I’m excited about the amount of work being done to understand why people continue to consume animal products. Instead of lecturing or leafleting, researchers are conducting studies to reveal the underlying motivations of people who eat meat, and then designing optimal strategies for communication… which may of course include both lectures and leaflets. I always favour a straightforward explanation of the rational arguments that support veganism over a message sculpted to appeal to peoples’ biases. That said, I think an understanding of the motivations of our audience will help us respond to their concerns or objections and engage with them in an informed manner.
It’s rare that I encounter someone who is unaware of the vague outline of meat production. Although some people may be unsure how chickens are harmed in egg farming or the plight of dairy cows, most people I talk to about veganism know that meat is the flesh of dead animals and realise that an animal had to be farmed and slaughtered to produce their meal. They might deny or ignore the extent of the suffering that farmed animals endure, but most cannot escape the fact that they do suffer.
No one thinks of themselves as a villain and few of us think of ourselves as heroes. We like to think we are doing the best we can with the knowledge and tools we have available. Unfortunately, in order to foster this positive self image it is often easier for us to do exactly what we please and rationalise our behaviour afterwards than it is to actually do the best we can. Instead of letting the guilt that results from not comporting with our self image as ‘good people’ motivate us to change our ways, we brush off the guilt with justification and perpetuate our behaviour.
In Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson explain that the cognitive dissonance we feel when our behaviour doesn’t correspond to our idea of ourselves as good people is incredibly uncomfortable. We want to resolve that dissonance and the easiest way to do so is to manufacture a justification.
In the horrifying calculus of self-deception, the greater the pain we inflict on others, the greater the need to justify it to maintain our feelings of decency and self-worth.*
Melanie Joy is one of the researchers who has been investigating the psychology of those who consume animal products. Joy has defined three strategies that people use to justify the consumption of animal products which she calls ‘The Three Ns’.
There is a vast mythology surrounding meat, but all the myths are in one way or another related to what I refer to as the Three Ns of Justification: eating meat is normal, natural, and necessary. The Three Ns have been invoked to justify all exploitative systems, from African slavery to the Nazi Holocaust. When an ideology is in its prime, these myths rarely come under scrutiny. When the system finally collapses, the three Ns are recognized as ludicrous.*
A recent study lead by Dr Jared Piazza from Lancaster University* added another ‘N’ to the list of justifications for consumption of animal products — Nice. This is their list of ‘the ways in which people defend eating meat’:
- Natural (“Humans are natural carnivores”)
- Necessary (“Meat provides essential nutrients”)
- Normal (“I was raised eating meat”)
- Nice (“It’s delicious”)
The researchers found that these four groups cover between eighty-three and ninety one percent of the reasons people submit for why they eat meat. I’m sure most vegan advocates will find this easy to believe. We all encounter justifications that fit in these categories so often that I think examining the basis of each premise will help us understand our audience and become better advocates.
Normal and Natural — Two Informal Fallacies
Both of these words have a convenient slipperiness to them. They seem to be denoting absolutes, but on closer examination we find ourselves asking ‘natural to whom?’ and ‘normal in what context?’ Is it ‘normal’ for humans to consume animal products? Well it depends where you are: in some parts of the world it is abnormal to eat meat. Natural is a term so vague it has little meaning, especially when applied to human behaviour. Natural usually means ‘without human intervention’* so can any human behaviour be described as natural? Or perhaps we should define natural as pertaining to the material world, in which case is anything truly unnatural?
To give these words the benefit of the doubt let’s assume that they mean ‘normal in our culture, in the present day’ and ‘natural as in a common diet of pre industrialised societies that fulfills dietary requirements’. When we pin these words down it is clear that the arguments are forms of commonly used informal fallacies*. Informal fallacies are arguments based on premises that often fail to support their conclusions. The arguments that meat eating is normal and natural both beg the question why are normal and natural presumed to be good?
There are three informal fallacies that capture these arguments: argumentum ad populum (appeal to popularity), argumentum ad antiquitatem (appeal to tradition) and the appeal to nature. All suffer from faulty premises.
