I realize this is a rather long post, but I would love to get your thoughts on it. I admit my use of the word “religion” in the title for this post may be misleading. I am referring to a belief system in our culture that in many ways parallels the psychology of theists.
According to Melanie Joy, Ph.D, Ed.M, a social psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, meat eating is an ideology, or a belief system.
She says, “Most of us who have grown up eating meat don’t realize that every time we sit down to our food, we are acting in accordance with an invisible belief system that has shaped our thoughts, preferences, feelings and behaviors. We aren’t aware of how we have been conditioned to eat animals without considering the implications of our choices on ourselves or on others - or to even realize we are making choices at all.”
“Meat production and consumption, the most far-reaching and widely supported form of nonhuman animal exploitation, remains an unnamed ideology.”
“This invisible belief system, carnism, has created the illusion that when we eat meat we are making our choices freely. But carnism is structured to enable humane people to participate in inhumane practices without realizing what they’re doing, to block our awareness so that we unknowingly act against our own interests and the interests of others.”
“We have, however, recognized that the opposing dietary standpoint—vegetarianism—is, indeed, an ideology. For this reason, we do not call vegetarians "plant-eaters" or "non-meat-eaters" because we understand that vegetarianism, though its principles are manifested in the act of abstaining from the consumption of flesh, is actually a philosophy in which the subjugation of other animals is considered unnecessary and unjust.
This inequality of ideological identification demonstrates our collective meat bias. It is, in fact, quite common to label only those beliefs which run counter to the dominant culture. We assume that it is not necessary to assign a term to ourselves when we adhere to the mainstream way of thinking, as though its prevalence makes it an intrinsic part of life rather than a widely held opinion. Meat eating, though culturally dominant, reflects a choice that is not espoused by everybody.
Some people refer to meat-eaters as carnivores; yet, human meat-eaters are actually omnivores, as they consume both flesh and plants. Moreover, the terms carnivore and omnivore suggest a biological predisposition toward flesh, while contemporary, wide-scale meat eating is not a physiological necessity but an ideological choice; the millions of healthy vegetarians who have persisted throughout the centuries are testament to this. Neither carnivore nor omnivore expresses the beliefs beneath the behavior.
For the reasons listed above, I have chosen to employ the terms carnism and carnist to the ideology of meat production/consumption and its proponents. Carnism stems from the Latin carn, meaning flesh or body, and is the root in carnage. Fleshist might have been appropriate, but flesh has fewer connotations suggestive of slaughter and this label may be too disconcerting and removed from the socially accepted carnivore for carnists to be willing to apply to themselves. And the term meatist reinforces the social construction of meat in which "meat" is perceived as synonymous with "food."
By naming the belief system which underlies the acts of meat production and consumption we are better able to acknowledge that slaughtering nonhuman animals for human consumption is not a given but a choice; a choice that is based upon an ideology in which the domination and exploitation of other animals is considered a natural human privilege. To say "I eat meat" or "I am a meat-eater" denotes an action devoid of a philosophical viewpoint, whereas to say "I am a carnist," describes a choice, an identification with a particular belief system. Using the verb, eat, in the labels meat-eater or even flesh-eater places the focus of the consumption of other animals on what one does, rather than what one is.”
In her book, “Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows”, Dr. Joy explains the process through which carnists use psychic numbing to cope with the moral disconnect between the common belief that it is wrong to cause needless suffering and the act of causing animals to suffer needlessly so that we can eat them.
Psychic numbing: “we disconnect, mentally and emotionally,from our experience; we ‘numb’ ourselves. [...] Psychic numbing is adaptive, or beneficial, when it helps us to cope with violence. But it becomes maladaptive, or destructive, when it is used to enable violence.”
