The Trouble With Being Reasonable
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.