Animals, Outrage, and Conscience

animal_conscience_bannerHobyahs2smallSometimes moral outrage is appropriate. It would be strange for someone of conscience to dine with a bigot. But a vegetarian is expected to eat, work, and live with those who eat meat. Given that some vegetarians consider non-human animals to be persons, this expectation is out of step with standard views about what conscience requires.

Moral out­rage is some­times required by con­science and some­times not. I’ll take that for grant­ed. Under what con­di­tions is out­rage required by con­science? Pre­sum­ably, it has some­thing to do with the behav­ior that is the object of the out­rage. As a first approx­i­ma­tion, the behav­ior must be suf­fi­cient­ly heinous. Moral out­rage over spilled milk will not do.

But a moment’s reflec­tion makes clear that this is not right. If an action is heinous, but I do not believe it to be, I remain in good con­science with­out being out­raged. Sim­i­lar­ly, if an action is not heinous, but I believe it to be, it seems that I can­not remain in good con­science with­out being out­raged. So, a sec­ond approx­i­ma­tion: one’s con­science requires out­rage over some behav­ior if and only if one believes that behav­ior to be heinous.

So, where does that leave our eth­i­cal veg­e­tar­i­an? They believe that the con­sump­tion of meat is heinous, but they are not out­raged by it. Can they, in good con­science, remain unmoved by the sight of meat con­sump­tion? Two excus­es come to mind: first, per­haps out­rage is required only if a behav­ior is viewed as heinous by the wider com­mu­ni­ty and, sec­ond, per­haps it is not meat eat­ing that is viewed as heinous but slaugh­ter.

The first excuse is a non-starter. An abo­li­tion­ist of good con­science liv­ing in the ante­bel­lum South must be out­raged by slav­ery, even though most every­one in their com­mu­ni­ty takes it to be accept­able.

The sec­ond excuse might help, but only so far. Inso­far as some­one con­sid­ers the act of eat­ing meat itself to be heinous, it is plau­si­ble to think that their con­science requires out­rage. Sim­i­lar­ly, inso­far as they con­sid­er the mis­treat­ment and slaugh­ter of non-human ani­mals to be heinous but that con­sump­tion of non-human ani­mal prod­ucts to be mere­ly imper­mis­si­ble, it is plau­si­ble to think that their con­science does not require out­rage. Let’s grant this.

This only push­es the issue back a step, how­ev­er. I live in Nebras­ka and work for UNL. Some of the stu­dents I am in reg­u­lar con­tact with are work­ing toward careers in feed­lot man­age­ment. It still seems like it would be inap­pro­pri­ate for me to be out­raged by their behav­ior (they’re good kids!), but it can­not be because I don’t take their behav­ior to be heinous.

Per­haps the injunc­tion against out­rage in this case is not a moral norm, but rather a social norm. It is cer­tain­ly pos­si­ble for a social norm to con­flict with a moral norm. But that leads to the uncom­fort­able con­clu­sion that I am not near­ly out­raged enough.

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