Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Moral Switch

Our moral beliefs are rarely cast in stone. We often find ourselves professing a belief at one point, only to later repudiate it. New ideas and experiences can initiate shifts in our beliefs. The period of reconstructing our moral edifice — often central to our being — can be distressing and tumultuous.
I had my own dramatic about-turn from being a meat-desiring omnivore to a meat-desisting herbivore nearly 8 years back.
It was by chance, when I glanced upon an old book on yoga and spirituality during my 2006 summer holiday. Interested to learn more, I flipped through the pages. Right smack in the middle, there was a small portion advocating vegetarianism. Compared to the other humanly impossible asanas featured, the case presented was easier to follow: Eating meat requires the killing of animals. The killing of  animals inflicts pain on them. Therefore, don’t consume meat.
The case seemed lucid. I had heard of similar appeals through my Hindu faith. But I found myself nodding my head in agreement more than ever. Somehow, I felt compelled to make the switch. In the days that followed, I consistently rejected meat dishes. Taken aback by the precipitous change, my family members bombarded me with questions.
How could I reconcile the fact that plants might be sentient beings too? Would I consider myself culpable for accidentally consuming meat?  Would I discard my leather shoes?
My responses to their mostly legitimate questions were barely cogent. They duly poked holes in my polemics. To be honest, I didn’t know exactly what I believed in. I aggressively retaliated. I was not in a mood of dispassionate reflection. I felt I was right and I had to show it.
I chastised my family members for consuming meat. I played them PETA videos with graphic slaughter scenes. I even scrupulously avoided products which were remotely of animal origin.
It was insecurity that drove me to over-correct. But the nearly three-year process affirmed my new identity as a vegetarian. Chances of me slipping back to my omnivorous days were over. The hard questions thrown at me and the glaring contradictions in my beliefs were still hounding me, but I finally felt secure in tackling them.
Slowly, my zeal was softened by pragmatic reflection. I realised that living without causing suffering to animals was impossible. Much of the pharmaceutical drugs we use are a product of animal research. Even temples in India, which are bastions of vegetarianism,  horses, elephants and cows are employed for processions.Though people can be presented with facts and arguments, to vilify their position is mistaken and counter-productive.
A quote from Victor Hugo summed up my position: “To commit the least possible sin is the law for man. To live without sin is the dream of an angel.” To back-track and recalibrate was certainly embarrassing. But it was a worthwhile exchange: For short-lived humiliation, I earned back longer-lasting credibility amongst my family members.
The logic behind moral positions is far from impeccable. David Hume, a Scottish philosopher, observed a subtle jump from contemplation on what “Is” to moral commands on what “Ought” to be. For example, there is a logical gap from asserting that killing animals harms them to suggesting that therefore we ought not to harm them.  Other conclusions could have followed too.  For Hume, morality was shaped by sentiments.
Dissecting my own pivot to vegetarianism affirmed that it is emotions which bridge the realm of amoral premises and moral conclusions. But emotions are never consistent. Subjecting one’s moral position to the vagaries of emotion is untenable because our moral code requires some form of rigidity to be meaningful in guiding us. We need to anchor ourselves in the new position. Hence, we invest effort to solidify our new stance, building inertia to prevent a slide backward. It is during this process that we tend to over-correct. We plunge too deep, traverse too far in a bid to distance ourselves from the position we originally held.
This is not to say that our mental faculties have no role in shaping our moral code.  Emotions are fluid, but they require thought — however incomplete — to be its conduit. And it is through reflection that we are able to weed out contradictions and ensure views held are practical.
Emerson remarked that, “All progress is an unfolding … you have first an instinct, then an opinion, then … knowledge”. Moral shifts typically fit the template too. But often in the eagerness to detach our current selves from the previous selves, there’s a tendency to go into over-drive, parading fleeting moral impulses as the absolute truths. This turns half-baked beliefs into charred roast and limits space to feel our way forward. It is unlikely the process of over-correction can be overcome completely. It is necessary for the fledgling morality identity to take root. But being aware that one’s moral beliefs are fallible and committing to ceaselessly chip and chisel one’s moral edifice can certainly make for a less turbulent and more edifying journey.