Monthly Archives: October 2007

New York Times: “Two Pigs” by Verlyn Klinkenborg

On October 25, 2007, the New York Times published an opinion piece by Verlyn Klinkenborg entitled “Two Pigs” about, as Klinkenborg puts it, “taming” two pigs and then having a farmer and his son come over to kill the pigs while Klinkenborg and his wife watch (kill them because, as Klinkenborg says, “That’s part of the job”).

Whenever I read about intellectual folks like Klinkenborg or Michael Pollan [1] raising an innocent nonhuman being to be killed or hunting an innocent being and writing an article rationalizing the ordeal, I imagine a similar rationalization is probably what goes through the mind of a person with a calm, rational plan to kill an innocent human being. Not that Klinkenborg or Pollan would ever remotely think of killing a human (they are very well-socialized); but the detachment, indifference, and morally vacuous rationale are probably disturbingly similar regardless of the species of the innocent victim of the deed.

To demonstrate this parallel in detachment, indifference, and moral vacuity in more detail, I’ve re-written Klinkenborg’s article as “Two Orphans”, penned by a fictitious character named Will Killjoy. I’ve used orphans in this re-write to eliminate the issue of the emotional suffering and pain endured by those left behind, whether those left behind are human or nonhuman. [2]

My changes consisted almost entirely of turning phrases like “stop eating pork” into “avoid cannibalism” and “pigs” to “orphans” and if you read the NYT article, you will see how very little I’ve changed it. Although this re-write is satirical, cannibalism is an unpleasant reality in human history; it’s where meat-eating is taken one more step closer to kin, and in some human cultures, kin is also why it is done (although “kin-cannibalism” doesn’t generally require killing since the relatives wait until [insert choice of relative here] dies naturally). The idea that Killjoy is a human cannibal is not as remote in history or the world as it would seem to our culture. In fact, we can think of the progression of human civilization as going from uncivilized and violent cannibalism to a slightly more civilized but still intentionally violent diet of flesh and bodily fluids excluding those of human origin to the most civilized and non-violent diet by far (i.e. the only civilized and morally adequate diet): a vegan diet.

One more note: Killjoy moved from where he adopted the orphans to a rural area remote enough that nobody knows about the orphans – Killjoy’s actions are beyond the reach of the law. Like for Klinkenborg and modern meat-eaters in general, there are no social consequences against Killjoy’s behavior in this article. Now, on to Killjoy’s article…

October 25, 2007
The Rural Life
Two Orphans

by Will Killjoy

Very soon, I will kill my two adopted orphan children. If that sentence bothers you, you should probably stop reading now – and you should probably avoid cannibalism. The orphans are 3 years old, fat and happy, and killing them is the reality of cannibalism. I treat the orphans very well, and ever since June, I’ve been building their trust in me, reading children’s books to them and tucking them into a comfortable, warm bed. There are two reasons. I truly love being with the orphans. And building their trust in me will make it that much easier to kill them swiftly, immediately. If I had no more foreknowledge of my death than these two orphans will have of theirs, I’d consider myself very lucky.

The questions people would probably ask (after they called the police) would make it sound as though I should be morally outraged at myself, as if it’s impossible to build a relationship of trust with the orphans and still intend to kill them. If I belonged to a cannibal tribe that performed human sacrifices – one that has elaborate killing ceremonies for burnt offerings to the gods – I would get to celebrate the ritual in it all, the sudden blessings of the gods bestowed upon us and the succulent pork-like flavor of human bacon. It’s hard to act that out when it’s just me in the backwoods silenced by the solemnity of what I’m about to do.

Because I do carry it out. That’s part of the job. It’s how we come to understand what cannibalism itself means. And to me, the word “cannibal” is at the root of the contradictory feelings the orphan-killing raises. You can add all the benefits you want – that the orphans were well-fed and cared for – and yet somehow the fact that I’m doing this for meat makes the whole thing sound like a bad bargain. And yet compared with the various genocides of the 20th century, this is beauty itself.

Knowing that you’re doing something for the last time is a uniquely human fear. I thought that would be the hardest thing about killing these orphans. In fact, it’s not so hard, though it does remind me that humans have trouble thinking about who knows what. One day soon I’ll read the orphans a story, gently tuck them into bed, and say good night. They will have the pleasure and comfort of feeling safe and having a good night sleep. It will be the last time. I will know it, and they simply won’t.




Now there’s some rock solid moral reasoning, eh? It seems that replacing a few words here and there makes salient to non-vegans just how empty, calloused, indifferent, and detached Klinkenborg’s rationale is (it was already quite salient to vegans before the re-write).

“I will know it, and they simply won’t.” In that statement, we see that Klinkenborg and Killjoy seem to apply the ancient Greek vegetarian philosopher Epicurus’ teaching that “death is nothing to us.” Only instead of using Epicurus’ teaching to reduce worries about their own death, they use his thinking to ease their worries about unnecessary killing and someone else’s death. I wonder what we might think about that rationale turned around – if a stranger in a dark alley considered our death “nothing to us.”

But what is death? Epicurus was right when he indicated that we won’t care at all about our death after dying. But then why is unnecessary killing wrong? If we don’t know we’re going to be killed and our killer kills us painlessly, there are literally no consequences for us that we can know. We can’t object that we had plans for the future, because after our death, not only will we not care, but we cannot possibly care. So is killing wrong only because of the emotional suffering of those with whom we had connections in life? If so, then painless, unnecessary killing is okay as long as the emotional connections to others are weak or non-existent?

