The Trouble With Being Reasonable

In the battle between reason and intuition, intuition wins. Our intuitions, in turn, are shaped by the culture we are raised in, not by a philosophical "search for truth." 

In the battle between reason and intuition, intuition wins. Our intuitions, in turn, are shaped by the culture we are raised in, not by a philosophical "search for truth." 

Morality, for me, has always been an exercise in reason and self-criticism. This is probably in part because my parents were constantly reprimanding me, when I failed to meet their expectations as a student or son. It was also in part because I had gone through one significant moral transformation already, when I gave up my parents' extreme religiosity as a teenager. I convinced myself that my moral convictions were the result of independent reasoning, and I assumed that others were going through a similar "search for truth" in developing their ethical beliefs.

But then I came across a growing body of research -- led by groundbreaking scholars such as Jonathan Haidt at NYU -- showing that this is not the case. For most people, moral beliefs are not about philosophical truth, but social function. Human beings accept the moral beliefs of those around them -- friends, family, coworkers -- no matter how inconsistent, ignorant, or oppressive those beliefs may be.  

Conformity of this sort makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Scientists such as primatologist Frans De Waal argue that the moral sense evolved on the African plains as a way to ensure effective cooperation in relatively small primate groups. (It is easier to ensure compliance with a set of rules if those bound by the rules genuinely believe in them.) Defying community norms, in turn, would be grounds for ostracism -- and evolutionary death, in a species that depends on cooperation for survival. The modern demands we have placed on our limited moral sense, in the development of trans-tribal concepts such as justice, equality, and human/animal rights, stretch it beyond its original evolutionary function of in-group solidarity. Our natural feelings of moral obligation stop at the neighborhood boundary. As we move further away from our immediate biological relatives -- to other tribes, nations, races, or even species -- moral feelings disappear.

What this means for us, as activists, is that we cannot expect many individuals who live in animal-eating communities, and surrounded by animal-abusing institutions, to change simply because "their eyes have been opened." Moral beliefs have little to do with reason or information, and everything to do with social function. And sadly, a belief in animal equality is, if anything, socially dysfunctional in modern times. It requires a willingness to speak out on behalf of a "radical" cause that contradicts tradition. People are not naturally inclined to take on such radical beliefs, any more than they were inclined to embrace racial equality under Jim Crow, or gay rights in the stifling homophobia of the 1970s. Passively handing them the information, in turn, typically has no impact on their personal behavior or beliefs.  Their community has not changed, so why should they?

This does not mean that we are inevitably stuck with the prejudices of our forebears. Indeed, the past 200 years of human history should give us hope, as our "limited" moral sense has been culturally reshaped to embrace universal concepts such as human rights and racial equality. What these findings should tell us, however, is that the social disruption and confrontation experienced in every significant expansion of our moral horizons over the past 200 years were not accidental or unnecessary. Great social and political changes require great intervention -- they require a wrench to be thrown into our society's gears, so that the ideological machinery of the day is forced to come grinding to a halt. Without the tension caused by such intervention, complacency and inertia reign.

Consider: it took a civil war to end the slavery of humans in this country; pioneering suffragettes used sabotage and direct action to jolt sexist institutions into change; the Civil Rights Movement was won largely through law-breaking activity; and the Gay Rights Movement was triggered by a violent conflagration -- the Stonewall Riots -- in New York City. This is not to say that the intervention required for dramatic social change is necessarily violent or even illegal. Rather, the unifying theme in all of these movements was an uncompromising and emotional statement of dissent -- a rallying cry of "We won't take it anymore!" -- that reshaped the social norms of the day so that the oppressors, and not the oppressed, were on the defensive.

The moral? We have to change more than the facts or reasons in people's heads, if we want real and permanent change. We have to change our community's most basic understanding, of what it means to be a good and upstanding citizen. We have to empower individuals in their local communities to speak forcefully for the animals. And we have to come together, as a movement, and take a strong and uncompromising stand against violence.