Rational animals? the limits of human reason

In my previous post, I discussed a misinformation in the context of non-human animals. However, I did not consider the psychological mechanisms that are operating ‘beneath the surface’ that enable the spread of misinformation and the adoption of inaccurate beliefs. Here, I question the limits of human reason, drawing attention to what can most aptly be described as psychological flaws.

The terms reason’ and ‘rationality’ are often used interchangeably. According to a commonplace objectivist view, rationality consists in one’s beliefs or actions following from reason. However, the question of ‘what is reason?’ remains. When I refer to reason (likewise, reasoning), my focus is on the mechanisms of thought and belief formation. Reasoning, in the simplest sense, refers to the process by which people generate and evaluate arguments and beliefs (Anderson, 1985; Hollyoak & Spellman, 1993, in Westen, Burton, & Kowalski, 2006).

Similarly, Amoretti and Vassallo (2012) suggest that according to the ‘standard picture’, rationality consists in reasoning in accordance with normative principles (p.10). In addition to highlighting the relationship between rationality and reason, the mention of ‘normative principles’ draws attention to rules for reasoning that have been derived from logic, probability theory and decision theory (Stein, 1996, in Samuels, Stich, & Faucher, 2004, p.2).

My concern here is how well we are able to follow these normative principles. In other words, my concern here is what Samuels, Stitch, & Faucher call the ‘Descriptive Project’ – understanding how we go about reasoning (Stein, 1996, in Samuels, Stich, & Faucher, 2004, p.2), and more specifically, understanding the limits of our reasoning faculties.

While ordinarily, humans are thought to be good reasoners, in recent years psychologists have highlighted various ways that our reasoning processes are susceptible to error (Richardson, 2018). The fallibility of human reason was brought to attention in the late 20th century when psychologists noticed the extent in which we rely on heuristics – cognitive shortcuts that allow us to make rapid decisions with minimal cognitive load. Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, among others, noticed that reliance on these cognitive shortcuts gave rise to a number of biases that influence our reasoning processes and undermine the conception of humans as ideal rational agents. For example, we have a tendency to pay attention to information that confirms our existing beliefs, known as ‘confirmation bias’ (Mercier, 2011, p.136).

If our reasoning processes are potentially corrupt, then perhaps our moral reasoning, and what follows (i.e. moral judgement, action, and so forth) might also be led astray. Moral reasoning, in the simplest sense, is a type of reasoning about what one ought to do in any situation involving moral agents. One might suggest that moral reasoning is simply applying ethical theories to deliberation about how one ought to act to form a deductive argument. Or, it could be argued that moral reasoning involves adjusting one’s beliefs, in light of goals, to arrive at what Rawls calls a “reflective equilibrium’’ (Harman, Sinnott-Armstrong, & Mason, 2010, p.212-214, 237). However, as I alluded to above, moral reasoning is not undertaken by ‘ideal rational agents’, and as such, it is a complicated matter.

In the paper What Good is Moral Reasoning (2011), psychologist Hugo Mercier questions the role that individual reasoning plays in our moral lives. Mercier highlights that a number of theories of moral reasoning broadly fit a dual process framework, dividing cognitive action into two distinct categories, building on Kahneman’s interpretation, referred to as System 1 and System 2. The former usually refers to automatic unconscious processes, relying on heuristics, whereas the latter processes are slow, effortful, and conscious (Mercier, 2011, p.133).

Although our System 1 processes are often reliable, they are fallible, and can lead to irrational judgements. However, the division of cognitive processes into System 1 and System 2 grants a way for moral reasoning to take place free from corruption. Put another way, even if we rely on mechanisms that have inherent biases to make quick and non-reflective judgements, moral reasoning is a reflective endeavour – intentional, controllable, and based on rules. As such, one can potentially undertake moral reasoning and make moral judgements without being swayed by unconscious biases.  

Mercier highlights that System 1 processes play a dominant role in making moral judgments and in decision making. In contrast, System 2 processes are primarily used as a justificatory mechanism, that is making post-hoc rationalisations to justify our own beliefs and actions. In addition, Mercier notes that when people use reason to examine their own moral beliefs and judgements, they are likely to only find arguments that support their pre-existing positions. This is consistent with the concept of Confirmation Bias, the ‘‘seeking or interpreting of evidence in ways that are partial to existing beliefs, expectations, or a hypothesis in hand’’(Nickerson 1998, p. 175, in Mercier, 2011, p.136).

Similarly, in the paper Reasons probably won’t change your mind: The role of reasons in revising moral decisions (2018), Matthew Stanley and colleagues postulate that moral decisions are driven by affective responses rather than deliberate reasoning. Their study found that after assessing moral dilemmas, and being asked to justify reasons, participants were unlikely to change their original decision, even when later presented with opposing reasons. They note that moral decisions resist change as a result of the shortcomings in reasoning processes discussed above. This perspective is not without criticism, however, and I will consider this shortly.

It becomes clear that the two defined systems within a dual process framework are not operating independently; System 1 processes influence System 2 processes. As such, reflective moral reasoning (S2) is just as fallible as unconscious processes (S1). Therefore, a problem arises. If moral reasoning is meant to give guidance on matters that can have great impact on the lives of others, a mechanism that mostly supports our previous beliefs is surely not sufficient for this task (Mercier, 2011, p.137).  Further, if our reasoning is fallible, it follows that we are ill equipped to evaluate arguments and make accurate judgments, which in turn, creates an environment ripe for the spread of misinformation and the formation of false beliefs.

