In Defense of the Term “Moral Schizophrenia”


Professor Gary Francione has coined the term “moral schizophrenia” to refer to the difference between what we as a society say we believe about animals and how we actually behave toward animals. We say that we recognize that animals are sentient and therefore deserve moral consideration and freedom from “unnecessary” suffering, but we often behave toward them as insentient things and treat them in ways that are diametrically opposed to any moral consideration of their interests whatsoever.

Critics of Gary Francione, however, have occasionally expressed their disapproval of the term moral schizophrenia, saying that the phrase is inappropriate for various reasons which I’ll disclose shortly.

To the best of my knowledge, Gary Francione has not written or spoken specifically in defense of the term moral schizophrenia, other than to briefly explain what he means by it, and if he has made a more elaborate defense, I have not read or heard of it. This essay, therefore, is exclusively my view and opinion on this matter, and I do not intend in any way to write on behalf of Professor Francione, who is more than capable of defending the term himself and in his own words, if he so chooses.

I have two motivations for making this term the topic of an essay: 1) To provide a defense of this term primarily by clarifying misunderstandings about its appropriateness and effectiveness in describing our society’s relationship to nonhumans; and 2) To emphasize that our relationship to other species is morally diseased and, like a typical serious disease, causes tremendous misery.

I will start by stating the critics’ complaints against the use of “moral schizophrenia” in the best light possible. I will then defend the use of the phrase by both rebutting the critics’ complaints and by providing additional reasons why the phrase is both appropriate and effective.

The Critics’ Complaints

The primary complaint that I’ve read against the use of the term moral schizophrenia is that clinical schizophrenia is a widely misunderstood organic disease of the brain characterized by feelings of paranoia, auditory hallucinations, and disorganized speech and thinking which cause social isolation and related problems. Using the term “schizophrenia” in contexts that don’t properly refer solely to the clinical disease itself is inappropriate and perpetuates common misunderstandings, adds to the pejorative and incorrect stereotype, and negatively affects the lives of sufferers of the disease, their families, friends, and caretakers. Further, if our relationship to nonhumans is really an organic disease like the term implies, then we are better off looking for organic and chemical treatments rather than engaging in social justice advocacy and education.

A secondary complaint is that the phrase is alienating and possibly even offensive to potential vegans. A related complaint is that while the term may be a catchy way of capturing our society’s morally confused relationship to animals, it is catchy for the wrong reason – that is, it takes advantage of a derogatory misrepresentation of the word.

A Rebuttal

The critics are correct that the most common meaning of the term “schizophrenia” (without the word “moral” qualifying it) is, to quote Webster’s College Dictionary, “a severe mental disorder associated with brain abnormalities and typically evidenced by disorganized speech and behavior, delusions, and hallucinations.”

Where the critics are mistaken is that 1) this is the only meaning the word can or should ever have, and 2) using the word in any other context than in the clinical context “adds to the misunderstanding and negative stereotypes of the disease” or must be “pejorative and inappropriate”.

The word schizophrenia is derived from Greek origins where schizo- means “split” and -phrenia means “mind.” Indeed, Webster’s College Dictionary has four other entries with non-pejorative meanings starting with the combining form schizo- meaning “split” or “fission” (five entries if one includes the combining form itself as an entry in the dictionary):

1) schizocarp: a dry fruit that at maturity splits into two or more one-seeded carpels;
2) schizogony: the multiple fission of a trophozoite or schizont into merozoites;
3) schizoid: of or pertaining to a personality disorder marked by dissociation, passivity, and indifference to praise or criticism, or of or pertaining to schizophrenia or to multiple personality; and
4) schizont: a cell developed from a trophozoite, which undergoes multiple fission to form merozoites.

The comparison of both the etymology and parts of the outward symptoms of schizophrenia with our split mind, dissociation (i.e. compartmentalization), and incongruent behavior regarding animals, and our distorted perception of and/or indifference toward the reality of life for nonhuman beings are striking in their resemblance.

