The environment

Disgusting entities: on the moralising meat-eaters

In a much-viewed article published on the Guardian last week, Damian Carrington reported on a new study written up in the journal Science that suggests that refraining from meat and dairy products is the single most effective way of reducing our environmental impact. Consolidating data covering 38,700 farms and 1,600 processors, packaging types, and retailers, it’s purportedly the largest analysis of its kind ever undertaken.

Carrington’s article has attracted a vast number of comments (3,749 at last count). Many reveal their author’s sensitivity to the implications of the study, and hence the article: that eating animal products is unconscionable on environmental grounds, its impacts outstripping those of flying or driving a petrol-run car. The tone and direction of online comment threads is usually irreversibly set by the first commenter, in this case one Quaestor, who wrote: ‘There are a number of issues here, one of which is people’s natural reluctance – or indeed, refusal – to be told what to do. Speaking personally, I find self-righteousness unappealing to the point of outright rejection. The problem is, that the self-righteous are, on occasion, right.’

Even for an online comment, Quaestor’s presents us with a strange and misleading non sequitur. There is nothing remotely self-righteous about Carrington’s article. He is the Guardian’s environment editor, not an opinion columnist, and reports on the study in as even-handed a way as you could wish. At no point do the study’s authors, liberally quoted by Carrington, come across as pious. On the contrary, they speak measuredly about their findings, and, where they have changed their behaviour (one stopped consuming animal products during the research period) their tendency is to describe and explain rather than proselytise. So what is Quaestor, and many of the commenters who followed their lead, objecting to?

A clue can be found in the idea of ‘moralisation’, defined in a 1997 study by Paul Rozin, Maureen Markwith and Caryn Stoess as:

a rather common process … in which objects or activities that were previously morally neutral acquire a moral component. Moralization converts preferences into values, and in doing so influences cross-generational transmission (because values are passed more effectively in families than are preferences), increases the likelihood of internalization, invokes greater emotional response, and mobilizes the support of governmental and other cultural institutions.

According to Rozin, Markwith and Stoess, preferences and values shape our beliefs and behavior but values (and their violations) do so especially potently, leading to strong moral emotions like anger, contempt, disgust, guilt, and shame (hence the emotiveness of the comments on that Guardian article). Internalised, these values become central to the self in a way that preferences don’t.

Cigarette smoking is a good example. Once considered a morally neutral personal preference, it is now widely disapproved of due to the harm it causes to smokers, other people and the environment. Rozin, Markwith and Stoess describe this movement as a ‘hedonic shift’ whereby an object or activity (in our case, meat and its consumption) ‘changes from a liked to a disliked or even disgusting entity’.

Interestingly, however, the transformation of smoking from a preference into a value was not mirrored by a society-wide shift in attitudes towards the consumption of animal products even though the negative effects of both were first being brought to the public’s attention at around the same time during the 1970s. (In the United States today only 0.5 per cent of the population is vegan whereas around 75 per cent are non-smokers.) In fact, meat and dairy consumption is increasing, particularly in the developing world; by some estimates, by 2050 we will produce nearly twice as much meat as we do today.

Why did the moralisation of cigarettes succeed and that of meat stall? Rozin, Markwith and Stoess suggest that the difference may lie in the number of people who have come to view smoking as ‘both hedonically negative and disgusting’.

But I think the explanation is more complicated.

For one, the act of eating is culturally significant in a way that smoking is not. Central to our lives, both our consumption of and abstention from food has been throughout history a key vehicle for bonding among families, religions, and societies, often used to mark significant occasions.

There is also, I think, the sense that because we must eat to survive, the consumption of meat cannot be likened to inessential activities such as the various blood sports, which we largely condemn and refuse to take part in. Really, though, they are no more redundant than carnivorism – we need to eat, but we do not need to eat meat.

To continue to eat meat depends not on our biology but on our commitment to an idea that, if pushed, most of us would reject: that the spoliation of the natural world and the suffering of animals are less important than the gustatory pleasure we take in eating meat and dairy.

It is certainly not for want of reason that animal products continue to be widely regarded by individuals and institutions alike as morally acceptable (at least in moderation). The case against meat and dairy is, if anything, stronger than that against cigarettes, and getting stronger all the time as the full extent of animal suffering, environmental degradation, and cost to human health is exposed. Even on the grounds that smoking carries a special charge of immorality because it harms other people, the consumption of meat and dairy in fact measures up. As the philosopher Mylan Engel Jr points out in The Immorality of Eating Meat:

By not eating (or serving) meat we greatly reduce our chance of suffering a litany of debilitating diseases, we greatly reduce our children’s risk of suffering from these same diseases, and we, at least indirectly, help to reduce world hunger by reducing the demand for grain-fed meat, freeing up grain for humans. Thus, even if you were a speciesist who … only cared about human suffering, consistency with your other beliefs would still require you to stop eating meat.

