Long time readers will know that I’ve been a long time advocate of objective morality, via Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape. Those who have joined more recently may have instead noticed that I have relied on different moral frameworks when talking about morality – the appeal to a conceptual set of rules and values that would be set up by a perfectly rational and self-interested committee that didn’t know what role they would take when they reentered the society they has just been tasked with designing.
The latter system is a version of Contractarianism, and I have found the idea quite compelling in the wake of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. Contractarianism both highlights the political need for better representation (that doesn’t have to be in Government directly – you can’t be compelled to vote a certain way – but at least in the people politicians go to for advice), as well as shines a light on how different an experience of your country you have depending on certain characteristics.
I’ve also become more convinced by virtue ethics – what your actions say about you. And so I want to run a short moral hypothetical by my readers, and evaluate it in terms of The Moral Landscape, Contractarianism and virtue ethics.
I’m not excited to defend Sam Harris any more, not least because his podcast has increasingly become a space for an apologia for people who share divisive and sometimes dangerous ideas through misinformation. In fact, having listened to him on Decoding the Gurus, it has become apparent that although he claims to think the ‘woke’ and ‘cancel culture’ pose some kind of a moral emergency, he is woefully unaware of what is being said that gets the push back so often prematurely labelled ‘cancelling’. That said – excited or not – I should say something in defence of The Moral Landscape: it is not simple consequentialism. That is why I refer to The Moral Landscape and not consequentialism, as the former has a lot built in on top.
Take, for example, beastiality. Why is that worse than animal farming and slaughter? I bring this up for several reasons. Firstly, it is the example brought up in a back-and-forth between the YouTubers LonerBox and HBomberGuy. Secondly, this example is – like the main hypothetical I mean to introduce eventually – vegan-adjacent. Thirdly, it’s just interesting: why would the practices of animal farming for food be so widely accepted and vehemently defended, while non-consenting intercourse with an animal is a near-universal taboo and reviled?
The point I am reaching at is that The Moral Landscape isn’t tied to giving the unpalettable answer of preferring beastiality of beed burgers. Instead, The Moral Landscape is able to assess levels of disgust caused by beastiality as a breaking of social norms (even if it not more directly harmful than animal farming); a disgust, perhaps, at deriving the pleasure directly from the harm, instead of enjoying something that has been abstracted away from the harm. That distinction – getting pleasure directly from harm, or having what seems only an abstract relationship to the harm – is a point in virtue ethics, but The Moral Landscape is able to capture it.
I have two worries here. Firstly, that short of a science of wellbeing that is able is able to measure changes for all involved beings and understand what changes are tied to the act being explored, The Moral Landscape leaves itself open to endless discussion that can pull all these different threads and reach the conclusion that was wanted in the first place. Secondly, it would leave someone like Sam Harris at the whims of some calculus – disgust vs violation; taste preference vs industrial slaughter – and might have to prefer beastiality over beef burgers at the end of it.
Similarly, The Moral Landscape can make reference to Contractarian ethics by way of arguing that a violation of expected norms will cause reputation damage and disgust and distrust. Virtue ethics and contractarianism can also overlap, as a contract is likely to want to focus on the direct impacts instead of holding people accountable for some indirect and distant effect of an action. Intent and immediate motivation matter in questions of accountability.
There is a broader philosophical question that has to be resolved here somewhere. It is the difference between an effect being the fault of a cause and there being a clear line between a cause and effect. In UK politics at the moment, we all seem very worried about whether the Deputy Leader of the Opposition – Angela Rayner – intentionally distracts the Prime Minister – Boris Johnson – in Parliament by occasionally uncrossing her legs. And where to lay the moral accountability here is interesting; do we blame Rayner for trying it, or Johnson for being so easily distracted? In more common discussions, the distinction we’re looking at is the difference between victim blaming and identifying the person who actually did something wrong. It is, in broad terms, morally vacuous – even if factually true – to tell a person they wouldn’t have been mugged if they hadn’t been in that part of town. It’s the mugger whose actions we should be concerned with. (It is unclear to me whether The Moral Landscape is able to make this distinction, instead an aggressor and a victim would be equally morally accountable.)
