An Indictment of Inertial Morality

In which I irritate everyone by discussing vegetarianism

First, a brief apology for the delay; while I doubt any of you are terribly upset upon not hearing from me for a short time, I did violate my schedule and take an unexpected week off from writing. This was due to some personal matters outside my control that resulted in me losing a day of work and a few evenings. As much as I want to write consistently, when push comes to shove I have to prioritize other matters above this side project.

That said: it’s been a particularly interesting week, I think, and I’m going to tell you about it now.

When I was perhaps 20 and away at college, I talked to my mom on the phone and told her something that was apparently true at the time: I didn’t like birds. It came up naturally, but it made her sad. “But… they’re little dinosaurs!” she responded emphatically.

Since that moment I was converted. I don’t know what that snapped me out of, exactly, but I’ve loved birds and enjoyed watching them and listening to their songs ever since. Sometimes I’ll watch them in the trees near my apartment balcony, and sometimes they’ll chat with each other. I love it! Consequently that phone call is one of my favorite memories.

Moreover, it’s well-established that birds are intelligent enough to signal to each other using various means, primarily bird calls. They also have various vocalizations and movements to indicate specific situations, threats and the like; sometimes these can even be recognized by other species of birds. If you’re interested, the related Wikipedia article is worth a read.

Birds aren’t the only ones, but this pattern crops up all across the animal kingdom. Cows have extraordinary memories. Chickens have an elaborate social hierarchy (pecking order). Pigs are probably smarter than both dogs and 3 year-old human children. Fish probably communicate to each other at least as complexly as birds, using movements and vocalizations in the water. I’m sure you can see where this is going.

Now to brass tacks

I remember once when I was around 19 and I first came across this video:

If you’re tempted to skip it and read on, please watch it instead if you haven’t seen it before. It’s emotionally jarring, and it’s important you watch it anyway. Seriously, I’ll wait.

But, if you insist on skipping it, I’ll summarize it. Within, Paul McCartney explains that animals we kill for food by the millions, like pigs, cows, chickens and fish, are emotional and intelligent, yet endure torturous conditions often punctuated with agonizing deaths. I never forgot the video, and at the time I was emotionally affected, but I didn’t quite care. I thought that changing my lifestyle to slightly reduce the suffering of animals was too inconvenient, would negatively impact my nutrition and may have social consequences for me (i.e. my friends would make fun of me or argue with me about it). I probably thought about that video for a week and didn’t say anything to my friends and family. Eventually, I forgot.

Fast forward to last week when I revisit this video by Alex O’Connor. I saw it when he published it in early 2020, and for good measure I met and briefly befriended Alex at a conference a bit before he published it, but again I brushed off the whole topic until recently. I finally decided to read the book he recommends most prominently in this video: Animal Liberation by Peter Singer. Like he suggests in the video, I committed to reading only the first chapter.

The first chapter isn’t dry, but it’s comparatively analytical and neutral in tone compared to the rest of the book. It’s an abstract argument contending that taking human wellbeing into consideration without taking other species’ wellbeing into consideration is unethical. I read it, mostly agreed with it in a “alright, you’ve convinced me, I’ll read the rest of your book” kind of way, and continued.

Chapter two, however, made me cry twice, and it didn’t stop after chapter two. The first cry was during a discussion of scientific experiments regarding monkeys. Experimenters would separate young monkeys from their mothers shortly after birth and create fake “cloth mothers” to trick the monkeys. Despite being motionless, the young monkeys would cling to them for comfort. Then the experimenters started toying around with the “behavior” of the cloth mothers, doing things like making them shake violently, making spikes protrude out from their bodies, etc. Even if the young monkeys were physically hurt by the cloth mothers’ behavior, they would return to the cloth mothers and cling harder, desperate for comfort.

The second cry was after reading about how eggs are produced. At egg farms, all male newborn birds are discarded, generally gassed or shredded alive, because they aren’t useful for egg production. Imagine having such a short and joyless life on this planet.

Reading this chapter made me confront how cruel humans can be to animals in the guise of scientific research. This struck me particularly hard because I hadn’t learned about it before. The remainder of the book covered factory farming, an issue with which I’ve been comparatively familiar for a few years—although, again, I’ve never become vegetarian or vegan. I think factory farming is worse due to its much higher scale, although both it and “research” (put in quotes because much of it, thought not all, is unhelpful to humans) have death tolls in at least the millions.

In short, considering how animals are emotional creatures with inner lives, and how much pain and suffering they endure during their short, pointless lives in factory farms, I now believe it’s morally objectionable to eat animals for food, and have become a vegetarian. I’ve also adjusted my charitable donations to give a much higher proportion to animal welfare groups. I may become vegan in the future, or otherwise quite selective about what animal products I consume, but I think it’s important to do these things gradually. I’ve tentatively set a timeline of one year for myself to get used to vegetarianism first.

But here’s the thing: why wasn’t I convinced sooner? Unlike many people, I knew enough about factory farming to be repulsed by it for at least half a decade and probably longer. I think most people don’t know all that much about it and therefore aren’t in the wrong for eating meat, ethically speaking. Even then, I think people can be convinced that factory farming is terrible but be concerned about their nutrition: eating meat is very nutritionally convenient, and many people (myself included, for a few years) believed that it was essentially necessary for good health.

But for me, specifically, I’ve known that eating meat causes conscious creatures to suffer, and I’ve known it isn’t nutritionally necessary. I just wasn’t placing those creatures in my sphere of moral concern. Why is that?

Well, I’ve thought about this every which way for a week and I can’t find an answer that makes me feel good. Now that I’m emotionally connecting with the subject matter in a way I haven’t before, I can’t help but quantify the number of animals killed on my behalf for the sake of my meals, and it brings me great pain to ponder. For the past eight years, I’ve eaten chicken almost every day, usually around 0.3lb. Google tells me the average chicken weighs less than 2 pounds, so (greatly simplified) that’s probably one chicken per week, or around 416 in eight years. Intuition tells me that’s a huge simplification and likely to be a substantial understatement (consider fish, for example, which I would also eat very frequently, perhaps killing one conscious creature per mealtime), but I’ll stop there. You get the idea.

I think the short of it is that I’ve committed a serious ethical error here, and that’s why I’m changing my life accordingly. Up to now, my position on vegetarianism has been a vague handwave, e.g. “it’s too inconvenient,” “it’s too big a change,” “no one else in my social circle cares, and broader society doesn’t care, so why should I care?” Well, now I think broader society should care. My simplified argument is rather standard: animals are conscious enough to be of moral concern. It’s unnecessary to eat them, and therefore I think it’s unethical to eat them because it causes great harm to conscious creatures in exchange for the comparatively extremely small benefit of taste pleasure.

What I’ve noticed is that most people around me have done the same handwaves as me, or haven’t thought about the issue enough to need to do those handwaves. I think the latter is fine but the former is morally wrong. I think the handwaving is the part that pains me the most. This is inertial morality: “I didn’t worry about this yesterday, so I won’t worry about this today.” I’m not innocent of it—I think I’ve committed a serious ethical error for the past several years—and therefore I urge you, dear reader, to avoid using this inertial morality to make a decision on this issue—or any other.

I know it‘s possible to go your entire life without seriously confronting the subject of animal welfare. Most of American society does this: we love our burgers etc. But it’s better if you do confront the subject, and once you do it’s better to act on it rather than delay, as I did, and later wonder why you couldn’t bring yourself to care about the well-being of intelligent non-human creatures until recently.

I end with another video recommendation.