On both an individual and institutional level, we engage in a number of defense mechanisms that help us to achieve psychic numbing:
- Denial: Also called “practical invisibility,” denial is the process by which the horrific realities of “meat” (and egg and dairy) production are literally kept invisible to us. For example, we “grow” billions of chickens, turkeys, pigs, cows, lambs, etc. for food every year; but where are they!? Few of us rarely, if ever, witness these animals grazing the land, rearing their offspring, sunning themselves in the grass or preening in the dirt. But they’re out there: crammed by the tens of thousands into massive, windowless buildings, located in large complexes on the outskirts of town. These animals are trucked to and from slaughter in unmarked vans; their only exposure to the outdoors comes when they await sale or death, on the auction block or at the slaughterhouse. Practically speaking, they remain invisible to us, as does their suffering. Because many of us enjoy eating “meat,” eggs and milk, this is how we like it.
- Avoidance: The counterpart to denial, avoidance involves “symbolic invisibility”; it is “knowing without knowing.” The animal agriculture industry – with no small amount of help from the other major social institutions, such as the government and news media – feed us ridiculous, transparent lies about “meat” production, and we eagerly gobble them up. "Humane meat" is an oxymoron: labels such as “organic,” “free range,” “grass fed,” etc. are rendered meaningless through industry lobbying and self-policing, and besides, no unnecessary death can ever be called “humane.” While the government has ostensibly established myriad rules regarding food safety, animal welfare, and environmental responsibility, again, these rules remain full of loopholes and usually go unenforced. For example, chickens aren’t considered “animals” under either the Animal Welfare Act or the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act.
- Justification: We use a series of myths in order to convince ourselves of the “justness” of carnism. These myths typically involve the 3 Ns, as Joy refers to them:
Normal – Carnism has become normalized, such that its tenets are social norms. Social norms are both descriptive (telling us how things are now) and prescriptive (dictating to us how things ought to be). But just like religious belief, just because something is normal, or common, doesn’t make it right.
Natural – If something is “natural,” it’s assumed to be “justifiable”: “The way ‘natural’ translates to ‘justifiable’ is through the process of naturalization. [...] When an ideology is naturalized, its tenets are believed to be in accordance with the laws of nature.” “Natural” = “the way things are meant to be.” But I think many of us can easily point out the“naturalistic fallacy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naturalistic_fallacy
Necessary – Closely tied to the supposed “naturalness” of carnism, “meat’s” perceived “necessity” makes it seem inevitable; not a choice. But clearly “meat” consumption is a choice – in industrialized nations, anyhow – as any vegan or vegetarian can attest.
- Objectification: Via objectification, we reduce living, sentient beings to nothing more than objects; we objectify them. Clearly, a cow is nothing like a television set – but both are considered pieces of property in our “modern,” “civilized” society. Objectification is even apparent in our language when we refer to animals as “it” instead of as “he” or “she” as if they are inanimate objects.
- Deindividualization: Through deindividualization, we strip animals of their individual identities, viewing them as pieces of a group and nothing more. One individual in the group is thought of as indistinguishable from all the rest; thus, the singular sentient beings become unfamiliar abstractions. (This is why Americans recoil at the thought of eating dog meat; most of us have either lived with or known at least one dog on a personal level. Dogs are individuals, familiars, whereas cows, pigs, fishes and chickens are not.)
- Dichotomization: Dichotomization involves grouping animals into two distinct, often diametrically opposed, categories: food/not food, cute/ugly, dirty/clean. These categories are usually arbitrary and based on our own prejudices and stereotypes rather than any semblance of reality. Along with objectification and deindividualization, dichotomization allows us to “distance” ourselves from“food” animals at will.
Here is nice video promo for the book that makes this point pretty well:
- Rationalization: To rationalize a behavior is to attempt to provide a rational explanation for a behavior that is, at its core, irrational. Animal agriculture is wasteful, unsustainable, harmful to human health and the environment, and – above all else – inherently cruel to the billions of nonhuman animals who are enslaved and killed for nothing more than human “taste” and “convenience” and corporate profits. Yet, our culture is replete with rationalizations for this most irrational of business and ethical models. Even otherwise rational people come up with crazy rationalizations when presented with even the idea of veganism –“don’t plants feel pain too” or “humans have eaten meat for thousands of years.” Yeah, so? Humans have raped and murdered for thousands of years too. Does that make it okay?
