Monday, July 26, 2010

Young Female Philosophers Must Feel Bad About All That Meat They Eat

Regular readers may recall that in 2009 Josh Rust and I surveyed several hundred philosophers and non-philosophers on their opinions about various moral issues; we also asked survey respondents to describe their own behavior on those same issues. Some preliminary results of the study are here, here, here, here, here, and here.

The biggest divergences in moral opinion concerned our question about "regularly eating the meat of mammals such as beef and pork". 60% of ethics professor respondents rated mammal-meat consumption as morally bad, compared to 45% of non-ethicist philosophers and just 19% of non-philosophers. Opinion also divided by gender and age. Women were about 1.5 times as likely to condemn mammal-meat consumption (55% of women rated it bad vs. 37% of men). There was a similar shift of opinion with age: 55% of respondents born in 1960 or later condemned mammal-meat consumption, compared to 35% born before 1960. One might expect a compound effect for young female philosophers, and indeed it was so: Fully 81% of female philosophers born in 1960 or later said it was morally bad to regularly eat the meat of mammals. To put this degree of consensus in perspective: In last year's PhilPapers survey of philosophical opinion, only 82% of philosophers endorsed non-skeptical realism about the existence of an external world. (No word, so far, on how philosophers who deny the existence of an external world feel about seeming to consume meat.)

People often do things they think are a little morally bad. For example, I think eating meat is slightly morally bad (on par with driving a gas-guzzling car or being somewhat neglectful of emails from undergraduates), and yet for lunch today I had a salami sandwich. Apparently, a substantial proportion of young female philosophers think and act as I do: 38% of them reported having eaten the meat of a mammal at their previous evening meal -- a rate not statistically different from the 39% reported rate among respondents overall. (Caveat: The total number of female philosopher repondents born 1960 or later was small -- twenty-six -- so the exact percentage should be interpreted cautiously.) Similarly, despite the difference in normative view, there was no statistically detectable difference in the mean age of respondents who said they had eaten the meat of a mammal at their previous evening's meal: mean birth year 1954.3 for those who said they had vs. 1955.1 for those who said they hadn't.

Our survey doesn't call into doubt the relationship between normative ethical view about meat-eating and strict vegetarianism: 78% of those who reported that they never eat mammal meat said eating mammal meat is bad, compared to 32% of those who reported sometimes eating meat. However, it seems that among non-vegetarians there is little if any relationship between normative ethical view and actual meat consumption: If you don't think eating meat is bad enough to warrant strict vegetarianism, but you still think it's somewhat bad, you're just as likely as anyone else, it seems, to have a salami sandwich for lunch. Conscience and behavior go separate ways.


Anonymous said...

I'm a young (by your way of reckoning -- thanks!) female philosopher who doesn't eat mammal meat. But I'm a bit puzzled by your use of terminology. Do you equate not eating mammal meat with being a strict vegetarian? Someone might not eat mammal meat, but eat poultry meat, and I wouldn't think that qualified as being a vegetarian.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Sorry I was confusing about that. In this case the "strictness" was intended to refer to the frequency of the eschewed consumption rather than the breadth of substances eschewed. Refusing to eat mammal meat is perhaps the weakest form of vegetarianism (so not "strict" in one sense), but one can adhere to it strictly by never eating mammal meat or loosely by occasionally eating it. Strictness in that latter sense is what I intended.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

And P.S., the older I get, the older "young" seems! For permanent philosophical faculty, under 50 is young by the current accounting, with respondents' mean age about 55.

LivingInBoxes said...

Regarding the last paragraphs, given our cultural (and irrational) fear of fat, therefore extending to food animals, even among a lot of people who eat meat there is a general perception that vegetarianism is good from even just a health perspective (ignoring any ethics). This manifests itself in people either thinking it inspiring or something to work towards, or other people getting downright defensive about the fact that they eat meat when vegetarians are around.

I know this from experience as I was a "health" vegetarian in my youth, but now follow a paleo approach to diet.

