Conservatism, Systems, And Animal Ethics
What is underlying peoples’ resistance to animal welfare and veganism? Political leaning has often been linked with friendliness or hostility to these concepts, but political leaning is itself a somewhat nebulous concept. In this paper, researchers look at the link between System Justification Theory and attitudes towards animals. General System Justification (GSJ) and Economic System Justification (ESJ) were both measured; these refer to an individual’s willingness to either change or preserve a current system. GSJ refers to the system in general, while ESJ refers specifically to economic institutions. High degrees of system justification are associated with being more conservative, and lower degrees with being more liberal.
Three studies were conducted. The first two (1a and 1b) were structured similarly; the only difference was in the participants. In study 1a, the pool consisted of over 2,000 American adults, most of whom were 65 or older and white. In study 1b, the pool consisted of 1500 American adults with a more even age distribution, though the vast majority were still white. Participants self-placed their political ideology (more liberal/more conservative) based on a few simple questions about general, social, and economic issues.
After that, their GSJ levels were measured through a questionnaire containing such statements as “In general, the American political system operates as it should,” which they were asked to rate their levels of agreement. ESJ levels were measured in a similar way, but with questions tailored to economics. Social Dominance Orientation (SDO) was also measured through a similar questionnaire. SDO refers to individuals’ level of support for egalitarianism or hierarchism. Finally, participants’ support for animal rights was measured by their agreement with the statement: “The rights of animals ought to be considered just as important as the rights of humans.” The researchers found that higher levels of conservatism, ESJ, GSJ, and anti-egalitarianism were all correlated with a lower degree of support for animal rights. However, they believed that having only one measure for support of animal rights may have influenced the results, so another study was conducted.
In study 2, 414 Americans were recruited online through Amazon’s MTurk system. People on MTurk tend to be younger, more liberal, less religious, less racially diverse, and more highly educated, though the researchers still believe it to be a representative sample of the American population. The mean age of participants was 35, and 77% were white. Around 10% of the participants were vegetarian or vegan. First, these participants self-reported their own political ideology and religiosity.
Afterwards, a questionnaire was given that asked specific social and economic questions to gauge their social and economic conservatism. Next, the same ESJ and GSJ questionnaires as in the prior studies were given. The main difference came in this next section, where participants’ support for animal rights was probed. Where the first studies had only one item, this one had 24, with 19 questions regarding animal welfare and six regarding speciesism. Finally, participants self-reported their meat consumption.
Similar to the first studies and other research, conservatism was negatively correlated with support for animal rights and positively correlated with speciesism. GSJ and ESJ fared similarly. However, the researchers found that after adjusting for the mediator, self-reported conservatism was not linked with support or resistance of animal welfare or speciesism. ESJ, though, still was. Self-reported conservatives also tended to eat more meat than liberals or centrists.
The researchers conclude that the link between conservativism and resistance to animal rights does exist, and that system justification, in particular, is a strong predictor. However, they caution that causal relationships cannot be drawn from this study, and concede that it is limited in virtue of surveying Americans only. In other cultures, conservatives may be more friendly to animal rights. India, for example, has seen right-wing Hindu nationalist attacks on Muslims and Christians suspected of cattle slaughter, and halal slaughter has caused tension in majority-Buddhist Sri Lanka.
The lesson for animal advocates is, as always, to make an effort to tailor messages based on the intended recipients. While progressives may be receptive to messaging concerning the environment, health, or compassion, conservatives might react better to campaigns regarding localism or respect for history. Factory farming takes control of the food supply away from local communities, and the scale of animal agriculture today would be unimaginable to our agrarian ancestors. No one message is going to be universally well-received; we need to figure out what languages are most effective for various groups and personalize messages to be as effective as possible.