After six months, I finally decided that I had had enough. On a Sunday afternoon, my family and I went to a restaurant for lunch. The waiter came out with a juicy burger, set it in front of me, and said, “Enjoy!” Without a moment’s hesitation, my jaw unhinged and I sank my teeth into all of its glory. Half an hour later, the waiter came back to find me licking my fingers in front of an empty plate, with a huge smile on my face. If I told you that up until that point, I had been practicing veganism for the past six months, my actions would have seemed to make sense to you, but at the same time, you would have had smiled at the hypocrisy of it all.
I want to share with you my explorations in the psychology of eating meat and its regards to the morality of slaughterhouses and the consumer’s responsibility in its continuation. Vegan ethics argue that the pain, suffering, and death inflicted upon livestock for the purposes of human consumption is unnecessary and unethical. On the other hand, meat eaters argue that animals are meant to be eaten and see meat as necessary to our culture and nutrition. As a subscriber to the former, I sat there in that restaurant post-ingestion, comfortable, satisfied, and even a bit proud of myself. Moments passed when it finally sank in: Why does this make me feel satisfied? Where is the guilt? Why had I spent six months supporting a cause I truly believed in, but in a matter of seconds, I was happily chomping on the corpse of a poor dead cow? In this paper, I investigate this internal struggle and the mechanisms involved in justifying my actions of eating meat. What were the drives that justified actions that are perceived as unethical?
This phenomenon of having a vegan brain but a meat eater stomach is a morally ambiguous issue, having thought that I was a “life-long convert” after first deciding to go vegan. I remember I watched countless vegan activist speeches and terrifying documentaries on livestock cruelty for days, thinking how horrible it was to support the meat and dairy industries. It is my intent in this post to investigate the internal and external mechanisms underlying the justification of eating meat within myself. Most of my research will focus on the psychological and consumerist aspects that drive this justification. I do this with the hope of understanding better ways in which we can make this a more ethical way of consuming.
With wanting to save animals and consume them at the same time, there were obviously inconsistencies within my beliefs. Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance, which occurs when a person holds conflicting beliefs or attitudes. The concept stems from the principle of cognitive consistency theory created by Leon Festinger. This principle states that a person seeks consistency in a situation where beliefs or attitudes are not consistent. This is why I had feelings of anxiety in response to having beliefs that were in disharmony with each other. According to Festinger, when this occurs, the person tries to reach a more agreeable state by lessening or eliminating the dissonance (McLeod 2008). Within the mind, there is a strong intent to achieve and maintain cognitive consistency. In this case, the cognitive dissonance is occurring between my desire to eat meat and my desire to stop supporting animal cruelty within the livestock industry. In order to cope with this discomfort, I had employed the mechanism of reducing the importance stopping animal cruelty by saying things like: “I can’t possible change the system”, “my efforts won’t impact anything”, “it’s already dead and no one else is going to eat it, so it would be a waste if I didn’t eat it.” I made myself believe that my actions in abstaining from meat do not impact the livestock industry practices whatsoever. However, if I were to flip that statement around and say my actions in eating meat do not impact the livestock industry practices, I find that it rings false to me. Why? It seems to me that I feel as if I am somewhat responsible for the current system, but have no way of changing it within my personal power. This causes me to ask: If I feel responsible for an unethical situation, but perceive to have no way to fix it, am I relieved of my ethical duty?
