Tags

, , , ,

Jonathan Haidt opens his The Righteous Mind with two hypothetical examples, “thought experiments” as analytic philosophers would say:

A family’s dog was killed by a car in front of their house. They had heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog’s body and cooked it and ate it for dinner. Nobody saw them do this.

And

A man goes to the supermarket once a week and buys a chicken. But before cooking the chicken, he has sexual intercourse with it. Then he cooks it and eats it.

Haidt asks us: Did the people in either of these cases do something morally wrong? My reaction was, and is, to say yes in the first case but not the second. We regularly eat chickens and let them be slaughtered for us, when they have often lived in inhumane conditions. How can it be any more wrong to have sex with their corpse? No additional suffering is inflicted. I certainly find it disgusting, but not morally wrong.

There is also no additional suffering in the case of the dog. But something else is going on there. The dog was a beloved member of the family, or should have been. There is something disrespectful involved in eating someone you once loved – especially when it is merely because you heard dog meat in general is delicious. If the family sincerely thought that by eating the dog they would make it be forever a part of them in some sense, I would find that also disgusting, but not such a moral wrong. But people who would have so little feeling for their pet that they are able to eat it for the flavour – something seems unvirtuous about such people. They do not have the dispositions, the habits of mind, that a good person should have, habits of respect and affection toward their family.

As it turns out, these reactions of mine are different from the ones Haidt expects his readers to have. In neither case is harm being done, nor are rights being violated – we typically recognize these animals as the humans’ property. For that reason, liberal Westerners might have the reaction I did in the chicken case, but most people around the world (so Haidt says) would agree emphatically that having sex with the chicken was a moral wrong.

In the case of the dog, however, since no harm is being done to the dog and the family had a right to do what they wished with it since it was their dog, he expects his readers’ reaction to be: “Well, I think it’s disgusting, and I think they should have just buried the dog, but I wouldn’t say it was morally wrong.” He thinks it far more likely that people would judge the “chicken-lover” morally wrong than the dog-eaters. If Haidt is right, my reaction and reasoning are different than most. Haidt has the dog belong to the family in his example because eating their own dog might seem less wrong than eating someone else’s – but I would argue that it is significantly more wrong than eating a dead stray.

What makes me an outlier? It probably matters here that I am a dog owner and not a vegetarian. But I think it matters even more that I am a virtue ethicist. When I read Haidt’s discussion of these cases, for perhaps the first time I started to think that “virtue ethics” was not merely a residual category, a miscellaneous artifact under which we lump all the ethical traditions that dissent from the analytical orthodoxies of Kantianism and consequentialism. It is deeply significant to me to ask of an action: is this something a virtuous person would do? And that virtue is not merely something that is reduced to consequences and obligations, or even individual actions themselves.

I would argue there is a virtue, a disposition, a good habit, lacking from the family who cavalierly cook their dead dog. What virtue is that? My first thought was “respect”, perhaps even “reverence” – the “forgotten virtue” lionized by Paul Woodruff. But I think it’s not quite that. Rather, it has to do with familial love. It is the virtue that is denied by Peter Singer’s emphasis on “impartiality, universalizability, equality or whatever” as central to morality. I first thought of the Confucian term xiao 孝, “filiality” or “filial piety”, but that has more to do with children’s responsibility to parents; in Confucian terms what is at issue here is more like the “rectification of names” (zheng ming 正名): duties to family, to loved ones, that have to do with one’s own closeness and relationship to them. A father should be a father, a king should be a king, and a pet owner should be a pet owner. It is part of being human and living a flourishing and virtuous life that we should feel special emotional bonds to those we are close to – the kind of love that the Greeks would call philia (which seems to have no particular etymological relationship to the Latin-derived “filial”).

Now I also have the deepest respect for monks, who typically sever those very filial ties – in a way that made Buddhism appear scandalous to Confucians. But the monk’s life is one that aims to be, in some respect, superhuman. Recognizing the deep unsatisfactoriness of the human condition, the monk strives to be fully disentangled from it. This, to me, is a universalism that makes sense – the attempt to be a universal being, transcending one’s particularity. But it makes little sense to attempt to be universal in this way while enmeshed in the day-to-day life of family. To the extent that we take familial love as a good worth pursuing, I think that love carries with it its own moral obligations.

J. David Velleman, in his “Love as a moral emotion” (Ethics 109(2)), gives an example of someone who thinks “you ought to attend church or synagogue this weekend for the sake of your dear departed mother…” Velleman’s concept of love is of a Kantian sort I do not share. But I agree with him (and disagree with consequentialists like Singer) that there is something morally relevant to the concept of a “sake” that is not a goal as such, not something one acts in order to achieve. You shouldn’t eat your dear departed dog, for the sake of your love for that dog. That love is something good about you that doesn’t go away when the dog dies.