Monday, May 24, 2010

Akrasia, Animals, Orwell

A few days ago I was struck by a reference from philosopher Matthew C. Altman to “akrasia-- the phenomenon of not doing what we know to be right.” I would take it that the term has been quite widely used by philosophers (from the ancient Greeks through to the present day), but that it has been used for the most part with regard to matters of the individual will—such as controlling our urge to gluttony, or to smoke, or to commit vengeful acts. But Altman’s suggestion that the concept is also applicable in an area such as ethical vegetarianism strikes me as entirely sound. Indeed, I suspect it can apply to a wide range of social and political issues.

By coincidence, the same theme comes up in a book I was re-reading last week: George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. It’s a book that has at its heart a factual investigation of what it was like in 1930s England to live as part of a working-class family in which no one had work. The facts are still shocking, and the book is still moving. Orwell accompanies the specifics of his investigation with several chapters of rambling ruminations on class, socialism, imperialism, and related topics; these ruminations are on the whole far less satisfying than the reporting, but in the midst of them comes this very interesting observation about imperialism, which of course Orwell came to know at first hand as a member of the police force in British-controlled Burma:
It is not possible to be part of such a system without recognizing it as an unjustifiable tyranny. Even the thickest-skinned Anglo-Indian is aware of this. Every ‘native’ face he sees in the street brings home to him his monstrous intrusion. And the majority of Anglo-Indians, intermittently at least, are not so complacent about their position as people in England believe. From the most unexpected people, from gin-pickled old scoundrels high up in the Government service, I have heard some such remark as ‘Of course we’ve no right in this blasted country at all….’

In short, even those who knew that the system they worked to support was wrong kept working to support it: akrasia. There are surely strong parallels too between this sort of sentiment and one common pattern of thought during the long struggle in the Western world to end the slave trade, and then to end slavery itself; there are many documented cases of people who found it difficult either to take a strong stand against the evils of slavery or to give up their own slaves, even after they had come to the conclusion that slavery was wrong. Akrasia on the broad canvas of political issues may have at least as interesting a history as akrasia of the more familiar variety.

How is "social-political akrasia" (if we may call it that) resolved? Some seem able to make accommodations all their lives with their awareness that the way they live their lives supports what they believe to be wrong. Change for the better can eventually occur, of course. But for whatever reason, we humans seem to have a limited capacity for rapid changes in habitual behavior. There are a great many psychological (and often economic) factors that can lead behavior to lag belief. It would be good to do x, but it would cost me financially is perhaps the most common (and largely subconscious) template for extended inaction, but it is one of many.

When change does come it can take many forms. Orwell famously remade his life once he returned from imperial service, dedicating himself to the struggle against imperialism and, more broadly, class prejudice. He did this through his writing but also through the experiences that became the basis for the writing: living as a tramp, living among unemployed coal miners, fighting in the Spanish Civil War. He managed in the most dramatic of ways to cure his akrasia.

It would be foolish to hope that most would have the courage to follow Orwell’s example, remaking a life on ethical grounds in ways that made it much less comfortable. But what of middle-class people today whose akrasia is primarily a matter of buying goods from companies that they know behave highly unethically, or of eating factory-farmed meat and dairy products when they are more or less aware of what goes on in factory farms, and know that it is deeply wrong? In cases such as these the self sacrifice involved is on a different scale from that of Orwell’s—some additional expenditure, but no real hardship, and no danger. How may such humans be persuaded by those who have overcome each particular form of akrasia to change our ways?

Surely in large part through the persuaders being open, impersonal, and accepting. Open in stating the case and in striving for what they believe to be right. But impersonal when it comes to the beliefs and habits of other individuals. In arguing against cruelty to non-human animals, or imperialism, or slavery it surely helps to personalize the victims whose lives you hope to improve. But it is rarely helpful to make things personal in the other direction; indeed, it is quite likely to be counterproductive if one tries to argue directly to a meat eater not only that vegetarianism is a general good but also that he should become vegetarian right now.

