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Moral Intuition or Moral Disengagement? Cognitive Science Weighs in on the Animal Ethics Debate

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In this paper I problematize the use of appeals to the common intuitions people have about the morality of our society’s current treatment of animals in order to defend that treatment. I do so by looking at recent findings in the field of cognitive science. First I will examine the role that appeals to common intuition play in philosophical arguments about the moral worth of animals, focusing on the work of Carl Cohen and Richard Posner. After describing the theory of Moral Disengagement—which has been used to explain how people live with themselves when they commit acts that they themselves believe are wrong—I will review the recent empirical research that details the nature of the moral disengagement that accompanies animal treatment. This includes studies that reveal that those who eat animals engage in the following behaviors: They minimize the nature of the harm of killing animals by casting the practice in a positive light; They obscure personal responsibility by blaming others for harms; They minimize the effect of the conduct on the animals by avoiding reference to the animal origins of meat; They derogate vegetarians as a way of avoiding feelings of guilt for their own practices. Perhaps most importantly, a number of empirical studies have shown that people’s intuitions about the moral worth of animals are shaped by their practice of eating animals—and not the other way around. In addition to the studies on moral disengagement, there is another body of research that has attempted to discover what accounts for the individual differences in attitudes people have toward the moral worth of animals. These studies have linked masculinity and traits like Authoritarianism, Social Dominance Orientation and Right Wing Authoritarianism to the tendency to disregard the moral worth of animals. I will briefly summarize this body of research and will then conclude by arguing that this data should cause us to be highly skeptical of the value that the common intuition that people who eat animals have about the moral status of animals may have in helping us understand the actual moral worth of animals.

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  1. For a review of the studies from within the field see [2, 3].

  2. For collection of essays on the moral status of animals from philosophers from antiquity to modern times see [4, 5]. For an overview of the current debate see [6, 7].

  3. Peter Carruthers, in another example, speaks of “common-sense morality” which I take to be a similar appeal [14]

  4. Cohen may be overstating his case here. Considering the fact that there are as many vegetarians in India as there are American citizens, the argument may simply represent a cultural bias.

  5. Of course part of this reluctance is predicted by the evidence itself; those who eat animals are unconsciously set against recognizing their uncomfortable feelings about it.


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I’m especially indebted to Joshua Knobe for his helpful advice and encouragement on this paper from start to finish. I’m also indebted to Matthew Dasti for his thoughtful comments on an early draft of the paper and to the Neuroethics reviewer for encouraging me add the section on individual differences.

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Correspondence to Simon Christopher Timm.

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Timm, S.C. Moral Intuition or Moral Disengagement? Cognitive Science Weighs in on the Animal Ethics Debate. Neuroethics 9, 225–234 (2016).

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