The Bison Advantage


They say that bison are the only animals that purposefully walk into a storm rather than drifting with the wind because they know that doing so will get them through it faster.

I often think about the decision I made in 2021 to publicly challenge my university’s Covid-19 mandate. It dislodged me from a career and professional community I had been building for 20 years and thrust me headfirst into a storm of public and personal scrutiny, toxic media, and a pro-narrative machine ready to devour any challenge to its unreflective ideals. 

In many ways, life now is better if only because it requires less pretense, and there is much freedom and sovereignty in that. But this new life also has its costs. My Christmas card list has undergone a radical transformation, full of deletions and new additions. I am not welcome in the homes of professors where I once shared meals, ideas, and camaraderie. Fault lines have developed across various networks of relationships that are almost certainly irreparable. And it’s unlikely that I will ever again be employed as a professor in Canada. I don’t regret my choice but some mourning has been needed to bury my old life in order to create a new one.

Given the trauma of the shift, I often wonder, would I make the same choice again if I knew everything? Was my choice motivated by courage and resolve or because it was made so early in the Covid insanity that I was naive to the storm I was heading into? Did it strengthen me or did it deplete me of the resources I will need to face moral challenges in the future?

Back to the bison, for a minute. Colorado is one of the only places where bison and cattle roam together so, when a storm comes, you can observe their respective behaviours. While the bison are heading into the storm, the cattle turn and walk the other way. But, by trying to escape the acute impact of each gust of wind or blast of snow, they slow down and eventually wear themselves out. 

There is a paradox here. When it comes to life’s moral challenges, we often make small concessions, turning away, rationalizing our inaction, or sidestepping because we think doing so will ease our pain overall. We think complying, remaining silent, or even telling micro-lies will somehow dissipate the impact. But it’s often that very approach that exposes us to the brunt of the storm. At the risk of mixing metaphors, we pull off the bandage slowly when our aggregate pain would be less if we just ripped it off quickly and efficiently.

Most people, even those who share my beliefs in freedom, individualism, and justice, made a different choice. They resisted quietly by way of skeptical glances, letters to editors or questioning emails to superiors but, when it came to it, complied, took an exemption or quit and walked away quietly. I know of a professor from a prestigious American university who took this path, taking an exemption in the face of “extreme pressure from peers.” I know he struggles with his choice but he kept his job and stands able to fight another day.

In hindsight, all things considered, I’m glad I made the choice I did. I know now that any form of compliance would have gnawed at me unrelentingly, weighing more heavily than any professional and personal costs I incurred. But I don’t blame those who took a different approach. We made the choices we thought we could bear in the moment and we made them in a climate of extreme uncertainty, chaos, and isolation; hardly the conditions that best support authentic moral choices.

But I do think a question worth asking ourselves is, how should we deal with life’s moral storms? Which approach will most strengthen our moral capacities, and give us the greatest peace and contentment? Is it better to be like the bison, barrelling headfirst towards moral challenges or is there something to be said for taking a path of less resistance? How does each approach affect the osmosis between who we are as individuals and how, through our choices, we help to build our moral communities?

One thing I have come to realize about moral challenges is that they generally have less to do with holding the right principles than with sticking by them when it comes to acting. As essayist Susan Sontag said about principles in a keynote address in 2003:

…while everyone professes to have them, they are likely to be sacrificed when they become inconveniencing. Generally a moral principle is something that puts one at variance with accepted practice. And that variance has consequences, sometimes unpleasant consequences, as the community takes its revenge on those who challenge its contradictions — who want a society actually to uphold the principles it professes to defend.

Unlike some of the other more moderate virtues, e.g. temperance and patience, the human story of courage is punctuated by standout, larger-than-life characters who are known precisely because they set themselves apart from the crowd; the dramatic stories of those who looked at the torrent of pressures raining down on them, and boldly and solitarily said “No.” While some of these people were later celebrated for their actions, most at the time lost friends, security, reputation, or even their lives.

Courage is necessarily inconvenient. It depends on what is valued, and therefore normalized, in your world and what is not. You need courage to tell the truth only when the truth you are telling is culturally defamed. You need courage to stand for only those who are unpopular. In our deep culture of silence, fear — what we need courage to triumph above — is the signal that what you are about to do will cost you and courage is the virtue we need to manage that fear.

Unfortunately, courage doesn’t come naturally. In fact, our neuropsychology is hardwired to desire paths of less resistance. A University College London (UCL) 2017 study showed that we are biased towards perceiving anything challenging to be less appealing. Study organizer Dr. Nobuhiro Hagura asks us to imagine going to an apple orchard with the intent to pick the best fruit. How do we choose which apples to pick, he asks?

We might think that our brain focuses on information about quality — ripeness, size, and colour — to make our choice. But it turns out that the effort needed to obtain the apple factors heavily, sometimes more heavily, into the decision we make. Dr. Hagura says, “Our brain tricks us into believing the low-hanging fruit really is the ripest.”