According to Engel, the moral beliefs that may be necessary to prompt us to shift to a vegan diet – such as the idea that a world with less pain and suffering is preferable to a world with more pain and suffering, and that we ought to do what we reasonably can to avoid making the world a worse place – are already shared by most of us. Any moral (or even just what Engel calls a ‘minimally decent’) person would most likely take steps to prevent an act of animal cruelty happening on their street of the kind that goes on every day, at an almost incalculably greater scale, in the slaughterhouses that provide our meat. But contributing to ending the horrors of industrial animal farming does not require any such intervention – it merely requires us to refrain from consuming meat and dairy products.

It is this kind of cognitive dissonance that psychologist Jonathan Haidt characterises as a position of being ‘morally opposed but not behaviourally opposed’ to factory farming. ‘I love the taste of meat,’ Haidt wrote in The Happiness Principle, ‘and the only thing that changed after reading [Peter] Singer is that I thought about my hypocrisy each time I ordered a hamburger.’

I suspect we’ll have to wait a long time before meat and dairy products attract the same institutional opprobrium as cigarettes and are regulated and taxed accordingly, if not outright banned. In the meantime, how can individuals like Haidt make the shift from moral to behavioural opposition? For some, the plain facts will suffice. For others such as myself – I became a vegetarian around ten years ago – a negative epiphany may be required (in my case, a visceral response to what I took to be an act of animal cruelty by Bear Grylls on one of his TV shows).

Having stopped eating meat, the Science study has now persuaded me that my consumption of dairy products is no longer defensible either. I don’t feel self-righteous. I feel nervous; worried about how my decision will be received by others, and about my ability to sustain a dairy-free diet in the face of indiscipline and a world in which animal products are ubiquitous, coded as normal and inevitable.

To tell the truth, I also feel a little sad. Food gives me great pleasure, and connects me to my friends and family in important ways. Many of my most cherished childhood memories are inseparable from food, much of it meat- and dairy-based. But I also feel morally consistent in a way I haven’t before. If this is affronting, I think it is worth asking yourself why.


Image: Simon Huggins / flickr

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Ben Brooker is a writer, editor, critic, essayist, and playwright. His work has been featured by Overland, New Matilda, New Internationalist, Australian Book Review, and others. Ben is a co-facilitator of Adelaide’s Quart Short literary reading salons and was an inaugural Sydney Review of Books Emerging Critics Fellow.

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  1. What a fantastic essay, thanks Ben. I love seeing the convergence of activism, research and writing. Being vegan is tough. Being a writer is tough. Both feel like the only choice once certain things click into place. I look forward to reading more of this kind of writing in the future. Critical animal studies is the next big thing, or should be. We need to keep challenging speciesism on the streets and in the academy. Thanks again for standing up, and for sharing.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Kate. These things are tough but it is good to know we are not alone. It gives me some hope, as does the quiet renaissance in animal studies (both popular and academic) as well as vegetarian/vegan cookbooks, resources etc. we seem to be living through. May things keep clicking into place!

  3. Hello Ben, this is a great article and the findings of Carrington’s study truly reveal a lot about the meat and dairy industry. Despite the varied reactionary responses that it has produced, I think the study underlines a much more important argument that has not been brought up/is rarely considered among those that reject the idea of vegetarianism. Namely, that (whether or not they realise it) the commentators have revealed a different and much more radical idea in rejecting the so-called ‘moralisation’ of our consumption. It is that each person has been inculcated with a sense of individual responsibility for not just the environment but for the entirety of their consumption. In this sense, the frank and unavoidable horrors of consumption can seemingly be mitigated through the minor cost of purchasing something that is ethically sourced, free range, or at best, completely climate neutral. This is an idea that is taking hold amongst us, and which companies and corporations have already begun to exploit. But corporate morality is dictated by the political climate in which it is raised and accepted, and has lead to such things (though representation is indeed important) as the ‘gayification’ of products such as ATMs, vodka, and Doritos. Though these are benign examples, they demonstrate our willingness to accept that regulating our practices of consumption will eventually lead to progressive changes to the way in which our products are produced. And yet the obsession with the self-regulatory practices of modern ‘ethical’ consumption is ultimately unfounded. The waste that the individual produces is all but negligible, and so too is our effect on the environment in consuming such things as meat and dairy. Statistics that the Guardian itself has published show that 76% of ALL greenhouse emissions globally are produced by a mere 100 companies. 100 companies is all it takes to produce 76% – to me this is a statistic that is beyond all absurdity. Imagine what the next 100 are up to, let alone the next 1000! My point is, and I will hope you can see that I’m not meaning to offend, is that despite the valid arguments you are making against the animal industry, the preoccupation with individual consumption is what Althusser or Lacan would call an ideological misrecognition. It is the transferral of responsibility, from the powerful unto the meek, that make us believe that if each of us just managed to recognise our irrational obstinacy at having lamb chops for supper, that the environmental degradation that our dinners have caused would somehow be recouped. I know this is somewhat hyperbolic, but the point stands, despite the cogency of the anti-meat argument, people are sick of being told to give up their fundamental pleasures, especially when the finger-pointing predominantly goes only one way.