Oh, wait. Is it because we’re human that killing us wrong? But why should that matter? Humans know no more than pigs after death and humans can be killed painlessly and without their knowledge just as pigs can be. It seems unnecessarily (or preferentially) killing humans without their knowledge is fine, at least by Klinkenborg’s reasoning about the insignificance of death.

Is it because of social cohesion that killing humans is wrong – a kind of social contract? If so, then the unnecessary killing of humans isn’t wrong per se, it is just wrong because of unpleasant consequences to ourselves that we must live in the cutthroat, low-trust society that is created by random killing. I suppose that reason might fly with egoists and amoralists, but it is false for those of us who live within a moral worldview.

Is it because humans aren’t food? What if humans are food to a certain culture and what if those cannibals experience humans as delicious and as an important ingredient in a festive meal? Would that make it okay for them to kill humans, perhaps from other tribes? No, it wouldn’t. Cultural prejudices and strong, sacred traditions that serve injustice are things to be overcome, not accepted, revered, or admired.

Most importantly, what is the relevant characteristic that all and only humans have which distinguishes us from pigs or any other nonhuman being such that our pain and death matters and theirs doesn’t? The fact is that there are no such differences. Stop and think about it. And if you come up with such a “relevant difference,” please email it to me. If it is not too ridiculous, I’ll post and evaluate it in this blog. (Caution: you may want to evaluate it carefully yourself before emailing it for public scrutiny. There simply are no adequate answers to my request. It is as if I asked you for an even integer between 2 and 4.) If killing human orphans painlessly for whatever desirable, but unnecessary reason is morally wrong; then killing pigs for whatever desirable, but unnecessary reason is also wrong.

Unnecessary killing is wrong because of 1) the depravation of life in such an unnecessary act which, under ordinary circumstances (i.e. excluding comas, torture, etc), severely harms its victim and 2) the strong and very primitive desire to survive that is innate in all sentient beings, such survival which is of crucial importance to that being (human or nonhuman) regardless of how unimportant it might be for any other being or group of beings. I see these two reasons as self-evident, beyond reasonable doubt, and standing each alone by itself as sufficient reason for the wrongness of unnecessary killing. Whether the potential victim (human or nonhuman) of an intentional unnecessary killing is unaware or not of their fate is irrelevant. Whether they have spun grand plans for the future in their mind or not is irrelevant. Their capability or incapability of achieving grand plans for the future is irrelevant. Their potential longevity is irrelevant. The size of their ego is irrelevant. And what DNA they share with what specific species is irrelevant.

It’s not that intellectuals like Klinkenborg and Pollan can’t comprehend this; it’s that they blow as much smoke as they can to avoid acknowledging it and to avoid cultivating an appropriate level of empathy toward nonhuman beings.

If we are to have adequate form and content in our moral reasoning and not fall into the detached moral nonsense of Klinkenborg, Pollan (in The Omnivore’s “Dilemma”), and Killjoy, we must go vegan.



[1] Michael Pollan, a professor of journalism at UC Berkeley and author of the overrated book The Omnivore’s “Dilemma” (quotes are mine) falls into this category of intellectuals behaving bizarrely with respect to their current moral pseudo-qualms about killing nonhuman beings. Hopefully someday the pseudo-qualms will become genuine and more serious and appropriate qualms: Moral progress is beautiful.

[2] Contrary to the general public’s misinformed views on the grief of animals over lost companions, such grief can be significantly more severe than human grief over lost companions. The bond between a cow and a calf while the calf is young and between certain species whose members mate for life can be stronger than human bonds and the grief in separation is emotionally devastating for them. Claiming that their emotional devastation doesn’t matter because they’re not human is the same as saying that a certain ethnic or racial groups’ emotional devastation doesn’t matter because they are that certain ethnic or racial group. Such claims are our 21st century bigotry and such claims are just as nauseating as the 19th century bigotry.

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On Trivializing the Causes of Other Groups

A few weeks ago, there was much hubbub on when Bruce Friedrich of PETA wrote as a guest on the benefits of vegetarianism for the environment. Indeed, there are very significant benefits which a vegan diet bestows on the environment which I will not go into here. However, there was much unwarranted hostility [1] toward vegans who were posting in the comment section and much ignorant trivializing of veganism both as a benefit to the environment and as an imperative for justice to nonhuman beings.

Also occurring a few weeks ago was PETA’s publicized photo of Hollywood vegan Alicia Silverstone posing nude. Might this kind of sexism have a causal connection to the severe oppression, violence, and exploitation endured by economically, educationally, and socially disadvantaged women? It certainly isn’t helping the fight against such exploitation. And if groups seeking to protect the innocent are engaging in sexism at all, what does that say to society and to groups that don’t care about protecting the innocent? Where do we draw the line on hypocrisy? Do we perform some utilitarian calculus? No. Instead, if we are serious about opposing exploitation, we do what we can to avoid any and all exploitation, including the promotion of sexploitation. In the process, we avoid hypocrisy and maintain moral consistency and credibility. We don’t make publicity a priority over principles.

Other Examples of Hypocrisy

I brought up the environmental hostility toward vegans and PETA’s sexism to give some recent examples of what goes on regularly by groups and individuals who like to fashion themselves as “progressive” and against oppression, violence, exploitation, and greed; but fail to live up to their professed beliefs and self-image when they trivialize other forms of oppression, violence, exploitation, and greed.

Another example is feminists trivializing the exploitation, violence, and death of nonhuman beings because of the arbitrary claim that they are “only animals” and besides, they taste good. What about male chauvinists who trivialize sexism and sexploitation for similar reasons of personal advantage, pleasure, and habit?