In the study, participants underwent a series of tests where they had to judge whether a mass of dots on a screen was moving to the left or to the right. They expressed their decision by moving a handle held in the left or right hand. Interestingly, when the researchers added a load to one of the handles, making it more difficult to move, even if just minimally so, the participants’ judgments became biased; if weight was added to the left handle, they were more likely to judge the dots to be moving to the right since that decision was easier for them to express. 

One of the study’s key insights is that the effort we think an action will require changes not just what we will do but how we perceive the world and attach value to each possible action. When it comes to the mechanics of moral decision-making, when we perceive that one option is more costly, we become biased toward believing that it is the wrong moral choice. While it might feel like what we say and do is downstream from perception, the UCL experiment suggests that our decisions are biased by the cost to act. If we anticipate that challenging a mandate, for example, will be immeasurably harder than the alternative, then we will try to find ways to avoid doing so. 

Another way to say this is that we tend to take a hedonic approach to thinking through our moral options. As hedonist Jeremy Bentham wrote, “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain, and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.” We might be idealists about our moral values but, if Bentham is right, we are hedonists when it comes to acting. We strategize how to minimize our pain. We want the advantage of the bison but we tend to act like the cow.

The fact that our perceptions of pain and effort influence our moral decisions has been adapted to the idea of “implicit nudge” used by advertisers and, during the Covid era especially, governments. Public policy experts know that the choices we make can be nudged by simply making the conditions in which we choose favour one option rather than another. Psychologists, marketers and graphic designers are employed by our governments to, quite literally, create paths of less resistance to the choices they want us to make. (Our Last Innocent Moment, “Where Are We Now?” p. 20)

Placing vaccination centres ‘on every corner,’ some of which entice children with cupcakes and ice cream, and then making the exemption (or, worse still, the refusal) process massively inconvenient, all impose a heavy burden on those who refuse to comply. And the outcome is that most did comply. UCL study results were solidly confirmed in the real world.

Moral challenges inevitably involve stress and uncertainty. They ask us to choose between our deeply held beliefs and values, on the one hand, and our fears and weaknesses, on the other. We lie, for example, because we think it will provide us access to something that would be harder to get by telling the truth. We back down from a challenge because we think it will minimize the trauma of, among other things, being conspicuous.

So how do we offset this bias for ease and convenience? 

Physically, to lift a heavier load, we need stronger muscles and a body whose parts are well attuned to one another. Moral work is similar. To lift a heavier moral load, we need stronger moral muscles. We need to develop the habits that help us to know why we do what we do, that help us to manage our fears and make choices that align with our beliefs. How well we have built our habits of courage and tolerance and resistance up to the point of moral decision-making largely determines what we will do.

In general, I think we were morally ‘soft’ going into the storm of 2020. We had been coddled by the “Every child gets a trophy,” “Everyone’s opinion matters,” and “Sacrifice yourself for the group” ideologies. They shouldn’t. It doesn’t. You needn’t. Morality never promised to be easy or to create a world of perfect equality. 

Thinking about this article, I became quite curious about what gives the bison their unique courage, and I went down a number of rabbit holes in the annals of evolutionary biology and land management to try to figure it out. 

What I was able to surmise is that, while bison and cattle are similar in many respects — they both belong to the family Bovidae, and they are similar in size and shape, foraging habits and preferences — they are not ecological analogues. As 19th century cattle rancher Charles Goodnight observed, bison have better digestion, a larger windpipe and more lung power; their intestines and stomach are smaller, and their flesh thicker; their brain is better protected, having a double skull, and they have a hump from which they can draw nutrients when food is unavailable. Goodnight said of bison:

They take life easy, and their longevity is 25 per cent greater than the domestic. When they rise from the ground they get up fore feet first, and they have more strength in sickness to get up than other animals, they never venture into mires.

Do these differences explain the bison’s apparent courage? The National Bison Association claimed in a 2020 article that bison instinctively know that walking into the storm will get them through it faster. Do they? Or is the bison’s ‘courage’ merely a byproduct of their unique, snowplow-like anatomy, with large, down-facing heads, heavy coats, and extra ribs giving them the ability to withstand extreme conditions? (It’s difficult to parse the concept of intent with animals; we can only observe what they do.) 

Even though I know precious little about bison anatomy or their evolutionary biology, it occurs to me that one thing that makes bison unique is that they are still largely free. They haven’t been softened by domestication. Has freedom given the bison a fend-for-oneself street smarts while domestication has made cattle weak, dependent, and without the foresight to see to the other side of the storm? Have domestication, socialism and, more recently, collectivism given us a similar weakness? Have we been made unfit for life’s storms precisely because of the ideologies and social apparatus meant to safeguard us from them?

