Science

The moral illusions of Stijn Bruers

Don’t eat the baby

Who decided that we’re not allowed to eat babies, but we are allowed to eat pigs? Ethicist Stijn Bruers argues that there’s no moral difference between the two.
By Christien Boomsma / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen / Foto Reyer Boxem

Most people think killing a pig, dismembering it, and eating it is perfectly fine. Especially if the pig was raised organically and died a painless death. People need to eat, right?

But what if that pig was a toddler? The level of intelligence is roughly the same. So why not eat a small child instead? But we recoil in disgust at the suggestion. Of course that’s not okay!

But why not?

Sea Shepherd

Stijn Bruers, theoretical physicist, ethicist, activist, and publicist, pondered this question for approximately half his life but could pinpoint no rational reason for the difference. So he became a vegan, joined the Sea Shepherd to Antarctica to protest the hunting of whales, and took actions to protect animals and their environment.

Our love of nature is a projection

Until he realised there was also no rational argument for the importance of biodiversity. ‘Our love of nature is a projection’, says Bruers. We think biodiversity is nice, and necessary, but nature itself doesn’t care when plants or animals go extinct. So why should we?

If you want to live a consistently ethical life, Bruers realised, you need to take into account the feelings of beings capable of thought, and limit their suffering as much as possible. ‘Say the Louvre is on fire, and you have the choice between saving a toddler and saving the Mona Lisa, which one do you pick? The toddler, who doesn’t want to be on fire, or the Mona Lisa, because you happen to think it’s pretty?

Veganistisch

Bruers, who visited Groningen last week to give two lectures at the Faculty of Philosophy, specifically tries to ‘do good’ in as many ways as he can. He makes sure he tracks his consumption (as little as possible), how he eats (vegan), and how he treats other living creatures (by actively preventing suffering).

He tries to achieve the latter by donating plasma and giving almost half his income to charity. He’s selected charities that will have the greatest impact, because Bruers is also a proponent of effective altruism. ‘I want to live in accordance with my own, most profound values’, he says.

We eat meat is because we grew up in an environment where it’s normalised

A lot of people think they live this way as well – practically everyone thinks you shouldn’t harm other people, that animal suffering is not okay, and that discrimination is bad. So they donate to Doctors without Borders, the Food Bank, or make a pot of soup for an elderly neighbour.

They do these things on a kind of moral autopilot. Bruers, on the other hand, has a critical eye turned on his moral convictions at all times. What is he thinking? Why does he think what he thinks? And can his reasoning withstand rational interrogation?

Genetically manipulated

If not, he changes his behaviour. For example, he no longer eats organic products since he learned ‘organic’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘better for the environment’. He also stopped protesting genetically manipulated food, because research convinced him it has value.

His convictions can make life more complicated. ‘The only reason we eat meat is because we grew up in an environment where it’s normalised’, he says. ‘But that conflicts with our own personal values that tell us we’re not allowed to cause any unnecessary suffering.’

When you try to put together your moral puzzle, some pieces won’t fit

This makes people uncomfortable, he says. ‘We defend our behaviour and deny that animals feel pain, for instance. Or we claim that human beings are fundamentally different than animals and that that makes it okay. That it’s in our nature to eat meat.’

Moral illusions

It’s all nonsense, says Bruers. These are moral illusions, comparable to optical illusions. You might think one in a series of lines is shorter than the other, but when you measure them you have to admit: your brain fooled you. It’s the same ‘when you try to put together your moral puzzle. Some pieces won’t fit. Pigs don’t want to be eaten. Well, dogs don’t, either. And when you ask people if they would eat a dog, they’re like “Gosh, no!” But why?’

To Bruers, saying you’re allowed to eat a pig because you happen to be a human being is like saying you’re allowed to discriminate against black people because you happen to be white. ‘It will automatically lead to unwanted arbitrariness – a biological distinction that is morally unimportant.’

If you’re okay with discrimination, you shouldn’t have a problem with being discriminated against yourself. If you think eating meat is okay, you should be okay with being eaten. ‘You’re claiming someone’s muscle tissue for yourself’, says Bruers.

Antelope

But he takes it a step further. If people aren’t allowed to eat pigs, are lions allowed to eat antelopes?

No, says Bruers, they’re not.

I see nature as een failed state

The fact that lions don’t have a concept of morality is no excuse. If a toddler gets hold of a gun, does that mean it’s allowed to shoot people? Or should you take it away in order to protect people? ‘We shouldn’t accept suffering just because the entity causing it doesn’t know what it’s doing.’

Bruers even disagrees that ‘this is just what happens in nature’. ‘I see nature as a failed state which can’t support its inhabitants and causes suffering, death, and disease.’

Blind evolution

The natural order has come about because of blind evolution, but that doesn’t mean it’s morally just. ‘It’s not focused on the well-being of living and thinking creatures’, says Bruers. So it’s up to us to intervene.

He agrees that this is where it get’s tricky. Antelopes don’t want to be dinner, but a lion will die if it doesn’t eat. The lions doesn’t want to die of starvation, but it also doesn’t want to be shot.

So how would he suggest we intervene? Surely we can’t force lions to become vegans?

Bruers nods. Of course it’s difficult, he says, but that doesn’t mean the issue isn’t worth debating. ‘When we were faced with diseases a thousand years ago, all we could do was pray. But we should have started studying the diseases immediately. Research has always led to solutions.’

Gene editing

So what if we feed the lions vat-grown meat? We could release robots without feelings on the savannah so lions can indulge their hunting instinct. Or maybe we can use gene editing to manipulate them into losing those instincts. Those are all just ideas, he emphasises – nothing is actually feasible yet. ‘But you’re asking me to predict the future in five hundred years.’

Everyone has to find a way to make those moral puzzle pieces fit together

The point is, he says, that we should be striving for consistent ethics without contradictions. ‘Not doing anything when you know that creatures with feelings are suffering is like saving the Mona Lisa instead of the toddler’, he says.

He knows it’s not a simple process. People sometimes get upset when he explains his point of view. But that’s just how they express their discomfort, he says. A cognitive dissonance arises when they’re asked to violate their own values.

No one has to agree with him. And he doesn’t judge people who follow a flexible vegetarian diet or who do take action to support biodiversity. ‘It’s a process of growth. Everyone has to find a way to make those moral puzzle pieces fit together. But I’ll be so bold as to claim that the puzzle piece of meat-eating will never fit properly.’

Dutch

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