In the following several posts, we’ll focus on Melanie Joy’s theory. That is after we discussed Norbert Elias who argues that humans relation to meat changed because they started to feel repugnant by their own animality and so gradually felt repugnance for meat, and after we discussed Nick Fiddes who argues that humans don’t eat meat despite that it is made out of animals but because it is made out of animals, and then Keith Tester who argues that humans who choose not to eat meat are actually doing so to define their own humanity. Melanie Joy however, argues that humans eat meat not because it is made of animals but despite that it is made of animals, and only because of a highly structured belief system that conditions them to see some animals as food and others as not.
According to Joy, humans are naturally empathic and caring towards animals, and only because of this highly structured belief system, which she calls the Carnism ideology, are they able to subdue their natural inclination and hurt the ones they actually care about.
We disagree with her Carnism theory, mainly with the power and influence she ascribes to it, and more importantly we disagree with the theory’s foundational assumption – that humans are naturally good and caring. Such claims are very appealing to flesh eaters and thus are tactically tempting for some activists. The biggest problem with adopting these false views is that it can convince activists to act against animals’ interests. Some might actually genuinely believe that humans are actually naturally good and caring, and that is a dangerous idea for animals. In the following series of posts we explain why.
We start with humans’ relations with dogs, obviously not because we think it is the most important aspect, but because its Joy’s starting point as well as a key element in her whole theory.
Wrong Species For A False Argument
Joy bases much of her essentialist assumption that humans are naturally empathic and caring to animals, on their relations with dogs. According to her, in many ways, it isn’t terribly different from their relationship with other humans: “We call them by their names. We say goodbye when we leave and greet them when we return. We share our beds with them. We play with them. We buy them gifts. We carry their pictures in our wallets. We take them to the doctor when they’re sick and may spend thousands of dollars on their treatment. We bury them when they pass away. They make us laugh; they make us cry. They are our helpers, our friends, our family. We love them.”
Before examining how inaccurate this description is, and even before questioning whether humans’ relations with dogs can be set as an indication of their relations with other species, the basic assumption that humans have a universal, homogenous, and equable natural state, is false, let alone when it comes to their relations to animals.
Humans don’t have one single universal nature when it comes to animals (or at all), and even if they had, it definitely can’t be based on their relation with dogs, which even today is not universally and uniformly based on love, and it definitely wasn’t so until recently, not even in one single place in the world.
Joy’s description may fit some humans in some societies, but even among these very same societies many humans’ relation with dogs is completely different, (and again – this doesn’t apply to other societies, or these very same cultures not so long ago).
Even if dogs were suitable candidates to test humans’ true nature, humans relations with dogs have a history, as well as conditions. Dogs’ love towards humans may be unconditional but it is not mutual.
Even the history of humans’ relation to dogs, their most beloved animal, is violent and oppressive. Love is very far from being an authentic description of the relations between humans and dogs. There are plenty of other aspects of this relationship. Thousands of dogs are experimented on every year. Who knows how many are tied to one place, which is also where they eat, shit and sleep, because humans force them to protect their property. Millions are still forced to serve humans in the military, the police, various rescue units, guiding for blind humans and so on. Thousands of dogs are forced to fight each other for humans’ entertainment and gambling, and hundreds of thousands are forced to race each other for humans’ entertainment and gambling. And of course, in south East Asia dogs are also eaten, just like pigs and cows.
There are also very high costs to humans’ “love” of dogs even in the cases when they are not being used to fill more explicit functions for humans but to keep them company and greet them when they come home. Hundreds of millions are left alone in humans’ houses for long hours which seem like an eternity for such social animals. This issue is very common and practically unavoidable. Other issues are even more inherent. Humans’ love for the cute and infants like, has produced dog breeds in which full-grown dogs resemble perpetual puppies. On the physical level, the babyish snouts of dogs such as Pugs and the French Bulldogs lead to severe respiratory problems. And on the psychological level, by breeding dogs for Neoteny (retention of juvenile features), humans have created emotionally immature dogs who are prone to neuroses.
The fact that tens of millions of dogs are killed every year because humans don’t adopt them, while puppy mills are allowed to exist, is also a strong indication of a more complex relations than described by Joy. Many humans fit it, but most are extremely far from it. And even if most humans weren’t so far from this description, it can’t be an indication of their relation to the rest of the species, nor for a natural state which is, as said before, a false concept on its own.
