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

Abstract

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Notes

  1. 1.

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

  2. 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. 3.

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

  4. 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. 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.

References

  1. 1.

    Graca, Joao, Maria Manuela Calheiros, and Abilio Oliveira. 2014. Moral disengagement in harmful but cherished food practices? An exploration into the case of meat. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 27: 749–765.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    Ruby, Matthew B. 2012. Vegetarianism. A blossoming field of study. Appetite 58: 141–150.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3.

    Loughnan, Steve, Brock Bastian, and Nick Haslam. 2014. The psychology of eating animals. Directions in Psychological Science 23: 104–108.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4.

    Regan, Tom, and Peter Singer, eds. 1976. Animal rights and human obligations. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

    Google Scholar 

  5. 5.

    Clarke, Paul A.B., and Andrew Lindsey, eds. 1990. Political theory and animal rights. Winchester: Pluto Press.

    Google Scholar 

  6. 6.

    Garner, Robert. 2005. Animal ethics. Malden: Polity Press.

    Google Scholar 

  7. 7.

    Taylor, Angus. 2003. Animals & ethics. Orchard Park: Broadview Press.

    Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Frey, R.G. 1980. Interests and rights: The case against animals. Oxford: Clarendon.

    Google Scholar 

  9. 9.

    Carruthers, Peter. 1992. The animals issue: Moral theory in practice. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Regan, Tom. 1983. The case for animal rights. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  11. 11.

    Francione, Gary L. 2000. Introduction to animal rights: Your child or the dog? Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

  12. 12.

    Singer, Peter. 1975. Animal liberation. New York: Avon Books.

    Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    Clark, Stephen R.L. 1977. The moral status of animals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    Carruthers, Peter. 1992. The animals issue: Moral theory in practice, 8–9. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  15. 15.

    Cohen, Carl, and Tom Regan. 2001. The animal rights debate, vol 31. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

    Google Scholar 

  16. 16.

    Posner, Richard. 2004. Animal rights: Legal, philosophical and pragmatic perspectives. In Animal Rights: Current debates and new directions, ed. Cass R Sunstein and Martha C. Nussbaum, 51–77. New York: Oxford University Press.

  17. 17.

    Bandura, Albert. 1999. Moral disengagement in the perpetration of inhumanities. Personality and Social Psychology Review 3: 193–209.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18.

    Plous, Scott. 1993. Psychological mechanisms in the human use of animals. Journal of Social Issues 49: 11–52.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19.

    Schroder, Monika J.A., and Morven G. McEachern. 2004. Consumer value conflicts surrounding ethical food purchase decisions: A focus on animal welfare. International Journal of Consumer Studies 28: 168–177.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20.

    Hoogland, Carolien T., Joop de Boer, and Jan J. Boersema. 2005. Transparency in the meat chain in the light of food culture and history. Appetite 45: 15–23.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21.

    Castano, Emanuele, and Roger Giner-Sorolla. 2006. Not quite human: Infrahumanization in response to collective responsibility for ingroup killing. Journal of Personal and Social Psychology 90: 804–818.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22.

    Cuddy, Amy J., Mindi S. Rock, and Michael I. Norton. 2007. Aid in the aftermath of Katrina: Inferences of secondary emotions and ingroup helping. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations 10: 107–118.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23.

    Steve, Loughnan, Nick Haslam, and Brock Bastian. 2010. The role of meat consumption in the denial of mind and moral status to meat animals. Appetite 55(1): 156–9.

  24. 24.

    Bilewicz, Michal, Roland Imhoff, and Marek Drogosz. 2011. The humanity of what we eat: Conceptions of human uniqueness among vegetarians and omnivores. European Journal of Social Psychology 41: 201–209.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25.

    Bratanova, Boyka, Steve Loughnan, and Brock Bastian. 2011. The effect of categorization as food on the perceived moral standing of animals. Appetite 57: 193–196.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    Bastian, Brock, Steve Loughnan, Nick Haslam, and H. Radke. 2012. Don’t mind meat? The denial of mind to animals used for human consumption. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 38: 247–256.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27.

    Minson, Julia A., and Benoit Monin. 2012. Do-gooder derogation: disparaging morally motivated minorities to defuse anticipated reproach. Social Psychological and Personality Science 3: 200–207.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28.

    Rothgerber, Hank. 2014. Efforts to overcome vegetarian-induced dissonance among meat-eaters. Appetite 79: 32–41.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29.

    Fiddes, Nick. 1991. Meat: A natural symbol. London: Routledge.

  30. 30.

    Adams, Carol. 1990. The sexual politics of meat: A feminist vegetarian critical theory. New York: Continuum.

  31. 31.

    Ruby, Matthew B., and Steven J. Heine. 2011. Meat, morals, and masculinity. Appetite 56: 447–450.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. 32.

    Rothgerber, Hank. 2013. “Real men don’t eat (vegetable) quiche: Masculinity and the justification of meat consumption. The Psychology of Men and Masculinity 14: 363–375.

  33. 33.

    Rozin, Paul, Julia M. Hormes, Myles S. Faith, and Brian Wansink. 2012. Is meat male? A quantitative multimethod framework to establish metaphoric relationships. Journal of Consumer Research 39: 629–643.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. 34.

    Dhont, Krsitof, and Gordon Hodson. 2014. Why do right-wing adherents engage in more animal exploitation and meat consumption? Personality and Individual Differences 64: 12–17.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. 35.

    Allen, Michael, Mark Wilson, Sik Hung Ng, and Michael Dunne. 2000. Values and beliefs of vegetarians and omnivores. Journal of Social Psychology 140(4): 405–422.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. 36.

    Allen, Michael W., and Sik Hung Ng. 2003. Human values, utilitarian benefits and identification: the case of meat. European Journal of Social Psychology 33: 37–56.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. 37.

    Chin, Matthew, Brian Fisak Jr., and Valerie Sims. 2002. Development of the attitudes toward vegetarians scale. Anthrozoös 15: 332–342.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

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.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Simon Christopher Timm.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Timm, S.C. Moral Intuition or Moral Disengagement? Cognitive Science Weighs in on the Animal Ethics Debate. Neuroethics 9, 225–234 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12152-016-9271-x

Download citation

Keywords

  • Animal ethics
  • Cognitive science
  • Animal rights
  • Moral disengagement