Leave Your Biology Out of My Morality

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Leave Your Biology Out of My Morality

By James McWilliams
August 2012

It’s not a free choice, it’s not an individual’s opinion, it’s just wrong. I don’t care what biology has to say about it.

biology mortality carnivore herbivore teeth

I don’t understand why there’s so much rancorous debate knocking about over whether or not humans are naturally omnivores, herbivores, carnivores, or whatever. As Carolyn Zaikowski astutely notes in a comment today: it doesn’t matter. How we behaved in the past—whether determined by biology or culture or both—is never ipso facto a legitimate guide or justification for how we should behave now and in the future. Why would we ever seek to undermine our moral agency with tepid appeals to biological inheritance? And by what bizarre rationale does inheritance equal moral certitude?

Much of human behavior has historically been periodically violent and that violence, for complex historical reasons, went unquestioned. Normal. Even praiseworthy. Fortunately, we’ve evolved. Enlightened cultures today disdain and condemn the kind of gratuitous violence that was once condoned. I’ve no idea if violence has an innate biological explanation—I suppose biology is always a factor to an extent—but the point is moot. Who cares? Gratuitous violence is wrong, whether we’re naturally predisposed to it or not. The same can be said for sexism and racism and, I imagine, virtually any form of discrimination. Simply because it was once standard fare, and may even have a biological explanation, doesn’t mean that it’s right. Morals evolve, too. Thankfully.

Why am I even addressing this question if I find it so useless? Last night I spoke with a prominent vegan activist and we both agreed that perhaps the biggest challenge any activist faces is how to spend one’s time and energy. This question is a distraction, an academic one at best, and we’d be better off promoting the essential point that unnecessarily exploiting animals for products we don’t need is wrong. It’s not a free choice, it’s not an individual’s opinion, it’s just wrong. I don’t care what biology has to say about it.