Is eating meat a free choice?

Imagine your close friend made you a delicious looking burger. Excited, you take a big bite and are instantly amazed by the flavour. Blown away, you ask them what their secret ingredient is and they calmly tell you “The patty is made from well-seasoned golden retriever meat.” Chances are that what you once thought of as tantalising food, you now perceive as disgusting and instead of seeing an object, you now see a dead animal.

Enter psychologist Dr Melanie Joy.

Tasty or tasteless? Image credit: Niklas Rhose via Unsplash


When Dr Joy was a child, like many of us, she had an inseparable bond with her family dog, Fritz. As a teenager she fell sick to a bacterial infection after eating a hamburger contaminated with Campylobacter. This experience turned her off meat, but more importantly gave her pause to consider that the animals she had been eating her entire life were no different to her much loved puppy, Fritz. Like many of us, why hadn’t she made this connection before? This revelation inspired her to spend the next few decades studying the psychology of why humans view some animals as food and others as friends.

It is often cited that veganism is underpinned by an ideology; a set of ideas, beliefs and principles. But the consumption of animals is seen as normal, natural and necessary, and most people who consume animals wouldn’t argue that there is any belief system underpinning their decisions, that their actions are just a given. The findings of Dr Joy’s research illustrates that the decision to eat animals is actually part of an invisible ideological framework, one which she labels ‘carnism’. Joy argues that the way we perceive animals is almost entirely driven by culture, and that carnism is a dominant ideology, propagated institutionally through government, corporations, the media, schools, religious groups and even our own families.

Dr Joy holds that carnism goes against our core values as humans, such as compassion, justice and authenticity. Most people care deeply about animals and their well-being, and don’t support causing unnecessary violence to animals. However, carnism is a violent ideology, which necessarily requires animals to be harmed on our behalf. Joy’s research shows that carnism uses defence mechanisms to distort our thoughts and numb our feelings so that we don’t fully realise what we are doing, which enables us to act in ways we might otherwise avoid.

Carnistic defenses hide the contradictions between our values and behaviors, so that we unknowingly make exceptions to what we would normally consider unethical.” – Dr Melanie Joy


The primary defence of carnism is denial, which is expressed through invisibility. The ideology itself is invisible and so are its victims. We currently kill approximately 56 billion land animals a year, with a large number of them raised in intensive factory farmed conditions where they are hidden from the public eye. Joy declares “If we deny there is a problem in the first place, we don’t have to do anything about it.” Out of sight, out of mind.

An example of invisibility in the dairy industry comes from the false belief that cows naturally produce milk continuously of their own accord. Like humans, cows only lactate when they have been impregnated and their milk is produced specifically to feed their young. Shockingly cows are repeatedly, forcibly impregnated to make dairy. Because male calves will never grow up to produce milk, they are a seen as a waste product to the industry, so they are separated from their mothers immediately after birth and almost all male calves are killed at several weeks old for most dairy farms. Psychologically, most people abhor veal as a meat, because they perceive it as a dead baby cow, yet they unknowingly supply the veal industry by consuming dairy, because of invisibility.

Our immediate natural desire is to care for most animals. Image credit: Janko Ferlic via Unsplash


The carnistic defence mechanism of justification operates by perpetuating myths which in turn distort perceptions, block feelings and then enable behaviours. For example, the dairy industry heavily promotes the idea that humans need the calcium in cow’s milk for strong bones. In reality calcium is an abundant mineral found in the earth, absorbed by plants and which can be readily digested from plant-based foods. Carnism makes it seem normal and natural that we forcibly impregnate the female of another species, steal her baby and kill it for an unnecessary food item intended for infants (something we might otherwise find morally abhorrent), by promoting a justification through the myth that doing so is necessary for human health. This psychological disconnect was driven home by a PETA campaign which demonstrated that people were disgusted by the idea of drinking dog milk:

Cognitive Distortion

Finally, carnism causes cognitive distortions. We use euphemisms like ‘beef’ to refer to cattle, ‘pork’, ‘bacon’ and ‘ham’ to refer to pig flesh and ‘milk’ to describe bovine mammary secretions. These words all act to deindividualise the animal being killed or exploited, and disconnect us from the process, acting to make us perceive the meat in the tray at the supermarket as an object, rather than someone’s body parts. We are influenced by words like ‘free-range’ and ‘humane’ from marketers to appease our innate care for animals and to justify our consumption by distorting our perception of how the animals are actually being treated. Most people wince and feel queasy when witnessing humane slaughter footage.

As Dr Joy summarises, “As long as we remain unaware of how carnism impacts us, we will be unable to make our food choices freely – because without awareness, there is no free choice.” If anything, her research and its findings definitely serves us with some food for thought.


2 Responses to “Is eating meat a free choice?”

  1. Jason Conley says:

    Thank you, Nicole. I had never thought about this until I came across one of Dr Melanie Joy’s books. Her work is very insightful and really made me reconsider the way I see animals.

  2. Nicole Nguyen says:

    The first paragraph certainly puts things into perspective! As well as that adorable cow picture 🙁 The psychology behind this is definitely interesting and eye opening. Thanks for the great blog post Jason!!