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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