Category Archives: moral psychology

On Veganism and Being Fully Human

Those who accept speciesism often do so because they believe humans “superior” on the basis of rationality and empathy, but in a terrible twist of irony, reject all rationality and empathy in refusing to acknowledge sentience as the morally relevant characteristic on which to base inclusion in the moral community. In refusing to apply such rationality and empathy, they behave far worse than the nonhuman animals toward whom they feel so superior: They are like an odd bird who has functioning wings, but refuses to fly when it is appropriate to do so.

Those who reject speciesism apply that rationality and empathy – ever so exalted but forgotten in speciesism – in acknowledging sentience as the morally relevant characteristic on which to base inclusion in the moral community. Lifelong veganism is the natural outcome of such rationality and empathy. Being a vegan is what it means to be fully human; to live up to one’s potential in accordance with the rationality and empathy that are supposedly strong human traits.

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On Chance, Choice, and Character

We live in a world of cause and effect. [1] Every act we carry out in our lives – from deciding on our life’s path to scratching an itch – is caused by prior events ranging in significance from our birth circumstances to the whirl and buzz of billions of neurons generating a decision. Within such a world, there are various genetic, social, and environmental determinants of our thought, emotion, speech, and action, many of them far beyond our control.But can we play a role in this continuous causal process? Can we avoid being virtual automatons molded by resourceful advertising agencies, public relations firms, mass media, pundits, and others? Can we take charge of our lives and assume more responsibility for designing and implementing who we are and are not? Of course we can, and recognizing our starting point and the on-going influences in our lives can help us self-determine our character, habits, and behavior as we go forward.

The Birth Lottery

All sentient beings, human and nonhuman, are born into the world as we are and through no choice, cause, or fault of our own. As such, who we are – who you are – is overwhelmingly dependent on the birth lottery. Despite this fact, most of us live our lives as if we somehow “earned” the situations, abilities, rights, and privileges we accidentally inherited. Even more arrogantly, most of us live as if those who we exploit in our food, clothing, and other choices deserve none of the rights and other benefits we inherited, and even more so, deserve the enslavement, brutality, and premature death that we inflict on them through blithe or callous choices.

Part of the reason for such moral weakness is that we have evolved as self-protecting, egocentric, and greedy organisms. We are genetically designed to think, react, speak, and act in ways that serve us or our species. Whatever genetically-caused altruism we were born with, it very likely evolved only to the extent of its adaptive benefits or at least to the extent that it was harmless to our species.

Since we did not cause our genes to evolve the way they did, we are not responsible for the resulting aspect of our natural inclination toward self-centered injustice and violence. But merely being aware of our genetic conditioning can help us in overcoming it.

Social Conditioning

All human beings, and most non-human beings, are also born into a social world inhabited by other individuals and institutions that mold our attitudes, thoughts, emotions, and actions. Who we are – who you are – is dependent, to a far lesser extent than the birth lottery, on specific social conditioning. [2] We are also strongly influenced by genetics to conform to our social environment and to be easily molded by others, especially in our youth. Indeed, humans are likely the most socially dependent animals on Earth. This social dependency is both physical and psychological, and while it is greatest while we’re young, it lasts our entire lifetime.

Social conditioning is often so strong that people equate it with morality itself. Ranking fourth on Kohlberg’s six stages of moral development, many people define behavior as “morally good” if and only if it leads to social approbation and “morally bad” if and only if it leads to social rejection. As a result of this confusion between social conditioning and morality, the massive atrocities that humans have collectively engaged in throughout history, from genocides to brutal enslavement to animal agriculture, can be largely explained by social conditioning, both individually and collectively. [3]

As an example, many people feel good criticizing or ridiculing veganism because it is socially acceptable to be an outspoken speciesist in a way that it is not acceptable to be even a mild racist (despite these two prejudices being identical in substance). If these people lived in a society that took speciesism as seriously as racism, they would find such speciesist behavior deplorable. The average speciesist attitude of today, if it were a racist attitude, would consist of treating a race of people as an expendable and renewable resource, and breeding and slaughtering them by the billions annually. The violence associated with average speciesism is far worse than the violence associated with extreme racism.

Natural Authenticity

For some of us, genetics favoring social conformity are not as strong as in the majority of people. We are naturally inclined toward existential questions about authenticity and self-definition. We’re open to not only considering paths less traveled, but taking those paths with enthusiasm. We realize that, because we live in a world of cause-and-effect, we can make choices enabling us to define meaning in our lives and implement our definition – to make our lives and character a continuous and improving work of art.


While it may be more difficult for people who are starting with a strong genetic disposition for social conformity, or who have been habitually conforming for decades, it is possible for almost anyone to break free of social conditioning. It is never too late, as Bertrand Russell once said, to “hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” It is never too late to define or re-define ourselves; to look critically at the habits that make up our existing character, including destructive and defeating paradigms; to aspire toward improved character and personal growth paradigms; and to implement our self-definition to become stronger, gentler, more self-reliant, and happier people.

