What Insight in Innocence?

A recent New Yorker review of "The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times" shows how bias theories are central to the vegetarian debate: 

Commentators argued that the habit of killing, like that of meat eating itself, hardened the heart and the nerves, both figuratively and literally. The squeamish human response to animal suffering was the authentic one; the callous reaction induced by familiarity was accounted artificial or false.  … 

Cartesians had a response: any such human reaction was itself just a mechanical reflex. …  it’s true that many of those who have little experience of what goes on in an abattoir are repulsed by any kind of firsthand knowledge, or even by reading vivid accounts. But things are different on the other side of the slaughterhouse wall. Those who kill animals in the course of their working day may quickly become habituated to it, and to dismiss this effect as mere desensitization effectively discounts great knowledge of animal death in favor of slight knowledge.  Similarly, those who like to romanticize country people are frequently discomfited by their uncuddly ways with livestock. … Why is it "natural" not to know very much about "nature"? …


When the sixteen-year-old Ben Franklin converted to vegetarianism, he seemed to have been struck both by its health benefits and by moral sensitivity to animal suffering. But Franklin soon fell off the wagon. On his first sea voyage …:

Hitherto I had stuck to my Resolution of not eating animal Food; … But I had formerly been a great Lover of Fish, & when this came hot out of the Frying Pan, it smeled admirably well. … when the Fish were opened, I saw smaller Fish taken out of their Stomachs: Then thought I, if you eat one another, I don’t see why we mayn’t eat you. … So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable Creature, since it enables one to find or make a Reason for everything one has a mind to do.

Some say innocents have a better grasp of moral truth, and that others have found convenient excuses for suppressing conscience.  Innocent insight is a common literary theme; consider all the stories where only children can see ghosts or do magic, adults being too closed-minded to believe. 

Others say ignorance is not insight, however much the innocent might want to flatter themselves.   Revulsion at meat is no more informative about moral truth than our intuitive hate of snakes, or kids’ disgust at the idea of sex; those with more experience and knowledge should have a better grasp of moral truth.   

Surely there must be a few topics where adults learn to fool themselves and so kids know better.   How can we distinguish those topics, where innocence contains insight?

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  • Matthew

    I love Franklin’s line you quoted: “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable Creature, since it enables one to find or make a Reason for everything one has a mind to do.” That sums up much of what is believed to be an inquiry into truth. Reminds me of a Simon and Garfunkle song:

    “All lies and jest, still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. . .” – Paul Simon

  • http://homepage.mac.com/redbird/ Gordon Worley

    Religion seems like a good place where kids have the advantage. Not yet indoctrinated, they ask questions that, to religious adults, seem heretical, like “If God is Jesus’s dad, who’s his mom?” and “Why is the Flying Spaghetti Monster not made out of linguini?”. I’m sure someone with more experience with religion could come up with better examples; my experience is almost exclusively second hand.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Gordon, kids on average seem more to literally believe religion, even though they ask difficult questions. So is their innocence insight on average?

    Matt, yes, that is a great lyric line.

  • legaldude

    Ignorant of the pain and untidiness of childbirth, I was somewhat disgusted by the carrying on and gore attending my wife’s birth of our first child. What does my innocence and revulsion suggest about children and/or the process of giving birth?

    I had a similar physical reaction the first time I helped hoist a bloody deer carcass in preparation for some post-hunt butchery. I still feel much more morally ambivalent about shooting and gutting deer (when so much food is available otherwise) than I do my children/childbirth. Familiarity has made gutting deer easy now, even if not entirely free from moral questions. I never had any moral questions about childbirth or kids, but even the second round of seeing the process up close was not much easier than the first.

    Not sure where this takes us, but I do think simple feelings of disgust and revulsion, without more, say very little about the morality of things. The surgeon’s cuts and bone cracking may disgust me, but his actions are typically completely moral.

  • http://www.pellucid.org Bob Knaus

    Further reinforcing the disconnect between vegetarianism and morality, it is a commonplace that Hitler and many top Nazis were vegetarians.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vegetarianism_of_Adolf_Hitler presents arguments pro and con. At a minimum, it seems Hitler enjoyed being perceived as a vegetarian.

  • nelziq

    “Why is the Flying Spaghetti Monster not made out of linguini?”
    I would smack my (hypothetical) kid if he ever said such a thing. Back to Spaghetti Sunday School for you, boy!

  • http://n8o.r30.net/ Nato Welch

    Think about this the next time your kid fixes your computer.

    Who’s innocent now?

  • http://pdf23ds.net pdf23ds

    That reminds me. Why is it that many parents don’t like their kids to swear, even when they themselves swear regularly in adult company?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Nato, you lost me.

    Bob, surely we won’t want to be against everything that Hitler was for.

  • anon

    robin, it seems that you are suggesting that there is an objective moral truth about vegetarianism depending purely on information. i think i would have to take issue with this from the outset.

    furthermore, doesn’t it seem obvious to you that the people who would choose to work in slaughterhouses would be less predisposed to believing in the morality of vegetarianism than the average vegetarian? if so, why should we trust their moral judgment about vegetarianism any more than anyone else’s?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    anon, both sides in this dispute do seem to assume there is a common truth that they are disputing. If you took a third side that disagrees with them both, I’ll bet you come up with bias theories to explain why they disagree with you. Sure there might be selection of people who work in slaughterhouses, but there will also be selection of people who become vegetarian; not sure if this favors any particular side.

  • anon

    many (though not all) vegetarians think of their decision as a personal choice and do not care about imposing their lifestyle on others. and i’d guess the average slaughterhouse worker doesn’t have any particularly strong feelings against those who choose vegetarianism.

    you are assuming here that the question over the morality of vegetarianism is conditioned by experience, and thus that people with experience of killing animals have a fuller perspective on the matter than those without. my point is that it is strange to assume that the ‘innocence’ or inexperience of vegetarians means that their choice is somehow less informed when in fact it is likely that the slaughterhouse worker has his mind made up before he decides to work there.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Anon, I accepted they way the debate was framed by the review I quote, as my purpose was to consider it as an example of a larger issue.

  • anon

    i understand that. my point is that there are certain circumstances, such as the one you use, in which amount of experience can’t tell you anything about the validity of a moral claim.

  • Chris Yi

    One can actually search for the logical fallacy that has been humorously named “argumentum ad nazium” or “reductio ad Hitlerum”.

  • Chris Yi

    Oh, and I forgot to mention the point that was perhaps germane to the post: appealing to innocence might be a sub-fallacy of appeal to that which is “natural”.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Chris, I worry about the tendency to take any argument one doesn’t like, pretend that it claims logical certainty of its conclusions, and then label that argument a “fallacy” because it cannot deliver logical certainty.