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How bad is it to eat an intelligent chicken? Children’s judgments of eating animals

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Recent studies suggest that children may be less speciesist than adults. That is, they tend to place similar weight on human and animal life and treat food and non-food animals similarly. Their judgment of harm to animals can be harsher than comparable acts directed at humans (particularly when the harm is unprovoked), and they condemn harm to food animals at higher rates than adults.

JARED PIAZZA: Children engage positively with animals from a very young age. They have animal toys, care for pets, visit zoos, and learn ‘life lessons’ from anthropomorphised animals on television. These interactions are often intended to increase children’s understanding of and concern for animals. At the same time, children are often shielded from a ubiquitous, less pleasant role that animals play in society: as food for humans.

Though most children are raised in households where meat is regularly consumed, many parents, particularly those living in urban and suburban settings, are often hesitant to discuss the origins of meat with their children. Furthermore, children, before early adolescence, struggle to identify the animal origins of animal-food products. For example, Hahn observed that children between the ages of 4–7 made significant errors in identifying the animal origins of products like bacon and hotdogs.

Children’s lack of understanding about the origins of food can create a disconnect between the happy, smiling animals children see on television and the lifeless ‘absent animal’ featured at the dinner table. Even parents who tell their children where meat comes from may omit from conversation the grisly process of how animals get from the farm to their table. Thus, it is not surprising that children often have a limited understanding of how meat consumption, including their own meat consumption, contributes to animal suffering.

By contrast, adults tend to be more aware of the potential issues with meat production and many adults experience ambivalence or conflict about eating meat. To manage feelings of conflict, adults often engage in motivated ‘strategies’, whether consciously or non-consciously, that serve to reduce concerns about meat. One such strategy involves objectification, or seeing animals more like objects than as feeling, thinking beings.

Studies show that categorising an animal as food for humans, or in the process of becoming food for humans, can cause adults to increase their objectification of animals and, as a consequence, reduce their concern for them. Another route involves strategically distorting, ignoring or failing to apply relevant information about food animals that would otherwise factor into adults’ moral evaluations when considering non-food animals. For example, research by Piazza and Loughnan observed that adults would adjust their moral concern for an animal when learning about its intelligence—expressing greater concern when learning about an animal’s intelligence.

However, this adjustment in moral concern only occurred when adults were learning about an animal they did not personally eat. When it was an animal they regularly ate, information about its intelligence failed to impact on their concern for the animal. Other documented motivated processes include deliberately avoiding information about the intelligence of animals one eats and expressing moral outrage at factory farming as a way to deflect consumer responsibility…

Research results converge with, and extend, a number of emerging findings regarding children’s moral evaluations of animals. Past work has shown that children are quite sensitive to acts of harm directed at animals. Children’s judgments of harm to animals can be harsher than comparable acts of harm directed at humans, particularly when the harm is unprovoked. This aversion to animal harm manifests in various ways. Recent studies suggest that children may be less speciesist than adults—that is, they tend to place similar weight on human and animal life.

This is not to say that children value all animal lives equally; in zero-sum prioritisation tasks children will place greater weight on certain animals over others (e.g., beautiful animals), not unlike adults. Children’s heightened concern for animals, relative to adults, seems to be especially conspicuous in the domain of food, with children consistently insisting it is less okay to eat animals, compared to adults.

Consistent with these previous observations, children in the present studies tended to condemn harm to food animals (chickens, cows) at rates higher than adults. They also tended to treat food and comparable non-food animals similarly. One notable exception was children’s judgment about killing the animal for food, which slightly favoured kākāpō (the non-food animal) over chickens (Study 1). Taken together, our findings suggest that, compared to adults, children’s classification of animals as ‘food’ is less grounds for devaluing animals.

However, the food-status of the animal was not entirely irrelevant to children, given the harsher judgments they made regarding kākāpō (vs. chicken) killing for food. Future work that extends the present investigation to yet older age groups may help clarify whether adolescence is a transitional period whereby children’s moral judgments are increasingly guided by food-based categorisations.

Indeed, one potential explanation for the developmental difference in the treatment of food animals we observed may relate to categorisation. If children do not categorise animals as ‘food’ as readily as adults, they may be less motivated to objectify food animals to the extent that adults do. In late childhood and early adolescence, children advance in their ability to identify which animals are used to produce food for humans. As children’s ability to accurately classify food animals improves, they are likely to exhibit categorisation-based animal-objectification effects—a hypothesis that is in need of direct testing. SOURCE…

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