Recently, I was arguing with a friend who believes he ought to be a vegetarian. He is not one of those who simply thinks it would be healthier were he a vegetarian, rather he holds the view, more susceptible to self-righteousness, that it is morally better if he is a vegetarian. He argues that it is better for the environment and animal welfare that he eat no meat.
Yet he told me, with soulful lament, that he still occasionally indulges in a steak or a bacon sandwich, and he has been wrestling with the question of whether it is possible for him to genuinely hold the moral belief that he ought not to eat meat, yet still sometimes eat meat.
I told him not to be too hard on himself; he can reasonably hold that he should be a vegetarian and still not always act in accordance with his belief. Unfortunately, he was unconsoled, grasping my arm and asking dramatically what could determine what he believes, if not his actions. In eating meat, he said, he betrays that he doesn’t believe in his moral conviction enough.
I agreed, extricating myself from his grip, that it would be odd to espouse the virtues of a meat-free diet, while still chomping away at a bacon sandwich every breakfast. But I do think it is possible to eat meat now and then and believe it is wrong to eat meat. You might believe it to be true, but be overcome by other factors, such as the social pressure of not disappointing Auntie Mildred who has slaved over a Sunday roast. It doesn’t mean you believe it any less, you just think it’s more important not to upset Auntie Mildred on this occasion. He, for his part, seemed unconvinced and said sorrowfully that if he truly held his beliefs he ought to be sticking to his guns.
Though I didn’t feel as passionately as he did, I thought the question was an interesting one. What are the criterion for holding a moral belief? Should I be motivated by it all the time? Or is it enough to be slightly motivated by it, just enough to give me a twinge of guilt as I sit down in front of the goggle box instead of providing my services at the nearest soup kitchen.
I think that it is possible to hold a moral belief generally but not have to be motivated by it all the way through to action. Imagine if we had to act on every moral impulse, there would be no time for doing things that make life pleasurable, such as going to the opera or scratching yourself in front of the telly.
Or maybe I am just to laissez faire about morality and there is a moral standard which I am failing to live up to by writing diatribes about the demandingness of morality, while I could be out helping people. As for my friend, I am still of the opinion that he can hold his belief and not act on it every time. While he, possibly a more moral cove than me, guiltily partakes in a steak every now and then.