Another example is people who defend civil rights trivializing very basic rights for nonhuman beings based on their crucial interests in not being tortured and killed, presumably because “might-makes-right”, they’re “only animals”, and they taste good. How is that different from violations of equal opportunity based on privilege and prejudice? How is it different from white, propertied males excluding other groups from opportunity out of greed? How is it different from “in-group” majorities refusing to treat “out-group” minorities who have similar relevant characteristics similarly (think religious beliefs, sexual orientation, gender group, ethnic group, or race)? It’s no different. Racism, sexism, and speciesism are all from the same source of arbitrary “in-group” selection.

Of course, the examples I’ve provided are only a few examples, not a complete list of the hypocrisy of the various causes, movements, groups, and individuals claiming to be fighting for justice and against oppression, violence, exploitation, arbitrary exclusion, and greed; and all of the various combinations of who is trivializing whose cause. It is really quite a spectacle of human folly when we stop and give it some thought.

The Common Enemy

There is a common enemy underlying all true social justice movements which can be called “might-makes-right.” Injustice is injustice. Oppression is oppression. Exploitation is exploitation. Arbitrary exclusion is arbitrary exclusion. Greed is greed. Sure, they all admit of degrees. But seeing our own fight against these underlying conditions applied to our own unique cause as trumping all other causes to the point where we are fine with trivializing other causes is myopic and hypocritical.

There’s nothing wrong with believing our own unique cause is very important, and even more important than another cause if we have good reasons for believing so. There is also nothing wrong with dedicating ourselves to one single injustice issue or even opposing another movement because it is an obstacle to justice in our movement. [2] But there is no excuse for trivializing another movement’s battle against injustice which is fighting the same underlying enemy merely because the subject of the other issue is one that we have failed to carefully consider or we have some personal prejudice or intellectual dishonesty of our own which we probably ought to address, and this is usually the case when individuals or groups trivialize other causes.

People and groups who are fighting injustice ought to look at all injustice, actual or potential, as likely to be interrelated with their own cause and look to work with other movements instead of against them. With some notable exceptions [2], social justice movements are usually complementary to each other rather than opposed. And if it is asking too much to cooperate with a group that is not a barrier or obstacle to our cause, then we should at least do no harm, get out of the way, or be quiet.



[1] The hostility toward vegans likely arose out of a fear of the unknown, including ignorance about what to eat, commitment to veganism, and how others might react to such a perceived “bold step” as going vegan. As is true of most “fears of the unknown,” however, the only thing to fear is fear itself (as FDR once said) and, of course, ignorance about the topic in general. I find it interesting and amusing how some non-vegans seem to think that they know more about being vegan than long-time vegans know. Contrary to the inexperienced and untutored opinions of some non-vegans, going and staying vegan is easy, the food is delicious, and the reactions we get are generally positive, as long as people aren’t threatened by our behavior. If going and staying vegan was perceived by environmentalists to be as easy as purchasing a fuel-efficient car instead of a Hummer, a very large percentage of environmentalists would be vegan. While it’s not that easy, it is much easier than the average environmentalist thinks it is, and if you are a non-vegan environmentalist, you really should do some research and try going vegan for a year or two. (Unlike buying a hybrid car, veganism takes from about 6 months to a year or more of honest effort and application to learn enough about the options available, pick personal preferences, and change old habits. Once those habits are changed though, you’re on auto-pilot and it is effortless.)

There was also ignorance from environmentalists in the Grist blog about the benefits of a vegan diet on the environment. Now I’ll admit that just as buying and driving a Prius instead of a Hummer will not “save the environment” by itself, going vegan instead of consuming significant amounts of animal products will not “save the environment” by itself either. Both are merely excellent steps to take to reduce one’s “footprint.” What makes veganism a moral imperative is not utilitarian considerations about the environment, however, but justice and the moral right of nonhuman beings to their life and bodily integrity against moral agents.

[2] It is possible for socially progressive movements to conflict. One example goes back to the voting rights of African Americans in the passage of the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1870. Fredrick Douglass wanted to exclude women from the 15th Amendment because he thought that while it was important for all to vote, it was more important that freed male slaves obtain suffrage at that time. Douglass reasonably feared that if women were included in the 15th Amendment, it was considerably less likely to pass at all. This conflict fueled the women’s movement to eventually get the 19th Amendment passed and ratified by the states 50 years later in 1920.

A second example of conflict between progressive movements concerns the current abolition movement versus the “happy” meat movement (also known as the “new welfarist” movement, the “industry-welfarist partnership” movement, and the “animal husbandry” movement). The abolition movement correctly sees the new welfarist movement and their partnering and consulting relationship with industry as a barrier to any significant progress in combating the severe and violent exploitation of billions of nonhuman beings annually for food, research, and entertainment. As long as veganism as a moral imperative is rejected or ignored by society and so-called “animal rights” groups (like PETA, HSUS, and “Vegan” Outreach), nonhuman beings will always be property under the law, always treated as economic commodities, and violently exploited by the billions in ways which most people cannot bear to watch.

As long as so many vegans assist the new welfarist movement in cooperating with and attempting to reform industry instead of engaging in creative vegan education and outreach, including films and photos of the inevitably cruel treatment of nonhumans, societal acceptance of veganism will be delayed unnecessarily and perhaps indefinitely. Due to this obvious barrier and threat to justice, abolitionist vegans are attempting to educate new welfarist vegans about the existence and consequences of this barrier and are often very critical of the new welfarist movement. This unpopular criticism, however, is a necessary part of educating people about what justice for nonhuman beings is, and justice is about abolition and going vegan, not about reforming industry.