One way of understanding what we mean when we say that a person is good is to say that she has integrity. There are various theories about what integrity is but the one that resonates most with me is philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s “self-integration view.” For Frankfurt, integrity is a matter of integrating various parts of our personality into an intact, harmonious whole. The integrity of a person is not unlike the integrity of a thing; a car’s integrity, for example, is a function of its parts being sound, individually, and functioning well together, enabling the car to perform its tasks well. 

Likewise, we have integrity when our mental ‘parts’ are uncorrupted and function well together. The moral psychology is more nuanced than this but, in simple terms, we have integrity when we say what we believe and we do what we say. Integrity isn’t about whether our beliefs are noble or worthwhile — Hannibal Lecter arguably had integrity — but whether what matters most to us is an effective motivator of how we act. Integrity is largely a matter of the strength of our will.

More technically, when we face a moral dilemma, two types of desires come into conflict: first-order desires (desires for things or states of affairs) and second-order desires (desires that we have certain first-order desires). Our second-order desire to be honest, for example, might come into conflict with the first-order desire to avoid being honest in this case because we know that doing so will expose us to more ridicule than we think we can bear.

We have integrity when our second-order desires rank, and allow us to act only on the first-order desires that align with them. Integrity helps us to decide whether honesty or ease is more important to us, overall. It bridges the gap between principles and practice, between values and ‘rubber-meets-the-road’ action. 

Moral challenges unavoidably involve conflict; if there was no conflict, there would be no challenge. It’s just a question of the nature, and the geography, of the conflict. The person lacking integrity experiences internal conflict between who she wants to be and the choices she makes. The conflict of the person with integrity might be equally strong but it is only between who she is and the world that wants her to be something different.

This helps to explain why people with integrity often appear to be content and peaceful even while enduring what most of us seek to avoid. You may have noticed this about many of the people who lost so much over the mandates. Mark Trozzi, Artur Pawlowski, Kulvinder Gill, Kristen Nagle, Patrick Phillips, the truckers. Their conflict is formidable but it is only between who they are and a world that can’t accommodate it. There is harmony between who they want to be and what they do. And so they have internal peace.

Please don’t think I have always mustered the fortitude to act like the bison. I haven’t. At other times in my life, I allowed fear, distractions, and rationalization to convince me that there was an easier way through the storm. But, I vividly remember the difference in how I felt after each approach and I can say that there is a peace to the bison’s way.

Acting with integrity is like honouring a promise we make to ourselves, a promise to act like the person we have decided we want to be. And it has a calming effect because it aligns what we do with the values that define who we are.

There are so many pressures right now to do what is convenient over what is right. Living with integrity means taking deliberate, intentional action. It means outlawing the fears that get in the way of acting in alignment with who you are. Integrity is a long game, and usually a costly one. But those costs will always be external to who you are. To win at this game, we first need to be clear about who we want to be, and what we are living for, and then we need to structure our choices so that they fall into alignment with these desires.

The choice is up to us.

I have no doubt that, if everyone who questioned the Covid response resisted, we would be in a very different place right now. I don’t mean to sound self-righteous. Even typing these words makes me quiver a little. The choice I made had some very deep costs, some of the effects of which I will likely bear indefinitely. But, given how our souls interact with the world around us, these costs are sometimes inevitable. Given the state of the world today, we likely can’t have our moral cake and eat it too. The consolation is to know that these costs are not those that are the hardest to live with. And there is peace in that.

While I don’t want to be overly pessimistic, I think that the next big moral challenge is just around the corner. We are in a lull, a calm before the proverbial storm. And much will depend on how we prepare ourselves now to act when that storm arrives.

Imagine that, instead of resting on our weak-willed, complacent laurels, isolated by the realities of modern life and by our own fears, we charged ahead towards the next moral challenge like a herd of bison, heads down, resolute in our purpose, unwavering in our intent, unbreakable in rank. This is what the elites of our world most fear and this is our best ammunition.

How will you respond next time you face a moral challenge?

Will you walk headfirst into the storm like the bison or turn and drift with it? 

Have you used the time over the last two years to figure out what matters most to you? 

What costs have you prepared yourself to be able to bear?

Our future depends on what you do, what each of us does, with the little moments we have right now.

  • Dr. Julie Ponesse, 2023 Brownstone Fellow, is a professor of ethics who has taught at Ontario’s Huron University College for 20 years. She was placed on leave and banned from accessing her campus due to the vaccine mandate. She presented at the The Faith and Democracy Series on 22, 2021. Dr. Ponesse has now taken on a new role with The Democracy Fund, a registered Canadian charity aimed at advancing civil liberties, where she serves as the pandemic ethics scholar.

    View all posts


You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress | Designed by: Premium WordPress Themes | Thanks to Themes Gallery, Bromoney and Wordpress Themes