Is Meat Murder?

This column originally appeared in The Observer magazine/Guardian online

How guilty (if at all) would you feel after eating: (a) chicken, (b) tapir (a large mammal used for food in some South American cultures), (c) zebra (one of the latest health-food trends), (d) dog (sometimes eaten in China)? (If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, you can instead ask yourself how you would feel about a friend or family member who ate each of these animals). And does it make a difference if I tell you that zebras, while nowhere near dog level, are much more intelligent than tapirs?

If you said that it gets worse as you move from (a) to (d) then – like most of us – your attitudes to eating animals are certainly illogical, and perhaps even a little self-serving.

A recent study conducted at Lancaster University found that (meat-eating) participants rated it as morally worse to eat an animal that is commonly used for food in a different culture (e.g., tapir) than their own culture (e.g., chicken). The study also found that intelligence matters, but only when it comes to animals that the participants themselves didn’t eat. Learning that zebras are highly intelligent makes people feel worse about eating them (which is why I predicted you would rate eating zebras as worse than eating tapirs), but the same doesn’t hold for poor old chickens.

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