Sunday, April 10, 2011

Moral Psychology (2)

In a recent posting I discussed one of the ways in which issues relating to the treatment of non-human animals may connect with matters of moral psychology. Do people who might otherwise be persuaded by the horrors of factory farming to give up the consumption of meat and dairy products tend to refrain from making that choice if an ethical “half-way house" is available in the form of “happy” meat and dairy products? Or are there likely to be more people who will decide, once they have reached the halfway house, that they should keep on going?

Those are arguments to do with strategy, carried on by people who are in broad agreement on certain ethical fundamentals; they agree that veganism is a better choice than free range—and they agree as to the desirability of changing human behavior. The point at issue is how best to do that.

Another sort of argument that turns on moral psychology may seem similar in some respects, but is in all its fundamentals utterly different; it’s the sort of argument put forward in Hal Herzog’s Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat. Herzog’s stated intention is to explain the many inconsistencies and outright contradictions in human attitudes toward non-human animals—such as those that relate to consuming those animals as food. But what he ends up providing is more a catalogue of those inconsistencies than an explanation—and again and again he ends up throwing up his hands at the complexity of it all; everything is “more complicated than we thought,” he concludes:
Moral consistency is elusive, if not impossible, in the real world, and both head and heart can lead us astray in how we think about the treatment of animals. … I have—mostly—come to accept my own hypocrisies. … The yahoo [within me] tells me that the exquisite taste of slow-cooked pit barbeque somehow justifies the death of the hog whose loin I am going to slather [with sauce]. … When I first started studying human-animal interactions I was troubled by the flagrant moral incoherence I have described in these pages—vegetarians who sheepishly admitted to me that they ate meat; cockfighters who proclaimed their love for their roosters; purebred dog enthusiasts whose desire to improve their breed has created generations of genetically defective animals; hoarders who caused untold suffering to the creatures living in filth they claim to have rescued. I have come to believe that these sorts of contradictions are not anomalies or hypocrisies. Rather they are inevitable. And they show we are human.

Thus we are assured that whatever is the case now is somehow “inevitable.” And, as Herzog implies through rhetorical sleight of hand, is also right. The extraordinary implication of his ringing conclusion is that we would lose our humanity if we behaved in less contradictory—and ethically better—ways toward non-human animals. Others might call the cruelty of our treatment of the animals we raise in order to eat them "inhuman." Herzog turns that on its head and suggests that it would be “inhuman” to try to eradicate such cruelty; he implies that to do so would go against the grain of our extraordinarily complicated natures.

But he only implies this; it is noteworthy that the list of contradictions he ends with steers the discussion away from the most vexing of the sets of contradictory attitudes that he set out to explore: the contradictory and hypocritical attitudes of humans who, in a system of great cruelty, raise non-human animals in order to kill them and consume their dead flesh. That would be a distasteful contradiction with which to conclude; let's look instead at the morally less heinous hypocrisies and contradictions of other sorts of behavior. According to the number of lapsed vegetarians that can be found, carnivores may feel secure in concluding that they’re doing something ethically acceptable after all.

It’s not hard to point out the logical absurdity of the sorts of connections Herzog is trying to make here. Just try applying them in a different context, substituting “slaves”, or “gays and lesbians”, or “women” for “non-human animals”:
Moral consistency is elusive, if not impossible, in the real world, and both head and heart can lead us astray in how we think about the treatment of women. … When I first started studying man-woman interactions I was troubled by the flagrant moral incoherence I have described in these pages—suffragettes who sheepishly admitted to me that they were attracted to men who stand firmly opposed to the women’s movement; men who publicly proclaim their desire to give women the vote but confess privately to their worries as to what may result if such a change ever occurs; campaigners for the supposed betterment of women’s lot who have ended by making things worse for those they aim to help. … I have come to believe that these sorts of contradictions are not anomalies or hypocrisies. Rather they are inevitable. And they show we are human.

If we’re going to be grown-ups we have to live in the real world. Yes, there are sometimes going to be contradictions and hypocrisies, Professor Herzog suggests. But that’s no argument for change.

Like Herzog, Melanie Joy teaches psychology. And her Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows has a similar starting point to that of Herzog’s similarly-titled Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat. But Joy’s purpose in trying to understand the mechanism through which humans hide from themselves the true nature of what they are doing is not to provide us with a rationale for avoiding change; it is to help bring about change. She sees clearly the parallels between the ways in which humans today think about other animals and the arguments that “enabled widespread discrimination and hatred towards homosexuals, the deeply entrenched system of apartheid, and the genocide in Darfur.” The lesson she draws is a fundamentally different one from that of Herzog. She acknowledges our human tendencies towards “apathy, complacency, self-interest, and blissful ignorance”—as well as towards hypocrisy. But she also believes that “as humans, we have a fundamental desire to strive to become our best selves.” Surely she is right as to the existence of that one vitally important human desire. And if behaving ethically is a concept that has any meaning at all, it surely means that we are obliged to strive for what is right—not to complacently accept the worst aspects of our natures.


As I re-read this I wonder if the posting is too harsh on Professor Herzog--a person who seems genuinely interested in broadening our understanding, and genuinely in favor of lowering rather than increasing the level of suffering for non-human animals.* It's just very sad that, by spending so much effort on rationalizing and so little on taking a strong stand against cruelty, he is surely helping to support an utterly horrific status quo.

*Interestingly, Herzog reports that, in recognition of such cruelties, he and his wife now eat free-range eggs and chicken and beef. Yet he appears uninterested in forcefully speaking out against the mass-scale cruelty of factory farming; indeed, he downplays any suggestion that there might be a significant ethical difference between his eating behavior and that of humans who choose to consume the products of factory farming; "I ... make what are probably symbolic gestures to reduce the cruelty of the fork ... I know ... that according to Consumer Reports terms like natural and cruelty-free ... are usually marketing ploys that mean little."


  1. I appreciate your concern about whether your post was too harsh. It wasn't. Hal Herzog seems to be intent on providing something for everyone hence he dollops out phrases designed to affirm any and all points of view. Reading his blog postings suggest he is writing to the "middle mind" and eschews any sort of position that might require some serious critical examination of behavior and consequences. He seems to ascribe to the notion that any position taken has some merit and throwing out instances of pro and con constitutes being "intellectual" or "fair" or "scientific".

    Readers would be well-served, I suspect, by becoming acquainted with the work of the likes of Neal Postman and Curtis White if they want to gain a bit more insight into the workings of "psuedo-intellectual" discourse.

    The flavor I get from his writings is that he is firmly convinced humans are a "superior" species and justified in any old thing they choose to do to other living beings but he has just enough of an inkling of awareness of the monstrousness of this sort of thinking to be unwilling to openly acknowledge it. So he takes the apparent "middle way" by contributing to the suffering and death of our fellow animals, but he worries about it so therefore he is not one of the monsters.

    He wants to have that proverbial cake (and to eat it too). And, like all of us when we try that sort of disingenuousness, he ends up sounding sort of like a putz holding up a smiley face.

    I applaud your efforts to understand and explain his writing. I am not sure though, his writing is worth the effort.