The Bad Guy Spectrum

First published 15 September 2017. Last updated 15 September 2017.

I once went to a restaurant to catch up with an old friend, who didn’t know that I’d become vegan since we last talked. The subject came up when I ordered my food, and he asked me why I did it. I said it was mainly because of animal suffering. A little while later, he asked, “So, do you think I’m a bad person for eating meat?”

He said it half-laughing, like it was obvious that I wouldn’t or shouldn’t think that.

What are my options here? I can lie. “No, not at all! It’s a personal choice.” I can dodge. “Well, I wouldn’t put it like that… Say, you see any good movies lately?” I can be dramatic. “Yes, and frankly, it drives me crazy sometimes that otherwise morally intelligent people have such a massive blind spot, so please, shape up!” Or I can be honest. “You’re wrong to eat meat, but bad person is an oversimplification.”

I try to be honest. Sam Harris has convinced me that even “white lies” are more harmful than people usually realize. They’re a way of patronizing, pandering, saying either “I know what’s good for you, and it ain’t the truth” or “My comfort is worth more than your enlightenment.”

So, in the spirit of honesty, let’s take a closer look at what’s really going on here. People don’t usually ask me whether I think they’re a bad person, at least not in so many words. But I think it’s hard to deny that there’s a substantial undercurrent of defensiveness in many omnivores’ reactions to veganism, which results from a perceived holier-than-thou attack on their lifestyle, and from a subconscious discomfort with their own unrecognized cognitive dissonance.

Let me be absolutely clear. I believe that ethics is real. I believe that ethics is important. So if I tell you that I’m a vegan for ethical reasons, then of course I think you’re wrong not to do the same. This should not surprise you.

Unfortunately, it does surprise people, or at least offend them, partly because many vegetarians and vegans are either confused or dishonest. They go with the “personal choice” lie. Of course, personal choice has nothing to do with it. If you eat meat, then sentient beings – pigs and cows and chickens, by the hundreds – pay the price.

Now, moral condemnation at the dinner table is not polite or pleasant. I get that. But as long as we’re being honest, let’s be honest. I would not be consistent if I believed that I was sparing animals from immense suffering with my diet, but that you were not doing causing the same suffering with yours.

A big part of the problem here – a solvable one! – is a failure to understand the Bad Guy Spectrum. This is the continuum of ethical evaluation that tells you how bad of a person you are. When omnivores get overly defensive, and also when vegans get overly bitter, they’re imagining something like this…


…because they’re only paying attention to what’s right in front of them. In fact, it should be obvious to anyone upon a moment’s careful consideration that the real Bad Guy Spectrum looks more like this:


(Not to scale.)

Homo altruisticus is a character I like to imagine, inspired by Homo economicus. (Apparently, some others have already used this term, as well as the term Homo altruistic.) Homo altruisticus is perfectly selfless and rational, so he has no trouble fully internalizing the high bar set by FA&M-style utilitarianism. He gives nearly all of his money to charity, far beyond the line of personal comfort, keeping only enough to ensure his health and productivity. He puts us all to shame.

Hitler was a really bad guy.

Also note, though, that the spectrum is open-ended. We can imagine people much worse than Hitler, and we can imagine superintelligent agents much better than Homo altruisticus, who is constrained by his shitty human brain.

So what we get is an expansion of perspective, like in the following figures from Bostrom’s TED talk:

ted1Screenshot from 2017-09-15 02-37-54

ted2Screenshot from 2017-09-15 02-39-00.png

Let’s all try to keep the expanded Bad Guy Spectrum in mind. If we’re lucky, maybe it will make omnivores less defensive, and vegans less angry/disillusioned. Of course, it applies to all other areas of moral difference too, not just dietary ones. And, at the end of the day, it’s a basic truth of ethics, which is worth understanding regardless of its immediate applications.

Now I guess there’s just one thing left to discuss:

How bad are you?

One thought on “The Bad Guy Spectrum

  1. Nice post!

    When I was a college freshman, I created some triangular pamphlets and put them on dining-hall tables as part of “Veg Week”. One of them included the following text. Someone told me later that some people at her table were upset by the pamphlets. 🙂

    Misconception: “Vegetarians (people who choose not to eat meat) and vegans (those who also avoid milk and eggs) are concerned about bodily purity or rebellion against society. Therefore, their choices are merely lifestyle habits that don’t apply to me if I am not interested in those ways of living.”

    Reply: Vegetarianism is about reducing suffering. To quote Karen Davis: “The decision that has led millions of people to stop eating other animals is not rooted in arid adherence to diet or dogma, but in the desire to eliminate the kinds of experiences that using animals for food confers upon beings with feelings.” Virtually all of the nearly ten billion farm animals raised in the US each year live their short lives on “factory farms,” where they are confined to small, overcrowded cages without access to the outdoors or natural light for their entire lives. These cramped, stressful conditions produce rampant disease, which is why farm animals are routinely given antibiotics to maintain growth. Procedures like castration, branding, debeaking, and tail docking are routinely performed without anesthetic. Finally, slaughter is often brutally painful. In the fast-paced atmosphere of the cattle slaughterhouse, it is not possible to successfully stun all of the animals on the production line, meaning that some cows are cut apart, piece by piece, while fully conscious. Similarly, some pigs and chickens are submerged in scalding tanks while still alive.

    Liked by 1 person

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