In the previous post regarding Melanie Joy’s Why We Love Dogs Eat Pigs and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism, we have focused on humans’ relations with dogs, being a keystone in her thesis. We argued that it is true that some humans love dogs, but not all of them, not in any case, and not in every point in history. Humans’ love of dogs is not a natural constant truth, but a relationship with a history and conditions.
Like in the case of dogs, it is true that some humans care about animals, but not all of them, definitely not in any case, and most certainly not in every point in history. Humans care for animals other than dogs is also not a natural truth, but a relationship with a history and conditions.
If her thesis was right, meaning that humans basically and naturally care about animals, and the only reason they don’t care about specific kinds of animals, is because they were taught by society that these animals are meant to be used by humanity, than humans would have cared about all the rest of the species. Following Carnism’s logic, humans were supposed to care about all the animals who don’t belong to the species which they were allegedly conditioned not to care about. But that is of course not the case, not today, and not ever in history.
Humans have always looked at animals in a functional way.
Animals who are not classified as edible, are exploited or harmed in so many other ways that it simply doesn’t coincide with Joy’s simplistic and narrow classification which presumes to explain the whole relationship with all the animals. Almost each species has its own specific history of relations with humans.
Many animals are systematically exploited or systematically hurt by humans despite that they are not classified as edible. If humans are conditioned to love some animals and not the others, how do zoos and circuses fit in? Most of the animals who are victims of humans’ desire to watch them do tricks or dispiritedly pace in their cages, are not classified as edible animals and so are not part of the alleged systematical numbing she mentions. These are not animals humans were conditioned not to care about but on the contrary.
Animals in zoos and circuses suffer all their lives not because humans were taught not to care about them but because humans’ care is extremely instrumental and context depended.
For Joy’s argument to be right, history should have been a story of harmony between humans and animals which at some point was destroyed, supposedly by some evil humans who wanted to eat animals, so they incited the rest of humanity against several specific species which suddenly were perceived as animals who it is ok to use, while all the rest maintained their former status.
Of course none of that happened. There are mounting evidences that humans ate every animal they could, no matter if that animal was killed by other animals or by them, and didn’t feel repugnance for any flesh, until they gradually focused on specific animals they found easier to hunt and tastier to eat. The edible ones weren’t chosen because humans thought they would cause the least guilt, but since some animals are healthier to eat, easier to breed and control, taste better, and are less costly to maintain. Eating predators for example, is quite dangerous, both nutritionally (as predators tend to eat all kinds of animals that might be dangerous for humans to consume indirectly), and since it’s dangerous to hunt them, so humans focused on easier and safer victims. Hence, the road to specialization in specific animals which humans realized were less dangerous, were easier to hunt, and later, easier to breed and so totally control their nutrition and physical condition, was paved. That is a more probable scenario of how humans ended up eating specific species and not others. It is estimated that in their beginning, most if not all of humans’ meat consumption came from scavenging. Their natural state was to eat everything, so if anything, they have gradually learned to feel repugnance for some animals’ flesh, and not the other way around, learning not to feel repugnance for some animals’ flesh.
Cows and pigs for example are classified as inedible in certain cultures not because they cause humans guilt. The reason cows are considered sacred by Hindus is not because they felt bad eating them, but exactly the opposite, it is because they wanted to eat them despite that cows were found more useful alive than dead because the Hindus have stolen their milk, used them to plow fields and as mobile fertilizers units since their dung contains valuable nutrients is very fertilizing. The origin of cows’ sacredness is functional, behind these religious prohibitions are economical ones.
Another example is pigs. It is no coincidence that pigs are considered inedible in desert-like societies and it has nothing to do with guilt. According to the anthropologist Marvin Harris the reason that pigs are considered abominable is that they compete with humans for the same types of foods and require a lot of water and so breeding them for meat is highly unsuitable for desert-like societies. When water is scarce and as a consequence so is vegetation, eating an animal which needs so much of it, is ecologically senseless and that’s why it became religiously forbidden.
Humans’ classification of animals is a result of opportunism, not compassion.
