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I had a recent discussion with a friend about the ethics and morality of veganism.

I defined veganism as the following

  • Minimising harm to animals to the maximal extent

Some background information, my friend is someone I consider to be intellectually honest when it comes to such philosophical discussions and is willing to admit his unsound reasoning and his inherent biases if any. He is someone that has completed a university degree and is happy to have these discussions every now and then. He is a very practical and logical thinker in my books and I've usually been very happy to have him as a friend. Now I am no longer sure...

I do not think he has fully established his moral frameworks, but he defines as of moral value to his life is the importance of those around him, i.e. himself, his family, and close friends. Outside of that, he doesn’t really care, as in, since it doesn’t impact him, he does not see any point in perpetuating a discussion.

He tells me that he has been desensitised and numbed to animal suffering given that his use to visit his family’s slaughterhouse. He agrees with the frameworks of veganism but attributes his lack of motivation or change to cognitive dissonance or akrasia. Upon further questioning, he says he doesn’t give moral value to anything that is outside his “circle” and everything else is something that he remains objective and indifferent to. i.e. When I show him a videos of animal cruelty in documentaries, he is not moved and simply states

  • “It is unfortunate that these animal are suffering, but suffering happens to all. The sun sets and the sun rises. Why must I care about suffering of others that will never impact my life or the people close to me."

Upon showing him more videos of animal abuse to domesticated animals, he once agains says what is objectively happening in the video. i.e. "Hmm, the cat is drowning, that is unfortunate."

When I ask why he is objectively stating what is happening, he says he has been doing it for a very long time...

This to me is an extremely apathetic response to the suffering of animals and I question whether I still wish to be friends after this encounter

What does ethics say about how it is possible for otherwise intelligent and caring people to care deeply about some things, such as family and personal relationship, and to express such apathy about the suffering of others, particularly animals, or even strangers?

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    @DavidGudeman "is less than human and not worthy of being treated with dignity and respect" as far as I can see the question does nothing of the sort, it just criticizes his friend's moral attitudes and questions whether it's possible to maintain a friendship with someone whose moral attitudes are sufficiently far removed from one's own--do you equate that with "not being treated with dignity and respect"? Are there no moral attitudes a friend of your could endorse that would lead you to question whether you still wanted to be friends with them?
    – Hypnosifl
    May 29 at 22:13
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    @DavidGudeman - "that is over actions, not beliefs" It sounds like the OP's objection was as much about emotional attitude as beliefs. If you lived in a society where authorities condoned the torture of innocent human beings for entertainment, and you had a friend whose attitude was "why should I care, it's no one I know" and who could watch videos of this happening without finding it the least disturbing, would you say that there's no way this could give you any misgivings about keeping them as a friend, and that anyone who did have misgivings was guilty of "unpersoning" them?
    – Hypnosifl
    May 30 at 3:58
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    There are worse things that break up a friendship. Drugs, theft, murder, lying ... someone's beliefs about human consumption are rather trivial. I would urge you to maintain your friendship because people still need to eat something.
    – DdogBoss
    May 30 at 4:50
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    Hypothetical. Say everyone in the world stops eating meat. Therefore we no longer need to breed cattle for food. Therefore tens of millions of cattle who might otherwise have had a chance to live, are never born. Isn't that cruel to them?
    – user4894
    May 31 at 22:25
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    Your friend sounds like he's simply exhausted from worrying about things he cannot change. The suffering in the universe is staggering. What is the 'proper' emotional response to it? The fact that we can post here on this website without feeling utter horror at every moment shows that we are all to some degree apathetic. Jun 1 at 4:35

6 Answers 6

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The zeal of your beliefs on the matter has prevented you from seeing your question assumes a false dichotomy (actually, trichotomy). Looking at your last paragraph, you have neglected the possibility his response is neither due to cognitive dissonance, nor due to privilege, nor due to something far more sinister. You already see in him what you want to see.

Moreover, your definition of veganism is problematic. “Minimising harm to animals to the maximal extent” would entail never walking outside so as to avoid stepping on insects, never driving to avoid driving over insects, and never showering or cleaning to avoid killing microscopic insects.

