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What Motivates Us to Change What We Eat?

What Motivates Us to Change What We Eat? Artwork by scongerdesign

A good friend, and well-known philosopher, recently told me that the new “Impossible™ WHOPPER® Sandwich” being sold at Burger King will make his transition to veganism easier. (The Impossible™ WHOPPER® is a plant based burger, “100% WHOPPER®, 0% Beef”). Though this was said with tongue in cheek, it did get me thinking, again, about why even those whose craft and trade is argument have yet to be compelled to change their behaviour toward other animals based on the strong arguments that have been made to take animals seriously. Philosophers since antiquity, like Pythagoras and Valluvar, have argued against eating animals and more elaborate arguments in animal ethics have emerged over the centuries. Yet even though the arguments are getting more compelling, human use of other animals has hugely increased. The bulk of the animals we use are for food, but animals are used in medical research, entertainment of various kinds (racing, hunting, circuses, exotic pet trade, etc.), and whole species are going extinct due to human activities. As a recent meme shockingly notes, if humans killed each other at the same rate that we kill animals, we’d be extinct in 17 days.

Impossible Burger (wikimedia commons)

My friend doesn’t primarily work in ethics, so perhaps he shouldn’t be held to a higher standard than most people who, when they hear arguments about the harms we cause animals, may feel a bit bad about it but don’t always or readily change their behaviours. We may assume, however, that ethicists are responsive to their own types of arguments. In order to test this assumption, Eric Schwitzgebel asked numerous ethics professors whether they do in fact change their behaviour as a result of thinking long

Impossible Burger (wikimedia commons)

and hard about ethical questions. It turned out that those who work in academic ethics don’t really think that much about the implications of their arguments! Schwitzgebel reported that they think they are talking “about abstract problems and bizarre puzzle cases, with no bearing on day-to-day life.” However, it is clearly the case that eating animals, often many times a day, is part of day-to-day life for most people in affluent countries, including philosophy professors.

In line with this, Schwitzgebel did find that the results on his questions about vegetarianism were strikingly different than other ethical issues: In a survey of professors from five US states, we found that 60 per cent of ethicist respondents rated “regularly eating the meat of mammals, such as beef or pork” somewhere on the “morally bad” side of a nine-point scale ranging from “very morally bad” to “very morally good”. By contrast, only 19 percent of non-philosophy professors rated it as bad. That’s a pretty big difference of opinion! Non-ethicist philosophers were intermediate, at 45 per cent. But when asked later in the survey whether they had eaten the meat of a mammal at their last evening meal, we found no statistically significant difference in the groups’ responses – about 38 per cent of professors from all groups reported having done so (including 37 per cent of ethicists). We may conclude that if those working in ethics are not themselves moved to change their behaviour based on the conclusions of their arguments, then something must be amiss with the type of arguments being made. ***

There are two types of arguments that dominate the literature in animal ethics and both, I believe, have not been particularly motivating. Consequentialist arguments of the utilitarian variety have been made prominent by Peter Singer. Arguments of this sort calculate whether doing something would be, all things considered, better or worse for all of those affected, and prescribe action that promotes the greatest pleasure over suffering. Whether those affected by the action are humans or not, as long as they can suffer or experience pleasure, their experiences count.

Singer is a good example of an academic ethicist who is moved by his rational arguments. Because animals used for food suffer terribly before they are slaughtered, we are no more justified in causing them to suffer for the little pleasure some get when eating them than we are in causing anyone to suffer when there is no outweighing benefit. To confine, control, transport, and ultimately slaughter animals for food in contexts in which there are other foods available is to disregard their suffering. So Singer does not eat animals.

The second type of argument that is common within animal ethics suggests that rather than focusing only on suffering, we should recognize other values that must be respected. Utilitarians argue that right action is that which promotes the good, where this good is measured by impartial happiness or impartial pain. These second types of arguments seek to establish certain principles, also impartial in nature, like respect for autonomy or life, and no amount of general good (less suffering or great pleasure) can justify violating one’s autonomy or taking another’s life. It’s not that suffering doesn’t matter for arguments of this sort – suffering does matter – but it matters to someone, and that it matters to someone creates a strong reason not to cause that one to suffer, even if causing that suffering will create great benefits for many others.

