The Conflicted Omnivore

post by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2020-12-30T11:15:31.850Z · EA · GW · 4 comments

This is a link post for

Full-text crosspost. I'm not the author of this piece.

I recently made a quiz about what Americans believe about animal rights, and the results shocked a lot of people. 74% of Americans think that animals have rights? 32% think that animals have the same rights as people to be free from harm and exploitation? And yet only a few percent of the American population is vegan or vegetarian? How does that make any sense at all?

The answer is that quite a lot of people are conflicted omnivores: that is, people who suspect that it may be morally wrong to eat meat but who continue to eat meat anyway.

A study of omnivores’ attitudes towards meat-eating suggested that about 32% of Americans, 39% of Germans, and 59% of French people are conflicted omnivores. (Unfortunately, the study is currently unpublished, so we can’t take a look at their methods.) Conflicted omnivores are more likely than contented omnivores to be female, liberal, and concerned about animals or the environment. They are more likely to intend to reduce or eliminate their meat consumption and also eat less meat overall. Conflicted omnivores are less likely to buy into the 4Ns of meat consumption: that human beings naturally eat meat; that eating meat is necessary to be healthy; that it is normal to eat meat and vegetarians are weird and socially unacceptable; and that eating meat is nice and meals without meat are bland, boring, and generally not worth eating. Conflicted omnivores are also more egalitarian and less likely to think that social hierarchies are a good thing.

Studies reliably show a high rate of support for animal welfare and rights in general and for even fairly extreme specific proposals. For example, about half of Americans support banning factory farming. In line with this, animal welfare propositions consistently win big at the ballot box; while legislators drag their feet, voters are usually in favor of stronger animal welfare protections. And yet most people eat meat.

It isn’t unreasonable, I think, to argue that many people experience some amount of conflict between their opposition to factory farming and their interest in tasty tasty animals.

A study by Sentience Institute found that 75% of Americans believe they usually buy meat and eggs from animals that were treated humanely. Approximately 1% of animals live on farms where they are treated humanely. It makes sense that people believe they eat humanely raised animal products: it’s not obvious that terms like “free-range”, “organic”, or “all-natural” are as meaningless as they actually are. (I suspect there’s also some wishful thinking happening about exactly how often people buy free-range eggs.)

But I don’t think that’s the most important takeaway. The most important takeaway is that three-quarters of Americans believe that factory farms are sufficiently wrong that they are trying– however ineffectually– to boycott them.

I would go so far as to argue that studies undercount the number of conflicted omnivores. Most vegans and vegetarians can remember many conversations like this:

Vegetarian: Just so you know, I’m vegetarian, so if you could grill a portobello this weekend at the cookout I would really appreciate it.

Omnivore: You know eating vegetarian isn’t good for you. You can’t get protein from a vegetarian diet.

Vegetarian: [sigh] Actually, I eat plenty of beans, nuts, and soy, but about this weekend–

Omnivore: Why are you vegetarian?

Vegetarian: Well, I’m opposed to conditions in factory farms, but I really don’t want to talk about this now, I want–

Omnivore: Smell this meat! Doesn’t it smell good? Don’t you just want it?

Vegetarian: Actually this is kind of gross after a couple of years of vegetarianism but I really only care about whether I have something to eat this weekend–

Omnivore: What about the plants? That tomato had a FAMILY you know. And LOVED ONES.

Vegetarian: Look, I just want a burger, so can we please

Omnivore: God, why won’t vegetarians ever shut up about being vegetarian. No one cares.

(Ever wonder who the omnivores are in a conversation? Don’t worry. They’ll fucking tell you.)

And I think the reason this conversation keeps happening is that veganism and vegetarianism are threatening. A Jewish person keeping kosher (for example) is not threatening to goyim, because there is no reasonable ethical argument that we should be avoiding mixing milk and meat. But nearly everyone thinks animal cruelty is wrong: the position that the only ethical problem with torturing a cat is the distress it causes to its owner is held by maybe five philosophers. And many people are uncomfortably aware, on some level, that nearly all farm animals are treated in a way that would get you prison time if you did it to a dog.

But people want to eat animal products. Animal products are part of traditional meals, from turkey on Thanksgiving to eggs on a lazy Sunday morning. For some poor people, they are a cheap source of happiness in a stressful and miserable life. For certain people with some conditions– from autism to eating disorders, from allergies to inflammatory bowel disease– eating meat may be necessary for their health. (Of course, other people with those conditions may be able to be vegan or vegetarian. I myself am a lacto vegetarian autistic.) And most of all they taste good.

It is possible to maintain a web of rationalizations about this. Everyone else is eating meat. Everyone needs meat to be healthy. You only eat humanely raised meat (and let’s not look too closely into what those “free-range” labels really mean). Vegans are weird and obnoxious and cringe-y. But most of all people avoid thinking about it. These rationalizations are very hard to maintain if you think about the subject in detail. And it is terrifying to think that your only options are painful, perhaps impossible, self-sacrifice or going against your values as seriously as animal cruelty goes against most people’s.

Animal Liberation came out in 1975; we have spent the past fifty years trying to convince people not to eat meat. In that time, North American meat consumption per capita has doubled, and global meat consumption has tripled.

I think the reason for this is that it’s very hard to teach people information they actively don’t want to know. People do not want their web of rationalizations to be taken apart.