The argumentum ad populum* is most simply defined as: ‘if a belief is widely held it must be true’. Although a common belief or practice may warrant more consideration than a fringe idea it is obviously foolish to conclude that the majority are always right. Majority opinion can be relied upon to indicate what people think but cannot be relied upon to indicate truths about the world- if it could we would not need logic or the scientific method we could base our understanding of the world on ‘what most people reckon’. I have yet to encounter someone who truly embraces the argumentum ad populum in every area of their lives. Thankfully when we consider this argument up close the wise words of our mother’s mother’s echo in our ears ‘if everyone else was walking off a cliff would you do it?’ Most people acknowledge and are thankful for the progress made by people who did not accept the majority’s opinion on all sorts of issues and advanced the causes of science, philosophy and human rights as a result.
The argumentum ad antiquitatem* is very similar to the previous informal fallacy. It suggests that if people have been behaving in a certain way for a long time then this must be the correct way to behave. Certainly no-one reading this can be easily convinced by this argument, after all our ancestors didn’t do a lot of internet browsing.
The third informal fallacy is an appeal to nature* it relies on the assumption that ‘natural’, however it’s defined, is synonymous with ‘good’. This assumptions falsity can clearly be demonstrated by considering some ‘natural’ occurrences that we don’t consider ‘good’ — earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis. And some ‘natural’ behaviours seen in animal and human populations — rape, infanticide, cannibalism. Something may be good and natural, but to argue that something is good because it’s natural is to overlook these obvious examples. While it is true that our bodies are capable of digesting animal and plant food - making us omnivores - we don’t conclude in any other arena that because our body is capable of doing something it must be morally acceptable.
I don’t think that the people who employ the Normal and Natural justifications for eating meat believe that everything normal or natural is inherently good. The reason why these fallacies are so widespread is because of their intuitive appeal. They seem, at first glance, to make sense. When people are groping around for justifications to resolve the cognitive dissonance they feel they don’t think too deeply about the integrity of the arguments they grab onto.
Necessariness — a Falsity
Some people believe that humans have to eat meat to be healthy and in some cases they may be right. If someone does not have access to sufficient plant foods to meet their dietary needs perhaps because they live in an inhospitable climate or in an impoverished country it may be necessary for them to eat a mix of plant and animal foods. It is possible that some people have an unusual health condition that means they have to eat animal products to stay healthy although an example of these theorised health problems has never been studied*.
But when people say it is Necessary to eat animal products to be healthy they are usually talking about their own consumption habits and health. Provided you have access to a range of plant based foods and B12 supplementation it is not necessary to consume animal products. The health advisory bodies of most first world nations recognise this fact and have released statements confirming that a vegan diet is suitable for people at all stages of life* Our bodies don’t need to eat plants, or animals, or fungi to be healthy; they need to consume a certain complement of essential nutrients. These nutrients can be found in a variety of different diets including a plant based diet. The idea that consuming animal products is necessary to human health is an outdated one that anyone with a passing interest in nutrition science should dismiss. Perhaps one of the reasons why this falsity persists is that it makes for an easy justification for a habit many would rather not think about too deeply.
Nice — One Unflattering Realisation
“It’s delicious!” If most of your debates with non-vegans take place in comment threads, you may think that this last justification is the most common. Despite it’s seeming simplicity this is to me the most interesting of the four Ns and the hardest to argue with.
Like the informal fallacies of Normal and Natural ‘an action is permissible because I take pleasure from it’ is not a universalisable rule. People who defend their consumption of animal products with an ‘appeal to bacon’ don’t live by the rule ‘if it feels good, do it’ in other arenas of their lives or indeed even in other matters of consumption. But for some reason the argument seems compelling in the case of animal products. It would be disingenuous of me to disagree with the statement that animal products taste nice — of course they do. Trying to convince people that they don’t like something is a foolish endeavour. We may not always be able to trust our senses but as far as telling us what stimulus we find pleasurable and which we find unpleasurable they are a finely tuned instrument. I’m sure the vast majority of people experience sensory pleasure from the taste of some or all animal products. The question is: is this relevant to the issue of the morality of consuming them?