Christine Korsgaard presents an argument of this second type, but doesn’t want to overlook an important difference between humans and all other animals. Humans have the capacity to self-reflect and endorse their reasons for acting, whereas other animals probably don’t have these capacities. Importantly, and contrary to the views of many philosophers, Korsgaard doesn’t see this difference as making humans better or more important. Just as our lives, full of self-reflection and reason, are valuable to us, the lives of cows and chickens and chimpanzees and parrots, even if we can’t know whether they reflect on their lives, are valuable to them. For this reason, Korsgaard does not eat animals.

Though these philosophers arguing from different perspectives have come to a similar conclusion – that animals make important claims on us and that we are not justified in our war on animals – and are moved to follow their conclusions, I’m nonetheless distressed that neither type of argument has been persuasive enough to make a real difference for billions of animals.


Artwork by Sam Knowles

I’ve thought about various reasons why these powerful rational arguments have not moved more people to action. One reason is that they ignore the context and significance of particular concerns that arise in our lives. These arguments tend toward abstraction to promote universal principles deduced through careful, albeit detached, reasoning. For all their clarity, these arguments ask us to focus in too narrow a way and they flatten the complexity of actual moral problems experienced by actual people in a wide variety of relationships that pull in many directions. The abstraction detaches people from the projects and relationships that make their lives meaningful in favour of

impartial assessments of right action. But it is often the richness of an individual’s experiences and relationships that helps us to understand what is valuable, what matters, and thus what is lost or gained when we act or fail to act in particular ways. Paying attention to the particularities may provide more force in guiding moral action. If an ethical argument doesn’t capture what matters to you, if it leads you to have to choose between leading satisfying, meaningful lives or doing the right thing, then the arguments will not help guide action at all. People just won’t care.

The alternative I propose is not focused on abstract reasoning. It also is not one that reduces to what some philosophers derogatorily refer to as “mawkish sentimentality” of the sort J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello is often accused of. Rather, I argue for a view I call “entangled empathy” that is a process that blends reason and emotions, and refocuses our ethical attention on something we do care about – our relationships. While most of us care about our own lives and projects, we also care about those we are in relation to. Indeed, it seems that our very understanding of ourselves situates us in those relations. Most of us think about our actions when they impact those with whom we are in relations, and when we are being especially thoughtful we will reflect on our dependencies and our obligations in those relations as well. And our relationships are not only with other humans. Many of us have deep, meaningful relationships with other animals, relationships that can change how we see ourselves and the world. This sort of attention changed me fairly drastically when I found myself in relationship with a chimpanzee named Emma. When I met Emma, she was still quite young, had been reared with humans but had been integrated into a group of adult chimpanzees, all of whom had been raised by humans and for whom humans still remained an integral part of their social group. It was quite clear from the moment Emma and I met that she wanted to be closer to me. My time with Emma was so unique and poignant that I was radically transformed by it. I obviously think differently about my relationship with Emma, but I also now think differently about my relationships with other chimpanzees, some of whom I know, some I don’t, and I also think differently about animal ethics. My relationship with Emma wasn’t at all familiar, we hadn’t known each other well enough to yet think of it as a friendship. I was already in a sort of idealized relationship with her as a “smart” chimpanzee, one that was more abstract and aspirational, which was why I went to the facility where she lived in the first place. But her attraction to me forced me to realize that someone very, very different from me could form an immediate relationship with me and elicit feelings that I always imagined were reserved for the most intimate human connections. Not many people have this sort of relationship with chimpanzees, but many of us have deep relationships with companion animals that help us to try to figure out what it means to live well as someone very different, like a dog or a cat or a turtle. And we are not just in relationships as selves with others, but the self itself is comprised of what Karen Barad calls “intra-actions.” Drawing on her background as a physicist, Barad argues that there is not an individual that exists prior to and separate from the entangled intra-actions that constitute them. Importantly, the individual that emerges from entanglements is distinctly constituted by particular intra-actions. Understanding and reflecting on our entanglements is part of what it takes to constitute ourselves in relationships.

