The Elephant and The Rider

I’ve come to realize that Ovo-lacto-vegetarians will never win elections in India. Why, you ask?

But first, consider this question – Why is milk considered vegetarian while eggs are not? This was the subject of a discussion I had with a gentleman who forwarded me a “Cow farts cause global warming and ancient India knew about it” WhatsApp message and likely came to regret it later and made a mental note to not forward anything to yours truly.

So why, indeed? I’m not actually interested in food choices individuals make. I’m interested in how they moralise, rationalise and publicise their personal choices.

Jonathan Haidt, in his book, “The Righteous Mind” describes 3 approaches to understanding how we process morality in our heads, and uses an “Elephant and Rider” metaphor to explain these. The elephant represents passion and intuition. Gut feelings, essentially. In addition to sitting in rooms, the elephant has a tendency to rush to judgement based on primal programming. The rider is usually a malnourished chap with a small stick trying to reason with the elephant.

The oldest approach, attributed to Plato, suggests that reason should always trump passion when we make moral judgements. The rider must control the elephant. One must keep emotions aside when making moral judgements.

The second approach, attributed to Scottish philosopher David Hume, insists that passion or intuition always comes first naturally and that reason should be subservient to passion because that is the way we are wired. The elephant is intrinsically hard to control and the rider must let the elephant express itself. If the elephant wants Cassata ice cream and 4 buckets of Rasna, the rider should avoid lecturing the pachyderm on glycemic indices and keto diets.

The third approach, attributed to Thomas Jefferson, claims that reason and passion are equal co-rulers and must keep each other in check.

He then goes on to suggest that contemporary research indicates that moral psychology seems to be a bit of Hume and Jefferson (Plato, it turns out, is still busy admiring his shadow in a cave, all alone). The elephant almost always reacts first, and then enlists the rider to help justify his gut reaction.

And therefore, if you want to persuade someone to change their mind on a political or moral issue, or at the every least, consider your idea, your rider must offer Cassata ice cream to the other person’s elephant, and that’s something we simply don’t do often. Our riders jump to berate their riders as being inferior, a tactic that has essentially polarized the world along ideological lines and arnabized all forms of political debate.

He uses this rather simple, yet illuminating example to illustrate his point. If your spouse leaves you a note on the fridge that says “Please put the used dishes in the dishwasher”, that’s a request, and your brain is likely to just acknowledge and then hopefully go ahead and do it.

If the same note read – “Please put the used dishes in the dishwasher, like I’ve told you a hundred times before”, it’s as if a different part of your brain reacts to this. It first puts out an advanced Google search to locate every possible reasonable justification for why you didn’t put the dishes in the dishwasher on previous occasions. If it can’t find any, it makes up a few reasons. It then filters it down to a few candidates that have the maximum emotional blackmail potential, and finally comes up with “Our son was late for school and the new dishwashing liquid gives me rashes, like I’ve told you a hundred times”.

If you challenge the other person’s rider, their elephant will respond, and will take the support of its rider to boot. Emotional blackmail, backed by alternative facts.

So, Eggs and Milk.

Can we not alter the nature of political debate by being more empathetic to each other’s Cassata loving elephants? Because the only difference between liberals and conservatives is that they prioritize different aspects of the moral universe.

Armed with Haidt’s insight, I replied to the Cow (BMKJ) farts cause global warming chap with a disarming opening salvo.

The rest of this conversation has been slightly altered for dramatic purposes.


This was disarming because he was clearly sending a scientifico-dharmic rider to appeal to my purely scientific rider, and did not expect pleasantries.

He replied – “Hi”, the fewest letters one must type to push the conversation forward.

I said – “Interesting article”. That was disarming salvo number 2. I don’t think he expected me to even read it fully. He expected me to read the headline, seethe with lefteous anger, dismiss it right away and argue in favour of filet mignons and Syrian beef from Kalpaka restaurant.

He asked hopefully – “So you agree?”

Me: I am not doubting that large scale animal husbandry is terrible for the environment. I’m with you on that.

Him: It is not only about the environment. Killing is intrinsically immoral. (His elephant was now trying to squeeze through a cycle gap of opportunity to reason-jihad a left liberal)

Now, I could have gone down the silly “But plants have life too” route, but that would again be my rider trying to outsmart his rider too early in the game with a flimsy play.

Me: I agree. It is immoral, but tell me, would you eat eggs? After all, you do consume milk. And cows tend to fart regardless of whether we make burgers out of them or squeeze milk out of them.

Him: Of course not. Eggs are non-vegetarian.

Me: But eggs don’t involve the killing of anything, much like milk. You do realise that the eggs we eat are unfertilised and have no embryo inside them.

Him: Hmm

Me: And..consider this. To get milk from a cow, you have to keep getting it pregnant pretty much once a year. To get eggs from a hen, you just have to prevent it from getting pregnant. Which one sounds more cruel?

Him: hmmmm..(his elephant was clearly discombobulated, so his rider was scrambling to support him) You know, denying someone sex is more cruel. The cow must enjoy the blessed celebration of giving birth…

Me: Umm..on account of the neither of us having a uterus, I’m afraid that’s one judgement we have no qualifications to make. You might want to ask anyone who’s given birth if they would be ok to do it 4-5 times back to back, just so that you could have your milk.

Him: hmmmm..anyway, I don’t like the smell of eggs.

Me: Now that’s a perfectly good reason. But hey, a good masala omelette is totally amazing and devoid of any raw egg smell. Have a nice day.

I spent the next few minutes basking in the muscle stretch that comes from patting ones own back. I hoped our man will now research the amazingness of eggs and perhaps even muster the courage to try a masala omelette. A few days later, that gentleman posted a “WHY WE MUST STOP GMO EGGS IN GOVT SCHOOL MID-DAY MEALS” plea in another WhatsApp group.

So yeah. Liberals win arguments. Conservatives win elections.