The first NFC podcast! We discuss our thoughts on meat and utilitarianism, and answer the eternal question: pulp or no pulp?
Well, this is exciting. I want to say congratulations for some reason, but it doesn’t feel right. Let’s go with a fist bump — that seems more fitting. And it’s not just because you re-evaluated things. What I admire most is the actionable nature of your moral quest. Your post, and corresponding actions since then, has made me realize that my position isn’t really much of a position. ((For all our millions of readers, aside from Elyse (Shoutout!), Valentin recently went to a conference in Montreal and was vegetarian for the entire 10 days he was there)). I claim that everything is relative, which it very much is. I claim that it all matters on how you balance your own equation of utility, which it very much does. But, where is the emphasis? And, more importantly, where should it be? Let’s define a simplistic way of analyzing how we make our decisions:
Hedonistic Desires(U) + Avoidance & Suppression of Cognitive Dissonance(U) + Following a Moral Principle (U) = Decision
The utility from how much we like to do a thing + the utility from avoiding/suppressing doing a thing + the utility of doing a thing based on a moral claim = a decision on doing a thing.
Yes, it’s oversimplified, but I believe speaks to the major points in decision making. But, if we want to, we can make it a bit more rigid. For example, you can add time & probabilistic variables to each of the functions: a decision on doing a thing can be based on the hedonistic utility you may have in the future. “I will not eat like a pig right now, so I can maybe get laid later on”. But, I digress.
… And let’s digress some more! A couple of things that I liked from your post.
1) Cognitive Dissonance. How can we forget this puppy! To give you a richer definition from my deep educational background in psychology, CD is defined as “the icky feeling in your tummy when you think about doing any given thing”
2) “Perhaps the only true universal morality is the pursuit of a true universal morality?” – Valentin Peretroukhin. Let’s exclude the question mark at the end of this and we can add this quote to your blooming wikipedia page.
3) Analogy of Moral Pursuits on a Map. Beautiful way of thinking about it!
Now, let’s get back to the question I asked earlier. Where is the emphasis on this balanced equation of utility? And, where should it be? Personally, I’m choosing rock because that’s the default I was born into. There is too much dissonance underlying the thought of changing my behaviour. However, my claim is that as a human being that chooses (and that’s a key word) to live in a civilized society, one should place emphasis on the utility from following a moral principle. This is not to say that one shouldn’t listen to hedonistic desires or trying to suppress dissonance at all. The emphasis on our journey to this theoretical optimal utility wonderland, which doesn’t necessarily exist, should be on moral utility. And this is for two reasons. One, I believe that living this game of life with reason and convictions leads to more happiness. And two, if we choose to live in a society, then living by moral claims allows one to be a better functioning member of that society. Now, where does this leave me? Am I going to reveal my big moral revelation? Unfortunately not … yet. This discussion has made me realize that it’s in my best interests to actively think of a position on this topic, back it up with some rational thought and base my actions on it. So, next time we play Rock, paper, Scissors, you may be in for a little surprise!
Well, Rachit, you’ve managed to change my mind. Our blog is a success!
Let me first follow up on a major point you’ve brought up about absolute moral claims, the effects of ‘grey areas’, and individual identity. I’ll finish up by explaining the part of your last post that was particularly influential and how my opinion on meat consumption has shifted.
On the topic of finding the optimal moral ‘utility’ (a global maximum of some personally defined objective function), there are two quotes that come to mind:
Is there really an optimal point in our morality space? A lot of Western culture seems to value steadfast convictions on difficult moral and ethical topics. Fitzgerald and Shelley, however, wrote deep, multi-layered novels about the human condition and I think these quotes are a reflection of how conflicted they were about the types of moral and ethical questions we’ve been discussing. I’ve mentioned these quotes to other friends (yes, I do have those) and many of them have equated Fitzgerald’s position to cognitive dissonance (CD). I don’t know much about CD (perhaps you do from your undergrad), but Wikipedia says that the second tenet of its prevailing theory is that ‘when dissonance is present, in addition to trying to reduce it, the person will actively avoid situations and information which would likely increase the dissonance’. Specifically on the topic of vegetarianism, do you think this supports the theory that many people are actually in a state of cognitive dissonance regarding meat consumption and therefore often avoid discussing it or thinking about it altogether (ignorance is bliss, no doubt)? Or do you think there is no dissonance because the hedonistic utility is enough to suppress certain moral qualms? If that’s the case, I think it shines a particularly pessimistic view of the human race (A Brave New World comes to mind).
