What Common Human Behavior Will be Viewed as Mistaken in 100 Years?


I’ve heard a variant of this question posed many a time, most recently by John S. If you look back at any slice of history, there were certain human behaviors, beliefs, and institutions that are now viewed as obviously wrong. Slavery, racism, and geocentrism are a few examples.* What is next?

*These examples are generally thought of as examples where we have made progress. Realizing that slavery and racism are immoral and that geocentrism is false represented a movement towards truth and rightness. I don’t endorse Condorcet’s view that history is always moving in the right direction: It is possible that we can move in a wrong or neutral direction (the stronghold that religion still has is one example that certainly would have disappointed Condorcet). Hence, my prediction is purely predictive/descriptive and I’m not making a moral judgment.

I predict that meat-eating will be viewed by the majority of people (in developed countries) as immoral within one-hundred years. As we get richer, we are able to increasingly concern ourselves with morality on a large scale. Environmental issues are much less of a concern for developing countries than developed countries not because developing countries have some sort of moral deficiency, but more because developed countries can afford to act on moral concern about environmental degradation. Concern about the environment (and working conditions) is certainly already shifting to the food industry with the proliferation of organic and fair-trade food products.

Vegetarianism, I predict, will be the environmentalism of tomorrow. There are already vegetarian meat analogues and presumably, with more wealth and innovation, it will be possible for societies to develop closer analogues that taste even more like meat. I do think the biggest obstacle that prevents people from becoming vegetarians is simply that they really like the taste/texture of meat. If that taste and texture can be replicated (taste already can, texture is the big hurdle), one of the major obstacles preventing vegetarian converts can be basically eliminated. I don’t think cost is a major issue since meat substitutes like Quorn are only marginally more expensive than meat. Shipping costs may be significant, but once a critical mass reaches vegetarianism, that won’t matter too much. Moreover, one of my main arguments is that as we get wealthier as a society we can afford to concern ourselves with more causes that we couldn’t in the past. Presuming continued growth in capitalist societies, I see little reason why this trend will not continue.

Of course, people need at least some form of moral impetus to switch to vegetarianism just like there is a moral impetus to switch to environmentalism. (In the case of environmentalism, the main moral impetus is based on the argument that environmental degradation harms future generations, and imposing harm on others when it can easily be avoided is immoral.) Peter Singer’s utilitarian argument that animals’ suffering is sufficient to deem the humans that harm them immoral is compelling (and simple) enough to provide a moral impetus for many—whether you agree with its logic or not.

In many ways, I think the moral argument for vegetarianism is more persuasive than the moral argument for environmentalism. Environmentalism is largely a response to a collective action problem, meaning that it’s difficult for one individual to make a significant environmental difference. Vegetarianism, on the other hand, is not inherently based on a collective action problem and holds people individually morally culpable. If you take Singer’s argument seriously, you should worry about individual animals just as you worry about individual humans. If you think harming animals is immoral (just as you think harming humans is immoral), your purchase of that turkey for Thanksgiving is an immoral action regardless of how other people behave. And, there’s reason to believe that most people do think at least some harming of animals is immoral given the public uproar to Michael Vick’s dogfighting crime.

Moreover, people are moved by images. People are more likely to donate to an African charity when a picture of a suffering child is on the cover of a letter than when there are merely statistics. Vegetarianism is very conducive to images. As more activist groups take up vegetarianism as a moral cause, there will be more images of suffering and slaughtered animals. Paul McCartney (Did I mention he puts on a good concert?) became a vegetarian after seeing a lamb while eating lamb. I think McCartney’s reaction is not exceptional and can (and will) be exploited by creative publicity campaigns.

A counter-argument to this is that morality only plays a trivial or derivative role in bringing people to causes like environmentalism or vegetarianism. In the end, say the morality skeptics, it all comes down to pragmatism. Environmentalism became popular when fuel prices started rising, for instance. I disagree with this view. I do acknowledge that pragmatic considerations do play a role. People who dislike high gas prices may be spouting the tenets of environmentalism in order to push for alternative energy even when the reality is that they just want more affordable technology. But, this is an exception. Many people were deeply moved by Silent Spring and An Inconvenient Truth. After Silent Spring, John F. Kennedy ordered his Science Advisory Committee to study the issue of DDT.  Moreover, Silent Spring inspired the founding of the Environmental Defense Fund. Policies such as cap-and-trade and Pigovian gas taxes re-entered the agenda after An Inconvenient Truth.