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  • I thought that was more like Jainism than veganism? Did the OP refer to insects as animals? I know that they are classified that way, but most people draw a distraction. I remember when I lived near a lake and the fish flies would hatch one night and it was impossible to avoid stepping on or driving on countless numbers of them. Still, I didn't feel ok with it, but couldn't help it. Smelled bad too.
    – Scott Rowe
    May 30 at 0:35
  • Fish flies
    – Scott Rowe
    May 30 at 0:41
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    I defined veganism in a negative utilitarianism framework to minimise suffering as much as possible.
    – R.Su
    May 30 at 2:01
  • To question more about the trichotomy I draw my final line. If It is not due to his cognitive dissonance, privilege, or something underlying? Where do you think the problem lies in his indifferent and uncaring state?
    – R.Su
    May 30 at 2:06
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    @DdogBoss - I'm sure slaveowners would say that slaves are "bred for hard labor, and have no other purpose", would point to economic benefits etc., but hopefully you agree that all humans have some kind of moral worth that would undermine these arguments. Once again you fail to even argue for the idea that animals have no intrinsic moral worth, you just assume it, and make no reference to any moral frameworks from philosophy (natural law theory, belief that humans have a unique 'rational soul', etc.) to justify your view. In philosophy you can't fall back on your "common sense".
    – Hypnosifl
    May 30 at 23:35
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The short view is this. Human beings have emotions, and they have objects of those emotions. A person may look at the NSDAP's bent cross with horror, or they may have positive feelings towards it. The question of how we feel and act on emotions is a complicated affair that includes ideas like acculturation, personality (for instance, consider OCEAN), and historical accident.

Peter Singer is a famous champion of animal rights, and has made many astute arguments. But ethics itself may not be as amenable to reason as you believe. Non-cognitivism is a metaethical stance that ethics itself is driven by emotion. So, if a person comes up in a Muslim culture where the pig is deemed dirty and the food is an affront to civilization, bacon is disgusting. On the other hand, if you grow up with the comfort of a nice English breakfast, and it's part of a family ritual before a Protestant service, one may consider it wonderful. In philosophy, the fancy term is worldview to express the sum of our philosophical positions, including those derived from emotion and intuition.

Your friend may simply not feel any guilt over eating animals. I don't. I own a dog, and a pig is more intelligent, so I confess that it's not about consciousness with these groups of animals; and I'm an environmentalist and ranching is a serious drain on the environment. I was raised with bacon. It tastes good, and I have a lot of positive associations as well as having a body evolved to eat it. Humans are omnivores beyond any reasonable, scientific doubt.

As far as privilege, right now as you fret over your friend's ethics, there are babies dying in the world from lack of nutrition and clean water. One could argue that, by spending time arguing over philosophical matters instead of taking direct action to help such people, people by omission of action are guilty of unethical acts. Martin Buber discusses existential guilt in such a fashion. It's tough to draw practical lines and make practical decisions. Your friend recognizes some of this.

I also believe we should minimize harm to animals, no doubt. But what it costs psychologically to do so makes it extremely difficult. In a nutshell, your views on veganism are more a statement about your biological predisposition than they are about an objective argument, as are mine or anyone's. In fact, recent research suggests that political philosophy and therefore ethical philosophy are influenced by our biology.

And by the way, cognitive dissonance is a feeling of anxiety one feels when one encounters a contradiction. If you're friend has not guilt or anxiety on this matter, then there is no cognitive dissonance.

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  • @tkruse Source?
    – J D
    May 31 at 10:21
  • Is double think a better description or hypocrisy? @tkruse Because individuals suffering from cognitive dissonance typically experiences states of psychological stress/anxiety.
    – R.Su
    May 31 at 12:41
  • @tkruse So, you've made a weak case there's an exception. Now, you have to provide evidence of the usage you claim exists.
    – J D
    May 31 at 15:17
  • It's irrelevant to me if the comments stay or go. What is relevant that you understand that a claim about language usage is an empirical matter and it's truth or falsity rests upon evidence. This is not a conflict, but a dialog. Use your words as you see fit.
    – J D
    Jun 1 at 3:51
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You may always struggle with this is issue, whether it presents within friendships or outside of them.

