Conversations with Dan: the ethics of eating

Food ethicsDan Kaufman and I have been at it again: we have taped a video conversation on the ethics (or lack thereof) of eating.

As usual, the two of us differ enough — and yet listen sufficiently carefully to each other — that the ensuing conversation provides, I think, plenty of food for thought (so to speak) for anyone interested in the topic. Which, really, should be anyone who eats anything at all…

In the video, we first map out a number of standard positions on the ethical dimensions of eating, including of course veganism, vegetarianism, and variations thereof. Following which, Dan asks me why I changed my eating habits a few years ago, as a result of my own ethical reflections on the issue. I settled on a flexible approach that excludes very few things a priori, but that attempts to consider as much as it is reasonably feasible the treatment of animals, the environmental impact, and the impact on human labor and living conditions. For practical purposes this means that most of the time I behave either as a vegetarian or as a pescatarian, but not always.

The discussion then moves to the broader issue of utilitarian ethics and its problems, germane because the leading philosophical advocate of vegetarianism is Peter Singer, who is a utilitarian. But I put forth to Dan that there are other ethical frameworks — such as a number of virtue ethical approaches — that are inherently more flexible and which because of that manage to better tackle the complexities at issue.

That in turn leads us to a long back-and-forth on the very concept of ethical obligation, and how sometimes it is simply wielded in a moralistic fashion to make others behave in a way that we favor. Finally, returning to virtue ethics, we talk about whether some virtues are more important than others, and how that impacts one’s food ethics.

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143 thoughts on “Conversations with Dan: the ethics of eating

  1. Once with our ‘Boycott Grapes’ bumper sticker we got lost in our 62 AMC Rambler on the south side of Chicago. Everybody was black. Even people in cars were black.

    We crossed major 4 lane streets and everybody was still black.

    Then one more 4 lane and suddenly everybody was white. A few blocks later Margaret looked over to a strip mall on the left and saw a huge sign ‘WORLD HEADQUARTERS AMERICAN NAZI PARTY’. She said ‘maybe we should go back to the black neighborhood.’

    However, we continued to slog west and eventually came out on the Dan Ryan, turned south and high tailed it back to Champaign-Urbana and the land the not-so-racist liberals.

    I doubt people in either neighborhood would have known what ‘Boycott Grapes’ meant or cared if they did.

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  2. Massimo,

    “What an impoverished view of life you have, my friend.”

    Hey now, no need to get all ad-hominem on me just because I pose a difficult question for you to answer. I understand why you dodge it though. There is only one answer to why you and the Stoics choose the goal to improve yourself. Because an evolved desire makes you want to be good tribe members, and makes you want to look like even better tribe members than you are. There’s nothing impoverished about admitting that. Impoverished to me would be admitting you only chose to be good out of ought obligations as opposed to a desire to be good.

    “I guess you just haven’t read enough then. Cheers.”

    Yes I have. Cheers.

    Daniel Kaufman

    “What “people”? Have you taken a survey?”

    Most people. Yes I have.

    “I completely disagree with you. I don’t think you have any idea what “people” want with respect to their vision of the good life.”

    I completely disagree with you. I think do have great insight into what people want with respect to their vision of the good life.

    “What a lot of utter nonsense.”

    I completely disagree with you.

    Explain to me how knowing that life evolved from a single celled organism tells you one single thing about moral obligation and duty”

    It tells me there’s no such thing as moral obligation or moral duty because the process by which the emotions and drives behind those concepts evolved was a non-thinking non-purposeful process. Moral obligation makes about as much sense as love obligation or fear obligation. Category error. That’s what the facts of evolution make clear to me. Kant was a very smart man. Not his fault he was working in the dark.

    “And beyond that, explain how it tells us more than Aristotle Kant, Hume, Mill, and Rawls”

    It lets us know what Aristotle and Hume got right, and what Kant and Mill got wrong etc.

