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THE LI(V)ES WE EAT: What people don’t want to know about the animals they eat

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Willful ignorance is a problem because it obscures the moral landscape. People engage in willful ignorance as a way of neutralizing evidence that challenges meat-eating. Ignoring the fact that animals can think and feel may make it seem more acceptable to eat them.

STEFAN LEACH: A growing body of research suggests that consumers often make use of relevant evidence in a strategic manner, which limits their need to take action. Today, for example, most people acknowledge that animals reared for food are sentient and that their welfare needs to be considered. Most are also aware that there are problems with the current food system, which causes billions of animals needless suffering.

A 2017 survey by the Sentience Institute found that about 70 percent of Americans reported being uncomfortable with the way farmed animals are treated, and a 2021 Viva! study found that 85 percent of Britons supported a ban on factory farming. These trends are in line with government efforts to improve the welfare of farmed animals; for example, by ending the export of live animals for slaughter.

Despite widespread awareness of the issues with meat production, though, consumers often overlook their contribution to the problem. The same 2017 survey led by Sentience Institute found that 75 percent of Americans believe that they buy “humane” meat—an impossible statistic given that the majority of meat in the U.S. is derived from factory farms.

Furthermore, despite a growing awareness of the link between animal agriculture and climate change, meat-eating rates in the U.K. need to at least halve to hit the country’s 30 percent reduction target for 2030. These statistics suggest that consumers may be engaging with information strategically to avoid their behavioral implications.

My colleagues and I recently investigated how meat-eaters engage with evidence strategically by examining if they avoid evidence of animals’ capacity to think and feel. We found that people who want to keep eating and enjoying meat seem to be the most likely to avoid this type of evidence…

Studies suggest that consumers rarely think about where their meat has come from when shopping. This “meat-animal dissociation” is strategic because thinking about the origins of meat can be off-putting to consumers and spoil the pleasure of a meal. When interviewed about these topics, people sometimes mention this and say they would prefer to remain ignorant because it can make purchasing meat distressing…

Our work suggests that people engage in willful ignorance as a way of neutralizing evidence that challenges meat-eating. Ignoring the fact that animals can think and feel may make it seem more acceptable to eat them. It might also help to resolve feelings of cognitive dissonance arising from believing that it is wrong to harm animals whilst simultaneously eating them.

Willful ignorance is a problem because it obscures the moral landscape. It keeps us from learning what is true and makes it needlessly difficult to determine the right course of action. Given the ethical issues arising from our treatment of animals, we need to understand how people honestly think about the facts surrounding them.

Meat-eating is the norm in most places and deciding to curtail it, for many, means foregoing a pleasurable food. The desire to keep eating meat creates the motivation for strategic ignorance, but there is reason to expect this motivation to wane in the future. More and more people are choosing vegetarian and vegan diets. An increasing number of animals are being recognized as sentient beings, and supermarket shelves are stocked with more plant-based alternatives than ever before.

As alternatives to meat become increasingly popular, we would expect openness to learning about the abilities of animals reared for food to increase in kind, with more people opting to be enlightened over remaining comfortably in the dark about animal sentience. SOURCE…

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