Ethics, Social Norms, And Eating Animals
What is right and what is normal are often at odds, even when most people agree that what is normal is ethically wrong. This seems like a paradox – if everyone is aware that something is wrong, wouldn’t they simply change their behavior? It turns out to be more complex than that.
Many people may agree that something is wrong in one way, but beneficial, necessary, or pleasant in another. In addition, people may be ignorant as to the commonality of their beliefs – everyone may think something is wrong, but not be aware that others think the same way.
Animal agriculture is one area in which this paradox presents itself, and this paper seeks to find the reasons why it continues and how we can change. The author argues that we have been looking at the problem the wrong way – as one of personal choice rather than collective coordination.
We have generally accepted that the way to end the factory farm system is to personally choose to go vegetarian or vegan, or even just to buy non-factory farmed animal products. In theory, this would be enough; a decline in demand results in a decline in supply. However, there are numerous psychological barriers to widespread behavioral change, largely related to the fact that animal agriculture and consumption is a social norm.
For the purposes of this paper, a norm is a practice or belief that is widespread within a society, and from which deviation is discouraged or punished. In addition, part of the reason a norm is encouraged and deviation discouraged is the fact that it is normal. Norms can be further divided into descriptive and social norms. Descriptive norms are those norms which people conform to on the condition that most of their peers conform to them. Social norms are those which are followed on the condition that most of their peers conform to them and most of their peers believe they should conform to them.
Descriptive norms are self-enforcing: driving on the right side of the road is a descriptive norm in America, and the punishment for deviating is a car accident. Social norms are not enforceable in the same way – the reward is dependent on people’s attitudes. In much of the United States, being tan is a social norm – we view people with tanned skin as healthier and more active than their pale peers. In parts of Asia, however, pale skin is in vogue, and people go to great lengths to lighten their skin tone. The rewards and punishments related to the norms of skin tone are completely dependent on the culture’s general belief.
The author argues that animal consumption is powered by both descriptive and social norms. As a society, we generally believe that eating meat is necessary, natural, and/or pleasurable. But above all, we view it as normal. People who deviate from the norm and choose to abstain from meat or other animal products are viewed as being abnormal.
It can be hard to join an abnormal group. Not only is there social pressure from friends, family members, and romantic partners to conform, but society is structured in a way that can make it difficult – many parts of the US lack the resources for their residents to go vegetarian or vegan. The normalcy of animal consumption may convince people with doubts about its ethical nature that their concerns aren’t widely shared. After all, if everybody’s doing it, everyone must be okay with it, right?
The author believes that this uphill battle can be won by fighting norms with norms. Most societies have a norm regarding harm: “we generally should not harm something if we can avoid doing so.” People who trend more liberally may be receptive to arguments from the norm of fairness: “we should treat animals like we’d want humans to be treated.” More conservative people may be convinced by the norms of loyalty or national superiority: “we are a more advanced country for treating animals well.”
Success in changing a norm hinges on shared group beliefs and confidence that others will act similarly. People need to be convinced that they won’t be alone in their change, and that deviation from the norm won’t be punished. Furthermore, they need to be part of a coordinated information campaign to normalize their behavior. This is where animal advocates come in; we need to coordinate our actions and provide a “normalcy network” for people seeking to reduce harm.
The paper emphasizes that collective action is required for any major societal change, though sometimes it begins to veer into being dismissive of the effects of individuals. Still, few if any individuals operate in a social vacuum – most of us have friends, family, and coworkers who notice our behavior. One person changing their behavior may act like a domino, encouraging others to follow suit. If enough dominos fall, then an actual movement may form around them. While one person acting alone cannot do everything themselves, they can be a catalyst for group action. Of course, animal advocates shouldn’t be dismissive of those who decide to make personal changes; we should welcome them as potential changemakers, as we keep in mind larger social dynamics.