A Continuous, Lifelong Process

There are at least a few metaphors that describe the process of defining, implementing, and re-defining one’s character. We can look at our life as a continuous work of art: molding clay; sculpting stone; or painting a canvas. It is said that Michelangelo commented about the statue of David that he saw David in the stone and carved away everything that was not David. We can look at our life as a building, continuously being improved: designing it; re-designing it; remodeling it; renovating part of it; adding an addition. We can look at our life as computer software: envisioning its purpose; designing the program; re-designing the program; writing the program; running the program; de-bugging the program.

Whatever metaphor we use (or don’t use), the point is that we are responsible for ourselves from the examination and visionary stage to design to implementation and re-design. Yes, we live in a world of cause and effect, but we can choose the causes that mold our character – our collection of habits and behaviors – and that makes all the difference between being a virtual automaton molded by advertising and public relations agencies and others in our amoral, consumerist culture versus being an autonomous, self-reliant, self-defining person who regularly questions the status quo in a continuous effort of improvement.

A Natural Effect

After spending sufficient time examining our origins, social conditioning, character, habits, and behavior, we begin to realize, among other things, how the birth lottery and social conditioning – 100% pure luck – has entirely created our starting point. In realizing our fate along with the fate of billions of other sentient beings – whose lives are as important to them as our lives are to us – we see ourselves in them. We see that ultimately, pure luck is the only difference between us and “them”. There, but for the turn of fate, go I. We begin to deeply empathize with other sentient beings who, at a very fundamental level, are no different from ourselves – they all strive, often desperately, for life and comfort. And because we have the power to question and change ourselves and our behavior and habits, we embrace veganism and give a strong voice to those innocent “others” who, through no fault of their own, were not born with the ability to join us in fighting for their freedom from the tyranny of greed and ignorance.


[1] See Determinism in Human Behavior and Its Implications for Advocacy in this blog.

[2] The birth lottery, because it determines our species and genetics, where we are born, when we are born, and who our parents and teachers are, is far more of an influence on us than social conditioning, per se.

[3] Enslavement, genocides, and similar atrocities seem to be far more a direct product of social conditioning than genetics, per se. Genetic evolution explains why we are a violent species in general and so easily influenced by social conditioning, but it is the social conditioning itself that leads to widespread social acceptance of atrocities. Atrocities are not universal phenomena among humans, but occur frequently in reaction to certain political and social conditions.

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Rational Ignorance and Rational Irrationality


Why is it that so many otherwise informed, intelligent, rational people are uninformed and epistemically irrational when it comes to their knowledge and beliefs about human-nonhuman relations, veganism, and animal rights? Why aren’t otherwise informed people knowledgeable about the atrocities in animal agriculture and other areas of animal use? Why do animal rights advocates hear so many absurd and implausible objections to animal rights and veganism? Why are the best arguments against animal rights, put forth by professional philosophers, merely classic examples of confirmed prejudice and tortured logic? [1]I believe a good explanation can be found in two ideas generated in the field of economics during the past 60 years: rational ignorance and rational irrationality. There are several sources of information on these two ideas, but the primary resource I’ve used for this essay is “Why People Are Irrational about Politics” by Michael Huemer, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. For those who are interested, another interesting paper on the topic is “Rational Ignorance versus Rational Irrationality” by Bryan Caplan, 2001. The purpose of this essay is to introduce these two ideas and apply them specifically to objections to veganism and animal rights. [2]

The Prevalence of Disagreement

Professor Huemer starts out his paper on the topic noting that political disagreement (and moral and religious disagreement) is very widespread, strong, and persistent. That is, any randomly-chosen two people are likely to disagree about many issues; they are likely to be very confident that they are right; and long discussions or rational argument is unlikely to bring them to agreement.

Why don’t we have such widespread, strong, and persistent disagreements in subjects like mathematics or science? While there are disagreements in these other subjects, the frequency, intensity of conviction, and tenacity do not compare to politics, morality, and religion. After this brief introduction, Professor Huemer considers four theories [2] of why there is so much strong and persistent disagreement in politics, and concludes that while there are several reasons for it, the most important factor is “rational irrationality” where “rationality” in the first term is referring to instrumental rationality (i.e. the “means-ends” or purely self-interested kind of rationality that economists refer to) and “rationality” in the second term is referring to epistemic rationality (i.e. the disinterested kind of rationality that seeks only truth, regardless of the implications of the truth).

Rational Ignorance

The economic theory of rational ignorance holds that people often rationally choose to remain ignorant of a topic because the perceived utility value of the knowledge is low or even negative. For an example of where perceived utility value is low, consider what you will gain from going through the time and trouble of knowing the specific voting records of all the politicians who represent you. You won’t gain much. The fact is that the next politician elected will be the person who the other tens or hundreds of thousands of voters in your district voted for.

