Friday, February 24, 2023

Moral Mediocrity, Apologizing for Vegetarianism, and Do-Gooder Derogation

Though I'm not a vegetarian, one of my research interests is the moral psychology of vegetarianism. Last weekend, when I was in Princeton giving a talk on robot rights, a vegetarian apologized to me for being vegetarian.

As a meat-eater, I find it's not unusual for vegetarians to apologize to me. Maybe this wouldn't be so notable if their vegetarianism inconvenienced me in any way, but often it does not. In Princeton, we were both in line for a catering spread that had both meat and vegetarian options. I was in no obvious way wronged, harmed, or inconvenienced. So what is going on?

Here's my theory.

Generally speaking, I believe that people aim to be morally mediocre. That is, rather than aiming to be morally good (or not morally bad) by absolute standards, most people aim to be about as morally good as their peers -- not especially better, not especially worse. People might not conceptualize themselves as aiming for mediocrity. Often, they concoct post-hoc rationalizations to justify their choices. But their choices implicitly reveal their moral target. Systematically, people avoid being among the worst of their peers while refusing the pay the costs of being among the best. For example, they don't want to be the one jerk who messes up a clean environment; but they also don't want to be the one sucker who puts in the effort to keep things clean if others aren't also doing so. (See my notes on the game of jerk and sucker.)

Now if people do in fact aim to be about as morally good as their peers, we can expect that under certain conditions they don't want their peers to improve their moral behavior. Under what conditions? Under the conditions that your peers' self-improvement benefits you less than the raising of the moral bar costs you.

Let's say that your friends all become nicer to each other. This isn't so bad. You benefit from being in a circle of nice people. Needing to become a bit nicer yourself might be a reasonable cost to pay for that benefit. 

But if your friends start becoming vegetarians, you accrue the moral costs without the benefits. The moral bar is raised for you, implicitly, at least a little bit; but the benefits go to non-human animals, if they go anywhere. You now either have to think a bit worse of yourself relative to your peers or you have to start changing your behavior. How annoying! No wonder vegetarians are moved to apologize. (To be clear, I'm not saying we should be annoyed by this, just that my theory predicts that we will be annoyed.)

Note that this explanation works especially well for those of us who think it is morally better to avoid eating meat than for those of us who see no moral difference between eating meat and eating vegetarian. If you really see no moral difference (deep down, and not just because of superficial, post-hoc rationalization), then you'll see the morally motivated vegetarian just as morally confused. If they apologize, it would be like someone apologizing to you for acting according to some other mistaken moral principle, such as apologizing for abstinence before marriage. No one needs to apologize to you for that, unless they are harming or inconveniencing you in some way -- for example, because they are dating you and think you'll be disappointed. (Alternatively, they might apologize for the more abstract wrong of seeing you as morally deficient because you follow different principles; but that type of apology looks and feels a little different, I think.)

If this moral mediocrity explanation of vegetarian apology works, it ought to generalize to other cases where friends follow higher moral standards that don't benefit you. Some possible examples: In a circle of high school students who habitually cheat on tests, a friend might apologize for being unwilling to cheat. In a group of people who feel somewhat guilty about taking a short cut through manicured grass, one might decide they want to take the long way, apologizing to the group for the extra time, feeling more guilt than would accompany an ethically neutral reason for delay. On this model, the felt need for the apology would vary with a few predictable parameters: greater need the closer one is to being a peer whose behavior might be compared, greater need the more vivid and compelling the comparison (for example if you are side by side), lesser need the more the moral principle can be seen as idiosyncratic and inapplicable to the other (and thus some apologies of this sort suggest that the principle is idiosyncratic).

Do-gooder derogation is the tendency for people to think badly of people who follow more demanding moral standards. The moral mediocrity hypothesis is one possible explanation for this tendency, predicting among other things that derogation will be greater when the do-gooder is a peer and, perhaps unintuitively, that the derogation will be greater when the moral standard is compelling enough to the derogator that they already feel a little bit bad about not adhering to it.



The Collusion Toward Moral Mediocrity (Sep 1, 2022)

Aiming for Moral Mediocrity (Res Philosophica, 2019)

Image: Dall-E 2 "oil painting of a woman apologizing to an eggplant"


Howard said...

