By: Kunalan Manokara (Bugle Team)
“If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans?”
In his seminal work, which has evolved to become a guidebook of sorts for vegans and animal rights activists alike, moral philosopher Peter Singer (1975) argues for the ethical treatment of animals by pointing out the cruel existence such livestock endure. Indeed, peoples’ treatment of animals has spurned great debate in a myriad of fields, and psychologists have weighed in with experimental evidence to explain how and why animals are perceived by us they way they are (for a review, see Piazza et al., 2015).
Of greatest relevance is the concept of the meat paradox; where people simultaneously express a desire to care for animals, whilst consuming those very same animals as a part of their diet (Loughnan, Haslam & Bastian, 2010). These conflicting aims in the human psyche have birthed a whole line of research surrounding peoples’ perceptions of animals. The most fundamental question psychologists have attempted to answer is how people deal with their incompatible attitudes towards animals. Surely we must have found some way to deal with our opposing aims, as humans always do, and experimental evidence suggests exactly how we go about doing this, in quite specific ways.
First, we tend to assume that animals are fundamentally different from us, in that these creatures lack what makes us human: a mind. Particularly, people tend to attribute less mental life for animals that are edible. By denying livestock the capacities for thinking and experiencing emotion, we psychologically justify our consumption of such animals (Bastian et al., 2012). If they cannot feel, there must be no harm in hurting them, right? As a means to cope with their conflicting attitudes, people modify their thoughts regarding animals in a manner consistent with their intended behaviors, helping them to continually indulge in eating meat.
Second, we have become adept at creating clearly defined categories within the animal kingdom, such that some creatures fall into the category of food whilst others can be considered pets. Naturally, such categorical classification of animals drives the extent to which people even experience conflicting aims when consuming these creatures. Bratanova and colleagues (2011) demonstrated that how an animal is classified essentially predicts the extent of moral concern people display for that animal. Whilst it seems morally wrong to keep our pet dogs cooped up in their playpens for more than a day, we seem to have no trouble doing far worse to chickens that can barely stretch their wings when confined to tiny metal cages. People categorize animals, and such classification aids in the guilt-free consumption of these creatures.
Of course, it must be conceded that how animals are classified could differ between societies, though little experimental work has been conducted with regard to cultural differences in the meat paradox. Tian and colleagues (2016) demonstrate that Chinese samples seem to experience less cognitive conflict when consuming animals as compared to French participants, alluding to the possibility that cultural norms could shape the extent to which people have to even contend with opposing aims in the first place. Further research is required in the field, though one thing remains certain. The interest in peoples’ eating habits should lead to more of such publications in psychology, and the popular media would probably continue to translate these academic findings to the general public as they have done so far. What remains to be seen, is whether the scientific community’s contributions would be powerful enough to alter consumers attitudes towards meat consumption. Perhaps psychology could provide some solutions going into the future, just as philosophy has in the past.
Bastian, B., Loughnan, S., Haslam, N., & Radke, H. R. (2012). Don’t mind meat? The denial of mind to animals used for human consumption. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(2), 247-256.
Bratanova, B., Loughnan, S., & Bastian, B. (2011). The effect of categorization as food on the perceived moral standing of animals. Appetite, 57(1), 193-196.
Loughnan, S., Haslam, N., & Bastian, B. (2010). The role of meat consumption in the denial of moral status and mind to meat animals. Appetite, 55(1), 156-159.
Piazza, J., Ruby, M. B., Loughnan, S., Luong, M., Kulik, J., Watkins, H. M., & Seigerman, M. (2015). Rationalizing meat consumption. The 4Ns. Appetite, 91, 114-128.
Singer, P. (1975). Animal liberation: a new ethics for our treatment of animals. New York: Random House.
Tian, Q., Hilton, D., & Becker, M. (2016). Confronting the meat paradox in different cultural contexts: Reactions among Chinese and French participants. Appetite, 96, 187-194.