Akrasia and the Meat Paradox

Many individuals are plagued by what scholars call “the meat paradox”. Within its grip, one both values nonhuman animals as individuals, and consumes their flesh. The contradiction is striking and yet often ignored. This, again, means that everyday animal ethics – how one treats and values pigs and cows – remains in a state of tension and confusion.


From cognitive dissonance to strategic ignorance


Most scholars argue that the meat paradox can be explained via cognitive dissonance. In the clutches of such dissonance, one holds onto two conflicting beliefs – the belief that animal needs, experiences and lives matter, and the belief that it is acceptable to eat meat. The two are kept as if in separate realities, and thus a person struggling with the meat paradox can ignore moral questions when eating a steak, and forget about his steak-eating, when liking cute online videos of cows.

Scholars have claimed that also dissociation plays a vital role. Here, “live animals” and “meat” become distinct categories up to a point where no connections between the two are recognized. Thereby, a hapless omnivore may forget about the origins of her hamburger and act as if her meat-eating had nothing to do with the lives and deaths of nonhuman creatures. The source of meat simply disappears from view.

Indeed, the more one ignores the origin of meat (the living hen, fish or sheep), the more willing one is to consume animals.

87157922d9f48e1b7de24751b756d43f--animal-rights-cruelty-freeBoth cognitive dissonance and dissociation marginalize moral considerations at the time of buying or consuming meat. Studies by J. Kunst and S. Hohle (2016) show that when eating animal products, empathy toward those animals diminishes. When digging one’s teeth into fried fish or dairy ice-cream, one thereby momentarily skips animal-directed empathy and moral reflection. This is because the living, individual animal and her perspective – the very creature that invites empathy and moral concern – does not belong to the category of “eating animals”. Indeed, the more one ignores the origin of meat (the living hen, fish or sheep), the more willing one is to consume animals. It is this phenomenon that prevents everyday animal ethics from becoming consistent and capable of truly respecting and supporting the lives of other animals.

Dissonance and dissociation are encouraged by marketing. When companies advertise fleshy products, they rarely depict images of live animals, let alone mention the horrors of the animal industries. Instead, marketing focuses on inviting images of burgers or pizzas, often void of references to animal origins. When the omnivore is making her decision on the supermarket aisle, she is thus confronted with products that are disconnected from the plights and lives of animals – meat is wrapped in plastic, not in blood, fear and screams, and thereby it becomes easier to forget about ethical issues. Indeed, scholars have pointed out that in Western countries, meat is intentionally rendered abstract: there are no traces (eyes, heads, blood) of the animals in it.

As pointed out by Marleen Onwezen and Cor van der Weele (2016), the omnivore may also resort to “strategic ignorance”, whereby she may deliberately avoid information concerning the conditions in which animals are farmed and slaughtered, or downplay the mental abilities of cows and pigs. Researchers have found out that particularly animal agency (the animal as a minded, capable, living, feeling creature) is the target of strategic ignorance. Indeed, the mental abilities of those animals, whom are killed and eaten the most, tend to also be downplayed the most. Examples of such groups include chickens and fishes (one telling dimension of the denial of their individuality is the reference to these animals, not in plural, but in singular “chicken” or “fish”, as if they all were a copy of the same prototype).

Marketing supports strategic ignorance, and vice versa. When one is repeatedly offered advertising images, in which animals are reduced into meat, it becomes easy to avoid information about their mindedness. And when one willfully ignores the possibility that something might be inexcusably wrong in industrial agriculture, it becomes significantly easier to accept the messages of marketing, which portray such agriculture as morally innocent.


Bringing the animal back


Therefore, cognitive dissonance, dissociation, marketing and strategic ignorance of animal minds all enable the meat-paradox. Since marketing holds such a prominent position in consumeristic societies, and since humans all too easily resort to ignorance when it serves their own immediate benefit, the situation can appear rather gloomy. However, there is cause for hope.

First, dissonance and dissociation can be lessened by highlighting the living animal behind the product. When images and stories of individual pigs and hens are highlighted in the context of meat, it becomes significantly more arduous to keep living animals as a separate category from meat. Thereby, the connection between animals and animal products needs to be underscored – the animal whose body is utilized for meat, dairy and eggs deserves to be brought on the center stage.

Second, this will diminish also the impact of marketing, which either avoids references to living animals altogether, or offers the hungry omnivore idyllic representations of free roaming and perfectly happy cows or hens. Indeed, researchers have found that combining meat recipes with images of animals reduces people’s willingness to eat meat. This, again, means that stories of individual animals should be circulated and emphasized more widely in our cultures, ranging from the media to education, advocacy and everyday discussions over the dinner-table.

The implication is clear: reducing the meat paradox requires that both living, minded animals and the plights caused to them are highlighted.

What appears to make a crucial difference to the meat paradox is awareness of where the meat came from. Positive images and stories of animals are important, but research calfby Eric Andersson and Lisa Feldman Barrett (2016) shows that it is particularly information concerning the harms done within animal industries, which has the biggest impact. According to their studies, when people are told that meat comes from factory farming where animals are treated poorly, they evaluate the meat offered to them as much less appealing. They rate the meat to taste, smell and look worse, to be less fresh, and to be more fatty and salty. They also estimate that they would pay significantly less for such meat and be less likely to buy it. Indeed, in the test situation they are willing to eat less of the meat. The implication is clear: reducing the meat paradox requires that both living, minded animals and the plights caused to them are highlighted.

Third, by offering stories of and information concerning other animals, also strategic ignorance becomes much harder. Bringing forward the individual animal and her living conditions invites empathy, whereby the nonhuman creature becomes “a someone” rather than “a thing”, and this makes it significantly harder to deny animal mindedness and needs. Most importantly, empathy sparks moral reflection and concern – the very factors that offer the most potent challenge to the meat paradox.