I have one more thing to add before I get into the thought experiment I actually opened my computer to write about. It is a criticism of Contractarianism. The criticism is to do with who the committee could become when they reenter society. We accept they could be poor or rich, male or female, black or white etc. But, as long as there is something it is like to be something in that society, it should be a candidate for who the committee could become. Therefore, the committee could become a cow. In this sense, that is the same as extending moral consideration to that cow.
Is there anything it is like to be an ant? I don’t know. What about a tree? I don’t think so. A rock? No. But these are questions for the real society (us) to figure out. The point of the Contractarian committee is that they already know the answer to this, and they know how to measure up the danger of being a cow in a vegan and omnivorous society.
All this to make two broad points: I now have a less certain and decidedly different conception of morality, and am increasingly sympathetic to relativism and the need to have a serious discussion about ethics, instead of just hoping it is ultimately simple or prescribed; these moral systems are not neatly self-contained, instead there is interplay and overlap.
That account of my journey out of the way, let us get to the hypothetical:
A hunter, who lives in a developed country and drives past four supermarkets on their way to the ‘wilderness’ to hunt, goes out monthly to shoot something big and take it home to eat. Is that hunter morally better, worse or indistinguishable from a standard meat eater who creates demand for industrial animal agriculture?
Let’s get a few propositions out of the way first: the description of a developed country and passing supermarkets is important; it means we are not talking about necessity in scarce lands nor indigenous cultural practices. A hunted animal that lived in the ‘wilderness’ likely lived a less tortuous life than an animal in a factory farm.
The hunter, then, bypassing animal agriculture, is responsible for less harm, once the indirect (but inherent) harm is accounted for. But, the hunter enjoys the kill. Where a normal meat eater only enjoys the meat and ignores or abstracts away the inherent harm in their decision (or, is actually ignorant), the hunter is immersed in the kill; they are a killer, not just passively complicit. There is a tension here between The Moral Landscape and virtue ethics.
What about contractarianism? Well, it is interesting. Although I sketched an argument that suggests the committee should consider the possibility they will return as cattle, that is by no means a normal conception of how this works. Where The Moral Landscape would demand that anything capable of suffering (and, therefore, including cattle) gets moral attention, contractarianism is normally thought of in terms of class and other societal categories and so in a speciesist framework. There’s also a problem of what it even means for a perfectly rational consciousness capable of engaging in this level of discussion even being the same thing once it is a cow. But, I’d argue that the precise same problem exists trying to put that consciousness into anyone. It’s a fictional construct with issues that just sort of have to be discarded for the purposes of the thought experiment it represents.
If you grant that any given member of the committee could be returned to society as a sheep, but just a human, then the committee has to design a vegan society, surely? How could they design a society that is precisely fair and balanced for humans, on the off chance they return as a disabled, poor, black Muslim woman, but includes industrial animal agriculture discarding the off chance they return as a pig?
Pretend for a moment that moral questions like this really can exist in a vacuum and there’s no need to bring in the threat of the next pandemic or climate change. Where would the contractarian come down on the question of our hunter and supermarket meat-eater? They could refuse to distinguish, because of an indifference to animals in the traditional version. Or they might condemn the hunter for giving into the enjoyment of killing, worried about the statistics of that kind of behaviour escalating. Or they might decide to outlaw animal agriculture and only permit eating animals you hunted yourself. Or they might refuse to distinguish between, for the perspective of the animals, it’s still an unnecessary taking of a life. (I’m sticking to eating here. There are bigger questions about animal products in medicines, medical technology and other technologies.)
I still have no place for the religious conception of morality as something that has been handed down to us. But I have also embraced the ambiguity of moral reasoning and frameworks. Virtue ethics doesn’t work on its own, it needs to rest on at least one conception of right and wrong – even if it is just personal stances. Contractarianism is essentially an appeal to an unknowable – but it is at least a direction to work towards. The Moral Landscape, without the technology Harris describes in the book, is completely vulnerable to post hoc reasoning and will often rely on knowing an actor’s private intention to properly assess morality.
So, what do you think of the hunter, and why?