Another psychological mechanism involved here is moral disengagement. Moral disengagement occurs when a person frames an unethical action as ethical. Moral disengagement is why one man was able to convince thousands of people to let The Holocaust happen. Like many things, however, moral disengagement can be used in the most horrible events and in much smaller scales, like my situation. In this case, moral disengagement was used in order to continue consuming animal products. However, the Kohlberg theory of cognitive moral development says, “if an individual recognizes the moral issue and behaves immorally, it is likely that his/her moral judgment about the issue was flawed. This argument is rooted in an assumption that once an individual knows what is moral, he/she is compelled to act according to that knowledge” (Reynolds, Dang, Yam, Leavitt 2014). I agree with this statement, since after watching those ethical vegan videos, I immediately began my vegan journey and managed to stay committed to it for six months. Even on the night of my 21st birthday, out in DC, with my friends luring me to eat enchiladas at 3 am, I still didn’t budge. However, how did this moral knowledge and motivation to act upon it “expire”? Why was it so easy for me to give into that burger months later? As a response to this, Kohlberg would argue, “if an individual recognizes the moral issue and behaves immorally, it is likely that his/her moral judgment about the issue was flawed” (Reynolds, Dang, Yam, Leavitt 2014). What is interesting about this scenario, is that the isolated act of eating a burger is has no moral distinctions. Ethics only begins to be involved when taking into account what was done to get this burger to me— processes in which I had no control over. In that sense, to me, it doesn’t seem like I am doing anything wrong, but in another way, I am doing something wrong indirectly— by continuing to be the consumer that ultimately drives these livestock businesses to do what they do. A similar scenario is in the clothes we wear. Much of the clothing we wear is being manufactured by the horribly underpaid poor working class in developing countries. However, what does that have to do with me wanting to wear a certain style of clothing? Zero! I guess the question here is, if my amoral motivation and actions are indirectly involved in a completely irrelevant yet unethical action, am I still acting in an ethical way?
A large part of what contributes to the consumption of meat is the external factors. In reviewing the reasons why I am still compelled to eat meat despite all I know about animal slaughter, a few excuses come to mind:
1) It is convenient since most of the food we eat in this culture is based around a type of meat or poultry.
2) It is socially acceptable. Eating meat is seen as a normal part of the American diet and is even encouraged when dining with friends.
3) No matter how many videos of animal abuse I watch, a burger will still look like a delicious meal to me.
4) Even if I eliminate meat from my diet, what good will it produce? My actions won’t change the system. It will just make more meat go to waste.
The culture and food corporations contribute largely to the consumption of meat and I will discuss a few of the highlighted points in further detail in the following sections.
A key factor in meat consumption is the ability to dissociate the suffering and dying of an innocent animal from the tasty meal on our tables. It is hard to see the blood and tears from that poor cow when your Mcdonald’s burger is all wrapped up and dressed with a bun, tomatoes, lettuce, and mayo. It is hard to see the cow that once was, in that meal. It seems as if most companies do all they can to dissociate the picture of the animal with the actual meat itself. Without those two associations being linked, it is so much easier for the consumer to eat with no guilt weighing in their conscience. The food industry presents you with a burger and says, “Here, you deserve this fresh, delicious meal that was prepared just in your liking.” The consumer says, “Oh, well don’t mind if I do! What a treat!” Then, it’s all stomach talk and gastronomy from there. Most of the time, we are so wrapped up in the meal itself that we don’t stop and wonder, “Where did this come from?” To which the food industry would smile and reply, “From the freshest ingredients in our kitchen, because you deserve the best quality of food.” And you say, “That’s great and all, but how did it get to your kitchen?” The food industry scrambles, panics, and spits out, “Just eat the damn thing before it gets cold. No need to worry about that.”
When it comes to food, it is hard to imagine where it came from since most people do not partake in what happens before it hits the shelves in the grocery store. And sadly, because we do not have the ability to do that, we rarely make the connection between our food and living, breathing animals who feel pain, and as a result, we are apathetic about the whole thing. Even if individuals like me who are fully aware that animals are being slaughtered inhumanely, we find that the poor cows we see in the vegan documentaries look nothing like the burger on my plate, which creates extra effort to try and see what isn’t readily apparent. This obstacle makes it difficult to see the morality in a situation where there seems to be none.
