Approximately a year ago, I watched the documentary Cowspiracy. The movie, despite its corny title, spawned a rather interesting moral experiment in which I was both subject and observer.
Cowspiracy argues — very convincingly — that meat production causes an immense strain on the environment. Per the documentary: livestock operations cover one-third of Earth’s ice-free land; every day, cows produce 150 billion gallons of methane; animal agriculture is responsible for up to 91% of the Amazon rainforest’s destruction; and three-fourths of the world’s fisheries are exploited and depleted. The most hard-hitting facts, for me at least, relate to water consumption. Drought-laden California uses half of its water on meat and dairy products, and in total, animal agriculture is responsible for 80-90% of U.S. water consumption.
For me, eating meat has always seemed wrong for a number of reasons. First, there’s the whole animal cruelty thing. Second, it basically prevents your heart from working. And third, more specific to myself, Hinduism isn’t all that fond of it. But oddly enough, as salient as they were, these reasons never made me feel guilty about eating meat. Cowspiracy changed that. Sort of. The movie certainly made me feel guilty — but that guilt often formed and dissipated in between delicious bites of a dead chicken’s leg. In other words, even though I felt bad about it, even though I understood my personal culpability in the destruction of nature, I never stopped eating meat.
But Cowspiracy did, over the next year, propel me to explore further moral arguments against eating meat. Perhaps the most powerful one I can remember comes from Peter Singer, the father of modern animal liberation theory. In his book Practical Ethics, Singer makes the following argument. Most people say the reason it is okay to torture, maim, kill, and eat animals is because their mental faculties are inferior to those of human beings (i.e. humans are more intelligent, more receptive to pain and pleasure, etc.). But say you had a person with a severe mental disability who, because of their condition, had measurably less sentience than a cow. Would it be justifiable to torture, maim, kill, and eat this person? Most reasonable people would respond “no,” which begs the question, why is it okay for us to torture, maim, kill, and eat a cow? Outside of this argument, Singer’s basic ideas about animal sentience — the ability for an animal to feel pain and pleasure much in the way humans do — make meat consumption, as it’s currently practiced, completely unjustifiable.
As I write this article, I have completely bought into both the environmental and cruelty-based arguments against eating meat. I find meat consumption morally unjustifiable on every level, and before most meals, I consider my moral obligation not to eat meat.
Also, a few days ago, I devoured a spicy chicken sandwich from Wendy’s that was to die for — and I continue to consume meat at a somewhat regular rate.
I never really thought about any of this until two weeks ago. I hazily understood that I was being a hypocrite every time I ate meat, but I never sat down and deconstructed the progression of my moral failure. Nor did I really think about how blatant and severe it was. Not only am I eating meat, I’m doing it with the full knowledge that it’s wrong. This is particularly egregious because the idea of “moral action” loses its power if a person cannot act on what they know to be moral. It’s like that guy who cheats on his significant other and thinks, “I’m such a jerk,” before going out and doing it again. It’s the worst type of immorality.
The reason I did start thinking about all this a few weeks ago is because I had experienced a second, unrelated moral breakdown. This breakdown, however, was not mine; it was America’s. Donald Trump was elected as the 45th President of the United States. Typing that sentence still instigates a momentary mental break with reality, a sudden feeling that perhaps I live in an alternate timeline or a weird dream — the only places where a Trump presidency should be possible. Over the last several days, the slow realization that Trump really is our president has been accompanied by a seemingly impossible task: understanding why so many Americans support an undeniable bigot.
I thought about this a lot, even before the election. For the longest time, I had no idea why people supported Trump. The tired arguments about white working class anger, anti-establishment sentiment, and — very broadly — “the internet” don’t explain in the slightest why nearly 50% of the American electorate was okay with voting for a sexual predator backed by the KKK. Losing your job doesn’t justify bigotry. Nor does being angry at the government. Nor does following only Milo Yiannopoulos on Twitter.
There really is no way around it: America has committed a great moral sin. The only question now is, how do we come to terms with it?
I might finally have some sort of answer.
If I go home tonight and have salmon for dinner, I won’t feel terrible about it even though I know it’s wrong. Why? Because everyone I know and interact with is fine with me eating salmon; they won’t confront me about it, and I certainly won’t lose their respect. And sure, there are people out there who do care, people whose respect I probably would lose. But those people are few and far between, and I don’t come into contact with them. Moreover, society as a whole will not care, and I can continue my life without a single hitch despite committing what I know to be an utter moral failure.
What this suggests is that morality is not a very effective motivator. Guilt is what really stops us from doing certain bad things, and morality and guilt are not as connected as one might think. I may feel guilty about underperforming at work, even though it’s morally justifiable because I’m working an unpaid internship. Conversely, I don’t feel guilty — or at least, not guilty enough to stop — when eating meat, even though I know it’s absolutely immoral.
