When people disagree about moral issues, they often don’t treat the moral beliefs of those that they disagree with as genuine moral beliefs: instead they treat them like mere whims or mild preferences. They lack what I am going to call moral empathy. Having moral empathy for someone doesn’t mean that you agree with their moral views: it just means you recognize that someone genuinely believes that something is morally right or wrong, even if you happen to think that they are incorrect, and that you treat their beliefs like genuine moral beliefs rather than mild preferences. I think that a failure to cultivate moral empathy is bad for two reasons: it causes us to harm people unnecessarily, and it prevents meaningful dialogue from happening between people who morally disagree.

Let’s start with an example. I think it’s a good idea to brush your teeth every night, but I don’t think it’s a moral obligation. But someone might, for religious reasons perhaps, believe that they are morally required to brush their teeth every night. They don’t merely prefer it: they think that failing to brush their teeth is wrong, in the same way that I think that attacking a person for no reason is wrong. Having moral empathy means that I correctly model their attitude towards teeth-brushing – one that gives teeth-brushing moral significance – even if I disagree with their reasons for having that belief. Treating this belief like a genuine moral belief doesn’t mean that I need to always accommodate it if doing so is too difficult or harmful. But it does mean that I should treat it like a genuine moral belief when I discuss it with them, and that I should accommodate their preference in the same way that I would any preference that, if violated, would cause the person significant harm.

The teeth-brushing example is, I admit, not very realistic. But I’ve seen some clear failures of moral empathy occur with real world moral beliefs. A salient example of this is ethical vegetarianism. I have had many conversations with people who complain about vegetarians and vegans coming to parties or restaurants, and expecting their weird tastes to be accommodated. But ethical vegetarians and vegans are not merely acting on a whim: they think that it’s morally wrong to eat meat. If you were to be told that ritual cannibalism was practiced by your friends, you would presumably say “either don’t serve me human flesh for dinner, or I’m not coming to your house” (you might even say a little more than this: e.g. “please stop eating people” or “I’m calling the police”). If it’s reasonable to want your anti-cannibalism moral beliefs to be accommodated, then why is it not reasonable for the vegetarian to want their anti-meat eating beliefs to be accommodated?

People have even thought that it’s acceptable or funny to trick vegetarians into eating meat.
It’s cruel enough to trick someone into eating something they don’t like the taste of (surely we should try to accommodate mild preferences too). It seems even more cruel to trick someone into doing something that they believe is wrong simply because we don’t agree that it’s wrong. After all, we’d be rightly horrified and upset if we went to our friend’s house and were tricked into eating human flesh disguised as beef or pork.

Another case in which we often see a lack of moral empathy is the abortion debate, where those who are pro-choice often show a lack of moral empathy towards those who are opposed to abortion. Many people who believe that abortion is wrong think that fetuses have the moral status of persons, and that abortion is morally equivalent to murder. But a lot of the things that I’ve heard pro-choice people say don’t make any sense unless you presuppose that those who are anti-abortion don’t actually hold these moral beliefs, but rather have something like a personal dislike of abortion.

For example, consider claims like “women have a right to do what they like with their bodies”, or “men have no place discussing the issue of abortion” or “if you don’t like abortion, then just don’t have one”. Now imagine a world in which it is legal for men to kill young children, and that they do so regularly. Presumably, in this world, you would campaign for this to be made illegal (I know I would!). But suppose someone who defends the view that this practice remain legal were to insist that “men have a right to do what they like with their bodies”. You’d respond: “no they don’t – they don’t have the right to murder other people with their bodies.” (Someone directed me to a related quote from Nozick: “My property rights in my knife allow me to leave it where I will, but not in your chest.”) Similarly, if they insisted that “women have no place discussing this issue” you’d respond: “yes they do: this is a moral issue that involves the harming of children, and it doesn’t make sense to only let the group allowed to partake in the practice to discuss it”. Finally, if they were to respond “well, if you don’t like the killing of children, then just don’t do it” you’d presumably respond: “um, no, I’m also going to try to stop you from doing it too”.

Given this, it seems odd that people who are pro-choice often respond in completely analogous ways in response to those who are anti-abortion. Perhaps the goal is to paint those who hold anti-abortion beliefs as more unreasonable than they actually are (i.e. as having a mere preference against abortion that they are devilishly trying to impose on others). But painting people in an unfair light is hardly a morally admirable practice. Perhaps those who are pro-choice believe that those who claim to hold moral anti-abortion beliefs are in fact being disingenuous, and that they don’t actually believe that abortion is immoral. But it’s clear that lots of people hold moral views that we find quite alien, so why should we assume that this group of people are being disingenuous when they claim to believe that abortion is immoral?