    “With specifics about each of their moral philosophies”

    Aristotle’s path to eudaimonia was getting our emotions drives and reason in synch with each other instead of them being at cross purposes which is the cause of so much of our misery. He was so right. Evolution theory and psychology reveal the kind of information about those drives and emotions Aristotle was talking about that it can help us with the difficult project of bringing them into synch with our reason. Extended kin selection, expanding circle of care etc. Aristotle would have loved evolution theory and modern psychology.

    “I’m getting mightily tired of this kind of ridiculous conversation that consists of nothing more than bald assertions and hand waving, by random strangers on the internet.”

    At this point I am most angry at whoever it is that is forcing you to read garthdaisy’s posts. Please tell them to stop making you read my posts.

    “Not to mention complete ignorance of a vast body of literature, spanning millennia of human history, and produced by some of our greatest geniuses.”

    No I’ve read it. Some of them were geniuses. Any pre-darwinian philosophers of ethics and moral theory were working in the dark and some of them did amazingly well considering. That’s because much of what we have learned from evolution theory about emotions and desires can be noticed by people in the manifest image because we all observe human nature from the inside and out every waking hour of our lives. So Hume notices “slave of the passions” and results in evolution theory and modern psychology confirm his observation and provide even more helpful details. Win win.

    I know I know. What a load of utter nonsense. I know nothing. I am ignorant. Good arguments from the pros.

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  3. It is a little naive to suppose we can take any psychological feature and say that, at the base it has to do with wanting to be a good tribe member, or for wanting sex. There could be psychological features which rule out reproductive sex which nevertheless increased the probability that certain patterns among nucleotides predominated over others. We have no way of know the specifics.

    Moreover, we cannot assume that the genetic pattern which leads to the brain developing a given psychological feature today led to the same psychological feature at the time that the evolutionary advantage fixed it in place. As I have pointed out, the human genome has about 80mb usable space, that holds the instructions to build and maintain for life, an entire human, brain, muscular, skeletal system, organs, circulatory system,etc. The lot. There simply isn’t the space there to store all this detailed psychological information. The development of psychological features in a growing human is an interplay between the genetic information and the environment, which naturally includes the culture it grows up in.

    So any psychological feature has developed through some combination of evolution and environment, and in particular – culture. That is about all we can say.

    And it isn’t really that much use in deciding how we are going to behave.

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  4. And, as synred suggests, if volunteering in a homeless shelter is so good, when viewed purely as a strategy for achieving well being for ourselves , why aren’t people lining up to do it rather than go to concerts, football matches, restaurants, movies etc.?

    I have done it and I can’t imagine anyone would do it purely in order to achieve well-being for themselves.

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  5. “It is a little naive to suppose we can take any psychological feature and say that, at the base it has to do with wanting to be a good tribe member, or for wanting sex”.

    Indeed! The analogy of DNA to a ‘blue print’ is very poor. Animals are vastly under determined by DNA alone. If you take our 23 chromosomes and toss them in a nice warm pond nothing much will happen.

    Which is not to say they influence nothing and that some get passed on more efficiently than others because of the effects they have on phenotype including behavior. But it’s far from the whole story.

    -Traruh

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  6. Hi Robin,

    “We have no way of know the specifics.”

    We don’t need the specifics. In general, we have evolved both a strong desire to be good helpful tribe members, and to pretend to be even better tribe member than we are. This information is useful in the same way Hume’s “slave of the passions” observation is useful. And better supported by data. Not Hume’s fault. He would have used this data if he had it.

    “There simply isn’t the space there to store all this detailed psychological information.”

    I never said anything about psychological information being stored or passed on.

    “The development of psychological features in a growing human is an interplay between the genetic information and the environment, which naturally includes the culture it grows up in.”

    Correct. And not recognizing the extent to which that genetic information moulded that culture in the first place is a common mistake. Cart before the horse.

    “And it isn’t really that much use in deciding how we are going to behave.”

    We don’t completely decide how we are going to behave, that’s the main point. We don’t will our will. No one is more enslaved than he who thinks he is free. This is extremely important useful information. When deciding how you are going to behave it’s important to know you’re not completely in charge. And if you want to steer that elephant around using reason, the more you know about the elephant’s motivations, the better off you are.