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Moral Psychology and Development: Practical Considerations (Part 4 of 4)

Over the past three essays, we have touched on two major schools of thought regarding morality: theories of “the right” and theories of “the good”; and we have explored the basic and most relevant elements of two theories of moral development corresponding to the two schools of moral thought: Kohlberg’s stage theory and Hoffman’s empathy theory, respectively.

The most striking similarity between Kohlberg’s and Hoffman’s theories is that their highest stages entail a widening of the moral community ultimately to a universal application of the principle of equal consideration for all beings holding relevant characteristics.

I cannot see how the universal application of equal consideration as the highest stage could be otherwise in any theory of moral development. If we take morality and moral development seriously, we must remove as much arbitrariness as possible; for the more arbitrariness is permitted in any moral development theory, the less such a theory makes sense. For cognitive theories based on a principle of equal consideration, this is obvious. For affective theories based primarily on empathy, it is much less obvious due to the non-rational, non-cognitive nature of purely affective/emotive drives, but we must introduce a sturdy, rational, cognitive element into an affective theory if we are going to talk about concepts like “development” and “making sense.” Purely affective theories without rationality degenerate into blind personal preference and egoism, which we might call morality’s opposite. Rationality and the principle of equal consideration can be viewed as the structural support on which empathy is developed to achieve the greatest heights of moral behavior and character.

Developing Moral Character: Structural Integrity

When we set out to construct a building, we must first design and construct the foundation and structural support which will act to give form, strength, and stability to the building. Without a strong foundation and supporting structural skeleton, our building will either be a “nonstarter”, a heap of plywood or cement, or collapse into a heap at the first challenge of wind or other force against it. Once we have designed and built a strong foundation and structure, we can start to fill in the walls with plywood and insulation or cement.

In the same way, when we set out to build moral character, we must first ground the moral character in sound reason and the principle of equal consideration. With unguided empathy, we are likely to end up with a pile of emotional nonsense, having an abundance of empathy in some cases and a poverty of empathy in other cases, all in one distorted heap. We will be overwhelmed with empathy for our dog while chewing on a formerly tortured and unjustly killed pig who deserved as much empathy as our dog. This kind of disparate, non-rational behavior toward animals is what the distinguished legal scholar Gary Francione aptly calls our society’s “moral schizophrenia” toward animals. Martin Hoffman, whose empathy theory we looked at in the third of these four essays, thinks of the justice principle (i.e. the equal consideration principle, which is a principle derived from reason) as regulating empathy to more appropriate levels from both over- and under-arousal. Clearly, sound moral reasoning and a principle of universal justice or equal consideration of relevant characteristics are essential if we are to build a reliable moral structure on which to cultivate empathy, which in our analogy, is the plywood or loose cement in need of form and a sturdy structure to maintain the form.

Developing Moral Character: Substantive Integrity

Just as our building will end up in a useless heap if we don’t give it form and structural integrity, the form and structural integrity alone is a cold, worthless building if there are no walls on the skeleton to prevent the snow, wind, and rain from filling the interior.

Just so, practical reason and the principle of equal consideration will tell us what morality is and should look like (i.e. give us form and structure), but by themselves, reason and principle may too often leave us without adequate motivation (i.e. substance) to behave in accordance with the principle of equal consideration. We need to cultivate the empathy (i.e. substance) to build our moral character into a strong and worthwhile fortress. Violations of reason may motivate us to correct a math error we are aware of, but violations of reason by themselves cannot motivate us in the way genuine empathy can to right a moral wrong or avoid committing that wrong in the first place. Empathy is something that can be intentionally practiced, cultivated, and developed to conform to practical reason and equal consideration. Many religious traditions have a long history of encouraging the development of empathy, compassion, and caring for others.

Practical Considerations for Advocacy

We clearly need to appeal to both reason and empathy in our advocacy for nonhuman beings. However, there is already significant human empathy for (certain) nonhuman beings in our society. This is plainly evident in how many millions of us, including many hunters, have abundant empathy for our dogs and other companion animals. It is also evident in how many millions (billions?) of charity dollars go to humane societies and animal welfare organizations. Indeed, rare is the person, even in animal agribusiness, who doesn’t entirely agree with “animal welfare.” We clearly do not like to see nonhuman beings suffer “unnecessarily”, and that is an almost universal belief among the sane.

The problem with our moral character as it relates to nonhuman animals is not a lack of empathy per se, but a lack of both reason and the principle of equal consideration guiding our empathy to give it coherence and consistency. Our empathy toward animals is currently an incoherent, distorted heap of nonsense. Our empathy has no structure or form. Our empathy is amoral and egocentric.

What we need is to have our empathy guided and cultivated in the places where moral reasoning and the principle of equal consideration of relevant characteristics (such as sentience) determine it ought to be located. This guiding and cultivating can take place when we think about the characteristics of pigs, chickens, cows, goats, sheep, elk, deer, and our dogs, and see that all of these beings have the same relevant characteristics of a deep desire to live and survive, to avoid pain, and to experience pleasure. They are all sentient. Their species is irrelevant. Their species is just as irrelevant as race, sex, intelligence, religion, or ethnic group. Reason and the principle of equal consideration applied to the relevant characteristic of sentience require us to guide and cultivate our empathy properly and build our moral character into a coherent form. Reason and the principle of equal consideration also require us to become and stay vegan as a moral imperative. It is appeals to reason, consistency, and the principle of equal consideration which ought to be at the forefront of our advocacy, encouraging the development of empathy where it is most needed.

