How Eating Meat Becomes A Moral Issue: Push And Pull
While some philosophers would argue that every action has a degree of morality, this belief is not shared by the vast majority of people. “Amoral” actions, such as what color shirt to wear or whether to have coffee or tea, exist in contrast to ones that have been moralized – whether to steal or not, whether to brake for a squirrel that jumps in front of your car, or whether to cheat on your spouse. We can clearly state that there are right and wrong options in these situations, while the former situations come down to personal preference.
Many people consider diet to fall in the “amoral” category, even in the case of meat eating. How do animal advocates convince people to view their food through the context of morality?
The researchers in these studies hypothesized a push-pull model of moralization (PPMM), in which certain factors would push people towards moralizing an action while others would pull them back towards amorality. Some of these “pull” factors include the desire to conform, as well as any pleasurable effects of the action. Some of the “push” factors include moral piggybacking, in which a currently amoral issue is related to one that is already seen as moral – in the case of eating meat, drawing attention to the fact that killing is generally seen as wrong. Another factor is our emotional response to an action: some studies have shown that belief that smoking is morally wrong is more strongly associated with a feeling of disgust towards smoking than any other factor.
The first study was conducted with Canadian university students in a mandatory psychology class. Throughout the course, the professor would sprinkle in anti-meat messages, as well as assign papers and projects related to the ethics of eating meat. At three points in the semester, students would be polled as to their emotional responses to eating meat, their level of agreement that eating meat causes animal suffering, their level of moral piggybacking regarding meat, and the perceived tastiness of meat.
The researchers found that emotional reactions, moral piggybacking, and perceived tastiness all had significant effects on moralization – the former two pushing, the latter pulling. No demographic differences were noted, and moralization was found to increase at a relatively constant rate.
The second study was conducted in roughly the same manner as the first, but with participants pulled from an American survey research firm rather than a class. The idea was that, since the previous survey took place in a class, it’s possible that students were answering in a way that they believed their professor would want, rather than their actual thoughts. This study would remove this motivation, and perhaps result in more honest responses.
The questionnaires presented in the second study were similar to those in the first, but had an additional section regarding participants’ willingness to change their own behavior regarding meat-eating. The results were similar to those of the first study, with emotional responses, moral piggybacking, perceived suffering of animals, and perceived tastiness all having an effect on moralization; the former three pushed, while the latter pulled.
Moral piggybacking and emotional responses proved the most significant factors. The researchers found that women were more likely to moralize than men, but no other demographic differences were found. In addition, individuals who moralized more were more likely to change their behavior regarding meat-eating.
The third study was conducted in a similar way to the first two, but with some minor changes and additions. Firstly, every question was asked at every interval – in the other tests, some questions were asked at some intervals, but not others. In addition, participants’ level of agreement with the Harm-Care Moral Foundation was judged – how much they already find issues of suffering to be moral in nature. More potential “pull” factors were polled as well, such as pressure to conform and beliefs about human nature. Finally, the participant pool was limited to people who indicated that they were frequent meat-eaters and did not consider eating meat to be a moral issue at all.
The results remained relatively the same as prior studies: moral piggybacking and emotional responses were the main factors pushing people to moralize, and perceived taste was the main “pull” factor. More demographic differences were found in this study compared to the others: older, female, white, religious participants were more likely to moralize than others, but no difference was found in socioeconomic status or political ideology.
For animal advocates, this research could prove invaluable. By showing what factors in particular lead people to believe eating meat is immoral, we can prioritize the areas with greatest effect. We should focus on connecting animal consumption to issues that people already find immoral such as causing unnecessary harm and polluting the environment. In addition, we should attempt to elicit emotional responses to meat that push people away from consumption, such as disgust and guilt.
Finally, the main factor that appears to be holding people back is the taste of meat. We can combat this by promoting vegan diets that are rich in flavor and texture, as well as emphasizing the potential of lab-grown “clean” meat. By focusing our efforts in the most-successful areas, we can enact more change with fewer resources.