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  7. “Somebody posed a difficult question to answer? ”

    It was only a difficult question for those who don’t seem to want to answer it. The question is why do you chose to be a be a better more moral person? Why do Massimo and the stoics choose to be better humans?

    I find it quite easy to answer.

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  8. Hi garth,

    I never said anything about psychological information being stored or passed on.

    Yes you did, you keep talking about things like “…a strong desire to be good helpful tribe members…”. How are you not suggesting that this is encoded in our DNA?

    And not recognizing the extent to which that genetic information moulded that culture in the first place is a common mistake. Cart before the horse.

    There is no distinct cart and horse. Without an environment, no genetic information, no evolution. There is no point where the genetic information stops and the environment begins. A particular pattern of nucleotides is just an abstract pattern – nothing on its own. It is all part of one big system and no part of the system could be said to have been the moulder as opposed to the moulded.

    This is extremely important useful information. When deciding how you are going to behave it’s important to know you’re not completely in charge.

    Honestly, who thinks that we are completely in charge?

    Well, maybe the scientists and scientismists are the last on the planet to realise that we are not completely in charge of our behaviour and beliefs, hence the amount of nonsense science we still get.

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  9. No one is more enslaved than he who thinks he is free.

    Yes, Here is the late Victor Stenger:

    Scientists as a whole are a hard-headed lot and can be skeptical, if not downright dismissive, of thinking that they see as vague and muddled – which, it is fair to say, is true of much of what passes for philosophy

    The trouble is that many scientists appear to subscribe to this myth and many people believe it.

    But I have shown on a number of occasions that scientists, even very smart distinguished scientists, can be at least as vague and muddled in their thinking as the rest of us outside of their own area of expertise.

    We could make a big improvement in science if we could disenchant scientists of the misapprehension that they are hard-headed skeptical as a whole.

    And no, this is not anti science. This is pro science.

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  10. Garth,

    My comment was not at all an ad hominem, it was my considerate judgment: I think anyone who draws such a direct line from simple evolutionary principles to the richness and complexity of modern cultures does have a very impoverished view of human life.

    The reason I am not engaging with you on this is because it has been abundantly clear that you are impervious to any criticism of a fairly hard version of evolutionary psychology, from which you derive most of your conclusions. I have given you references in the past about this, and you have refused to read them, so I don’t see what the point is.

    And I keep maintaining that you haven’t read enough about ethics. If you had you wouldn’t make that sort of absurd claim you made above. I value your comments because it’s always good to be pushed on one’s beliefs and positions, but again, there are only 24 hours in every day, and I simply cannot spend them making the same point over and over.

    As for why the Stoics (and plenty of others) choose to be better human beings, think about it for a moment: obviously (nobody has ever denied that) there are evolved pro social instincts at play. But do you seriously think that’s it? If so, how on earth do you explain that different people and cultures have defined “being good” so differently? How do you explain that the majority of people do not actually make that sort of concerted effort, investing a lot of time and energy in studying, say, Epictetus rather than going to the football game or to pick up girls at the pub?

    Here is an analogy, which I bet 100 to 1 will not convince you,me it what the heck, it’s Friday. We eat, quite obviously, because we have a natural and clearly adaptive urge to do so. But if anyone thinks that that’s all one needs to know to explain the incredibly rich and varied culture of food — from gourmet restaurants to reality shows featuring chefs, from the incredible variety of human taste for foodstuff to the bewildering complexity of the food industry — one does indeed have an improve rushed view of human culture.

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  11. I am neither a vegetarian nor a vegan. I eat plants. I eat them both for health and for ethical reasons. Forests and wetlands are not being destroyed to feed humans plants.It is done to feed animals. I don’t care what you eat.

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  12. Massimo, when I said “I would hope for more” I didn’t mean I wanted more from you specifically. You are an incredible man who does incredible things. You are my professor. What I meant was that more was needed from the whole of academia itself. Science has quickly given humanity tremendous power, though without teaching us how to use that power. This has had predictable results…

    I do not demand that philosophy’s “ethics” be the instrument of our education here, and philosophers can be excused if they’d rather explore the field in their traditional way. In that case the job of teaching humanity the principals of descriptive good/bad would fall to our still primitive mental and behavioral sciences. (Unfortunately however, these scientists don’t yet seem to acknowledge this uncertainty to reside in their realm.)