For an example where the perceived utility value is negative, consider what you will gain from knowing exactly what happened to the chickens who laid the eggs you purchased or were slaughtered for lunch today. If you have a conscience, it will likely ruin the meal for you, and may affect the way you see your eating habits in general. In the instrumental, purely self-interested sense of the word “rational”, it is irrational to want to know what happened to the sentient beings who were tortured and slaughtered for your next meal.

This explains why vegans, when we start to gently introduce the plight of ‘food’ animals to non-vegans, so often get a response along the lines of “Stop, I don’t want to know”. It’s not that we’re about to bore our non-vegan associate with the voting records of a dozen politicians (a perceived low utility value), it’s that the non-vegan is insisting on maintaining (instrumental, self-interested) rational ignorance in the face of highly disturbing information that bears heavily on certain decisions we make about three times a day (perceived negative utility value).

Rational Irrationality

Similarly, the economic theory of rational irrationality holds that it is often rational, in a purely self-interested, economic sense, to adopt epistemically irrational beliefs because the cost of epistemically rational beliefs exceeds the benefits of adopting them. So if I accept epistemically irrational beliefs against animal rights – for example, that sentient nonhumans don’t feel pain or that their pain doesn’t matter as much as human pain “because they’re not human” or that we’ll be overrun by billions of cows, pigs, and chickens if we stop slaughtering them – I bear none of the cost of accepting such absurd beliefs.

Rational irrationality makes two assumptions: 1) that individuals have, as Huemer puts it “. . .non-epistemic belief preferences (otherwise known as ‘biases’). That is, there are certain things people want to believe, for reasons independent of the truth of those propositions or how well they are supported by the evidence.”; and 2) that individuals exercise some control over their beliefs. Quoting Huemer again, “Given the first assumption, there is a “cost” to thinking rationally—namely, that one may not get to believe the things one wants to believe. Given the second assumption (and given that individuals are usually instrumentally rational), most people will accept this cost only if they receive greater benefits from thinking rationally.” Since individuals don’t perceive any personal benefit from being epistemically rational about animal rights and veganism, we can predict that they will often choose to be epistemically irrational about animal rights and veganism. (Huemer draws this conclusion regarding only political issues generally.)

Huemer points out that some people will highly value epistemic rationality itself, and therefore will be epistemically rational about political issues (and in our case here, animal rights and veganism). But there’s no reason to think everyone (or even most people) will have this value preference.

Non-epistemic Belief Preferences (i.e. Biases)

So what are some of the specific sources of non-epistemic belief preferences (biases and prejudices)? Huemer suggests four, although qualifies the suggestions by noting that a comprehensive answer would require extensive psychological study. I will significantly modify the details of Huemer’s suggestions to apply them to animal rights and veganism.

Self-Interested Bias

Due in large part to persistent marketing by the food industry, the confused message of new welfarists, and the anti-animal rights countermovement, most people falsely perceive veganism as ‘difficult’ at best, and at worst, hold a caricature of veganism as a diet consisting of ‘rabbit food’ (with mental images of barely surviving on things like iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, and carrots). Regardless of how delightful vegan food really is, and how much vegan junk food there is, and how many substitutes there are these days for our formerly favorite animal products, it is ultimately the perception of ‘difficulty’ that represents a ‘cost’ of going vegan. Of course, the greater the perception of ‘difficulty’ is; the greater is the perceived ‘cost’. And the greater the perceived ‘cost’ is; the greater is the likelihood of rational ignorance and rational irrationality.

Beliefs as Tools of Social Bonding

Most people want to go along with the beliefs of people who they like and associate with on a regular basis. Although veganism is becoming increasingly more common and widely accepted in most social groups, many people are afraid of the social consequences of becoming a vegan. They may fear being challenged or even ridiculed about their decision. They may fear awkward social situations or the loss of friends. These fears of social consequences (regardless of whether they are justified or not) can be powerful motivations for rational ignorance and rational irrationality regarding veganism and animal rights.

Beliefs as Self-Image Constructors

People generally want to adopt beliefs that support the self-image they want to maintain and project. If animal rights and veganism doesn’t fit the preconceived self-image for whatever reason, then rational ignorance and rational irrationality about animal rights and veganism are likely to occur.

Coherence Bias

People usually prefer to hold beliefs that fit well with their other beliefs. Someone who believes X as an evaluative proposition will likely be biased in favor of descriptive propositions or other evaluative propositions that support X. This tendency to prefer coherence can be either epistemically rational (unbiased) or irrational (biased). For example, one will prefer an epistemically rational (unbiased) coherence when one is genuinely and disinterestedly seeking epistemically sound beliefs. Contrarily, one will often prefer an epistemically irrational (biased) coherence when one is seeking ways of ‘justifying’ a self-serving belief by adopting erroneous premises that fit a self-serving (but epistemically false) conclusion.

