For reasons that are not clear to me, there are omnivores who get defensive when they encounter vegetarians or vegans. There seems to be a sense that members of the two groups are smug and superior and preachy about their dietary practices when in my own experience, and I know many people who are one or the other, they are not. It seems like some omnivores feel the need to defend their meat eating in some way. An indication of this defensiveness is the impulse to question the purity of the commitment of the vegetarian or vegan pointing out that they might be wearing leather shoes or something like that.
Given the complexity of modern life in which everything is inter-related, it is impossible to be pure about pretty much anything. We can only do the best we can and the fact that vegetarians and vegans may not be able to achieve 100% of their goals should not detract from the fact that their dietary practices are admirable on ethical and moral grounds.
For example, take eating kosher. We once had people over for dinner who kept kosher in their own home. In order to accommodate them, we studied the kosher laws and while we found them to be immensely complex, we tried to be as scrupulous as possible in sticking to them in preparing the meal. I later learned that we had messed up in some way but our guests did not say anything and ate what we offered even though they knew that it violated their rules. But when I told another friend, who also keeps kosher, how mortified we were about our mistake, she said not to worry about it, that our guests would have known even before coming that we, not being observant Jews, would err in some way or another and that if they were completely rigid, they would have simply declined our invitation. The fact that they still ate in our home showed that the principles of friendship and being a courteous guest took precedence and allowed them to override adherence to the strict letter of the law.
In fact, Peter Singer, the noted philosopher who is credited with spawning the animal rights movement and is as prominent an advocate for veganism as one might find, himself says that the drive for purity can actually be harmful because if people feel that 100% purity is unattainable, they may simply give up on the whole thing altogether. In his book The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter that he co-authored with Jim Mason, he says that we should not focus on small violations and he talks about a vegan who invokes what she calls ‘the Paris Exemption’.
Firestone’s dietary rules also include what she calls “the Paris exemption:” if she is lucky enough to find herself in a fine restaurant in Paris – or, very occasionally, in a truly outstanding restaurant elsewhere – she allows herself to eat whatever she likes. We wondered whether she believes that on these rare occasions, the pleasure that she gets from eating meat outweighs the contribution her meal makes to animal suffering. When we contacted her, however, she readily admitted that her “Paris exemption” is “more self-indulgence than utilitarian calculus.” But that doesn’t mean that her general opposition to eating meat is not ethical. It is, but she gives more weight to what she wants to do than she would if she were acting on strictly ethical principles all the time. Very few of us are in any position to criticize that, and most of those who do criticize it are deceiving themselves about their choices when their own desires are at stake. A little self-indulgence, if you can keep it under firm control, doesn’t make you a moral monster, and it certainly doesn’t mean that you might as well abandon your principles entirely. In fact, Firestone believes that by allowing herself to satisfy her occasional cravings – maybe once every three months – she has been able to be faithful to her principles for many years, while other vegetarians she knows have given up the whole practice because one day they could not resist the smell of bacon frying.
Singer is a utilitarian and his argument is made in that context.
There is of course, always the ‘slippery slope’ argument, that once one makes an exemption, other exemptions will soon follow, making a mockery of the whole thing. But that is something that the person trying to hold on to the principle has to struggle with, not for us who are not following that principle at all to judge them for.
Most moral and ethical principles take into account that there may arise circumstances when one has to to compromise for purely practical reasons or because of an over-riding principle that has come into play in that particular situation. To have to do so does not make the principles worthless nor make the person who compromises a hypocrite.