9/30/11

New TPM


The new issue of The Philosophers' Magazine is out (subscription info and select articles here), and it's packed with good stuff.  In the reviews section we have ...

Robert Howell on Julian Baggini's latest book The Ego Trick
John Koethe on Lake Scugog, a book of poetry by philosopher Troy Jollimore
Alan Haworth on The Ethics of Voting, by Jason Brennan
Michael Antony on Reasonable Atheism, by  Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse
Steven Hales on Philosophy on Tap, by Matt Lawrence
Amy Kind on the movie Source Code
plus much, more more (as they say)

My arts column is about (among other things) Martin Creed's balloon installation at the Nasher Sculpture Gallery in Dallas.

9/28/11

A Puzzle about Procreation

Here's a little puzzle about procreation that's bothering me. Maybe you'd like to let it bother you too.

Suppose it's the case that in Someland, people should have children, but not too many.  Let's keep this simple--they should have children because otherwise the aging population won't have sufficient support, socially and financially.  But not too many, because population growth will result in resource depletion.  In fact, let's suppose, it would be ideal if the average couple had 2 children.  But in reality, the average couple has 3 children.

OK--here's the puzzle.  Though the Somelanders should have children (we are assuming), the only people who seem to be blameless are those without children.  The over-two couples are having too many kids.  The two-child couples are erring by not compensating for the over-two couples.  Only the no-child couples are blameless, and yet hold on ... How can that be, if people in Someland should have children?

Somehow we are going wrong in our distribution of credit and blame here.  What's the right thing to say about the three groups of Somelanders?

9/25/11

Is Parenthood Just Permissible? (part 2)

Marc Quinn - www.marcquinn.com
Some say we have a prima facie obligation to procreate (like Saul Smilansky), but common sense these days says procreation is just permissible.  Yes, yes, there are population worries, but let's set those aside, please.  Not because they aren't pressing and serious, but because they're not relevant to the philosophical questions I'm trying to think about here. 

In my last post on this subject I suggested that the reasons people like Smilansky have for thinking procreation is obligatory are actually better seen as reasons to put it at the "commendable" end of permissible.  Making kids goes in the same basket as other non-obligatory ways of doing good, from making good dinners to running marathons to writing novels. (Again, we're setting aside over-population worries for purposes of this post.)

A couple of commenters had the same reaction:  why permissible-commendable and not supererogatory?  In fact, why even think of running a marathon or writing a novel as permissible-commendable rather than supererogatory?  It would be nice to be able to dispense with the question quickly.  "Well, that's excluded because of the meaning of 'supererogatory'," but it's a little tricky defining that term.

Obligatory acts are required, whereas supererogatory acts are ... what?  A common gloss is "admirable," but that's not so helpful.  When someone fulfills an obligation, that's surely admirable.  Another common gloss is "heroic."  That fits the common example of you or me  running into a burning building to save someone, but it's also supererogatory to put $1 into the breast cancer collection cup when you check out at the grocery story. There's nothing's "heroic" about that.

In the comments on the last post, Justin suggested that supererogatory acts are defined by a certain ratio between cost to self and benefit to all.  Supererogatory acts are too costly to self, in comparison to the benefit to others, to be obligatory.  They're represented by the region labeled "$" in the diagram (his)  below.

Justin's Diagram

I love a good diagram, but I think the relationships represented by this drawing are just frequently associated with these moral categories, not definitive of them.  For example: I used to lead the Darfur initiative at the synagogue we belong to.  We raised $60,000 for refugees, so this was an effort that scored high on the "good/bad" axis.  I found this effort extremely enjoyable, as I think most of the other volunteers did. So it goes way up in the right quadrant, on this graph--in the obligatory zone. In our common sense moral scheme, the effort was a paradigm case of supererogation.

You'd think we could just turn to the various leading moral theories for a simple, easy definition of "supererogatory," but not so. One of the standard objections to utilitarianism is that it leaves no room for supererogation.  Whatever maximizes total good is obligatory; and everything else is just plain wrong, not permissible or supererogatory. We get no more help from Kantian ethics.  What corresponds best in Kant to the supererogatory is his notion of an imperfect duty, but this is actually a very different concept. 

