A new study shows that over time, children are taught to be less compassionate to animals used for food.
The study, titled "The Development of Speciesism: Age-Related Differences in the Moral View of Animals" found that children are less likely to discriminate between different animals, but learn to be speciesist in adolescence.
The purpose of the research was to learn more about why “people care strongly for some animal species and (at least tacitly) simultaneously endorse the maltreatment of others”. By comparing the views of children (9-11), young adults (18-21), and adults (29-59), the researchers gained some insight into how our view of animals changes as we grow older.
The writers begin by explaining that humans regularly engage in moral acrobatics, where they “hold ethical values that contradict each other and employ moral double standards”. Humans divide the world into “us” and “them” and justify different treatment based on these groupings. The writers note that “several countries have legal procedures in place for fair trials of national citizens while simultaneously detaining immigrants without a trial or timeline for release”.
Another example of moral acrobatics is speciesism, where we treat animals differently based on their species. For example, many people donate to animal welfare charities yet justify the cruelty of factory farming. The researchers said speciesism depends on “first…categorizing animals depending on their species and second on the belief that membership of a particular species determines a living being’s moral worth.”
They note that previous studies have found children to be more consistent in their morality towards people and animals. Children believe in treating people fairly regardless of what group they belong to. Given that this is the basis of speciesism, the writers predict that children will be less speciesist than adults.
Children are less speciesist.
The statements included “animals are worth less than humans” and “it is okay to test new medicines on animals that we wouldn’t test on humans”. Children were less supportive of these ideas than young adults and adults. Children also thought pigs should not be treated differently to humans, whereas young adults and adults thought humans should be treated better.
Children are less likely to categorise certain farm animals as food.
Children at that age had begun to label some animals as food, but the process is not complete yet. Importantly, although children did categorise some animals as food, this didn’t affect how they thought those animals should be treated.
Children think we should treat farm animals better.
The writers found “Children’s evaluations of how humans should treat pigs were significantly higher than those of both young adults…and adults.” Interestingly, young adults had the lowest score of all, which tells us that when young people first learn to discriminate, and then learn to temper that discrimination a little as they get older.
Children deem eating animals less morally permissible. When asked, "how okay is it to eat animals?", children were less comfortable with the idea than young adults and adults.
Other studies have had similar findings. This research found that children aged 4-7 do not judge animals to be appropriate food sources, with most 6- and 7-year-olds classifying chicken, cows, and pigs as “not OK to eat”. They also found that children often don’t understand that meat comes from animals, with 41% of them claiming that bacon came from a plant.
Another study suggests that "the common view that humans are far more morally important than animals appears late in development and is likely socially acquired.” They found that that children aged 5–9 are less likely than adults to prioritize human over animal lives in moral dilemmas. Children “often chose to save multiple dogs over one human, and many valued the life of a dog as much as the life of a human. Although they valued pigs less, the majority still prioritized 10 pigs over one human. By contrast, almost all adults chose to save one human over even 100 dogs or pigs. “
What all of these studies tell us is that we teach children to treat animals differently based on what category they fall into, such as “food” or “pet”. Children, although exposed to these ideas, have not yet fully accepted that the moral worth of animals depends on their species or category. They’re uncomfortable eating other animals, but most children are not given the knowledge of what happens to farm animals or the choice to abstain from eating them. As the writers say, we need more studies on the development of speciesism in children to learn more about when this process begins and how it plays out.
This study is a reminder that our categorical thinking, imported from the European Empire, is foundational in the construction of our society. As we grow, we learn to abandon our instincts of empathy and fairness, and to instead treat others based on their label. This forms the basis of not only speciesism, but also racism, sexism and all other forms of oppression.
Because we’re all swimming in a murky ocean of moral acrobatics, children offer us an insight into what empathy looks like when it’s uncorrupted by hierarchal social constructs.