Another obstacle is the culture we live in. Consuming meat is a celebrated practice and people even take pride in eating meat. During those 6 months of being vegan, I couldn’t help but feel completely alienated by much of the culture. I didn’t realize how much food impacted our living. The way the livestock system is set-up, with the tight and tortuous living spaces the animals are forced to endure, is all in response to the consumer demand. I am part of that consumer group. The corporations and meat plants need to keep up with the demand, so they keep cows in tight spaces and make it so that it is faster and more efficient. Seeing my role as a consumer and therefore, a ultimately a supporter of these methods, is what drove me to become vegan in the first place. However, when I became vegan, it was as if nothing was different. My friends and family still ate meat. I still saw meat stacked up to the ceiling in grocery stores. I still saw people grilling in their backyards. It was as if the world said, “Okay, we’ll just have to keep going without you.” I didn’t make the grass grow any quicker, nor did I make the cows any happier. The only thing that changed was the added internal stress in figuring out how to live in a world that was so wrapped up in consuming animal products.
In addition to all this, there is the discussion of whether or not one can make changes at an individual level to change an entire system. I believe that type of change occurs over a long period of time and requires radical shifts in the mindsets of future generations. Does the fact that, as an individual, my actions will probably not make a difference either way, still make me ethically obligated to stop eating meat? Does the fact that the our food culture is setup to only support one type of lifestyle make my inability to honor animals lives less unethical? I know in making this claim, the ghosts of many notable people of American history are shaking their heads at me. Henry David Thoreau, author of Civil Disobedience and an important figure within the transcendentalist movement, was a man who did not agree with the system set in place during his lifetime. He opposed the US-Mexican war and to show his disapproval, he did not pay his taxes. He was taking a stand in what he believed in and was willing to suffer the consequences, which meant going to jail. According to Thoreau, “It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support” (Thoreau 1849). Therefore, if I were to follow his advice, I would have to stop eating meat without the intentions of changing it at all— but it order show the world that I do not agree with the current practices. He is saying that it is important for me to take a stand as an individual and to do what I think it right regardless of what the world says. The ethic then, lies in me doing what I think is right and not in trying to control what others do. Therefore, according to Thoreau, I am acting unethically against myself when I continue to eat meat.
Although I do understand where Thoreau is coming from, I would have to argue that even doing that is tremendously difficult in the world today. I don’t think Thoreau is taking into account that it is really difficult to do something that goes against what everyone else is doing. I believe Thoreau rose to fame because he was able to attract attention with his bold beliefs and his willingness to spend time in jail for those beliefs. However, in this day in age, where mostly everyone has some bold belief, it is difficult to stand out. As I mentioned before, no one really cared that I had become vegan. Most people thought it was silly or impractical, but no one was exceptionally moved by my actions. This culture is just too infatuated with meat, which is different from the war Thoreau was protesting. The war would affect the people directly through taxes and through their own countrymen’s lives, and they were likely to see the effects of it directly. However, animal lives don’t seem to be at all directly impacting people other than that their deaths produces millions of tasty burgers. Most of us don’t live near a slaughterhouse, with the animal’s screams and suffering are audible enough for us to hear. As a result, even though I was being vegan for my own ethical reasons, there was no satisfaction in it because you see that the system is still the same. Animal lives do not garner that much weight in comparison to so many other terrors out there— from gun violence and terrorism, to everyday life stresses. And I realize that there are more outspoken vegans out there that try to get their message out through speeches, documentaries, and protesting. However, if I invested my time and energy into every single moral injustice out there I would have no life. It seems to me like what was missing, was a way to live within the culture I am apart of, but at the same time, make at least some positive difference in the livestock industry.