More recently, however, others have questioned whether the results of these studies follow outside of the laboratory and whether a pessimistic account of human rationality is justified. Paxton and Greene (2010), while conceding that emotion-based intuition plays a formidable role in our beliefs and moral judgements, argue that moral reasoning in the “real-world” can still be effective. They suggest moral reasoning between individuals allows for the transmission of moral principles that may be used to override intuitions and influence behaviour (Paxton & Greene, 2010, p.525). 

Hugo Mercier, in his latest book, Not Born Yesterday. The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe (2020), also defends human reason. Mercier, drawing on the latest findings from experimental psychology, suggests that cognitive shortcomings are faults in an otherwise well-functioning system. 

Similarly, in the paper Is Conspiracy Theorizing Irrational (2019) and his forthcoming book Bad Beliefs: Why They Happen to Good People, (In Press), Neil Levy proposes that humans are ‘subjectively rational’ – reasoning, by their lights, in the best possible way. That is to say that a pessimistic view of human reason is not justified. What might be deemed objectively irrational, or poor reasoning, can be explained as a rational response to environmental factors (Levy, 2019, & Levy, In Press).

That said, these approaches that question a pessimistic view of human reason do not provide a direct objection to the idea that our reasoning is fallible. Paxton and Greene are suggesting that reflective reasoning can play a role in moral deliberation, so if anything, they are only questioning the degree to which psychological flaws impact our reasoning, rather than objecting to them having any impact at all.

Whereas Mercier posits that while some heuristics (which he calls ‘mechanisms of open vigilance’) can misguide us, they have developed for good reasons, and overall, function well. This does not serve as a direct challenge to the existence of flaws in our reasoning abilities, but instead, shifts judgement from a pessimistic point of view to an optimistic one.

Likewise, Levy does not object directly to the idea that our reasoning faculties are fallible. Instead, he proposes that a shift in perspective, beyond the individual, is required to understand why we hold bad beliefs. Levy’s departure from the individual does raise a good point: that our beliefs, our individual beliefs, are not that individual after all. Rather, our beliefs are deeply social, influenced by a wide range of external factors.

The picture that I have sketched here, with a few exceptions, considers belief through the lens of the individual. That is, reasoning is understood from an individual agent’s perspective, calling attention to psychological shortcomings taking place at an individual level. However, psychological explanations alone cannot account for the prominence of false beliefs. Rather, we must look beyond the individual to understand how our beliefs take shape. The social nature of our beliefs creates an environment in which misinformation can spread easily, and be immensely damaging.

*This blog post has been adapted from my Masters of Research thesis, ‘How Misinformation Reinforces the Status of Animals as Food’ (2021). Thank you to my supervisors Jane Johnson and Mark Alfano.

REFERENCES

Amoretti, M.C., & Vassallo, N. (2012). “The Life According to Reason is Best and Pleasantest”, in M.C Amoretti & N. Vassallo, Reason and Rationality, Piscataway (eds.), NJ: Transaction Books.

Asch, S. E. (1951). Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgments. in H. Guetzkow (ed.), Groups, leadership, and men Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Press.

Harman, G., Sinnott-Armstrong, W., & Mason, K. (2010). “Moral Reasoning” in J. Doris (ed.), The Moral Psychology Handbook, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York, NY: Penguin Press.

Levy, N. (2019). Is Conspiracy Theorising Irrational? Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, 8(10): 65-76.

Levy, N. (In Press).  Bad Beliefs. Why They Happen to Good People. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Mercier, H. (2011). What Good Is Moral Reasoning?. Mind and Society, 10: 131-148.

Mercier, H. (2020). Not Born Yesterday. The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Paxton, J.M., & Greene, J.D. (2010). Moral Reasoning: Hints and Allegations. Topics in Cognitive Science, 2: 511-527.

Richardson, H. S. (2018). “Moral Reasoning”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Retrieved April 3rd 2021, from https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2018/entries/reasoning-moral/

Sankey, H. (2013). On Reason and Rationality. Metascience, 22: 677–679.

Samuels, R., Stich, S., & Faucher, L. (2004). “Reason and Rationality” in I. Niiniluoto, M. Sintonen, J. Woleński (eds.), Handbook of Epistemology. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer.

Stanley, M. L., Dougherty, A. M., Yang, B. W., Henne, P., & De Brigard, F. (2018). Reasons probably won’t change your mind: The role of reasons in revising moral decisions. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 147 (7): 962–987.

Westen, D., and Burton, L., & Kowalski, R. (2006). Psychology: Australian and New Zealand Edition, Milton, Australia: John Wiley & Sons Australia LTD

Natural? necessary? normal? nice? misinformation concerning the consumption of non-human animals

There is an abundance of misinformation, from a variety of sources, that influences how we think about non-human animals. Here, i consider misinformation in this context, through three categories – (1) Individuals/Consumers, (2) Corporations/Organisations, and (3) Media. As will become apparent, these categories overlap and interact with one another. Aside from a basic consideration of the facts-of-the-matter, I am not interrogating the falsity of these examples, as my intention is not to debate the accuracy of the claims themselves. Rather, I am highlighting these examples to show the scope of misinformation in this context. As such, it should be taken that the misinformation I identify and refer to here is just that – false and misleading information, not supported by evidence.