Humans have been eating specific kinds of animals long before Carnism could have been invented. The motives are materialistic, not ideological. It made much more sense to eat specific species and not others since it was much more ecological and economical. Once humans have figured that they can gain much more meat if they breed animals instead of hunting them, they chose to focus on specific species on the basis of who produces the maximum flesh with the minimum danger and costs, not who would cause the least guilt.
The beginning of guilt and doubts about eating meat came much later and it wasn’t as a result of discovering that humans actually care about animals and were deceived all these years, but as a result of social developments that actually had nothing to do with humans’ relation with animals or to animals themselves, but were about humans and only indirectly affected nonhumans.
In the first post of this series we describe Norbert Elias’s theory of a civilizing process and its crucial effect on humans’ treatment of animals. If you haven’t read it, it is highly recommended to read it before this one (as well as the other parts of the series and mainly the one about Fiddes’ theory). Here is a very brief summary of Elias’s theory.
Basically, the civilizing process mainly describes a gradual refinement in human behavior since the late middle ages. It happened due to a progression in personal shame and embarrassment regarding what humans saw as animalistic behaviors (changes in relation to nudity, waste elimination, aggression, manners, public behavior, eating and sexuality), and putting such “animalistic” activities ‘behind the scenes’ of social life (privacy in bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens for example), as well as changes in the social and political organization of human society (mainly the consolidation of political authorities and the monopolization of physical power).
According to the civilizing process, the social pressure for a refined behavior, which was further intensified with the revival of trade, created over time changes in humans’ psychology, as it required self-control, rationality, restrain of impulses and urges, and sensitivity to others.
Since one of the most “animalistic” activities is eating other animals, part of the civilizing process was a gradual change in the way humans eat meat. Whole bodies of animals gradually disappeared from the dining tables and were processed in the kitchens. It wasn’t that humans started to rethink eating animals, they just didn’t want to look like ones while doing it. The change in relation to meat is part of a general refinement in behavior and specifically around the table.
The point is that even the traits which are essential for caring about animals have a history and conditions. It wasn’t a spontaneous urge of caring by some extraordinary compassionate individuals, but a result of a long and gradual refinement process which started in the late middle ages and had nothing to do with how animals should be treated, as well as other factors which also have little to do with animals, and the little it has, is indirect. One crucial indirect factor is urbanization.
If humans’ natural tendency is to love animals how come the first calls for a kind treatment to animals came only once many humans were living in cities, far from any contact with animals?
If it was natural empathy that stood in the heart of the change in relation to animals, wouldn’t it make more sense that it would have come from humans who were in close contact with animals?
But the reality is the opposite. It was urban humans who were the first to make these calls.
And it shouldn’t really come as a surprise since humans, as opposed to Joy’s theory, don’t have a constant uniform nature, but are the product of their social and cultural conditions and so as long as violence to animals was a natural part of humans’ social lives, no one questioned it.
Ironically it is the distance and not the familiarity which made the difference. It’s the humans who didn’t see animals on a daily basis and therefore weren’t exposed to violence towards them on a daily basis who changed their minds about animals.
The conventional assumption among many animal liberation activists is that the exclusion of animal exploitation from the public eye enabled to intensify it. But it is the exact opposite. It is the distancing of violence from the eye of the public that created the initial conditions for considering violence towards animals as violence. Before the removal of animal violence from humans’ sight, it wasn’t even considered as violence. It was just the way things are. Ironically humans had to distance themselves further and further from their natural state so they can develop empathy to animals.
Another major factor, which is also indirect, is indispensability. Humans nowadays don’t need to exploit animals and this is a necessary condition for developing care towards them.
A lot of changes in humans’ lives had to happen so that some humans would develop some basic care for animals and so that real changes would happen in the animals’ lives. Humans had to not need animals to feed themselves, to work for them, to protect them, to transport them, to amuse them, and to wear them, before they could seriously talk about care.
Ironically the opportune moment for humans to express compassion towards animals is a product of their absolute control over the planet at animals’ expense. Humans’ natural state was conquering the planet while using animals and other humans, it wasn’t compassion and companion.
