Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Meat Week: My Battle with Compulsive Social Responsibility

I don't know why, but I always end up with the opposite problems as most people.  While other kids whined for toys and playtime, I detested presents and demanded more math.  If mindless consumption and debt-fueled excess are the American disease, my peculiar malady is CSR: Compulsive Social Responsibility.

I blame it all on Kant and moral universality.  From a very young age, whenever I think of doing something I instinctually ask myself - what would happen if everyone in the world did the same thing?  Is that a world I'd want to live in?  When my parents said "Eat your peas - there are starving kids in Africa!" I really took it to heart.

And the answer is NO!  I do NOT want to live in an inequal society where the rich run profligate, a world denuded of wildlife and choked with pollution.  Armed with the latest lifecycle analysis, I've treated my life as an experiment in social engineering, systematically shearing away all sources of social and environmental harm.

The thing is, I like doing all this.  I believe in enjoying the things that are good for the world, instead of bending the world to suit what I enjoy.  I don't feel that I'm making sacrifices or compromising my happiness by refusing to travel or eschewing restaurants.  If I learned today that rutabagas could reverse climate change, I would eat them every day and enjoy every bite.  But until now, I haven't acknowledged the idea that individual action might have its limits.

Mighty systems are at work - economic, social, and political - designed to undercut individual mindfulness.  And that's where I get stuck.  I go into paroxysms when Patrick suggests driving a mile to Trader Joe's when it's raining outside, even though we walk there most of the time (What about those Africans again?  They're not whining about some puny rain, so why should I?).  The recent breakdown of my wireless router made me feel despondent and powerless in the face of the technological cycle of planned obsolescence and cheap crap designed to break and impossible to fix.

The sad thing is that while modern capitalism prides itself on unlimited choice, innovation also destroys choice.  The choice of being happy with what we have, instead of buying something new.  The choice of buying a small, energy-efficient house in St Louis.  I don't have the choice of being a part of this society and connecting with the people around me without harming something or someone.  Yet, the ostensible infinity of choice makes social responsibility seem so alluringly, ruthlessly possible.

So, as an antidote to CSR, I'm trying an experiment.  To confront the idea that I cannot solve the world's problems in the microcosm of my life.  To grapple with the idea that trying to do good in the world - or even, just to live in the world - requires steeling myself against the daily moral compromises that right now eat away too much of my dignity.  I'm going to do the anathema to my gradually veganizing brain.  I'm eating meat, for a week.

I don't think eating meat will lead to some kind of life-changing epiphany.  I'm not trying to convince myself that eating meat is ethical or good for the world.  I just want to feel ok with compromise, with giving in - a little - to hypocrisy.  I'm blazing a new personal frontier: going with the default option.

And lastly, a public service announcement:
Have you or a loved one experienced the following symptoms in the past 12 months?  Obsessive recycling, anti-pesticidal tendencies, loss of appetite for non-local produce, blurred vision under incandescent bulbs, gardening under the age of 50?  Do you bike to work, and/or feel smug about biking to work?  Do you use the word "sustainability" in social conversation?

If so, you may be suffering from CSR.  Contact your doctor today, and see whether fuck it is right for you.


sabre51 said...

Don't feel so bad about all that stuff! Recycling comsumes more resources than it saves and makes society worse off. Pesticides are not that bad for you and allow way more food to be grown (people in Africa!). Not eating meat won't actually help the environment or others, since the price system will reallocate that land to other intensive uses which do not include sending food to those in need (since they can't pay). Growing plants to eat and growing plants to feed to animals which you then eat are both carbon neutral; there are tiny emissions savings from eliminating a shipping step but they really are tiny. Planned obsolescence and difficult repairs are the (approximately) efficient solutions under the constrains of the market. So don't get so down! Technology marches ahead and people continue to earn more money than ever, making TRUE sacrifices for the common good less painful. The world is headed in the right direction, and we get to be part of it!

Also, sunk costs on those peas. They're not getting to Africa, so don't worry about not eating them.

Justin K. said...

I owe you a real reply to your previous post, which I have been too busy to compose. In lieu of that, I would like to point out that "what would happen if everyone in the world did the same thing" has to have some limits, somewhere. What would happen if everyone in the world went to grad school? Or if everyone tried to go into academia?

Justin K. said...

Also, is there any good Peking duck in St. Louis?

Jialan Wang said...


Yes, that's a trivial counter-example to moral universalism. If everyone tried to go to the same grad school, the result would be absurd and impractical, but perhaps not immoral. The question can also be rephrased as "What would happen if everyone tried to go to the grad school they wanted to go to?" which would lead to a perfectly fine outcome.

An analogous question would then be "What would happen if everyone ate meat whenever they wanted?" The result would be climate change, factory farms, and other troubling outcomes that we may not want.

Also, you read my mind! I couldn't figure out any other meat product I'd have any interest in eating (in St Louis), except Peking duck. I haven't been enthused with the Chinese places here though.

sabre51: The market is not always efficient. There are unpriced environmental externalities, which is exactly the point. Consumer activism can help to remedy the externalities. While consumer social responsibility has its own shortcomings, I don't believe that blindly assuming the market always works perfectly is the right approach either.

Even the peas example is NOT a sunk cost. Or rather, it's a sunk cost only once. If we habitually waste food because we think it doesn't matter, and if EVERYONE in the world does, then we do put tremendous demand pressure on production systems.

This is the power of universalism as a moral principle. Even though gulping down one bowl of peas matters little, the IDEA of being the change we want to see in a world, when spread across an entire society, can bring about substantial progress.

Justin K. said...

But if everyone went to grad school, the result would be like burning money or waging war as billions of people consumed resources in order to produce nothing of practical use. How is that perfectly fine? The only reason I could go to grad school is because everyone else worked a real job and paid taxes so that the US government could spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on my education...

Jialan Wang said...

Justin - I meant that it would be fine if everyone went to grad school who wanted to / are qualified to go. Given that most people don't want to and wouldn't be qualified to, we wouldn't end up in a scenario where everyone becomes a student and we all starve to death.

Another way to think of it is to ask "Would I be ok if everyone went to grad school *if they were in my position*?" This then rules out cases where WE might want to cheat on a test, but we wouldn't want everyone to cheat. The main idea is that we shouldn't make ethical exceptions for ourselves that we wouldn't be willing to extend to others.

I agree though, that this logic has limitations. It works much better for situations like "Should I lie/cheat/steal? No, because I wouldn't want everyone else to do it to me." than complex social/economic issues like the allocation of labor.

Nonetheless, I find the logic very compelling, which may bias me to downplay its limitations.