For example, many of us love our dogs and consider them as part of the family, while, with the help of a split and compartmentalized mind produced by acculturation, we simultaneously stick a fork into the flesh of an animal who was every bit as sentient and interested in continued existence as our dog or our three year-old child. When faced with the harsh reality of how animal products are produced, many of us recoil at or are indifferent toward such reality and deny, disconnect, and dissociate as psychological defense mechanisms in order to continue with our acculturated habits. We also look to others in our society suffering from the same split mind, indifference, and compartmentalization and take consolation that we’re not the only ones who deny and disconnect from the reality of animal agriculture (including free range, grass-fed, cage free, and all of the special marketing labels designed to mitigate our cognitive dissonance).

The critics also imply, if not state explicitly, that where clinical schizophrenia is an organic disease, our relationship with nonhumans is not such a disease, and should not be compared to one. While the critics are correct that our societal and personal relationships to nonhumans (i.e. our moral schizophrenia) are not organic diseases of the brain, they are incorrect if they assume that our nonhuman relationships are not a severe moral and cultural disease that causes the symptoms of unimaginable suffering, deplorable environmental degradation, and widespread obesity, high cholesterol, and other serious health problems. Although clinical versus moral schizophrenia refer to two very different conditions: one organic, neurobiological, and chemical, and the other moral and cultural, both are very serious problems that cause vast suffering. Nobody is trivializing schizophrenia or using it in a derogatory or pejorative way by applying the concept of “split mind” and dissociation/compartmentalization to our treatment and use of animals. Indeed, the pain and misery nonhuman beings endure is beyond our imagination in its severity and quantity – it is anything but trivial.

Further, our language is nuanced enough that intelligent people can discern that we are not “poking fun at schizophrenics” when we use the term “moral schizophrenia”, but rather are saying that our moral relationship to nonhumans is very confused, rationally inconsistent, and diseased and is rooted in, again, a morally split mind (the difference in what we say and do; and the difference in the moral status of a dog versus that of a chicken or pig when any such difference is not based on relevant criteria) that is disconnected from reality (the reality of animal agriculture and slaughterhouses versus how we say we believe animals should be treated). Our society is morally diseased in its treatment of nonhumans.

Finally, I cannot speak for others, but when I first encountered the phrase moral schizophrenia in Gary Francione’s Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog, I did not find it at all offensive or confusing. I knew what Francione meant by the term: a morally split mind and moral compartmentalization – what we say versus what we do; how we treat a dog versus how we treat a chicken. In fact, Gary doesn’t even go into a defense of the use of the term in the book presumably because it seems that it would be obvious to most readers who know the word’s general meaning and etymological roots and see the qualifier “moral” why he uses it after they read the first two paragraphs of the first chapter of the book. The use of the word is rhetorical, but it is not derogatory or pejorative. Further, any intelligent and reasonable person would conclude that Gary is clearly not referring to the clinical, organic disease, but to the inconsistencies to which he refers in the context of the book. It seems to me that any confusion on this matter is something manufactured by those critical of Gary Francione’s abolitionist approach in general.

Real Misuse of Words

Ironically, I imagine that some of the people who criticize the use of the term “moral schizophrenia” take the unwarranted liberty of using terms like “humane” and “compassionate” and “conscientious” to refer to the slaughter and exploitation of animals. If there are any words being tossed around a bit too loosely, it would be “humane” and “compassionate”, no? How about “humane rapist”? How about “compassionate gas chamber”? Note that the etymology and meaning of schizophrenia connotes a split between our words and/or actions. Humane, conscientious, and compassionate do not connote anything having to do with killing and simply don’t belong in the same semantic neighborhood as slaughter and exploitation.

The Solution

If critics don’t like the use of a term like “moral schizophrenia”, the optimal solution is to eliminate the condition from society. If we live in a vegan society, all we can say is that there was a time when we suffered from moral schizophrenia regarding our relationship with nonhuman beings, but that time is past us. If you are not vegan, then go vegan. If you are vegan, try to persuade others to go vegan also. It’s easy; it’s healthy; it’s consistent with what we say we believe about nonhuman beings; and it’s the right thing to do.

Edit to add on August 5, 2008:

I received an email today from Bea Elliott that included this video. The video communicates our society’s moral “split mind” quite well. Go vegan and cure moral schizophrenia.

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