Who’s to say that social conditioning, counter intuitive to human nature, is in play when it comes to seeing pigs as food, but isn’t when it comes to seeing dogs as pets? The same logic that challenges social norms applies. Why does she infer from humans’ relation to dogs their alleged true and natural character and not from their relation to pigs? If humans’ relations with animals are conditioned and so they see pigs as food, no reason to think they aren’t conditioned to love dogs. She can’t argue that humans are conditioned and so we love dogs and eat pigs but that the natural relation is love as evidently humans love dogs, because by the same token one can argue that humans’ natural relation is exploitation as evidently they exploit pigs. If they are conditioned to exploit pigs they are conditioned to love dogs. One cannot deduce a natural tendency based on these examples. And if anything the later makes more sense since humans are exploiting animals way longer than they love them.
Though humans’ relations with dogs go way back, they weren’t based on love. Archaeological evidences indicate that humans have been eating dogs for thousands of years. In many parts of the world, humans have historically treated dogs as walking protein supply, feeding them in times of plenty and eating them when protein was in short supply. The Aztecs have even developed a hairless breed expressly for eating, and dogmeat was regularly eaten among many North American Indian tribes.
The fact that not all humans are shocked by the thought of eating dogs nowadays (not to mention by the thought of eating dogs themselves), and the ones who are shocked now wouldn’t have been so a few centuries ago, indicates how conditioned is humans’ love of dogs. It is not a natural love but a love with a history and with conditions.
If humans have a natural state when it comes to animals it’s opportunism. Different animals are classified differently, mostly according to the function they serve for humans. There is no static relation to animals and definitely not a natural one. That includes dogs who along history and among different cultures were and still are considered as food, labor force, hunting and guarding animals, and even as pests. In fact dogs were on the exploited list in the whole world for a much longer time than they are in the loved list. And in most of the world they are not objects of love but of labor, guarding, filth, or flesh.
If Joy was right and the love of dogs was an attribute of human nature, it should have been common, widespread, and universal. But this is not the case. The anthropologist Donald Brown of the University of California compiled a list of nearly 400 human universal behaviors that ranged from thumb-sucking to beliefs about death. While “Interest in bioforms” appears on the list, “pet-keeping” is absent. In many parts of the world most people do not form close bonds with animals.
And even the loving relations alone can be regarded as functional. The following are some common examples for academic observations over the relations.
Clinical psychologists believe that humans live with pets because they make them feel loved and needed.
And anthrozoologists have offered a wide variety of explanations for the human-animal bond:
Pets teach kindness and responsibility to children.
Pets provide “ontological security” in a postmodern age in which traditional values and social networks have broken down.
Like ornamental gardens, pets are an expression of the human need to dominate nature.
Pets allow the middle class to pretend they are rich.
Pets substitute for human friends.
Pets and people are autonomous beings who gain mutual comfort and enjoyment from their interactions.
While some of it may sound a bit too cynical, it is a little naïve and romantic to present dogs as those who humans simply love. Far more often than not, dogs are objects of affection in a world of emotionally unbalanced humans who find comfort in someone who can love them without judgments, envy, competition, ego and the rest of the complexities bound with humans’ relations with other humans.
Humans’ relation with dogs is actually one of the evidences for humans’ conditioned relation with animals. Humans love animals if they love them, amuse them, make them feel better about themselves, obedient to them, always happy to see them, are cute and cuddly, highly communicative, easy to live with in their houses at any age, good with their children and etc. It is no coincidences that dogs and cats are humans’ favorite animals. After all, humans have made them in the image of the perfect pet. It is unsurprising that dogs have become humans’ favorite animal, they have bred them to fit their own desires. Clearly an animal which was bred and selected to work for and with humans, fight for and with humans, protect humans, and play with humans’ children, end up being loved by them. A bigger challenge is for an animal which wasn’t bred and selected to be cute and loved by humans. Dogs’ ancestors who didn’t get along with humans were killed or driven away from human community, and the ones left were the ones who pleased humans the most. Humans’ relations with dogs are of the least natural of all their relations with animals. Therefore dogs are not a suitable model to test humans’ relation with animals.
