Cognitive Dissonance

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Cognitive dissonance is the feeling of discomfort that arises from holding two conflicting beliefs.

As described in one of my earlier posts, I had always considered myself an animal lover, and thought I was largely kind to animals, yet I continued to eat them when I had no need to. This conflicting worldview manifested itself in bizarre behaviours such as moving snails from the path so they wouldn’t be trodden on en route to KFC, or throwing distasteful looks at people wearing fur whilst wearing a leather jacket.

Finally, I became a vegan, and abstained from eating, using or wearing animal products as much as one can when their presence has become so ubiquitous.

When speaking to non-vegans about why we shouldn’t eat animals, I often face quite a hostile reaction. Some people are clearly very offended, and I can understand why; no one wants to be told they are doing something cruel. I could just keep my views on it to myself, but as with any injustice, it is not enough to simply stop indulging in it yourself, though it’s a great start. I feel morally obliged to get other people to stop treating animals as though they are objects.

So this leaves me in a position where I am deeply offending and ostensibly attacking people I know and love for their actions. It can be a lonely place.

As part of my strategy to convince others that eating animals is wrong, I invoke the cognitive dissonance argument. I point out that if you believe that we shouldn’t cause harm to animals for fun, then the logical conclusion is that we shouldn’t eat meat.

Most of us would condemn those who take pleasure in watching a dog-fight, but why are we horrified by those who enjoy the sight of animals being harmed, but not horrified by those who enjoy the taste? Of course the usual arguments about our evolutionary legacy, nutritional needs and natural tendencies are rolled out, but it is a fact that you could stop eating animals today, right now, with no negative consequences. Other than you might miss the taste. And any reasonable person knows that liking the taste of their bodies is not a good enough argument for killing animals.

I am talking about kind, rational, liberal people who care about justice, who have compassion for the vulnerable. My friends. Yet they want to keep animals captive, kill them, and eat their corpses or, perhaps worse, pay someone else to do it for them. Because they like the taste. How can they reconcile this behaviour with their otherwise exemplary moral standpoints?

They can’t, just as I couldn’t, and this is why I am familiar with the arguments they use to defend it. We all KNOW that causing harm to animals for trivial reasons is wrong. We know it. So we come at it from another angle, we say that we aren’t harming animals, or that the reasons are not trivial.

But the reasons are trivial; you will not starve, or become ill if you don’t eat meat. It is not more expensive. It may have been part of our diet in the past, but you can stop today. We eat meat because we like the taste. We don’t eat it with a heavy heart, lamenting and saying ‘if only we didn’t have to eat these poor creatures, but we have no other choice’. We love it. We savour the the smell, the texture, the taste of their burnt and mutilated corpses. I am not using this language to be deliberately inflammatory, I am being honest about what it is we are doing when we eat meat. We eat their dead bodies and to say we are eating them for any other reason than we love it is disingenuous.

We tell ourselves they are not harmed. But we slaughter them. Again this jars the already fragile sense of equilibrium we had reached in order to reconcile our desire not to harm animals with our desire for flesh. We line animals up and systematically kill them. I am not going to describe the horrible reality of the slaughterhouse here, because it leaves room for apologists to imply that there is a kinder, more ‘humane’ way to kill them. If you want to believe they all die dignified, peaceful deaths, and that abattoirs are run by Dignitas, that’s fine. It is still systematic slaughter. We are still breeding, holding captive, and killing sentient animals, who are no different than our beloved dogs and cats, and really no different to us in any way that matters morally.

Many of us grew up with animals, they were part of the family. We worry about them when they get sick, pay vet bills to make them feel better. Because we understand that they have feelings, that they are individuals with different personalities. To paraphrase Tom Regan: what happens to them matters to them. We know what they enjoy about life, and what frightens them. We would rightly be upset and angry if someone tried to kill them for pleasure. Yet we do this to other animals every day, and wrongly become upset and angry when someone points out this contradiction.

I think we become so defensive and upset with evangelical vegans because we know that what we do to animals is wrong. Science has shown us that the non-human animals we eat are closely related to us, and have almost indistinguishable nervous systems. They have emotions, and they are aware of themselves and of the world. We consider ourselves kind to animals, but we kill them and eat their bodies. And so does everyone else around us. And we conform, and tell ourselves it’s normal and natural. We tell ourselves that the way we keep and slaughter them is kind. That they have a good life. A quick clean, death.