Coherence bias is, by far, the most interesting bias in the case of animal rights and veganism and deserves its own essay. Why? Because arguably, the most wildly incoherent set of beliefs in our society is most people’s beliefs regarding sentient nonhuman beings. Further, people go to great lengths in rational ignorance and rational irrationality to cover up this incoherence born of bias.

Consider that so many of us love and coddle the family dog, or even a stranger’s dog (familiarity with the dog generally doesn’t matter) and then stick a fork in the equally sentient tortured chicken or drink the milk of the raped and slaughtered cow, who lost her calf to the veal industry. This is a classic example of an incoherence of evaluative beliefs that is wildly irrational epistemically. How do we cope with this epistemic incoherence that we’d normally scoff at? We cope with it via rational ignorance (“Stop, I don’t want to know what happens to the (‘food’) animals”) and rational irrationality (“They’re bred for food.” “What would happen to the millions of cows if we didn’t milk and slaughter them?” [and dozens of other epistemically irrational objections]).

Non-epistemic Belief Preferences Supported by Mechanisms of Belief Fixation

Huemer suggests that perhaps we cannot believe obviously false propositions at will, but we can still manage to exercise substantial control over our political beliefs (and in our case, resistance to veganism and animal rights). He suggests a few mechanisms by which we exercise such control.

Biased Weighting of Evidence

If we attribute slightly more weight to pieces of evidence supporting our preferred beliefs and slightly less weight to pieces of evidence against our preferred beliefs, the cumulative effect of these small biases in weighting evidence can be substantial.

Selective Attention and ‘Rationalization’

We tend to pay more attention to our beliefs and the ideas supporting them than we do to alternative beliefs. Also, as I discussed in the essay Understanding the Anti-Animal Rights Viewpoint, we tend to look to non-epistemically preferred beliefs as a conclusion and work backwards to find ‘premises’, ‘reasons’, or ‘rationalizations’ for the conclusion. When we encounter evidence supporting our non-epistemically preferred conclusion, we tend to accept it at face value. When we encounter evidence against our preferred conclusion, we tend to scrutinize it for what is ‘wrong’. Rational ignorance and rational irrationality are often the result.

We also tend to read and interact with sources we already agree with, and these sources are a steady stream of ‘evidence’ supporting our non-epistemic preferred beliefs. Indeed, one of the common complaints heard among people who are genuinely looking for solutions to society’s problems is that most people are buried in information they already agree with. So there is plenty of dialogue, but the vast majority of it is clustered within specific causes with very little productive dialogue with ‘outsiders’. And it’s not just those concerned with a specific cause who contribute to this isolated bubble effect, but the ‘outsiders’ are generally indifferent and often involved in their own isolated bubble.

Intelligence and Belief Fixation

One might think a high degree of intelligence or education would protect a person from holding on to false beliefs, but this is not necessarily the case. As Huemer points out, the highly intelligent or highly educated person often uses her or his intelligence or education as tools to find more support for non-epistemically preferred beliefs. Where a less intelligent or educated person might give up and admit error, the highly intelligent or educated person has more drive and resources to prop up false beliefs.

The relationship of intelligence and bias to finding out the truth of a matter are as follows: 1) high intelligence and low bias yield the best prospects at obtaining truth; 2) low intelligence and low bias yield good prospects at obtaining truth; 3) low intelligence and high bias yield poor prospects at obtaining truth; and 4) high intelligence and high bias yield the worst prospects at obtaining truth.

Irrationality Is a Big Problem

As Huemer concludes about irrationality regarding politics, so I conclude about irrationality regarding veganism and animals rights. That is, irrationality is the greatest problem we face. It is the greatest problem because it prevents us from solving other problems. It is analogous to an immune-deficiency disorder in health, where our methods of overcoming disease are diseased themselves. Rational ignorance and rational irrationality are widespread diseases of clear thinking and problem solving.

What Can We Do About It?

Like many problems and diseases, the first step to overcoming them is to recognize or admit that the problem exists, both in us and in others. Once we diagnose the problem, we can look for likely causes. We can ask ourselves what ulterior motives we have, or someone else has, for believing a certain claim. We can explore the beliefs underlying preferred beliefs to see what instrumental (self-interested) and epistemic (disinterested) reasons we have for believing what we believe.

Are there any biases from self-interest? For example, do we refuse to think rationally about veganism and animal rights because of preconceptions of what it might be like for us to be vegan? Do we believe something to reaffirm our desired self-image or to fit in with a social group? For example, do we refuse to think rationally about veganism because of a lack of self-esteem or fear of rejection? What do we really have to fear personally or socially – anything? Do we believe underlying claims because they are true or because they cohere well with other claims we want to believe? For example, do we accept irrational beliefs about nonhuman beings and their interests in not being exploited, tortured, and killed because they cohere well with our continued consumption of them and their reproductive products?