There are four steps to making an animal advocacy movement that takes conflicted omnivores seriously.

First: we must be welcoming to (non-defensive) conflicted omnivores. It must be clear that vegetarianism is not a requirement to participate in animal advocacy. Some animal advocacy organizations have nondiscrimination policies that include diet; these policies should be more widely adopted. Animal advocacy events with catered food should encourage omnivores with health issues to bring their own food and strongly discourage any sort of negative comment. Prominent omnivores in animal advocacy should come forward and explain what they do to help animals. Interpersonally, you should avoid trying to persuade omnivores in animal advocacy to eat less meat (they know) and should not assume every animal advocate is vegetarian.

Second: we should present a wide variety of asks and not simply tell people to go vegan. For example:

All of these are important steps which concretely help animals. We need to give conflicted omnivores a way to live in accordance with their values– whether that means political campaigning, putting pressure on corporations, or reducing meat consumption.

Third: we should shift to an institutional focus. A nice thing about institutional change is that you can do it while eating meat. Conflicted omnivores will vote for improved animal welfare. Corporate campaigns— where we pressure companies to switch to buying animals raised in a higher-welfare way– have a use for advocates regardless of their diet. Indeed, omnivores can be more useful here: you can’t boycott the chicken company that went back on its welfare pledge if you don’t eat chicken in the first place. 

Fourth: welfare improvements are not a permanent solution. The permanent solution is, in fact, to convince omnivores everywhere to permanently switch to a vegan diet. The only way to achieve this goal is with plant-based and cultivated animal products. We need plant-based meat and eggs that taste exactly like animals. In the long run, we need cultivated meat: animal flesh identical to meat on a cellular level but grown in a lab from a small sample of animal cells. The flip side of omnivores being concerned about factory farming but not wanting to make the sacrifices necessary to be vegetarian is that omnivores will become vegetarian when it is no longer a sacrifice. They don’t need convincing; they need an option that lets them live out their values while still enjoying their traditions and their tasty food. If the animal advocacy movement prioritizes that, we can win this thing.


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comment by avacyn · 2021-01-03T03:22:02.218Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for bringing attention to this phenomenon!  I've seen a number of polls like this now, which makes me confident that this isn't a fluke, and actually points to something extremely important for the movement. Another cool study from Psychology Today shows animal rights was the least controversial of six causes considered, including sustainability. 

It's a shame that in my experience, many activist are convinced that broader society doesn't care about animals at all.  I think this is a major sort of disillusionment and burnout in the movement. According to polls like this, there's an important way in which this mindset is misguided.

I've also thought a bit about why we haven't already abolished factory farms given polls like these. Adding on to the points you've already brought up:

  • Cass Sunstein has done some awesome work on how "societal beliefs" can be slow to change in response to changes in the beliefs of the individual in that society (I like this 80K podcast episode on it). This is a reason for optimism that we may see abrupt change in favor of animal rights in the future.
  • I think many people don't actually have "beliefs" about whether animals have rights / feel pain / are conscious, etc . Beliefs are an abstraction over ways they might act in various scenarios (the map is not the territory). People can answer polls like this yet still not have the ascribed belief, because in reality their answer is a different type of behavior (e.g.  an emotional response, signaling of group identity, etc). For me, this makes it less paradoxical how people can answer polls like this, yet still eat meat.
comment by RogerAckroyd · 2020-12-31T10:23:40.831Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Like the author of the OP I am excited about the possibility of cultured meat to reduce animal cruelty. If we want people to switch to vegetarian diet on a large scale it seems the most realistic way. Now, I am perhaps more optimistic than the author about the possibility of humane farms. The country where I live has stronger animal welfare laws than the US, and indeed than almost all of the world, and I do think that a non-trivial portion of the meat eaten in my country has been ethically produced. In longer-term, to avoid back-sliding of the standards, cultured meat seems like clearly the best solution anyway. 

(In making that judgement I of course am saying that I think raising and killing animals for meat is morally acceptable in principle. I have given the matter some thought, and while I am not 100% convinced that is the case I certainly lean towards that view.) 

comment by avacyn · 2021-01-03T03:32:24.162Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

[Separating from my other comment, since it's a separate idea]

There's a fifth idea that  activists might consider when taking conflicted omnivores seriously, although it's a bit ickier. Activists may be able to take whatever feeling is underlying the answers to these polls, and combine it with peoples' general lack of education around factory farming, and garner broad support for something that seems much less radical than it is. For example, imagine a ballot initiative that aimed to "ban artificial insemination" in the dairy industry. Given polls like these, people may be inclined to support it, despite being unaware that it could cripple the dairy industry.

comment by Jordan_Warner · 2021-01-02T19:02:17.609Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think this described me for a while, I gradually cut down on meat until I'm now a lacto-vegetarian (at least when I'm buying the food, I'll admit I just visited my parents and enjoyed having an excuse to eat huge amounts of ham and turkey).

I think it's similar to other ethical objections people have but ignore, most supply chains degrade human dignity or destroy the environment in ways we know are wrong, but ethical alternatives are either unavailable or inconvenient, which outweighs the vague guilt we feel if we ever accidently  think think about it too long. 

As you point out,  making alternatives readily available definitely seems more effective than criticising the constant hypocrisy!