Only once humans have established their absolute control over other animals so they are no longer considered by them as threats or competitors, only once humans’ technological level was high enough for them to find other ways to get what they want and so animals weren’t considered as necessary resources, and only once their political and ethical thought was developed enough to consider suffering as a crucial criterion in ethical consideration, could some humans start to consider viewing animals in a different way. The point is not that it took so long (which is of course very important but not the case here) but that compassion to animals is not a natural and independent trait but a cultural concept with a history and necessary conditions.
Up until recently animals being tortured on the streets was a common phenomenon all over the world. Humans saw animals being tortured all the time. At home by their family, at their neighbors, on the streets by humans who transported them from the farm to one of the many butchers who murdered animals in front of everyone, by religious leaders as sacrifice, or during other public events. These humans weren’t more compassionate but much less, as humans’ views are mostly shaped by what they are used to. Nowadays, what was totally normal and natural scenes are not common in most of the world’s cities. So along with humans’ refinement process of the past centuries, and along with developments in science and knowledge about animals, and the developments in the field of ethics, humans could start being compassionate about animals. It is not a natural trait that was worn out by human civilization, but a social concept which could have only been invented in human civilization. That is not to say that human civilization was a good development in nonhumans’ lives, that of course would be the most absurd thing to say about the history of this world, as obviously it is the other way around. The point is to refute the false notion that humans are naturally caring and compassionate.
As oppose to the common misconception, technology didn’t numb humans’ feelings towards animals but in many ways established their care for them. If it wasn’t for farms getting bigger and bigger and so at some point were taken out of the growing cities, humans would still see violence towards animals on a daily basis and so wouldn’t evolve the required sensitivity to oppose it. Humans are products of their social, cultural and materialistic conditions, the violence had to disappear from their view before it could be even considered as violence by them. Otherwise it would have remained ‘just the way things are’. It was some urban and more educated and refined humans, that weren’t exposed to violence towards animals as part of the natural scenery, who started to show compassion to animals.
As in the case of human civilization, this is not to say that technology made the world better, as obviously it made the lives of many more animals much more horrible, but to point the irony which is that humans had to first distance themselves as far as possible from their natural state, from their own animality, so they can start feeling compassion towards other animals, which Joy argues is natural.
About Not Caring
Another indication of humans’ natural care according to Joy is the very existence of the systems of justifications for eating animals (meaning the excuses humans tend to give).
However, the set of defenses doesn’t function as a concealer of humans’ nature, but the other way around, it reveals it. It is not that humans care about animals but are mesmerized by the ridiculous, logically incoherent, nonfactual, nonsense justifications, leading them to act against their own will. It makes much more sense that when humans use such stupid excuses for something, it is because they want to do it in spite that they know that maybe they shouldn’t. Humans usually make up stupid excuses when they can’t justify doing something that they want to do, not when they are doing something they don’t want to do. If they were acting against their real values, against their own interests and their own natural inclination, it would take much better excuses than the common ones, to convince them.
Humans don’t show care when claiming that animals shouldn’t suffer in the process of meat production, but lack of care since despite that they know animals suffer, they keep supporting this cruel system. The truth is that they feel bad enough for animals only to the extent of feeling that they should excuse it, not enough to stop their share in the horror. The fact that one of the most common responses to the reality of animal exploitation is that “eating meat is natural but the way it’s done nowadays is wrong”, indicates that Carnism is failing in teaching humans not to feel. If they didn’t feel they wouldn’t argue that the way it’s done is wrong and should be changed. Humans’ claims that animals should be treated better before being murdered for meat shows that humans eat meat not because they were taught not to feel, but because their feeling of compassion is extremely scanty. They care enough to say that the conditions should be better, but indifferent enough to support the very same conditions they are allegedly against.
Most humans don’t want to see animals suffering, but their “solution” is to state that improvements in the living conditions of animals should be made, not ending their suffering and exploitation. That remains the case even after they are told that it is impossible to use animals without hurting them. Their will that animals won’t suffer is much weaker than their desire to enjoy their flesh.