    My message is that psychology, psychiatry, sociology, cognitive science and so on will remain quite primitive, without credible theory regarding the nature of descriptive good/bad. This is why “consciousness” remains such a mystery today I think — without formally acknowledging what “fuels” conscious function, reasonable models of the conscious mind have not yet surfaced. In short, I believe that a “Sir Issac Newton” type of figure will be required.

    Massimo, I very much hope to interest you in my project, and even if you don’t quite consider it “philosophy.”

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  13. I” will bet that no one who has gone on a diet or a date will make the mistake that we are completely in charge of our own behavior.”

    I doubt there’s anybody at all (esp. scientist) that thinks they’re in complete control. Not even ‘free will’ advocates. That does not mean DNA is in control either. It’s no more a programing language than it’s a ‘blue print’.

    And while I have little doubt that there is a material basis for us, we do not understand how creatures like us ‘emerge’. It’s not just statistics like thermodynamics though thermodynamics plays a role in animal function and DNA replication. We do understand life. It is not simple – with no ‘soul’ as a simple ‘explanation’ of how we arise and function.

    And even if we had an explanation and understanding of how ethics and morality arose out elementary biology, even if that turned out to be simple-mined stimulus-response-reward system, the concepts would still matter and can be discussed usefully at the higher level.

    Even in the pleasure/pain context Indeed, even pleasure and pain are not understood. Why is pain actually painful? A robot could take care of its injuries or seek help with repair w/o feeling anything unpleasant.

    If(error==11213) {dial 911; }

    Else if(error==11214) {dial 911; shutdown;}

    Else if(error==11215) [turnFanOn;}

    Else if(error==11216) {turnFanOff;}

    Else if(error==11217){ReplacePart 517113;} //self-repairing robot

    Feeling pain must be more than a ‘case’ statement responding to error conditions. The robot ‘brain’ does not think at all; that was done by the programmers beforehand and coded.

    Program might be a little better analogy than ‘blue print’, but not much … as in thermo the whole is greater than the parts, only more so. Construction not reduction!

    As with thermodynamics which has it own rules and can be studied and analyzed in its own right, ethics can be studied and its own internal logic explored. Fortunately or unfortunately, it not as easy to understand as thermo and likely never be well understood – keeping photospheres and shrinks in business indefinitely. Still progress can be made, if only by eliminating some of the sillier ideas.

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  14. Massimo,

    “If so, how on earth do you explain that different people and cultures have defined “being good” so differently? ”

    I have already explained this. Because they believe different facts about the way the world actually is. The moral instinct is the same. If they believed the same facts about the way the world actually is, they would have the same view of good and bad. But they don’t so they don’t. This is demonstrable. Racists and non racists believe different facts about the way the world is which is what causes their different views on race. Some racists learn new facts that make them stop being racist. And one of those facts is not “you ought not be racist.” That one doesn’t work. Other facts do .

    Yes it is a combination of nature and nurture. But I am saying that the nurture part is just facts about the way the world is. Correct and ample facts will lead to common conceptions of good and bad. Incorrect and insufficient facts will lead to disparate conceptions of good and bad.

    And as for your analogy to food, If I ask why you choose to eat food period, I don’t need to know anything about culture. The culture is only relevant if I ask why you eat the particular kinds of foods you do.

    I wasn’t asking why you chose to do the specific good things you do, I asked why you chose to be a good at all. If the answer was anywhere in culture, that would mean that some cultures produce gooder people than others. If that’s the case, we really ought to decide which one and follow it. But it will probably be the one that teaches the most correct and ample facts about the way the world actually is.

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  15. Hi Robin

    “I will bet that no one who has gone on a diet or a date will make the mistake that we are completely in charge of our own behavior.”

    I guess deontologists never date or diet then. Maybe that’s why Kant was so angry at the world.

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