Individuals/Consumers

There are many common misconceptions about non-human animals as a food-source that are spread by individual agents, often without malicious intent. However, this form of misinformation can still be damaging, regardless of the communicator’s intention. Our beliefs are formed socially, so what might seem to be innocent sharing of information can still have dire consequences for non-human animals. Further, many of the folk ideas concerning non-human animals are then promoted in the form of disinformation by corporations and organisations, often then also being communicated through the media, in turn influencing more individuals.

Some misinformation might directly challenge the perspective that animals deserve greater moral consideration (for example, if someone was to claim that animals don’t deserve moral consideration). However, this type of misinformation is not widespread, as most people are not directly considering the moral status of non-human animals. Instead, these views are often implied in other arguments, some more directly than others. For example, the commonplace belief that fish do not feel pain does not directly question moral status, but instead, considers the existence (or presumed lack of) of a capacity that is a basis for moral consideration.

A study carried out by Jarred Piazza and colleagues in 2015, building on Melanie Joy’s Why we love dogs, eat pigs, and wear cows (2010), provides some all-too-common false beliefs about non-human animals. This study focused on how people rationalized meat consumption, categorizing the justifications that participants used in terms of Joy’s ‘3Ns’ – ‘natural’, ‘necessary’, and ‘normal’, whilst also adding a 4th category – ‘nice’. Rather than viewing these only as rationalizations, a shift in perspective sees them as false beliefs that provide a basis for misinformation. I will now give a brief overview of these four categories.

Misinformation that appeals to biology to draw attention to the ‘naturalness’ of eating meat may take the form of statements such as It is natural for humans to eat meat, Humans are omnivores, Evolutionarily hominids have always eaten meat, Organisms consuming each other is something that is prevalent in nature, or humans were meant to have dominion over animals (Piazza et. al., 2015, p.116). As noted above, I will not interrogate these claims here, however, they fall short in three key ways. First, they are often scientifically inaccurate, that is, not supported by empirical evidence. Second, they rest on the idea that something that is natural is, broadly speaking, ‘good’, and something non-natural is ‘bad’. Although this might be a good rule of thumb, it is not always the case that natural equates to good, therefore it is a fallacious argumentative approach (1). Similarly, it is questionable whether these claims, if accurate, should even be considered morally relevant. That is to say, what is determined to be biologically good or bad does not equate to morally permissible or impermissible.

Misinformation that fits the category of ‘normal’ appeals to societal norms and behaviours, both present and historic. Piazza et. al. give the following statements as examples: Society says it’s okay, I was raised eating meat, Meat is culturally accepted, and A lot of other people eat meat (Piazza et. al., 2015, p.116).  At first glance, these examples do not seem to be making clearly truth-evaluative claims, and as such, might not strictly fall under the banner of misinformation, however upon further interrogation, it becomes clear that these examples contain false and misleading information. For example, the claims Society says it’s okay, or Meat is culturally accepted, are not factually accurate, as a significant portion of society suggests consumption of animals is not acceptable. For example, approximately 10% of the Australian population consumes a vegetarian diet (Roy Morgan, 2019). As I have noted with regard to naturalness, the moral relevance of normality is also questionable. Many practices throughout history that have been seen as normal, for example, human slavery or child abuse, are clearly not morally permissible. In other words, normality does not imply morality.

Other common forms of misinformation claim, in one way or another, that consumption of animals is ‘necessary’. This sort of statement usually appeals to an individual’s health, suggesting that one cannot have a healthy diet without eating meat. Again, this is not the place to review these claims in depth, however it must be noted that a number of studies have been undertaken to determine the credibility of health-based objections to a vegetarian diet, suggesting that consuming a vegetarian diet is in no way detrimental to health (Sheratt, 2007, pp.429, & Piazza et. al., 2015, p.115). Examples of this sort of misinformation include the beliefs that humans need meat to survive, Meat provides good nutrients, or Protein is a necessary part of our diets. These claims are not limited to health appeals however, and might also appeal to population control or economic stability, for example, the view that if we didn’t (eat meat), there would be an overabundance of certain animals (Piazza et. al., 2015, p.116).

While the above ‘3N’s’ are originally attributable to Melanie Joy (2010), a 4th category was identified, specific to consumption of animals, and added to Piazza et. al.’s 2015 study – ‘nice’. According to Piazza and colleagues, “Several lines of evidence suggest that the enjoyment people derive from eating meat is a major barrier to reducing meat consumption and/or adopting a vegetarian diet” (Piazza et. al. 2015. p.115-116). In a basic sense, an individual agent claiming that they derive pleasure from eating meat does not constitute misinformation, as instead, it is simply a subjective value-judgement (for example; it’s delicious). However, this sort of claim appeals to hedonistic pleasure, and as such, Piazza et. al. imply that it includes the ‘feel-good’ attitude that one gets when they believe they are eating ‘humane’ meat. This is an important point, as narratives about ‘happy’ or ‘humane’ meat are often promoted by corporations and organisations that are invested in the ongoing exploitation of animals. But, put simply, there is no such thing as happy meat.