  4. Also i wanted to add that your piece on politicising tragedy has really stuck with me since I first read it – really love your work!

  5. I take the moralising point and that of inhumane food practises and processing, as well as questioning whether a lot of so called food is food for healthy bodies, brains and emotions, while holding in mind also the huge numbers of animals (human animal included) who would be grateful for anything at all to eat, other than their own shit (if that is forthcoming still).

  6. I love this article Ben. Well done. It is such a gentle and nuanced response to the issues raised by both the Science article and the underlying questions of our institutionalised (and normalised) commodification of and cruelty towards animals.

  7. I should be writing my essay but here I am: thank you for your thoughtful comments (and for your kind words on my politicisation essay). I’ve been wrestling for a while with some of the points you raise (see my earlier Overland essay https://overland.org.au/previous-issues/issue-222/feature-ben-brooker/). You’re right that the power of individuals is limited, especially when expressed merely through a different set of consumer choices that can be easily absorbed by capitalism, which we know is the central problem (direct action against abattoirs, animal farming infrastructure etc. might be more effective – and often, actually, goes hand in hand with vegetarianism/veganism). I think an undue emphasis on individual responsibility has been very misdirecting in the environmental movement, such as around climate change, which, back in the late 2000s when public consciousness of it was at its highest, was sold to us as something that could be fixed if only we bought the right lightbulbs, coffee beans etc. Clearly, given your 100 companies statistic, this is indeed a vast misconception. But I’m also drawn to the old activist adage – ‘be the change you want to see in the world’. I don’t see we have any other choice if we are to aim for moral consistency between our beliefs and our actions. We have to make SOME decisions about what we eat – which, under capitalism, almost invariably means about what we buy. The bottom line for me is these decisions ought to be grounded in a rejection of the unnecessary suffering that industrial meat and dairy production causes on an enormous scale.

  8. Well done, Ben. Your sentiments echo many of the things I was thinking when I read the article (that I could never have written as eloquently!).

      • That is, don’t waste your takes on me, take on Agribusiness, a system of capital organisation and food control which has condemned over a billion people worldwide to chronic hunger and malnutrition, and doubtless will take control of ethical food practices and production too, if and when there are big bucks to be made, if not always already there, if not now.

  9. Good on you Ben for writing a great essay. I agree with your sentiments. As an Animal Activist I first became vegetarian 34 years ago when I saw Peter Singer’s film, “The Animals Film”. I was shocked to the core…could hardly speak. I had no idea that Animals were treated so abominably in order for people to eat them. Now I’m trying to go vegan, again for their sake, but am finding it a little difficult due to time constraints. As a full-time Carer of my elderly father and two brothers I have hardly time to sleep, let alone the time to prepare proper meals for myself. There is a spiritual importance to not harming Animals in any way as well that should be considered. I believe we have no right to harm them in any way whatsoever; Animals have the right to peaceful, content, safe lives, just like we do. I wish to see a world free from violence, and this will never happen if we continue to harm Animals, who, as Mahatma Gandhi said, “…are our brothers and sisters”. They are indeed our humble brethren. Moreover, we cannot compare the morality of smoking to eating Animals: people have the right to smoke and harm themselves if they so wish, however we do not have the right to harm other living beings. There is a world of difference between these actions, such that they cannot be compared apart from the public perception of these. May the day come soon when people look at the killing of Animals in the same way as that of killing people, as Leonardo da Vinci predicted. Keep up the great work.

  10. A great article, and a fascinating insight into the chasm between what we know and what we actually do about it. I’d rather be blithely optimistic and determined in the face of overwhelming odds than be resigned to the seemingly inevitable; resignation and carelessness are what got the planet to this point in the first place. Anybody can be resigned. Apathy doesn’t take much effort. That’s sort of the point of it. Positive action, though- honest, thoughtful, mundane daily action- that’s the mindset that creates change. Bring on the eggplant burgers, babe- it’s hero time.

  11. This is a very useful article, thank you Ben, and I’m really interested (if potentially too late for) the discussion upthread between from I Should Be Writing and Ben. I’m curious about the 100 companies statistic and wondering how meaningful it is here. It seems to me these companies aren’t separate to the chain of consumption that individuals are part of – we buy things directly or indirectly from these companies, right? Isn’t that the whole point of the “ethical consumption” argument? Given that we purchase almost everything we consume, we can expect basically 100% of greenhouse emissions to come from companies, so that doesn’t appear to me to be an argument for the futility of individual responsibility. Isn’t the point that if say Shell is producing 50% of the world’s greenhouse emissions and they are supplying energy to dairy farms, by avoiding dairy we reduce the size of the dairy industry and indirectly reducing Shell’s activity and emissions? I’m not saying this to actually launch an argument for the importance
    individual/consumer responsibility just trying to get these various arguments straight.

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