Even if this was true, which I am sure it isn’t, but even if it was, just try to take a step back from what everyone says is normal, and take an objective look at the facts. We take a living, breathing, sentient creature with emotions and a distinct personality, who hasn’t consented to the process, and we kill her, cut her into pieces, burn her, and devour her body parts with glee. Please try to forget that it’s what we’ve done our whole lives, what we’ve done for millennia, that it’s what our mothers did for us growing up. It’s hard, it was hard for me, but try not to be offended by what I am suggesting. Take a critical look at your behaviour, from an objective standpoint. You are understandably trying to cope with the cognitive dissonance. You are thinking, ‘I am not cruel to animals, I am a good person, what I am doing is normal’. I did the same, and once I stopped consuming animal products, the inner conflict melted away and I felt much better about my relationship with non-human animals.

Try to remove all emotion and bias from your arguments. Look at the facts. We are killing and eating others because they are different, and they are unable to stop us. We know killing animals for fun is unkind. We know and love animals that we grew up with. We know we are animals. We know that we are no longer slaves to our evolutionary imperatives. We know we can stop, right now. We know we are good, considerate people. We know that taking pleasure in the suffering and death of animals is wrong. We all know it.

So we can continue pretending that systematically executing animals doesn’t cause them any harm, or that we really need to eat them. We can feed the cognitive dissonance that makes us feel so uneasy when we talk to vegans, or eat animals in front of them. We can pretend it is the vegan who is offensive, and not the slaughterhouse.

Or we can change.

It is obvious once you remove the normative effect of society’s attitude to animals, and reject the apologetics and euphemisms of the meat industry, that eating animals is unkind.

Ultimately we have to put our morality where our mouth is; if you want to be kind to animals, you must not eat them.

Please, go vegan.

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Being Kind

My only real goal in life is to be kind.

This doesn’t come very naturally to me. I’m not sure it does to anyone.

I suppose it’s difficult to define what being kind is, but I think we have to take it to be axiomatic that causing suffering for trivial reasons is unkind. But then we have to define what causing suffering is, and what is trivial.

Is it unkind to cause distress to right-wing christians by making them tolerate same-sex relationships in their town? I think we need to ascertain what freedoms they have to forego in order that others are not limited. In this instance, their own relationship choices are not being limited. They do seem to be genuinely distressed by the relationship choices of others, but I don’t think anyone has a right not to be offended. I am offended by almost everything, but I abhor censorship. At what point does it become unreasonable to express one’s views?

I think it is perfectly reasonable to limit people’s choices when those choices are causing harm to others. My choice to run over someone because it amuses me is a freedom that should be curtailed. When the harm caused is more subtle and insidious, then it becomes difficult to say what behaviours should be curtailed. Ideally, I would like to say all speech should be free speech, and that people should not be stopped from airing their views, no matter how offensive they are.

I realise this becomes difficult in practice. If someone is allowed to put up posters saying “All Women are Whores” or “I Hate Foreigners”, ideally this free speech should be allowed, but it makes for a hostile environment for the targets of these campaigns, and history has shown all too often how this sort of speech, when put forward convincingly and charismatically enough, can lead to very real threats and actions. It might be tolerable when it is the raving of one bigot, but what about when it becomes mainstream opinion, and manifests itself in public policy and law.

I don’t consider myself a utilitarian, firstly because I think this could allow 49% of the population to suffer so that 51% may be content, and secondly, because I’m shit at philosophy and I don’t really understand the terminology or underlying ideas.

I’m basically trying to pick through my behaviour, and hone my sense of what is moral. The best way I can do this, is to try to weigh up what I am getting out of exhibiting certain behaviours, and what that costs others. I am trying to think critically about how my choices affect people; I know that I often make others uncomfortable or even distressed when I point out that I believe they are causing harm. Is this unkind, and is it worth it for the greater good? I think the equation becomes more complex when we factor in the strengths of those who stand to gain or lose from having their choices limited. I tend to come down on the side of the underdog, and I believe that the more vulnerable the individual concerned, the more strongly their interests should be represented, as they are at a disadvantage.

The hegemon is better equipped to make sacrifices, and if we have to be unkind to someone who has everything in their favour to afford compassion to those most vulnerable to mistreatment and exploitation, then that is probably the kindest thing to do.

The lucky and the powerful will have to come down a few rungs to meet the rest of us half way.