Vegetarianism, abortion, and moral empathy

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.

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