We can also make an effort to develop good thinking habits. We should hear or carefully consider both sides of an argument before accepting either side. We should become familiar with informal logic and common fallacies. When we feel inclined to assert a claim, we can ask what epistemic reasons we have for believing it, and also why we might want to believe the claim (independent of its truth). We should develop a higher degree of skepticism toward the beliefs that we suspect have ulterior motives, regardless of whether those ulterior motives are our own or someone else’s. Our first assumption, especially if there is an ulterior motive, such as profit or any conflict of interest, should be that the information provided to us is false, misleading, or incomplete, until we’ve subjected it to further scrutiny and verification. Such skepticism should not be merely applied to positive assertions, i.e. “X is true”, but also to negative assertions, i.e. “X is false” (in other words, proper skepticism is not just about avoiding erroneous acceptance, but equally about avoiding erroneous rejection).

Most of all, we should eliminate our ignorance about animal agriculture and be epistemically rational about it. We should face the facts with courage. Animal agriculture, regardless of what label it is marketed under (e.g. “free-range” or “humane certified”), is a deplorable business and we should know what we’re contributing to. Upon obtaining the facts about animal agriculture, we should beware of epistemically irrational attempts to ‘justify’ our participation in it. We should examine the issue impartially, with a particular effort to recognize our underlying motivations, if any, for accepting or rejecting certain descriptive or evaluative claims.

In the end, we should dispel ignorance; cultivate epistemic rationality; and go vegan as a result.



[1] For example: Carl Cohen’s “of-a-kind” argument is probably the strongest of an incredibly weak collection of arguments manufactured to attempt to ‘justify’ severe animal exploitation, but it is nothing more than confirmed prejudice (“yes, I’m a speciesist”) and a question-begging fallacy (Cohen’s “of-a-kind” premise does not logically connect to his conclusion that species is relevant; it merely begs the question by assuming species is relevant as a dogmatic ‘given’. If Cohen insists that he’s not assuming species, but only conceptual rationality, is relevant, then he must maintain that it’s morally permissible to force painful and lethal experiments on mentally-challenged humans. Logically, he cannot have it both ways.) Further, and most importantly, Cohen never establishes why possessing conceptual-symbolic rationality (as opposed to mere sentience and perceptual intelligence) would be necessary to an interest in one’s own well-being in the first place.

[2] In writing this essay, I have relied heavily on Professor Huemer’s paper since it effectively applies rational ignorance and rational irrationality, as well as many of their causes, to political disagreements in general; disagreement in animal rights and veganism being subsets of general moral and political disagreement. That said, I have also substantially ignored, diverged from, and added to sections of Huemer’s paper, so this essay should not at all be taken as representative of Huemer’s paper, and if one is interested in his paper, I encourage opening the link in the introduction to this essay and reading it.

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Determinism in Human Behavior and Its Implications for Advocacy

Part One

I am beginning this essay assuming the truth of determinism in human behavior, with a defense of determinism presented afterward in Part Two. My intention in this order of presentation is to immediately get to the primary point of the essay (in Part One) and leave the supporting argument for determinism at the end (in Part Two) for those who are interested in such elaboration or who have any doubts about the fact that human behavior is as determined as any phenomenon in the universe. If you find yourself frustrated at the undefended assumption of determinism in Part One, then you may want to read Part Two before reading Part One (which is the order that I originally wrote the essay in).

To start, I will define what I mean by determinism. Determinism in human behavior means that human behavior is caused by a person’s character, desires, and mental impulses, but that a person’s character, desires, and mental impulses are ultimately caused by events outside of that person’s control, such as genetic inheritance, neurobiological interactions, and environment, including the upbringing of the person, the educational opportunities, the culture and society, what happened in the past, from the past year or month to the past few minutes or seconds. This definition admits a “will” or a desire-that-produces-action, but it admits no “free will” or free desire. I will use the words determinism and causality interchangeably to mean approximately the same thing, with determinism referring to the more general state of the world and causality referring to more specific causal relationships.

What does such determinism imply for moral agency and responsibility? May we go out and do whatever we want and claim that we are not responsible for it?

Well, we already do go out and do whatever we want, so nothing has changed in that regard, given the above-stated definition of determinism. If we don’t go out on a killing rampage, it is because we’re not the kind of person who really wants to go out on a killing rampage, but if we were that kind of person (a fact about us that is ultimately out of our control), we would go out on a killing rampage and rationalize to ourselves that it was the appropriate thing to do. Nobody, whether the person is a torturer and mass-murderer or a non-vegan, does anything that they don’t rationalize as morally or otherwise acceptable. The sociopath, even if he realizes that society disapproves of his actions, believes that there are better reasons, morally or otherwise, for acting in his anti-social ways than for not acting in those ways.