- Dissociation: Described by Joy as “the heart of psychic numbing,” dissociation “is psychologically and emotionally disconnecting from the truth of our experience; it is the feeling of not being fully ‘present’ or conscious.” Often times, dissociation is triggered by a traumatic experience, for example, experiencing or witnessing a physical assault. Given that “meat” production involves the assault and murder of tens of billions of sentient beings per year – and “meat”- eating is, literally, the consumption of a once-living, once-feeling individual – it makes sense that the same psychological defense mechanism that protects us from reliving our own distressful experience also shields us from the uncomfortable truth that, with every animal-based meal, we are directly participating in another being’s living (and dying) hell.
Anyway, that’s it. Sorry for the long post. If you read the whole thing, I would love to hear your thoughts. Thanks.
Enjoying music harms no one. Eating meat harms animals.
I am arguing that causing unnecessary harm is immoral. Why do people keep separating necessity and harm when critiquing my point?
Radu, can you conceive of a discussion about morality that doesn't involve the use of forceful coercion? I have no desire to legislate morality or enact laws to enforce it.
I agree most people don't think it is immoral to eat animals. But I still think most people think it is immoral to needlessly hurt animals. And when they really think about it, they understand that raising and killing animals for food when we have alternatives constitutes needlessly hurting animals. But they live with the cognitive dissonance through various psychological defense mechanisms. I think many of these defense mechanisms mirror the defense mechanisms of other belief systems, including religion. That's what this discussion is about. It isn't about me or my views or if I plan to initiate some sort of legislative campaign to take away your meat.
If you are unfamiliar with Australian philosopher Peter Singer's book, Animal Liberation, first published in 1975, I highly recommend and suggest you get yourself a copy.
Amazon Reader Review:
"This is one of the first accounts of what was to become one of the most controversial movements in the world. Peter Singer, a moral philosopher, argues about the ethics of eating meat, biomedical experiments on animals, cattle farming, the meat industry, and other related topics. Written with his characteristic lucidity and clarity, this is no jittery, woolly, 'fascist animal rights lobby' book, but an intellectually rigorous, philosophically grounded tract on what it means to be human and what duties we owe other species who share the world with us. Clear-eyed, substantiated with impeccably-researched data and facts, and radiant with a moral energy that has all but left academic philosophical writing, it gives much-needed credibility to a burning, and often much abused and misrepresented, issue."
Check it out on Amazon HERE:
There is no objective morality. But it seems like the direction you are going is that since there is no objective morality that any type of behavior is okay. Theists seem to go this route when criticizing atheism. "Without objective morality you must think it is okay to murder and rape."
But the fact is that we, as a society, can come to an agreement about subjective morality. In our society (the United States), polls regularly show that most people agree that cruelty to animals is wrong. Most people agree that causing needless suffering is wrong. But there seems to be a disconnect between people's profess moral values and their actual behaviors. That is the point I am trying to make here.
P.S. I have an idea that we can determine an objective morality, but that is a topic for another post.
“Morality is a wholly human concept centered around the concepts of right and wrong, also wholly human.”
Untrue. Many non-human animals have been shown to exhibitmoral behaviors and to have developed their own moral codes. Some more info on that: http://www.amazon.com/Moral-Animal-Science-Evolutionary-Psychology/dp/0679763996
“Moral vegitarianism is built on the idea of a hierarchy of moral status of living creatures that puts animals above plants because of the assumption that animals experience life in a similar fashion to humans and that plants do not, so it is less wrong to eat plants than animals.”
The fact that vertebrate animals have central nervous systems, brains and all of the other biological hardware necessary for sentience and plants do not is not an assumption, it is a biological fact.
“the idea that being involved in killing and butchering an animal is a traumatic event that triggers dissociation in humans is pure fantasy.”
One of the first lesson a pig farmer teaches his kids is not to name the pigs. You can name the dogs, but pigs are for eating and if you name them you will grow attached to them and it will be harder to kill them. Dissociation is absolutely necessary in the killing and butchering of animals.
