Nearly eight years ago, in May 2015, I first grappled — or at least, that is my first documented example I’m aware of where I grappled — with the ethics of eating meat. I like to say I’ve been morally, socially, and politically aware, as it were, since around the age of 15. As such, I don’t think I could be so immersed in philosophy, the study of society, politics, and a news junkie without eventually grappling with the ethics of eating meat in the same way I grappled with religion, or how best to organize government and markets. The conclusion I came to in my 2015 blog post — that there was no sound philosophical formulation for why eating meat is morally permissible — is essentially the “walking through the door” moment Melanie Joy describes in her 2010 book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism. Joy coined the term “carnism” in the early 2000s when she was working on her dissertation that would become this book. Carnism, as defined by Joy, is the invisible belief system, or ideology, that conditions people to eat certain animals.
To go back to my grappling, any self-reflection and examination about why I eat meat was bound to run into cognitive dissonance. In order to maintain a meat-based diet, I would have to rationalize away, numb myself, disassociate, and engage in other psychological phenomena that Joy describes in her book, the reality of farmed animal (“farmed animal” is the phrase Joy uses to describe animals specifically bred for slaughter for their meat) slaughter for meat consumption (or other cruel treatments to obtain their eggs, or fur and/or skin for clothing). In 2016, with my then-girlfriend, I turned my “witnessing,” as Joy calls it when we stand up to bear witness to an oppressive system, to action by going to a vegetarian diet. More specifically, it might be more accurate to call it as a pescatarian diet because I still ate fish (Joy addresses this issue, too, mainly, that animals of the sea are treated cruelly despite feeling pain like their land compadres). Unfortunately, my vegetarian experience didn’t last long; I don’t remember exactly how long, but it wasn’t more than six months. As Joy outlines in her book, if we don’t stay perpetually cognizant and vigilant against carnism, it’s easy to step back onto the “road of least resistance.” Because it’s more comfortable and easy that way. Cognitive dissonance sucks, after all. Better to numb it away. Still, at some point in 2016 when I was deeper in this world of trying to turn away from “carnism,” I picked up Joy’s book. I’ve only now read it, and interestingly, before having read Joy’s book, my blog post in 2015 made the same argument that is the main thesis of her book: Why is it that we draw a philosophical line (that line revolves around emotional disgust leading to a moral imperative to protective or ignore, as it were, depending on the animal) between protecting domesticated animals (dogs and cats) from harm, but find it acceptable to disregard those same protections when it comes to cows and pigs in order to eat them? And of course, as we know, that philosophical line is also dependent upon where you live, as South Koreans do eat dogs, for example.
Joy starts her book off with a scenario to explain how we don’t have quite a good answer to that question. What if you were at a dinner party where a friend served up a delicious-smelling stew, you ate it, finding it tasted as delicious as it smelled, and then the friend said it was a stew made from the meat of a Golden Retriever? You’d be rightly appalled. So appalled, it’s doubtful you’d continue eating the stew, even the vegetables around the stew because it was “tainted” by the dog meat. Even if the friend said they were joking and it was beef from a cow, you probably would lose your appetite, anyhow.
There are many psychological reasons at play Joy introduces for why we are largely okay eating the cow and not eating the dog, such as cognitive dissonance. An obvious aspect, though, is that the process to slaughter the cow and get it to our dinner plate is out of sight and out of mind, and most of us don’t interact with cows to have the same sort of emotional (and therefore, moral protectiveness) connection to cows as we do dogs. Additionally, I’ve reviewed two other books just this year on the issue of cognitive dissonance and psychological factors involved in human-to-human group dynamics (Why We’re Polarized and Blind Injustice), mainly how our sense of belonging to a larger tribe (in this case, that of meat-eaters) contributes to cognitive dissonance, “othering” lesser tribes (in this case, vegetarians), and makes it difficult to correct the system at large. As Joy argues in her book, meat-eating is seen as normal, natural, and necessary, the three Ns as she calls it, and it’s mainstreamed, so, there’s no reason to ever reflect any deeper on the practice of meat-eating, and anyone who eschews it is probably the weirdo.
To be sure, not everyone who is a vegetarian is doing it for ethical reasons or considerations; some perhaps do it for purely health reasons and ethics weren’t much of a factor. And just as I would think it unfair to treat vegetarians as a homogenous blob, I also think it’s unfair to treat all meat-eaters as a homogenous, amoral blob. For one example, to be a vegetarian is necessarily a privilege afforded to Americans, owing to our richness as a country, because of how expensive living a vegetarian lifestyle can be compared to the convenience (which I think is an important factor in “cost”) of meat-eating, owing to its ubiquity.
As a baseline, I think most humans are not violent, and I think most humans abhor violence against fellow humans, and also abhor violence against animals we see as pets, such as dogs and cats, and if they saw cruelty toward a cow or a pig, they would think it abhorrent, too. But the aforementioned psychological reasons allow us to rationalize away the latter in order to eat. Because it tastes good. Because that’s just the way it is and has always been.
