Our Brains and How We Think: Ready For a Vegan Revolution

Moral philosopher, James Flynn, argues that previous generations were fixed in their attitudes and moralities due to an inability to entertain hypotheticals. 

In his Ted Talk, ‘Why our IQ levels are higher than our grandparents‘, Flynn discusses a phenomena he uncovered in the 1980s, now referred to as the ‘Flynn Effect’. This effect describes an unusual observation: there has been a dramatic and steady increase in average IQ scores over the past century. Flynn proposes an explanation for this powerful finding: in the past 100 years, we have adopted ways of thinking that are drastically different to those that came before.

Specifically, Flynn identifies three types of thinking that are now common, but that rarely occurred previously:

  • Classification
  • Using logic on abstractions
  • Taking the hypothetical seriously

Not only are we now trained in these types of thinking in school (which, by the way, we spend far longer attending than we ever did previously), but our jobs increasingly require we use them.

Flynn discusses the origins and real-world impact that these new types of thinking have had. He quotes a study, in which Russian peasants, identified as having a lifestyle that more closely matches that of our ancestors, were asked logical questions that demanded of them to think abstractly and consider certain hypotheticals. For instance, one man was asked to answer the following: “All bears are white where there is always snow; in Novaya Zemlya there is always snow; what color are the bears there?”. His answer is indicative of the other responses found in this study: “I have seen only black bears and I do not talk of what I have not seen.” In short, these individuals were resistant to deducing hypotheticals or speculating about what might be.

While Flynn doesn’t discuss veganism, we can see how these novel modes of thinking could apply to the mental shift required for the adoption of vegan morals. Inherent in experiencing a ‘vegan breakthrough’, is the need to put into question our mores and attitudes with reference to speciesism, which leads to a consequential escape from the grips of carnism. For many of us, this questioning is triggered by the empathy we experience for animals upon taking their perspective when hearing about or seeing their pain and suffering.

Yet, the inability to accept or entertain the perspective of the victim may be a roadblock in previous and older generations experiencing a ‘vegan breakthrough’. Flynn exemplifies this during his Ted Talk:

‘My father was born in 1885, and he was mildly racially biased. As an Irishman, he hated the English so much he didn’t have much emotion for anyone else. But he did have a sense that black people were inferior. And when we said to our parents and grandparents, “How would you feel if tomorrow morning you woke up black?” they said that is the dumbest thing you’ve ever said. Who have you ever known who woke up in the morning — that turned black? In other words, they were fixed in the concrete mores and attitudes they had inherited. They would not take the hypothetical seriously, and without the hypothetical, it’s very difficult to get moral argument off the ground.

Without the ability to entertain a hypothetical seriously, is it possible to empathize with the plight of animals to the extent that is needed in order to deconstruct the powerful grips of carnism?

If I asked: ‘imagine it were you, or your dog, rather than that animal, who was shaking on the cold slaughterhouse floor, confused, alone, and petrified?’, your ability to entertain a hypothetical and think abstractly may allow you to begin the crucial processes needed in evaluating our personally held speciesist beliefs. Yet Flynn’s research suggests that previous generations, with their lesser ability to consider hypotheticals, may simply respond that dogs and humans don’t end up in slaughterhouses, and thereby halt any sincere process of self-questioning.

In this, lies an important lesson about the timeliness of this ongoing vegan revolution: of all the generations that came before, ours is the most mentally equipped for comprehending veganism. On the flip side, older generations may be less readily triggered than we are into adopting vegan morals through our pleas for them to take the perspective of the victim.

It may be wise, then, for us to avoid hypotheticals all together, when discussing veganism with older generations. Instead, we can link our current shared moralities of right versus wrong to the newly scientifically accepted findings that we do not need animal protein to be healthy and that animal agriculture is destroying our planet. Objectively speaking, and without needing to take the perspective of the victim, if eating animals and their secretions is not necessary, it is purely an act of pleasure and tradition. Do pleasure and tradition justify killing? And do pleasure and tradition justify the continued destruction of our planet?

Let me know what you think in the comments! Have you found certain arguments particularly effective with older generations?

If you’d like to find out more about Flynn’s research, take a look at his Ted Talk here!

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