Joy describes it as if there is a big, complex and organized formation of the industry that is trying to fight the vegan truth, but the sad reality is that all the flesh eaters need is for meat to be tasty, available and cheap, and at least one excuse they can pull out of their ass, no matter how ungrounded, incoherent, and stupid it is.
The fact that humans make do with such lame excuses proves how careless they actually are. They care about not being perceived as cruel by other humans. If they cared about animals they wouldn’t be soothed by such lame excuses but simply go vegan.
But not only that most don’t, most of the ones who did decide to go vegan or vegetarian, go back to eat meat at some point (according to Faunalytic‘s study which included more than 11,000 people in the US – about 10% of adults in the U.S. are former vegetarians or vegans, and 2% are currently vegetarians or vegans. That means that for every vegetarian there are 5 humans who were vegetarians and quitted). That means that many flesh eaters have tried vegetarianism. If there was such a powerful and mesmerizing dominant ideology as Joy claims there is, then there wouldn’t be so many humans who have tried veganism or vegetarianism in the first place since they would believe the lies and myths Carnism fills them with. And more importantly, supposedly, once Carnism is exposed – meaning humans have realized that they were deceived all along to act against their own interests, their own values, and their own nature, and so decided to go vegan or vegetarian – they wouldn’t stop, or at least not in the current scales.
According to a poll conducted by CNN, nearly 60% of those who state they are vegetarians, admitted they had eaten meat within the last twenty-four hours of the survey.
A telephone poll conducted by the Department of Agriculture also found that two-thirds of “vegetarians” had eaten animal flesh on the day of the survey. And one study found that teenage “vegetarians” actually eat more chicken than non-vegetarian teens do. That is to add to the fact that many “vegetarians” don’t include fishes in their “vegetarianism”.
Humans’ statements and actual behavior often don’t match. The best estimate of the number of vegetarians in the United States comes from a series of surveys commissioned over the last fifteen years by the Vegetarian Resource Group. They asked random samples of adults what foods they actually ate. These polls, including the most recent one from 2016, consistently show that between 97% and 99% of Americans sometimes eat flesh.
If it was true that humans basically care about animals but are mesmerized by Carnism, the distribution would have been extremely different nowadays. But the fact is that there are so many humans who were exposed to the concept of Carnism and didn’t go vegan nor stayed in their cognitive cave, but chose one of the various moral compromises that are available today such as omitting only certain types of meat like veal, consuming only free range eggs, organic chickens flesh, grass fed cows’ flesh or buying only from companies which supposedly maintain high standards of welfare. If there was Carnism they would do nothing because they were convinced it is ok, and once they’ve seen beyond Carnism, if they truly cared, they would have stopped consuming animals.
Carnism is supposed to be adopted or resisted. Adopted if it tricked humans well, and rejected if it was cracked and humans’ true nature which is supposedly caring and loving was revealed. But that is far from being the case. So much information is out there, more and more doctors and nutritionists are saying that meat is unhealthy and veganism is, all the more so vegetarianism, more and more environmentalists are finally willing to admit that meat plays a central part in various environmental issues, more and more evidences from the reality in factory farms are exposed, and still the number of vegans is in no proportion with what is expected if humans truly cared. Nowadays, no one, definitely not humans from industrial societies, is innocent. If Carnism was right there would be mass veganism not Meatless Mondays.
Most humans choose morally poor solutions such as reductionism, flexatarianism or “happy” meat. And that is in the relatively “better” cases. In the worst ones they simply change nothing in their behavior.
Besides the obvious speciesism, there is something practically dangerous in a theory that emphasizes the healthful, environmental, work safety, and natural affection for animals – it may actually increase animal suffering. Considering that it’s less healthy to eat cows and pigs than chickens and fishes, and since it’s more environmentally harmful to exploit cows and pigs than chickens and fishes, and since it’s more dangerous to exploit cows and pigs than chickens and fishes, and since it is more likely that humans would feel affection to mammals, especially big ones with big eyes and horrible screams such as cows and pigs, than to chickens and fishes – the very likely result of all this is that many more individuals would suffer.
Of course we don’t blame Joy personally for that, obviously she hopes that humans would decide to go vegan after reading her claims. But since humans love compromises, hate consistency and avoid thoroughness, it is more likely that most of them would infer from her claims that they should substitute cows and pigs for chickens and fishes.
