Animal Rights Zone

Fighting for animal liberation and an end to speciesism

The effects of categorisation as food

Very interesting study about the effects of categorising animals as food. Below is a brief summary and some of my thoughts on the matter but there is a lot more in the paper, which can be found here

The study seeks to understand “the effect of categorization as food on the perceived moral standing of animals”. it has been suggested that people who eat meat experience cognitive dissonance according to which people are motivated to remove the discrepancy  between their beliefs and behaviour  i.e. the fact that they eat meat and that fact that they don’t think they should hurt animals. So if most people are not changing their behaviour it seems likely they are changing their perception of the animals they are eating to avoid the conclusion they are harming them. Specifically it is likely that they are changing their perception of how able the individual animal is to suffer. This is because “being able to suffer is the characteristic on which people base judgements of moral concern” (Bastian, Laham, Wilson, Haslam, and Koval, in press; Bentham and Browning, 1843; Grey, Grey, and Wegner, 2007). For example a study found that when people ate either beef jerky or cashew nuts there “moral concern for cows was decreased after consuming beef, indicating that people constrict moral concern for animals when eating meat” (Loughana et al., 2010). Another study found that “reminding participants of the origins of meat actively reduced their moral concern for meat animals” (Bastian, Loughnan, Haslam, and Radke, 2011).

This study sought to see weather individuals classifying animals as food would, in and of its self rather than because of motivational considerations like cognitive dissonance, affects the moral standing that people attributed to animals. They concluded that “categorising an animal as food reduces moral concern via undermining the animal’s perceived capacity to suffer.” In this study this is opposed to classification as an animal not used for food. In a final summary they conclude “People generally care about animals, however, when an animal is considered food its capacity to suffer is reduced, diminishing our moral concern”

I thought this was interesting for an advocacy point of view in that, as many people have been saying for a while, it may benefit advocates not to talk about animals in terms of being food but rather individuals or persons in the hope that this may alleviate some of the effects of the persons prior classification of the animals they eat as “food animals”. Also talking about non-humans in terms of being individuals or persons is consistent with many animal rights theories and so may have benefit for the public understanding those as well and more generally understanding the animal rights informed vegan position.  Personally with non-vegan friends I have often made a joke or talked about food or non-humans in a way that explicitly or implicitly involves there categorisation as food. I think I will think twice about talking in such a way in the future.

Another possible implication of this knowledge may be that “skipping” or “bin diving” animal products may potentially have a damaging effect. Personally, in the past, I have eaten relatively large quantities of animal products that were not going to be used for human consumption for the reason that it potentially, by reduced demand, reduces the total production of food which has environmental benefits and also ethical animal rights related benefits in that individuals are killed in the production of food and so the less land used / food produced the better. My justification for eating animal products was that if no one else is going to eat them my eating them cannot contribute to non – human use and so harm either through demand for products or indirectly through me eating animal products that others may eat meaning that they don’t eat them and so potentially buy animal products and so contribute to demand. However in light of the potentially damaging effects of categorising non-humans as food and given that my eating animal products in front of people may well reinforce there categorisation as food or at least does not challenge it I don’t, any more, think it is something I will be doing. But these are just my ramblings, hope they were of interest, thanks.

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Comment by George Miler on February 18, 2012 at 15:14

A cognitive system can kill empathy. Unique to each culture, it includes all the unconscious classifications, judgments, and values which trigger most of an adult's initial responses to situations, including the assignment of affective valencies. The revival of Greek learning in the Renaissance made it possible to separate matter from spirit. Moreover, the Manichean tendencies of Calvinism made the material universe hostile from which human beings had to wrest a living. Not even Lovejoy’s Great Chain of Being spared the natural world; animals were assigned a lower rank in the moral order. And science (at its most reductionistic) had no qualms about vivisection. In the 60s even human beings were regarded as machines to be manipulated by wires inserted in their pleasure centers, or controlled through the behavioral techniques of B. F. Skinner. Dr. Steve Best has updated this history with new terms of discourse.

Comment by Carolyn Bailey on February 17, 2012 at 13:59

Thanks for posting this, Olly. It's really very interesting. 

I absolutely agree with your suggestion of using terms like "individuals" when speaking about other animals. I use "individuals" all the time, I think it's an accurate term, but I also think it encourages others to think, and hopefully put some thought to the fact that all beings really are individuals.

I had a discussion with a man in a forum site a few months ago, and he absolutely refused to refer to other animals as individuals. This went on for a number of days, and, although he wasn't able to give a rational reason as to why a cow (for example) was not an individual, he insisted that she was not. I expect it is something that many people would feel similarly about, perhaps because it would entail them challenging their beliefs and choices. Something that far too few people are prepared to do.  



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