Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Against Reflective Equilibrium (or, What is ethics for?)

Imagine you were an early settler of what is now the United States. It seems likely you would have killed native Americans. After all, your parents killed them, your siblings killed them, your friends killed them, the leaders of the community killed them, the President killed them. Chances are, you would have killed them too, and you probably wouldn’t have seen anything wrong with this.

Indeed, it probably wouldn’t even have occurred to you to think about the morality of this. If you did, it would probably seem just. They were trying to kill you! And your family! Going after them was just self-defense! (It wasn’t, of course; you invaded their land.)

Or if you see nothing wrong with killing native Americans, take the example of slavery. Again, everyone had slaves and probably didn’t think too much about the morality of it. That was just the way the world was. If you were asked about the big moral questions you faced, you’d probably think of things like the proper time to pay back a loan, or lying to your wife, or maybe a child’s duty of obedience to their father.

Today, looking back on people who murder native American and keep slaves, those seem like comparatively small potatoes. Sure, we justify it by saying that they were just people of their time, but still… It’s hard to get over the fact that George Washington ordered his general to “lay waste all the settlements around…that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed.” (He also ordered that they not “listen to any overture of peace before the total ruin of their settlements is effected. Our future security will be in…the terror with which the severity of the chastisement they receive will inspire them.”) It somehow colors everything he says. Whatever he may have thought about loan repayment or lying, slavery was the big moral question of his time, and (in practice, at least) he got it wrong.

We don’t kill native Americans much these days and we don’t keep slaves, but it’s hard to believe that our era must be morally perfect. Surely if people back then could make such huge moral blunders, we could be making similar ones right now. And ethical philosophy is useless if it can’t help us avoid such huge mistakes.

Some people suggest that the way to do ethical philosophy is to listen to our intuitions. “I do not think our intuitions about cases are less reliable than those about principles,” Frances Kamm argues.

But of course our intuitions about cases are less reliable! If we could simply trust our intuitions, we wouldn’t need ethical philosophy at all. If something was wrong, we would just know it was wrong. There would be nothing philosophy could tell us.

Obviously this is absurd. Lots of people do things that seem clearly unethical while thinking they’re in the right. Perhaps Kamm thinks these mistakes are merely the result of temporary passions and that from her desk at Harvard she can consider such question with a more objective eye.

But, as I have shown, people’s intuitions about cases are systematically distorted. Sitting at a desk wasn’t enough to persuade George Washington to stop killing native Americans. His mistake wasn’t the result of some momentary passion, but of an entire culture that had normalized mass murder and a society that depended on it. To think that he would just suddenly sit down and go “Hmm, murdering Indians feels wrong to me” is ridiculous. The only way he would possibly conclude that is by taking seriously his principles.

I grew up eating animals. I saw nothing wrong with this. My parents ate them, my siblings ate them, my friends ate them, people on TV ate them, the President ate them. I doubt I stopped to think about the morality of eating animals any more than I stopped to think about the morality of brushing my teeth. If you asked me for my intuition, I would have said eating animals was just fine. It was only when I stopped eating animals that my intuitions began to change.

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December 30, 2009


Have you seen the recent NYT article on plant defenses against being eaten? What, exactly, is your ethical line - a nervous system? Some plants certainly have that. Admittedly they don’t have brains, but insect brains might be considered middle of the road - are crickets fair game? What about crustaceans?

I’m somewhat more sympathetic to those who draw the line at mammals - the neocortex seems likely to be responsible for much of what we consider human thought, and it is common among all mammals, albeit much larger in humans.

And considering the obscene amount of painful, drawn-out meat eating in the animal world - accurately described in “The Greatest Show on Earth” as “beyond all decent contemplation” - how is conservationism compatible with vegetarianism?

posted by Devil's Advocate on December 30, 2009 #

Devil’s A,

I feel like harm reduction is a valid approach to dietary and lifestyle choices. It seems to me that the big morality question with eating animals might not so much be “What is it okay to kill, unnecessary, and how should we order those priorities?” but rather “If we eat animals, can everyone eat?”

