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On the psychology of eating meat and the meat paradox:

One question examined in the psychology of eating meat has been termed the meat paradox: how can individuals care about animals, but also eat them? Internal dissonance can be created if people's beliefs and emotions about animal treatment do not match their eating behavior, although it may not always be subjectively perceived as a conflict. This apparent conflict associated with a near-universal dietary practice provides a useful case study for investigating the ways people may change their moral thinking to minimize discomfort associated with ethical conflicts.

The dissonance that arises out of the meat paradox generates a negative interpersonal state, which then motivates an individual to find the means to alleviate it. Recent studies in this area suggest that people can facilitate their practices of meat eating by attributing lower intelligence and capacity for suffering to meat animals, by thinking of these animals as more dissimilar to humans, by caring less about animal welfare and social inequality, and by dissociating meat products from the animals they come from.


How do we make sense of the meat paradox? How do we resolve it?

At Futilitarian's behest, I append my own thoughts on the question.

  • We care about animals — I haven't seen anyone strike/kill an animal for fun. Some of us have even started animal rights organizations like RSPCA and PETA.

  • We do not care about animals — We have abattoirs at scales that are inhumane even to the most hardened souls out there.

This is essentially what the meat paradox is. So, do we care about animals or not?


Addendum: The Jains, if reports are accurate, are not just vegan, but selective vegan or, as I like to call them, super vegan — they don't eat seeds (that would be eating plant fetuses), and they don't eat root plants (eating roots means killing the plants).

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Dec 23, 2022 at 11:48
  • Well I once killed a raven or was it a crow... We are just as animals as other animals, just superior to them... Commented Dec 24, 2022 at 19:07
  • @GeoffreyThomas I only contributed a single comment to this thread, and I believe it was either the first or the second one. Why did you banish my comment to the cornfield? I did not engage in any prohibited conduct on this site. I made one single on-topic comment and did not reply back to anyone else. Heavy-handed moderation is no moderation at all.
    – user4894
    Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 3:44
  • @user4894. When comments reach a limit of 20, they are moved to Chat. This is a site rule. It was not an arbitrary decision on my part. Nor is there any suggestion that there was anything wrong with your comment. Best - Geoffrey.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 9:05

7 Answers 7

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Humans are irrational. There are countless examples of individual behaviour that shows inconsistency of beliefs. Christians condemn murder, but many will quite happily support the idea of war. People say they care about climate change but continue to behave in a ways that contribute to it. People who want to lose weight continue to over-eat. People are concerned about road safety but continue to break speed limits. People condemn adultery but have affairs. I am sure you can extend this list with very little effort.

Eating meat is in principle no different to the examples I have listed.

Some people don't love animals and eat meat. Some people love some animals and happily eat others. Some people profess to love animals but eat them anyway. Some people think it is OK to eat some animals provided that they are not mis-treated up to the point of slaughter. Some people make statements about 'loving animals' without putting any real thought into what they are saying. Some people love animals and on principle will not eat them. Some people are vegetarian or vegan for reasons that have nothing to do with the question of whether they love animals- for health reasons, say, or because they are concerned by the fact that meat-farming is a big contributor to climate change. Given that, the resolution of the so called 'meat paradox' is that it is not a paradox but a common example of the tendency of humans to behave in ways that are inconsistent with their stated beliefs.

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    Would suggest amending "because they think meat-eating is a big contributor to climate change". Meat-eating is a big contributor to climate change. What's subjective is whether people feel strongly enough to do anything about that.
    – thosphor
    Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 14:10
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    Some big false equivalencies here, especially at the top.
    – user10479
    Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 20:21
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    Killing enemy soldiers in wartime is not considered murder. Commented Dec 23, 2022 at 1:53
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    @HamSandwich by whom is it not considered murder, and why? That is my point. There are certainly people who do consider it murder. Commented Dec 23, 2022 at 7:14
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    @HamSandwich Whether killing enemy soldiers in wartime is considered "murder" depends a lot on your definition of murder, whether we're talking about legality or ethics, who's considered the aggressor in the conflict and whether you view it from the perspective of the soldier following order / "serving their country" (and whether they chose to enlist) or from the perspective of those giving the orders. Unjustified killing of others (as a result of an unprovoked invasion) fits a reasonable definition of "murder", but more importantly, it would be pretty hard to argue that it's moral.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Dec 23, 2022 at 10:13
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There is no necessity for a solution because there is no paradox. This falsely called "paradox" is just a misinterpreted and biased statement, sustained by fallacies and political arguments:

