This post by Charles Horn, author of Meat Logic: Why Do We Eat Animals?, is part of an ongoing series called Most Common Justifications for Eating Animals, in which we seek to provide answers and resources to better address common defenses of animal product consumption.
“So you’re saying if I eat a piece of chicken, I’m a bad person?”
Many of us have probably heard this question or a variation of it before in discussions on the morality of eating and exploiting animals. It’s fascinating how a discussion on a societal injustice can become so quickly refocused into the feeling of being judged as a person in totality. Humans seem to have a desperate need to maintain a view of themselves as good people.
Ironically, needing to see ourselves as good people can make us act in terrible ways.
An article in Hazlitt and a related article in The Guardian a few months back discuss the idea that believing that life is fair can make us terrible people. Research beginning in the 1960s has shown that if we feel powerless to alleviate an injustice, we have a tendency to convince ourselves that the victims deserve their fate. We do this, apparently, in order to maintain a belief that the world is a fair and just place. People with a strong belief in a just world, for example, are more likely to blame sexual assault victims, feel contempt for the underprivileged, and oppose affirmative action. Holocaust memorials can even lead to an increase in anti-semitism, as people become slightly more likely to believe that the only possible explanation for such an atrocity is that the victims must have brought it upon themselves.
In the nonhuman realm, we can see this effect in how people often downplay the intelligence and emotions of the animals they eat, as if it somehow would make these animals deserving of what we do to them.
In a related fashion, I believe we can also see how our human need to view ourselves as good people can, ironically, make us act so much worse as a result.
Eating animals is a very strong addiction for many people, and many can’t yet see themselves being able to live a life without consuming animals and their secretions. Furthermore, our society completely normalizes and even heavily promotes and subsidizes this addiction, making it that much harder to break (or even see the need to break). But rather than viewing ourselves as partially flawed individuals who live within a partially flawed society, we need to see ourselves as good people instead. For many people, that unfortunately demands that they fight against animal liberation.
Ironically, the “good person” view makes us much worse people, while if we took a “flawed individual in a flawed society” view instead, it would actually lead to a positive change in society in the long run. For example, the flawed person would tell themselves that they might be addicted, but it doesn’t have to mean they should pass along these addictions to their children. The person would also be open, and even eager, to try every new vegan food out there in the hopes it would lessen their addiction. The person would readily support changes in society to stop normalizing and promoting their addiction. The person would furthermore never feel the need to argue for animal slavery, exploitation, oppression, and slaughter, or come up with endless illogical justifications for it. As morally unjustified as the addiction is, society would still eventually reach animal liberation under this view.
But instead, our desperate need to see ourselves as “good people” causes us to be so much worse as a result. To demand never-ending animal slavery, exploitation, oppression, and slaughter, and to irrationally argue that it’s justified. To teach it to our kids. To snub our noses at all of the amazing vegan foods now out there. To even hide ourselves from all the devastating effects of animal agriculture on other human animals. We are smart enough to go to the moon, but apparently we think we will never be smart enough to survive without animal slavery, exploitation, oppression, and slaughter, so why bother working our way toward it or making any effort at all.
So, what of our initial question? Does eating a piece of a chicken make you a bad person? It’s a dishonest question in that it attempts to bury a single action within the totality of a person. No matter how good a person is otherwise, the brutal injustice done to the chicken remains very much a moral wrong, and animal slavery remains a monumental societal wrong that justice demands to be abolished. But, on top of that, needing to see yourself as a good person as you eat those pieces of chickens most likely makes you act in much worse ways than you would otherwise.
See more common justifications for eating animals.