Moral Intuitions on Food

I’m about half-way through Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Righteous Mind.  In the book, he makes the case that our moral judgments are mainly based on intuitive reactions.  We only make up logical reasons for our judgments later (if we can) to justify our initial intuitions.  Bailey Norwood and I made a similar case in terms of how we think about the rightness or wrongness of caging farm animals in chapter 6 of our recent book, Compassion by the Pound.  

What struck me as I read Haidt was his discussion on moral disagreement.  It is very had to change someone’s intuitions about what is right or wrong.  If we can’t even articulate the reasons why we think something is wrong, how can someone possibly make a compelling, reasoned counter-argument?  Haidt argues that trying to use reason to change someone’s moral intuition is a bit like trying to make a dog happy by grabbing its tail and wagging it. 

So, how is it that I intuitively feel so differently about various aspects of food production (e.g., biotechnology, irradiation, pesticides, herbicides, etc.) than others who are revolted by the same issues?  When I think about these issues, I am not appalled; I don’t feel any disgust.  But, I suspect I’m in the minority of Americans. 

I gave the Shepard lecture last night to a group of students and faculty at Kenyon College about the future of food.  Although we had a civil, productive discussion, it’s safe to say that many of the students in the room had different moral intuitions about these topics and I do.  Their moral intuitions are that many modern food technologies are self-evidently wrong (while other issues like local, organic, and natural are self-evidently right). 

How is it that our moral intuitions can be so different?  I grew up around “big ag.”  I’ve personally sprayed Monsanto’s Round-Up on hundreds of acres of cotton weeds.  I’ve personal castrated farm animals to limit aggression and off-tasting meat.  I’ve personally had to throw away thousands of pounds of salsa that grew mold because adequate levels of preservatives weren't added.  I’ve personally met and know people who work for Monsanto, Cargill, ADM, etc.  I grew up going to school with kids whose parents were immigrant farm laborers living at or below poverty. 

Now, that doesn’t necessarily make my intuitions about modern food production somehow objectively correct.  But, I at least can lay claim to the fact that they are based on actual life experiences and insights. 

That said, I suspect there were more than a few pre-civil war southerners whose life experiences led them to believe slavery was o.k.  On the flip side, there are many examples of people having faulty (at least what many of us would now say are faulty) moral intuitions on topics for which they had very little experience (e.g., the wrongness of eating pork).  Actual life experience with the issue in question may or may not correlate well with faulty moral intuitions.

I don’t know exactly where that leaves us except to say that Haidt argues that moral persuasion tends to work more on the social level than the cognitive.  According to Haidt, If you think I’m a nice guy, you’re more likely to give my moral intuitions a test-drive. 

Here’s hoping that, despite the facts and logical arguments given in my talk last night, I came across as a nice guy.