how can individuals care about animals, but also eat them

  1. It is viced with the unrepresentative sample fallacy. Let's express it in an equivalent way: if you love/care for plants, how can you eat plants? or If you love/care for things, how can you eat things? The universe of animals/things you love/care is not the universe of animals/thing you eat.
  2. It falsely assumes that loving/caring is opposite to eating, and that's not necessarily so. I love french fries and I eat them. I care for them (get them as crispy as possible), etc. You want an example with living things? I eat sesame seeds, love it with salt. And if you plant them, they grow. They are alive, I love them and I eat them.
  3. The meaning of love/care is biased: love/care for animals implies using them for our egotistic goals. Otherwise, hope all that people saying they love animals don't have dogs, hope them get free right now (love as agape). Love for animals is not the same as erotic love (otherwise we should have sex with our cats because we love them, love as eros). You wouldn't save your dog before your grandpa/son/friend/neighbor from falling off of a cliff (love as philia/storge); etc.
  4. Love can mean to eat somebody/some-animal you care for: such interpretation of love is portrayed by Patrick Suskind's Parfum: at the end of the book, people eat the protagonist out of love. Yanomamis eat their dead people, etc.
  5. The argument is a political predicate about the benefits of a vegetarian/vegan/etc. diet. It can therefore be politically reversed, based on the previous clarifications, by the opposition: If you love/care for animals, how can't you eat them? (which would be the perfect, precise and logical outcome for such love). In different words: if animals were not exploitable for humans in any way (even providing ecological balance, which serves for our interests), then they would be considered a plague, so they should be all killed; but since they are means to our ends, since they are profitable, we love/care for them. The true fact is that we love animals because we can eat them, wear them, ride them, kill and sell them in parts, have them as guards, chaperons, have them as pets, have them as pictorial models, make them protect the environment we need to survive (and kill those who risk our survival), etc. We factually love animals because we eat them.
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    You focus a lot on the word "love", which isn't used in the original quote at all. If you consider "care about animals", as per the original quote, and in the way most people care about animals, then #2-#4 won't apply. #1 might address the facts of reality, but not the moral argument. #5 is just a very weird argument. We don't go around murdering everything we can't exploit, "we love animals because we can [use] them" makes very little sense (that's just a baseless assertion) and your argument fails to account for the fact that we have caring feelings towards some wild animals.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 16:15
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    "we love animals because we can eat them, wear them, ride them, kill and sell them in parts, have them as guards" - I don't love / care about carrots that I can eat, a shirt I can wear, a bike I can ride, ore that can be "killed" and sold in parts and the walls that guard me, in the way that most people love animals. So where's the logic in saying we "love" them "because" we're able to, and do, do those things to animals?
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 16:53
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    @NotThatGuy, I like your style. May be it's some kind of fatal attraction!? Jokes aside, like we look back at our slaver ancestors, just a few centuries in the past, and despondently ask "how could they have done that to another human being?", will our descendants ask the same question of us and how we treat animals?
    – Hudjefa
    Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 20:10
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    @wizzwizz4 We (most of us) live in largely capitalist democracies. The way to "modify our environment" given that, is to modify our conduct to drive the market (if there's a greater demand for meat replacement products, supply should rise to meet those demands, and bigger industries tend to be more efficient, i.e. cheaper), and/or we should vote (and convince others to do the same). In any case, how would you feel about someone saying we should "modify our environment" instead of them choosing to free the slaves they own?
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Dec 23, 2022 at 1:40
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    This answer would be no different if it was about filial cannibalism.
    – tejasvi
    Commented Dec 24, 2022 at 4:52
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I'm joining the other answers in stating that the so-called "meat paradox" isn't a paradox. Rather, it's an example of the logical fallacy of all or nothing thinking.