I fall into the group that I think there are some good arguments against eating meat from an ethical perspective, but even though I believe that, I think that (from an evolutionary/physiological perspective), meat is not only a vital part of our diet, but is as essential to our diet as it is for say, a bear, or any other animal whose evolution involved consumption of animals. (Example, I think there is a strong argument that our bigger brains, which consume around 25% of our daily calories, would not have grown to the size and complexity they have without relying on a plentiful supply of calories (initially through scavenging, and then through the use of tools one they developed sufficiently). That is, animal meat and fat, fat being an easy and dense source of calories for a growing brain).

So, the best I can do is try to be as ethical as I can, by purchasing grass-fed, pastured raised meat products, wild fish products, etc.

YMMV, of course.

Andy said...

"People often do things they think are a little morally bad. For example, I think eating meat is slightly morally bad (on par with driving a gas-guzzling car or being somewhat neglectful of emails from undergraduates), and yet for lunch today I had a salami sandwich."

Out of curiosity, what are your reasons for thinking that it is 'slightly morally bad'? It's a position that strikes me as a little odd. But then I say that as a meat-eater who thinks it's very bad.

peter kirwan said...

Interesting results Eric. Mostly confirms my anecdotal experience from talking to people about this stuff, aside from the female thing which is a surprise. Perhaps, like you said, that's a blip from the sample size though.

Further to what Anon said, your use of 'strict vegetarian' is unfortunate because this is often used as a synonym for vegan.

Interestingly, the animals you are talking about will make a difference with some ethicists. Several Utilitarians I've met feel very bad about eating chickens but significantly less bad about eating cows due to the number of meals the chicken provides versus the number the cow provides.

peter kirwan said...

They are also motivated by the fact that the life of a factory farmed chicken is considerably worse than that of a factory farmed beef cow.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

Peter: I agree with your comments, though I think the gender difference can't be statistical chance (p < .001).

Boxes: I'm not sure about all that; maybe.

Andy: From an ecological perspective, in terms of responsibility to future generations, it seems to me a little bad. I also think it is very much less bad to harm a non-human animal than it is to equivalently harm a human being. Whether it is so much less bad that consuming animals for food qualifies as only a little bad is open to debate, but at least seems not a preposterous position.

peter kirwan said...

yeah my bad, i was mixing up women generally with women born after 1960 and I misinterpreted this

"(Caveat: The total number of female philosopher repondents born 1960 or later was small -- twenty-six -- so the exact percentage should be interpreted cautiously.)"

as meaning the possibility of a statistical blip which, looking at it again, isn't what you said.

Will said...

I found the terminology a little fuzzy and made some of the points confusing. I wonder if the stats would differ if some of the definitions tightened up some. For instance, "eating meat is morally bad", it is equivalent to murder? It is equivalent to eating human flesh? Is eating eggs equivalent to stealing from chickens? I tend to feel that people do reflect their real values in what they do. I am curious if they feel that animal life is somehow less than human life, and therefore would be more okay with eating salami than kentucky fried human fingers. "Refusing to eat mammal meat is perhaps the weakest form of vegetarianism"--refusing, if successful, sounds strict and should not be the weakest form. But I would like to have such refusals be categorized with "why?" whether it is just bad like a justifiable lie to deflect a killer from killing someone or bad as in actually being the killer. Or is it bad morally like alcohol impairing health? Or eating animal flesh food increasing a carbon footprint (less efficient harvesting of food from nature?)?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Peter: I understand how it can go by quickly!

Will: I would expect that few philosophers (or others) would regard killing animals for consumption to be as morally bad as killing human beings for consumption. Only a small percentage of Josh's and my respondents, for example, rated it at the extreme end of our moral scale, "very morally bad".

Why it's morally bad, if it is morally bad, is of course a different -- and large -- question!

Jorgen said...

As a strict vegan, I can say from my personal experience (albeit without empirical data) that from the *many* conversations I have had about the ethics of eating animals (given that, just about anytime somebody learns I am vegan they are interested to discuss such matters with me), I have found that those who deem eating animals as something like 'somewhat morally wrong' tend to think this because of factors which pertain to humans, the earth, or other concerns which arise from animal consumption, but which don't focus on the animals themselves. For example, eating beef might be somewhat morally wrong because of carbon emissions, because of the need to level rainforests, because of over-consumption and health issues, etc. Vegans (myself included) and 'strict vegetarians' and so forth tend - in my experience - tend to focus more on the animals themselves, rather than on the general consequences which will undoubtedly affect the planet and humanity.

