Most people think with horror that somewhere in the world they can eat dogs, and with a shudder they remember seeing photographs of dead dogs hanging on hooks with flayed skin.
Yes, just thinking about it scares and upsets. But a reasonable question arises: why do people not resent just as much because of the killing of other animals? For example, in the United States, about 100 million pigs are slaughtered each year for meat. Why does this not provoke public protest?
The answer is simple – emotional bias. We just don’t connect emotionally with pigs to the extent that their suffering resonates with us in the same way that dogs suffer. But, like Melanie Joy, social psychologist and expert on “carnism”, that we love dogs but eat pigs is hypocrisy for which there is no worthy moral justification.
It’s not uncommon to hear the argument that we should care more about dogs because of their superior social intelligence. This belief further points to the fact that people spend more time getting to know dogs than pigs. Many people keep dogs as pets, and through this intimate relationship with dogs, we have become emotionally connected to them and therefore take care of them. But are dogs really different from other animals that people are accustomed to eating?
Although dogs and pigs are clearly not identical, they are very similar in many ways that seem important to most people. They have similar social intelligence and live equally emotional lives. Both dogs and pigs can recognize signals given by humans. And, of course, members of both of these species are capable of experiencing suffering and desire to live a life without pain.
So, we can conclude that pigs deserve the same treatment as dogs. But why is the world in no hurry to fight for their rights?
People are often blind to inconsistencies in their own thinking, especially when it comes to animals. Andrew Rowan, director of the Center for Animal Affairs and Public Policy at Tufts University, once said that “the only consistency in how people think about animals is inconsistency.” This statement is increasingly supported by new research in the field of psychology.
How does human inconsistency manifest itself?
First of all, people allow the influence of superfluous factors on their judgments about the moral status of animals. People often think with their hearts, not their heads. For example, in one, people were presented with images of farm animals and asked to decide how wrong it was to harm them. However, the participants were not aware that the images included both young (eg, chickens) and adult animals (grown-up chickens).
Very often people said that it would be more wrong to harm young animals than to harm adult animals. But why? It turned out that such judgments are connected with the fact that cute little animals evoke a feeling of warmth and tenderness in people, while adults do not. The intelligence of the animal does not play a role in this.
While these results may not come as a surprise, they do point to a problem in our relationship with morality. Our morality in this case seems to be controlled by unconscious emotions rather than measured reasoning.
Second, we are inconsistent in our use of “facts”. We tend to think that the evidence is always on our side—what psychologists call “confirmation bias.” One person was asked to rate their level of agreement or disagreement with a range of potential benefits of vegetarianism, which ranged from environmental benefits to animal welfare, health and financial benefits.
People were expected to talk about the benefits of vegetarianism, supporting some of the arguments, but not all of them. However, people didn’t just support one or two benefits—they either approved of all or none of them. In other words, people by default approved of all the arguments that supported their hasty conclusions about whether it is better to eat meat or be a vegetarian.
Thirdly, we are quite flexible in the use of information about animals. Instead of thinking carefully about issues or facts, we tend to support evidence that supports what we would like to believe. In one study, people were asked to describe how wrong it would be to eat one of three different animals. One animal was a fictional, alien animal that they never encountered; the second was the tapir, an unusual animal that is not eaten in the culture of the respondents; and finally the pig.
All participants received the same information about the intellectual and cognitive abilities of animals. As a result, people answered that it would be wrong to kill an alien and a tapir for food. For the pig, when making a moral judgment, participants ignored information about its intelligence. In human culture, eating pigs is considered the norm – and this was enough to reduce the value of the life of pigs in the eyes of people, despite the developed intelligence of these animals.
So, while it may seem counterintuitive that most people don’t accept eating dogs but are content to eat bacon, it’s not surprising from a psychological standpoint. Our moral psychology is good at finding fault, but not when it comes to our own actions and preferences.