What determinism implies for moral agency and responsibility is that we possess agency and responsibility within the range and to the degree that we are the type of person we are. If we are born the type of person who is easily influenced by society, not curious about the world, and lacks opportunity for expanding our horizons, we will be typical products of that society and our agency and responsibility will be restricted to that society’s norms. If we are born of a bad temperament and that temperament is amplified by a very hostile and violent environment, we will likely become violent sociopaths. If we are born with a kind temperament, more independent tendencies of mind, are not very easily influenced by our society, curious about the world, and have ample opportunity for exposure to philosophy, other eras, and other societies, we will likely be influenced by these differences and likely become a moral exemplar in our society. In short, we have subjective agency and responsibility within the psychological range of our given genetic and environmental background.

But isn’t it a contradiction of determinism to say that we have any agency and responsibility? Ultimately speaking, it is a contradiction, and we lack objective, ultimate agency and responsibility. But within the narrow range of our character, we do have responsibility that is essentially equivalent to our subjective sense of responsibility. Our sense of responsibility is the genuine feeling that we are free to do whatever we choose; that there are no external restrictions on our behavior. Our sense of responsibility is that subjective “freedom of action” that we feel when nothing external is stopping us from acting. We rationally deliberate on a course of action and choose plan B instead of plan A. That we were ultimately determined to pick plan B doesn’t matter in this limited, subjective sense of responsibility. We knowingly and willingly (but also determinedly) picked B instead of A, and we are, in that limited sense, subjectively responsible for the consequences of our choice. If we did not even have this limited subjective sense of responsibility, then words like “careful”, “prudent”, “foolish” and “reckless” would be meaningless. We can relate to the meaning of such words because of our subjective sense of responsibility, even though our actions are ultimately determined by our character and corresponding desires and impulses, which are ultimately determined by factors outside of our control.

Human Versus Nonhuman Agency and Responsibility

The only difference between the agency and responsibility of normal adult human beings versus conscious, sentient nonhuman beings is the possession by normal adult humans of abstract knowledge and intelligence, which is interrelated with and interdependent on language use. I use the phrase abstract intelligence because conscious, sentient nonhumans are highly intelligent in their non-abstract present moment experience, but they don’t think abstractly (e.g. mathematically, linguistically, far in the past, or far in the future). Nonhumans could not survive, especially in the wild, if it were not for their non-abstract intelligence. Some might call this non-abstract intelligence “instinct”, and instinct exists in us all, but to say there is no more to nonhumans than instinct is a serious failure to realize how non-abstractly intelligent nonhumans are. [1]

Because we (as normal adult humans) can learn abstractly and be psychologically and socially conditioned so much more due to our abstract intelligence and language use, our subjective moral agency and sense of responsibility can be significantly greater than nonhuman beings. However, to the extent that this capacity to learn and be conditioned has been left dormant, we are much closer to nonhuman beings in moral agency and sense of responsibility.

Unfortunately, our abstract intelligence and language use can also make our behavior monstrously cruel and immoral, far beyond the capacity of any nonhuman, especially when our agency and responsibility for moral behavior is diminished by living in an immoral society. We are highly social creatures – herd animals, if you will – and our inclination to follow the herd, at least for most of us, is one of our strongest psychological and instinctual drives, and sadly, for most of us, is also much stronger than any sense of morality. So when the herd engages in atrocities, most of us are all too willing to go along, or at least ignore it. In fact, the herd instinct of humans can be found underlying and significantly contributing to virtually all atrocities in history and the present: genocides, slavery, witch-burnings, and the moral status and uses of animals, including their property status and slaughter by the billions.

Many readers today will say, “Yeah, sure, the first three (genocide, slavery, witch-burning) are bad, but the moral status and use of animals is fine as it is.” I’ll just remind these readers that the societies and people engaging in the first three thought those were “fine as they were” also. Again, humans never engage in activity that we have not “rationalized” in some way. We see the atrocities of other societies and other times clearly, but we tend to be so very blind to the atrocities of our own society and time. Vegans may be upset with this moral blindness of our society until we realize that it is no different than being upset with Hurricane Katrina. Tragic and sad? Certainly it is tragic and sad, but inevitable in a blind, indifferent, and determined universe nevertheless.

Implications for Advocacy: The Importance of Causality

If we live in a blind, indifferent, and fully determined universe, does that mean we should merely accept that things are the way they are and do nothing about it? Certainly not. Pure determinism is pure causality, and although our actions are ultimately caused by our character and our character is ultimately caused by events outside our control, our actions are not without effects themselves. A corollary to determinism is that every action is not only an effect of something else, but it is also a cause of something else. Our actions in vegan and animal rights advocacy cause good effects. The only reason there has ever been any moral progress in the world, whether it be the abolition of slavery and witch-burning or the recognition of legal civil rights, is because of the effects of advocacy for such moral progress. We may not be able to change the course of a major hurricane’s path, but we can change and have changed humanity’s path over time.