My intuition (sorry Aaron) is that it’s unreasonable to continue to eat animals and maintain one’s current lifestyle when faced with this sort of question, because you’re not quite sure if you can eat bees or really, really, really cool plants that scream or whatever else. It’s that the default mode should be one of inactivity rather than preserving whatever currently exists. I guess I’m saying, wouldn’t it be a bummer to keep killing the aboriginal population while figuring out of it’s okay to do that, and instead wouldn’t it make more sense to knock it off for a bit? I suppose the analogy benefits from no one really wanting to kill Indians any longer.

My own approach as a vegan is that that I’m probably still not doing the best job I could be, but that rather it’s important to internalize certain behaviors or visions of the world, and then the expression of those visions will hopefully exist through my actions.

So, it seems like there’s a huge issue to tackle when it comes to the sustainability of meat production and consumption, and then you actually have to factor in that you’re eating animals, which like Aaron hinted at, just starts to seem bizarre after being away from it for any period of time.

posted by christopherbdnk on December 30, 2009 #

You’re absolutely right. You need ethical philosophy to protect you from your newly developing incorrect intuition that you shouldn’t eat animals.

posted by Lawrence on December 30, 2009 #

Interesting, I have been thinking about meat eating recently. I live in berkeley, home of many vegans. More then, 50% of my friends are vegan, some of whom have banned, not kidding - banned, me from eating meat in their homes. If this is the way things are going how can I think that meat eating is still okay?

First, I don’t think that most meat processing is okay. I try really hard to source good meat, well processed meat. I think the Temple Grandin, is pointing a way to properly processed meat, but more then that, how do I get the most out of, say a cow. I think to do justice to meat, you need to use it for all its worth.

I realize that the more we live as individuals, the more a vegan lifestyle means something. it’s hard to properly use meat when you only use it as an individual, or even as an individual family.

I think though, if we were to band together in semi-large groups we could properly use meat to the fullest extent, and bonus points if we can sustainable live.

I think it might be a mistake to equate the life of a cow, with that of a human.

posted by Alex Kessinger on December 30, 2009 #

You are talking only about food.

But what about ethics of system when one is sending his children to institution where they are programming him to become part of the system (as his father whom by sending him, did his part in the system, and didn’t see anything wrong with it), not learning to become better individual, but deforming him.

Or ethics of system where work is prayed as new god, and one but not participating in it is devil’s child.

Ethics of system where we can see unjustice, but are too afraid to be punished to say something and to stand against it.

Or is something ethical about creating a system where we are correcting problems not trying to prevent it. Where doctor’s are not paid for keeping health people health, but for repairing sick people?

posted by _fm on December 30, 2009 #

Thomas Jefferson did actually think slavery was wrong. He wrote at length about it. His original drafts of the Declaration of Independence admonished the crown for perpetuating slavery (that, and many other parts, got edited out by the other founders). Of course, it did not stop him from keeping slaves, or fathering children with Sally Hemings. What makes Jefferson’s actions morally repugnant was this acknowledgement of slavery’s wickedness—and the fact that he never freed his slaves even in his will after he died.

posted by Steve on December 30, 2009 #

Wasn’t expecting that last paragraph… no I didn’t even see it coming since I was expecting this post to go somewhere & maybe end with an open ended question on what might be considered immoral in the future.

I haven’t been reading your journal for very long having just recently added it to my feed reader, I’m not removing it for something like this either, I quite enjoy reading what you write, just not that last paragraph.

We don’t raise animals on a farm, kill them & then cook their delicious meats so we can not eat them. It’s not a moral question either, we’re omnivores. You can’t even compare that to slavery. Civilizations enslaved those their societies didn’t like, they did so perhaps because it was economically beneficial or just for status, whatever their reasons it’s not because it’s human nature to enslave, it wasn’t human nature to build society, but it happened anyway because that’s what we were capable of. We’re also capable of not eating meat, but it’s not immoral just because we’re capable of not doing something.