OK--so what does "supererogatory" really connote?  I think the best gloss is "beyond the call of duty."  In any given situation, we are morally required to do various things. A supererogatory act involves going even further than was morally required.  It amounts to going beyond what's expected, but in the area of morality.

Within our modern, individualistic culture we have the notion that we ought, morally, be concerned about breast cancer, but only have to actively help friends and relatives with the disease.  If we do that, when we can, but also put $1 in the cup, we've excelled in the morally significant sphere of breast cancer concern.  We're supposed to care about Darfur refugees, but if we go further and raise money for them, we've excelled, morally--whether or not we're having fun while doing it.

So what about novels and marathons? Most of the time, we don't think of these things as having any moral import at all.  Putting a mere dollar in the breast cancer box is supererogatory, and running an entire marathon is not, because the former starts from a moral requirement (concern for cancer victims) and goes further, whereas the other doesn't do anything of the sort.  There's no "going beyond," in a morally significant sense, involved in running a marathon or writing a novel.

Now, what about making babies?  Is that further out on some trajectory that starts from the morally required?  I can just about see that it would be, in certain exotic scenarios.  You're living in some end-of-the world scenario.  Humankind is on the verge of extinction.  To ensure that there are future people--so more happiness, love, morality, knowledge, and all the other human goodies--you are very careful not to spread your germs, and do your utmost to help people in risky situations, and you share food, etc.  In such a case, perhaps it would make sense to say that mating is obligatory, and mating a whole lot is supererogatory.  As in--having a 6th child, just for "the cause."

But in our world today (remember, we are pretending we have no over-population problem), I don't see what the moral duties are that would have procreation as an extension--a way of going "above and beyond."  It seems instead like having children goes into the same basket with marathon-running and novel-writing. These are all at least potentially good things to do--they make the world a better place (again, leaving aside population issues)--but they are not usually morally superlative things to do.

If procreation is extremely onerous (for me it's quite the opposite--it's extremely rewarding), that doesn't change the picture at all.  It doesn't make procreation any sort of "going further" in a direction that starts from moral duties.  So procreation isn't supererogatory, even for someone who (mistakenly!) expects to find kids a big pain in the ass.

9/23/11

Is Parenthood Just Permissible? (update)

Mark Quinn -- http://www.marcquinn.com/
Update 9/23:  The discussion continues, with the aid of the following diagram.  See Justin's comment at the end of the comment thread. I'm mid-pondering (and busy today), so will reply tomorrow.  There are two interesting issues here: what we mean by "supererogatory" and what moral valence should be assigned to having children.


***

Originally posted 9/10:

This week my class on procreation and parenthood has been exploring hard questions about the moral valence of having children.  It's certainly strongly counterintuitive to say having children is generally wrong.  This week I discovered that for college students, anyway, it's also strongly counterintuitive to say there's any obligation to have children--they resist saying there's even a "general" or prima facie obligation to reproduce. They're not even inclined to think procreation is obligatory in a dire end-of-the-world scenario, where reproduction would make the difference between human survival and human extinction.  I was surprised to find that the arguments in this article by Saul Smilansky had virtually no takers.

That leaves calling procreation either supererogatory or merely permissible.  I don't think we want to say it's supererogatory.   Some supererogatory acts are heroic--they involve people running into burning buildings to save others. Sometimes the term means the same thing as "beyond the call of duty"--in other words, doing everything you have to, and then some.  So for example, doing a fantastic job as a secretary, but going the extra mile--finding a free refrigerator for the faculty lounge, for instance.  Nobody thinks it's heroic or "going the extra mile" to have a child.

That leaves saying that having a child is merely permissible, but that seems odd too.  When I explain these things to students, I typically offer something like choosing peas instead of carrots as an example of a permissible act.  The prototypical permissible act is neutral--there's nothing good or bad about doing it.