I strongly disagree with the false dichotomy near the end of the original post: "We care about animals" vs. "We don't care about animals." "[Do] we care about animals or not?"

"John cares about animals" and "John eats meat" are not logically inconsistent or mutually exclusive statements.

It's not the case that people care about animals or not. There are degrees of caring. Some people may have no compunction at all to animal slaughter. Others may believe it's acceptable, provided the animals are raised in a natural setting and killed humanely. Some people may care for some animals (e.g. mammals) more than others (e.g. insects or fish). Some may accept the practice of slaughter when it meets a practical need for food, but object to animal cruelty for sadism's sake.

Human desires can be in conflict with each other. Some people may care about animals and want to minimize their suffering, yet be bothered by hunger that plant sources don't seem to satiate. So they may try to compromise and satisfy both desires to a certain, imperfect amount. They may try to reduce the amount of meat they eat or purchase meat from local, humane sources. They may eat meat just twice a week instead of every day, with a goal to reduce that further. They may avoid restaurants or fast food chains that try to buy meat as cheaply as possible, and instead prepare more meals at home where they have a more control over sourcing and waste.

Some people may recognize and even accept some animal suffering their diet creates, but try to "offset" that by giving money to animal shelters or sanctuaries. This is not a paradox. It's an attempt to reduce their "footprint" when they don't feel they are able to eliminate it completely.

Some people may care about animal suffering, yet feel eating meat is "natural" or even sanctioned by God. They may accept a certain amount of suffering, but disagree when animal suffering exceeds their idea of a certain threshold. They may care enough about animal welfare that they feel guilt for eating meat, yet find that guilt less unpleasant than the gnawing hunger that plant sources alone doesn't end. They may find themselves in a situation where "the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak."

And sometimes people will stick their heads in the sand, trying not to dwell on the unpleasantness of animal slaughter, because they crave a cheeseburger so bad, yet don't want to face the suffering it causes. That may not be admirable behavior, but it's not a paradox. It's people trying to satisfy conflicting drives to varying degrees and in different ways.

Caring about animals is not an "either you do or don't" situation. There are degrees. You can care for some types of animals more than others, and you can despise some egregious practices more than others. Same for eating animal products. There are variations in the amount, types, and manner of acquiring those products that can express "caring" about animal welfare.

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  • I agree on the points you made, but doesn't the paradox then just bounce back like a Roly-Poly toy?
    – Hudjefa
    Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 16:20
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    @AgentSmith But that's still not a paradox, any more than the Trolley Problem is a paradox. It's just how you weight the relevance to you of different situations.
    – Graham
    Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 16:29
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Insofar as the word "paradox" is usually reserved for theoretical contradictions rather than practical hypocrisy, one imagines that the use of "paradox" to describe the relevant state of affairs will be complained about for pedantic reasons. Note that we do use "paradox" more in line with its literal etymology (para- for "deviant/weird/nonstandard" and -dox for "belief"), modulo some theoretical matters, though (e.g. with regards to Skolem's paradox).

On the philosophical level of explanation, then, though, one might refer to one horn of the theoretical dilemma of moral dilemmas. Some ethicists interpret moral dilemmas as cases where people are being commanded to enact a contradiction, which is prima facie absurd. However, other ethicists interpret moral dilemmas in such a way as to deny the principle, called "agglomeration," that extracts a technical contradiction from dilemmatic premises. Even more alternatively, one could go so far as to claim that contradictions can be true. Perhaps, then, a paraconsistent or dialethic kind of attitude is, or could be, in play, here.