So um… yes I am offended that you would consider my food on the same level of enslavement of our own species or the invasions against the Ancient Americans & would seek a conflict on that. I won’t force meat down your throat if you & other vegetarians don’t turn what I eat into a moral or political issue.

posted by Sebastian on December 30, 2009 #

My guess is it will be materialism, rampant consumerism, trash, pollution, that sort of thing which humans will look back on as “what were they thinking?” Not eating animals.

The reason is eating animals is built into our species, it’s part of our evolution. There’s a moral problem in how we treat the animals we are eating, but the concept of eating animals is key to who we are biologically.

Trash, consumerism, etc. is not, however. It’s humans perverting the natural order of things.

posted by Jim Gilliam on December 30, 2009 #

Perhaps the lack of meat has affected the quality of your thought process for this is the worst articles I’ve seen from you. I normally enjoy your writing but you just didn’t think this out man. Jefferson was a bad example as is eating meat of a modern day example.

Eating animals is not morally comparable to enslaving an/or killing humans, not even close. If you’d have said not allowing gay marriage, or not allowing atheists to run for public office you’d have valid modern day examples of things most people do that are simply wrong without giving it too much thought.

Eating meat… you’ll need to make a much better argument than that. You’d didn’t even make an argument for why eating plants is more moral than eating meat, which I don’t think is true, but you should have at least tried if that’s the position you’re trying to support.

posted by Ramon on December 30, 2009 #

In response to Steve, I’ve changed my example from Jefferson and slaves to Washington and native Americans, where I believe the history to be much clearer.

Ramon is correct that this piece isn’t arguing that eating meat is wrong. People are so touchy when their morally dodgy practices are questioned! It’s just an obvious example of a widespread behavior that people give little moral scrutiny to. (And saying that we shouldn’t scrutinize it because it’s “human nature” is ridiculous. Rape and war are human nature too.)

I’m open to other examples, but I think Jim’s suggestion of consumerism/pollution is even more controversial and harder to explain. But I hope to tackle it in the next piece.

posted by Aaron Swartz on December 30, 2009 #

I don’t doubt ethical principles are important, but this is a pretty awful argument for them. You’re, ironically, relying on your own intuition here to say intuition is unreliable. You haven’t supported the idea that intuition wasn’t enough in your historical examples; stating that idea as if it were fact doesn’t make it so. Your initial example was even demonstrably false. Switching to an example without evidence of being false just makes it more difficult to prove false; that doesn’t make it true.

I’ve been vegetarian for 13 years now and it still hasn’t changed my intuition that I don’t personally need to eat meat though others might. Varying my diet has demonstrated the former and looking at my teeth demonstrates the latter. No ethical principles were necessary here.

I’d really like to see where ethical principles are actually important. This isn’t it.

posted by Scott Reynen on December 30, 2009 #

As your first commenter mentions, the consequences of not eating meat are not at all necessarily superior to the status quo, or less ethically problematic.

Many of your commenters, however, are arguing that since we’re omnivores by nature that therefore eating meat is ok. It’s “natural”.

Human progress can be seen as creating institutions that restrain our nature. The murder rates in hunter-gatherer societies start at the rate of Detroit and go up from there. And do you need to ask what the life of the typical woman is like in such societies?

“Natural” is not a virtue, it’s a neutral fact, and identifying something as natural is in no way a good argument for ethical superiority. In fact it’s good reason to be suspicious.

posted by Steve C on December 30, 2009 #

In the future, it may be possible to eat meat without eating an animal. See http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/science/article6936352.ece

posted by Wayne on December 30, 2009 #

I’ve always wondered - vegans can’t use leather because it’s the skin of a dead animal. Can they drive cars or fly in planes which run on liquefied animal remains? Or is there a statute of limitations on when it becomes morally OK to use an animal product? 1 year = morally wrong, 1 billion years = OK now.