Maintaining friendships with those who operate under substantially different ethical frameworks is important. We have a far better chance of persuading those with whom we enjoy rapport than with those we have alienated.

It can be worth asking yourself, "Have I always been a vegan?". If the answer is no, it is an acknowledgement that you were once in a similar state of disregard for animal welfare. This acknowledgement renders us less prone to arrogance when trying to convince others of our views.

You might draw comfort from the fact that veganism and vegetarianism are slowly but surely permeating the mainstream, to the extent that vegan and vegetarian products (including synthetic meats) are enjoying an ongoing upsurge in popularity. More and more people are making an ethically-based decision to reduce/cease their consumption of animal products.

I now offer some claims that might be deemed proselytisation, but I make them here to tackle some of the comments already made and to provide some facts which should be considered within philosophical contemplation of the veganism; including the notion of how you might engage a friend with the topic.

We know now that - in many developed countries at least - it is quite possible to maintain a healthy vegetarian/vegan diet at a cost and convenience roughly equivalent to that required by a normal diet (If to no-one else, I've proven this to my own satisfaction. For all my many faults, I'm a perfectly healthy, active, athletic, 46 year-old male who has maintained a vegan diet for approximately 5 years. My skin isn't yet translucent, I weigh 105 kilos, walk 50km per week and can still perform 10 ugly chin-ups. I have never suffered from any symptoms of B12 or protein deficiency).

There is still a perception amongst most people that veganism is something akin to extremism. There are at least a couple of ways to react to this. Of course, to cultures that have grown and flourished thanks to the exploitation of other animals for so long, it has been normalised to a point at which any suggestion that we should change our behaviour certainly seems silly or fringe or extreme. There is no way any shift in such entrenched dietary and corporate behaviour will ever be anything but snail-paced, even in the most privileged of societies.

Then there is the view that asks us to consider how basic concern for the fact animals are unnecessarily being tortured and killed might ever be deemed extreme. This view is powerfully articulated by a single question, crudely phrased as:

"What trait(s) do other animals possess or lack which justifies our killing of them?".

This is known as the "Name the trait" argument. This simple form is prone to some refutations, but is a fairly strong 'pub debate' conceptualisation of the issue. The argument is articulated far more rigorously here at Philosophical Vegan (The link is clearly to a biased site, but it includes refutations of the argument and provides a good basis for further discussion).

Whilst it contains some assumptions, 'Name the Trait' is essentially asking how the torture and killing of other animals might be justified given a consistent application of the views which govern how we treat our own species. It is this argument which might be useful in answering your final question: "Where do I even begin to define what he values as morally problematic or not?"

I have never come across (in personal debate) any sincere anti-vegan arguments which boil down to anything, ultimately, much greater than "because I like the taste of meat and I want to keep eating it", or "The industry is massive and employs a lot of people". Maybe the deep thinkers on this forum will pose some interesting answers to 'name the trait', which I look forward to, but if we survive long enough as a species, current trends suggest we will one day look back upon our treatment of other animals as a truly horrific age that took us an unfortunately long time to transcend, much as we now look back upon our treatment of indigenous peoples, women, ethnic minorities, children and homosexuality with an understanding that we have done well to change our ways.

I am not a psychologist, but I suspect much of our apathy towards animals comes from a phenomenon known as 'cognitive ease'; roughly stated, this is the notion that humans are drawn towards those ideas which cause us the least amount of psychological stress. To actually stop and contemplate the horror to which we subject billions of animals daily is, for many of us, to peer at an aspect of ourselves which is entirely at odds with how we like to think we are; at odds with the logic we typically apply to ethical issues. It is far easier to look away; to pretend there's nothing to think about.

For an interesting interview between the vegan and philosophy enthusiast Alex O'Connor, and the two skeptical hosts of Triggernometry, click here.

