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May 28, 2012

A Mouthful of Chipped Teeth

Filed under: Uncategorized — thirdxlucky @ 3:27 pm

“Biting the bullet.” I’ve been thinking about it a lot. For philosophers, biting the bullet is the act of following your argument all the way to its logical conclusions even when those conclusions seem counter-intuitive, emotionally uncomfortable, or out-of-line with common sense. A lot of philosophers don’t like to do it. They’ll take a counter-intuitive conclusion as a sign that their argument must be flawed. They’ll spend time trying to find holes they missed or suggesting softer alternatives. But some philosophers are bullet biters; if they truly believe that their logical formula is sound, they’ll accept whatever conclusion it leads them to and then figure out how to deal with the consequences. I respect those dudes a lot.

Biting the bullet is the Radical Honesty of philosophy. I believe that biting the bullet — much like radical honesty — makes one’s life harder, more complicated, more authentic and ultimately more meaningful. This is especially true when it comes to our ethical philosophies. If we believe that something is wrong, and it follows from that belief that we’re doing something that’s wrong, we ought not try to hide from that uncomfortable reality through rhetorical trickery or sloppy self-serving logic.

It’s also important to remember that ethical theories are frameworks for thinking about our actions. We can use them as conceptual tools and calibration points, but not as recipes for actually living in the world. Our day-to-day decisions about how to interact with ourselves, each other, and the world should be like any other good engineering solution: In conversation with theory but not beholden to it and, in some ways, transcendent of it. It’s no more possible to live a purely ethical existence than it is to take your theoretical physics down to Radio Shack and buy an ideal voltage source.

Here’s a concrete example of what biting the bullet looks like: Peter Singer makes a very convincing argument for veganism. You can read about it if you Google his name plus “subject of a life.” His logic is so convincing to me that I have, in fact, been convinced by it for about ten years. You might disagree but, for the sake of the following example, just go with me on this point: I absolutely believe that using other living beings’ bodies as means to ends (e.g. food, clothing, physical labor) is less ethical than the alternative.

Also: I eat meat and cheese and pretty much anything else you put in front of me. Am I a hypocrite? No. I’m a person recovering from a long history of disordered eating. I choose not to make strict rules about what I can and can’t eat because doing so triggers self-destructive behavior. In a situation where I don’t feel that I can have my cake and eat it too, I choose to prioritize self-care in one sphere over ethical behavior in another. I’m allowed to do that. I own my life. It’s my prerogative to make unethical choices.

But here’s the kicker: Biting the bullet means that I don’t claim to be doing something else. It means acknowledging that the solution I’ve found to engineer myself a life worth living involves some unethical behavior on my part.

In fact, sometimes I’m required to make unethical choices, because I have two ethical principles that conflict and I have to make a decision about what to do before I have time to suss out and resolve the conflict between them. Not being in denial about this actually allows me more freedom to both live my life and pursue my values simultaneously. I don’t have to defend my omnivorous position because I don’t actually think it’s ethically defensible; it’s just what I need to be doing right now. This means I can simultaneously and without contradiction take care of my body’s current nutritional needs and retain my a belief in veganism as a guiding principle. This principal can dynamically inform an ongoing re-evaluation of my choices and actions as I grow and heal. I can make conscious efforts, whenever I have the wherewithal, to limit my consumption of animal products. I can hope for and work toward a future in which veganism is a realistic possibility for me. And, meanwhile, I can refrain from beating myself or anybody else up about the fact that we’re not there yet – while still being able to have honest conversations about the implications of our current choices.

What’s more, my conscious decision to be unethically omnivorous and non-defensive about it allows me to appreciate the people in my life who are vegan without feeling threatened or judged by their choices. I’m free to acknowledge that, yes, they are more ethical than me in this regard. That’s awesome. It’s so awesome that other people are able to be vegans, since it’s something I really believe in but am not capable of right now. How can I participate proximally by supporting those who are able to make that choice? Maybe I can know where the vegan restaurants are in town. Maybe I can get a vegan cookbook and learn to make meals my friends can eat. Maybe I can listen thoughtfully and non-defensively when they share their philosophies and experiences with me. Maybe I can simply become more conscious of my own assumptions about food. By not rejecting the possibility that veganism is more ethical than what I’m doing and, simultaneously, being compassionate with myself around the fact that I’m not doing it, I open myself up a huge amount of space in which to learn more about what veganism looks like in practice; to consider ways I might develop a relationship toward animal products that is more in line with my values yet still something I can realistically live with.

In other words, I can pick up practical skills and tools through biting the bullet and appreciating that other peoples’ behavior might be more ethical than my own – and then choosing to learn from them rather than getting all bogged down in guilt about how I’m not already doing whatever they’re doing. This is true for food; it’s true for sex; it’s true for the decisions we make about personal relationships, the natural environment, how we make money, our children and parents, who we vote for or whether we vote at all. The things I learn from people who are better at adhering to my own values than I am become concrete resources toward an engineering solution in which my lived practices and my ethical frameworks can be more closely aligned.

And, ironically, that’s really what biting the bullet of ethical theory is all about: It’s about being radically honest with ourselves about both who we are and what we want. It’s about acknowledging complication, intractability and human flawedness and not letting that get in the way of doing good work. It’s about simultaneously striving for perfection and realizing that, when we pretend perfection is possible, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.


1 Comment »

  1. Damn you’re cool. I appreciate philosophy laced with utility.

    Comment by k. knight (@vexatious_lit) — May 29, 2012 @ 10:29 am | Reply

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