Ideas and how they are presented matter. An Inconvenient Truth was a movie that tugged on people’s emotional heartstrings. These people were not “going green” for cost reasons (in fact, they often had to spend more money to go green) or to promote energy independence, but largely out of moral concern, even if that moral concern was a guise for some less noble intention, like bettering your reputation among your liberal friends. Either way, the very fact that there is a moral guise indicates that the moral impetus does matter. The American Environmental Values Survey finds that people who do not put a priority on communal values tend not to be environmentalist (and, they suggest emphasizing a more individualistic/libertarian environmentalism). Of course, economic factors and wealth ensure that people could spend the time to worry about environmental causes but there needs to be a moral impetus to activate environmentalism once the wealthy baseline is met.

So, if you’re leaving a cookbook for your progeny, be sure to include some vegetarian alternatives.

7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by John S on August 15, 2009 at 3:54 PM

    I disagree strongly. First of all, I think you are too dismissive of the cost issue. You say meat substitutes are only marginally more expensive than meat, but I don’t think this is fair. It is much more expensive, both in time and money, to be a (healthy) vegetarian, particularly in poor communities and less wealthy nations. It is also not simply a matter of meat v. meat substitutes. Buying food that is organic and animal-friendly is expensive: Milk, for example, is technically always vegetarian, but is much more expensive when the cows are treated properly. It is also difficult for vegetarians to achieve a balanced/diverse diet…compare vegetarian options to the nonvegetarian options at your average restaurant.

    Granted, in time, these issues can be solved, but people need a reason to invest in things like meat-substitutes, etc., and I don’t think the moral impetus is enough. For one, morality doesn’t change until social norms change, and social norms don’t change until there is a practical reason for them to. For all the environmental hoopla, nothing substantial got done until gas prices got so high that fuel efficiency became cost effective. An Inconvenient Truth and Silent Spring certainly got a lot of attention and a lot of publicity stunts in response, but they ultimately did little to get people to change their behavior, at least on a big enough scale for it to matter.

    And claiming that the moral argument for vegetarianism is more persuasive than that for environmentalism seems completely wrong to me. First of all, a collective action problem has nothing to do with morality; it’s about feasibility/results. Even if one person’s behavior isn’t going to change much about the environment it is still WRONG to pollute and waste. As for the claim that eating meat is itself immoral, well, that has always seemed dead wrong to me. Humans are omnivorous animals, and omnivores/carnivores eat other animals. Claiming that we shouldn’t has always seemed like human exceptionalism to me. For one, Singer’s argument is about suffering, and not death. There is also little evidence that many of the animals (at least the ones we eat) are aware of their own death, so presuming eventually we kill animals in such a way as to minimize suffering (granted, this is not how things currently work, but this whole exercise is hypothetical/speculative), I don’t see the moral issue.

    Moreover, morality is a human invention (and even if you disagree, most religions condone meat eating), so applying it to animals seems totally misguided to me. Are we going to start locking up lions who hunt gazelles? Granted, morality can apply to the MANNER and REASON humans kill animals, but the mere issue of killing animals for food does not strike me as immoral (heck, after seeing Alive, I don’t even think it’s immoral to kill HUMANS for food).

    As for your argument about images, I’m surprised you would mention that to support your argument: It seems very unJosh. I understand you’re being descriptive, but do you really think images are enough to overcome rational debate? If so, abortions will probably be outlawed, since images of dead fetuses are pretty disturbing, and we can say goodbye to civil liberties, since images of terrorism will outweigh any argument in their favor.

    In truth, I think images and appeals to emotions (which is really all the argument for vegetarianism is) can affect individuals very deeply and profoundly, but more often are forgotten or neglected in favor of what is convenient, typical, easy and, sometimes, rational. Sometimes this is unfortunate (like with slavery, or WWII), but sometimes it works out. This is one of those latter times. I don’t think vegetarianism will ever reach enough people to cause the macro level shift that you predict, and I’m glad, because I love steak.


  2. Posted by Josh on August 16, 2009 at 12:01 AM

    Thanks for the comment, John.

    Regarding cost, I said right in the beginning that this discussion is limited to developed (i.e. wealthy) nations. In fact, a precondition for my prediction to come true is that developed nations have continued growth on pace with past growth. So, I’m right on board with you there. And, I do think you have to be more creative to get a diverse/balanced vegetarian diet, but the fact is it’s not that difficult to get more protein. And, I don’t buy the idea that vegetarianism is generally less healthy. Michael Pollan, who I’ve written about twice on this blog, discusses how the ideal diet only uses meat in a supporting role. The fact is many meat-eaters—while getting their protein—aren’t on an optimal diet overall. And, my point that meat-alternatives are marginally more expensive than meat is still very relevant since, as I said, one of the biggest obstacles to reaching vegetarianism is people’s love of the taste and texture of meat. Whether that can be replicated at a relatively inexpensive price is certainly relevant.

