Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Philosophy and Practice: Eating Meat

I'm late getting to an examination of Eric Schwitzgebel's most recent study of how philosophers and non-philosophers think and act on various moral issues. He has many blog posts discussing preliminary findings (links to all listed here). It's not a big surprise that when it comes to questions of right behavior, how people think and how they act might not align. It's fascinating, though, to learn a little about whether philosophers, with all their training and practice in logical consistency, might manage to act in ways more consistent with their beliefs than someone not so trained.

My judgment preliminary to reading/discussing Schwitzgebel's preliminary findings is to think that philosophers may well not manage such consistency. My suspicion is that logical consistency is one thing, and consistent action another. What works against our profession's emphasis on logical consistency is an equally strong ethos of thought mattering more than deed.

Knowing that anecdotal evidence is not worth its weight in gold (but maybe in something less valuable, say, corn), I would throw out an observation. Some environmental philosophers of my acquaintance have immaculate lawns, obtainable only by the application of quantities of poison. No environmental scientists of my acquaintance have immaculate lawns, and when nudged just the slightest amount will speak at length about how the height of your lawn mower blade affects competition between weeds and grass for access to sunlight and the relative rates of pesticide application on lawns compared to farms, and so on and so on.

The biggest divergences in moral opinion concerned our question about "regularly eating the meat of mammals such as beef and pork". 60% of ethics professor respondents rated mammal-meat consumption as morally bad, compared to 45% of non-ethicist philosophers and just 19% of non-philosophers. Opinion also divided by gender and age. Women were about 1.5 times as likely to condemn mammal-meat consumption (55% of women rated it bad vs. 37% of men). There was a similar shift of opinion with age: 55% of respondents born in 1960 or later condemned mammal-meat consumption, compared to 35% born before 1960. One might expect a compound effect for young female philosophers, and indeed it was so: Fully 81% of female philosophers born in 1960 or later said it was morally bad to regularly eat the meat of mammals. To put this degree of consensus in perspective: In last year's PhilPapers survey of philosophical opinion, only 82% of philosophers endorsed non-skeptical realism about the existence of an external world. (No word, so far, on how philosophers who deny the existence of an external world feel about seeming to consume meat.)

One thing I've noticed at philosophy department functions is that when there is food and the catering is ordered by someone outside the department, there are never enough vegetarian options. (This is also true, and consistently annoying, at lunches where sustainability is the topic.) Our philosophy department is about half "vegetarian" (that is, some degree of restraint on eating some meat), and that is higher than in the economics department (where being vegetarian is coextensive with being Hindu)--or in just about any other department. Likewise, at the meeting of the International Association of Women Philosophers last month, there were more special-ordered (vegetarian) sandwiches than regular fare. So it is not all that surprising to learn from this study that philosophers--many of them--have thought about the ethics of eating meat.

However, Schwitzgebel goes on to show data on who is actually eating meat, and it is a lot of us. Still, knowing that many other philosophers condemn meat-eating may have the effect of lowering how much meat is eaten at philosophical get-togethers.

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