It’s the great Meat Paradox: How is it that people who would never consider hurting animals have no problem eating them? A recent study from the University of Kent points to a possible answer.

The study’s abstract notes that many people “enjoy eating meat but disapprove of harming animals.” How do they resolve this dilemma?  According to researchers, “One resolution to this conflict is to withdraw moral concern from animals and deny their capacity to suffer.”  To test this possibility, subjects in the study were instructed to “eat dried beef or dried nuts and then indicate their moral concern for animals and judge the moral status and mental states of a cow.” The result?

“Eating meat reduced the perceived obligation to show moral concern for animals in general and the perceived moral status of the cow. It also indirectly reduced the ascription of mental states necessary to experience suffering. People may escape the conflict between enjoying meat and concern for animal welfare by perceiving animals as unworthy and unfeeling.”

The study was conducted by Dr. Steve Loughnan, Research Associate at the University’s School of Psychology. According to Dr. Loughnan, “Some people do choose to stop eating meat when they learn that animals suffer for its production. An overwhelming majority do not. Our research shows that one way people are able to keep eating meat is by dampening their moral consideration of animals when sitting at the dinner table.”

Essentially, meat-eaters want to avoid the cognitive dissonance of both caring about animal suffering while simultaneously contributing to that suffering. To accomplish this they rely on that old standby known as denial. People and the societies they create are great deniers. It makes cruelty and injustice so much easier, especially when it comes to animals. The livestock industry denies that farm animals are anything more than protein sources. Whalers deny whales are really mammals. Scientists experimenting on animals deny that their subjects feel pain. Pretty much anyone involved with the exploitation of non-human animals makes denial a lifestyle.

I have to admit I lived the bulk of my life engaging in the kind of denial revealed in the University of Kent study. My feelings of squeamishness about eating meat went out the window if someone placed, say, a hamburger in front of me.  I forced myself into a state of moral ignorance, allowing myself to forget that I was consuming something that was formerly a living, breathing animal with an individual personality and feelings. Yet, for me at least, this couldn’t go on forever, and I could fool myself no longer. So I became a vegetarian, negating the Meat Paradox once and for all.

Giving up meat can be hard, but is it better to give up your morals?

Photo Credit: Andy Wright