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The Development of Empathy: Hoffman’s Theory (Part 3 of 4)

This essay is the third in a series of four essays on moral psychology and development.

Martin Hoffman’s theory of moral psychology and development is primarily focused on empathy and empathic distress, but also includes classic conditioning, cognitive reasoning, and principles of caring and justice. Cognitive reasoning and justice are especially integrated into Hoffman’s theory in the more advanced stages of empathy development. Hoffman’s theory is comprehensive, and while much of it is supported by research, Hoffman makes use of many detailed anecdotes from interviews, open-ended research questions, and other sources to “fill in the research gaps” in the comprehensive theory.

Virtually all of the information on Hoffman’s theory in this essay has been extracted from Hoffman’s book published in 2000 entitled, Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice. My purpose is not to cover or summarize Hoffman’s book or entire theory, but only to provide some of the basic elements and bring forth what I consider to be the most relevant aspects of his theory to the development of empathy for nonhuman beings.

Empathic Distress Versus Egoistic Motives

Central to Hoffman’s theory is the occurrence of empathic distress in response to another’s distress where, 1) empathic distress is associated with helping, 2) empathic distress precedes helping, and 3) observers feel better after helping.

Empathic distress often competes with egoistic motives. Egoistic motives opposing animal rights would be the desire to maintain the status quo with regard to eating habits, the fear of learning more about the plight of animals (empathic over-arousal), over-estimations of difficulty in transitioning to or maintaining a vegan diet (even though it is very easy), fear of dealing with family and friends after committing to veganism, and, in the case of people whose occupations require animal abuse and killing, giving up their current occupations. Most of the egoistic fears regarding a transition to and maintenance of personal veganism are really nothing more than a fear of the unknown and, very likely in many cases, a lack of self-confidence in men and women.

Five Categories of Development

Hoffman has five categories in the development of empathic distress: 1) newborn reactive cry, 2) egocentric empathic distress, 3) quasi-egocentric empathic distress, 4) veridical empathic distress, and 5) empathic distress beyond the situation.

The first category, the newborn reactive cry, is likely caused by a “…combination of mimicry and conditioning, with each getting an assist from imitation.” (Hoffman, 2000, p 65) At this point, there is only distress, but no effort to relieve distress.

In egocentric empathic distress, which starts to occur at the end of the first year, the reaction to another infant’s distress is mostly the same, except that there is behavior which is meant to reduce their own distress (not the other infant’s distress). There seems to be genuine confusion at this point about who is in distress, therefore the oxymoron “egocentric empathic distress”.

By early in the second year, a sense of self occurs and along with it, quasi-egocentric empathic distress develops. In quasi-egocentric empathic distress, the child will attempt to help the other in distress, but from their own point of view. For example, a child may bring another crying child to her mother instead of the child’s own mother. There is clearly the desire to help the other, but from the only point of view that the helping child is aware of: their own point of view.

By late in the second year, children begin to show awareness that the inner states of others may be different from their own states. Corrective feedback, such as when one’s egocentric efforts to relieve another’s distress don’t work, leads to behavior which takes the other’s perspective into account. Eventually, corrective feedback is not needed as much (although, as Hoffman points out, even adults need corrective feedback at times). This is the development of veridical empathic distress, an important stage, since it “has all the basic elements of mature empathy and continues to grow and develop throughout life.” (Hoffman, 2000, p 72)

At some point in development, empathic distress moves beyond the situation to involve others’ life conditions. There is often contradiction in a victim’s behavior where, for example, a victim of a terminal illness is laughing or appears to be very happy. People who have not moved into this stage will identify directly and solely with the currently observed happy behavior of the victim. People who have moved into empathic distress beyond the situation, however, while they may or may not show it depending on the situation, will still have empathic distress, despite current outward appearances of the victim’s immediate happiness.

Empathic distress beyond the situation eventually matures to empathic distress regarding entire groups who are exploited, oppressed, or otherwise treated unfairly. This can happen both geographically, as when we empathize with groups in distant regions of the world; temporally, as when we empathize with groups in times long past; and beyond kin, as when we empathize with other ethnic groups, races, or species. It is this advanced stage of “empathic distress beyond the situation” which is required for normal adults to experience empathic distress for nonhuman beings. Unfortunately, many normal human adults have not reached this stage and may never reach it.

Moral Internalization and Socialization

According to Hoffman, a person’s prosocial moral structure is “a network of empathic effects, cognitive representations, and motives.” (Hoffman, 2000, p. 134) The moral structure includes principles, behavioral norms, a sense of right and wrong, and images of harmful or hurtful acts and the associated self-blame and guilt.

Moral internalization occurs when a person’s moral structure is accepted and the person feels obligated to abide by its principles and consider others regardless of external punishment or reward.

Socialization, according to Hoffman, is the process by which moral internalization occurs, mainly in the form of interventions. Among three types of intervention Hoffman discusses, only “induction” is relevant to changing moral behavior and causing moral internalization of new principles in law-abiding adults. Induction occurs when we take the victim’s (e.g. the nonhuman being’s) perspective and show a person (e.g. someone who consumes animal products) how his or her behavior is harming the victim. Showing pictures and videos of “food” animals in their daily lives and during and after slaughter and emphasizing the connection between the distressing footage and a non-vegan diet is an example of induction. Induction must usually be repeated anywhere from a few to several times before moral internalization has a chance to take place, and unfortunately, this repetition seems to be just as true for adults as children.

