"Do-Gooder Derogation" and why Omnivores Lash out Against Meat-Minimalists
I finally got around to listening to Mike's two "Talking to Vegans" podcasts earlier this week (sorry it took so long, Mike). There were a lot of comments that I agreed with and a lot of comments that made me think my eyes were going to roll all the way out of my head.
One particular exchange about the harassment that vegetarians and vegans receive made me remember a journal article I had come across a few years ago. This article discussed something I'm certain every meat-minimalist has come across without even knowing: 'do-gooder derogation'.
How I understand 'do-gooder derogation' is that it is a phenomenon wherein individuals who don't consider an ethical or moral dimension of a decision react negatively to individuals who do consider that type of dimension. This obviously has big implications for meat-minimalists as there are tons of reasons an individual may choose to eat less meat or refrain from it altogether, but many have an ethical or moral root. Moreover, of these reasons for meat-minimalism not all are given the same respect by mainstream eaters and omnivores. Some reasons elicit harsh reactions and even debate, while other reasons are tolerated and accepted quite readily.
"...of these reasons for meat-minimalism, not all are given the same respect by mainstream eaters and omnivores."
When omnivores ask "why?" you don't eat meat, you're put on the spot and will have to make an uncomfortable decision on how you're going to respond. Do they actually want to know why you don't eat meat, or are they really just insecure about their own consumption? I've found that the most strategic move is to downplay the relative weight that moral dimensions have on your decision and to focus on the non-moral dimensions. I'll use my own experiences as an example of how this type of exchange can go.
When I became a vegetarian it was for two general reasons, health reasons and moral reasons. I was in my early twenties, experiencing chest tightness and high blood-pressure. No doubt from years of treating my body like a temple devoted to a god of revelry and cured meats. I believed that through eliminating my intake of meat, I would improve my cardiovascular health. Those were the health reasons for my choice. In addition to these, I also thought it was wrong to do harm unto animals. These were the moral reasons.
In my 5 or 6 years of being vegetarian, absolutely no one who asks me "why?" has batted an eye when I explain the health dimensions of my decision. No one. On the other hand, when I explain the moral dimensions of my decision, more often than not at least a little bit of air leaves the room. Then the very same people who put me on the spot tend to become defensive and in some cases lash out. Whether it's "animals don't feel pain", "would you eat an animal if you were starving in the woods", or my personal favourite of questioning my masculinity, I have heard the gauntlet of responses from mainstream eaters when I explain that my decision was in part morally motivated.
Even when a meat-minimalist isn't radical or 'on the attack', they are still treated as such. I cited the article that taught me the term 'do-gooder derogation' at the bottom. It's a fairly straightforward study about individual perceptions of vegetarians and non-vegetarians. My favourite passage from the article puts 'do-gooder derogation' concisely:
"Moral reproach, even implicit, stings because people are particularly sensitive to criticism about their moral standing." (Minson and Monin 2012)
The implicit consequence of Individual A taking into account morality while Individual B ignores it, causes Individual B to feel as though their worldview is being criticized for not being morally sound. Worse yet, Individual B attributes this 'sting' to Individual A and not to their own lack of morality or simple happenstance. This makes discussions of meat consumption difficult to say the least. Even when a meat-minimalist argues in good faith, they are regarded as making personal attacks. And when an omnivore argues in bad faith, they are regarded as an admirable underdog.
I would go on to say that this is also the cause of vegans being more harshly dismissed than vegetarians. Veganism as a movement is inextricably linked to morality given that it goes beyond alimentary consumption of animals. It takes into account the rights of animals and the responsibilities of humans.
Both of these are moral discussions.
An omnivore can imagine a non-moral vegetarian but cannot imagine a non-moral vegan.
This means that the mere existence of a vegan worldview or set of decision criteria, causes an "implicit moral reproach" to the mainstream eater. Up to this point I have only discussed morality as a binary. You either consider moral dimensions or you don't. This whole situation of implicit moral slights becomes messier when you realize there is a hierarchy of morality when it comes to food-related decisions. At the bottom of this hierarchy is a hypothetical individual who considers zero moral dimensions, while at the top is an equally hypothetical individual who considers all of the moral dimensions. Especially the ones you and I have never heard of before. It is between these two hypothetical extremes that we all actually exist.
On this gradient of morality, we are inclined to safely ignore the comments of those 'below' us as we believe ourselves to be morally superior, as well as derogating the comments of those 'above' us because we're terrified that we're not morally superior. Confronting this bias is critical to having fruitful discussions of meat-minimalism going forward.
Basically, I'm saying I was wrong to roll my eyes while listening to people who consider different moral dimensions than myself.
Minson, J. & Monin, B. "Do-Gooder Derogation: Disparaging Morally Motivated Minorities to Defuse Anticipated Reproach." Social Psychology and Personality Science, 3(2): 200-207. (2012.)
Recommended citation format: Wickson, M. "'Do-Gooder Derogation' and why Omnivores Lash out Against Meat-Minimalists". Food Focus Guelph (67), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph, November 7th, 2019.