Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Morality, Rationality, and Emotion

I am currently reading the excellent book How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer, which describes the pscyhology of decision-making. Chapter 6 regards morality, and asserts that neuroscience proves that decisions regarding what is ethical or unethical virtually ignores the part of the brain associated with rationality. Instead, morality judgments are made the same way aesthetic judgments are formed, such as whether you like a song or painting. The ethical justifications people surmise have more to do with justifying their moral intuition than forming ethical verdicts. Lehrer states, "When it comes to making ethical decisions, human rationality isn't a scientist, it's a lawyer."

Such a finding has implications for the animal welfare issue, and helps me understand the behavior of various groups. People who oppose and support animal rights are not doing so based intensive research and dispassionate logic. Their mind takes their genetics and their life experiences thus far and forms snaps judgments about, say, whether an animal should be allowed to express normal behaviors or whether it is "ethical" to raise animals for food. This explains why so few people change their mind about how farm animals should be treated as they accumulate more experience in the topic and why the topic (like most moral topics, abortion for instance) brings forth intensive emotions. Asking whether a sow should be allowed room to turn around is like asking whether Beethoven is more talented than John Lennon--it is a matter of intuition, much like tastes in music. Since these "tastes" regarding morality are simply presented to the individuals' consciousness, they are unlikely to welcome others questioning their morality. That would imply their mysterious intuition regarding morality is defunct, which would be a problem the individual would be unable to repair.

My experience with people of various views suggests that people with animal rights tendencies tend to be squimish and extremely sensitive to pain and the concept of death. People who have no trouble raising animals for meat are much less squimish, for instance, they are much more likely to be hunters. They are more accepting of pain and death as a natural part of life. These "tendencies" will indeed carry over to their thoughts on raising animals for food. Because intuition dislikes uncertainty, it will tend to paint a black-and-white picture of the issue. You either sympathize with animal rights activists or you don't. If you eat meat you should not support any HSUS initiatives. That kind of thing.

It also suggests that ALL writers on the topic (including me) that express an ethical opinion are doing more to justify their "feelings" to others than to actually arrive at a verdict themselves. That is something I have implicitly believed but never asserted because I had no source to back me. Animal rights authors and industry defenders alike are not basing their differences so much on different sets of information, but different intuitions.

Like Alexander Pope stated,
The monk's humility,
The hereo's price,
All, all alike,
have reason on their side.

Peter Singer: have your writings been objective research or a pursuit to justify your intuition?
Trent Loos: is your careful scrutiny of animal industry issues sought to inform the public and yourself, or to better justify those mysterious instincts underneath that black hat?
Reader: are your views of the issue at all swayed by new information, or are you simply a stubborn soldier under the command of your intuition?