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  • Gracias @Kristian Berry for the answer - your erudition on the subject shines forth from the formal and technical language you have so graciously chosen to employ. You touched upon a matter that I've, only briefly and very superficially, discussed with people who're interested in philosophy on other fora viz. that we're probably using some version of paraconsistent/dialetheic logic in our lives. That said, I feel it's too early to say that the meat paradox or other paradoxes are true paradoxes - we could be missing an important clue here, a clue that once found will clear up the confusion.
    – Hudjefa
    Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 13:34
  • @AgentSmith, I might myself be an outright hypocrite in this case. I am a vegetarian for animal-rights reasons, but I work at a fast-food restaurant and try to be hyperefficient at my job. And despite my familiarity and sympathy with dialethism, I am not actually a dialethist. So I am sensitive to the meat paradox pretty acutely, and I wonder how I might redeem myself down the road... Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 14:37
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Marco's answer does a good job of explaining why this "paradox" exists as a fact of reality.

But this could also be seen as a rational/moral argument for how one should personally act.

Some people consider pets to be part of their family (to varying degrees), and are disgusted at the thought of anyone harming their pet, or any other pet. Or someone might post a picture or video of an animal suffering, and a whole lot of people would feel sorry for the animal, try to stop that suffering and celebrate when it stops.

Many of these same people don't have too much of a problem with animals being killed to be able to eat their flesh, and also don't have too much of a problem with those animals being raised in the atrocious conditions on factory farms leading up to this (if they had a sufficient problem with it, they'd oppose, or at least avoid supporting, that industry, which most people don't do).

One could say one cares about these animals, but not those. But one would need a differentiating criteria between those groups of animals that justifies the different treatments, otherwise one wouldn't be consistent (which is an important part of rationality). One could also go one step further and question the differentiating criteria between humans and (other) animals.

Failing to find such a differentiating criteria would be a "paradox" in the sense of holding contradictory beliefs. That should lead to the discomfort of cognitive dissonance, and the only way to really resolve that is to:

  • Find a rebuttal (which one only needs to consider to be sufficient, regardless of whether it's actually a good counter-argument - the emotional appeal of our beliefs may cloud our ability to accurately evaluate an argument relating to it) or
  • Change your beliefs, i.e. admit that you don't really care about animals beyond the emotional pleasure they can provide you, or stop using/consuming animal products (to the extent that is feasible).
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  • On target, that's what a reasonable person would/should do. Yes Marco's answer is a good one. Also noteworthy is "differentiating criteria" (your words).
    – Hudjefa
    Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 20:15
  • "and also have no problem with those animals being raised in the atrocious conditions on factory farms leading up to this." Those are many many fewer. It's a strawman and false equivalency.
    – user10479
    Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 20:23
  • @10479, aren't tens of billions of chickens, cows, and pigs killed for meat every year? That would seem hard to achieve with free-range farming. This article says that 300,000,000 baby male chickens are "culled" annually in the US, six billion worldwide. The videos of the process I've seen showed them being diverted into an industrial grinder. Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 20:31
  • @10479 Fair enough, I should've said they don't have enough of a problem with it to take any action against the animal cruelty on farms, and not even to refrain from taking actions themselves to support that industry, nor to speak up against it to any notable degree (of course some people do demonstrably oppose that, but most people don't).
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 20:42
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    You may find these articles apposite @KristianBerry. Here. And How many
    – Rushi
    Commented Dec 24, 2022 at 5:47
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Rule of thumb in my opinion

The thing is that you care about someone, when you look into their eyes (sometimes metaphorically). And you eat/kill someone when you close your eyes to it's existential importance.

The saviour predator vidoes / Natural tendency

Every living being has a natural tendency to love other living beings.

Future

Imagine 50 years from now, no animal getting killed as all the meat is grown in labs. People will still eat meat. They don't have nothing to do with the killing, they just want to eat food. If we were not supposed to eat meat, we wouldn't have been able to digest it in first place. If we weren't supposed to care about animals we wouldn't have been so empathatic for other species.

