Meat Kills: Lessons from Covid19

Covid19 has been met with frantic efforts to slow down the disease, turning the world upside down. But should we also learn from it, so that something similar or significantly worse does not take place in the future?

 

The Meaty Virus

HIV, Ebola, SARS, swine-flu, bird-flu. As many have pointed out, these are examples of viruses that most likely entered the human body via meat, be it that of a chimpanzee, a bat, a civet, a pig or a chicken. Now the new Coronavirus can be added on to the list, as it most likely made its way into the veins of the global human population through the consumption of animal flesh. As a result, China has banned – at least for now – the selling of wild animals for food. Shenzhen – a large Chinese city – also banned the consumption of dog and cat meat. These are steps in the right direction. However, they are only baby steps when considering the risks lurking in all animal industries.

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In the Western psyche, it is easy to assume that pandemic diseases can only come from exotic animals, less familiar to the palates of beef-consuming Americans or Europeans. Yet, the risk is present in all farming and meat-production. As swine-flu and bird-flu exemplify, also “ordinary” animal agriculture is a potential nesting place of lethal diseases.

Let’s pause for a while. A huge amount of stressed animals with weak immune-systems are forced to live in overcrowded barns whilst they are fed oceans of antibiotics, thus allowing bacteria to build up resistance. Can you hear the alarm bells, not simply sounding, but banging?

Indeed, animal agriculture is an ideal breeding-spot for new, more deadly bacteria and viruses to mutate, fester and grow. The sizes of animal farms have increased enormously, and one single farm can house hundreds of thousands of animals. As a consequence of this, density has sky-rocketed, as staggeringly large amounts of animals have to be fitted to already cramped conditions. High density means that the animals are evermore stressed, frustrated and anxious, trying to survive in what can only be termed a hellishly unnatural environment, which again compromises their immune-systems and makes them prone to disease. As a final piece in this deadly puzzle, (depending on the country) the animals are routinely fed large quantities of antibiotics in order to combat stress-induced illnesses and secure growth.

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Image: Oikeutta eläimille

Let’s pause for a while. A huge amount of stressed animals with weak immune-systems are forced to live in overcrowded barns whilst they are fed oceans of antibiotics, thus allowing bacteria to build up resistance. Can you hear the alarm bells, not simply sounding, but banging?

Unsurprisingly, industrial animal agriculture has been named a potential source of future epidemics and pandemics. Eerily, just in 2017 over 200 relevant experts signed a letter directed at the World Health Organization, warning of the immanent danger of zoonotic pandemics caused by animal agriculture. One of these experts, Scott Weathers, writes: “Just as WHO has bravely confronted tobacco and soda companies, it must seek to reduce the growth of factory farming as an industry and discourage high rates of meat consumption”. It is only a matter of time, when another pandemic floods human societies – perhaps with even more lethal potency than Covid19.

 

Meat Kills

We know that animal industries are a major cause behind climate change, and thereby a substantial threat to, not only the nonhuman world, but also Homo Sapiens. It has stolen enormous areas of land from wild animals and spews huge quantities of methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, thereby heating up our planet. From the perspective of the environment, large-scale animal industries and meat-eating are simply destructive, and thereby they are destructive also for human beings – we will not survive on a sweltering planet ravished by droughts and fires.

It is enormously frustrating to acknowledge that as a result of someone wanting to dine on animal flesh, possibly millions of people will die and many more fall into the grips of economic despair caused by the virus.

Eating meat is therefore damaging for the life of this planet. It is also damaging for human health on a more immediate level. We have known for a long time that large quantities of animal products will block your veins, increase cancer-rates and diabetes, and lead to untimely deaths. Covid19 reminds us that eating meat can also destroy the health of by-standers. It is enormously frustrating to acknowledge that as a result of someone wanting to dine on animal flesh, possibly millions of people will die and many more fall into the grips of economic despair caused by the virus.