Causality and determinism does imply that certain types and methods of advocacy will be far more effective than other types and methods of advocacy. It does imply that we cannot advocate for animal welfare – which merely entrenches the industrial owners and users of animals further in their property rights and gives consumers a false sense of comfort about consuming them – and expect abolition to ever come of it. There is no causal relationship between consumption of “happy” meat and going vegan. There is a causal relationship between vegan education and animal rights education and going vegan. We must advocate for veganism and the end, not the regulation, of animal use and ownership.

Finally, causality means that we should spend as much of our time as possible on open-minded people and avoid spending time and energy on never-evers. We must also try to avoid anger and frustration at the general state of the world and at those who don’t understand us, for in a determined world where we are not ultimately responsible for our character, it is very similar to being angry and frustrated at a person of lower mathematical intelligence for not understanding the algebra or calculus we are showing them. This is not to say there is any correlation of mathematical or any other kind of intelligence with moral character. Indeed, many people of the lowest moral character have been highly intelligent in one way or another, but severely lacking in moral intelligence. It is to say, however, that those of lower moral character are to be considered no more responsible for this unfortunate state of affairs than someone born and raised with some other defect. It is ultimately nothing more than bad luck.

People born and raised with lower moral character may be inspired to improve their moral character. Fortunately, moral character is just as malleable as other kinds of intelligence, and perhaps more so. But the initial motivation for improvement must occur naturally and cannot be caused by the victim who lacks it. If the initial motivation for improvement doesn’t exist or occur, determinism dictates that the morally challenged will remain so indefinitely until the sufficient external cause presents itself.

Implications of Determinism for Punishment

What about punishing those who are not ultimately responsible for their actions? In light of causality, punishment as a deterrent makes sense. It also makes sense to keep dangerous, violent beings (human or nonhuman) physically separate from trustworthy, nonviolent beings. Retributive punishment does not have justification in light of causality, but it does make living victims feel much better and brings psychological closure to living victims, due in part to the subjective sense of responsibility we experience and that we naturally project onto others. I see retributive punishment as a moral gray area to be decided on a case-by-case basis, and even then, it seems to be a matter of opinion, as it is in most gray areas, as to whether we did the right thing with respect to retributive punishment. We should try to err on the side of caution and clemency in retributive punishment.

Part Two

A Defense of Determinism

As promised in the first paragraph of this essay, the following section presents a defense of determinism.

In my experience and without exception, all phenomena are caused by something other than themselves. I have never witnessed anything or anyone as the cause of itself and I don’t expect to see any such miracles during my brief existence in the universe. The only conclusion that makes sense and coheres with firmly established scientific theory and empirical observation is that the universe has been an on-going process of unimaginably numerous, complex, and interrelated chains of causal relationships stretching back at least 13.5 billion years.

Some theories in physics (both classical and quantum) suggest “uncaused” randomness, but at this point in time, the theories seem to be too dependent on problematic philosophical interpretation to overthrow the overwhelming empirical evidence in other areas of science and in everyday life that there is a reason or cause behind every phenomenon. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It seems far more likely that we don’t know the whole story (perhaps including the best philosophical interpretation) in quantum mechanics and chaos theory than that these theories confirm “uncaused” randomness. I’ll keep an open mind for extraordinary evidence or epistemologically stronger interpretations to arise in the future, but for now, I remain a believer in an absolutely determined universe.

Determinism and Us

Given determinism in all areas where we are on the most solid epistemological ground, it seems that we have no reason to believe that humans stand outside of and/or above causality, despite our anthropocentric and egocentric propensity to think we’re special and transcendent. Indeed, we are just as determined as the weather: in some ways we are as predictable and in other ways we are as unpredictable, but always determined to the same degree. Even if there is an “uncaused” randomness in the functioning of our brains at some level within chaos theory or quantum mechanics, it would only mean that humans are determined by some “uncaused” random factors, not that humans are not determined.

Some of us might object that we don’t feel determined. It certainly seems that I’m choosing to write this essay now. If I want to stop writing and go remove snow from my deck or roof, there’s nothing stopping me. Compatibilism is the idea that since there is nothing external to us constraining our actions, we act freely. The compatibilist perspective accepts a determined universe, but defines freedom of action as the absence of external constraints on or causes of our action. In cases where we act without such external constraints or causes, we are said to act freely in an otherwise determined world. The compatibilist perspective makes sense subjectively. The compatibilist view is somewhat akin to the view that “the sun rises in the east and sets in the west”. We don’t feel Earth rotating, and it certainly appears that “the sun comes up and goes down”. So conventionally, we still talk that way even if we know that from an objective perspective, it isn’t correct.