At this point, I depart from the individual and move on to explore the disinformation and propaganda, advanced by animal-agricultural corporations and associated industry bodies, as an attempt to justify their practices and reinforce the status of some animals as food.

Corporations/Organisations

In the chapter Humane Hypocrisies – Making Killing Acceptable, from Why We Love and Exploit Animals: Bridging Insights from Academia and Advocacy (2020), John Sorenson provides an overview of the various methods used by ‘pro-meat’ corporations and organisations to maintain the domination and exploitation of non-human animals. While Sorenson does not specifically refer to misinformation, he highlights a number of methods used by these groups, including rhetorical techniques, euphemisms, and the creation of inaccurate narratives to reinforce the status of animals as food. Many of these techniques fall under the banner of misinformation, more specifically, disinformation, as they are communicating deliberately false and misleading information with the intention of manipulating people to believe that certain non-human animals do not deserve moral consideration and instead should merely be seen as food. Disinformation is also produced to undermine the credibility of those who call for better treatment of non-human animals.

Sorenson highlights the cruelty, violence, and unethical behaviour that is involved with the commodification of non-human animals, and goes on to suggest that those within this industry face the task of making these things “seem acceptable, normal, and desirable”(Sorenson, 2020, p.212).  To overcome criticism, these industries have “crafted extensive advertising and propaganda campaigns” so that “violence is normalized and presented as acceptable” (Sorenson, 2020, p.212). He uses bacon as an example, which he more-accurately describes as “strips of flesh cut from the corpses of pigs” (Sorenson, 2020, p.212). Sorenson notes that advertisers must create a fetishized narrative that masks the negative health consequences of this product, whilst also concealing what he calls the “relations of production” (Sorenson, 2020, p.212), that is, the violence and suffering experienced by pigs in the creation of this product.

In this example, there are two aspects of disinformation. First, there is the narrative that obscures negative health outcomes associated with this product, such as increased risk of heart attacks, stroke, cancer, and more. As noted earlier with respect to individuals, a common justification for consuming animals is the idea that it is necessary to do so; for example, that meat is needed for a healthy diet. However, as individuals are more likely to accept information that fits with their existing beliefs, and dismiss information that conflicts, negative health outcomes get little attention (Piazza et. al., 2015, p.115).

Second, a disinformation campaign is created to hide the violent and unethical treatment of theanimals used to produce this product, more precisely, the narrative of ‘humane meat’ (2) (Sorenson, 2020, p.214). Although there are some minor improvements in humane practices when compared to conventional practices (for example, larger cages), these animals are ultimately still subjected to unnecessary harm, as it is not necessary for humans in highly industrialized cultures to consume animal products. In addition, this form of disinformation allows consumers to see themselves as people who love animals (or at least, some animals), and more importantly, as not as being complicit in the exploitation of animals (Sorenson, 2020, p.215). Other rhetorical devices designed by corporations and organisations to make exploitation and killing seem palatable, perhaps even praiseworthy, include the terms ‘humane slaughter’ and ‘ethical butchering’.

Not only does the humane myth attempt to cement the consumption of non-human animals as normal and acceptable, but it is also employed to undermine the credibility of animal rights activists, in addition to making veganism seem, as Sorenson puts it, “extreme and utopian” (Sorenson, 2020, p.215). Propaganda that paints animal rights activists as villains is ultimately created to draw attention away from the terrible acts taking place in the commodification of non-human animals. In addition, this narrative portrays farmers as victims of the activists, diverting attention away from non-human animals.

A recently released report by environmental investigations outlet Desmog has drawn attention to tactics used by the global meat industry, including both producers and industry groups, to downplay the industry’s role in climate change. These tactics, known as ‘climate-washing’, include the propagation of disinformation in an attempt to dismiss a causal connection between global-warming and livestock farming, while also downplaying plant-based alternatives to meat as a potential solution (Christian, 2021).

The Desmog report gives examples of false and misleading statements used by corporations and industry bodies in an attempt to dismiss scientific evidence that threatens their operations. For example, Dutch corporation Vion Food Group publicly claims that“eating less meat will not necessarily contribute to more sustainability”(Christian, 2021). Similarly, America’s Animal Agriculture Alliance (AAA) and French industry group International Meat Secretariat (IMS) consistently publicly attack research that suggests meat reduction is beneficial for both the environment and human health. In addition to attacking research that conflicts with their interests, they also draw on dubious research to suggest that their activities are a possible solution to the climate crisis, through regenerative agriculture. The report also highlights how these organisations promote themselves as ‘climate-friendly’, in a similar way to the ‘humane’ meat movement, but with a focus on downplaying environmental impact rather than the treatment of animals themselves. For example, multinational Danish Crown recently pledged “a new direction towards a more sustainable future”and ran a large-scale advertising campaign suggesting that its pig-farming operations were “climate-friendly” (Christian, 2021). 

All of the examples of disinformation that I have highlighted here have the potential to become normalized, that is, adopted by consumers, allowing the cycle to continue in the form of misinformation. However, there is one additional arena that assists with this process: the communication of misinformation by mass media.