Empathy’s Limitations

The ability of empathy to generate moral behavior is limited by three common occurrences: over-arousal, habituation, and bias. Hoffman covers others, but my focus is on the limits common to empathy for animals.

Empathic Over-Arousal

Generally, the greater the victim’s distress, the greater the observer’s empathic distress. However, if the observer’s empathic distress is too great, it is likely to lead to personal distress. Empathic over-arousal is “an involuntary process that occurs when an observer’s empathic distress becomes so painful and intolerable that it is transformed into an intense feeling of personal distress, which may move the person out of the empathic mode entirely.” (Hoffman, 1978 and 2000) (Italics mine)

At the other extreme, empathic distress may not motivate moral behavior. So, empathic distress can be either too strong or too weak. To complicate matters for animal rights advocates, different people will over- and under-arouse to the same situation or film or leaflet, so finding a good balance in animal rights educational material is difficult.


If a person is exposed repeatedly to victim distress over time, the person’s empathic distress may diminish to the point where the person becomes indifferent to victims’ distress. This diminished empathic distress and corresponding indifference is very common in those who abuse and kill animals as part of their occupation or recreation: animal researchers, employees in the animal entertainment industry, hunters, trappers, fishers, employees in animal feeding operations, truck drivers in animal transportation, slaughterhouse employees, and butchers. In fact, the most morally repugnant, horrific and violent footage of animal abuse, acts which would garner felony cruelty charges if done to a dog or cat in the street, occurs in most of these occupations, particularly slaughterhouses and research labs.

Familiarity Bias

Humans evolved in small groups, and often the small groups competed for scarce resources, so it is not surprising that evolutionary psychologists have identified kin selection has a moral motivator with evolutionary roots. The forms of familiarity bias include in-group bias, friendship bias, and similarity bias. The implications for nonhuman beings are as obvious as they are unfortunate.

On the positive side, however, great progress has been made in overcoming might-makes-right and familiarity bias over the past 400 years in what are now our liberal democracies. A live burning of a heretic or “witch” is now considered morally unacceptable. Chattel slavery, and the abuse and murder accepted with it, has been abolished. Wage slavery of the 19th century and early 20th century has been reformed. Women are permitted to vote and are no long expected to shut up and stay in the kitchen. Could animals be the next group admitted to the moral community by acknowledgement of their important interests which they hold as much as we do by way of certain morally relevant characteristics, such as, consciousness, awareness, and sentience? If we make the same progress during the next 100 or 200 years that we did during the past 200 years, future generations will look on our ignorance in a very similar way to how we look at the ignorance of previous generations of heretic burners and slave breakers.

Here and Now Bias

We tend to have a bias for empathic distress when the victim is in front of us at the present moment. The abuse and horror (i.e. distress) that nonhuman animals experience is generally here-and-now only for those habituated to directly generating the distress. The primary economic forces of the abuse and horror are derived from the consumer of animal products, who is almost never exposed to the horror story behind the eggs, meat, or glass of milk they consume. This ignorance is an unspoken “don’t ask, don’t tell” deal between the producers of animal products and the consumers, including mass media. It is a well-known saying among animal rights supports that “if slaughterhouses had glass walls (and we knew of the torture and slaughter in the milk and egg industries), we’d all be vegan.”

Animal advocates must continue to display the inconvenient truth about what goes on in the sheds, feedlots, labs, transportation vehicles, and slaughterhouses to combat the here-and-now bias. We also have to remind people that just because we don’t see it in our daily lives, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Also, it is extremely important to narrow down the focus to the heartbreaking stories of individual chickens, pigs, cows, and other nonhumans who have been severely abused in animal agriculture to use the here-and-now bias in the favor of the animals. Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary (see link on this blog) does a terrific job at leveraging the here-and-now bias in every form of advocacy they do: sanctuary tours, blog entries, billboards, and newspaper advertisements are almost always about individual nonhuman beings.

Empathy and Moral Principles

Moral principles, based on reasoning and cognitive function, have sometimes been criticized as being “cold”, and therefore, not morally motivating. Others have disagreed and claimed that moral principles are highly motivating. To me, it seems to depend on the person as to whether reason or emotions are more morally motivating. Regardless, when empathy is combined with moral principles, the moral principles tend to regulate or moderate empathic distress to a more appropriate level, thereby reducing the chances of empathic over- or under-arousal. Although I’m very much on the cognitive moral principles side of the principles/empathy dichotomy, this moderating effect (i.e. increasing empathic distress in under-arousal cases and decreasing it in over-arousal cases) seems to me to be a good reason for those advocates who lean more on the empathy side to include moral principles and reasoning in their education and advocacy.


Hoffman’s theory tells us much about the “emotional side” of morality and some of the strengths and limitations of empathy and its influence on moral behavior. Empathic distress generally has to overcome egoistic motives for moral behavior to occur. Hoffman believes that empathy is an evolutionary trait; and like other evolutionary traits, such as cognitive ability, it is likely on a bell-curve distribution, with some of us having more empathic capacity than others. Empathy also has other limitations, such as over- and under-arousal, habituation, and bias. Despite its limitations, empathy can be a powerful force for moral motivation. It is well worth the efforts of animal rights advocates to generate the empathic distress which comes naturally to most people when faced with the horrific realities of life for tens of billions of innocent nonhuman beings who are thrown into the hell of animal agriculture. There’s a reason industry (including the cage-free and free-range sectors) does not and will not open its doors to mass media or for general public inspection. There’s a reason why we don’t see mass media coverage of the animals’ lives: the empathic distress would be overwhelming, would cause significant moral conflict throughout society and eventually would lead to changes in what we choose to eat. A widespread vegan trend in society would alleviate much of this unimaginable hell. We can each, as individuals, internalize veganism as the moral imperative that it is.

