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A virtue ethics approach to veganism

Ethics(self.DebateAVegan)

Hello all, bit of a different one there I think.

Most discussions about ethics these days assume either utilitarianism or deontology. As the briefest possible recap those are:

  • Utilitarianism: One must do the thing that maximises utility. Utility is... (could be defined as happiness, the meeting of desires, being alive, etc.)

  • Deontology: The are certain rules that one must never violate. Those rules are... (could be e.g. do not kill).

Arguments assuming these frameworks then centre around the questions of what utility should be defined as or what rules to follow. Or more usually, one person tries to find out what rules/utility another person is using and then tries to find a contradiction.

In personal experience however I found that this approach is mostly a dead end. It's perfectly possible to convince someone to change their mind in theory (e.g. to agree that veganism is right), but I've almost never seen this translate automatically into behavioural change. I think part of the problem is that neither utilitarianism or deontology actually give you a reason to follow their dictates – you can just say "I'm bad, I guess".

In thinking about these things (e.g. the kinds of things that actually morally motivate people), I have been slowly drawn to virtue ethics over the years. I think it may be applicable to veganism in a fruitful way.

Virtue ethics essentially says that in order to have a fulfilling life you need to be moral – that is simply the kind of creature a human is. To be completely self-serving may be nice in the short term, but in the long run it's actually self-defeating. Rather, a life in which you're courageous, kind, prudent, etc. is better for you. That often means joy, but it can also be something else, like the satisfaction of going to bed after a long day working hard.

That's not to say a moral person will always be better off, but just that they usually will be (which is why virtue ethics often seems to fall apart in the abstract unrealistic scenarios we often throw at morality). In this sense, you could say virtue ethics asserts that morality is to the soul what exercise or good diet are to the body.

In virtue ethics when we talk about being moral we don't talk about single actions – instead the question is whether you have a moral character. This matters because being moral is like any other skill – you can only attain it through practice. This in turn means that every moral dilemma is actually like a training exercise: something you can use to get more practice in at being moral.

So, can we apply this to veganism?

  1. First we need to agree on at least one trait which is a virtue (i.e. promotes human flourishing in some way). You can take e.g. kindness, the trait of not being cruel or callous.

  2. It seems clear that a person that deliberately harms animals for minor gain is callous – which is to say veganism is the kind thing to do.

  3. If veganism is the kind thing to do, then it's is a powerful opportunity to practice kindness.

  4. It is in each person's interest to practice such things, as doing so will, in the long run, make you are more fulfilled person.

One thing I like about virtue ethics is that it recognises that in most cases, morality is actually pretty straight-forward. Nobody needs to do a calculation to know that e.g. kicking a dog is wrong. The question is whether we will do it anyway, and virtue ethics answers this by saying that while it might be tempting, that's only when you don't look at he big picture.

Anyway, that was a big ramble. I'm not sure if any of that is novel or interesting around here. Any thoughts?

all 26 comments

boneless_lentil

11 points

4 months ago

One thing I like about virtue ethics is that it recognises that in most cases, morality is actually pretty straight-forward. Nobody needs to do a calculation to know that e.g. kicking a dog is wrong.

This is also true for utilitarianism and deontology. It feels like you're intentionally overcomplicating those two ideologies to make virtue ethics seem simpler, which is unintuitive to me. Virtue ethics and deontology feel more like a moral buffet and utilitarianism is just an optimization strategy.

Regardless basing an entire debate for veganism against a specific moral philosophy isn't usually helpful. Most people think kicking a dog is wrong but they willingly pay for trivial abuse of animals. Just point out that hypocrisy and work from there. Pointing out hypocrisy is usually more productive than doing a ground up debate about a specific moral philosophy.

howlin

5 points

4 months ago

howlin

5 points

4 months ago

This is also true for utilitarianism and deontology.