The most sophisticated example of this argument claims that because human brains are so advanced that our gustatory pleasure objectively merits more consideration than the suffering and death of less complex organisms. There is something immeasurably more profound about all human experience due to it taking place in a more sophisticated vessel which means that even a moment of human experience of whatever quality will always take precedent over a non-human animals experience. Jeremy Bentham is famous in animal rights circles for this sentence:
The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? *
Ironically Bentham was a proponent of a variation of the ‘Nice’ argument he believed that killing animals for food was morally permissible as long as they were not subject to ‘unnecessary’* suffering. In Philosophy: The Basics Nigel Warburton describes Bentham’s position:
The Pleasures of human beings eating meat has to be weighed against the overall suffering of the animals in the process of rearing and slaughtering them. If the pleasures of the human beings outweigh the suffering of the animals on this simple calculation meat-eating may be justified.*
This argument may seem callous but I think most of us are guilty of thinking like this at least occasionally. If you have ever inconvenienced a cat by getting up when she is settled on your lap you have made a judgement that your needs outweigh her comfort. Judging human desires and experiences, especially our own, as of more import than animals is perhaps due to an ingrained speciesism* that is hard to avoid.
To make the argument that human pleasure outweighs the sort of horrendous suffering and death that the consumption of animal products entails we have to be extremely confident in the supremacy of human experience. The more research we do about our evolutionary history and animal cognition the harder it becomes to find evidence to support this confidence* It seems non-human animal brains are very similar to human animal brains. They experience pleasure, pain and attachment to others just like us. Evolutionary Biologist Richard Dawkins has even suggested that it is possible that animals experience more pain than humans:
Isn’t it plausible that a clever species such as our own might need less pain, precisely because we are capable of intelligently working out what is good for us, and what damaging events we should avoid? Isn’t it plausible that an unintelligent species might need a massive wallop of pain, to drive home a lesson that we can learn with less powerful inducement.*
We may feel that our experiences are more important than animal experiences but we have no objective method for validating this intuition.
Although the prioritisation of positive human experience over negative animal experience could be the result of speciesism perhaps more simply it is an example of selfishness. Most people condemn dog fighting or beastiality despite the presumed amount of pleasure these things give the human participants. It is not human pleasure we prioritise but our own pleasure. If we don’t enjoy certain types of animal abuse we declare them wrong, no matter how popular they are with other human beings.
We don’t just prioritise our pleasure over non humans animals suffering, we prioritise it over human suffering too when we buy clothes made in sweatshops, phones made with conflict minerals or food farmed by exploited workers. The Nice justification is not something callous meat eaters say because they are cruel it is something human beings think all the time because we are ignorant and wish to remain that way. By remaining ignorant we avoid the discomfort of cognitive dissonance and the impetus to change our comfortable patterns of thought and behaviour. Human brains are complicated systems with many conflicting interests some of which are admirable - such as altruism and compassion - and some are deplorable, like selfishness.
The reason why I think the Nice justification is so interesting is because I find it convincing enough to use it to soothe myself when I spend money on a soy latte instead of donating to charity, or avoid researching where the components in my computer are sourced from. These things - my coffee, my laptop - are Nice, and I have little other defence than this justification. The justification serves a purpose. It allows me to avoid confronting my own selfishness.
By analysing and deconstructing the justifications people use for their behaviour we are encouraging a sometimes painful kind of self examination. Without justifications we have to look at ourselves in a critical light and face the dissonance of realising we are not the good people we think we are. Without recourse to justification, the only way to resolve the dissonance is to make changes to our behaviour and inch closer to being the people we want to be. Perhaps this sounds familiar — I am describing many people’s experience of becoming vegan. When advocating for veganism I think it is important to encourage our audience to think critically about their own strategies of justification. On close examination they are likely to be exposed as logically incoherent, false or remarkably unflattering.
Confronting the four Ns is important if we want to disrupt the perpetuation of animal exploitation. More broadly it’s important to maintain a standard of intellectual honesty with ourselves. Our brains are prone to self-justification, rationalisation and many other types of cognitive errors, but maintaining awareness of these pitfalls is the only strategy we have to try and understand the world and ourselves.
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