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  • How do you know that someone is vegan? They tell you within the first 5 minutes of meeting them. Or should I say meating them hehe.
    – DdogBoss
    May 30 at 18:57
  • Let me know how you are feeling in 8 more years.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jun 1 at 1:39
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    @ScottRowe. Yep. I agree, five years is an insufficient time to judge the consequences of the diet I maintain. But... let's say that in 8 more years I begin to feel some negative effects and that the top doctor in the field says there is something in meat I need. I still will have stopped my consumption of meat for 13 years, and could well return to my diet once my body restored itself. The net gain for animal welfare (given widespread adoption of course), is still massive. I agree that medical evidence for the pros/cons of a vegan diet is still very poor. Jun 1 at 2:39
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The question seems not about ethics and philosophy, but about psychology.

In typical humans, empathy with others (humans, animals) is an ability, not a compulsion. During extreme situations though, empathy might trigger uncontrollably, this could cause emotional trauma.

Some persons are diagnosed with Empathy Deficit Disorders, when their lack of empathy causes issues in forming enough relationships.

Other persons are diagnosed with Compulsive Empathy Disorders, when they lack the ability to choose not to feel with others and this causes issues in daily life.

Most people are somewhere between those extremes, either easily triggered by observations of suffering, or not very easily triggered.

Since humans often need to function despite of witnessing suffering around them, such as for soldiers or doctors, being able to selectively choose when to feel with others is healthy.

More compassionate people might be better suited for caregiving jobs, less compassionate people better suited for jobs requiring a cool mind in face of tragedy and horror.

Gender studies find some statistical gender differences in empathy, and statistics show there are more female vegans than male. This indicates it's not just about being intelligent and caring, but gender plays a role in the decision.

Since most humans have the ability to choose, we can choose when to be compassionate. When there is nothing to be gained from being compassionate, it is reasonable to choose not to be compassionate to avoid a useless negative emotion that negatively impacts us.

Most contemporary ethics do not allow inferring that just because something makes us feel bad, it is immoral, or if it does not make us feel bad, it is moral. Instead modern normative ethics frameworks place high value on level-headed rationality over empathy to decide on morality.

People who are compulsively empathetic about any issue are likely to mistake their emotions for ethical imperative, against ethics and philosophy.

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  • “Gender studies find some statistical gender differences in empathy, and statistics show there are more female vegans than male. This indicates it's not just about being intelligent and caring, but gender plays a role in the decision.“ Correlation is not causation. You can reasonably argue & evidence, that women on average have better empathy & rely for safety on networks, essentially that they tend to be more interested in other minds.
    – CriglCragl
    Jun 1 at 0:38
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Your friend shows a classic case of what the Existentialists call acting in bad faith. He is not facing his freedom, or accepting responsibility and accountability for his actions.

Akrasia certainly seems more apt than cognitive dissonance, and I would counterpose it to: acting wisely. When we act wisely we try to act from the integrated centre of our concerns and in ways that we stay awake to the possibility of novel solutions. Discussed here: Wisdom and John Vervaeke's awakening from the meaning crises? We can in this way understand wisdom as maximising freedom. Your friend chooses instead to sleepwalk.

Jonathan Haidt’s research seems to indicate that experiencing insecurity and feeling under attack during critical development years (teen to 25) will make someone lastingly more intolerant of ambiguities, including of people different to themselves. Experiencing diseases, tends to make people less friendly to strangers. The converse is that growing up safe and secure, allows people to develop more tolerance of ambiguity, which can help with problem solving and creative thinking. So in Haidt’s picture, we can see narrowing to local concerns as a threat-response, and caring about people not like us as a luxury when we get the chance to flourish.

I thought this paper was interesting: ‘Bigotry and the human–animal divide: (Dis)belief in human evolution and bigoted attitudes across different cultures.’ Intersubjectivity, the willingness to treat others as like ourselves, has profound advantages. By copying others, we don’t have to solve every problem ourselves, and instead can work on novel ones to the community. We see in this paper the link between social and animal attitudes.

Animals are the ‘original technology’ of humans, Cave Bears likely were worshipped by Neanderthals for imparting crucial knowledge about what was safe to eat, dogs gave a crucial edge with sharing their skills, beasts of burden are linked to every society with leisure enough and need to originate a writing system, chickens important enough to have gone from India to South America via Polynesia before Columbus, and the best horses and riding-of has shaped most military successes over the last millennia and a half. We have eaten all those animals. But, through deepening engagement, and respect for them, our worlds have been expanded and changed. I suggest they can continue to do so, practically, and intersubjectively, if we open up to rather than close down what they can be.

