Children Love Animals. Let’s Keep It That Way.
For centuries, ethicists have wrestled with the questions of our moral obligations towards animals and how we should choose which species are part of our moral circle. But how does the average person resolve these issues? Ethical conflicts arise when human and animal interests differ. Common examples include when we want to eat them or use them for entertainment. These conflicts have often been resolved using speciesism or anthropocentrism to justify certain actions. Humans are typically valued over animals, and predators are devalued if they cause economic harm to animals that we use such as cows.
To better understand children’s ethical development, researchers in this study created an experiment that allowed them to learn which animal attributes drive moral concern for animals. A total of 241 children aged six through 10, along with 152 adults, took part in the study. The children attended one of four schools in Lancashire, England, and participated in the study in person. The adults were recruited and completed the study online.
Tasks involved appraising animals on seven dimensions. These included intelligence, sentience (defined as pain perception), benevolence, edibility, aesthetics, special abilities such as flight, and similarity to humans. Participants also rank-ordered which animals they would save if medicine had to be rationed. The test set included eight mammals, two birds, two reptiles, two insects, a cephalopod, an arachnid, a shark, a jellyfish, and a worm.
Unsurprisingly, children and adults evaluated animals differently. Subjects of all ages valued animals for their aesthetic qualities, intelligence, and perceived similarity to humans. Younger children placed the highest value on aesthetics. They also valued benevolence more than adults or older children. Only older children and adults understood and valued animals as human food. Neither cohort of children understood the value of animal sentience.
Interestingly, adults viewed larger animals as more intelligent and correlated intelligence with pain capacity. Children, on the other hand, believed that larger animals experience less pain than smaller animals. Only the adults identified sentience in their calculus of what makes animals like humans and thus worthy of moral concern. Although subjects of all age groups typically ranked mammals at the top of their moral concern scale and invertebrates at the bottom, younger children ranked dogs over humans.
The results show how moral concern for animals changes as children develop. Children seem to consider a wider range of characteristics such as benevolence and physical appearance when evaluating how human-like an animal is. But as they get older, their considerations shift. They increasingly demonstrate a human-centric view of animals and their value. They start to absorb the cultural narratives of human supremacy and dominion.
This study suggests that, no matter their age, people place a higher value on animals perceived as more like humans. However, since younger children seem least prone to this bias, humane education to counter this narrative could start with them. Advocacy messaging could encourage children to see all animals as worthy of care, regardless of their perceived value or similarity to humans. With proactive interventions, children may be better equipped to resist the speciesism that permeates society.