“A system of morality which is based on relative emotional values is a mere illusion, a thoroughly vulgar conception which has nothing sound in it and nothing true.” -Socrates
This is perhaps one of the hardest things to write about, not because it’s difficult to think of what to write but because of the implications. Speaking to any measure of inconsistency in people’s morals and their strongest passions is not typically well received. I do feel, however, without attempting to be negative or reprimanding, that it’s a vitally important concept to understand.
Spending 3 years being a vegetarian I discovered a lot about our relative use of righteousness. By not eating meat I inspired open admiration and criticism. Because of this I would not tend to talk about it unless confronted with a situation in which it had to be acknowledged. I found it silly to burden other people with a choice that I made that is atypical in many circumstances. It was a choice I made for myself and for no other reason.
It was not a decision I made with a moral pretense, which might explain some of my perceptions on this subject. I did it to try something new, a different lifestyle, and perhaps I’d be enlightened to something I had not thought of or experienced before just by being open to new things. Seems a tad silly to assume that your choice of diet can change your life, but I didn’t quite have those delusions of grandeur. I continued being a vegetarian after the first year, which was my initial goal, because I had become so accustomed to it. Living in Los Angeles, where vegetarianism and veganism are widely accepted made life a lot easier to make that choice. When I was beckoned back to Wisconsin, I found it to be much more limiting and inconvenient. Still, I was so used to that style of living that I continued despite the challenges. There is also a certain quality that satisfies one’s ego to be different, though I won’t expound deeply into that at the present moment.
Something as trivial as diet can really be a hot button issue I would come to find. As a vegetarian I often found myself uncomfortable with people who attempted to heap praise onto me because of it, assuming my reasoning. Many of these same people would share their passion for their views with me because we shared this choice in common. This by itself is not at all what I object to, as anybody who knows me understands my love of engaging conversations and hearing different perspectives. What would bother me is the self-righteousness it gave them over others. Some of them would speak so snidely of carnivorous people as if they had committed these great, unforgivable crimes. I found no fault in their activism, passion, and choice not to partake in something that was against what they believed in. No, what I found fault in was condemning others who were different and speaking of them as if they were lesser because of it.
What I mean by moral relativism is this; we all choose the things that are most important to us, and some of us become very passionate advocates for them. There is nothing wrong with this on it’s own, but by decrying others we are professing the standard by which we believe others should be judged. Usually that standard is ourselves or how we view ourselves. The issue with this type of self-gratification is that while you are banging the war drums over something, somebody else is blowing the war horn at you for another.
For example, a vegan may not eat meat and be very proud of that fact, but how are they so sure where their rice came from? What if their rice purchase came from an Indonesian rice patty where its residents are enslaved to work for little or nothing with no chance of advancing out of poverty? Chances are this knowledge would give them no moral satisfaction. What if they smoked cigarettes? An advocate against smoking would denounce this as not only a bad influence but contributing to our nations health care problems and rising costs. What if they had a car? Certainly there would be somebody who would curse them for supporting the oil industry, or for paying taxes that support the military-industrial complex. I could go on with endless possibilities and examples…
On the opposing side, the detractors enjoyed giving me an earful by apparently being insulted at something as petty as my diet. Some people loved talking to me about how great meat is, how girly vegetarianism is, or whatever conjecture they could come up with to label and prod me as inferior. Such things are inconsequential, immature, and telling of a persons own insecurities. It isn’t uncommon that a person will presume your feelings of righteousness over them, so they will preemptively attempt to demonstrate their superiority without even realizing the hypocrisy. The most humorous aspect is that people would feel so threatened by what choice I made for myself, a choice which I in no way asked them to partake in. Typically, a simple smile and and non-engaging chuckle can defuse the shallow matter. If their goal is to enforce a change in who I am or what I do with such behavior, they would sadly find their efforts fruitless.
In both cases my motives were often assumed. Instead of acknowledging the choice we have both made and respecting the individual route we have taken to get there, we can be more intent on making a grand statement about who we are, who they are, and assuming it matters.
Because you’ve decided on something that is important to you is no reason to believe your glass house is made of steel. We all take some liberty to excuse ourselves from actions and decisions that we know are not ideal or reflective of our chosen morality. Human beings are imperfect and we shouldn’t expect to act in perfect accordance with our principles at all times. In fact, breaking our own rules can be very exciting. Where it crosses the line is when we pretend certain aspects of our lives should be the standard for others while ignoring the other bits that, to us, are less important. I am speaking more to abstract concepts, not to when somebody becomes a physical or emotional victim, which I hope we all agree is wrong.
This is not to say we should be indifferent to the things we feel strongly about. There are, however, ways to communicate your ideas and morals to others in a way for them to consider. But ultimately that is all you can do for them, give them something to consider. When you lambast somebody over a decision or action they made, you do more to actually dissuade them from entertaining your perspective.
What you are then left with is your own meritoriousness, which is what you started with, anyway.