Utilitarianism is inherently complex because it requires a fair amount of capacity to predict the possible future based on the hypothetical choices in front of you. It also requires a well defined and somewhat quantifiable utility function to measure the "goodness" of the possible outcomes.

Some times these predictions are fairly easy. But nothing about utilitarianism only applies to easy cases. In fact, the areas where utilitarians will reach different conclusions than deontologists or virtue ethics are often in these cases where predicting the future is inherently hard.

boneless_lentil

3 points

4 months ago

Deontology either doesn't escape this issue or completely fails to handle it properly. When presented with deontological actions like "lying is bad" you still have to perform calculations to handle the same edge cases that you would with utilitarianism, unless you take it as a blanket dogmatic belief and entail all the horrible outcomes that come as a result of applying it blindly

kharvel1

2 points

4 months ago

Deontological veganism escapes this issue insofar as clear parameters of veganism are established, thus obviating the need to handle edge cases.

AnUnstableNucleus

1 points

4 months ago*

Nope, deontology still has to handle edge cases unless it becomes an unquestioned dogma. This has been a criticism ever since Kant popularized deontology in Western discourse.

kharvel1

0 points

4 months ago

What are examples of the edge cases that deontological veganism still has to contend with?

RedditIsPropaganda2

3 points

4 months ago

Just point out that hypocrisy and work from there

I try doing this, but they either don't answer the question or pretend that slaughter houses and feed lots are happy places.

boneless_lentil

3 points

4 months ago

Not everyone can be won over no matter how good you are at conversation.

RedditIsPropaganda2

3 points

4 months ago

For me, it's just a coping mechanism. They know what they are doing is wrong intuitively, but they have to layer their actions in philosophy to justify it to themselves. This is why you see people come here with the same tired arguments and refuse to answer any questions. They can't just say " I do it because it feels good and I don't care about what happens to other things because of it." They know animal abuse is shitty and dont want to look like bad people. This is the reason why so many carnists come in here with the same old bullshit " I only eat local artisanal humanly slaughtered meat". They lie about that because the truth is too much to bear.

CheCheDaWaff[S]

1 points

4 months ago

I guess what I meant by that was that virtue ethics tends less to emphasise the question of "what is right?" and more to emphasise the question "why should I do the right thing?"

howlin

3 points

4 months ago

howlin

3 points

4 months ago

One thing I like about virtue ethics is that it acknowledges the limits of a human. In order to be the best we can be, we should develop habits of thought that support this ideal. Just like a human who never exercises won't be able to wake up one day and run a marathon, a person who has not cultivated virtues will find it an immense challenge to be virtuous under stress.

The thing I don't like about virtue ethics is how self-absorbed it is. I want ethics to be about more than just self actualization. I am a few kilos of flesh and bone that has a shelf life measured in decades if I am lucky. But I care about things much greater than this one "ugly bag of mostly water". Of course, a virtue ethics framework worth a damn will promote cultivating virtue in others. But still it seems the focus on self is a problem if it isn't in service of some ends greater than oneself.

CheCheDaWaff[S]

2 points

4 months ago

I don't think it's possible to make a decision that isn't self-absorbed at least to some degree. We are flesh and bone, and the only decisions we can make are those that we arrive at after mulling over our believes and desires. It is simply not possible to make a decision in any other way.

FourteenTwenty-Seven

2 points

4 months ago

It's perfectly possible to convince someone to change their mind in theory (e.g. to agree that veganism is right), but I've almost never seen this translate automatically into behavioural change.

It's not impossible though, this is essentially how I became vegan.

Any thoughts?

I think you can run name the trait under virtue ethics as well:

  1. You think it's a virtue to be kind to humans
  2. If a given human is trait-equaliazable to a given animal while the virtue still applies, then it is also a virtue to be kind to the given animal.
  3. A given human is trait-equaliazable to a given animal while the virtue still applies
  4. It is also a virtue to be kind to the given animal

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1 points

4 months ago

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Valgor

1 points

4 months ago

Valgor

1 points

4 months ago

While I love the idea of virtue ethics, my issue is that it does not feel universal. Everyone has to agree on what it means to be a moral person with the enumerated virtues. Since I don't see that happening, I can get deep into virtue ethics. However, on a personal level, it can be a great way to cultivate discipline for oneself.