Thinking more about this, an interesting analogy occurred to me. Can we imagine a person’s moral landscape to be akin to their physical state within the world (i.e. their geographical location)? We can think of finding the optimal place to live to be the problem of finding the best location within our moral space. We are born at place A and often end up living within a short distance of that location for all of our lives. Many people, however, do leave, explore other locations and settle in completely different moral paradigms. Comparing the ‘quality’ of locations is difficult (though many people still try and hold dogmatic opinions about the best countries/cities etc.) and other concepts may have direct analogies as well (regionalism, nationalism, moral ‘empires’ etc.). Finally, and most importantly, although settling down in one location is inevitable, the trip itself, the experience of a diverse amount of perspectives and the constant pursuit of some basic set of axiomatic principles is often the true goal. Perhaps the only true universal morality is the pursuit of a true universal morality? As Socrates said, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’
With that said, I’ll finish by updating you on where I am in my moral journey. Your link to the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness was insightful. I think it certainly speaks to the state of the current scientific understanding and I don’t think I can justify eating non-mammals because they lack a neocortex. After watching the Ethics of What We Eat by Peter Singer, I’m more convinced that vegetarianism is really where the bar is for a morally justifiable position. However, the position of ‘Conscientious Omnivore’ is also appealing, particularly because I think it’s one more people can adopt. If we mandate that the animals we consume live a normal, social life with natural pasture-like conditions, I think this would go a long way towards a moral stance that better balances moral utility, hedonistic pleasure, and long term sustainability. There still exists the question of whether or not we have the prerogative to end the life of an animal at our will – which we can explore further in another post. Onwards and upwards!
HOLD UP. Before I continue the discussion, we need to clarify something … my main point!
There are a couple of times in your response where you refer to the principle of non-violence I alluded to as “your principle”. Specifically, after stating your Principle of Minimal Suffering, you write “Why is this better than your principle of non-violence?”. It is not my principle. The point of bringing it up was to show that I grew up thinking with this principle, in an absolute, axiomatic moral universe, but only to realize that’s really not how the world works. So when you’re claiming that my main point is the principle of non-violence, and arguing against “my reasoning”, you have misread my intentions. And lets clarify them: my point is that any moral principle you take, whether it be on vegetarianism or honesty, doesn’t always hold true — there is always a ton of grey area. And after realizing that I was fooling myself of this fact, my moral universe collapsed and among other revelations, I understood that being a vegetarian was more of a default choice as a result of my upbringing rather than an active moral decision. Since that’s all cleared up, I think Jorge needs our help.
“Define morality!” Jorge exclaims, while pondering his purchase at the cash register.
You’re right Jorge, we should probably do that. I would define it as a “system of principles that guides one’s behaviour based on what is wrong and what is right”. And this notion of rightness and wrongness is a mesh of rational reasoning and intuitive feelings. Stealing candy from your buddy feels wrong. And also, rationally speaking, you wouldn’t want your buddy to steal from you, so you don’t steal from him.
Now with this in mind, let’s discuss another important notion that influences our eating decisions and that is … utility! We like things that make us feel good. Things that taste good. Things that give us utility. So when we’re talking moral principles and “practicality”, as you alluded to, it really comes down to balancing the utility of eating yummy food and the utility of sticking to a moral principle. (I realize there are other reasons people would eat meat other than taste, but I’m oversimplifying purposefully for the sake of the argument). Now, I’m not saying they have to be mutually exclusive. You can certainly eat yummy food and stick to a moral principle. So when we’ve concluded earlier that morality is relative and highly individualistic, it becomes more about defining a principle that you extract enough moral utility, but still eat enough yummy food. Some people extract more utility from an extreme moral stance, like veganism, or some people are apathetic to the ethics of the issue all together and stick with the default habit they were born into. It comes down to a highly subjective mix of rational arguments meshed with emotional intuitions and instinctive, hedonistic desires. And everyone has a different combination.
“A moral stance that favours actions which minimize the suffering imposed on other conscious beings.”
This is yours. And that’s cool! I respect the arguments you bring forward to why you chose this and even the statement itself. But, I think I need to help you out with some fact checking on the current sentiment of the scientific community with respect to consciousness in non-human animals. Recently there was a gathering of an international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists at the University of Cambridge. This gathering is known as The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. And this is the declaration they made:
“The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neuropsychological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviours. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”
Consciousness is prevalent in many more species other than mammals. And, what is especially relevant for you is that this declaration includes birds! So where does that leave you Valentin? Is it time to recalibrate your moral utility?
Quite the meaty article, Rachit. Now I know what to play in RPS next time we need to settle a dispute (I like paper anyways because it’s an easy segue to a handshake).