    Regarding morality, you say “morality doesn’t change until social norms change, and social norms don’t change until there is a practical reason for them to.” What does this mean? How do you empirically isolate morality from social norms? I can just assert the opposite and say people are changing their social norms because of shifts in morality. Stating the reverse doesn’t get us anywhere. Regarding your environmentalism example, I agree with you that the market mechanism is one of the most powerful forces on human behavior. Ridiculously high gas prices will lead people to alternative energies and hybrid cars. And, I do think if the price of meat got ridiculously high that would definitely lead more people to a vegetarian diet. But, I’m dubious that either of these phenomena have lead to any significant shifts in morality or ideological belief. Let’s take the environmental issue of global warming. A solid number of people have not chosen the environmentalist path and hold that the harms of limiting human behavior outweigh the benefits of environmental protection. And, a solid number have chosen the environmentalist path. Sure, the high price of gas was one factor that helped to bring environmentalism to the forefront, but it is not at all determinative of moral belief. Current schemas and beliefs largely influenced the stand individuals took on the environmental issue. But, some people’s beliefs were shifted by an external moral impetus. An Inconvenient Truth and similar moral arguments made in writing and other venues provided a moral impetus to push a significant number of people on the environmental bandwagon.

    Regarding the persuasiveness of the argument for vegetarianism, you say “First of all, a collective action problem has nothing to do with morality; it’s about feasibility/results. Even if one person’s behavior isn’t going to change much about the environment it is still WRONG to pollute and waste.” Let me be clear: I am not arguing what is logically correct or incorrect. I am arguing what persuades people and motivates changes in behavior. While I agree with you as a philosopher, as a sociologist/psychologist I do not: I think people feel worse about imposing direct harm on another species than they do in contributing marginally to a large-scale commons problem. This is why the tragedy of the commons occurs and some sort of new incentive scheme is needed in order to solve it. Also, this piece is purely predictive/descriptive and I am in no way endorsing Singer’s argument. So, your argument against it may be perfectly valid, but I still think it has appeal.

    Now, you talk about all of these government bans and actions in your final paragraph. You say, “I understand you’re being descriptive, but do you really think images are enough to overcome rational debate? If so, abortions will probably be outlawed, since images of dead fetuses are pretty disturbing, and we can say goodbye to civil liberties, since images of terrorism will outweigh any argument in their favor.” I don’t this is fair. The way in which regulation gets passed is a different phenomenon than the way in which humans change their beliefs. Most people hold that flag-burning is immoral, yet it is legal in the United States. Most people are against abortions (many probably because of the image of dead fetuses) but abortion, too, remains legal. So, do I think images and emotion alter individual behavior? Of course. Do I think they ought to? No, but that’s not relevant to the point that I’m making.

    And, I don’t like steak nearly as much as John. But, I sure do like food.


  3. Posted by John S on August 16, 2009 at 2:13 AM

    Points generally taken, with this exception: You claim my assertion that morality follows social norms is dubious and claim that you could just as easily assert the opposite. You cannot. At least, not with evidence. You use the environmentalism example, but that is a relatively recent moral issue.

    Let’s take slavery. Slavery had been morally dubious since basically Aristotle, who had to rely on some pretty tenuous arguments to justify the Greek’s use of it. And yet it persisted for thousands of years. Why? Slave labor is really cheap. Only when political and economic forces shifted in the favor of paid labor was in outlawed in the US. So, maybe my wording was off, but something can be considered immoral, or at least morally questionable (slavery was probably never considered “moral” by a majority of people, but a necessary and tolerable evil), and still be tolerated.

    You can look at other examples of this as well. Religious persecution, war, etc. Time after time, it has been documented that a macro level shift in morality only occurs when substantial institutional forces are behind it. And Al Gore doesn’t count as a substantial institutional force.


    • Posted by Josh on August 16, 2009 at 12:42 PM

      Look, I grant you that economics matter. I granted that it helped to bring environmentalism to the forefront. And, I’ll even grant you that people DO rationalize and will morally justify seemingly immoral actions. Yet, that doesn’t mean that a persuasive enough moral impetus won’t change actions.

      So, my question is why and how did political forces shift towards opposing slavery? And, what economic changes occurred that lead to the termination of slavery in the US? It’s not like Southerners were just giving up their slaves because they were no longer of significant value of them.


  4. Posted by Alex on August 17, 2009 at 4:31 PM

    I don’t think it’ll happen soon. We’re becoming more adventurous food-wide. I seriously doubt we’ll eliminate a large chunk of possible foods from our repertoire soon. Though maybe in 100 years…


  5. […] Here’s an interview with Jonathan Safran Foer, normally a great fiction writer, whose new book Eating Animals tries to get people to stop eating meat. Hasn’t he read Josh? In 100 years, this whole discussion will be moot. […]


  6. […] in 2009, fellow NPIer Josh asked, “What Common Human Behavior Will be Viewed as Mistaken in 100 Years?” He used that question to talk about vegetarianism, but the question popped into my head recently […]


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