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:
- ‘I am not a person of opinions … I feel the counter arguments too strongly.’ – Mary Shelley.
- ‘The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.’ – F. Scott Fitzgerald
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!