Eating and caring: a conflict of interest

October 4 is the birthday of Saint Francis of Assisi, the Italian saint who according to legend could talk with animals. On that day, we celebrate World Animals Day. The situation of the animals in this world is kind of similar to the situation of the humans: some of them bathe in luxury – mostly the companion animals or “pets” in the rich countries – while many more live a life that’s nasty, brutish and short: the animals we eat.

Pigs are at least as intelligent and capable of experiencing emotions as dogs, but as we want to buy their meat at as cheap a price as possible, the pigs of this world mostly lead short lives of fear, stress, pain and boredom. As a society, we do things with pigs, chickens and cows that we would never do to our companion animals. If you ask people’s opinions about eating animals, many or most of them will answer that we are allowed to do it, but that we must make sure they at least have “a good life”. Yet these very same people buy just any meat from the supermarket and when they eat out. That’s meat from intensive animal agriculture.

You could call these consumers inconsistent or even hypocritical, but I’d like to call on a more human-friendly explanation: for most people, compassion towards the animals we eat is not easy.

conflict of interest

We are empathic beings – at least that’s my assumption. When another human being suffers, we feel it. We can also empathize with animals, sometimes even more easily or more intensely than with humans. Animal suffering is hard to watch – perhaps the perceived innocence of the animal has something to do with that, or its vulnerability – and there’s a reason why slaughterhouses are not public attractions. Any one of us knows that not only our companion animals but also those pigs, chickens and cows are vulnerable to pain and suffering. So why do we care about cats and dogs but not about those “farm animals”? The answer is simple: there is a conflict of interest. Allowing feelings of empathy towards a cow or a pig, requires of us that we re-evaluate our “use” of these animals, and – for many of us – probably a change in diet as a consequence. So many times I’ve heard omnivores say that they don’t want to watch an animal rights movie or read Jonathan Saffran Foers Eating Animals because they want to keep eating meat. Whomever feels the suffering of animals, does not want to eat them, or at the very least does not want them to be bred in factory farms. Becoming a vegetarian or drastically reducing one’s meat consumption seems the logical consequence. Yet for most people who love their steak or chicken leg, it just isn’t that easy. I know, because I used to be one of them.

What we need to do is to make compassion easier. By giving people the experience that plant-based meals are at least as tasty as their favorite dishes with meat, we take away a number of barriers. Not only will people be more open to eat vegetarian, but more importantly: we take away a barrier to feel. Empathy with animals becomes easier, because slowly but surely, our interest in avoiding that empathy diminishes.

Those among us who wish to make the world a better place, hope that giving information to the consumer will be followed by a changed attitude and then changed behaviour. Sometimes that works, but there is in my mind not enough attention to the reverse: first make the recommended behaviour easier, so that it becomes easier to change one’s mind, or feelings.

More and more vegetarian dishes in restaurants, more and better products in shops, more vegetarian options at all kinds of events, a larger offer of caterers, vegetarian cookbooks etc: all of these things can help assure that caring for non human animals becomes easier. It’s a pragmatic approach to bringing about a change of heart.

After all, we’re not all Saint Francis of Assisi. Yet.

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6 thoughts on “Eating and caring: a conflict of interest

  1. That make sense and I can relate to this. Going plant-based was rather easy, but I struggled for the clothes. I couldn’t find high-quality vegan shoes. It was either summer cotton shoes or cheap plastic shoes (probably made by exploited chinese kids so not that vegan anyway) lasting 3 months at most. So I had not to be vegan to buy good-quality leather shoes for the winter.

    1. That’s a good point, weaxnet. I think most people, for that reason, start with diet and then gradually introduce changes across their whole lifestyle.

      Veganism has changed just about everything about me: my diet, what I wear, how I interact with the environment, my politics, everything. And it started with a similar realisation to that which Tobias talks of in this blog: that just as every dog I interact with is different and has their own personality and particular life interests, so too must pigs and cows and many other animals we exploit for food or entertainment.

      On World Animal Day, therefore, it’s particularly good to reflect on how animals have been so transformative within my life.

  2. The more people try compassionate foods, the more supply there will be. The more supply, the easier it is for even more people to try matching their actions to their ethics. It really is as simple as that.

  3. You touch on a lot of anthropological topics, but don’t address them in that context. There is a lot more going on here than it simply being difficult to avoid eating pigs, cows, etc. You have a rich tapestry of culture and evolution here, for example, dogs co-evolved with humans starting around 30,000 years ago and as such there is a good deal of communication between the two species some of which has a biological basis. Humans understand dogs, and dogs understand us…..so much so that humans and dogs can work as team. You don’t have that same history with pigs, cows, etc and there isn’t much understanding and hence empathy between them and us…..instead we have to rely more on biological facts and abstract arguments. But most aren’t moved by that, you need that emotional element, that cultural element. Vegan advocates seem to deal with this by misleading graphics of farm animals, but that is problematic as people won’t have the same experiences in real life. Biologically we just aren’t “wired” to pick up on the emotions of other species, with the possible exception of dogs.

    In any case, the existence of “alternatives” (which have, in fact, existed for centuries) isn’t itself going to change culture….and is definitely not going to change our biology. Culture defines how people think about food, what type of items are concerned food, how that food is prepared, how people think about other animals, etc. Vegans want to change culture, but culture is stubborn and difficult to change. Ironically, the best examples of active cultural change come from the dairy and meat industries…..they understand culture and have changed it. What they have done, intellectually, is rather amazing…..and vegans are way behind.

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