If I am right in my assumptions based off my many personal conversations with people, then this, I think, gives good reason as to why some people will find eating beef to be *somewhat* morally wrong, albeit while still eating beef nearly every day. That one piece of cow is such a minute part of the overall problematic consequences. Whereas a crazy-strict-vegan such as myself focuses *both* on the general overarching consequences, *and* the total loss of one life, which tends to make it more difficult to justify eating beef even once.

At least that is my initial take on this. If such research was further pursued, I might suggest checking into the focus of the participants (or simply asking *why* it is immoral). I presume that those who give reasons based on overarching consequences will have more than likely eaten beef in the past week, whereas those focused on the suffering and death of animals will have not.

Great post, by the way!

Anonymous said...

I am also a vegan and agree with Jorgen's take. I know many people who see meat-eating as a source of diffuse harms to human beings or the natural world and hence on par with other consumption choices which might have some other adverse consequences, but maybe not intense moral urgency.

The exact intensity of the moral urgency is also a point of disagreement among philosophers sympathetic to animals' interests. All of those philosophers agree that our traditional culture wrongly and arbitrarily disregards animals' interests, but they don't always have a strong consensus about how to fix this.

So I agree with Jorgen that it would be interesting to try to get more fine-grained detail about the philosophers' positions.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Jorgen and anon! Jorgen's impressions sound plausible to me. I bet if you pushed a bit on slightly-bad-conscience meat-eaters, though, you could also get most of them to agree that it is slightly morally better to buy and eat humanely treated animals than to buy and eat factory-farmed animals, for reasons having to do not just with duties to human beings but also having to do with animal welfare. Thus, I would guess that they don't put zero value on the well-being of non-human mammals that are raised for meat consumption.

Ajayraju said...

I think an interesting question could be as follows:

You may feel that eating meat is morally wrong but you do it anyway as u cant live without its taste or dont care that much about it to give it up.

But what about if your friend or or someone you go out for lunch with is giving it up? Do you feel happy that he is giving it up because it is a morally right and therefore less animals are being suffering even though you yourself cant give it up?

Or do you feel disappointed that he is giving up as you dont have company anymore? Or do you maybe feel guilty about not giving it up while he is doing so and prefer if he doesnt give it up as well so that u can feel less guilty?

In any case, in my experience (I am a vegetarian), most of my friends encourage me to start eating meat and they get very happy when a vegetarian converts into a meat eater.

The above often puzzles me as to why someone would want the other to pursue a more morally wronger option (however small it is) even though it doesnt affect them at all.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Ajayraju: I can see why people might want their vegetarian friends to become meat eaters -- either so that they feel less guilty themselves (if they think eating meat is less than morally ideal) or because they want their friends to recant their silliness (if they think there is no moral value in vegetarianism). I admire vegetarianism myself, however, and I believe am more likely to forego meat (especially mammal meat) in the company of a vegetarian than I am when eating on my own.

Ajayraju said...

Eric...Good point about recanting the silliness. I think thats what it is.

I guess i would feel the same way if someone is saving money to donate to the poor etc. and not spending money along with me for food. I would want them to recent their silliness and spend with me even though i know that saving money to donate is much moral thing and i should be happy that he is doing it even though i am not.

But again i guess the point about eating meat is that it is an act of commission rather than omission and therefore i am a vegetarian and dont regard it as silly as some may think.

I guess if the people who eat meat really see an animal being butchered and it struggles for life just like how a human would do, they would rethink it. I got to see it being done to a fish when i was young and it stayed with me.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Ajayraju: I think it's good that people be aware of what they are doing. But of course for millenia people hunted and slaughtered their own food without typically becoming vegetarian. And I briefly lived on a farm where we slaughtered and ate the hens who weren't laying. Maybe there's more to be said against the inhumane "factory farms" treatment of animals -- but that's not an argument for vegetarianism per se. And of course even a humanely raised chicken will struggle for its life.