Just a hasty thought: they are apologizing merely because though behavior especially salient behavior, usually is instrumentally rewarded in the behaviorist sense- so they are deflecting criticism that would sway them back to meat eating
Have to tighten the argument- there is one I suspect- maybe you can complete my thought for me

Howard said...

Here is my actual argument

Vegetarians feel a vague lack of concrete reward for their dietary lifestyle
This disatisfaction leads to a sense of guilt
This leads to apologetic behavior

Chris said...

Not wanting to be a "sucker" may be one partial explanation in those narrow cases where the morally superior behavior is primarily associated with some thankless task/duty and not something more intrinsic. But I think a much more compelling reason is social signaling: no one wants to come across as thinking they are better than others, especially where this judgment is not directly expressed but implicit in the contrast between their respective choices. It is one thing for someone to tell you they're morally better; you can simply disagree or dismiss them as hopelessly arrogant. It's another thing to *show* by example that they are inferior, implying it, without actually stating it. It's twice as obnoxious to receive what feels like a coded sanctimonious message.

Of course this varies by case because a particular behavior may reflect more or less blatantly on the other's character, and also worry people to different degrees depending on what they're sensitive about. I couldn't care less if someone demonstrates their veganism while I'm eating meat, but if I decline a panhandler's request for money on the street for complex personal reasons, and then my companion immediately stops and gives them 5 dollars, it feels a little bit like a slap in the face even if their motives were good. It's like they're ignoring the reality of how this exposes the friend right next to them as this big asshole. But these two scenarios involve very different moral calculus. Any theory you use will need to accommodate very different kinds of moral considerations across a large range of cases, or else explicitly identify which subset it's concerned with.

On the other hand, virtue signaling and guilt-tripping where someone else falls short of a prevailing social norm is very popular. So maybe what people really aim for is not moral mediocrity so much as moral superiority based on your especially conscientious wielding of a prevailing social norm. I.e. "superior moral mediocrity?"

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Howard: Any specific predictions from that hypothesis?

Chris: It does seem likely that part of the story could be wanting to prevent conveying the impression that the vegetarian thinks they are morally better. This fits with the moral mediocrity hypothesis, I think. Why don't people want to convey the impression that they think they are morally better than the others around them? One reason -- not the only reason -- is that is says to others that they are aiming too low, that they're going to have to do morally better to keep up morally with you and others. ("Virtue signaling" I think is less common than most of the wielders of that phase appear to think. What passes for virtue signaling is often more like signaling conformity with ideas and actions of peers or the preferred crowd.)

Howie said...


It depends- on whether my hypothesis leans more on behaviorism or psychodynamics- the former given to more malleability of behavior, the latter to more inflexibility.
I think your account makes sense for some people. Maybe you're overgeneralizing about moral mediocrity- it may be one factor.
I'm making some assumptions, even if imperfectly put.
It might work in some cases, because certain kinds of people care more about morality than others. I think even vegetarians might think about themselves as psychological egos more than moral agents

Arnold said...

Were there some vegetarians at the Jan/6/21 riot who felt a herd instinct, and chose not to be part of a collective movement for falling off cliffs...
...but chose to survive another day...

Apologizing may be a, to and for others, instinct in evolution... human understanding being alive. A good place for philosophy of psychology...

World headlines today seem all about the collective verses the individuals behavior's...
...Perhaps someday soon International D├ętente will include apologies, in the awakening of planet Earth's conscience...thanks...

Howard said...

Hi Eric

It seems you're working towards doing for 'moral mediocrity' what you and others have done for "jerks' and 'ass-holes'' It doesn't seem like a first order construct the way they do. It's okay, but something is missing. It might appeal to psychologists and philosophers- ordinary people, not so sure.
What do you think is lacking, if anything at all?
Is there a book in it?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Arnold and Howie: Right, I imagine there are lots of different possible motives for vegetarianism and lots of different possible relationship to other aspects of moral character and action. These things are never simple.

Howard: I agree, "moral mediocrity" doesn't probably have the same folk psychological power as "jerk". It's a bit more of a specialists' concept.

Arnold said...

Was it in the moment (in the buffet line) we could know we do not know... apology for regret-promise from an appeal for wisdom-truth...?

Isn't it always possible...
...the never ending search for our ethical virtuous selves

Howard said...

