How Vegetarianism Turned Me into a Moral Relativist

Vegetarian DietI have fairly idiosyncratic views about morality. I’ve written about them (in fairly brief terms) before. But more recently, I’ve had to refine my ideas about what morality is. I’m not sure that I believe in an objective standard for morality any longer. And this was due, at least in part, to my reflections on the ethics of vegetarianism. If that seems strange, let me explain.

Examining Ethics

Moses and the Ten CommandmentsEssentially, after rejecting religious reasons for believing in objective morals (which I think are flawed even if one presupposes the belief in a deity of some kind), I went in search of another justification for objective moral standards. Many arguments that people make for such standards are quite weak; throughout history, people have argued that morals are based on various foundations, such as a set of virtues, pleasure/pain, categorical imperatives based on pure logic, duties, rights, and desires/preferences. The difficulty with each of these is that they fail to explain (or explain poorly) why morality is, in fact, based on these concepts. Why is pain the standard of what makes an act moral? Where do rights actually come from that would make them objective? What makes it moral to fulfill the desires of others? These are all questions that seem to have intuitive answers, but our intuitions are simply not good indicators of moral truths. These intuitions are the result of social conditioning into a specific cultural framework that espouses certain values; thus, one’s moral intuitions are much more likely to be the result of what one’s culture already perceives to be moral, rather than some sense that accurately perceives abstract concepts about the nature of morality.1 To state it differently, my culture endows me with certain values which form the basis of my intuitions; to then turn around and validate my culture’s values based on my own intuitions becomes a sneaky form of circular reasoning. Thus, I went in search of some way to ground moral values on a firmer footing.

This led me to my own idiosyncratic views. I determined that morality was, in essence, based on the fundamental nature of social interactions. Those acts that facilitated interactions with others in a society (prosocial acts) were labelled “good”, and those acts that hindered interactions with others (antisocial acts) were labelled “bad”. This seemed to cover the wide variety of acts, while still allowing for cultural variation. (In particular, the context of an act can easily change something from antisocial to prosocial. A doctor cutting you with a knife may be providing a life-saving procedure, while a mugger cutting you with a knife likely has less honourable intentions.) At least some of the variation in the ethics of different cultures could be explained by a different construal of the event. But for the most part, if one could determine whether an act was prosocial or antisocial, one could determine its moral acceptability.

This view of morality held me in good stead for quite a while. However, I began to get interested in vegetarianism. At first, I started dropping meat out of my diet for reasons of human ethics: It was better for the environment, and it had the potential to correct the imbalance in food distribution to poor countries.2 But soon, I became interested in whether the ethical reasons given by other vegetarians, ones regarding the suffering or killing of animals, were justified. And therein led to the first major blow to my ethical theory.

Social animals: Group of meerkatsA theory based on the nature of social interactions with others should be clear on just what constitutes a social interaction. Certainly we interact with rocks and trees, but generally we don’t consider these to be “social” entities. So just what makes a creature social? It could be based on a theory of mind of other individuals, but this would exclude infants and severely autistic individuals. It could be based on some other higher cognitive functioning, but most of these functions are at least shared in part by other animals and exclude some subsection of humans. The tendency to form groups is a distinctly social trait, but that includes many mammals, some birds and fish, and even some insects like ants and bees. Even just caring for one’s young constitutes a very real form of social interaction. My point here is that it is difficult to find an appropriate standard for what a “social” creature is, and each potential standard includes or excludes various groups. There is no convergence between the different standards. It all starts to reek of post hoc justification—finding the right standard to fit the group one already believes it should cover.

A Model for Moral Communities

Ingroup and outgroupAs I was pondering over these various standards, I began to realize that history revealed an interesting trend. Within early tribal communities, the society was very clearly delineated. The tribe was the ingroup, and everyone else was the outgroup. Different moral rules applied to these groups. Cannibalistic societies, for example, forbade the eating of other tribe members. It wasn’t that they just ate any human; they would only eat humans from outside the tribe. As trade links formed between one community and another, however, these rules required a change. The “moral community” had to be extended outward. It was bad for business to trade with the hunter from across the river in the morning, and then eat his daughter that afternoon. Whether these communities were agrarian or nomadic doesn’t really make a difference. Once you start trading with a group, you must start to include them in your moral community. We can fast-forward here to the growth of civilizations, where some form of general similarity (race, geographic area, religion, etc.) provided justification enough for inclusion in a larger group. However, many of these civilizations included slavery, and in many cases these slaves were “foreigners.” Different rules applied to different groups, but still the inclusion was growing geographically. Finally, we can fast-forward to the modern era. In the United States and Europe, where once Black people were afforded no legal status, eventually slavery was outlawed and equal status was afforded to them under the law.3 The Western powers also began to dismantle their imperial realms, again extending their sphere of inclusion to other nations and ethnic groups.4 Each step has pushed the moral community outward to encompass a wider group of people. And now, some are calling for the moral community to extend beyond the species barrier and include other animals as well.

