A Moral Experiment

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Man fishing. Scauri, Italy. 2013

My view inspired by Peter Singer, Propagandhi and animal welfare groups was met with disdain when my first generation Italian parents found out that I was a vegetarian. Although as an ordinary adolescent, I was determined to do the very opposite of their wishes. I have been a vegetarian for about eight years and I have only recently decided to conduct an existential exercise.

A few weeks ago I went to the local fish shop and I ordered grilled calamari. Perhaps this is one of those things that vegetarians would prefer to keep a secret, but to make my point, my moral compass needs to be recalibrated.

The squid arrived and I stared down at my plate trying to comprehend the act of eating something that had been alive a short while ago. I considered the contentious argument that fish don’t have feelings or that their central nervous systems are less complex than humans. And after all, it wouldn’t be much of an existential experiment if I didn’t evaluate my morals as I intended.

When I was able to put my moral self aside, I continued without a great deal of guilt. That was at least until I got home and began Youtubeing giant squid vs shark videos to learning how squid are caught and farmed. However, shortly after I faced a great deal of melancholy.

I began to think about how detrimental abattoirs and fisheries are for ecosystems, fish population and the environment in general. But more personally, I thought about how vegetarianism provides meaning in my life and how my values contribute to my greater purpose.

For years, I have claimed the title of ‘vegetarian’ and adopted a strict diet within its restricted parameters. I did not crave childhood comforts like sopressa, prosciutto and cotoletta but I wanted to climb the fences and see over the confined borders of a title.

Perhaps the strangest thing was that I chose to conduct the exact same experiment one week later. This time, I ordered a barramundi burger. I knew what the consequences of my actions would be, so I didn’t understand why I decided to eat fish, again. I was confused to think that I would go against my better judgement after my previous moral lesson.

“No one who either knows or believes that there is another possible course of action, better than the one he is following, will ever continue on his present course.”
– Socrates, via Plato (Protagoras)

In the 4th century BC, Plato coined the term, ‘akrasia’ also known as weakness of will to describe when one acts against their better judgement. Socrates and Aristotle hold opposing opinions of akratic behaviour. For Socrates, akrasia wasn’t achievable; it was a mere misjudgement, whereas Aristotle believed it should be studied as an empirical phenomenon.

Whilst the study of wrongdoing contains entertaining experiments for moral philosophers, I too have found interest in my own musings. Reflecting inwards is the position I wish to take as my point of departure to considering my own moral philosophy.

My own values were stripped from me when I acted against my better judgement. It is here where anxiety caught me like a fish out of water. Life suddenly seemed nebulous and I was stunned in the face of freedom. Our personal choices have consequences, and I couldn’t make heads or tails of the future of my moral self.

It is always my desire to challenge conventional thinking, and that extends to testing my own beliefs. This moral exercise provided evidence of a sense of purpose, meaning and identity. And for some, this is fair and rational reasoning. Although, to challenge idealism also operates within the boundaries of my domain.

The exercise also provided a lucid example of the enkratic alternative to akrasia; the ability to act within my power, or reason. It is here where I find solace in my decision to exercise freedom as an act of its own. Perhaps this attitude is synonymous with Nietzschean affirmation or a farfetched Sartrean reaction to bad faith. Although, to reconsider the conventions of morality would lead to another contentious debate about actual moral right and wrong that we shall save for another day.