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The Development of Moral Reasoning: Kohlberg’s Stages (Part 2 of 4)

This essay is the second in a series of four essays on moral psychology and development.

Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development has its roots primarily in Jean Piaget’s two-phase theory of moral judgment in children and secondarily in John Dewey’s three-stage theory of moral development. Piaget’s first phase is that of young children who see rules as fixed and absolute and handed down from an authority; and who also base moral judgments more on consequences than intention. By contrast, older children in Piaget’s second phase see rules as more relative and changeable, somewhat like a malleable social construct; and base moral judgments more on intention than consequences. John Dewey’s three-stage theory consisting of impulsive, group-conforming, and reflective stages is what led Kohlberg to the three levels of pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional.

Kohlberg’s Research Method

Kohlberg, over at least 20 years, interviewed or had other qualified researchers interview several dozens of people ranging from childhood to adulthood and across cultures. The questions were based on a series of moral dilemmas, with follow up questions for various types of responses. Kohlberg was interested in the reasoning behind the moral judgment, not the conclusion itself. To check the reliability of the scoring of responses, Kohlberg would have multiple researchers score the same responses. Kohlberg found the consistency of the score determination to be high among the researchers.

The Six Stages

Level I: Pre-Conventional Morality

Stage 1: Punishment and Obedience

Stage 1 is the morality of young children. An act is wrong because you’ll get punished. Punishment is what makes it wrong. Rules are handed down from an all-powerful authority and are to be unquestionably obeyed. At this stage, there is no realistic concept of morality.

Stage 2: Self-Interest and Fair Deals

Stage 2 is the morality of older children and unfortunately, many adults, especially in highly competitive occupations (certain corporate executives, most career politicians, and certain professionals) at least while they’re engaging in their occupations (they may move up to Stage 3 in family matters). At this stage, morality is relative to the self-interest of the deal maker and punishment is just a risk we want to avoid. We may exchange or return favors, but only if the continued relationship is worth carrying on from a self-interested point of view. There is no sense of community or even any substantial sense of morality, just self-interest and deal making.

Level II: Conventional Morality

Stage 3: Good Relationships

At Stage 3, people become genuinely concerned about good intentions and the well-being of their family and friends. The circle of concern, however, does not go much beyond kin selection. The moral community is small at this stage and is made up of those we know and trust. This stage is common in small, isolated villages and among tribal people. This stage is also common in many nonhuman animals, such as chimpanzees and dogs.

Stage 4: Social Order

Stage 4 is about law and order, respecting authority, and maintaining the coherence of society as a whole. A typical Stage 4 comment is, “If everyone acted in self-interest and broke the law, we’d have chaos.” At this stage, what is moral is what society (including most religious groups, e.g. the Bible or the law) says is moral. As we shall see more clearly after covering stages 5 and 6, this is the level at which many adults in our current industrial societies eventually arrive and stay, especially if they are not in the more aggressive careers mentioned in Stage 2.

“Stage 4.5”: Moral Skepticism

Kohlberg noted in his longitudinal subjects (people he was testing more than once at various ages to look for stage progression) that some of them stated “principled-sounding” (i.e. stage 5 or 6) reasons in high school, but seemed to regress back to moral relativity (Stage 2) in college. Upon further questioning, these subjects seemed to be exploring meta-ethics and challenging the ultimate basis of morality, asking questions such as “Why be moral?” This moral skepticism often led them to adopt moral relativity as a solution to the problem.

What they hadn’t yet arrived at was the fact that moral relativity is inherently unstable through self-contradiction and an inherent moral degeneration into might-makes-right. Moral relativity is self-contradictory in the sense that if one person or society’s morals are as good as another, then moral absolutism is as good as moral relativity: an obvious contradiction. Also, if morals are relative, then we shouldn’t judge others’ morals; but then the morals which do judge other morals shouldn’t be judged either: another contradiction. Moral relativity degenerates into might-makes-right because it allows arbitrary judgments. If plainly arbitrary judgments are permitted at all, on what basis can we draw lines on how much arbitrariness is permitted? Certainly not consistent reason. Stage 2 might-makes-right (i.e. moral nihilism or universal amorality) is the logical conclusion.

The reasoning process of “Stage 4.5” is a prerequisite to advance to the “post-skeptical rationalism” of Stages 5 and 6. Otherwise, the “principled-sounding” reasons are likely little more than Stage 4 “received opinion” from Stage 5 or 6 mentors (e.g. parents or teachers) in high school. We need not spend any significant time at “Stage 4.5”, but we must genuinely think through “4.5” and reject it on rational grounds to prevent severe moral retardation at Stage 2.

Level III: Post-Conventional Morality

Post-conventional morality, particularly Stage 6, is the engine of all moral progress in civilization. By definition, post-conventional morality evaluates and challenges conventional morality from a higher and more impartial point of view. This level is the reason that the Church lost its “authority” to burn people alive for heresy, that we stopped burning “witches” alive, that liberal democracies formed, that chattel slavery was abolished, that women gained the right to vote, that federal civil rights laws were passed, and hopefully someday, that our society will eventually become vegan and give nonhuman animals the right to life and to be left alone. To most people, a vegan society sounds unrealistic now, but many of today’s realities sounded just as unrealistic 50 to 350 years ago.