The pure determinist perspective differs from the compatibilist perspective in defining freedom of action as the absence of both external and internal (character, psychological, neurological, and/or physiological) constraints on or causes of our action. From the pure determinist perspective, we are always under the influence of psychological constraints or causes (which are a combination of our particular neurobiology and life-long environment) for which we are not ultimately responsible. The compatibilist perspective maintains that we can take action to build our character and therefore “take responsibility” for our character. The pure determinist perspective maintains that before we build our character, we must be the kind of person who would desire or be motivated to build our character; which in turn depends again on our character, which in turn depends on our circumstances of birth (the brain and temperament we inherited) and our initial environment (parents and community), and other aspects of “moral luck” [2] that we did not choose and for which we are not ultimately responsible.

We acknowledged above that when we decide to do something, like stop writing and go shovel snow, the act appears to us to be completely free. But from the pure determinist perspective, we would have to acknowledge that we are determined by our impulses to act in certain ways at certain times, and that our impulses to commit or refrain from any given action at any given fraction of a second are determined by thoughts arising independently of our “willing” them to arise and, on a scale of which we’re not aware, neurological functioning (the electrochemical whirl and buzz of millions of neurons per second doing their life-long habitual routines without consulting us and about which we are utterly unaware). As to our actions in everyday life, we should also acknowledge significant factors such as our innate tendencies to scratch inches, to drink when we’re thirsty, to eat when we’re hungry or bored, and to generally react to the world according to our temperaments, our desire for pleasure and aversion to pain, our previous habits, what we have read or heard, our life experiences, and our culture, all of which we were ultimately thrown into by the past conditions of our determined (or random) universe.

Pure determinism does not deny that we make decisions and choices (i.e. does not deny that we have a “will”), but rather denies our independence from causal factors (outside of our control) that ultimately determine what character we possess and therefore what choices we will make (i.e. denies that our “will” is free or independent of our genetics, environment, and life circumstances).

To get first-hand experience in one aspect of psychological determinism, sit quietly for all of five minutes and “free will” yourself to think of absolutely nothing (or if you prefer, will yourself to think only of one thing, like your favorite number). If you have so much control over your mind and impulses, then you should be able to go five measly minutes willing yourself to be locked on to one single concept or a completely blank mind. If you did the experiment, what you found was that you don’t control your thoughts (no matter how hard you try). If anything, your thoughts (and desires) control you. At best, they unstoppably arise and pass away like bubbles in a carbonated beverage, only hopefully not that rapidly. Chances are excellent that you didn’t even make it one minute, probably not even 30 seconds, before an uninvited subtle thought slipped through the back door and crashed your concentration party.

Is Free Will a Logical Possibility?

Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine everyone, starting at midnight tonight, was granted “free will”, meaning that we could now rid ourselves of all past psychological conditioning, intelligence, temperament, and character, and literally be the cause of ourselves. We can now select our intelligence, temperament, the degree of our desires and aversions, our character, and start with a clean slate with no cultural or socio-economic baggage.

An interesting question arises, however: How would we begin to choose? Would we not need a Rawlsian “original position” of knowledge? If so, wouldn’t that knowledge in the original position be a determining factor in our free will? Is pure free will with absolutely no determining factors even logically possible?

I often find myself in disagreement with the 19th century philosopher, philologist, and intellectual entertainer, Friedrich Nietzsche, especially in moral philosophy, but in answering the question of the logical possibility of free will, and therefore the causa sui, I agree with Nietzsche when he says in his typically colorful way, “The causa sui is the best self-contradiction that has been conceived so far, it is a sort of rape and perversion of logic; but the extravagant pride of man has managed to entangle itself profoundly and frightfully with just this nonsense. The desire for “freedom of the will” in the superlative metaphysical sense, which still hold sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated; the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui and, with more than Munchhausen’s audacity, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness.” [3]

Whereas the compatibilist perspective makes sense subjectively, the pure determinist perspective makes sense objectively. The pure determinist view is somewhat akin, in contrast to the compatibilist view stated earlier, to the view that Earth rotates on its axis while the Sun remains relatively stationary. Determinism in human behavior and the heliocentric view of the relationship between Earth and Sun are both objectively correct, even though conventionally and subjectively, it makes sense to talk of compatibilism and the Sun “rising” and “setting.”


[1] The non-abstract, present-experience intelligence of nonhumans is a topic that is beyond the scope of this essay, but I might address it in some future essay on the nature of nonhuman minds.

[2] “Moral luck” is a term introduced by Bernard Williams and subsequently developed by Thomas Nagel. Nagel describes four kinds of moral luck: resultant, circumstantial, constitutive, and causal. The kinds of moral luck that I am referring to in this essay are circumstantial and constitutive. Circumstantial luck is luck in the circumstances we are born into, such as the era, society, culture, family and socio-economic conditions we were born into (i.e. the luck of our environment). Constitutive luck is luck in our basic genetic characteristics and includes our species, race, nationality, temperament, moral or immoral tendencies, mental and physical abilities (or lack thereof) (i.e. the luck of our genetic inheritance).

[3] Nietzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil, Number 21, translated by Walter Kaufmann in the Basic Writings of Nietzsche, The Modern Library Classics, 2000.

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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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