The Elephant and The Rider

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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.


15 responses to “The Elephant and The Rider”

  1. Akshay N R Avatar

    Not sure if you are aware of the intrinsic irony in this post. By making this a liberals vs conservatives argument, you are already provoking the riders from both camps without offering any ice cream for their elephants. The elephant and the rider analogy is very useful to understand the way to go about changing people’s minds. But I am afraid you missed the very point you are trying to make here!

    1. krishashok Avatar

      The very point of the post was to highlight my failure in doing exactly that 😀 The idea that some people just can’t seem to stop trying to win arguments at any cost.

  2. MV Avatar

    But the size of livestock required for the meat industry versus non-meat products such as milk would vastly differ no? So it is fair to say that the meat industry is a more significant contributor to Global Warming? All morality kept aside in this argument….

    1. krishashok Avatar

      True. But if I am trying to win an argument with someone who thinks meat eating is immoral, that fine distinction is a tempting thing to leave out 😃

  3. J Avatar

    Hmm coz fertilized eggs could be a hen -mans so eating that is killing a life. But milk is a by-product of a cow which doesn’t kill it. I thought this was common sense

    1. krishashok Avatar

      Um. No. The hen has to be impregnated by a rooster for its eggs to be fertilized, at which point – the eggs that are laid have embryos inside them. The eggs we eat are *unfertilized* and have no embryos in them. Once the egg is laid, it’s not a potential life. It’s a potential omelette.

  4. Dude Avatar

    Liberalism wouldn’t have originated or evolved without Conservatism as the former do accept the principles of the latter if convinced or defeated 🙂

  5. Vasudha Mantripragada Avatar
    Vasudha Mantripragada

    well having breastfed two kids trust me I would shoot/bite/kick em if it were anyone else trying to milk me. just so people know… milk is infact blood. hope gou-pujaris enjoy their coffee and abhishegams now. And puhleez I have had enough of ‘if you don’t milk the cow it will fall sick’… *eyes rolling*.

    Note: loved your line : ‘Umm..on account of the neither of us having a uterus, I’m afraid that’s one judgement we have no qualifications to make. ‘

    1. Ramanan Avatar

      But you would be surprised how many lacto-vegetarian and meat eating mothers who have breastfed kids, would use the same “if you don’t milk the cow ill fall sick” argument?

  6. vasu1610 Avatar

    And Oh… thank you for this article. I had given up trying to tell vegans and vegetarians that food choices are personal. Your article gives me hope.

  7. AdithyaNarayan Avatar

    Hahaha last line is epic.

  8. Nithya Rohit Avatar
    Nithya Rohit

    Well nobody has ever given my an explanation on who gives us the rights to take the little one’s milk away from the mother. And, the unwanted hormones that are injected… that does not qualify to be a cruel act?

  9. Rose Avatar

    I’m just thrilled that you’re back. Eggs, milk, meat… You’re back!

  10. Adarsh Bhat Avatar


    Industrialized poultry farming has its own share of problems. Male chicks don’t lay eggs, so they are ground up alive when they are a day old to make dog food. I realize that this is not the point of this blog post, but hey, I’m a liberal too. 😉

  11. Group Captain Ashok K Chordia (Re-attired) Avatar

    Well argued! Ever thought of ‘cultured’ meat and leather that do away with the need to maintain large animal farms and grasslands to support them? No killing; no cruelty; no SPCA issues. The meat tastes exactly like the one you get after killing an animals. What would one call such meat—vegetarian or non vegetarian?

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