Fair warning, my response is quite heavy, so as an appetizer, I thought I would start with a joke:
A Buddhist goes up to a hotdog stand and says, “Make me one with everything.”
Now on to the main course. First, some perspective on my current worldview: no one in my immediate family is vegetarian. I was, however, raised with a particular sensitivity and respect for the environment. Littering was considered an egregious sin. Wild animals were to be respected. If I caught a ladybug, my dad would make sure I let it go unharmed (‘because it has a family too!’). The practice of eating meat, however, was somehow immune from this – it was simply something that happened and was outside the purview of whatever moral principles my parents had in mind (note that I think this general mindset is extremely prevalent in many western families). It wasn’t until I lived with a vegetarian in my second year of university that I really began to think about the morality and ethics of meat consumption. About 6 months ago, I decided to refrain from eating mammals (or more specifically – animals that have a neocortex).
With that said, I’d like to dive right in and try to dissect your main point: the principle of non-violence. You define it as ‘a moral stance to not commit any intentional actions that hurt other sentient, living beings’. I think this is a fine sentiment, but it lacks practicality. By this I mean that it is particularly ill-suited to help you (or anyone else) make real-life decisions about purchasing and eating meat. Whether or not this principle, or any others for that matter, is axiomatic to all people (which is part of what I think you mean when you say absolute) is a different question, one that I think deserves its own dedicated entry at another time. For now, I hope we can agree that a large part of society (much larger than the set of vegetarians and vegans) would agree with the main gist of your non-violence principle – hurting animals intentionally is wrong. So why aren’t all of those people vegan? Part of the answer, to me it seems, is a disconnect between the non-violence sentiment and the physical act of purchasing and eating meat in the 21st century. I’ll try to illustrate my point by applying your principle to someone walking through the meat aisle of a typical grocery store.
Meet Jorge. He loves steak, but he loves animals too. He would never intentionally hurt another animal – unless of course he was starving or acting in self-defence. Today, Jorge is out at his local bodega grabbing some steaks to cook for his 2 year anniversary with his wife. Right as he is about to pick out a perfectly marbled cut of rib-eye, a thought occurs to him:
Am I intentionally hurting another animal? Well I’m about to eat it, but I’m certainly not intentionally hurting it. It’s been dead for days! I didn’t kill it. Someone else did. Did they hurt it? Maybe the cow had a terrible spine condition that made it painful to stand. It probably had a short life, no doubt, but certainly it was cared for by the farmers and had plenty to eat – something that many wild animals would love. Do I know this for sure? No. But is there enough doubt to put my mind at ease? Sure. The cow was most likely killed quickly and humanely and will now bring pleasure into the lives of my wife and I. What’s wrong with that?
Jorge picks up the steak and briskly walks towards the much less morally ambivalent pastry aisle.
My main point here is that plenty of people share this love and respect for animals and eat their delicious body parts all the same. The idea of farmers ‘intentionally hurting’ animals may have been quite real and tangible a few hundred years ago (when livestock farming was still one of the main occupations in a developed society), but it is a much more nebulous, theoretical concept now. To me, the phrase ‘intentionally hurting’ an animal is more likely to evoke an image of someone kicking their pet dog rather than the bloody stench of a slaughterhouse (not that I would know what that truly smells like, which also contributes to this disconnect). The intent is fundamentally difficult to attribute to yourself, and the concept of pain is also, at least in a more theoretical point of view, up for debate.
So if this principle of non-violence does not work in practice, how does one reconcile a love for puppies with the joy of a medium-rare filet mignon? For me, this comes down to a moral equality in the way we view certain species of animals.
To explain this point further, consider that one of the defining characteristics of the human race is our empathy, our ability to relate to others and see the world from different perspectives. As a society, this empathy has historically been often limited to certain subsets of the human race (re: sexism, eugenics, slavery). In many ways, the past century has seen great advances in the amount of empathy we give to certain animals (re: sport hunting, poaching, lab experiments). For now, we’ve generally focused on specific human occupations and their interactions with the animal kingdom. I think this type of growing concern can generally be extended into a moral principle that applies to not only other animals, but within the human race as well. I call it the principle of minimal suffering.
The principle of minimal suffering:
A moral stance that favours actions which minimize the suffering imposed on other conscious beings.