Now, I just can't see how creating a child could possibly be neutral, even if there's something politically attractive about categorizing it that way.  It makes no conceptual sense, considering that having a child is bringing a  great deal of value into the world (Smilansky does a good job of explaining all the types of value).  So if we throw making children into the "permissible" basket, and say no more, we haven't captured its moral valence very well.

What I think we really need, if we're going to say the right thing about procreation, is subdivisions within the category of the permissible.  Suppose I make a really delicious meal for my family.  I can't see that I was obligated to do that, and it's going too far to call that act supererogatory.  What we want is a distinction between the neutral-permissble and the done-good-permissible.  We need "the commendable," so to speak. 

On the other hand, if I make pasta with bottled sauce or order a pizza for the third night in a row, that's kind of bad, but it's surely going too far to call it wrong.   If we must have an adjective, maybe "objectionable" will do.

So now there are six possible valences for the typical act of procreation--

Now,  it does seem inappropriate to say procreation is obligatory--it's too much of a "personal thing", people will say (phrase stolen from Smilansky).  But should we also be disturbed by the notion that having kids is "doing good"--it's commendable? It's still "merely permissible," not obligatory, so there's no upshot that not having kids is wrong.  Furthermore, lots and lots of other things are commendable too--from making a good dinner to running a marathon to writing a novel. So that classification does not single out parents for gold stars and deny them to others.

Calling procreation commendable is much closer to intuitive than calling it obligatory, but perhaps it's still a bit of an odd thing to say.  Making children is just part of the normal business of life--like breathing or eating, in a way.  So kudos seem a bit strange.  Yet if you take it seriously that a life is (normally) a good thing, then I don't see how procreation can fall into any less exalted moral category. It just can't be entirely neutral, and saying it's objectionable or wrong seems apt only in very special circumstances.

So that's my verdict: commendable.  As I say, "commendable" wouldn't be your first impression, necessarily, but it seems like procreation has to have this sort of positive valence, assuming that human lives have great value.

9/22/11

Death Penalty News

Not to be outdone by Georgia in the area of death penalty barbarism, the state of Texas has decided to stop serving "last meals" to death row inmates.  Think I'm kidding?  No, it's true!  Turns out yesterday's last meal (served to a white supremacist executed for a notorious vehicular dragging murder) was the last last meal.  He ordered too much barbecue, ice cream, and the like, didn't touch any of it, and now Texas legislators are taking away that tradition.

*** 

About Troy Davis's execution in Georgia ... I'm about to say something that may make you lose all confidence in me, dear reader. So let me first emphasize:  I'm against the death penalty, and do think the Troy Davis execution looks to be a procedural mess.  If there's no place in the system for taking into account withdrawn testimony, it seems inevitable that innocent people will be executed.  In fact, it seems quite possible that Troy Davis was innocent of the crime for which he was executed.  So he shouldn't have been executed.

OK ... here's my provocative point.  In all the passionate talk about Davis's possible innocence in the last couple of days, something seems to have been lost. It's not consistent with the undisputed evidence that Davis was innocent in every single respect. He was in fact part of a group that was assaulting a homeless man when McPhail intervened and got shot. In fact, under the laws of some jurisdictions, sheer participation in that joint venture could have been enough to make Davis guilty of some offense--though perhaps not a capital offense.  (Full disclosure:  I was once on a jury that convicted a man of manslaughter under a joint venture law.)

Maybe that's actually obvious, and all the protests about Davis's execution were about the right thing--the procedural mess, not his blamelessness.  I suspect people do get confused though.  The sheer effort to defend someone against an injustice can make you vulnerable to a a sort of fallacy of victimhood. If X is a victim of injustice, X must be a saint or a hero.  Mysteriously enough, the concept of a victim and the concept of a saint or hero seem to be next door neighbors in our brains.

9/20/11

Report on Women in Philosophy

Thanks to the idiocy of US Airways, I was recently stuck in an airport for six hours, and finally had a chance to read a new report on women in philosophy (in the UK) by Helen Beebee and Jenny Saul.  And grade a pile of papers. And read some short stories. And argue with some managers.  And gee, Au Bon Pain has pretty good sandwiches, did you know?