Why is this change important? Well, it underscores the fact that what constitutes a “moral community” has not remained consistent over time. Each culture has defined its ingroups and outgroups differently, and these distinctions have led to a different understanding of what constitutes “prosocial” and “antisocial” actions. I still believe that these two categories of actions provide the basis for much of our moral discourse, but just exactly who is included in the group changes by culture. The difficulty this brings is the lack of any adequate justification for why one should adopt one categorization of a moral community over another. The reason I believe Black people should be afforded the same rights as White people is precisely because I grew up in the culture and time period that I did. Had I been born in the 1700s, my attitudes and beliefs would almost certainly be different. And without an objective standard for determining who should be included in a moral community, morality itself cannot be based on an objective foundation. The best we can do is probably some form of cultural relativism, in the sense that each culture determines its own moral rules and values, with no way to mediate between cultures.

Salvaging a Solution

Calvin & Hobbes: Moral relativismWith that said, I do feel as though the entire philosophical field of ethics is not wasted. There is still a fair degree of overlap between the moral systems of most cultures, such that substantial agreement can still occur based on common values. When members of different cultures share values and intuitions on certain moral problems, they can meaningfully discuss solutions and work together. And since some of those values are quite clearly beneficial for the continuation of society (it’s difficult to imagine a functional society that allows anyone to kill anyone else indiscriminately), there will be some agreement and some measure of common understanding. Humans, at least, are also quite similar in terms of basic needs and desires: we need food, water, shelter, love, esteem, and so on, and we desire pleasure and avoid pain in most cases. These are largely a result of our own biology, and that provides a common ground. As long as we can understand what it would feel like if X were done to ourselves, we can make reasonable inferences about whether others would like X done to themselves. The “golden rule”, espoused in so many cultures throughout the world, is based on the fundamental sense of human empathy that we share. So to repeat, I don’t think the cause of moral discourse is entirely lost. There will be disagreements, and some of them may be fundamentally unresolvable, but there will still be many, many cases on which people can agree.

When it comes to animals, such issues are more tricky. Should they be included in the sense of moral community that one’s culture endorses? Do the similarities that animals share with us (desire for pleasure, aversion to pain and suffering, basic needs of survival) warrant their inclusion in our ingroup? It seems, at this point, that it’s a question I cannot answer. However, culture is made up of the collective beliefs and values of its individuals, and those beliefs and values shift over time. There is at least an increasing sense in Western culture that animals (or some subset of animals) belong in the moral community, and should be treated with care. This sense is indeed an outgrowth of the understanding that suffering, in general, should be reduced, regardless of the species in which one finds it. Whether the scales will tip toward this in the future is difficult to say, but the positive upshot is that when morality is culturally relative, one can take steps to shift public discourse toward the views one feels are right. By appealing to moral intuitions and values that are already present in the society, it is possible to make a case for social change.


XKCD comic: Moral RelativitySo there you have it. That is how thinking about vegetarianism set me onto the path towards ethical relativism. I’m aware that such a view of ethics requires one to give up quite a bit of certitude regarding moral statements. It’s not something I would take lightly—but then again, I don’t make any major changes to my worldview without a good degree of serious investigation. It will be interesting to navigate this change, but I don’t see it as a devastating blow to my own moral beliefs. A lack of an objective standard for morality does not affect my own intuitions and emotions regarding various moral views. It only impacts the degree to which I can expect to reasonably converse with others about my moral views. That is a loss, but at least it is not one that will lead me to abandon all my moral intuitions and start raping and murdering others at random. So, it’s a loss I can live with. I’m more worried about what to do the next time the smell of bacon comes my way.


  1. For an interesting perspective that challenges the role of moral reasoning as the dominant influence in moral behaviour, see Jonathan Haidt (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological Review, 108(4), 814-834. The article can be found here. Haidt uses empirical findings from psychological research to make his case that emotional moral intuitions are primary in predicting moral behaviour, and explicit, rational moral judgments primarily serve to rationalize or justify behaviour after the fact. []
  2. I’m not so sure anymore that a society of people eating less meat would actually correct imbalances in food distribution, but at the time that I became a vegetarian, I was convinced that there was a reasonably probability this was the case. []
  3. Of course, equal status has not yet been achieved in the social realm, but certainly the moral norms in Western society are strongly in favour of equality now. Whether people always live up to those norms in practice is a separate question. []
  4. Again, I’m not trying to say that Western imperialism is dead. It still exists in less overt forms. But the explicit moral norms regarding the treatment of these groups have changed. []

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