Statements that betray a lack of moral empathy are not very likely to be effective when it comes to convincing those that we disagree with. Saying things like “if you don’t like abortion, then just don’t have one” already presupposes that abortion is morally unproblematic, which is exactly what the person with anti-abortion beliefs wants to deny. If we have moral empathy for our interlocutor, then we are better able to identify the point of disagreement between us. For example, we might realize that we disagree about when fetuses become persons, or the degree to which personhood is morally relevant, or the importance of bodily autonomy over and above the interests of beings dependent on us. These all seem like reasonable points of disagreement that we can make progress on, and focussing on the actual points of disagreement will at least prevent us from infuriating each other needlessly.

Cultivating moral empathy is important. As we have seen, a lack of moral empathy can cause us to harm people unnecessarily, because  we end up treating strong moral preferences like mild preferences, or even ignore them altogether. It can also lead to predictable dialectical failures, because we don’t actually engage with the beliefs that could change someone’s mind on an issue. This doesn’t mean that we always need to agree with or accommodate moral beliefs that we think are incorrect. Suppose that, for some bizarre reason, you think that you’re morally obligated to sacrifice kittens. I can tell you that you are wrong to sacrifice kittens, while still acknowledging that you believe that you are morally obligated to do so. I can also try to pass laws that prevent you from sacrificing kittens, because I think that your moral beliefs are incorrect, regardless of how sincerely they are held. But none of this requires treating you as though you had a mild preference for sacrificing kittens or are doing it on a whim, and treating you in this way makes it even less likely that I will be able to convince you that your sincerely held moral beliefs are incorrect.

7 thoughts on “Vegetarianism, Abortion, and Moral Empathy

  1. If someone tells me that some preference they have is a genuine moral belief as opposed to a mild preference, I only have their word for it. If I endorse a policy of erring on the side of assuming that people mean it when they say this, I risk incentivizing other people to frame their mild preferences as genuine moral beliefs. A silly example is “I have a moral belief that people ought to give me a dollar when they see me” (and doesn’t accommodating vegetarians cost party hosts and restaurants something, too?).

    I think the clarifying examples you picked are misleading because they’re examples where you personally see no room for moral disagreement, but of course the whole point here is what to do about perceived moral disagreements. “If this person morally disagrees with me, then they must just have a weird preference” is a plausible hypothesis; other plausible hypotheses that don’t involve genuine moral beliefs are e.g. “they’re just terrible people in general” (say for the abortion debate) or “they’re just really selfish” (for vegetarians and vegans). I think you haven’t addressed what sort of evidence it plausibly takes to discard these hypotheses in favor of “no, actually, this person has a genuine moral belief that’s different from mine.” (One way to cash out what this means is that they would be willing to take a hit in some other way for the sake of their belief, e.g. paying extra money for a vegetarian or vegan meal.)

    1. Let’s go into the cannibalism vs. meat example in more detail. An important and salient difference between this example and meat-eating is that cannibalism isn’t currently a societal norm, whereas meat-eating is. This means that restaurants and parties by default serve meat, whereas they don’t by default serve humans (and this wasn’t part of your hypothetical – your hypothetical only concerned some of your friends, rather than society at large). If you ask a restaurant without vegetarian dishes whether they can come up with a vegetarian meal for you anyway, you’re asking them to do extra work in a way that violates an assumption they’re making about how their customers operate. Analogously, if I went to a restaurant that didn’t serve ice cream and asked them to go out and buy me some, I think it would be reasonable for the restaurant to refuse, even if I claimed that I had a moral belief that I had to eat ice cream with every meal, and even if I wasn’t lying about that.

      Incidentally, I think this example is a little unfair towards ritual cannibalism. I don’t see anything particularly wrong with e.g. the ritual practice of eating the dead, and could even imagine seeing some beauty and grace in it. If I lived in a culture where it was commonly understood that eating the dead was a thing that people did, it would be reasonable for people to see me as rude for refusing, and if I visited such a culture I would consider it rude on my part to not at least try it (modulo the health risks).

  2. Great post. Here is a couple of non-moral examples. Do you think that it’s a joke that certain cultures treat pork as ‘unclean’? How would you like these maggots for breakfast? Think it’s silly that others treat cattle as too ‘sacred’ to eat? Can I serve you this puppy?

  3. Good thoughts here. But are these debate tactics really aimed at convincing the pro-life people, or in convincing people who already don’t agree with them to ignore their points? One of the functions of debate is to convince your interlocutor, but debates are usually more effective at convincing innocent bystanders. Making fun of vegetarians and arguing that those who disagree with abortion just shouldn’t get one seems more directed at the audience than the person being argued with.

    In the abortion case, we shouldn’t underestimate the moral importance of body autonomy to the pro-choice camp. Just as the pro-lifers think that it’s wrong to kill a fetus, the pro-choicers think it’s wrong to force a woman to bring one to term against her will. This adds to the virulence of their defence of abortion rights, and pro-lifers typically lack empathy for this moral factor. I don’t know of anybody who thinks we have a moral right to eat meat, although one of the arguments you hear more often now is that eating meat is an expression of cultural identity. Maybe that’s meant to carry moral weight.