Temple Grandin has collaborated with both animal activists and the meat industry over the past 40 years. Her work has focused on improving the methods of animal slaughter as a response to animal activists and consumers, who are becoming more aware of the inhumane treatment of animals based on the many animal slaughterhouse abuse videos being posted up on YouTube. According to Grandin, animal welfare issues are separated into two categories: 1) Humans abusing and neglecting animals 2) Inhumane methods and equipment involved in the slaughter practices (Grandin 2014). The first category is what drove me to becoming vegan in the first place. Grandin says that not only are people working to eliminate wrongful practices, some are even working to eliminate animal slaughter as a whole. Groups with this vegan perspective think it is not enough to just reform the meat industry. However, I am inclined to ask, “What if it is? What if it is enough to just reform the meat industry and improve animal welfare in that way?” I ask this because to me, it seems like the world is not ready to take on completely eliminating the need for meat consumption. This lofty goal of vegans is admirable and it comes from the genuine concern for animals and the environment. However, I think posing something as radical as that to a population of people who are not ready to head in that direction may give it extreme resistance and ridicule. Aside from that, the idea of improving the system that is already set up has some ethical weight to it. The immoral acts that people refer to when saying “animal slaughter is murder” is mostly in reference to the wrongful treatment of the animals before they are killed and the suffering experienced due to the method in which they are killed. When I watched all those vegan documentaries, the scenes that motivated me to become vegan was seeing the pain and suffering of these animals. If, instead, I saw a completely unconscious cow being put to death, I think I may have reacted in a less extreme way. Veganism seems to be one of two solutions that are implemented when people witness the mistreatment of animals in slaughterhouses. The other solution is represented by Grandin’s extensive work, in which, the animals are lead into the slaughterhouse in a calmer and less stressful manner. Changes in the industry practices involve small upgrades, like creating stronger stunners to ensure the animals are completely unconscious, which prevents them from feeling any pain before being killed. Larger changes that may also take place involve new equipment, housing, and safer means of transportation that eases the animals’ stress and takes into account the animals’ natural behavior. According to Temple, the emergence of the animal welfare videos have caused many corporations to mobilize plans to improve the state of these facilities (Grandin 2014). With all that taken into account, is it still unethical to consume meat? Should the knowledge that changes like these are being implemented by meat factories make me feel better about eating meat?
Temple’s plans definitely improve the industry practices. However, I’m being lead to question whether or not the deaths of animals are ethical if it provides nourishment for humans? Are humans not part of the food chain as well? Would we condemn a lion for killing an antelope for its meal? If we are indeed part of this planet, living together with all the animals and plants, shouldn’t we humans have the right to participate in this process as all other living things do? Is a lion more ethical in eating its dead antelope carcass than we are in eating our Kentucky Fried Chicken, assuming the chicken’s welfare was protected? Does veganism, although well-intended, go too far? Should ethical vegans actually be working with folks like Temple Grandin, rather than trying to eliminate the use of animals all together?
With all my admiration in the animal rights movement, I have to say that blindly doing what other people propose as a solution should not be the first step. In recounting the reasons why I became vegan, it was because I wanted to make an impact and somehow lessen the suffering and pain animals go through for human benefit. I thought it was wrong for us to think we can treat animals as horribly as we wanted since they were “just animals”. I despised the lack of care and respect given to the animals. The isolated death of the animal was just the “icing on the cake”, but not necessarily the main reason why I, along with many others I assume, became vegan. Humans have been using animals for hundreds of years and its use is heavily practiced in religious rituals and has many references in the Bible. It seems to me like the reason why we are concerned about the well being of animals is that we connect with them through their pain and suffering, because it reminds us so much of our own. However, the one thing that continually eludes us, that I feel we project onto animals, is trying to prevent our own deaths. We are constantly innovating new ways to maintain our health and to live longer–and we have had success. People are now living into their 80s and 90s, when not too long ago, people died in their 40s and 50s pretty regularly. People do not want to die and we are continually find ways to postpone it. We are trying to prevent animal deaths, but why? As I mentioned before, we wouldn’t condemn a lion of killing for its meal, so why are we exempt from this circle of life?
Kisses and Meows,
Grandin, Temple. “Animal Welfare and Society Concerns Finding the Missing Link.” Meat Science 98.3 (2014): 461-69. Web. 4 Aug. 2016. McLeod, Saul. “Cognitive Dissonance.” Simply Psychology. N.p., 2008. Web. 05 Aug. 2016.
Reynolds, Scott J., Carolyn T. Dang, Kai Chi Yam, and Keith Leavitt. “The Role of Moral Knowledge in Everyday Immorality: What Does It Matter If I Know What Is Right?” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 123.2 (2014): 124-37. Web.
Thoreau, Henry David. “Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience – 1.” Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience – 1. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Aug. 2016.