On Vegetarianism… and the paradox of the Selfish Hippy

September 30, 2010

(I write in response to McCrack’s most recent post, Why Be Vegetarian? I started writing a short comment, but then felt perhaps a separate post was more appropriate)

I can’t disagree that there are almost certainly those vegetarians who adopt the principle in order to suggest their own (moral) superiority.

But surely this is true of so much supposed ‘moral’ or ‘altruistic’ behaviour? Almost obviously so… When I learned from a friend who had worked at Amnesty International that many of the people who worked there were hideous, selfish characters, I wasn’t surprised in the least.

It is one of life’s most enticing shortcuts. People who do not readily embody certain ‘good’ traits in the microcosm of their personal nature, often choose to camoflague this (from others and, more importantly, themselves) under exaggerated outward expression of those very same traits. Hence the flatmate who refuses to share her teabags, yet makes it known to all who will listen how much she donates to a water project in an African village.

“I’m just, like, a really generous-spirited person, yeah? It’s just… I don’t know, just like a part of my energy. I find a kind of… creative expression… through giving to others. Know what I mean?”

Indeed, it is a paradox which finds its greatest expression in the form of The Selfish Hippy.

But, to go back to the orginal point of McCrack’s post (and the linked Bad Conscience article), I find it curious that vegetarianism has been singled out in this way.

First and foremost, it would have made more sense in the context of a polemic against a much broader subject (e.g. what factors truly underly our “personal principles”?)

Secondly – and Matt, I think you’re agreeing with me here in the conclusion of your post – I have great difficulty with the philosophy underlying the BadConscience article. It seems to suggest that consequence should be the only factor in determing our moral framework. I think a 16 year old could see the holes in that argument from 100 paces… But I’ll allow myself the pleasure of taking it apart in another post sometime.

Also to follow, my next post: “Why Be A Vegetarian? Here’s Why, Ringpiece.” Watch this space.


5 Responses to “On Vegetarianism… and the paradox of the Selfish Hippy”

  1. tbm7 said

    Yes, Norm hits that particular nail on the head. But, although Norm does is quite eloquently, it still feels to me a bit like shooting fish in a barrel; in that the author’s original point was borderline ridiculous / pathetic.

    Nothing we can do as individuals is ever going to lead to substantial change.

    To take one of the less extreme examples, look at the equality that (for the most part) homosexuals have in this country. The result of mass protest? A huge civil rights movement? Or the very gradual, almost imperceptible shifts in attitudes over many decades?

    Or if you want a still more relevant example, take bull fighting. Once an unquestioned part of Iberian culture. Now looked upon by many with growing unease or distaste.

    It’s not so much that my not eating meat might directly prevent harm to animals. But by standing up and saying “this is what I believe” – by being counted as one of a growing number – I hope that perhaps one day my principles might be shared by the majority.


  2. eiji said

    Interestingly, Mccrack’s statement that he cut down meat intake “for climate change reasons” carries the exact same moral resonance as someone who is vegetarian for reasons of compassion. Hence his subsequent cogitations could be directed right back at his own principals.

    I concur with Wool in that, although I agree with the ultimate conclusion of Matt’s post, tagging vegetarianism with the assertion that “for some people it is about showing their moral superiority” is kind of unnecessary. Simply because “for some people” EVERYTHING is about showing somekind of moral, intellectual or physical superiority (Indeed in “The Fall” by Albert Camus, which I’m obliged to mention in every post I write, the act of charity itself is exposed as having underlining selfish motives). The real question is – Can any altruistic act be separated from it’s, perhaps subconscious, paradoxically vain goals?

  3. joycemate said

    On a bit of a tangent – I came across this interesting article in the Washington Post looking at whether current practices will be condemned as immoral by future generations. Are there things we’re doing now that people in the future will read about and say “What were they thinking?”?

    The writer looks at some past practices that we now deem to be immoral to tries to discern the general criteria for entry into this club — and finds that industrial meat production looks likely to be a contender.

    A good read:


    • Another tangent… Not the way morals change but isn’t it funny how certain foods can suddenly become a massive no no. Mrs cannon and I were talking about ready grated parmasan cheese.
      It may just be a fashion thing but to my mind everybody’s just collectively realised that it smells and tastes of sick.

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