The fact that humans’ solutions are so scant proves that it is not that humans basically care and all we have to do is crack Carnism which numb their care, but that only a few care enough to truly do what’s right, others care only enough to do so little, and most don’t care enough to even come up with more thought through excuses for their horrors.
Animal rights activism is not about connecting humans to who they really are, but to who they really should be. The problem is that most humans prefer to be who they want to be and not who they should be.
Empathy is not a natural trait of its own. Empathy also has a history and conditions.
Joy is Rousseauetic. She believes humans are naturally good and the only reason they act bad is because of a bad ideology.
To argue that humans are basically good and the reason they are doing bad things is because of society, Joy must show in what point in history humans were good. But such a period can’t be found. In the series of posts regarding violence, we have specified some of the horrors various hunter-gatherers societies worldwide are causing to animals, and in the first part of the series of posts about Steven Pinker’s theory of violence decline, several examples of humans’ daily treatment of animals along history, are specified. These atrocities are just a few anecdotes reflecting the incessant horror which is humans and nonhumans relations. These are not the deeds of a naturally caring being.
Though going back in human history is very relevant, it is not even necessary. Going back to the private history of each human also reveals a very different conclusion than Joy’s.
If humans were naturally good and empathic and caring, animal abuse wasn’t such a common phenomenon among children. Emily Patterson-Kane and Heather Piper analyzed the results of two dozen research reports of childhood cruelty among extremely violent men such as serial killers, sexual abusers, rapists, and murderers, and males with no history of violence. They found that 35% of the violent offenders had been childhood animal abusers—but so had 37% of the males in the “normal” control group.
The sociologist Arnold Arluke interviewed students as part of a study about animal abuse, and they have told him that they had poisoned fish with bleach, ripped the legs off flies, burned grasshoppers with lighter fluid, and “played Frisbee” with live frogs. Arluke tells that the following statement by one of his interviewers was typical: “It was like we didn’t have anything to do and we were bored, so it’s like, ‘OK, let’s go torture some cats!’”
Arluke believes that for many children, animal cruelty is a normal part of growing up. He calls it dirty play, a forbidden fruit, like swearing or smoking cigarettes. He thinks animal abuse enables children to play adult power games in secret.
In another recent study of college students, 66% of male students and 40% of female students admitted that they had abused animals.
Despite these horrific findings regarding animal abuse among children, we don’t try to make the case that humans are not equipped with the theoretical capability for empathy. The disagreement is on empathy’s theoretical extent, and its practical implication. In other words, on how humans are using their ability to empathize with others.
According to Joy, empathy is a substantive feature of humans which, if not interfered with, would cause them to relate to others. However, the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker thinks that empathy works a little bit differently:
“Empathy, in the morally relevant sense of sympathetic concern, is not an automatic reflex of our mirror neurons [the so-called empathy neurons—that allow human beings and other species to feel and experience another’s situation as if it were one’s own]. It can be turned on and off and even inverted into counterempathy, namely feeling good when someone else feels bad and vice versa.”
“The problem with building a better world through empathy, in the sense of contagion, mimicry, vicarious emotion, or mirror neurons, is that it cannot be counted on to trigger the kind of empathy we want, namely sympathetic concern for others’ well-being. Sympathy is endogenous, an effect rather than a cause of how people relate to one another. Depending on how beholders conceive of a relationship, their response to another person’s pain may be empathic, neutral, or even counterempathic.”
And regarding the mirror neurons which Joy also mentions, Pinker argues that: “they are mostly found in regions of the brain that, according to neuroimaging studies, have little to do with empathy in the sense of sympathetic concern. Many cognitive neuroscientists suspect that mirror neurons may have a role in mentally representing the concept of an action, though even that is disputed. Most reject the extravagant claims that they can explain uniquely human abilities, and today virtually no one equates their activity with the emotion of sympathy.”