Omnivore’s akrasia


There is also a further way to approach the meat paradox. “Akrasia” is an old philosophical term for a state, within which we go against what we know to be true or good. Arguably, it is often precisely “omnivore’s akrasia”, which leads people to act against their values both in the context of nonhuman animals and the environment. Most Westerners know that animal farming harms and violates the most basic needs of animals, and most also know that eating animals is destructive for the environment. Yet, many act against this knowledge.

Although contemporary psychologists have various highly valuable advices to give in order to combat the meat paradox, it is also fruitful to go back to the classic philosophers, who sought to understand akrasia hundreds or even thousands of years ago. What do they have to say about tackling the terrible paradox of human existence – that we often know what is good, and yet go against it?

In practice, this would mean that more emphasis should be placed on animal ethics, both on the individual and societal level.

One of these philosophers was Plato, who discussed akrasia in his dialogues Protagoras and Gorgias. A suggestion offered by Plato is that various wants and emotions mask as “good” that, which is actually “bad”. Therefore, the omnivorous akrates may know that harming animals and causing them suffering is morally wrong, and yet when the urge to eat a lobster dinner arises, she finds various excuses for her behavior, thus momentarily believing that what she is doing is justifiable. It may also be the emotion of yearning to be socially accepted within, say, a family of avid meat-eaters that prevents her from choosing differently. Plato argues that such movement between knowing and forgetting what is good leads people into constant states of ambiguity, where they “wander all over the place in confusion”. In a nutshell, one becomes lost in the bogs of self-directed needs and misleading emotions, and temporarily forgets one’s basic values.

This seems to describe the conflict of loving and eating animals quite aptly. Many are ambiguous and often confused with their relation to nonhuman creatures: moral values and self-directed desires and emotions lead into different directions, and making one’s mind up can be frustratingly difficult. Thus, one may simply come to accept the conflicts and ambiguities, and learn to ignore their strange tension, whereby simultaneous loving and eating becomes the norm. This is not the direction adviced by Plato, however. In his discussion on akrasia, he argues that we ought to notice the problem and cultivate our ability to follow the good. Whilst the psychologists discussing the meat paradox place emphasis on re-introducing the animal and her living conditions onto the scene, Plato thereby implies that the solution is found from re-configuring how we ourselves relate to others.

We are to look into what sorts of values we as individuals want to follow, and how we could cultivate ourselves so as to remember “the good” even when egoistic wants and emotions pull toward the other direction. Applying Plato’s thinking to the animal context, the solution to omnivore’s akrasia lies in cultivating our moral ability and clarity. In practice, this would mean that more emphasis should be placed on animal ethics, both on the individual and societal level. Perhaps reflections on how we ought to treat other animals should be encouraged already at the level of early education.

Another classic philosopher to speak of akrasia was Baruch Spinoza. In his book Ethics, blue-marble-2012-planet-earth-nikki-marie-smiththis 17th century thinker spoke of a state of “bondage”, where we know what is good but act against it. For Spinoza, the source of akrasia was both the habit of following public, poorly reflected opinions (the sorts of popular beliefs that are often repeated by people and seldom reflected on) and the habit of following emotions entwined with such opinions (in contemporary terms, following the emotion of hate due to adopting the belief that people of different ethnic background are less worthy). The solution was simple: to aim for more rational beliefs and the sort of joy sparked by them. Spinoza suggested that when we observe the world as if from a distance, rationally and without prejudice, pure joy and even love may follow, as one gains a glimpse into the very nature of existence. It is this distance, knowing the world sub specie aeternitatis, that liberates from akrasia and guides us toward doing what is good.

Observing things from further away may reveal fundamental questions of our era. What is happening to this planet? What are we doing to other species? Who are we as species, and what sorts of values do we wish to follow?

Applying Spinoza to omnivore’s akrasia, it is the type of misleading beliefs concerning animals (“pigs are dirty”, “chicken are dumb”) which maintain a bondage over many. The media, education, and various other social institutions keep bombarding us with untruthful accounts of what types of creatures nonhuman animals are. They – and particularly marketing – also keep repeating untrue claims about animal farming, which lead many to believe that animals are treated perfectly. These beliefs may intertwine with emotions, such as contempt of animals or love of meat, which keep reaffirming akrasia. The consequence is familiar from above: the akrates loses track of her more rational and empathic values concerning animals, and bites into the burger.

From this perspective, the solution to omnivore’s akrasia (and indeed the meat paradox) would be simple: to take a step back from one’s immediate desires and the constant flux of social conditioning, and look at the greater scene also rationally. Observing things from further away may reveal fundamental questions of our era. What is happening to this planet? What are we doing to other species? Who are we as species, and what sorts of values do we wish to follow?

These sorts of questions are difficult, but when we find answers for them, a new type of hqdefaultjoy and love may emerge. Here, becoming vegan is no longer considered as a sacrifice, but becomes a matter of living better, more rationally and joyously. By finally paying reflective attention to how our own actions – including those concerning what we eat – impact other species and individuals, our world becomes a far richer place, full of space for the needs, minds and experiences of all animals (human and nonhuman). Choosing to leave meat and other animal products becomes, thereby, not a chore, but rather a positive, rational and enabling act, which will increase the flourishing and joy of all species.

Perhaps, then, the solution to both the meat paradox and omnivore’s akrasia lies – not only in emphasizing animal mindedness and perspectives, and information concerning the abysmal conditions of animal industries – but also in approaching things differently by taking into account the bigger picture. The futures of other species and individuals lies in our human hands, and it is a matter of joy, rather than a sacrifice, to support the joyful lives of all.




(Art work: Street art; Dana Ellyn)



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