Humans’ relations with different kinds of animals are absolutely inconsistent. There are plenty of evidences showing this claim is valid. To argue that like dogs, cows also have feelings, preferences, and consciousness, is not only valid, but essential, and in many cases effective. However it’s absolutely invalid to deduce that since some humans – not even most, and only during the last century if not less – love dogs, than humans’ true and natural relation with animals is love.
If anything, humans’ relations with dogs, prove how their natural tendency is functional, not caring. The fact that humans’ most beloved animal is being so vastly exploited in so many ways, by so many cultures along history, is probably the strongest proof of that.
Wrong Example for a False Argument
Not only humans’ relations with dogs are Joy’s indication of humans being naturally compassionate, but also their common behavior in a petting zoo, which makes her wonder how despite that everyone seems determined to touch and be touched by the pigs, cows, and chickens, these very same people, will soon leave the nearby grocery store with bags containing beef, ham, and chicken. ‘Where has our empathy gone?’ she asks.
Animals in petting zoos serve humans by letting them have a brief touch with nature (obviously absolutely false and unauthentic one) which they occasionally miss in their concrete lives. And the dead animals in their grocery bags serve them differently. In both cases, as well as in all cases, the animals are there to somehow fulfill some function for humans.
If it was a dominant ideology that magically mesmerizes humans to see some animals as edible and so not as subjects of compassion, humans wouldn’t pet the animals who are considered edible. There wouldn’t even be “edible animals” in petting zoos since it’s against the “systems’ interests”, as humans might like them and so refuse to eat them. And the “system”, according to the Carnism theory, is doing everything in its power to numb humans’ compassion.
However, the fact is that humans don’t find it hard to pet the same kind of animals they later eat. In fact along most of their history, humans have eaten the very same individuals they may have petted before murdering. And nowadays, humans don’t find it hard to read to their children stories featuring characters of “edible animals” while feeding them with body parts of animals of the same kind. The pig in the book is destined to amuse their children and the pig on the plate to feed them and their children.
Joy presents humans as cognitive prisoners who without Carnism would show compassion to animals, as evidently they pet animals in petting zoos. But it is the animals in petting zoos who are truly prisoners, a fact that she doesn’t even mention in the book. The very existence of petting zoos is not an indication of humans’ compassion but exactly the opposite. These are little urban jails of animals for humans to pet. The fact that they are not even slightly viewed as such, and the lack of affect they have on humans in the context of the animals they eat, are indications of the thesis weakness, not that humans are actually naturally compassionate.
Humans taking their children to pet animals in the morning and feeding them with the same kind of animals in the evening, is not like the case of the ‘loving dogs but eating pigs’, or a case of children who are begging to pet the animals and their parents dragging them from there, saying that these animals are edible and so shouldn’t be petted but eaten. It is a case of adult humans who are eating animals of the very same kind they themselves have just petted. If the Carnism theory was right, once the layer of alienation was cracked, humans couldn’t go on as usual. If humans were naturally compassionate the experience in the petting zoo, more than anything else, more than hearing how unhealthy meat is, more than hearing how environmentally unfriendly it is, more than the increasing variety of vegan options, should have changed their minds, or at least create the initial doubt about the social convention of eating animals. But it doesn’t.
The fact that humans feel they want to pet cute animals and not eat them doesn’t prove they are naturally compassionate, it proves they are not naturally carnivores. But the fact that even this experience of connection with animals they usually eat, is far from being enough to make them stop eating the very same kind of animals, proves that humans are first and foremost opportunistic beings who love compromises, hate consistency and avoid definiteness. It mainly proves that as far as they are concerned, animals are there for their pleasure. In the morning to pet, and in the evening to eat.
Dogs and petting zoos can’t indicate humans’ natural state even if humans had one. In order to try and characterize humans it is essential to go way back to times in which they lived more like animals and less like masters of the universe. And then humans’ natural tendency wasn’t to pet other animals, but to hunt them. When humans were closer to their natural state, other animals were a threat or a resource, not objects of love.
In this part of the series we have focused on humans’ relations with dogs, specifying how much more complex and varied it is than merely loving, as well as arguing how humans’ relations with dogs, and humans’ behavior around petting zoos are false models for humans’ relations with other species, and more importantly how false they are as indications for humans’ supposedly natural and innate caring.
In the next part we’ll specifically focus on humans’ caring and empathy.