ethics

Are Meat Eaters More Likely to Tolerate Social Inequality?

Researchers have figured out the four reasons you tell yourself it's okay to eat a hot dog after sobbing through the ending of <i>Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey</i>.

Hilary Pollack

Hilary Pollack

Foto von Wally Gobetz via Flickr

What are your thoughts on cheeseburgers? Like them? Love them?

How about your perspective on equal pay for women? Or affirmative action? Could it possibly be tied to your affinity for medium-rare steak or Polish sausage?

If you're a meat eater—which, statistically, you very likely are—a new study says that your opinions on these matters are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In fact, your ability to sweep images of the slit throats of cows under the rug in order to enjoy a platter of sliders is an indication that you're able to disregard, or at least tolerate, other forms of social inequality than just speciesism.

READ: Why Men Are Afraid of Going Vegan

That's the theory, anyway. An international team of researchers led by Dr. Jared Piazza of the UK's Lancaster University have identified four essential rationalizations that meat eaters use to defend the consumption of animals, and they're known as the "4Ns," standing for Natural, Necessary, Normal, and Nice.

If you've ever sat through an uncomfortable dinner conversation where a vegetarian and a proud omnivore are arguing about the merits of their diets, you've likely heard these justifications before: "It's natural—humans evolved to eat meat!"; "Meat is necessary in order to get adequate protein/B-vitamins/iron"; "I was raised eating meat, so it's a part of being normal"; "Buffalo wings taste nice." The study, published in the newest issue of Appetite, surveyed more than 1,100 adults and students about their reasons for eating meat, and the most common of the N's answered was that it is "Necessary."

And there you have it—the four ways that you manage to stifle your guilt so that you don't picture a Precious Moments-esque piglet crying for its mother while you dive into a bowl of tonkotsu ramen.

After all, many of the same people who sob at the thought of Shadow stuck in the mud pit at the end of Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey are easily able to dig into a hot dog that same day—regardless of how many doe-eyed animals were ground up to make it.

The study addresses the "meat paradox," wherein meat-eaters must face the conflict of either aligning their diet with their aversion to killing and animal cruelty or forever forgoing carnitas tacos.

"The relationships people have with animals are complicated," the study says, noting the lack of continuity in our approach to pets versus agricultural animals. "People employ a number of strategies to overcome this apparent contradiction in attitude and behavior."

Another interesting insight that can be gleaned from the study is that it could explain all of the eye-rolling that meat eaters tend to wield at vegetarians and vegans, despite the fair amount of evidence that eating less or even no meat is now generally considered a good thing by everyone from Bill Gates to the United Nations.

As Piazza tells it, "Morally motivated vegetarians may serve as a source of implicit moral reproach for many omnivores, eliciting behaviors designed to defend against moral condemnation." In other words, their very lifestyle makes meat-eaters feel defensive because it throws the 4Ns into question. After all, if the argument is that meat is "Necessary," what's to be said of all of the vegans and vegetarians walking around in a state of perfectly fine health?

But when contacted for additional comment by MUNCHIES, Piazza was quick to clarify that the study isn't meant to uphold vegans as extra-righteous. "I wouldn't say that v*gans (individuals who restrict all meat or all animal products from their diet) are more consistent in their social attitudes than omnivores—they just have different sets of beliefs and attitudes," he told us over email. "V*gans tend to think there are no (or very few) valid reasons for eating meat, while omnivores tend to think there are at least four valid reasons: that eating meat is Necessary, Natural, Normal, and Nice."

Those who most endorsed the 4Ns were more likely to be male, more likely to tolerate other forms of social inequality, and were quicker to point out cows' inferior intelligence to humans.

"First, on the cognitive side, people tend to think of animals as having less moral standing than human beings because we tend to think that animals have less intelligence and less cognitive capacities than us. Many people believe that these attributes are important qualifications for moral standing, which leads many people to think that the interests of animals are less of a priority than or subordinate to human interests," Piazza explains in regards to the psychology of speciesism.

"Second, most people do not have an ongoing, positive relationship with the animals we use as food in our culture (e.g., cows, pigs, chickens). Most people don't have any relationship at all with them, aside from the dinner table. In fact, people often don't even think about the meat on their plate as having an animal source, unless it is made explicit to them … so I think we feel less emotional distress at the thought of their suffering and abuse."

From this mindset, if there's no inherent problem in killing and eating pigs because they're pigs, or because they're (ostensibly) less intelligent than humans, then why not dismiss women and minorities based on their own identities or attributes of "differentness?" Social dominance is social dominance, after all.

Well, that's a heavy lean. But just because it makes us uneasy doesn't mean that it's unfair to point out. "In defense of male-only voting practices in the U.S. opponents of women's suffrage often appealed to the necessity of denying women the vote ... to the natural superiority of male intelligence, and to the historical normalness of male-only voting as 'designed by our forefathers.' … Today, most people find such arguments in support of male-only voting ludicrous at best," the study notes.

If we know we're engaging in some unsavory forms of internal and external rhetoric about meat, what can be done at this point, with the industries astronomically powerful? Even the study authors aren't sure about that. But, "like many controversial issues, as attitudes toward meat consumption shift, so too may the beliefs that support them."

"I wouldn't say that the 4Ns are 'harmful,' but the 4Ns are certainly impediments to potentially positive change," Piazza tells MUNCHIES. "Whether this change is beneficial depends, of course, on the facts about whether there are benefits to foregoing meat production and consumption."

We probably won't see an end to the burger anytime soon, but we may see a little less side-eye thrown at the vegetarian at the potluck.