Guest Column: Love cats, eat cows?

Hal Herzog

The following editorial appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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 statistics, we spend about $50 billion on our pets annually and donate an additional $6 billion to animal-related and environmental charities. This sounds like a lot until you compare it with 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 about the treatment of other species is also reflected in our behavior. In 2010, PETA named Bill Clinton its Man of the Year because he had forsworn the consumption of animal products and became a vegan — no meat, no dairy, no honey. Yet on CNN last year, 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.

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.

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 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, puppy mills 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 percent 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. Often, heart and head disagree, and this conflict plays out in our attitudes toward other species. 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.