Bryan Caplan  

Vegetarianism and Moral Self-Deception

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Vegetarianism is plagued by apostates as well as hypocrites:
[A]ccording to a 2005 survey by CBS News, three times as many American adults admit to being "ex-vegetarians" than describe themselves as current vegetarians. This suggests that roughly 75% of people who quit eating meat eventually change their minds and return to a diet that includes animal flesh. It seems that for most people, vegetarianism is a phase rather than a permanent change in lifestyle.
Hal Herzog and Morgan Childers created a small survey to find out why people abandon vegetarianism.  The results seem obvious at first: "Health" is the most common reason, followed by "hassle" and "cravings."
Now take a close look at the smallest bar: "ethical."  Many people become vegetarians for moral reasons, but ex-vegetarians almost never change their minds about the morality of meat-eating:
About half of the respondents originally gave up meat for ethical reasons. Yet only two of our ex-vegetarians said changes in their views of the morality of killing animals motivated their decision to resume meat consumption. In fact, most of the former vegetarians were still concerned with animal protection and the ethical issues associated with eating animals.
This result should shock anyone who thinks that moral self-deception is a big deal.  If people use moral reasoning to justify whatever they felt like doing anyway, why do ex-vegetarians cling to their original moral perspective?  A little rationalization would allow them to have ideals and eat them, too.  So why don't they?

COMMENTS (18 to date)
Chris H writes:

This is a pretty small sample size in the blog post you link to, 77 ex-vegetarians to be precise. I understand why they'd need a smaller group if they wanted to get in depth interviews on the reasons why their participants quit but the generalizability is probably hurt. Also it's possible that a change in ethical views might be viewed as something more likely to spark conflict or disapproval than something like health (though one would think that mere "hassle" or "cravings" would be worse in that regard).

Another option is that perhaps their weights on animal suffering relative to human suffering/inconvenience has remained the same, but they had been initially empirically wrong about the amount of human suffering/inconvenience not eating meat caused. Thus their fundamental moral framework is unchanged, but with better information the ex-vegetarians are better able to see what that framework actually demands in terms of actions they should take. The blog post does mention after all that most of the ex-vegetarians still tried to limit their meat intake rather than shifting completely to not really caring.

Maurizio writes:

I am a former vegetarian (I've been for 8 years). For me, the reason is that I no longer think that eating animals is a crime, only killing them is. And I am not the one killing them. :) (In case you are wondering if I am joking, I am not :) )

Tracy W writes:

Self-selected sample set? If the ex-vegetarians were good at moral self-deception, they wouldn't have become vegetarians for ethical reasons in the first place. So perhaps the ex-vegetarians are people who are particularly incompetent at moral self-deception.

James writes:

Is this a simple as a coding problem? If I become vegetarian and then start eating meat because I feel morally required to do so, that would put me in the "Ethical" bar. But I may have become a vegetarian for moral reasons which I no longer believe and then abandoned vegetarianism because it was too much hassle. If this would put me into any of the four larger groups, it still would not be a case of moral self deception.

Maurizio: And as for people, how do you see it?

Maurizio writes:

"And as for people, how do you see it?"

the same way. Killing = wrong. Eating = not an invasive act.

Interestingly, there are not even utilitarian reasons to stop eating meat; one person less will not change anything; it's like voting.

RPLong writes:

I think the answer is "social desirability bias," isn't it? The idea of giving up meat for ethical reasons is a highly attractive social signal. The idea that you once tried to give up meat for ethical reasons, but it proved to be a difficult and ongoing struggle is a good second-best. Either way, the idea that "I care about the cute fuzzy animals" is the real signal.

Zachary writes:

In my experience, even some omnivores who were not previously herbivores agree that subsidizing [animal] murder/enslavement/theft is wrong, but that they just value their own satisfaction more (I don't think that they are wrong, I think that they conflate what they think is wrong and what they think would be wrong in other circumstances).

@Maurizio: Negligibly perceivable effects are not non-effects. Changes on the margin are still changes. Voting makes no change on the margin. Your analogy and logic is flawed. Subsidizing harm is still culpable for moral disapprobation.

Hazel Meade writes:

I agree on the "health" point.
It's very hard to get enough protein on a vegetarian diet. It entails eating a lot of beans and lentils which aren't the most tasty things in the world. Also, flatulence.

