Non-Vegetarians & their Cognitive Dissonance

It is rather curious that humanity is still not able to extend empathy to all animals consistently. One would expect, a human who can appreciate and reciprocate the feelings exhibited by domesticated pets would be able to extend the same to other animals instead of making them his meal. The dietary practices are the way they are due to variety of reasons. Majority of them being religious, cultural and ancestral, others being geographical. I am not going into a scholarly exploration of non-vegetarianism. I will restrict myself in pointing out some of the common reactions I hear from educated non-vegetarians in my peer group over the last few years when questioned about their contribution to animal cruelty due to their dietary preferences.

A few disclosures are in order. I have been raised a vegetarian due to  my religion/caste. Being an atheist in my adulthood has kept religion/caste out of  my thought process and hence it is only individual ethical reasoning  that comes into question. To be clear, the cause of vegetarianism is not absolute, in my mind it wrests on preventing animal cruelty and not the aspects related to healthy living, etc. I am not militant about this, but often even an introspective question posed to a non-vegetarian is seen in that fashion.

First line of defense for non-vegetarians from this point onward is to use tu quoque arguments. The funny thing is this happens in a sequence, Classic goal post-shifting technique if I could borrow the football metaphor.

“you eat egg” ,“you drink milk”  ” you eat plants, they feel pain”
Egg or a plant has no central nervous system  and with respect to milk, there is no direct animal cruelty. I do concede that the means by which milk is procured is quite painful for the cows and this is something that bothers me and I ponder about quitting milk one day!

“these animals are meant to be consumed”
They are domesticated for our consumption, and they did not ask to be killed or domesticated for that matter.

“It is evolution, we have a role in the food chain, we are doing injustice to nature if we don’t eat these animals”
Before I validate this statement, it is interesting to note that mankind seldom respects nature. On a good day, we encroach forests, build apartment complexes over lakes, destroy forests and poach wildlife. It sounds so bizarre if we claim to save mother nature by having a steak at the end of the day.(Meat production is a significant contributor to global warming, not my main point though) . Now, coming into the actual validation, there is apparently enough biological proof  that homo-sapiens were indeed herbivores . Even barring this fact, being a life form capable of emotion not restricted to our own species and capable of productive and destructive activities using a highly functional brain, I find it odd we keep comparing ourselves with animals.

“Drug testing on animals is fundamental  before human trials, Isn’t that inhumane ? How are you OK with that ?”
Honestly, if there are better options out there, I am in for that. If there isn’t, so be it. I am acknowledging that if I am stuck in the middle of a desert and  I’m hungry and have no other options and there is an animal out there, I might consider eating it. But not when we have options.

“But you have killed ants, mosquitoes, surely ….. don’t they feel pain?”
Subconsciously, I am clearly programmed to recognize pain exhibited by higher mammals. It still does not imply I have caused holocaust of ants and mosquitoes by going on a murdering spree.

“World will not have enough food if we all go vegetarian” 
Maybe , maybe not. But this was not the intention of the initial question about animal cruelty. This grand standing is unwarranted, the world surely will come up with some solution even if meat-production  switching to agriculture doesn’t work.

“Meat producers will be hurt economically speaking”
Yes, they will switch to something else. If I was a policy maker or a politician, I would do everything to protect the industry. But, at an individual level, your beliefs need not be shaped by what it does to others, that too on a selective basis. The argument is very much akin to suggesting tobacco growers will be affected if people cut down smoking. The dilemma is not important for our thought process.

“Meat eating is in my culture, you would not understand it because you were raised a vegetarian and is not easy to quit”
Some truth to this, but I have tasted meat a couple of times inadvertently and I loved the taste. I had plenty of opportunities to convert myself to a meat-eater especially when living abroad, but it is a choice at the end of the day.

Cognitive Dissonance

Most of the time was spent in trying to identify my hypocrisy which I have admitted to when brought to my attention.
Very few people like to admit that
  1. They love the taste of meat and they would not care about anything else or any other argument. This is by far the most acceptable answer in my opinion.
  2. Religion/Culture forces them to eat meat and they’re extremely religious and would not like to get into a debate with me. This is the second best answer, because the veil of rational thinking and independent thinking is already out of the window or restricted.
People are guided by their own set of beliefs and sometimes, they are not followed by corresponding actions. Non-vegetarians like to believe they are ethical in a consistent manner, be it their pet dog or a cow/goat etc. wandering in their neighborhood. But when in doubt about their consistency, their psychological discomfort makes them avoid such situations and also mentally block any new information that can aggravate it. A non-vegetarian in most cases is raised as one since childhood. This means, the person’s choices/actions were not guided by his/her beliefs(since they were not framed), but rather forced. In these cases, there is even a tendency to justify one’s actions with on-the-go reasoning. Luckily, I am spared of this handicap.
Leon Festinger called this phenomenon as cognitive dissonance.




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