Yes Eric
The idea has a long provenance- take for example the "golden mean" of Aristotle.
There is a resemblance, isn't there?

Chris McVey said...

I'm a little torn on this one. I have been a vegan for over 18 years now and have done my fair share of apologizing to non-vegans over that time. I generally tend to agree with your moral mediocrity theory, but in this instance I am not sure it fits. Or maybe I just don't see it.

The thing is, if I am being completely honest, I actively aim to be morally superior to most people. Being "morally better" (whatever that means) is a very real and conscious endeavor for me. To make it even worse, I WANT people to think I am acting morally superior than the average person, in part as a way of showing people that raising the moral bar is very attainable and not actually that hard (maybe combating the moral mediocrity mindset of others? I never thought of that until now...).

Still, I apologize to non-vegans sometimes. Honestly, I think a lot of it has to do with the general, collective joke that vegans are annoying. After all, how do you know someone is vegan? Don't worry, they will tell you. Right?

I think apologizing is often a way of diffusing that collective belief with humor/humility and not so much about actually trying to level my moral worth with theirs. I honestly think if vegans and vegetarians didn't have the reputation they have that we would see far less/no vegan and vegetarian apologies. Now, there very well may be a connection between the social reputation of vegans and a perceived moral superiority and the apology is in fact indirectly interacting with that perception, but it is indirect, which I think is important. The social stigma is doing the work, not the vegetarian/vegan aiming at moral mediocrity.

I need to think about all this more. Nice post!

Arnold said...

If we are talking about Socrates'...
...then would our defensiveness be for one-self with others and maybe for their-selves too...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting reflections, Chris. What you're saying strikes me as plausible, and probably it varies from person to person. It could still be, of course, that part of the root reason people often find vegans annoying is that people (if not the vegans themselves) aim for moral mediocrity and see vegans as "breaking the curve" in one dimension -- kind of like C students are annoyed at the A students who raise the expectations for everyone.

Howie said...

Two comments: first, does moral mediocrity stigmatize more conspicuously moral people and how is it expressed? second, this is reminiscent of Civilization and It's discontents which views violence as a rebellion against morality.
You are beginning to delve into the details; questions like this are helpful.
We can also discuss other variants, such as people who drive the speed limit and stop at stop signs, people who wore masks and maybe this is in the past: people who were overtly religious, however complicated that may be by the contemporary religiosity

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

Lots of good comment here. Forgive me if I missed it, making this redundant...I suppose that, factually, it would be so anyway. Awhile back, I don't know just how long, there was a term used to describe acts which pushed the envelope on ethical behavior. There were excuses offered for something labelled situational ethics, asserting that sometimes circumstances overrode expected decorum. The apology for veganism you describe seems to parallel this, in some perverse, politically correct way. People do go to extremes, seemingly because exaggeration, excess and extremism are au courant.

Alexandra O said...

I think you hit the nail on the head about people sensing a "raising of a moral bar" around vegetarians or vegans. I'd like to add my anecdote as a vegan of 9+ years- I've apologized to people a lot, partly because I want people to have an overall more positive impression of vegans, for the sake of saving more lives of non-human animals. I've found that jokes about and media representation of vegans depicts us as holier-than-thou, judgmental and rude, which is a generalization about a group of people that I've observed are incredibly diverse and global. I personally have people-pleasing tendencies that I'm trying to work on, but I try my best to be polite and stay calm when I receive questions and try not to get emotionally reactive. My thinking is that this approach may be encouraging for non-vegans to research more and maybe re-examine their habits, which could potentially save lives. The blog "The Vegan Strategist" explains this in more detail.
Despite my efforts to be more polite to others, though, I've still frequently been faced with anger and judgement. Just by me existing and minding my own business as a vegan, people become defensive or critical of me. It's my understanding that if people can "prove" that I'm wrong, stupid, lying or a hypocrite, then they can immediately absolve themselves of the guilt or cognitive dissonance that has suddenly surfaced for them.

As an aside, I've also noticed that the "angrier" vegans are usually newer vegans, or any vegan who has refreshed their memory on the death that is occurring, by watching a slaughterhouse video or something similar. It's easier to become more emotionally reactive when you have the image of suffering fresh in your mind.