In a psychological sidestep designed to avoid the “meat paradox” (“I like this cow but want to eat it”) – and rather than becoming vegetarian – researchers at the University of Kent have discovered that carnivores will decide instead that the animals cannot suffer.
“Some people do choose to stop eating meat when they learn that animals suffer for its production – an overwhelming majority do not,” says research associate Dr Steve Loughnan of the university’s School of Psychology, which conducted the study. “Our research shows that one way people are able to keep eating meat is by dampening their moral consideration of animals when sitting at the dinner table.”
According to the study abstract: “People may escape the conflict between enjoying meat and concern for animal welfare by perceiving animals as unworthy and unfeeling.”
Participants in the study were given dried beef or nuts to eat, then asked to indicate their moral concern for animals and judge a cow’s moral status and mental state. Eating meat “reduced the perceived obligation to show moral concern” for animals in general – including chimpanzees and dogs – and the perceived moral status of the cow.
The Kent study shows for the most part that thoughts and moral standards give way to behaviour.
“Rather than change their beliefs about the animals’ moral rights, people could change their behaviour,” Loughnan says. “However, we suspect that most people are unwilling to deny themselves the enjoyment of eating meat, and denying animals moral rights lets them keep eating with a clear conscience.”
The full results of the study were published in the August issue of nutritional research journal Appetite.