Why is this better than your principle of non-violence? Well, for one, I think it emphasizes the notion of conscious beings, not simply ‘animals’. It differentiates the act of killing a fruit fly and killing a cow. Of course, consciousness is not easy to define, but we can definitely attempt to look for signs that other species have neurological structures similar to our own. As far as I understand the current scientific viewpoint, consciousness comes from the neocortex, a part of the brain that developed fairly recently (in evolutionary terms). Since of all species, only mammals have a neocortex (of varying size), only they would fall under the ‘conscious beings’ label, though this may change in the future. There is tons to debate on this point, and I would concede that the devil is in the details of how you classify certain species that may be in grey areas of current understanding. Nevertheless, a more concrete definition is of more practical use than a much more broad ‘non-violence towards animals’ approach.
Second, the word ‘suffering’ is specifically chosen over the noun ‘pain’ or the verb ‘hurt’. Pain can come in all kinds of flavours, but it carries a connotation of a direct, temporary reaction, a short blip that carries no additional baggage once it is past. Suffering, on the other hand, requires a much more developed, complicated physiological response that we, as humans, can relate to and understand. Needlessly taking the life of a conscious being will induce suffering of other conscious beings and this goes against the fundamental principle. This may seem like pure semantics, but I think it’s an important distinction to make when pondering what to get at the deli aisle.
Finally, I think the principle is elegant in that it ties in nicely with our intuitions about how we treat other human beings. It is simply a matter of generalizing this to conscious beings of all types (and in turn anticipating, perhaps, the creation of artificial consciousness…).
So, fundamentally, I’m taking issue with your reasoning but I agree with your choice of rock. Maybe it’s the default position of the fist, but it’s certainly tempting to relax those fingers and let gravity take over.
I’m a vegetarian. I have been my whole life. My entire family is vegetarian: sisters, cousins, uncles, aunts, and so on. The only thing that has changed for myself and a lot of family members (but not all) is that we did not eat eggs or any egg products growing up, but we do now. So I’m what is called a lacto-ovo vegetarian. I have, accidentally, tried some butter chicken, thinking it was some creamy, fantastic-tasting paneer. But, other than that, I’m “clean”. So those are my pre-existing contextual biases, now lets start the blabber.
When vegetarianism comes to mind, as we’ve discussed a plenty of times, one obvious overlaying principle comes into mind and that is non-violence. To put it in simple terms, I define this principle of nonviolence as a moral stance to not commit any intentional actions that hurt other sentient, living beings. It’s a little wordy, and not really simple, but you get the point. But even before getting into the real meat of that discussion, I think it’s important to backtrack and discuss morality from a higher abstracted layer, and ask how we form our moral universes. Do these universes come from an “absolute” sense or does it exist relative to each contextual situation? So let’s do that first, Valentin. And to make it relevant to the topic at hand, we can use ‘non-violence’ as our guiding example.
If we take the stance that “nonviolence” is an absolute principle, as I defined above, what are the repercussions of this? Is it even possible for something to be absolute? This is where my initial internal struggles with the topic of vegetarianism arose. I quickly realized that any kind of moral statement can be broken down into a contextual or morally relative world, where it would not hold true for me. With non-violence for example, it can devolve as a result of a wide-range of reasons. Let’s go through a few.
1) The principle is contextually dependent on being a rationally functioning human being. And this is not just true for nonviolence as a principle, but for all moral constructs — they developed as a result of our evolutionary history of emotions evolving in our oldest ancestors before our rational conscious brain, which formed later down the evolutionary chain. This, along with all the other random evolutionary occurrences that framed our cognitive minds to exist the way they do, influence every moral principle we hold true today. For some people, it absolutely feels wrong to intentionally harm animals. But this is only true in the human frame of thought, given the way that our brains evolved. Hypothetically speaking, it may not be true for another form of conscious, rational life because they evolved emotional thought at a later stage of evolution, or not at all — or because of any number of cognitive divergences. And in this case, and in all cases of moral claims, this ‘moral relativity blueprint’ breaks down any claim to an absolutely true moral principle.
So I lied. We didn’t need to go through a few reasons. I know you had your hopes up, so you have my sincerest apologies. But it was at this point in my thought process where it sorta hit me — I was really fooling myself all along. Growing up, that’s the way things worked in my mind. You didn’t eat meat because it was wrong to hurt animals. Period. It was simple. And then I realized it wasn’t. And I never really recovered to a point where my moral bubble could be re-inflated. With the question of why I still am a vegetarian, my answer became: it’s simply the way I was raised. As documented by the Rock Paper Scissors (RPS) Society — yes that exists — rule #1 is to not play rock. Rock is the default position of your hand before you choose from the three moves on your arsenal. This default is what humans tend to do, because it’s easy. And you know what, I think I’m still choosing rock right now.