Furthermore: If eating meat truly is tantamount to the evils of genocide and slavery as you state, what can you say for yourself that you daily interact with, do business with, support, aid and earn money from these people? Is not supporting evil as repugnant as participating?

If you do not refuse to shake hands with your grocer, doctor or lawyer - maybe, your intuition tells you that eating meat really isn’t the same as mass-murder.

posted by nathan on December 30, 2009 #

On the more general subject of different time periods’ different morals, and how ours is no different, see this outstanding essay “What You Can’t Say” by Paul Graham: http://www.paulgraham.com/say.html And his follow-up at http://www.paulgraham.com/resay.html

posted by Wayne on December 30, 2009 #

Steve -

Absolutely, hence his famous ‘wolf by the ear’ quote. He recognised the injustice of slavery but also weighed self-preservation into the equation. Not that this is a defence of course, but it does how that Jefferson’s intuition regarding the morality of slavery was correct.

Aaron -

I would like to see you engage a bit more directly with Kamm’s point regarding the reliability of case intuition vs. principle intuition. You reject the point but don’t seem to offer a compelling argument against it.


posted by Tom on December 30, 2009 #

Aaron, I think your last paragraph illustrates the very dangers of moral intuitions that you so persuasively warn us about. Now you are a vegetarian, with vegetarian friends and so on. Of course your intuitions will change powerfully, almost beyond rational control, and you should critically examine this process as it is happening.

For example, consider that mass agriculture is destroying the planet’s topsoil and is carbon-intensive. When you buy tofu, rice, wheat, beans, potatoes, etc., you are responsible for this damage. Also you are directly responsible for the deaths of many little animals who, in the cultivation and harvesting of your share, are dismembered and crushed by tractors and combines (though those deaths are fairly invisible to us, and nobody cares about snakes, mice, moles, etc).

Or, you could occasionally buy, butcher (or have butchered) and eat a pastured cow who walked around eating grass (say 600lbs hanging weight) making you responsible for one or two killings per year, and much less environmental harm.

posted by Ben B. on December 30, 2009 #

Ben B., are those your actual food choices? That seems really unlikely, not relevant to most of us. It could still be relevant to you, of course. That’s the thing about food: it’s so inherently local that ethics around it can’t often be applied universally.

posted by Scott Reynen on December 30, 2009 #

Brian, actually I take Aaron’s point about cases vs. principles to mean that what seems personally or locally relevant (or likely, or easy, or plausible, or practical) should not be relied on at all for ethical reasoning, and that we actually should look for universals.

I’m asking you to consider two propositions (1) vegetarians, by eating, kill animals and harm the environment, and (2) we could at least consider eating animals as a way to reduce killing and harming.

And then I’m suggesting that those propositions can be used to shine a critical light (of the kind Aaron wants us to use, I think) on the moral intuition of his last sentence: the intuition (if I read him right) that there is something specially unethical about eating animals as a case of killing animals

posted by Ben B. on December 31, 2009 #

Sorry, I was thinking “Scott” but wrote “Brian.” -Ben

posted by Ben B. on December 31, 2009 #

I’m going to be a party-pooper and pull you guys out of the philo-moral questions about food for a second…

Aaron - Why is “self-preservation” not a defense. Because the “strong” end up on top and the group that doesn’t is the victim? By definition this is the nature of a conflict rooted in genuine fear. The “stronger” side do not fear any less than the “weaker” side. You can argue that they have no reason to fear. Or that - being stronger - they have a moral obligation towards the weak. But (a) they dont always know they are stronger, right from the start and (b) they are driven by a “survival instinct”… which, like faith, can’t be rationalized.

“Self preservation” is a relevant and much-used defense today in regions of conflict outside the US - where the sides to the conflict genuinely feel their survival is at stake.