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    I wouldn't say that he is of bad faith, he is fully aware and understanding of the suffering of the animals. I thought that it is not bad faith, if one can personally adopt the external values and norms as long as they align with one's own values..
    – R.Su
    Jun 1 at 2:21
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    This is a well worded and inspiring answer. Many humans do overall treat animals better, particularly in the domestic area where we live with them. I have cared very well for the animals I have 'had'. But it is not easy for me to see what to do about animals not under my care, whether the dog that clearly has a bad limp being walked by a neighbor, or driving behind the chicken truck on the way to work. Similarly, I see little point in watching the news of people near and far in want, disease and war. Which of the huge number of serious world problems should I tackle? All of them?
    – Scott Rowe
    Jun 1 at 10:00
  • @R.Su: You would have to draw it out of him, but I do think it’s bad faith, in the sense there are internal contradictions to his thought. “Why must I care about suffering of others that will never impact my life or the people close to me.” Why must he care about even those? Ask him.
    – CriglCragl
    Jun 1 at 10:16
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The nature of life, is that life multiplies dramatically, and there are scarce resources. As a result, our universe is designed such that every living thing, in order to survive, must compete lethally with other living things.

The animal rights, vegan, and even more aggressively life-centric moral views that prioritize all life, not just animals, make powerful moral cases that we moral agents should behave in ways that treat all other living things will respect and consideration.

The life-affirming moral systems, run straight into an impossible standard problem. One cannot live without killing insects, and small rodents, in profusion. And one must also destroy massive amounts of plant life as well. Note agriculture, and any building process, and almost all transport, kills rodents.

There is a common rational response to this conflict -- moral considerations are optional, survival requirements are not. If moral considerations suggest one must behave in ways that are suicidal, then there may well be a major flaw in that moral argument. One must then harden one's heart to resist the "false" blandishments of that moral reasoning. This appears to be what your friend has done -- shut down empathy outside their close circle.

There is a more moral alternative, and that is to follow a similar set of smaller circles logic. The alternative would be to prioritize the moral considerations of the closer circles, and only respond to the moral needs of the more distant circles when one's resources are sufficient to be effective, and not harm oneself. This approach is more painful to live by, as then one must accept there are tragedies by the billions than one is aware of, but one cannot address in any way.

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    We don’t live in a kill-or-be-killed epoch (currently), & rapid increase in technology with shift to low birth rates means resources per capita aren’t scarce. You give a neo-Darwinian neo-Malthusian framing that is no longer justifiable. Survival literally is optional for humans, but individuals & ideas choosing to die will be less likely to replicate. Eusociality has been a powerful driver in biology too, as well as competition. There is an argument to be made about limited resources needing to support the local system generating them 1st, to best have moral impacts at all.
    – CriglCragl
    Jun 1 at 0:31
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    @CriglCragl - I gave a eusocial argument. Eusocial communities have a carrying capacity. Human survival margin is dramatically improved relative to 20,000 years ago, and this should and does have an effect on how large a circle we can reach out to support. However, it is not true that any human community is not still significantly resource constrained. Both individuals and groups are psychologically limited as well often by our personal capacity to endure tragedy. The deaths of thousands of small rodents with every plowed field, are tragedies beyond my power to change.
    – Dcleve
    Jun 1 at 3:35
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    Yes, I agree about protecting oneself psychologically. Recently I saw a video about "vertical farming" which would remove the need to plow fields. Perhaps we could have a meat replacing technology as well? I assume it will be developed eventually. History is a long litany of things that were very bad for a long time until we could change them. Thomas Edison might as well be called Mister Save the Whales.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jun 1 at 10:08
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    @ScottRowe: It makes me shudder to think of London lit by guttering whale-grease. 3D Ocean Farming is a great approach, but it’s a long way from providing a complete diet, & it’s not vegan because it involves shellfish
    – CriglCragl
    Jun 1 at 10:25

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