Eating meat does not make you mean

Why vegetarians don't have the moral high ground
Remember Diederik Stapel, the “King of Cheats” in the field of psychology? In 2011, he was suspended from Tilburg University in the Netherlands for fabricating and manipulating the data of at least 55 publications over a number of years. But shortly before he was busted, he hit the headlines with the results of a study that he supposedly had conducted together with two other big shots from the Dutch scientific community.

 “Meat brings out the worst in people,” the official press release summed up the essence of the research project. According to the news, Marcel Zeelenberg Tilburg professors (Economic psychology) and Diederik Stapel (consumer sciences and dean of Tilburg School of Social and Behavioral Sciences) and the Nijmegen Professor Roos Vonk (social psychology) had examined the psychological significance of meat. “People say, meat is tasty, it’s healthy. But like many other meat products has also a symbolic and expressive value,” Zeelenberg explained. “Think of driving a Hummer or a Panda. With both you’ll get to your destination, but a Hummer is tougher. Like the Hummer meat is bad for the environment and climate. It is also bad for animals, the third world and our own health. But people can get quite upset when you tell them that. They are obviously very attached to their steak.”

In one of a series of studies, it was examined what happens to people when they think of meat. They got to see a picture of a juicy steak, while a control group saw a picture of a cow or a tree. Thinking of meat does not exactly bring out the best in people, Roos Vonk noted. People who looked at the steak had made selfish choices during a division game, they often chose in their own interest. In imaginary situations, they found themselves more important than others and reacted less social: in a fire they found that they often wished to be saved first, and that they were less willing to help someone who is upset. It was also found that after people eating meat they felt less connected to others, lonely and unpopular.

Roos Vonk, known for her columns and books about how our ego gets in our way, did not feel shocked. “Eating meat is a way to elevate yourself above others. But by uplifting yourself, you lose connection with others. It also makes people loutish when they think about meat and also feel lonely.“ Diederik Stapel added: “It seems that vegetarians and flexitarians are happier and feel better, and they are also more sociable and less lonely.”

Unfortunately, at the end of this nice and rather uplifting story, the editors had later added a disconcerting update: “The above study by three university professors to show that meat eaters are “selfish bastards” is based on fraud.” The faked study never found its way into a scientific journal, because Stapel’s misdeeds then had barely been exposed. It is not known if Stapel is a vegetarian himself, but if so, he made a compelling case against his own theory. 

But the question posed in these fabricated studies still remains. Do vegetarians, who make sacrifices by abstaining from eating a very tasty staple food, also behave more morally and prosocially in everyday life? This is a hypothesis that has been wandering like a ghost through the vegetarian literature for years. Now, Charlotte J.S. De Backer from the Department of Communication Studies, University of Antwerp and Liselot Hudders from the Department of Communication Studies, Ghent University in Belgium finally have subjected this assumption to a test.

The researchers presented their 299 participants several questionnaires that dealt with their eating behavior and their ethical standards. They also asked their subjects specifically whether they had donated money to a charity. Sobering conclusion:  “The results of our behavioral data suggest that donation to human-oriented charities are just as likely to come from vegetarians, flexitarians (who rarely eat meat) or full-time meat eaters.” The assumed moral superiority of vegetarians could not be detected in the data.  “In sum, the data indicate that vegetarians regard it most important not to hurt any animal. Yet vegetarians are not more virtuous overall.”

There are other empirical indicators that call into doubt vegetarians’ moral high ground: Most vegetarians aren't really vegetarians: 66 percent of the “vegetarians” had eaten animal flesh in the last 24 hours. And 75 percent of people who quit eating meat eventually change their minds and return to a diet that includes animal flesh. How can you test the moral compass of vegetarians when many of them make false statements about their meat eating behavior?