Generalization

It's not just humans, it's everywhere. Nobody** kills for fun, except some stupid humans.

**(Some animals kill because of their prey drive, which is their natural instinct)

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    "Nobody kills for fun", said no cat owner ever. Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 21:12
  • @gndps I would've hoped (bio)technology to have made a (moral/ethical) difference
    – Hudjefa
    Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 21:22
  • lol.. I think it might not be just for fun.. the cat probably just wanna gift it to you
    – user63912
    Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 21:40
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    @candied_orange Also foxes. There's a reason "fox in the henhouse" is a phrase, because foxes famously will kill everything just for the fun of it, even if they only want at most one chicken. Also many other opportunistic predators like crocodiles.
    – Graham
    Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 21:50
  • hmm.. interesting!
    – user63912
    Commented Dec 22, 2022 at 22:17
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The problem is in definition of love.

We love things that are in some way beneficial to us. Things that give us pleasure. It's that simple.

I love a particular flute player. Listening to his flute playing gives me pleasure. Would I love him if he has never played flute or if I don't find pleasure in listening to flutes?

Now suppose that the flute player stop playing flute. Would I still love him? Yes, because thinking about him recall my memory of pleasurable times. If I get amnesia and totally forget about him, AND he don't play flute any more, will I still love him? The answer is No. Think about elders with amnesia that forget about their kids and therefore no longer love them except when they have memory comebacks for short periods of time.

Do we love rats? No. They are not benefical to us. They spread diseases and ruin our crops and destroy stored food. Do we love cockroaches?

Do we love our kids when they are young? Yes because we are hopeful they will be of benefit to us when they grow old, and they are of benefit to us right then. Their silly little things give us pleasure. When they grow old and yet do not benefit us, that is, in their teen years, they are not very much loved by us, not as much as when they were kids and not as much when later they start supporting us in our elderly years.

Consider having a surprise view of wild horses in a safari you are taking as compared to a surprise view of wild zebras. Which one make you happy? It's the horses. Why? because horses are of enormous potential benefit to us, and zebras are of very little benefit to us.

There is a difference between raising animals for eating (or selling to be eaten by others) and raising them for company. Horse Riders don't eat their horses when they die. They bury them like they bury their relatives. I once asked a farm boy how can he eat the animal he himself has raised? He answered that animals raised to be eaten are raised differently than ones that are raised for company. One difference is they are not named. Another is, not much time is spent with them beyond what's necessary for feeding and cleaning them. They are not raised for company.

I buy an expensive cell phone to impress my friends and to run software that I cannot run on a cheaper cell phone. I love my cell phone as long as it work its intended (by me) work. Now suppose it got broken and I can no longer impress my friends with it or run software on it. It still works excellently as a ruler and as a paper weight. Would I still love it? No. I may even throw it away once I am sure it cannot be repaired and I cannot get enough money by selling it in scrap to do the effort of selling it in scrap.

If the cell phone had worked for me for a while, suppose I have met my love of life on some app I ran on it, then may be I have sentimental feelings for it. Enough love for my broken cell phone to not throw it away or sale it in scrap.

[Its my first post here. Is it okay to not cite any sources? I have seen others answers that don't. Whats the standard?]

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  • "Do we love our kids when they are young? Yes because we are hopeful they will be of benefit to us ... in their teen years, they are not very much loved by us" - that... that's a very concerning view of parental love, that most parents would almost certainly strongly object to.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Dec 24, 2022 at 18:15
  • Feeling of love is not a constant, it rise and fall. When your daughter make you morning tea you love her more than when she stay out passed midnight when you forbid it. One thing bring you pleasure, other bring you pain. Guess what you love and what you not. Granted there is a core amount of love one has for one's kids and for all blood relatives, beyond that core love there is no constant, never changing, amount. Love rise and fall, nobody can deny this, you concerned or not.Nobody will show here he downvote but for disagreeing with this is ridiculous.
    – Atif
    Commented Dec 25, 2022 at 8:06

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