“The overall picture that has emerged from the study of the compassionate brain is that there is no empathy center with empathy neurons, but complex patterns of activation and modulation that depend on perceivers’ interpretation of the straits of another person and the nature of their relationship with the person.“
So in relation to animals, it is not that social schemes have managed to numb empathy which otherwise would enable humans to relate to animals and never hurt them, but more like they have constructed empathy. Joy asks where did our empathy go? The answer is that it didn’t, it was there all along, being constructed by humans’ relation with other animals.
Pinker’s cover of neuroscientific knowledge refutes the very basic assumption in Joy’s theory by explaining that actually empathy is by definition a tool derived by ideas, not a standalone trait that might under some circumstances be manipulated by ideas.
The narrative that humans are basically good as evidently they have a capacity for empathy, is a bit simplistic. And that is not only since humans have many other innate features – some of which are not even hypothesized as being good (such as violent tendencies, the urge for dominance, authority, prestige, glory, power, revenge, and etc. for a more extensive review please see The Better Angels of Our Nature – part 4), but since empathy is not an independently good trait. It is more an effect than a cause.
It is not that humans relations with other species are a product of empathy covered by socialization and ideology, rather empathy is more a reflection of the relations humans maintain with other species. As mentioned earlier, humans empathize with those they don’t need to use anymore. So in order for humans to empathize with those they still use, they must stop using them first. So it is a little bit of a circular argument to ask them to stop using specific animals because they actually should feel empathy for them, while the feeling of empathy is a product of their relations with them.
In other words, in order to change the current state of empathy towards animals, the relations of humans with animals must change, and that can’t be done by pointing at the absurdity of feeling empathy towards some animals and not towards others, an absurd state which the very same relations have constructed.
Obviously Joy is the first to point out the different relations to different species, all the more so on the basis of how humans use them, but the difference is that she thinks that it is a product of ideology covering natural empathy, based on that dogs and pigs are not relevantly different, failing to see that the differences in empathy is not a result of lack of knowledge about the similarities between the species, but that the lack of empathy is a result of the differences in the relations each species has with humans – the function each species plays for humans.
Joy is pointing at the absurdity of humans feeling empathy to one species but not the other despite that there are no objective differences between them. Cows and pigs are no different in their capability of feelings, preferences, and consciousness than dogs. That is of course objectively correct, however humans’ empathy is not structured upon others’ traits but their own.
Similitude of nonhumans’ traits is marginal compared with the difference in the function they serve for humans.
Humans don’t need to realize that cows and pigs feel the same as dogs to have the same relations with them, but that cows and pigs have the same relations with humans as dogs have, for humans to feel the same empathy. Unfortunately, not animals’ features are the key but humans’ use of them.
Not only that empathy is not an independently good trait, it is context-dependent, and in itself can enable cruelty. One of the main examples of empathy’s malicious implications is the various ways in which humans exploit and manipulate each other, based on their ability to anticipate others’ emotional and behavioral reactions. Our consumerist society is one of the most apparent evidences to the common exploitive use of the ability for empathy. From the advertisement industry through stores’ manipulative shelves arrangements, colors and odours, to the global homogenous political game with falsity promises for personal and social security, on one hand and the various fear tactics on the other. Wherever we look, social, familial, romantic or professional frame, there is a negative use of the ability to empathize with others.
Even when empathy is not being taken advantage of by humans, it must be realized that its positive potential is very limited. Again in Pinker’s words:
“empathy is not a reflex that makes us sympathetic to everyone we lay eyes upon. It can be switched on and off, or thrown into reverse, by our construal of the relationship we have with a person. Its head is turned by cuteness, good looks, kinship, friendship, similarity, and communal solidarity. Though empathy can be spread outward by taking other people’s perspectives, the increments are small. To hope that the human empathy gradient can be flattened so much that strangers would mean as much to us as family and friends is utopian in the worst 20th-century sense, requiring an unattainable and dubiously desirable quashing of human nature.”
That means that there will always be injustice within the human race. Humans are wired to care for their own little group and use the rest (humans and of course other animals) for their benefit, and so even if the animal rights struggle, absolutely contrary to expectations, would someday be much more successful than nowadays, speciesism is here to stay. It is too profoundly ingrained into humans, deeply rooted in their brains.