My guess is a large number of people attempt to go vegetarian and soon find themselves developing all sorts of health problems due to malnourishment, then quit. To stick to it, you really have to read a few books on vegetarian cooking and change your whole diet, you can't just cut out the meat and not change anything else.

Ken P writes:

Health is a pretty good reason to switch back. I 2ouod probably vote for a candidate I found morally repreh3nsibke if it got rid of an illness I was experiencing.

Ethical reasons and killing animals are not necessarily the same thing. To many the big issue is the difference in resources required to produce meat vs plants. That is often cited as an ethical reason due to arguments that it somehow deprives people in developing nations of food when we feed our grains to animals.

Steve Z writes:

Because guilt is so delicious. It is a somewhat robust result in psychology that people actually enjoy guilt.

Hazel Meade writes:

Because guilt is so delicious. It is a somewhat robust result in psychology that people actually enjoy guilt.

Are you sure that's actually guilt, and not just the lingering pleasure of the ice cream?

In my experience, most people will avoid feelings of guilt at all costs, mainly by rationalizing bad actions on their part. (i.e. it's okay that I stole this money, because I need it and he doesn't deserve to have so much anyway).

Or maybe it's not that people enjoy the guilt, but they enjoy the feeling of having gotten away with something. I may feel bad that I did it, but I feel even better that I got away with it.

Hazel Meade writes:

One could devise an experiment where you measure guilty feelings within groups that were punished or not punished for the guilty action, and see if the "punished" group enjoys the guilt less.

Steve J writes:


It is not hard to get enough protein on a vegetarian diet. This was the best link I could find that explains this with a minute of searching:


Are you claiming our factory farms are "moral"? Of course eating factory produced meat is immoral but hey it tastes great so... sorry animals.


Richard writes:

You're not dealing with the average person here, but a minority of a minority. Is it so hard to believe that 1-3% of the population may deal with moral and ethical questions honestly? I'm an ex-vegetarian who never changed his mind on the morality of eating meat that is produced by modern methods.

Taras writes:

I am a pescetarian though I consider myself to be a vegetarian ally. Usually I have a tin of sardines and a tin of tuna per week. Among that, some tofu/veggie burger a few times a week, and the rest of my diet I get enough protein, omega 3, and iron while cutting down my environmental impact and quantity of animal abuse demanded.

Eventually my body no longer hungered for meat. When I smell it I find it repulsive. I have had some by chance over the last couple years, such as ordering soup with sausage in it by accident or trying turkey at Thanksgiving. It no longer tastes preferable to veggie burger or tuna to me in any way.

Ken P writes:

Steve J,

"It is not hard to get enough protein on a vegetarian diet. "

Protein is not the real issue. There are particular amino acids that are important. Iron can be an issue for women.

It's not hard, if you don't have nut allergies and don't have issues with eating soy (plant estrogens). Many people don't research it first and just give up meat. If you end up with fatty liver disease, nausea or tremors, you may be more inclined to go back to meat than to modify your vegetarian diet.

Rob writes:

Maybe not everyone is always self-deceiving (gasp!). I would probably have owned slaves if I lived in a time where it was legal and socially accepted. I know this and don't lie to myself or others about it.

Anyway, "vegetarian vs. non-vegetarian" is a stupid debate. The marginal utility of eating some meat is far higher than the marginal utility of eating the same amount of meat when you're already eating a lot. So it would be easier and better (for animal suffering) if more people strongly reduced meat on the margin instead of having us-vs-them debates about vegetarianism.


And I am not the one killing them. :)

"And as for people, how do you see it?"

the same way. Killing = wrong. Eating = not an invasive act.

So hiriing an assassin to kill your enemies should be legal because the hirer doesn't do the killing?


Negligibly perceivable effects are not non-effects. Changes on the margin are still changes. Voting makes no change on the margin.
However, it changes the expectation values of policies, since even one vote has the small probability of completely shifting the election outcome. In the unlikely case that this happens, billions of dollars can be effected by one vote. That this has never happened does not mean it will never happen.
Maurizio writes:

"So hiring an assassin to kill your enemies should be legal because the hirer doesn't do the killing? "

Yes, I actually think like that :)

The assassin was acting of his own free will, not under coercion by the hirer, so he is the sole responsible.

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