Media

Media outlets play a substantial role in the spread of misinformation, including those organisations that might otherwise be described as ‘progressive’. While there are some media outlets that intend to spread false and misleading information, my focus here is the communication of misinformation, that could be described as innocent (but might be better described as careless). To highlight the role that media outlets play in the communication of misinformation, I will consider one recent example. Recall in the previous section, I briefly gave the example of regenerative farming as being a ‘problem-solver’ for climate change. Regenerative agriculture (also known as regenerative farming or regenerative ranching) seeks to restore natural habitats and reverse climate change by restoring soil health and improving its ability to store carbon. However, there is little scientific evidence to support this approach, particularly with respect to the extent that it claims to provide a solution. As Christian notes, recent research at the University of Oxford has found that grass-fed cows release more greenhouse gas than they are able to offset though boosting soil carbon levels, therefore still being a net contributor to the climate crisis (Christian, 2021).

In August, 2021, The Guardian – Food’ released an article titled It’s not the cow, it’s the how’: why a long-time vegetarian became beef’s biggest champion (Barkham, 2021). As the title suggests, this article serves as an attempt to downplay the view that cattle farming is bad for the environment if regenerative practices are adopted. I am not concerned with debating the epistemic accuracy of regenerative farming here, however, the key claim being made here is a fallacious one – that regenerative farming is good for the environment.

In this example, The Guardian is communicating misinformation in the form of a ‘puff-piece’, designed to make the reader feel good, without interrogating the factual accuracy of the claims. This is sometimes done in attempt to appear impartial. It is unlikely that this media outlet has the intention of spreading misinformation, but rather, provides an outlet for both sides of the coin(The Guardian is also known to publish articles that criticise animal agriculture). Rather than arguments being accepted (published) or dismissed (not-published) based on their accuracy, factually inaccurate ‘bad’ arguments are allowed to persist, ripe for consumption by the uncritical consumer and serving as a foundation for the further spread of misinformation. In addition, when the reader is presented with what appears to be two equally valid positions, even if they do think critically, they can arrive at a state of disorientation. But as political economist Jan Dutkiewicz suggests,“If you have virtual consensus on one side and a few people over here, many of whom received funding from the meat industry … It shouldn’t be seen as two equal interlocutors presenting equally valid opposing opinions” (Christian, 2021).

It may seem that the above story is a relatively innocent example of misinformation, enabled by the circumstances outlined above, in which media outlets attempt to appear impartial or report ‘both sides of the story’. However, if one were to dig deeper, it becomes clear that this story has been created by a corporation invested in the continuing exploitation of cattle, an organization called Defending Beef. This organization is owned by Perdue Farms, one of the largest animal agricultural operations in America. In addition, the title used by The Guardian, it’s not the cow, it’s the how, is a false and misleading statement; rhetoric employed by the same organization to divert attention away from the true environmental impact of cattle farming. Articles like this are received by individual agents, taken at face value and perpetuated in the form of agent-to-agent misinformation which enables the spread of false beliefs.

I must reiterate that the examples that I have given here are not exhaustive. There are countless other instances of misinformation in the context of non-human animals. However, what I have attempted to do here is give the reader an understanding of misinformation, both as a concept, and also how it can take shape in the context of non-human animals. I hope that it is also clear that the three categories I have focused on here are deeply intertwined with one another, forming a cycle of misinformation that enables the spread of false beliefs, and in this case, ultimately inhibits adequate moral consideration of non-human animals by reinforcing the status of some animals as food.

However, as O’Connor and Weatherall suggest in their book ‘The Misinformation Age’ (2020), a mere introduction to misinformation does not explain its widespread acceptance. Further consideration of the underlying mechanisms that assist with the formation and spread of false beliefs is needed.

*This blog post has been adapted from my Masters of Research thesis, ‘How Misinformation Reinforces the Status of Animals as Food’ (2021). Thank you to my supervisors Jane Johnson and Mark Alfano.

NOTES

(1)   This is most commonly referred to as the ‘appeal to nature’ fallacy. As some things that are natural are bad (e.g. Polio), and some things that are not natural are good (e.g. penicillin), appeal to naturalness is a moot point. Instead, things (both natural and non-natural) should be assessed on their own merits. 

(2)   ‘Humane meat’ is also sometimes referred to as ‘happy meat’, but increasingly, ‘happy meat’ is being used to refer to cultured (lab-grown) meat.

REFERENCES

Barkham, P. (2021, August 30). It’s not the cow, it’s the how’: why a long-time vegetarian became beef’s biggest champion. The Guardian – Food. Retrieved August 30th 2021, from https://www.theguardian.com/food/2021/aug/30/its-not-the-cow-its-the-how-why-a-long-time-vegetarian-became-beefs-biggest-champion

Christian, C. (2021, July 18). Investigation: How the Meat Industry is Climate-Washing its Polluting Business Model. Desmog. Retrieved July 18th 2021, from https://www.desmog.com/2021/07/18/investigation-meat-industry-greenwash-climatewash/

Joy, M. (2010). Why we love dogs, eat pigs, and wear cows. An introduction to carnism. San Francisco, CA: Red Wheel/Weiser.

O’Connor, C., & Weatherall, J. O. (2019). The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread. London, UK: Yale University Press.

