Brock Bastian is an Associate Professor in the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne. His work is concerned with ‘motivated morality’, the motivated reasoning that leads some things to be excluded from one’s sphere of moral concern while others are included. Brock and colleagues invented the concept of the ‘meat-paradox,’ showing that our perception of an animal’s moral qualities, including their sentience, is fundamentally motivated by whether or not we choose to eat them.
Brock’s studies have been reviewed in leading news outlets such as Time Magazine, Huffington Post, Economist, New Scientist, Scientific American, CNN, ABC, Globe and Mail, The New Yorker and New York Magazine. Brock’s innovative approach to research has been acknowledged with the Wegner Theoretical Innovation Prize, and his presentations have been included on the ABC Radio National Big Ideas podcast.
In this Q&A the Charter for Animal Compassion asks Brock about the psychology of the meat paradox, including how our moral perception is affected by the consumption of animals.
Charter: What is the ‘meat paradox’?
BB: The meat paradox describes the psychological conflict that people experience between their concerns for animal welfare and their enjoyment of eating meat. This paradox is amplified when the link between the act of meat-eating and the harm that the production of meat brings to animals is made salient; it represents a motivational state where people feel the need to resolve the conflict. They may do this by choosing to end their consumption of animals, or they may diminish or disengage from the harm to animals, allowing them to continue consuming meat but without the experience of conflict.
Charter: Is there evidence that we find it more troubling to eat animals that we perceive to be mindful and sentient?
BB: Our research shows that people tend to see the animals they eat (e.g., chicken, pigs, cows) as less intelligent and less likely to experience emotional states than wild animals (e.g., lions, elephants, dolphins) or animals they keep as pets (e.g., cats or dogs). Of course, there is little evidence that animals used for meat-consumption are in fact less intelligent or emotional, or have a higher threshold for pain. As such, we argue that people change their perceptions of animal minds to align with their meat-eating practices. Our studies provide evidence for this, showing that just before eating a cow or just after eating a cow people are less likely to acknowledge that cows mental capacities or moral qualities.
Charter: What psychological strategies do we adopt to circumnavigate our empathy, and continue to consume mindful and sentient animals in the face of negative emotions?
BB: There are a number of strategies that might help us to reduce dissonance around eating mindful or sentient animals. The first, as I note above, is to simply deny that they are indeed all that mindful or sentient. Who really knows what a prawn experiences? We assume not much at all, but of course we have limited evidence for this. We certainly do know that pigs are probably as smart as dogs, but we don’t often think of pigs and dogs as equal in these ways. We may also justify our meat consumption by viewing it as natural (e.g., humans were made to eat meat), or normal (e.g., everyone does it), or as necessary (e.g., we need it as a source of protein).
Charter: What social strategies do we adopt to facilitate these psychological strategies?
BB: Our societies protect us from the uncomfortable truths of eating meat through a number of avenues. This may be in the form of placing meat abattoirs out of sight, instead offering us neatly packaged meat-products, or through placing meat at the centre of many culturally important events (e.g., the Thanksgiving Turkey, or Lamb on Australia day). This links the act of eating meat to a love of our own practices and traditions, and reduces questions over its ethical status. We may also deride those who chose not to eat meat, such as has long been the case for vegetarians or vegans; making them appear imbalanced and abnormal and thereby reinforcing our own choice to eat meat
Charter: How can we forge a more conscious and conscientious resolution to the meat paradox? (Does this mean giving up meat, or is there such a thing as conscious and conscientious carnivory?)
BB: I think there are many answers to this question. Our work focuses on uncovering the psychological processes that serve to reinforce our consumption of meat. Rather than allowing our minds or our societies to trick us into thinking we are okay with our choices, we can weigh them up more carefully. Once we become aware of how we do what we do, we might be able to make a more informed decision about what we think is ethically acceptable. I think there is an excellent ethical case for giving up meat altogether. I also think that if we all ate a lot less meat that some of the most abhorrent issues around meat-eating, such as the mass production of meat via factory farming processes (not to mention the significant environmental impact) might be reduced. Yet, there is no easy answer. For instance, some have raised the issue of the deaths of insects and mice incurred through the processes associated with grain harvesting. Whether this outweighs the moral impact of the meat-industry is up for debate (and is indeed hotly debated), but it certainly does suggest that there is no black or white in this scenario – the most we can do is be informed and not pull the wool over our eyes, or let others do the same.
FIND OUT MORE:
Visit Brock’s website: http://www.brockbastian.com/
Read Brock’s research: ‘The Psychology of Eating Animals’, Loughnan, S., Bastian, B., & Haslam, N. (2014). Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23, 104-108. (Link)
Read Brock’s research: ‘Resolving the Meat-Paradox: A Motivational Account of Morally Troublesome Behavior and Its Maintenance’, Bastian, B., & Loughnan, S. (2016). Personality and Social Psychology Review. (Link)