Stage 5: Social and Individual Improvement and Individual Rights

Stage 5 is where people start to ask what makes for right action, a good individual, and a good society, without referring to their own society as a standard. People at Stage 5 think in terms of rights for individuals and democratic procedures in government for the improvement of laws.

Stage 6: Universal Principles

At Stage 6, universal principles of justice are the moral standard by which actions, individuals, and societies are judged. The philosophers Immanuel Kant [1] and John Rawls provide the theoretical framework of impartial, universal justice of Stage 6. Great moral leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King provide the spirit of Stage 6.

An example of the impartiality of Stage 6 is described by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice. An even better example and more impartial and universal description of Stage 6, since it avoids Rawls’s speciesism [2], is provided in Animals Like Us (an easy read written for the general reader) and Animal Rights: A Philosophical Defence (written for the philosopher), both by Mark Rowlands. Briefly, the description goes like this: we are asked to take an impartial perspective by assuming a “veil of ignorance” of what role we will have in the society or situation which we are evaluating. We are then asked to prescribe the policies or acts which would be most fair to all roles involved, knowing we could end up in any of those roles (including birth as a chicken, pig, etc). If the prescriptive policies or acts given are irrational under the veil of ignorance, then they are immoral in the real world.

Two principles are salient in Stage 6: the principle of equal consideration and the principle of desert. The principle of equal consideration requires us to give equal moral consideration to others to the extent that others have interests which are crucial or important to them, regardless of whether those interests are important to anyone else. The principle of desert, inherent in the idea of justice as fairness, is that we (including nonhuman animals) should get what we deserve. In considering what we deserve, we must consider what we are responsible for, or what is within our control, versus what we are not responsible for, or what is beyond our control. Circumstances of birth, such as mental capacity, capacity for moral agency, place of birth, race, sex, and species are clearly beyond our control; therefore we don’t have responsibility for those circumstances; therefore we don’t deserve to have our important interests (e.g. life, liberty, bodily integrity) ignored because of those circumstances; therefore we have basic moral rights protecting those important interests.

The Six Stages and Speciesism

Speciesism can exist and even thrive at Stages 1 – 4, thriving best at the lowest stages and starting to be slightly threatened at Stage 4. At Stage 5, speciesism is significantly more threatened because of the willingness to question society, but there is nothing at Stage 5 which is inherently antithetical to speciesism because universal principles of justice are not yet considered important or even necessary. Speciesism is inherently antithetical to Stage 6 moral reasoning due to Stage 6’s impartiality and universality in the application of justice. If we engage in genuine and careful Stage 6 reasoning, we cannot avoid landing in the middle of a strong animal rights paradigm.

The most significant reason that animal rights is currently “on the fringe” of current society is that a vast majority of people, perhaps around 99% of the population, are dwelling in Stages 2 through 5, at least in behavior, if not also in reasoning. Even when animal rights advocates reason with non-vegans at Stage 6, there are other factors, such as cultural and psychological influences (primarily habits), which cause non-vegans’ behavior to remain largely unchanged. Still, Stage 6 is the primary moral reasoning under which all previous social justice movements succeeded. Stage 6 thought also entails animal rights, and at this point, the best animal rights advocates can do is to continue to repeat Stage 6 principles to non-vegans until these principles penetrate the social barrier of conventional-level morality as they have in the past for freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from witch trials, freedom from chattel slavery, women’s suffrage, and civil rights.


[1] For an excellent analysis on why Kant’s universality entails moral consideration of animals while Kant failed to live up to his own idea of universality in this regard and other ways, see Tom Regan’s classic 1983 work, The Case for Animal Rights, pages 174 to 185. For 18th century cultural prejudices and ignorance Kant was likely a victim of, see the September 2007 essay in this blog entitled, “Present Realities and the Moral Status of Animals.” Kant’s universality is a Stage 6 concept, but Kant was not a Stage 6 thinker in the application of his universality.

[2] We might reasonably ask, if John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice provides a Stage 6 framework for impartiality, and Stage 6 entails animal rights, then why didn’t John Rawls argue for animal rights? Tom Regan examines this contradiction in Rawls’s thought in The Case for Animal Rights in significant detail.

Rawls is considerably ambiguous and equivocal not only on the issue of what duties, if any, we owe to nonhuman animals, but even on the issue of what duties, if any, we owe to moral patients (i.e. those incapable of moral reasoning, but capable of benefiting from the moral behavior of moral agents). In an essay written prior to A Theory of Justice, Rawls claims, in so many words, that moral agency (e.g. the ability to have a sense of justice) is required to qualify as an object of direct duties of justice. In other words, we have no direct duties of justice to moral patients (e.g. very young children, the mentally ill or disabled, the senile or nonhuman animals). Rawls backs off of this position in A Theory of Justice, but is still ambiguous and equivocal about direct duties to sentient nonhumans. Regan, from pages 163 to 174 in The Case for Animal Rights, analyzes Rawls’s position quite carefully and charitably, and in the process, shows how Rawls grossly misapplies and contradicts his own theory when it comes to nonhuman animals. Essentially, Regan shows in detail how setting up Rawls’s “original position” so as to exclude nonhuman animals is no different (i.e. no less arbitrary) than setting up the original position so as to exclude certain racial or ethnic groups or to exclude everyone except white, propertied males. Rawls’s theory of justice is a Stage 6 framework, but Rawls was not a Stage 6 thinker in the application of his theory.

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