So what causes the sort of guilt that actually makes us change the way we act? Social acceptability. Consider the infamous Stanford prison experiment. The story goes that psychologist Philip Zimbardo recreated a prison setting with normal college students — designating some as guards and some as prisoners. Within hours, the guards began to act up and tyrannize the prisoners, leading many to conclude that there is some despicable beast hidden within all of us. But Zimbardo’s experiment was heavily manipulated, and considering a later recreation of the experiment with better controls, psychologist Maria Konnikova argues that the experiment actually suggests “that our behavior largely conforms to our preconceived expectations. All else being equal, we act as we think we’re expected to act.”
Apply this idea to my moral failure regarding meat consumption. I don’t feel all that guilty about it because no one expects me to be vegetarian. Perhaps Trumpism is similar. At some point in 2015, Trump supporters decided they wouldn’t abandon him no matter what he said (these are the hardcore Trumpers, the people who cheer bigotry). This was clear after the “ban Muslims” fiasco. Trump stayed at the top of the Republican primary despite the beating he received from the mainstream media. And with every subsequent despicable action, he recovered with ominous speed. What this suggested was not that Trump’s rhetoric was okay; it was that people were okay with Trump’s rhetoric. This created a positive feedback loop — as more people found Trump to be socially acceptable, others felt permitted to support him, which again contributed to the idea that he was socially acceptable. Of course, throughout all of this, you had people on the left screaming that Trump was not okay, never okay, but these voices — considering the growing acceptance of Trump on the right — could be ignored. In other words, Trump’s bigotry, in the course of a year and a half, went from being unacceptable to partisan — morally indefensible to a “difference of opinion” — in the eyes of (white) Americans.
I’m going to indulge in a bit of speculation here, but I think it’s fair. If I can go around eating meat knowing that it’s wrong, then Trump supporters can probably rationalize the bigotry of their candidate regardless of how unjustifiable it is. All they have to do is latch onto any one of the following ideas: “jobs,” anti-PC culture, anti-establishment, emails, Bill Clinton rapist, Benghazi, “He won’t really do that,” “Fear of Muslims is rational,” “I’m just voting for him because I’m Republican!” and so on. The guilt of voting for Trump — if guilt exists at all — is easily subsumed by any one of these red herrings, regardless of how trivial or false they may be. Why? Because Trump became socially acceptable. And that allows people to duck moral obligation.
In 200 years, people will wonder how those living in the early 21st century could ever justify murdering thousands of animals every single day. And in 400 years, people will wonder how those living in the early 23rd century ever thought it was okay to use robots as personal slaves (considering robots clearly have consciousness). The point being, we only apply moral certainty to the past, and we insist that moral ambiguity dictates the present. This is why we see the media making an about face and imploring us to give President-elect Trump a “chance,” suggesting, hey, maybe Trump isn’t that bad of a guy after all.
But media and moral ambiguity be damned — Trump is that bad of a guy. He allegedly assaulted 11 women and bragged about doing it. He antagonized, in some way or another, virtually every marginalized group of Americans. His mind-boggling victory does not change that. And I don’t need the safe distance of history to know I’m right when I say this: Trump is not okay, your vote for him was not okay, and he should never be accepted.
Rarely does morality fully converge with social acceptability. Even if Clinton had won the election, we would still be torturing thousands of animals every day. Trump’s election highlights the importance of making decisions based on morality, based on what is right and what is wrong. In the political realm, the idea of moral obligation is often dulled by a discourse that is premised upon partisanship, or “difference of opinion,” which implies that neither side is right or wrong. This can be true — sometimes politics is a zero-sum game of self-interest — but almost always it is not. Almost always there is a powerful and a powerless, and if you believe in equality, moral obligation dictates you support the latter. In the Age of Trump, that moral obligation has never been clearer. Now is the time to fight the tide of social acceptance, to think for your goddamn self, and to disavow Donald Trump as long as he remains in office. And with equal gravity and obligation, now is the time to stop eating meat. Failure to do either of these things is a moral one.
CITATIONS “Facts and Sources.” COWSPIRACY. Accessed November 21, 2016. http://www.cowspiracy.com/facts/.
 “Facts and Sources.” COWSPIRACY. Accessed November 21, 2016. http://www.cowspiracy.com/facts/.
 Singer, Peter. Practical Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
 Konnikova, Maria. “The Real Lesson of the Stanford Prison Experiment.” The New Yorker. June 12, 2015. Accessed November 21, 2016. http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/the-real-lesson-of-the-stanford-prison-experiment.