The average consumer in the United States eats more than 200 pounds of animal-based meat per year,4 more than three times the global average.5 We eat quantities of meat that are unprecedented in human history, and yet we clearly also care about the welfare and well-being of nonhuman animals. According to the American Pet Products Association, US households have more than 300 million companion animals, on whom we spend over $60 billion annually.6 But it's not just companion animals--cats, dogs, rabbits, fish, and birds--we care about; Americans consistently call for protection for farmed animals as well. A 2016 survey funded by the ASPCA found that 77 percent of consumers say that they are concerned about the welfare of animals raised for human consumption,7 and according to a national poll from 2015, 86 percent of meat-eating Americans say it's important that farmed animals be treated humanely.8 Concern for the treatment of animals spans income level, party affiliation, sex, and race, and it's conveyed consistently in survey data going back several decades.
So, how is it that we genuinely don't want to see animals suffer and yet bring billions of them into the world each year only to kill them? How do we reconcile our compassion for their living selves with our voracious appetite for their dismembered flesh? How can we feel one way yet act in such a contradictory way?
Psychologists studying this tension have named this the "meat paradox," the phenomenon whereby "people care about animals and do not want to see them harmed but engage in a diet that requires them to be killed and, usually, to suffer."9 As posited by the theory of cognitive dissonance, when faced with a conflict like this--when our actions don't reflect our ethics--we tend to take one of two roads:
1.We change our behavior to align with our beliefs.
2.We change our beliefs to align with our behavior.
The first plays out most obviously in the behavior of vegetarians and vegans, who choose to stop eating the flesh of animals, as well as their eggs and milk, respectively (and even in "reducetarians," who purposefully and substantially reduce their consumption of animal products). The second manifests in more subtle ways, such as changing our perception of animals themselves.
Research has found that the way we perceive animals is intimately tied to our ability to eat them; for instance, according to researchers on the psychology of meat consumption, "eating animals is morally troublesome when animals are perceived as worthy of moral concern. The more moral concern we afford an entity, the more immoral it becomes to harm it."10 Research psychologists have found that one way of resolving the tension between our compassion for animals and our consumption of them is to categorize living animals as "food," such as when we refer to "pork" instead of "pig," "beef" instead of "cow," and "veal" instead of "calf." Psychologists posit that this "act of categorization may shift our focus away from morally relevant attributes (i.e., the capacity to suffer--mentally, emotionally, or physically), and therefore change our perception of" and our moral concern for the animal.11 Reducing animals to inanimate objects, we resolve our cognitive dissonance not by changing our behavior to no longer cause suffering to animals, but by removing the belief that (certain) animals can and do suffer. The effect is a lessening of our ethical concern for them and a rationalizing of our consumption of them.*
The way we perceive animals is intimately tied to our ability to eat them.
By linguistically cleaving animals into arbitrary categories--"food animals," "circus animals," "pets," "laboratory animals," "wildlife," "farm animals"--we unconsciously create differences in how we perceive and treat the animals within those categories. This is the case even when animals are part of the same species. For instance, we may accept that a dog in a laboratory will be put through agonizing procedures but agree that a dog who lives with a family in a home deserves to be protected against pain and suffering. The dog in the lab has the same capacity to suffer as the dog in the home, but our classification of one as a "laboratory subject" and the other as a "pet" enables us to rationalize our exploitation of one and our nurturing of the other.+
Similarly, our treatment and slaughter of animals bred and killed for human consumption would be illegal if applied to dogs and cats. The ability to feel pain and the desire to avoid death are the same in all animals, but our subjective categorizations of them sanctions our exploitation of cows (and pigs, goats, chickens, or turkeys) and our protection of dogs and cats. This compartmentalization--and the fact that it's socially acceptable (like wearing pashmina that is ethically produced)--explains why we're outraged that dogs and cats are killed for "meat" in certain countries around the world, while we have no problem with the fact that cows, pigs, goats, chickens, and turkeys are killed for the same right here at home. They are all capable of feeling pain; they are all eager to live. In these ways, they are all the same. It's our subjective perception of the animals--not any objective quality of animals--that compels us to eat one and not the other.