Something I would say about such arguments (it tastes good and because that’s the way it’s always been) is surely, though, given most of us abhor violence and cruelty to any living beings, we could at least advocate for, and move toward, a world of less violence and cruelty to living beings, including farmed animals, like cows, chickens, and pigs? But I think because of how discomforting cognitive dissonance is, and being confronted with it engenders defense mechanisms, people rather do nothing than even make those changes, i.e., gradual progress toward at least more humane treatment of farmed animals versus advocating for an immediate shuddering of every slaughterhouse in America. Again, to compare it to the criminal justice system in Blind Injustice, that’s why people who would normally abhor violence, not only rationalize it away when it comes to police violence, but then resist any efforts to reform the system due to their defense mechanisms being firmly in place to protect any discomfort at their cognitive dissonance.
I should note, however, as someone who cares deeply about persuading people — after all, my entire ideological framework is built upon persuasion and not coercion — I care about how arguments are presented and framed to the unconverted. The “flock” may get it and cheer for it, but I’m always thinking about how others would perceive those arguments. Even as someone entirely sympathetic, and indeed, empathetic, to the arguments Joy puts forth, I do have two disagreements with Joy’s framing:
- Any comparison to human genocide is just unseemly. There’s no other way to put it. Yes, 10 billion farmed animals are killed each year (and billions more sea creatures) in the United States, give or take, for food consumption, and probably half a million die before they become our food. But comparing farmed animal slaughter to the Nazis murdering six million Jews and other individuals in the Holocaust is never going to sit right with me. I appreciate the “shock and awe” factor of that argument, and I think I understand why the argument is evoked (to demonstrate the same psychological forces which enabled the Holocaust are enabling carnism), but I don’t think that’s the most compelling way to present this information. Even people who think we should do everything we can to not treat cows badly are going to rightly balk at comparing slaughtering them to slaughtering Jewish children in the Holocaust.
- Joy has an extensive argument toward the end of the book analogizing meat-eaters to those in the movie The Matrix, about how we’ve been led astray by the carnism system and its myriad constituted parts to continue being meat-eaters, and it’s only when we break through that illusion, as Neo did his own illusions in the movie, can we actually be free. On some level, I think this analogy is fine. When we’re talking about systemic issues, whether it’s the criminal justice system in Blind Injustice, or politics in Why We’re Polarized, or meat-eating in Joy’s book, the system (group dynamics is a good shorthand way of thinking about it) enables people who would otherwise abhor violence to either partake in it themselves (like those who work at the slaughterhouse engaging in wanton cruelty) or look the other way as it occurs (meat-eaters, who would rather not think about how the meat we’re eating was once a living animal with feelings). But just as I mentioned with Blind Injustice and Why We’re Polarized, I think you still have to ascribe anatomy to the citizens of the United States. If the citizens wanted the criminal justice system changed, or better political parties, or better animal welfare and food safety practices, then we would have it. And we see that in some cases, when the public is particularly galvanized, we do get reforms in all of those areas. As Joy mentions in one example pertinent to her case, gestation crates (crates for female pigs) were eventually considered inhumane and banned, and Smithfield Foods and Maple Leaf Foods, the largest pork producers in the United States and Canada, respectively, said they would begin phasing them out in 2007. That was because of pressure from their “customers,” McDonald’s and Burger King. My point is, I get uncomfortable, even when discussing systemic issues, with treating people without autonomy to make decisions regardless of the miasma of psychological group dynamics at play.
Those two issues I had aside, I do think Joy’s book is compelling and quickly dispels any of the usual arguments in favor of meat-eating, which is not seen by the mainstream as an ideology because it’s the norm, and so, it has a lot of unexamined assumptions baked in, where even a momentary bit of philosophical rumination, such as Joy does at the beginning of the book with the Golden Retriever stew example, breaks through such assumptions.
I’m hoping by reading Joy’s book that will be a fresh start for me to get back on a vegetarian journey because it’s ethically sound and right. At minimum, we need to move toward a world with far less animal cruelty. I don’t think it’s far-fetched to believe that our descendants will view confined animal feeding operations, or factory farms (I didn’t go deep on this, but Joy highlights how language is obviously a big factor in ensuring invisibility of carnism, and a good example of that is CAFOs), as barbaric. Heck, maybe that switch will happen in my lifetime. I’d also add zoos to that, notwithstanding their purported educational aspects and such, but we know too much about how awful solitary confinement is for living beings of any kind, but I digress.
I should also note, if you go into this book with an open mind and are then curious about trying vegetarianism out, or at least, looking more into it, Joy’s book at the end has a helpful list of resources for how to pursue a vegetarian diet and lifestyle.