This is a smart and interesting report, and I like its directness. For example, the first section heading is "what we would like you to do."  OK, what?   To begin with, they'd like to see the report disseminated and discussed as widely as possible.  Have a look--it really is interesting.  

Section 2 contains facts and figures that are quite striking.  Women start out being nearly half of all philosophy majors (or the UK equivalent), but steadily thin out at higher levels.


The authors note that women thin out at higher levels in other fields too.  The end result in philosophy is particularly striking, because women start out being in the minority.  The trend in philosophy most resembles the trend in math, which they see as revealing.



Here's another pleasingly direct bit of the report - it's from section 3.
We do not fully understand why the proportion of women philosophers is so low. Some will insist that it is due to innate and unchangeable psychological differences between women and men. This may be true (though there are good reasons to doubt such claims; see e.g. Fine 2010, Jordan-Young 2010), but there is also strong evidence that there are other barriers to women in philosophy. As long as these barriers exist, it will be impossible to know whether the underrepresentation of women is indeed due to such innate differences, or to these barriers. And since these barriers are, as we will see, both unjust and bad for philosophy, there is good reason for us to strive to remove them.
"We don't fully understand" is honest, and "let's remove barriers" makes sense, as does the idea that they're "unjust and bad for philosophy."  But surely there's a false dichotomy here.  It's not true that women are underrepresented because of either (1) "innate and unchangeable psychological differences between women and men" or (2) "barriers to women in philosophy."  They could be underrepresented because of (3) culturally transmitted differences between men and women.  Or because of (2) and (3). Or because of (1), (2), and (3).

Anyhow, they focus on barriers.  One is "implicit bias" against women in philosophy - on the part of philosophers both male and female.  The sheer fact that a CV is headed by a woman's name causes it to be rated more negatively, a study of psychologists (though not philosophers) has shown.

Another is "stereotype threat," a concept developed and substantiated by Claude Steele (see here).  Steele's research shows that performance immediately drops when people are self-conscious about belong to a group stereotyped as less good at X.  Stereotype threat also makes the work environment more stressful for women.
This is important because women philosophers’ membership of the stereotyped group—women— can be made manifest routinely in the day-to-day business of academic life. Many women philosophers are routinely the only female speaker at a conference or workshop or the only female member on an appointments panel. In departments with small numbers of women staff, the women will often find themselves the only woman sitting on a departmental committee.
Moreover, stereotypically male behaviour amongst male (and perhaps also female) colleagues will serve to make women’s status as women even more salient. One piece of stereotypically male behaviour is an aggressive style of argument in the seminar room. This might include, for example, displaying hostility—by words, tone of voice or body language—towards a speaker or audience (or a class discussion) member whom one thinks has failed to grasp a point or adequately address an objection, or pursuing a point well past the stage where it is obvious that the speaker has no adequate response (Beebee, forthcoming). Relatedly, philosophers’ standard metaphors for what goes on in the seminar room are those of competition, fighting and battle (Rooney, 2010). People win and lose arguments, shoot down points, go for the jugular, fight their corner, take no prisoners, don’t pull their punches, and so on. This all falls squarely in the ‘stereotypically male’ category. 
The third barrier they focus on is sexual harassment.  Women don't have the same opportunities as men if hotshot Professor X has to be avoided by the female students because he's an aggressive womanizer.

There's got to be sexual harassment and implicit bias in English departments too, but women are not underrepresented in English departments.  The most compelling hypothesis in the report is the one about stereotype threat and related dynamics.  Women in philosophy are susceptible to the feeling of being outsiders, as several women say in section 4 ("Case Reports").  That makes the work environment more uncomfortable for them.  Gradually, more and more are driven away.

People don't do as well when they feel like outsiders. They gravitate toward environments in which they feel like insiders. So, away from philosophy to ... something else.  But I'm not 100% convinced that the whole explanation for women feeling like outsiders can be obtained if you don't venture into culturally transmitted (or possibly innate - I can't rule that out) differences between men and women.