  4. ” I think that a failure to cultivate moral empathy is bad for two reasons: it causes us to harm people unnecessarily, and it prevents meaningful dialogue from happening between people who morally disagree.”

    A third even more (I think) important thing: it creates huge divisions in society on a macro level, and it ain’t pretty on a micro level either.

  5. Hi, Amanda

    Very interesting post, as usual.

    My impression is that in the context of political or moral debates (and political debates are usually moral debates), people very often attribute to their opponents (in an epistemically improper fashion) some beliefs and intentions that they do not have, and deny (also improperly) some beliefs and/or intentions that their opponents do have. I see the case of denying that their opponents have some moral beliefs as one of the several instances of that.
    That said, I think some cases that might look as lacking moral empathy are actually cases of moral condemnation, which may or may not be followed by failure to properly attributing moral beliefs.
    For example, consider the abortion case:
    It seems plausible to me that the people who say “if you don’t like abortion, then just don’t have one” aren’t (in general) trying to persuade their opponents when they say that.
    They may well be trying to rally the troops so to speak (as Mike Hicks indicates, if I read his post right), but I think apart from further goals, saying “if you don’t like abortion, then just don’t have one” is usually a way of morally condemning their opponents for trying to ban abortion and/or for promoting the belief that aborting a fetus or embryo because one does not want a child is morally similar to, say, murdering a child for that reason. They’re telling their opponents to stop doing what they’re doing, because it’s appalling behavior. This is not necessarily (or usually) meant to persuade, but to condemn.

    As for the claim “men have no place discussing the issue of abortion”, that also seems like a moral condemnation on men who discuss the issue of abortion, on either side of the debate. If so, those who say that should realize that what they claim is false. Alternatively, it might be directed only at men who want to ban abortion. Either way, those who say that sincerely have epistemically irrational beliefs, but I don’t know that they believe that those men who discuss abortion (or who condemn it) don’t have moral beliefs on the matter.

    When the person who condemns abortion says “abortion is murder”, she is also (directly or indirectly, explicitly or not) morally condemning the person who supports legal abortion, and the person who actually decides to have an abortion because she doesn’t want to have a child (e.g., she considers it too big a burden, etc.); people on the other side tend to be outraged at an unjust moral condemnation, etc.

    A similar pattern might occur in the case of the vegan. A vegan who is openly a vegan doesn’t just make a choice for herself. When she says she’s a vegan and explains why, she is (explicitly or not) passing moral condemnation on meat eaters, or even non-vegans, by implying that their behavior is immoral. Some (many) meat eaters, etc., who see themselves as being unjustly condemned (i.e., accused of immorality when they did nothing wrong, in their assessment) react in a hostile fashion and consider (even if unconsciously) the vegan an enemy. Some of the usual responses may be to actually come to believe their enemy has ill intentions, or doesn’t have true moral beliefs, but that doesn’t seem to be required for a hostile response to the (also hostile to the extent it’s a moral condemnation) claim made by the vegan.

    It seems people on each side are morally condemning each other (i.e., judging that the other person is acting immorally), regardless of whether they improperly fail to attribute moral beliefs to their opponents.

    I share your concern about the dialectical failures due to failures to engage the opponent’s actual argument, but I’m not sure it’s because they fail to attribute moral beliefs, either. I’m inclined to think even if, say, A properly recognizes that B believes it’s morally just to ban abortion, it may well be (and probably it will be, in my experience) that A will fail to understand B’s arguments in support of their position. Part of that might be due to lack of philosophical knowledge, and part of it due to anger (e.g., a person is so outraged at what their opponents are saying that they’re not thinking clearly).

    I don’t know of any solution for that, or even if there is one. I’m inclined to think it’s improbable that most people will both learn some logic and be able to keep a cool enough head when debating moral issues.
    Your suggestion of cultivating moral empathy would no doubt be useful in some (perhaps many) cases if applied, since it would eliminate a source of misunderstanding (and misrepresentation), but in my view, that would not have much of an impact on the mutual condemnation.

  6. Great comments that addressed some of my problems with this piece. I’d just like to add that saying “if you think abortion is wrong, don’t have one” could be an attempt to attack the anti-abortion side for their lack of moral empathy. While some people who believe abortion is wrong don’t harass people who think it can be morally permissible, many often want to stop others from getting abortions. So saying the above is saying let’s all make our own decisions about this and realize that some people think it is acceptable and those beliefs are valid. But while I as a supporter of abortion-rights can understand why people oppose it, the other side often can’t/won’t accept my position as morally valid, and that is the intractable problem.

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