Piazza, J., Ruby, M. B., Loughnan, S., Luong, M., Kulik, J., Hanne M. Watkins, H. M., & Seigerman, M. (2015). Rationalizing meat consumption. The 4Ns. Appetite, 91: 114-128.

Roy Morgan. (2019, April 12th). Rise in vegetarianism not halting the march of obesity. [Press release]. Retrieved April 3rd 2021, from http://www.roymorgan.com/findings/7944-vegetarianism-in-2018-april-2018-201904120608

Sherratt, A. (2007). Vegetarians and their Children. Journal of Applied Philosophy, (24)4: 425-434.

Sorenson, J. (2020) “Humane Hypocrisies. Making Killing Acceptable”. In K. Dhont & G. Hodson (eds.), Why We Love and Exploit Animals: Bridging Insights from Academia and Advocacy. New York, NY: Routledge.

What is misinformation?

Misinformation refers, in the broadest sense, to false information. This term is used in a variety of contexts, sometimes interchangeably with other similar terms, such as disinformation or propaganda, or with buzzwords like fake-news, which can result in confusion about this topic.

In their 2018 book, Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics, Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts provide two useful definitions of misinformation. Their first definition is “publishing wrong information without meaning to be wrong or having a political purpose in communicating false information” (Benkler et. al., 2018, p.24), and the second definition “Communication of false information without intent to deceive, manipulate, or otherwise obtain an outcome”(Benkler et. al., 2018, p.37).

The authors’ second definition of misinformation aligns with a commonplace understanding of the term and highlights a necessary condition – the lack of intent to deceive or manipulate. Their first definition is also important however, as it adds an additional condition – a lack of political purpose. According to Benkler et. al., misinformation can be contrasted withdisinformation, which they define as “Dissemination of explicitly false or misleading information” and “manipulating and misleading people intentionally to achieve political ends”(Benkler et. al., 2018, p.24 & 32). In other words, disinformation both (a) is intentionally misleading and (b) serves a political purpose.

Some quick examples will help to differentiate these terms. If group of conspirators want to convince others that when a vaccination is administered, a microchip will be implanted into the receiver’s skin that will be used to track the recipient. Assuming there is no evidence for such a thing happening, this constitutes disinformation, as it is both intentionally misleading, and serves a political purpose. The political element might not be explicit; however, the conspirators do have a political agenda – to discourage vaccination.

On the other hand, if my friend Mary was to hear about this and warn me not to get vaccinated if I wish not to be tracked by the government, this would constitute misinformation. Mary does not want to deceive or manipulate, believes this information, and is acting in good-faith; however, false information is still being communicated. Misinformation is clearly the more “innocent” of these two terms, however, it can still be damaging without an agent intending it to be. These examples also highlight how something that begins as disinformation can become misinformation when it is shared by others who genuinely believe the truth of what they are sharing.

Although the definitions provided by Benkler and colleagues help to clarify these terms, my understanding diverges from theirs in two key ways. First, they define misinformation as the act of ‘publishing’ or ‘communicating’ false information, rather than the false information itself. That is to say, for Benkler et. al., the action of spreading false information constitutes misinformation. By contrast, when I use the term misinformation (and disinformation), I am referring to the information itself. In other words, when I suggest that something is misinformation, I refer to message that is being conveyed, independent of the epistemic agent. Second, I view the relationship between misinformation and disinformation differently. Rather than understanding misinformation as an effect of disinformation, I interpret misinformation as an umbrella term that captures all forms of false information, and disinformation as a type of misinformation that is deliberately misleading and manipulative.

The rationale for my interpretation is that one could think of many examples of misinformation that have not begun strictly as disinformation; that is, they do not follow causally from deliberately misleading information shared with malicious intent. Rather, some misinformation arises simply due to sharing of false information, with no original ‘deceiver’ as such. For instance, there might be a widespread misunderstanding of a phenomena, developing as a consequence of societal norms, that results in misinformation. For example, the idea that we need meat in our diet for good health can be understood as misinformation that has arisen as a result of norms around the consumption of animals, developed over hundreds of years.

In this example, there is no clear link to a deceiver or group of conspirators who begun circulating this information with a political ‘pro-meat’ agenda. However, this is not to say that there is not related disinformation. Many organizations that are invested in the ongoing exploitation of non-human animals have recognized misinformation in commonplace beliefs and created disinformation and propaganda that plays into them. For example, they have created narratives that promote the widely-held view that we need meat in our diet.  So, in this case, misinformation has not come into existence as a result of disinformation, but disinformation has been developed by appropriating existing misinformation. However, disinformation can then go on to take the form of misinformation.

Another relevant term that Benkler, Faris, and Roberts use is ‘disorientation’. They define disorientation as “a condition that some propaganda seeks to induce, in which the target population simply loses the ability to tell truth from falsehood or where to go for help in distinguishing between the two” (Benkler et. al., 2018, p.24). We are overwhelmed with information which allows bad actors seek to strip us of the ability to determine truth from falsity – leading to disorientation.

In their book, The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread (2019), Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall also explore the topic of misinformation. More specifically, the authors focus on the formation of false beliefs, how they spread, and why they persist; paying particular attention to the social aspects of belief formation. O’Connor and Weatherall define false beliefs as “beliefs that are inconsistent with the available evidence” (O’Connor & Weatherall, 2019, p.7).