When I look back at various philosophy environments I've been in, I recall the outsider feeling being present to varying degrees. Some people teach and write philosophy with enormous human warmth.  In other people's hands, philosophy feels like a much more remote and abstract affair.  Some topics have more human warmth, some much less. Remote and abstract topics can be engrossing, but it takes (for me) some human warmth to feel at home. I suspect more women feel this way than men do, and it's part of the reason why women are more numerous in some areas of philosophy (e.g. ethics) than in others.  It might also be one of the reasons why women thin out at higher (colder!) levels.  For a lot of women, philosophy is a great place to visit, but they don't want to live there.  Not forever, anyway.

Another story entirely about why women feel like outsiders in philosophy comes from Steven Stich and Andrew Buchwalter. Their research suggests that women are more likely to feel out of place in philosophy classes, because they are less likely to share the instructor's intuitions. OK, maybe, but to my mind that's minor, compared with feeling not at home with a whole subject.  If you're a woman in a class on metaphysics, and you find the whole subject a bit weird and alien, that's got to dwarf any discomfort you might feel because the professor's intuitions about some arcane problem are different from yours. 

Now, barriers are nice to identify, because they can be lifted.  But how can awareness of these "differences" factors be used to increase the number of women in philosophy?  Stich and Buchwalter think that less intuition-driven philosophy will lead to less alienation for women, since they won't have to contend with having minority intuitions.  Recognizing that women are "people people" more often than men could (conceivably) lead someone to try to attract more female students by adopting a different teaching style (more example-driven, more focused on real world implications, etc).  I can think of various ways to make use of the notion that more "real life importance" is needed to make women feel at home.

But enough with these speculations.  The report is well worth reading, sharing, and discussing.

9/14/11

Cartesian Ethics

A post at Practical Ethics News has been worrying me for a couple of days.  Michelle Hutchinson argues that pro-life abortion counselors ought to lie to patients heading for abortions. They might, for example, show them pictures of more advanced fetuses, or exaggerate post-abortion trauma, or lie about how early a fetus can feel pain.  After all, the counselor believes that a fetus is a person and that the client is on the verge of committing murder.  Surely a few lies are worth telling in order to save a person's life.  We'd certainly think so if this were a question of a police officer talking to a mother who's about to kill her toddler. If it takes telling her some lies to stop her ("Calm down, your husband tells us he's going to reconcile with you!") and save the child, the police officer should do that.

My reaction is: definitely not. No lying to women on the verge of abortion permitted, even if the police officer is justified in lying to the homicidal mom.  But why not?  It doesn't seem like much of a response to say the fetus is not a person, so the counselor would be wrong to proceed on the basis of a false belief.  She believes the fetus is a person.  People have to make decisions on the basis of what they believe.

A more promising line of thought is that the counselor has a belief about the personhood of the fetus, but also has to have many beliefs about other people's beliefs, and that this "social knowledge" should slow her down.  She's got to believe that lots and lots of people no less intelligent or sensitive than herself believe the fetus is not a person. That belief about other people ought to temper the confidence with which she holds her own belief.  In fact, it ought to drive her confidence down to a level too low for her to feel justified in deceiving the patient into changing her mind.

In other words, when you're about to try to alter someone else's behavior by some prima facie problematic means, it's no time for Cartesian epistemology--for going solo as far as the pivotal, motivating beliefs are concerned.  That's a time to look at the big picture--at how your own beliefs square with everyone else's. 

The social approach will allow the police officer to intervene with the homicidal mother.  Just about everyone thinks toddlers are persons, so none of his beliefs about other people's beliefs will get in the way of his plan to protect the child by lying to the mother about her husband.  So far so good.

The social approach will also stop people from bringing about some outcomes we might like.  For example, if I think animals are persons with rights, the social approach will stop me from telling lies to my friends who see animals otherwise.  I've got to notice and take it into account that people of equal intelligence and sensitivity disagree about the moral status of animals.  So I should back off, and not tell my friends lies about how every pound of hamburger contains a few grams of human flesh, due to slaughterhouse accidents. Or lies about how the stunning process is rarely effective, when in fact it's usually effective.  Though I'd like other people to stop eating meat, it strikes me as intuitively correct that I shouldn't lie to them to alter their behavior.