There is another, related question that also has long since been asked in the humanities. Do people who love animals behave more nicely towards other people? “Anyone who is cruel to animals can not be a good person,” philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer gave an answer that is deeply rooted in Western culture: Our relationship with our fellow creatures reflect our relationship with our peers. But a look at the empirical evidence reveals that the two forms of sympathy - animal love and philanthropy - are two very different animals.

Some of the greatest humanists of the past centuries were also staunch animal lovers, and both Albert Schweitzer and Mahatma Gandhi expressed deep respect for wildlife and humanity. The same idea recurs in many contemporary sources, veterinarian Elizabeth Paul from the UK University of Bristol points out: Those who show warmth and kindness for animals also treat their fellow people nicely. Cruelty to animals, on the other hand, is symptomatic of  misanthropy and sadism. However, there always existed another voice, which is only faintly audible today. Humans, who shower animals with lavishing affection are, according to this view, disturbed in the interpersonal sphere. In the Middle Ages you could even be suspected of witchcraft if you had too close contact with animals. 

In recent years, empirical research has shown that the idea of animal lovers being people lovers has become common wisdom. Passers-by who were accompanied by a dog were far more frequently approached by other people. They reaped more frequently friendly looks and smiles and were more often classified by other people as being friendly, happy and relaxed.     But when groups of pet owners were compared with similar groups of non-pet owners, the first inconsistencies came to light. In one survey pet keeper demonstrated a slightly lower “sympathy for other people”.

The comparison of the social networks of pet owners and non-pet owners also turned out contradictory. With students who keep pets, the number of interpersonal contacts is increased. However, a study with elderly women who kept pets identified another trend. They had smaller social networks.

A different approach focuses  on the overall societal level. In cultures where animals are valued highly, according to this view, the appreciation of human life is also high. Simple agricultural societies, in which animals are kept only for utilitarian benefits, therefore, treat the socially disadvantaged equally poorly. However, it is very easy to produce counter-examples. When dog and cat ownership increased in industrialized nations, the murder rate went up to. Even more extremely, the Nazis turned the theory on its head. 

In fact the relationship of the Nazis to animals is one of the greatest paradoxes of history. Although they did unspeakably atrocious things to human beings, they showed surprising solicitude for animals. Directly after they seized power an extremely rigorous law on animal protection was rushed through, strictly regulating conditions of slaughter and imposing harsh penalties on vivisection and 'unnecessary' experiments on animals. Dogs, horses, monkeys and last but not least the domestic cat, were expressly marked out as 'particularly worthy of protection'. This would mean the end of the "unbearable tortures and torments in animal experiments," Herman Goering cheered on the radio. He would  "send to a concentration camp all those who still think they can treat animals like inanimate property."

There were even provisions about the killing of crabs and lobsters in as humane a way as possible, and the leading thinkers of the National Socialist Party (who were often vegetarians) frequently and with much publicity racked their brains over the conservation and reintroduction of endangered species. This demented mixture of delusion, sadism and clear-sightedness is very well described in a historical outline by author Arnold Arluke.

Another theory suggests that love for animals and love for people do have a common denominator: empathy. Those who are sensitive to the suffering of animals also have very fine antenna for the feelings of their fellow people. But the empirical studies in which empathy for animals and humans were measured were inconclusive. Only a special subgroup, namely women, actually showed slightly increased empathy levels for animals and humans. However, even in this particular group, the weak association was overlaid by other factors. When women were pregnant or had children, their special bond with animals disappeared.

But at least one aspect of the original assumption is supported by the empirical evidence. It is an idea that was already expressed by the poet Jean Paul: “The small animal abuser grows into a hard, cruel man.” In the late seventies, the behaviorists from the FBI presented their studies of serious violent criminals and serial killers. Their brutal crimes were often preceded by a penchant for cruelty to animals. Strictly speaking, the triad of bed wetting, arson and cruelty to animals was an early indicator of later sadistic crimes. 

Seven unflattering truths about vegetarians:

Doctor Mengele and All Creatures Great and Small: Forgotten roots of animal welfare in the Third Reich:
Shared publiclyView activity