“The contention that eating meat is the moral equivalent ofmurder or rape is sophistry of the first order.”
I never made that claim. I made analogies. Analogies are comparisons, not claims of equivalence.
“I doubt any but the most rabid would call it cruelty when a bear, which is not an obligate predator, kills and eats an animal.”
Obligate carnivores need to eat meat in order to survive. Humans have a choice. We don’t need to eat meat. Further, we are aware of the fact that we don’t need to eat meat (perhaps unlike chimpanzees). Therefore, our awareness that eating meat causes needless suffering makes the act of eating meat immoral if we agree that knowingly causing needless suffering is immoral.
“Human beings have evolved as meat eating creatures.”
I think that probably every animal on the planet has carnivory and/or omnivory in its biological lineage. So what? Evolution is about change, not stagnation.
I think there is evidence that some animals (e.g. chimps) are capable of abstract thought and thus capable of having concepts. But I didn't say nonhuman animals have moral concepts. I said that many animals seem to have developed moral codes and behaviors. Morality doesn't have to be abstract. The principle of reciprocity could be considered a moral principle (do unto others...) and requires no abstract thought process. A reciprocity is apparent in many animal species, including chickens as an example.
Even if plants experience suffering (which is a disingenuous argument because I don't think plant suffering really concerns you) then plant suffering is necessary because we need to eat plants in order to survive. Again, I am saying it is immoral to knowingly cause needless suffering.A need is typically defined as something that is necessary for an organism to live a healthy life.
I don't agree that bears and chimps in the wild are capable of living their entire lives without eating meat. They are dependent on certain food sources at certain times of year in order to survive. For kodiac, salmon consumption is a necessary part of their winter survival strategy. Modern humans have developed food production strategies that have enabled us to ensure our survival without resorting to eating animals. For us, eating animals is a choice.
I don't think I have assumed superiority in any way. Can't we discuss ideas about morality without throwing out defensive accusations like that? How would you suggest I put forth my view that causing needless suffering is wrong without coming across as self-righteous? How would anyone propose a moral principle without risking this charge?
I never said that rape is equivalent to eating meat. My point is that if rape is immoral than it is no less immoral because people have been doing it for thousands of years. In the same way, if eating meat is immoral than it is no less immoral because people have been doing it for thousands of years. The length of time something has been going on is not a measure of its rightness.
Why is it that in every vegan/vegetarian/meat-eater debate there is always this assumption that the meat-eater doesn't know where the meat they are eating comes from and how it is treated along the way and that meat indeed comes from another living creature capable of feeling pain? I'd venture to say that most people know where their meat comes from how it was treated and that it is indeed a dead animal that probably felt pain when it died to be on our plate... what most people don't do is spend a lot of time caring about it or doing anything about it.
Why don't they spend a lot of time caring about where their meat and other foods for that matter come from or why don't they bother to do anything about it?
1. Money - eating the ideal world-friendly diet isn't exactly cheap.
2. Access - most people don't have access to all that wonderful world-friendly food. I personally am fortunate to live in a place where locally grown organic steroid free well treated food is abundant and relatively cheap most of the time... go to Nebraska and suddenly the most local thing you get is corn; organic steroid free well treated foods cost a butload if you can even find them regularly.
3. Convenience - Most people are legitimately busy. Most households have two working adults, add some kids into the mix and those activities you do yourself or with your kids and then add in all those other responsibilities that come with being an adult in a developed society and of course add in that oh so important me time that everyone needs to just be sane... there isn't a lot of time to really focus on what you are shoving down your gut so long as you've got something to shove down your gut.
Instead of calling meat-eating a religion. Instead of assuming that meat-eaters don't know anything about their food or what the range of good healthy diets are. Instead of assuming meat-eaters have never examined their diets and found them wanting. Instead of laying down guilt trip after guilt trip about the poor animals how about we focus on the three things I mentioned above? How do we make the good healthy food choices more affordable? How doe we make the good healthy choices accessible? How do we make the good healthy eating choices convenient? Without those three things being addressed not much is going to change about our collective diets anytime soon.