Learning Not To Care About Animals
Speciesism is the belief that one species is morally superior to another species for no justifiable reason. It is because of this belief that many people, at least in modern Western societies, find it acceptable to breed and kill certain animals for human consumption while finding the idea of doing the same thing to other animals morally unacceptable. The distinction is based, primarily, on a kind of moral hierarchy between members of different species, one which usually puts humans at the top.
While we can say with some confidence that speciesist views are widespread among the public, it is unclear how and when these views develop. A new study by researchers in the U.K. looks to shed some light on this question by comparing age differences in moral views regarding companion and farmed animals.
The study recruited 479 participants in three age groups: children aged 9-12, young adults aged 18-21, and adults aged 29-59. Participants were given five different speciesism-related tasks to complete. The participants were asked to say how strongly they agreed or disagreed with six statements about the treatment of animals, such as: “It is ok to buy and sell animals like belongings.” They were also shown a photo of one animal food product, one non-animal food product, one miscellaneous object, one animal typically used for animal agriculture (a pig, cow, or chicken), and one animal typically kept as a companion (a cat, dog, or hamster). From there, participants were asked to categorize each photo as either “food,” “pet,” or “object.” The next task asked participants to rate out of five how well different animals are treated by humans and how well they ought to be treated. Finally, participants were asked to say how morally permissible it is to eat animals and their products.
The authors learned that young adults and adults demonstrated very similar levels of speciesism. However, children aged 9-12 were much less likely to exhibit speciesist views and less likely to see humans as worthy of better treatment than non-human animals. For example, the children said that pigs and humans ought to be treated equally well, while they believed dogs should be treated better than both humans and pigs. They were also significantly more likely to categorize farmed animals as “pets” instead of “food” and were less likely to say that eating animals or animal products was morally acceptable. Meanwhile, young adults and adults typically categorized farmed animals as “food,” claimed that humans and dogs ought to be treated better than pigs, and felt it was more acceptable to consume animals and their products.
The researchers also looked at how categorizing farmed animals as food related to other moral views. Perhaps unsurprisingly, among young adults and adults, the belief that farmed animals were “food” was correlated with the belief that humans ought to treat them less well, and that it’s acceptable to eat them. Likewise, these beliefs were also correlated with stronger degrees of speciesism. While this study did not seek to determine the causal link among these findings, other research suggests that eating animals leads people to a more speciesist outlook, perhaps in an effort of ‘moral gymnastics’ to justify their consumption of animals.
Interestingly, no correlation was found between categorizing animals as food and other speciesist views among the 9-12 year age group. This means that there was no relationship between the children thinking that animals were food and how they thought those animals should be treated by humans.
This study suggests that views about the moral worth of non-human animals are formed in childhood, and that children are more likely to accept that non-human animals are worthy of moral consideration. At some point in adolescence, people learn to see animals as inferior to humans, perhaps to help them feel better about eating animals and using animal products. Activists and educators looking to tackle speciesism might aim their interventions at children to try to positively influence the development of values about the moral worth of non-human animals. However, further research is needed to show what kinds of interventions would be the most effective.
Finally, as the researchers point out, this study is focused exclusively on white participants from the United Kingdom. While the results are relevant to those outside the U.K., it will be important for future research to explore how these findings apply to people from other nations and cultures.