So--two points for the social approach to moral epistemology, and it's looking like the abortion counselor should not lie to her clients.  But--Michelle Hutchinson points out--isn't the social approach also going to prevent an abolitionist, pre-civil-war, from telling intuitively acceptable lies in order to stop slave-owners from beating or selling their slaves?  Must an abolitionist back off from total confidence in the belief that slavery is wrong, and African-Americans are full human persons?

I don't think it's necessarily true that equally intelligent and sensitive people disagreed about those issues.  Defenders of slavery may have been obviously biased miscreants who owned tons and tons of slaves. But suppose the social approach would occasionally interfere with the good works of leaders who are ahead of their time.  What exactly does that prove? The individualistic approach would lead to some flagrantly bad outcomes too.  Suppose another bad mother is trying to kill her toddler, but this one believes the child is the devil.  Thus, in her mind, it's right to try to get other people to help her commit the murder.  On the Cartesian approach, that's what she should do--and her lies and manipulations can be justified.

You could take a rule-utilitarian approach here, and decide which moral epistemology should be adopted by figuring out whether the Cartesian or Social approach is likely to have the best consequences, if adopted by all.  I think the Social approach will win this race. On the whole, people are more likely to have true beliefs (about any topic) if they make appropriate use of social knowledge, than if they don't. If you tinker around with what "appropriate" means in various contexts, to reflect expertise, etc. etc., the social approach to knowledge shouldn't slow down the vanguard too too much.

So--no, abortion counselors shouldn't lie to patients, in an effort to prevent abortions, no matter how fervently they believe the fetus is a person and abortion is wrong.

9/11/11

9/11 Tribute

photo from The New York Times

A tribute in four songs, chosen by each member of my family.  From my daughter (who says "listen to it--it's not insulting, it's respectful").

9/7/11

Elevator Story, Quatre

You know you've been waiting for another one. This time, it's courtesy of Jim Houston, a new blogger at Talking Philosophy.  Simple story:  guy and girl romp in elevator at train station in Scotland, thinking they can't be seen.  But there's a CCTV camera, and now they're in trouble with the law.  Did they do anything morally wrong?  What's the punishment that fits the crime ... if any?  Houston seems to have the situation under control.  Take it away .... Jim.

***

Update:  Wait a minute. He doesn't have it under control. He neglected to mention that the guy and girl were brother and sister!  Sensationalistic tabloid link here.  I think this would be a decidedly non-uplifting chapter of "my lift book".*

* Quotes because there's only a 1% chance I'm going to write a lift book, but it's fun thinking about it anyway.

9/5/11

Do we have reasons to enjoy music?


Here's an interesting passage from Derek Parfit's On What Matters (p. 53)--
Many people hate the sound of squeaking chalk. I hate the feeling of touching velvet, the sound of buzzing house-flies, and the flattening, deadening effect of some overhead lights.  The oddness of these dislikes does not make me less than fully rational. Whether we like, dislike, or are indifferent to these various sensations, we are not responding or failing to respond to any reasons.
Similar remarks apply, I believe, to many aesthetic experiences. It is sometimes claimed that we have reasons to enjoy, or be thrilled or in other ways moved by, great artistic works. In many cases, I believe, this claim is false. We can have reasons to want to enjoy, or be thrilled or moved by, these artistic works. But these are not reasons to enjoy, or to be thrilled or moved by, these works.  We do have reasons to admire some novels, plays or poems, given the importance of some of the ideas that they express. But poetry is what gets lost in the translation, even if this translation expresses the same ideas. And we never have reasons to enjoy, or be moved by, great music.   If we ask what makes some musical passage so marvellous, the answer might be ‘Three modulations to distant keys’. This answer describes a cause of our response to this music, not a reason. Modulations to distant keys are like the herbs, spices, or other ingredients that can make food delicious. When someone neither enjoys nor is moved by some great musical work, this person is not in any way less than fully rational, by failing to respond to certain reasons.
I recently discussed a Fleet Foxes song ("He Doesn't Know Why") with my brother, who is a music professor and cellist.  Here it is (just audio) for your listening pleasure--



I wanted my brother to explain in music theory terms why I find this song so beautiful, and he had quite a lot to say about it.  I now have a couple of pages of notes that do have some explanatory oomph--stuff about stability, instability, chords, etc.  I want to stress: this was pretty illuminating.

