Research briefing: Developing the Future Normal

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» Research briefing: Developing the Future Normal

Many people love and share close relationships with non-human animals. These relationships often begin in childhood as we share our homes with companion animals and visit petting zoos. However, at the same time that we develop these early relationships with companion animals, we participate in a system that exploits other animals for economic gain through factory farming. In this article, Researcher Network member, Luke McGuire, discusses how this presents us with a challenging moral dilemma – how can we simultaneously love dogs and cats while eating cows and pigs?

The Vegan Society’s ‘Future Normal’ campaign highlights the growing disquiet and discomfort that many of us feel about how we exploit animals and the natural world. A crucial step towards developing a future normal that brings all non-human animals within our moral circle is to understand the developmental trajectory of this issue – how do children and teenagers think about how we ought to treat these animals?

Children from a young age are competent moral thinkers who are concerned about harm, fairness and justice (Dahl & Killen, 2020; Killen & Smetana, 2015). Research has documented that children weigh up different issues when making decisions about how to behave. Importantly, they consider moral issues (e.g. “does this behaviour cause harm to another?”) alongside social conventions (e.g. “what would my friends or peers do in this context?”) and issues of personal autonomy (e.g. “does this decision involve my personal freedom?”). Eating animals presents us with a conflict between these concerns. Specifically, to eat animals causes harm (i.e. a moral concern) but is also something that most people do (i.e. there is a strong societal convention). Some research has documented this conflict in childhood. Hussar and Harris (2010) asked 6 – 10-year-old children who were independent vegetarians (that is, their parents were not vegetarians but the children were) about their eating habits. Interestingly, this group suggested that their commitment to not eating meat was fuelled by concern for the suffering of animals. However, these children did not condemn others who did choose to eat meat. This example neatly illustrates that children who choose not to eat meat are concerned about harm, but from a young age recognise that societal norms promote meat eating as an acceptable behaviour. Promoting a future normal will require us to recognise the powerful conventions that exist for eating meat and animal products and are often enough to supersede moral concerns for harm.

On top of this motivated social reasoning process, research with adults has documented that whether or not we think it is okay to harm an animal varies dramatically depending on what animal we are thinking about. The philosopher Peter Singer defined the concept of speciesism as “an attitude of bias against a being because of the species to which it ‘belongs’”. Singer (1990) has argued that humans demonstrate speciesism by giving greater weight to the interests of human beings than to similar interests of non-human animals. Recent work within psychology has demonstrated that adults also demonstrate speciesism when asked about different kinds of animals (Caviola et al., In Press). For example, dogs and chimpanzees are afforded much greater moral concern than pigs and rats. One question arising from these findings is whether we are born loving some animals more than others. Recent work from Wilks, Caviola, Kahane and Bloom (2020) suggests this is not the case. When asked to make judgements about saving humans and animals in a hypothetical boating accident, children were less likely than adults to prioritise the lives of humans and dogs over pigs. This finding suggests that children do not see animals as less deserving of our moral concern.

Together these early findings suggest that childhood may be an important period in which to educate about our relationships with non-human animals on the road to the future normal. Beyond understanding social-moral reasoning processes and the emergence of speciesism in childhood, the very process of eating has important consequences for how we think about animals. Research with adults has documented that the act of eating animals leads us to think of these animals as less intelligent and less capable of suffering. For example, Bratanova, Loughnan, and Bastian (2011) presented their participants with a fictional animal which was either described as an animal that local people ate or did not eat. When the animal was described as being hunted for its meat, participants rated this animal as less intelligent and less capable of suffering. It is likely that similar processes are apparent in childhood and act to change how we view certain animals. As children are not born believing that humans have some special moral value over animals, it seems reasonable to argue that we are taught this somewhere in childhood or adolescence. As we learn about where our food comes from and see that this process is justified by adults, our natural reaction may be to adjust our thinking to believe that the animals we eat are less intelligent or do not experience pain in the same way our beloved pets might.

Children are motivated and complex moral thinkers who are averse to harm from a young age. At the same time, they do not believe that animals are deserving of any less moral concern than humans. However, by adulthood we diminish the minds of the animals we eat, categorise them as “food” rather than “friend”, and use reasoning to justify our place as morally superior to non-human animals. The developmental processes that lead us from harm-averse animal loving children to adults who determine moral value based on species membership are currently less well understood. This is slowly becoming an area of research interest for social and moral developmental psychologists and one where work is essential to move us away from the anthropocentric world we live in and toward the future normal.



Bratanova, B., Loughnan, S., & Bastian, B. (2011). The effect of categorization as food on the perceived moral standing of animals. Appetite, 57, 193 – 196. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2011.04.020

Caviola, L., Kahane, G., Everett, J.A.C., Teperman, E., Savulescu, J., & Faber, N.S. (In Press). Utilitarianism for animals, Kantianism for people? Speciesism in sacrificial moral dilemmas. Journal of Experimental Psychology (General).

Dahl, A. and Killen, M. (2020). Moral Reasoning: Theory and Research in Developmental Science. In Stevens' Handbook of Experimental Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience, J.T. Wixted (Ed.). doi:10.1002/9781119170174.epcn410

Hussar, K.M. and Harris, P.L. (2010), Children Who Choose Not to Eat Meat: A Study of Early Moral Decision‐making. Social Development, 19: 627-641. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9507.2009.00547.x

Killen, M. and Smetana, J.G. (2015). Origins and Development of Morality. In Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science, R.M. Lerner (Ed.). doi:10.1002/9781118963418.childpsy317

Singer, P. (1990). Animal liberation. New York, N.Y: New York Review of Books.

Wilks, M., Caviola, L., Kahane, G., & Bloom, P. (2020). Children prioritize humans over animals less than adults do. Psychological Science.

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