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This is the last chance to learn that animal farming and meat-consumption can lead to pandemics, which cause mass misery and death. Yet, due to ideological reasons (for the majority, meat-eating is part of their worldview and identity), many refuse to recognize these risks. Indeed, comments pointing toward the same conclusion as this blog have all too frequently been met with anger, as if it was somehow wrong to discuss the source of the current health crisis. One can but hope that more people will be able to take off their ideological lenses and finally acknowledge that meat kills – not only nonhuman but also human animals.

Many think that meat-eating is “a personal choice”. Yet, this is a concretely catastrophic error. Eating meat is not a personal choice, when you consider the treatment and moral value of those animals, who are being eaten – causing suffering and death to tens of billions of animals each year is not a matter of “personal choice”. In the recent decades, climate change has added to this case by showing that, considered also from the perspective of the environment, meat-eating is not a personal choice. Covid19 pushes another very real nail through the coffin and makes it painful clear that meat-eating is far from a personal choice already, because it kills other humans.

 

Before It’s too Late

We are at war against our own selfishness and the violent ignorance, with which we have treated other species. Only winning that war will ultimately save us.

If we want to ensure the survival of ourselves and others species, it is not enough to minimize the destruction triggered by Covid19. In order to make sure that we do not fall into an even more powerful spiral of mass illness and death, we have to also eradicate the causes of such pandemics. Instead of merely minimising symptoms, we have to get rid of the disease behind the disease – animal industries based on human egoism and greed. Bringing such industries to an end would be an enormous gift to the environment, other animals, and the good of our own species.

The French President Emmanuel Macron stated during the early stages of the European outbreak that we are “at war with an invisible enemy”, namely the virus. This claim is mistaken. The real enemy are the greedy and destructive habits of human beings, which allowed this virus to become a pandemic in the first place. We are at war against our own selfishness and the violent ignorance, with which we have treated other species. Only winning that war will ultimately save us.

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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.

 

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(Art work: Street art; Dana Ellyn)

 

References

Aaltola, Elisa (2016) The Problem of Akrasia: Moral Cultivation and Socio-Political Resistance. In Paola Cavalieri (ed.) Philosophy and the Politics of Animal Liberation. London: Palgrave MacMillan.

Aaltola, Elisa (2015) Politico-moral Apathy and Omnivore’s Akrasia: Views from the Rationalist Tradition. Politics and Animals 1:1.

Anderson, Eric & Barrett, Lisa Feldman (2016 )Affective Beliefs Influence the Experience of Eating Meat”. PLoS ONE 11 (8).

Bilewicz, M.; Imhoff, R. & Drogosz, M. (2011) The humanity of what we eat: conceptions of human uniqueness among vegetarians and omnivores. European Journal of Social Psychology 41 (2): 201-209.

Bratanova, Boyka; Loughnan, Steve and Bastian, Brock (2011) The effect of categorization as food on the perceived moral standing of animals. Appetite 57(1): 193–196.

Dowsett, Elisha; Semmler, Carolyn; Bray, Heather; Ankeny, Rachel & Chur-Hansen, Anna (2018) Neutralising the meat paradox: Cognitive dissonance, gender and eating animals. Appetite 123: 280-288.

Kunst J.R. & Hohle, S. (2016) Meat eaters by disassociation: How we present, prepare and talk about meat increases willingness to eat meat by reducing empathy and disgust. Appetite 105: 758-774.

Kunst, J.R. & Haugestad, C. (2018) The effects of dissociation on willingness to eat meat are moderated by exposure to unprocessed meat: A cross-cultural demonstration. Appetite 120: 356-366.

Kupsala, Saara (2018) Contesting the meat–animal link and the visibility of animals killed for food: a focus group study in Finland. Food, Culture & Society 21(2): 196–213.
Loughnan, Steve; Bastian, Brock and Haslam, Nick (2014) The Psychology of Eating Animals. Current Directions in Psychological Science 23 (2): 104-108.

Loughnan, Steve; Haslam, Nick & Bastian, Brok. (2010) The role of meat consumption in the denial of moral status and mind to meat animals. Appetite 55: 156-159.

Onwezen, Marleen & van der Weele, Cor (2016) When indifference is ambivalence: Strategic ignorance about meat consumption. Food Quality and Preference 52: 96-105.