“Rightness,” Happiness, and Why I’m Vegan

Happy 2013, everyone. I hope you enjoyed your holidays and have managed to stick to your New Year’s resolutions so far. I’m going to try to structure my life to create less garbage from now on. I’m  hoping to cut out the use of plastic bags by taking produce from the grocery store in a hemp bag and storing it in tupperware in the fridge. I’ve also ordered a straight razor and a few accouterments, so if I don’t blog for a while, it’s because I’ve accidentally decapitated myself.

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New Year’s resolutions have always been kind of funny to me, for the same reason new year’s eve has. If there’s a change I want to make in my life, I just kind of do it. Timing things with the 1st of January always seemed so arbitrary.

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I’ve been a vegan for about 18 months now. I get asked why a lot. I usually just make a bunch of non-commital hand gestures and say something like “It’s right.”

I’m going to put down what exactly I mean by that in writing so I can stop getting weird looks for saying “It’s right” and start getting weird looks for saying “Let me direct you to my blog that explains why I’m vegan.”

What I mean by “right” is that behaving this way creates the most utility for humanity, based on what I perceive to be most valuable, than all the alternatives.

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In this case, the utility I perceive comes from the reduction of energy consumption and waste needed to grow vegetables compared to animals.  I don’t think we have a lot of wiggle room left on the planet, and I choose not to support the farming of animals financially because I don’t think it’s “right.” I’m aware of animal rights issues as well, but they are a secondary concern.

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A tertiary concern is my happiness.

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A lot of vegans suffer from deficiencies of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin b-12. Deficiency of these has been linked to depression. Some of my doctors (my mother included) have suggested that eating some animal products could help with my condition.

So far, I’ve been unwilling to make that compromise. Is that noble? Is it even good decision-making?

I don’t really know.

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A lot of decisions we’re faced with on a daily basis take the same form: we face a conflict between what we think is “right” and what will make us happiest. It can be something as simple as going to a friend’s party, or your parent’s house for dinner (Hi mom!), when you don’t really feel like going out.

I’ve always come down on the side of “rightness.” I don’t feel comfortable putting my needs before others, and it’s fairly trivial to make the jump to utilitarianism from there.

I’ve scoffed at people who are selfish. I’ve called them shallow (and probably many far worse names) and prided myself on sticking to my guns.

But I’ve recently been forced to come to terms with a simple fact: those people are happier than I am. I can claim whatever moral high ground I want, but it won’t make me happier than people whose morality doesn’t extend beyond getting what they want.

Faced with the state of my own mental health, I’ve had to stare deep into the moral abyss and ask myself some tough questions.

What will happiness cost me? Is it worth it?

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I got stuck on this blog a little bit until a friend linked me to a really phenomenal article in the Atlantic that helped me organize my thoughts a bit (I know, I know, but you should’ve seen them before). It draws a very clear distinction between happiness and meaning (what I’ve referred to as “rightness”), suggesting, in fact, that they are reverse correlated:

People whose lives have high levels of meaning often actively seek meaning out even when they know it will come at the expense of happiness. Because they have invested themselves in something bigger than themselves, they also worry more and have higher levels of stress and anxiety in their lives than happy people.

Having children, for example, is associated with the meaningful life and requires self-sacrifice, but it has been famously associated with low happiness among parents, including the ones in this study. In fact, according to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, research shows that parents are less happy interacting with their children than they are exercising, eating, and watching television.

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That passage leaves me with a pit in my stomach. I want to be happy.

I feel like a guy who bet his life on the wrong horse.

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I want my life to be meaningful, too. Poker isn’t, particularly. I’ve applied to work with a couple of institutions so I can hopefully help people who are struggling with the same things I have experience struggling with. I don’t have much other expertise that I can use to help people.

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So that’s where I am. I have a plan to make life meaningful, but not one to make life happy.

I don’t really have a conclusion to draw this time. For now, I’m out of answers.

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8 thoughts on ““Rightness,” Happiness, and Why I’m Vegan

  1. I have lots to say in response to this…so much…don’t know where to start. This is a genuine struggle you are dealing with. I would suggest meditation. It has a powerful effect on these questions you are struggling with. Happiness is moment to moment…it is not an overall bubbly life…and people who act like that are doing just that; acting. It sounds like you have touched in with the core of your own suffering, which is what the Buddha did 2500 years ago when he decided that the first noble truth is that humans suffer…he then proceeded to identify a path out of that suffering…which is meditation. There are lots of books on this…but…I think you may be a Buddhist and don’t even know it 🙂

  2. Ben, I appreciate the weight of your decision to become a vegan. The environmental impact of eating meat is certainly difficult to justify. Personally I try to reduce my consumption and use meat substitutes most of the time, but I’m not a vegan or even a vegetarian.

    I wonder, though, about the credibility of a poker player claiming he has “always come down on the side of ‘rightness.'” Is playing poker for a living not inherently selfish?

    • Hey Mike,

      Poker is definitely not unselfish, but I don’t think it’s selfish, either. It exists in that weird no-mans-land between blameworthy behaviour and praiseworthy behaviour. It’s a zero-sum game that every player enters into willingly, knowing and accepting the rules they will play by. Other than some fringe issues (like ghosting, collusion, and possibly HUDs) I think it’s an amoral social contract.

      When I said I come down on the side of “rightness,” perhaps “not wrongness” would have been more correct. I’m not Mother Theresa, but I have not and will not make my life better by infringing on someone else.

      • Maybe we have different conceptions of “seflish”. In my mind “selfish” != “bad” or “blameworthy”. It just means “Putting my needs/desires ahead of others”. I agree that poker seems relatively neutral: I wouldn’t say that professional poker players are a drain on society, though I also wouldn’t say they are making society better.

      • I think of selfish behaviour as taking from someone else’s utility to increase your own. Especially if you read some of Mill’s later stuff, he doesn’t argue that one always has to behave in the way that brings the greatest utility about to the greatest number of people. I don’t think that’s practical or all that beneficial to the people in the theoretical system where it happens.

  3. Hey Ben,

    I think you may enjoy reading ‘The Moral Landscape’ by Sam Harris. His framework for analyzing questions of morality considers the well-being of conscious creatures at its core and addresses some of the issues you listed above directly. I think you may well enjoy/appreciate his thoughts on the relationship between morality and happiness.

    Cheers,
    Mack

  4. I love this idea of doing something because “it’s right”. That’s basically my moral philosophy too, except I’m so lazy that I don’t actively *try* to do “right” things. I just avoid doing “wrong” things. I’ve been a vegetarian for over 20 years. While I don’t go out of my way to convince others to change their eating habits, the reason I don’t eat meat, is that for me it’s just “wrong”. I probably need to change my outlook a little and actively start doing “right” things.
    I enjoy your writing style, so I hope you find the time to write more articles like this. Cheers!

  5. Pingback: Identity Crisis | NeverScaredBlog

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