And accepting. Not in the public sphere (where it is surely right to argue as loudly as possible that the cruel, the oppressive, and the heartless are absolutely unacceptable), but rather in our approach to individual hearts and minds. Most important of all, perhaps, the approach we each take to our own heart and mind.
How does the rest of our psyche respond when this sort of disconnect occurs within ourselves—when we are not doing what we know to be right? Understandably enough, we are uncomfortable with it; none of us likes to be confronted on an ongoing basis with an image of ourselves that falls well short of our ideals. And rather than accept the reality of that image, we may prefer to somehow distort the picture. We may start to find excuses to belittle either the ideals themselves, or the people who hold them and who have managed to change their behavior. (Was it for this reason that “do-gooder” became primarily a term of abuse in the 1980s and 90s?) Without looking into the matter too closely, we may start to label the ideals na├»ve and impractical. We may fall back on ad hominems; the ways in which animals rights activists and vegans and feminists are caricatured today are not unlike nineteenth and early twentieth-century caricatures of anti-slavery activists and suffragettes and advocates of better factory conditions.

And we may go further. We may transfer the irritation or outright anger we feel at ourselves for not living up to certain ideals onto the ideals themselves, or onto the people who are striving to bring them closer to reality. The mind is thereby working to destroy any disconnect between the person we are and the person we would like to be—but doing so in the nastiest of ways.

I would suggest that a better way to deal with this sort of disconnect within ourselves is to accept it as something we can live with for the moment. I should stress that phrase “for the moment”; the worst course of action is surely one that would lead us to become perpetually comfortable with all our failings. Just as important as accepting that immediate change may not always be possible is filing away in a not-too-out-of-the-way place an intent to change our behavior, at least to some significant degree.

I will own that I may be too influenced here by an awareness of my own psyche; one’s own case always seems the most salient somehow. I have written in the Afterword to Animals about the long lag that occurred for me between the realization that factory farming was horrifically wrong and the moment when I began to actually change my behavior. And I have written too about how, when I did begin to change, “slow stages” made change much more easily do-able. For me that is not an isolated case; for some years when I was living in Calgary I had the vague notion that I should in some way volunteer to help the homeless, but I did nothing. Only when a friend and her son mentioned that they were volunteering did I finally act myself. And the same pattern continues: I am persuaded now that it would be right for me to start giving at least 10% of my income in the cause of reducing global poverty, but my level of charitable giving is for the moment far below that. My guess is that this will be the second time in my life when a book by Peter Singer ends up exerting a considerable influence on my behavior. For the moment, though, I am still in a state of akrasia.

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Let me add a postscript here about Orwell. For someone so extraordinarily alert both to subtle nuances and to clear moral imperatives where class and imperialism were concerned, he was astonishingly lacking in sensitivity on matters relating to gender—and even more so on matters relating to the ethics of vegetarianism. This was emphatically not akrasia: Orwell did not at any level think he should be supporting the betterment of women, or ethical vegetarianism. Indeed, he seems to have registered issues such as these as having little or no ethical content whatsoever—other than that feminists and vegetarians displayed a style that deserved to be mocked. Here he is, for example, writing in The Road to Wigan Pier on some of the obstacles to getting the general population to realize the superiority of socialism over capitalism:
…there is the horrible—the really disquieting—prevalence of cranks wherever Socialists are gathered together. One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England. … For instance, I have here a prospectus from another summer school which states its terms per week and then asks me to say ‘whether my diet is ordinary or vegetarian.’ This kind of thing is in itself sufficient to alienate plenty of decent people [from Socialism]. And their instinct is pretty sound, for the food-crank is by definition a person willing to cut himself off from human society in hopes of adding five years to the life of his carcase; that is, a person out of touch with common humanity.

The logical sleights of hand here are almost breathtaking—first and foremost among them, the insistence on improving one’s own health as the only possible motive for vegetarianism. Could Orwell really have been entirely ignorant of what was already by the 1930s a long tradition in his own culture of vegetarianism on grounds relating to the treatment of non-human animals? Could he really have been as unsympathetic as he appears to be towards feminists, when the struggle of women to achieve the vote was only a few years past? One thing at least is clear; we are none of us without blind spots.