That we are already, necessarily, in these relations should move us toward more conscientious ethical reflection and engagement. Since we exist in relation with other beings, and our perceptions, attitudes, and even our identities, are entangled with them, we have a motivation to reflect on our actions as they impact ourselves and these others.

I think we’ll be motivated to improve on these relationships as we don’t want to be in “bad” or “abusive” ones. I have not yet met someone who endorsed the idea that they are in a bad relationship and want it to stay that way. Since we are already, inevitably in relationships, it makes sense to work to make them better, more meaningful, and more mutually satisfying. Relationships of exploitation or complete instrumentalization, which is how we might characterize the bulk of our relationships with other animals at the moment, are precisely the sorts of relationships that should change.

Entangled empathy is one way to engage with others in order to help change our relationships for the better. Entangled empathy integrates a range of thoughts and feelings to try to get an accurate take on a situation of another and figure out what, if anything, we are called upon to do. Once we hone our skills, we can empathetically engage with others with whom we don’t have direct contact as well as groups of unfamiliar individuals. We can extend our empathic attention to more distant others with whom we are in less immediate, but nonetheless entangled, connections.

Human activity has touched virtually every part of the globe, whether directly or indirectly. I often think of orangutans who are critically endangered due to the enormous market for palm oil. In the forests of Indonesia, over 6000 orangutans die each year and over 80% of their habitat has been destroyed. I’ve never met wild orangutans, but I am in relationships with them when I consume palm oil, an ingredient in so many products, including many processed “vegan” products. The palm oil industry is spreading to Africa where dwindling chimpanzee habitats will be endangered further and many other forest-dwelling animals will be threatened. It may not be common to think of one’s relationships to endangered great apes and other animals while shampooing one’s hair or spreading margarine on one’s toast, but entangled empathy encourages us to attend to all of our relationships, intimate or casual, near and far, and work to avoid making these relationships worse.


artwork cow above the sky

Empathy has gotten a bad reputation because people think of it as a type of knee-jerk reaction that is often misguided or biased. I worry too that people have “feminized” empathy and view it as overly sentimental. Some think about empathy as presumptuous, as people thinking they know how someone else feels or sees the world. That isn’t the empathy I have in mind. Entangled empathy is not merely an emotional reaction – it requires critical attention, practice, and correction. I think it is wise to add a good dose of humility to the process of empathizing and the actions that spring from it too.

Entangled empathy requires work. An entangled empathizer will think through the complicated processes of trying to understand others, human and non-human, in situations of differential social, political, and species based power. These are complex processes in which we may only get a “glimpse” of the other, and in which we are likely to make mistakes. But given that we are entangled in co-constituting relationships, this work to understand is not just something desirable, it is central to our very agency. Our agency is relational in a robust sense, co-constituted by our social and material entanglements. Social entanglements often extend beyond the human and far beyond our geographical location. Material entanglements include our socio-economic opportunities and barriers to opportunity, shaped by race and class. They also include our entanglement with the food we have access to, the safety of our physical environments, the animals and humans whose labour and bodies are exploited in what we consume. All of these actions, in part, constitute who we are. We are, in this sense, what we eat. Further, when we recognize that our relationships with the animals who we eat are marred by the extreme pain and deprivation of intensive agriculture, the greenhouse costs and other environmental devastation that animal agriculture causes, and as well as health problems created by consumption of animals, it would be odd indeed to say that this is a good relationship. I’m not sure the relationships one is endorsing by eating at Burger King are good ones either, but to be empathetic toward my friend and colleague, perhaps it’s a good start to have those unmotivated by standard ethical arguments to eat their Impossible™ WHOPPER® as they think of how to make their relationships with others and themselves better. Lori Gruen is a leading scholar in Animal Studies and Feminist Philosophy. She is the author and editor of 10 books, including Entangled Empathy and Critical Terms for Animal Studies.


From The Philosopher, vol. 108, no. 1 ('The Other Animals'). Read more articles from The Philosopher, purchase this issue or become a subscriber.


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