On why we eat certain animals and not others

Sophia Binz

A close up of a cow looking at the camera

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The consumption of meat is one of the most universal things among cultures on our planet. Consuming cooked meat, specifically, has even been found to be one of the decisive factors that sparked the development of the human brain and has turned us into the homo sapiens that we are today. Many of us assume that feasting on pork chops, tender chicken breast or beef steak is only natural and even necessary for us. The truth is, the answer to this question is much more complicated than one might think. The truth is also, consuming meat in the way we do today in industrialized nations, namely in a manner of mass production, has next to nothing to do with how the first homo sapiens ate animals. Yet, eating meat is still the cultural norm in most countries. It is so normal, that most people do not realize it is in fact an ideology in itself. It is also common knowledge that Vegetarianism and Veganism are societal and culinary ideologies that have gained momentum, especially in the last 10 years, and have built a vocal opposition to meat eaters. Abstaining from eating meat (and other products derived from animal bodies) is clearly seen as an ideology and often criticized as one that is too vocal and its proponents too evangelizing. However, the belief system behind eating animals is what has been termed ‘Carnism’ and refers to the practice of eating certain animals but not others. A really striking aspect of modern human meat consumption is its contradiction of behavior towards different animal species. The total indifference toward some animal species –  those that are determined to become someone’s meal – as opposed to the endless love and adoration for other species, for instance those who have been domesticated into companion animals and pets is contradictory. 

The theory behind Carnism provides some answers to this evident paradox of human behavior. Melanie Joy, author of “Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows” has laid out different mechanisms of how humans apply a lower moral and ethical standard to the slaughtering and eating of some animals than to others and, frankly, to most other circumstances in life. One of those mechanisms is denial. Joy defines it as the first defense mechanism of carnism. Denial relies on the invisibility of the problem itself. As long as Carnism is not identified as a belief system, but rather portrayed as something normal, the awareness that it is a choice and not an obligatory behavior to adhere to, is ignored. 

The second defense mechanism is justification. It is based on the premise that eating meat is ‘Normal, Natural and Necessary’. This carnistic defense is deeply internalized in society. As long as the myths about the irreplaceable nutritious value and health benefits of meat remain strong in media and popular science, this defense mechanism will be hard to overcome. Of course, this justification is enabled by the industry itself, since meat consumption is a highly lucrative business. The money and influence that the industry has gained in the last decade has been poured into the lobbying of political decision makers. This, in turn, facilitates the mass production and cheap distribution of meat, ever-perpetuating the cycle of consumption and justification. 

Finally, cognitive distortions enable us humans to ignore our moral values and ethical beliefs about how living beings should be treated when it comes to animals that are being slaughtered for meat. For instance, pigs and chicken are being viewed as objects in our society, compared to dogs who are portrayed as individual beings with personality. These cognitive distortions help us to veil our perceptions in regards to those animals, which is vital for us to feel comfortable while we essentially violate our own moral standards by consuming those animal products. 

The unveiling of Carnism as an ideology answers pressing questions about why humans so readily mistreat and slaughter certain animals for food. However, the question remains why only some animals receive this treatment and others are seen as our friends. Looking at different cultures around the world, it becomes evident that the western tendency to mainly consume beef, pork, and chicken is not universal. In fact, almost everywhere we look, there is a harsh divide between animals that are determined to be food and those that we would not eat under any circumstances. Research on this phenomenon suggests that the reasons for why we eat certain animals are very arbitrary and are mostly grounded on randomness and cultural bias. 

Some reasons why our habits of eating meat have changed in the past are grounded in religious beliefs, famine, or elite influence. Take for example sushi, a dish based on raw fish. Eating raw fish is something that was unthinkable in the U.S. for a long time. Only elite branding has made this Japanese meal popular in the West in the last two decades. Another example is horse meat which has a history of flipping between being an unpopular dish – due to the nature of the close relationship between humans and horses- and being seen as a necessity during times of famine, to finally becoming prohibited due to Christian beliefs. 

In the end, like many of today’s pressing issues, this one is grounded in societal norms and deep-seated cultural habits. Once we rationally dissect the practice of eating animals, it becomes apparent that our choice of meat is most likely based on a random succession of historical events and has fluctuated in the past, based on external influences. This leaves us in a position of realizing that our current habits are not set in stone. As for the carnistic defense mechanisms, the same rule applies. Melanie Joy asserts that these defenses are powerful structures, as they distort our values so effectively. However, they are only powerful as long as they remain invisible. By recognizing them for what they are, we can more easily make conscious choices about what we eat and why we do it.

Sources: The Atlantic, Beyond Carnism, Juval Noah Harari, Our World in Data, Melanie Joy