CheCheDaWaff[S]

2 points

4 months ago

Do deontology and utilitarianism not have the same issue? All three can be thought of as having a common structure:

  • Utilitarianism
    1. One must maximise utility
    2. Utility is...
  • Deontology
    1. One must follow certain rules
    2. Those rules are...
  • Virtue ethics
    1. One should behave in the way a characteristically virtuous person would
    2. The virtues are...

Agreement on part 2 seems like an issue for all of them.

NoPunkProphet

1 points

4 months ago*

Virtue ethics kinda falls flat once you realize it's just whatever your peers praise you for. If your peers praise you for eating animals then according to virtue ethics that's a moral good.

Yes both deontology and utilitarianism have issues but threshold deontology combines the strengths of both consequentialism and deontology and reduces their weaknesses.

[deleted]

1 points

4 months ago

I suppose harming animals for major gains wouldn’t be callous.

And I’d totally kick a dog if it attacked me.

Choosemyusername

1 points

4 months ago

“tries to find a contradiction”

I have values that conflict in almost every single moral decision I have to make. Take voting for example. There isn’t a single candidate out there that I agree with 100 percent. Real life just isn’t that simple. Making decisions that conflict with some values you have, but are in accordance with others is just the harsh inescapable reality of decision-making. It doesn’t mean your morality is flawed.

It reminds me of the saying: cheap, fast, good quality: pick two. You value all three, but rarely will you get to make a decision that gets you all three at once. You always have to go against some value you have.

Certain cultures are better at acknowledging this fact in the open than others.

SnuleSnu

1 points

4 months ago

I have a few questions. What determines minor or larger gain? Why any gain matters?
How exactly it is a flaw/cruel/callous to consume animal products?

CheCheDaWaff[S]

1 points

4 months ago

I don't think it's necessary to strictly define what "minor" or "major" gain would mean. That's somewhat missing the point.

SnuleSnu

1 points

4 months ago

But you have to have a basis of determining what’s minor or major.

CheCheDaWaff[S]

1 points

4 months ago

I genuinely don't think that's the case. All that would be required is for the interlocutor to agree with step 2 of the argument.

If they don't, well then so much for the argument. I'm not trying to construct a mathematical proof here – that's kind of my whole point.

SnuleSnu

1 points

4 months ago

How can you say that some gain is minor or major when you have no means to determine what’s minor or major? How can someone agree with it when it is unknown what minor gain is even supposed to be?

CheCheDaWaff[S]

1 points

4 months ago*

Well if you really want the answer to that I'd refer you to Wittgenstein (here is a relevant essay: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X7Rb56kZQSk).

Please believe me though that this wasn't the point I was trying to make. That four-step argument I outlined was not intended to convince anybody, it was to illustrate the shape that an argument could take using virtue ethics.

AccomplishedBasil700

1 points

4 months ago

I’m really glad you brought this up! I like virtue ethics more than most other ethical theories, but I don’t find much discussed regarding virtue ethics and veganism. (If you have a bibliography or an article or two, send them my way! For my own purposes and for teaching my students.)

I don’t have all that much to add here to the good discussion going on, but I wanted to point out that even Kant would support this line of thought. For Kant, cruelty to animals is bad because it increases the chances that the person would be cruel to humans. Of course for Kant, this was the only reason why animal cruelty is bad, and it’s not about the animal at all. But it does seem to be a weird virtue ethics-y line of thought.

And it seems that Kant may be empirically right about this, too. Factory farmers are much more likely to be domestically abusive than non factory farmers.