Christmas and New Year can be a difficult time for those with strong moral views. To begin with, the festive period demands sustained and close interaction with friends and family of different generations, with different lifestyles, and different ways of seeing the world – a combination bound to cause tension. Add to that the fierce and passionate divisions that moral and political questions can evoke, and it is easy to see why many choose to follow the old etiquette manuals, and banish religion and politics from their festive households.
But is this the right thing to do? I would argue that the strain put on our principles in the holiday period does not make them a period of aberration, where we can guiltlessly slough them off for the sake of convenience. Rather, it is faced with this sort of pressure that we can begin to understand how strong our convictions really are.
Let’s take a common example – for many moral vegetarians, Christmas dinner is the hardest meal to keep meat-free – because of the inconvenience caused to others, because of the desire to participate with the rest of the family, and because it is one of the tastiest showpiece meals of the year. Many, inevitably, give in and eat meat. This, I would suggest, is an indication of how morally important they really think it is to avoid eating meat. To see this, imagine that some truly abhorrent practice were customary at Christmas – whipping children, torturing kittens, it doesn’t matter, whatever you the reader believe to be morally atrocious. And suppose that people usually opposed to such a practice only participated at Christmas time. Were these people to offer the typical excuses of lapsed vegetarians – habit, convenience, the desire to share with the rest of the family – I expect we would see these as pretty lame. And yet many people do not judge the lapsed vegetarians so harshly. What are we to make of this?
We should start by appreciating that for many people, there isn’t a major moral difference. For many vegetarians, eating meat is not just wrong, but abhorrent. And so those who are liable to play down their ethical concerns, or to complain about the inconvenience of these concerns should appreciate how important they are.
Yet we should not dismiss the views of those who relax their principles either. I think the dilemma they face is yet another example of a general problem – that there are some actions that are morally right, but which we can in good conscience avoid. In other words, that there are some cases where the moral reasons for pursuing a course of action are outweighed by other factors, like the impact of personal wellbeing. But this, in turn, raises the question of how we are to compare moral against other goods – an issue that has stumped me in the past.