Do the notes give me a reason to like "He Doesn't Know Why"?  I think Parfit might be right about this--the musical elements my brother identified really are a lot like the spices in food.  You could find out it was the cumin that made you like a certain curry so much, but the cumin wouldn't give you a reason  to like it.

And yet, and yet ... knowledgeable people seem to be able to tell us why we should like some music and not like other music.  In fact, my brother told me (fairly politely) that I shouldn't actually like Fleet Foxes so much.  He said they sing out of tune, for example. Should I notice that and respond negatively?  Is that a reason not to like them, or just a cause of his being not-enamored?

Not ... sure.  But I'm going to listen to some more Fleet Foxes while I think about it.  Here's another great song from their first album--"Your Protector."

Joy of Cold


If you don't live in Dallas, you won't understand how thrilling this is. 

9/2/11

Veganish or Vegetarian?

my favorite cookbook - full of fantastic vegan and vegetarian recipes
Carpe Vegan is a new (pretty new?) organization and website that stands for animal activism and tolerant veganism. Here's some smart stuff from a post called "All Birthday Cake and Alcohol is Vegan"--
If someone smokes a pack of cigarettes a day, they’re clearly a smoker; but if, once or twice a year, they get drunk at a party and smoke a cigar, then they’re a non-smoker who smokes every once in a while. We propose a similar way of thinking for veganism: if 95%’ish of the time you’re vegan, you’re vegan or veganish.
Do you see Catholics kicking members out for using birth control? Do you see Mormons 86’ing members who drink beer or coffee? How about public shaming of Jews who don’t eat kosher? And, these are effin religions! Hell, veganism isn’t even supposed to be a religion but we set far stricter criteria and far higher standards to live by. And we don’t offer an after-life, heaven, or any other nifty parting goods for participating.
And, by the way, what is the real difference between someone who eats 100% vegan vs someone whose dietary intake is 95% vegan? Does the difference really mean less animal suffering? Depends, but if the difference is just lots of misc ingredients in various meals during a given year, that is probably not the case.
In a world that is so crazy, so cruel, and so barbaric, why is it that so many vegans are hardest on fellow vegans who don’t meet the mythical standards of strict vegan? 
Good quesion!

But now, what about vegetarians?  I nearly jumped when I saw this post--"Let's kill Vegetarian!  Why Vegetarianism must go and VeganISH should ascend"?  Phew, no, it doesn't say "Let's kill VegetarianS"!  But Joe Haptas has a problem with vegetarianism ... as they say.

His main point is that vegetarianism is not a coherent ethical stance.  In some cultural settings (rural India?)  it might make sense to think "meat bad, milk-and-eggs not bad."  After all, meat inevitably involves killing, and milk/eggs could be obtained with no killing and no cruelty.  However in developed countries, that's not how things work. There's massive cruelty behind meat, but also behind dairy products and eggs.  So vegetarianism couldn't possibly make sense as an ethical stance. If you can't be a perfect vegan (and few can), at least be veganISH, not vegetarian, he says.

But hold on. Yes, these points about eggs and dairy are important, yes, many omnivores don't know them.  The uneducated omnivore might imagine eggs and dairy are innocent, so vegetarians have done all that is morally important, by giving up meat.  This is a mind-set I do encounter frequently when I teach my course on animal rights. But people who actually take the step to become vegetarian have typically done a lot of research first and the facts about eggs and dairy are widely available.  Vegetarians know that eggs and dairy aren't innocent.  They consume eggs and dairy because (basically) vegetarianism is their way of being vegan(very)ish.

