.8 (2012): e42366.

[3] Haidt, Jonathan, Silvia Helena Koller, and Maria G. Dias. “Affect, culture, and morality, or is it wrong to eat your dog?.” Journal of personality and social psychology 65.4 (1993): 613.

[4] Christakis, Nicholas A., and James H. Fowler. “The spread of obesity in a large social network over 32 years.” New England journal of medicine 357.4 (2007): 370-379.

[5] Christakis, Nicholas A., and James H. Fowler. Connected: The surprising power of our social networks and how they shape our lives. Little, Brown, 2009.

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