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‘But the Flesh is Weak’: Veganism, Moral Motivation and False Consciousness

The common unreflective objections to veganism may be manifestations of false consciousness, and the moral psychological notion of ‘akrasia’, or a weakness of will. The ideology that dominates our relationship with animals in developed societies gives rise to a level of false consciousness. It is pre-reflective in that societies embrace omnivorism without perceiving the moral need to justify it. When the dominant ideology is challenged, rationalizations can ensue. Since an ideology is not a specific set of beliefs that can be proven to be true or false in isolation, it is very difficult to prove that omnivorism is morally wrong, or that veganism is right in such a way that any rational moral agent could be convinced. As a result, it may require substantial willpower to become a vegan.

SUSANA PICKETT: Despite the strength of arguments for veganism in the animal rights literature, alongside environmental and other anthropocentric concerns posed by industrialised animal agriculture, veganism remains only a minority standpoint… This article explores the moral motivational problem of veganism from the perspectives of moral psychology and political false consciousness. It argues that a novel interpretation of the post-Marxist notion of political false consciousness may help to make sense of the widespread refusal to shift towards veganism. Specifically, the notion of false consciousness fills some explanatory gaps left by the moral psychological notion of akrasia, often understood to refer to a weakness of will. Central to this approach is the idea that animal exploitation is largely systemic and the assumption that moral motivation is inseparable from moral thinking. In this light, the primary obstacle to the adoption of veganism arises not so much from a failure to put genuine beliefs into action, but rather in a shared, distorted way of thinking about animals. Thus, common unreflective objections to veganism may be said to be manifestations of false consciousness…

Omnivore’s akrasia leaves some important gaps, for it is delimited to free and voluntary action against one’s better judgement. As such, the phenomenon of widespread omnivorism in developed societies may be better explained in terms of omnivore’s false consciousness (but I am not thereby suggesting that animal liberationists should embrace Marxism). Where omnivore’s false consciousness arises, there is no clear or explicit motivational failure to become a vegan, precisely because there is insufficient reflection for an akratic break to take occur. Further work in the field of moral psychology is evidently needed to unravel the motivational unity thesis, a theorem upon which this paper leans heavily.

Insofar as veganism expresses an ideology, it cannot be proven either to be true or morally right through arguments alone in such a way as to persuade any rational being or otherwise fully-fledged moral agent. Veganism is, as such, not an analytic truth to be derived from abstract moral principles but rather a moral way of life. Arguably, it is also a moral requirement. Principles such as causal inefficacy and unnecessary harm can be turned against veganism via analytic rationalisations which exploit scepticism and err on the side of narrow human self-interest, rather than an altruistic stance towards animals. Despite difficult technical and analytic considerations, one can experience veganism as an inescapable imperative; as a spiritual necessity; or as a powerful political identity against the oppression of animals. As such, some animal advocates may feel utter despair and therefore struggle to comprehend how others are not similarly moved. They may experience helplessness as to why common reasons against veganism are so weak. This paper is but one expression of such puzzlement, and a first attempt to make sense through the hitherto underexplored notion of false consciousness within the field of animal ethics. SOURCE…


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