Why Is It So Hard To Think Straight About Animals? A Dive Into Speciesism
Our relationship with animals in the developed world is drastically different than it was a century ago. Today, there are a multitude of reasons as to why we view each animal species differently, and it’s important to understand these reasons in order to not only understand how our morality can evolve, but also to understand how to effectively communicate and address the root causes. Recently, an article published in the journal Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, summarized the strongest indicators associated with our attitudes, beliefs, and actions towards other animals in detail.
Today, we’re seeing momentum in terms of a rise in interest and adoption of vegetarianism and veganism, a flood of controversy surrounding factory farming, and the beginning of a recognition of how animal agriculture is related to today’s environmental woes. According to the authors, one reason to be optimistic or hopeful for the future is that changes in our beliefs and attitudes in animal rights are part of the formula necessary to see advancement across all groups. Of course, there is reason to be cautious; just because society reaches consensus on the importance of one animal, that does not mean that consensus is achieved across all animal groups.
The authors also discuss how our tendency to care for a species is dependent on humans’ experiences with and treatment of that species in society, i.e. the level of speciesism that animal experiences. For instance, because an animal used in agriculture is systematically converted into food products, that may lead the consumer to view them as having a reduced mental capacity or a lack of an ability to suffer and experience complex sentience. This is an example of how people justify meat-eating behavior and the harm done to animals. Indeed, denying animals’ mental capacities and their ability to feel pain, makes it easier to continue harmful behaviors. Also the Stereotype Content Model predicts how cohesive humans are with animals depending on where they land in the matrix of low & high “warmth” and low & high “competence.” This model predicts how we believe perceived “low warmth” bears may be worth protecting due to their “high competence,” while rodents may be seen as not worth protecting due to their perceived “low warmth” and “low competence.”
The article also discusses how, not only does our social identification of animals come into play, but also our self-identification. In other words, if a person has an inclination towards discriminatory views, they are more likely to be speciesist as well. As reviewed in the article, those who holding beliefs that fall into right-wing authoritarianism (RWA, including the endorsement of conventional values and traditions, submission to authority, and hostility toward norm violators) are also more likely to support conventional practices that harm animals. They also have reservations or hostility to those that identify as vegetarian or vegan due to their perceived threats to values and norms. The article notes that there is evidence to believe that one reason that those who subscribe to conservative ideology eat meat more often could be the fact that meat reduction could be seen as counter to the economic interests of “Big Ag.”
In terms of what might be effective at elevating someone’s valuing of animals, the article makes the case that the more we’re able to increase empathy and understanding of a species’ intelligence, the more positive effects will be seen in the relationship with that species. Unfortunately, the inverse is also true: any cultural factors that decrease our empathy for certain species lead to negative material effects.
The last point to highlight, and potentially the most interesting, is the cognitive dissonance that exists in today’s society. Companies try to distance animal products from their industrial raising and slaughter processes, until we see the final clean and processed product in our stores. In one of the studies discussed in the article, the researchers found that when consumers are shown the animal they are eating, it increases their disgust with the meal and increases their empathy with animals. This is something advocates have known for some time, and there is now more evidence that this is the case.