And unless you’ve been part of such a conflict yourself - not as a tourist or journalist, or bystander of any other sort, but as a soldier/gun-man/freedom-fighter with a gun in your hand facing another soldier/gun-man/freedom-fighter with a gun in his hand(Afghanistan, Gaza, Serbia, Bosnia…?) you are doing what you claim Kamm does when “from her desk at Harvard she can consider such question with a more objective eye”.

There is nothing moral about wars. No war is justified. No killing is moral. Saying it makes us masters-of-the-obvious.

History gives us the privilege of retro-and-introspective contemplation, but this should not exclude contextualization from the moral-equation. Which is why - “they were just people of their time” is a justification. And the implication is that morality is elastic (and dynamic), and can be stretched or not depending on reality.

posted by ag on December 31, 2009 #

How many people really killed native americans or owned slaves? It’s probably very few who killed native americans, and with civilians almost only in self defense. I know none of my ancestors owned slave plantations and I doubt many people’s did.

I do wonder about the morality of eating animals, but at the same time it’s a hard world. It’s easier said than done to watch your family starve instead of occupying largely empty lands, and if cows and pigs weren’t raised on farms they’d never live in the first place. Maybe rather than stopping eating meat we should do more to guarantee animals are treated in a more palatable manner while they are alive.

posted by Antiguru on January 1, 2010 #

I think Jim Gilliam hit it on the head with materialism as a central issue. His comment seemed mainly aimed at environmental consequences of consumption which are critically important but perhaps difficult for many people to grasp as a moral issue.

My first thought on reading your piece was about the repercussions of our consumption in terms of social justice. I think one of the hardest moral realities for people to face is the human cost of their own lifestyle. Our bananas come from plantations in South America with no labor rights. Our socks are made in Indonesian sweat shops. Our cell phones are made with coltan mined with forced labor in Africa. Nearly everything we consume comes on the backs of people living unenviable lives. The people of the third world are our slaves by corporate proxy.

Individually and societally we seem incapable of confronting this reality and owning up to the radical change to how we live that is necessary to reduce the exploitation of people and destruction of our environment.

posted by David A. on January 2, 2010 #

The last paragraph is perfect. It has sparked a modern debate in the comments that probably parallels the debates people had during the killing of Native Americans and during slavery.

By looking at the comments, it looks like people are generally uninterested in unbiased discussion. They start with the premise, “I love (or need) meat” and then proceed to defend it from there. You can replace meat with land, slavery, fossil fuels, killing Native Americans, or killing Jews and you can see how it all relates.

posted by Mauricio Gomes on January 4, 2010 #

Thanks, nice post.

Incidentally, deciding that you’re trying to be rational in your ethics doesn’t seem to always be a good enough defense against letting yourself be swayed by popularity and tradition; for example, many philosophers have made arguments to justify treating animals badly that are, in retrospect, kind of ridiculous.

First, Descartes told us that, although it seemed like the problem of animal suffering was a bit of a problem for Christianity (if God is benevolent and omnipotent, and animals aren’t descended from Adam and have done nothing wrong, why does he make them suffer?), it was okay because animals were really just machines, and when they act hurt it’s fake. We don’t believe that anymore.

We would expect Kant to come closer to the right idea with an application of the Categorical Imperative, but he made a similar cop-out: animals can’t reason, so they don’t have rights, so we can do what we want with them. You have to get into the 1800s before a philosopher started to strongly consider that we had direct obligations in our treatment of other animals.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. I understand that you want us to move away from intuitions, and I agree that we should try to, but it’s not clear where we can move to. Principles are a form of intuition, aren’t they? And if we adopt principles even though they’re intuitions, we still have to somehow find the right inferences from our principles in just the way that Descartes and Kant failed to so completely regarding animals.

I guess I’m also curious whether you think the principles we might adopt should be deontological or not; I suspect you don’t, but if that’s true then we’re pretty limited in what kind of principles we can have, and how much they can change our considered behavior.

posted by Chris Ball on January 8, 2010 #

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