Moral illusions and arbitrary discrimination

My presentation at the TEDxGhent PhD contest (24-03-2016), winner of the special prize for the audience’s favourite speaker. Slides can be downloaded here: Moral illusions and arbitrary discrimination.

Short description:

If your senses cannot always be trusted because of optical illusions, can you always trust your moral judgments? Are there moral illusions that violate your deepest moral values and negatively influence your decisions? And what is the antidote to reach a more rational, authentic ethic?

Full text:

We are all familiar with optical illusions. One line appears to be longer than the other. Our senses cannot always be trusted. But what about our intuitions and judgments? Can we always trust them? My claim is that there are moral illusions: spontaneous, intuitive moral judgments that are very persistent, but they violate our deepest moral values. They distract us away from a rational, authentic ethic.

One very dangerous moral illusion is discrimination. In my research I focused on a very persistent kind of discrimination: speciesism, the judgment that humans are more important than animals. We can use this optical illusion as a metaphor. The horizontal lines correspond with the moral values of say a pig and a child. The longer the line, the more value the subject has. The small arrowheads correspond with the morally irrelevant properties, such as bodily characteristics. It appears as if a human is more valuable than a pig, but this is an illusion. How do we know this?

Well first, we can erase the arrowheads, the morally irrelevant properties. Now you see that both lines are equal. And what is left of the pig and the child? Their morally relevant properties: their feelings and well-being. On that level, both individuals count equally.

Or we can use another tool: we can shift a measure stick from one line to the other. In ethics, we have a similar tool: empathy. This allows us to shift positions, to put ourselves in the position of someone else.

This brings us to an important clue how to avoid moral illusions: we have to avoid all kinds of unjustified or unwanted arbitrariness. The victims of discrimination do not want their treatment, their arbitrary exclusion. Why is speciesism arbitrary?

Look at the biological classification. You can look at it as a cabinet with 12 drawers. I can open the bottom drawer and say that I belong to the ethnic group of white Caucasian people. But we also belong to the species of humans, the family of great apes, the order of primates, the class of mammals. So why would we open this ninth drawer and point at the species of humans and say that only those individuals get rights? Why not pointing at other species or other categories such as the class of mammals? We are mammals as much as we are humans.

But it’s worse. This idea of a species is not even well defined : suppose I jump in a time travel machine and bring all our ancestors to the present. I put you all in a long row. You are on the far left, then your mother, your grandmother, and so on. Moving further down the row, we see our ancestors who lived 2 million, 100 million, 400 million years ago. That’s right, this is our great great great – and so on – grandmother. She is also the ancestor of all vertebrate land animals, including chickens. You are fully human so you get human rights. So are your mother and your grandmother. They all belong to the moral community, the group of individuals who get rights. But moving down the row, where does the moral community end? There is no sharp boundary between humans on the left and non-humans on the right. So our idea of human rights and our behavior of eating chickens are based on an arbitrary fact that those intermediates between us and chickens no longer exist.

Traditionally, we start with the set of all important rights, and then we ask the question: who gets those rights? Then we see an expanding moral circle through history. We extend the range of our moral radar. First our fellow tribesmen become visible, then all white men, then all humans get rights. But we cannot arbitrarily stop at the group of humans. The moral circle has to expand further. Everyone and everything should be included, without arbitrary exceptions. So I propose to follow the other direction: we start with the condition that everyone and everything counts and is included in the moral community, and then we figure out what rights we should give to everyone and everything.

One of those rights could be the right not to be used as a means against one’s will. Everyone and everything should get this right, including plants and computers. There is no arbitrary exclusion or discrimination. But whatever we do, we cannot violate this right of a plant, because as far as we know a plant has no will and therefore cannot be used against its will. For plants and computers, this right is always trivially satisfied. The right becomes only important when we are considering sentient beings, because they have a will.

So when I realized that I cannot arbitrarily use the bodies of other sentient beings against their will, I adopted a vegan lifestyle. No animal products on my plate. Overcoming my moral illusion of speciesism had far reaching implications in my daily life, but it brought me in connection with my deepest moral values. Thank you.

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