There are other ways, of course. You can just be a randomly erring vegan, lapsing at parties, or on special occasions, or by not reading labels, or when the spirit moves you, but there's something to be said for being a consistent vegetarian, not a frequently lapsing vegan. Vegetarianism is not (usually) driven by a mistake (the mistake of thinking eggs and milk don't matter), but partly by animal impact facts, and party by psychological considerations.

Vegetarianism is OK!  Reason #1 - Animal impact

Here's what I wrote about this a while back--
If you eat chicken all year, the cost in chicken lives is 25-50.  All those chickens will have endured what chickens go through to wind up on our plates--which is a lot if they were ordinary factory farmed chickens, though less, if they weren't. If you eat cage-free eggs all year, roughly one laying hen went through those same things, plus one male chick was killed (since the males have no economic value).  That makes it a very rational choice to give up chicken first, before eggs.

If you think through the costs to animals and the environment of beef vs. milk, you will come to the same conclusion. Ideally, we should give up both.  If you're not up to that, then your first priority should be giving up beef.
Now, there are other two-way decisions where things will come out differently.  What if it's a choice between eggs and beef?  If 10 people collectively decide between a year of egg-eating and a year of beef-eating, they will certainly kill less and cause less suffering if they eat beef.  20 chickens will die for the eggs, and maybe just one steer for the beef.  Plus, the steer will have a more enjoyable year. So an eggless beef-eater would be in finer moral fettle than a beefless egg-eater.

What if it's a choice between an omnivorous diet including a little meat, eggs, and dairy, and a vegetarian diet that's non-stop eggs and dairy? Again, the vegetarian diet isn't morally superior.

To ward off these arguments about egg-free beef eaters and eggs/dairy-crazy vegetarians, we've got to be a little more precise (is this getting excruciating?).  A vegetarian diet of the sort real vegetarians typically eat--low in eggs and dairy (and with humane options chosen when possible)--is less harmful to animals than the standard omnivorous diet.  There.  That's the claim, and I think it's true. 

Vegetarianism is OK!  Reason #2 - Motivation and Sustainability

If you're going to adopt a challenging diet, psychology matters.  An imperfect diet that you can maintain for decades or even a lifetime does more good than a perfect diet that you maintain just for a year.  Vegetarianism is, I think, more sustainable than veganism or even veganishism, at least for many people.  That, not ignorance about the impact of eggs and dairy, is presumably why there are far more vegetarians than vegans.

First, meat is actually easier to give up, and keep giving up, than eggs and milk.  Meat inherently and obviously involves killing. You can see that, so finding meat repellent comes easily. That's motivating. Second, eggs and milk are everywhere, so abstaining from them requires a global change of diet. It's a much harder thing to do, on a long-term basis. 

The -ish in being veganish might make the diet less sustainable than a vegetarian diet, depending on what sort of -ish is involved.  Suppose you reject the distinction between meat and eggs/dairy.  So you're anti-vegetarian about your -ish.   Your lapses include occasionally eating a hamburger or pepperoni on your pizza, or whatever you fancy.  One lapse might lead to another, because you've reminded your taste buds of these possibilities.

It's also self-reinforcing to have a set of rules and take pride in being able to follow them consistently. The lapsing vegan may ultimately get tired of feeling so fallen.

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I think Carpe Vegan has a very helpful message for vegans.  The main message is about tolerance and inclusivity--about not giving up just because you're "only" veganish.  I can even accept that vegetarians are the ugly stepsisters of vegans, veganish or otherwise.  But we're not naive, not unprincipled, and not not-helping.  We're drawing a line in a place where it actually makes sense to draw it--both in terms of animal impact and human psychology.  Vegetarians are imperfect, certainly, but have good reasons for their particular way of being imperfect. 


p.s.  I just had a look at the contributors list at Carpe Vegan and found Rhys Southan's name on it. Well that's interesting!  Rhys is also my favorite bad ex-vegan.  His blog (Let Them Eat Meat ... no, no, wrong conclusion!)  is constantly smart and frequently hilarious.