The concept of carnism, coined by social psychologist Dr. Melanie Joy, posits that people separate species of animals into different categories, such as “ones we eat” (e.g., cows) and “ones we love” (e.g., dogs). The result is that people abhor actions taken against a member of one species while justifying the same actions taken against another. Perhaps nothing illustrates this more clearly than the Western world’s collective outrage against the practice of eating dogs in Asian countries. Asking someone disgusted by such a practice what they had for lunch can produce some discomforting cognitive dissonance; carnism protects against this discomfort insofar as the boundaries between “food animals” and “dogs” are well-fortified.
The justifications for consuming animals and animal products primarily fall into three or four categories. Meat-eating is seen as natural, normal, necessary and (sometimes) nice.
No reasonable vegan can dispute that meat-eating is natural in one way or another. For one, it occurs in all corners of the animal kingdom, leading omnivores to point to lions and ask why vegans don’t insist that they stop eating meat. And it is likely true that every tribe of humans has been eating meat for the past million years. (Some vegans deny this, needlessly asserting that humans are “100% herbivore.”)
So what? It is a fallacy to mistake natural for good. Nature is quite horrific, full of tragedies and devoid of karma. There are many behaviors that occur in nature — indeed many that humans have engaged in in the past — which we find morally disgusting today, and rightfully so. It’s only a matter of time before eating animals is added to that lengthy list.
Similarly, to deny that meat-eating is normal is to deny reality. Something like 99% of people across the globe consume animals and animal products. Simply put, we live in a non-vegan world. But it’s strange that people should have a fear of being abnormal. Normal is boring. The people we look up to are not normal. Historical figures are not remembered for being average. We watch documentaries and read books about abnormal figures. So why should each of us be committed to being normal?
Of course nobody wants to be a freak of nature. We are not talking about going against the norm just because we find normalcy boring. We’re talking about continuing to engage in unethical behavior because to do otherwise is not normal. That’s morally weak, and it should not be normal. Somebody has to initiate a move toward progress — why not you? And why not now?
In a better world, eating animals will not be normal — it will be morally appalling.
This is perhaps the biggest one. People believe that eating animals and animal products is necessary. Simply put, it isn’t. Dietary organizations the world over state that a well-planned vegan diet is perfectly healthy. However, “well-planned” is important here: supplementation is necessary to obtain healthy levels of B12, Omegas, and possibly iron.
There is nothing special about meat that requires us to eat it. There is no magical nutrient found only in meat (or any animal products, for that matter). Every single plant in existence contains protein; as long as you consume enough calories, you are getting enough protein.
Omnivores often point to the possibility that our ability to consume meat allowed us to grow large brains. This may be true, but again it has nothing to do with meat being special. The invention of fire and the attendant ability to cook meat allowed us to consume excess calories that our ancestors couldn’t have gotten through foraging alone. The surplus of calories, if the theory is true, quite literally went straight to our heads. One of the things we did with our newfound smarts, however, was build grocery stores. There is an abundance of calories all around us. We have no reason to be concerned that, somehow, our brains are going to shrink to the size of our idiot Neanderthal brains.
People also think that consuming meat is somehow nice. It’s odd that people think you can love something and also eat it, but that’s the world we live in. Perhaps it’s the acknowledgement of this paradox that motivates people to muster up reasons why eating animals is actually a moral thing to do.
Omnivores commonly talk about purchasing meat only from “humane” “small” farms. This is likely true for some, insofar as killing an animal can actually be humane in any meaningful way. But many point to the mere existence of these exceedingly rare farms as a justification for purchasing meat from grocery stores and restaurants where god-knows-what happened to those animals. The thought process seems to be somewhere along the lines of: “It’s possible to raise and kill food animals humanely. I care about ethics and animals so that’s how I wish it would be done everywhere. However, I cannot purchase ethically-sourced meat because [insert excuse here], so I will continue to buy the inhumane stuff until someone else fixes it.”
The farce of consuming animals being somehow nice falls apart without the concept of carnism. If we don’t place animals into separate categories — and consider their interests on the basis of something more rational, such as neurobiology — we simply can’t use this justification. It may seem laudable that someone who consumes meat would wish for animals to be raised well, provided and cared for, and then slaughtered painlessly. But would this person allow their dog to be treated in such a way? If instead they’d wish for their dog to remain alive, and knowing that their dog wishes to remain alive, might we consider that perhaps a cow would like to remain alive as well, so needlessly killing it could never be humane?
So while consuming animals may be natural and normal, that does not mean it is something we should do, particularly since it is not necessary. On the other hand, it is much easier to argue that veganism — a lifestyle that produces less suffering and can be perfectly healthy — is necessary, at least from a moral perspective.