What goes on in our minds during ethical decision making? How do we justify ourselves when we make immoral decisions?

There are several areas of research that can give us insight into ethical decision making.

Ethical Decision Making and the ‘Meat Paradox’

I’d like to ask you two questions. Is animal torture morally wrong? I’m imagining (unless we have a few psychopaths out there) that you all said yes. My second question is do you eat factory-farmed meat? Did you answer yes again?

This is the ‘meat paradox’. When we feel bad about the lives of the animals we are consuming but we eat them anyway. We know that animals reared in factory conditions suffer terrible conditions and live very short lives before they are put to death. Yet, we continue to make the decision to eat meat. So what has happened to our ethical decision making?

By examining the way we justify our decision to eat meat knowing how animals are farmed, we can understand other kinds of decision making.

What happens to ethical decision making if our behaviour contradicts our beliefs?

To eat meat but to dislike killing and harming animals causes tension in humans. According to psychologist Hank Rothgerber, there are several ways to relieve this tension:

  • Dissociation – Don’t relate meat products to animals
  • Perceived behavioural change – Lie about being a vegetarian
  • Denial of animal mind – Animals are not the same as humans
  • Behavioural changes – Stop eating meat

I’m going to focus on behavioural changes to highlight ethical decision making.

Behavioural Changes in Our Identity

The most obvious way to relieve this tension is to change our own behaviour and simply stop eating meat. But for many, this is not that simple. Yes, sure, veganism is on the rise, but it is still an antagonistic issue.

To highlight this point, in the UK recently, there was a huge debacle about a food store that started selling vegan sausage rolls. One presenter went so far as to say that no one wanted them. It seems that vegans have to have pretty tough skin in today’s society.

So are you the type of person that likes to stand out from the crowd? Are you not afraid of debate, conflict or confrontation? Or would you rather live a more peaceful life and not get involved in other people’s arguments?

Let’s look at the meat paradox again.

Psychologists Brock Bastian and Steve Loughnan are studying what effects eating meat has on those that abhor animal suffering. This is a complex subject for many people and it leads to questions about our identity.

For many people, eating meat is intrinsically tied up with who we are. Think about the manly connotation of eating meat.

The guy at the barbeque flipping over sizzling steaks. How much stick do you think he would get if he invited his mates round and cooked vegan sausages? Would he still be considered ‘one of the lads’? A real man? Would he be teased about his food choices?

Meat is manly food. You are what you eat and if you only eat stuff like lettuce you must be some animal-loving softie. One study highlights men’s attitudes to meat-eating and vegetarians.

“Red meat is (commonly considered) a strong, traditional macho, bicep-flexing, All-American food” while a leaner alternative like soy is generally seen as “weak and wimpy.” Study author

This study into ethical decision making shows why it can be so hard to change our behaviour.

Ethical Decision Making and the Trolley Dilemma

The Trolley Dilemma is a thought experiment designed to test ethical decision making. The basis of the test is that you see a railroad trolley speeding down the rail track. The brakes have obviously failed. In its path are five workmen who have no chance of getting off the track in time.

However, there is a slip track. If you throw the lever on the trolley, you can steer the trolley onto this track to avoid hitting the five men. Unfortunately, there is one workman on this slip track who also cannot get off the track. So, do you throw the lever?

Your choice is:

  • Do you leave the trolley on its original path where it will kill five men?
  • Do you steer it onto the slip track where it will kill one man?

The majority of people would take action and steer the trolley onto the slip track where it kills one man.

However, when it comes to ethical decision making, people can have very different reasons for throwing the lever.

Utilitarians – Will throw the lever to save the maximum number of lives. They think about the consequences of their actions.

Virtuous – Throws the lever because that’s what a virtuous person would do. They care about their character, not necessarily their actions.

Deontologist – Won’t throw the switch because any kind of killing is wrong. This type of person focuses on their actions which are either right or wrong, rather than the consequences of their actions.

Christian – Won’t throw the switch because killing is against the will of God.

Ethical relativist – Won’t throw the switch because aiding any person’s death is culturally wrong and illegal. They believe that all ethical decisions vary from culture to culture and are just a matter of opinion.

Now, just to make things a little harder, here is one further scenario in the trolley problem.

There are still five men on the track and it is still speeding towards them in a trolley with no brakes. However, this time in order to save them, you have to throw a man on the track in front of the trolley to stop it hitting them.

Do you throw the man on the track?

In this scenario, the majority of people would not throw a man into the path of the speeding trolley. But why not? The results are exactly the same. One man dies and five are saved.

It appears that it is much easier to make immoral decisions if we distance ourselves somewhat. When the dilemma gets a little too close and personal we opt out. This brings us back to the meat paradox.

Cognitive Dissonance

As individuals, we have a set of beliefs and thoughts (cognitions) that make us who we are. If there is a contradiction between what we think and what we do (dissonance), something has to change to reconcile the two.

As it is easier to change our thought process than our behaviour, we usually change the way we think. There are three ways we can do this:

  1. Play down the importance of our beliefs to fit in with our behaviour.
  2. Add more beliefs that fit with our behaviour to outweigh the dissonant beliefs.
  3. Change the dissonant beliefs so that they don’t bother us as much.

So how does cognitive dissonance work in real life? Let’s return to the meat paradox one last time. You are against animal suffering and torture but you eat factory-farmed meat. How can you reconcile these two opposing beliefs?

Actually, society makes it easy for us. Meat is packaged in a way to distance us from the cruelty of the slaughter process. We use terms like ‘pork’ and ‘veal’ instead of pigs and calves to further distance us from our meat.

Furthermore, we put pretty pictures of farm animals roaming fields and looking content on the packaging. But it wouldn’t take much for us to open our eyes and make better moral decisions.

When it comes down to ethical decision making, perhaps rather than expending all this mental energy justifying the wrong decisions, we should just try to be more honest and open.

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