So, how do false beliefs relate to misinformation? There are two distinct ways, or more specifically, two different viewpoints about the nature of the relationship. First, false beliefs may be formed when an agent, as a ‘receiver’, obtains and integrates misinformation. That is to say, where false and misleading information is spread, it is possible for a receiver to form false beliefs. On the other hand, false beliefs also encourage the spread of misinformation. In other words, if an agent has false beliefs about a given topic, it is possible that they will become a ‘sender’, and communicate this information to other agents, as a result of the social aspects of our belief forming mechanisms.

Therefore, it can be said that there is a deeply entwined relationship between misinformation and false beliefs, feeding off one another. Recall that I referred earlier to misinformation as false and misleading information itself, independent of an epistemic agent. It is now apparent that this is a significant distinction, as it allows us to understand another difference between misinformation and false beliefs; misinformation is not necessarily bound to an agent whereas false beliefs are attached to a specific agent.

As discussed in my previous blog post, there is evidence to suggest that non-human animals deserve greater moral consideration than they are currently accorded. However, our beliefs, as reflected by the normality of consumption of non-human animals, have not been adequately adjusted to reflect this evidence. Therefore, this epistemic shortcoming can be seen as a form of false belief. In my next post, I’ll consider misinformation in the context of non-human animals, to show a variety of ways that these false beliefs are propagated.

*This blog post has been adapted from my Masters of Research thesis, ‘How Misinformation Reinforces the Status of Animals as Food’ (2021). Thank you to my supervisors Jane Johnson and Mark Alfano.

REFERENCES

Benkler, Y., Faris, R., & Roberts, H. (2018). Network Propaganda. Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

O’Connor, C., & Weatherall, J. O. (2019). The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread. London, UK: Yale University Press.

A (very) brief overview of animal ethics and an argument for ethical veganism

The field of animal ethics considers our interaction, in the broadest sense of the term, with non-human animals. It interrogates the moral consideration we extend to them, examines our relations with them, and provides guidance on the moral permissibility of our interactions with them. An increasing number of moral philosophers, from a range of theoretical perspectives, argue that many non-human animals deserve moral consideration.  What follows is not intended to be exhaustive, but instead serves as a very brief overview of influential ways to consider the above matters. Following this, I propose a practical response to reflect adequate moral consideration, namely, veganism.

In Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals (1975), Peter Singer highlights shared qualities of humans and non-human animals, and argues that all sentient beings are entitled to have their interests considered in moral deliberation. Singer argues that our current treatment of non-human animals is not morally justifiable and our behaviour must therefore be changed (Singer, 1975)

Tom Regan argues, in The Case for Animal Rights (1984),  that sentience, understood as the capacity for subjective experience, is all that is required for something to be inherently valuable. What is morally relevant, according to Regan, is the inherent value of ‘subjects-of-a-life’ – those beings that have beliefs, desires, perception, memory, and so on. Put simply, many non-human animals are subjects-of-a-life, and as such, they ought to be given moral consideration.

Gary Francione rejects the idea that animals have less value than humans (Francione, 2020) and views the ‘welfarist’ (such as Singer and Regan), as simply operating within the bounds of a system that needs a complete overhaul. Francione holds a comparably strong egalitarian position, claiming that all beings that are sentient ought to have equal moral standing. Francione calls for nothing short of complete abolition, not merely regulation, of institutionalised animal exploitation. The abolitionist position is particularly direct in its practical consequences, ultimately supporting an argument that veganismis required as a moral baseline.

More recently, attention has been given to the variety of relationships that we have with non-human animals. For example, in Entangled Empathy. An Alternative Ethic for our Relationship with Animals (2015),  Lori Gruen moves away from the individualist and universalist approaches employed by earlier theorists and considers empathy in an attempt to understand these relationships and our entanglement with other animals.

A number of theorists that fall under the banner of the ‘political turn’ in animal ethics also draw attention to our relationships with non-human animals. For example, in their  book Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights (2013),Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka build on citizenship theory to assess the variety of ways that humans and non-human animals interact, and as such, how the moral consideration we extend to different groups also varies. While we have moral obligations to all non-human animals, as our relationships differ, so too do these obligations. An advantage of this approach is that it highlights not only the variety of relations we have with non-human animals, but also draws attention to the vast array of beings that we are referring to when we speak of non-human animals.

An entity that is morally considerable is one that can be wronged, and thus deserves to be considered in the moral deliberation. The term ‘moral agent’ is commonly used to refer to morally considerable entities. However, it has been argued that this distinction is inadequate to account for both the variety of non-human animals and the differences in the capacities that they possess. Regan’s distinction of ‘moral agents’ and ‘moral patients’helps to address this problem. Moral patients lack capacities for full moral agency, however this does not mean that they do not have moral value. Many non-human animals might not be moral agents, instead only moral patients, but importantly, being a moral patient is sufficient for moral consideration.

While humans are obviously different to other animals, these differences are not sufficient to deny animals at least some level of moral consideration. In an attempt to exclude animals from greater moral consideration, on par with humans, one might appeal to sophisticated cognitive capacities. However, none of these capacities are unique to humans and are commonly observed, at least to some extent, in other animals. The so-called ‘argument from marginal cases’ also challenges this exclusionary criterion, as there are many individual humans who do not possess sophisticated cognitive capacities that we still want to extend moral consideration to – for example; young children.

