We Americans like to think of ourselves as animal lovers. But is this claim true? One way to answer this question is to follow the money. According to government, industry and interest group stats, we spend about $50 billion on our pets annually and donate another $6 billion to animal-related and environmental charities. This sounds like a lot until you compare it to the amount we collectively devote to killing members of other species: $72 billion on hunting and fishing, $60 billion on animal research and $240 billion on meat, poultry and seafood. In short, Americans fork out nearly seven times more toward harming animals than toward protecting them.
Our cultural schizophrenia over the treatment of other species is also reflected in our behavior. In 2010, PETA named Bill Clinton Man of the Year because he had forsworn the consumption of animal products and become a vegan — no meat, no dairy, no honey. Yet on CNN last year, while extolling the benefits of his new vegetable-only lifestyle, the former president casually added, “Now I try to eat salmon once a week.”
Clinton’s convoluted culinary taxonomy shouldn’t be surprising. Studies show that most “vegetarians” eat flesh. For example, in a national telephone survey, USDA researchers found that two-thirds of self-identified vegetarians admitted that they had eaten meat in the previous 24 hours.
What are we to make of the muddled thinking so characteristic of our relationships with animals? Some years ago, I was discussing these paradoxes with Andrew Rowan, then the director of the Tufts University Center for Animals and Public Policy. At one point he looked up and said, “The only consistency in the way humans think about animals is inconsistency.” I call this Rowan’s Principle, and it captures the essence of our morally conflicted relationships with the creatures we share our world with.
The blatant inconsistencies in how we think about animals fly in the face of a fundamental psychological principle called “cognitive dissonance” — the notion that simultaneously holding two inconsistent views creates mental discomfort. When confronted with information that conflicts with our beliefs, psychologists say, something has to give. We change our attitudes and behaviors or we distort and deny the incongruent facts.
After studying human-animal interactions for three decades, I have concluded that it just doesn’t work that way for most people when they think about other species. We simply ignore the inherent paradox of loving the cats in our homes and eating the cows on our plates. In my experience, Clinton, who apparently sees no irony in being a fish-eating vegan, represents the rule, not the exception.
But some animal rights activists do recognize the logical consequences of taking animals seriously and often change their lives accordingly. Over the years, I have interviewed dozens of animal protectionists. Many of them extolled the personal satisfaction that accompanies rigorous moral clarity. As one man said: “I can go through my entire day without imposing any cruelty on animals. I am free.”
But consistency can come at a personal cost. One animal activist I interviewed quit his church league softball team because he could not find a decent non-leather glove, and another felt guilty driving his car because of bugs that were inevitably smashed on the windshield. A young woman confessed that she had given up dating because she could not find men who shared her values. (“Just going out for dinner becomes an ordeal,” she said.)
Then there was the doctoral student in mathematics who concluded that pet-keeping was immoral. So one afternoon he released his beloved cockatiel into the gray skies of Raleigh, N.C. But he sheepishly admitted: “I knew she wouldn’t survive, that she probably starved. I guess I was doing it more for myself than for her.”
The philosophical arguments for animal liberation are strong. But in matters of ethics, logic has its limits. The need for moral consistency led Joan Dunayer, author of the book “Speciesism,” to a series of conclusions that most of us would find run counter to simple common sense. She argues, for example, that our moral obligations extend to jellyfish, that a human and a spider are entitled to the same right to life, and that if faced with the decision to save a puppy or an infant from a burning building, you should flip a coin.
The public is increasingly sensitive to moral issues posed by factory farms, foie gras, puppy mills, circus elephant acts and even horse racing. However, most Americans tell pollsters they oppose a ban on hunting and support the use of animals in research. And, despite the convincing arguments that eating flesh poses health, environmental and ethical problems, according to the Vegetarian Resource Group, 96% of Americans continue to eat meat.
Current thinking in psychology is that our moral judgments are the product of two mental processes. The first is intuition, a process that is unconscious, instantaneous and ruled by emotion. The second is rationality — it is logical, conscious and slow. Often heart and head disagree, and this conflict plays out in our attitudes toward other species. For example, pure reason tells me that it is wrong to eat animals simply because they taste good, yet my “gut feel” is that the sublime taste of slow-cooked Carolina barbecue makes the death of the pig I am about to eat worthwhile. Logic leads Dunayer to conclude that there is no difference in the moral worth of a dog and a human child. My moral intuition says she is wrong.
The philosopher Strachan Donnelley used the phrase “the troubled middle” to describe the ethical territory inhabited by those of us who love animals yet disagree with extremists on both sides of the animal rights debate. Given the scarcity — and perhaps the impossibility — of complete consistency in our interactions with animals, and given the demonstrable limitations of both cold logic and hot emotion in matters of morality, it seems that for most of us, the troubled middle is just about right.
Hal Herzog is a professor of psychology at Western Carolina University and the author of “Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals” and the blog Animals and Us.