Species membership, that is, being a member of the species Homo Sapiens, is also commonly invoked to defend the view that humans alone deserve moral consideration, however this position faces the charge of ‘speciesism’. Speciesism refers to the charge that one’s own species’ interests are arbitrarily prioritized over another. There is no justifiable reason for holding this position, therefore it merely amounts to a form of discrimination and lacks any sort of moral grounding.

Following from granting certain non-human animals moral consideration, one ought to abstain from the consumption of animals and the use of animal-derived products – a position commonly known as ‘veganism’. That is to say, if one is to adequately extend moral consideration to other animals, it will be reflected by a change in dietary practices (among other things).

It might be objected, at this point, that in highly industrialized consumer cultures it is virtually impossible to avoid the killing of some morally considerable sentient beings. For example, many field animals are harmed in the farming of crops, fruits, and vegetables, for human consumption – including for those who embrace a vegan diet.  However, it is misguided to suggest that this is a reason to reject veganism. It would be analogous to suggesting that we should not combat crime at all, because all criminals cannot be stopped.

Jones and Gruen instead propose a conception of veganism, which they refer to as ‘Aspirational Veganism’, that recognises the complexity of consumer culture and our interaction with animals in this system. On this view, veganism is not a lifestyle or identity, but is, according to Gruen and Jones, “a type of practice, a process of doing the best one can to minimize violence, domination, and exploitation” (Gruen & Jones, 2015). In other words, veganism can be seen an individual goal for one to strive toward, to the best of their ability, to reduce suffering.

As I have mentioned above, veganism can be viewed as a practical reflection of adequate moral consideration. Adapted from Jones (1) (2016), my short argument for ethical veganism (2) is as follows:

  1. It is morally wrong to cause suffering and/or premature death without good reason.
  2. The consumption of animals and animal-derived products causes suffering and/or premature death.
  3. With minimal hardship, the vast majority of those living comfortably (i.e. above the poverty line) in highly industrialized consumer cultures can flourish without directly consuming animals, while also striving to avoid animal-derived products.
  4. The vast majority of those described in Point 3 consume animals and animal-derived products as a result of social norms, convenience, or taste preference.
  5. Social norms, convenience, or taste preference are not good reasons to cause suffering and/or premature death to non-human animals.
  6. Therefore, it is morally wrong to consume animals and animal derived products.
  7. We ought to avoid moral wrongs.
  8. Therefore, we should stop consuming animals and animal-derived products, to the best of our ability.

The argument I have provided above ought to be convincing. However, less than 10% of Australians (3) are vegetarian (4), let alone vegan. The fact that roughly 90% of the population views some animals as food suggests that the moral consideration extended to non-human animals is inadequate. Why is this, and what can be done to bring about change?

*This blog post has been adapted from my Masters of Research thesis, ‘How Misinformation Reinforces the Status of Animals as Food’ (2021). Thank you to my supervisors Jane Johnson and Mark Alfano.

NOTES

(1) The basic structure of my argument here has been borrowed from Jones’ argument for ethical veganism, as expressed in the paper ‘Veganisms’ (2016). It has been adapted to incorporate other important aspects, such as ‘aspirational veganism’ and social norms. It should also be noted that Jones’ argument has been influenced by Mylan Engel’s “Why YOU Are Committed to the Immorality of Eating Meat” (2002), and James Rachels, “The Basic Argument for Vegetarianism” (2004).

(2) Note that this is an ethical argument for veganism. Other (non-ethical) arguments can also be made for veganism, for example, by appealing to individual health concerns. One might also make ethical arguments for veganism that appeal to environmental considerations, rather than concern for non-human animals.

(3) The percentage of vegetarians is similar in the United States, United Kingdom, and other highly industrialized consumer cultures (See The Vegetarian Resource Group, 2015).

(4) Vegetarian (and vegetarianism)refers to the consumption of animal flesh alone. The figures for Veganism are significantly lower (It is estimated that only 400,000-500,000 Australians adhere to a vegan diet. See VeganAustralia.org.au).

REFERENCES

Francione, G. (2020). Why Veganism Matters. The Moral Value of Animals. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Gruen, L. (2015). Entangled Empathy: An Alternative Ethic for Our Relationships with Animals. Brooklyn, NY: Lantern Books.

Gruen, L., & Jones, R. (2015). “Veganism as an Aspiration”. In B. Bramble & B. Fischer (eds.), The Moral Complexities of Eating Meat. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Jones, R. C. (2016). “Veganisms”. In  J. Castiano & R. R. Simonsen (eds.), Critical Perspectives on Veganism. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Regan, T. (1984). The Case for Animal Rights. London, UK: Routledge.

Roy Morgan. (2019, April 12th). Rise in vegetarianism not halting the march of obesity. [Press release]. Retrieved April 3rd 2021, from http://www.roymorgan.com/findings/7944-vegetarianism-in-2018-april-2018-201904120608

Singer, P. (1975). Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

The Vegetarian Resource Group. (2015, November). How Many Adult Vegetarians in The U.S.?. [Press Release]. Retrieved April 3rd 2021, from https://www.vrg.org/press/201511press.htm