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One ethics lesson can curb your meat consumption, study finds
For several weeks after considering the ethics of eating meat, participants in an experiment changed their eating habits.
- Vegetarians often point to animal suffering and environmental concerns as reasons to stop eating meat.
- Despite these arguments, meat consumption has only slightly decreased in recent decades.
- In a recent study, the researchers were surprised when a relatively small intervention produced a noticeable reduction in meat consumption.
What would it take for you to eat less meat? The answer might be as simple as taking a couple hours to learn about and discuss the ethics of the meat industry.
That's the takeaway of a new study published in Cognition. For the study, the researchers divided 1,332 philosophy students into two groups. One group spent a day in class learning about the ethics of eating meat, while the other learned about the ethics of charitable giving.
Both groups were asked to read an article, participate in a 50-minute discussion, and watch an optional video about their respective topics.
The meat-ethics group was asked to watch this video on factory farming and to read James Rachel's philosophical article "The Basic Argument for Vegetarianism." In the article, Rachel lays out a simple moral argument:
- It's wrong to cause pain without a good enough reason.
- The meat industry causes terrible suffering for animals.
- We can be healthy on a vegetarian diet.
- Our enjoyment of meat is not a good enough reason to cause pain, so we should give up meat.
Tracking students' eating habits
The researchers tracked both groups' dining hall purchases, using data gathered before and after the ethics lessons. After examining about 14,000 receipts from 495 students, the researchers found a surprising difference between groups: meat consumption among students who had recently studied the ethics of eating meat dropped from 52 to 45 percent over a few weeks. Meanwhile, the other group's eating habits didn't change.
So, did the students suddenly decide to ditch meat altogether? Not necessarily. But the researchers inferred, "somewhat surprisingly," that "the decline in meat purchases among the meat ethics group reflects a broad-based moderate reduction in meat purchases rather than the conversion of several students to vegetarianism."
The reduction might be moderate, but it's significant, given the relatively small intervention: just a couple hours of study.
Why it's hard to curb meat consumption
The simple answer? Burgers, fried chicken, and steaks are delicious. That's perhaps the main reason why 95 percent of Americans eat some kind of meat, while only 5 percent have identified as vegetarians over the past couple decades, according to Gallup surveys.
Beyond taste preferences, it's also hard for people to give up meat because of culinary traditions and social norms, as noted in a 2019 study on consumers' attitudes toward environmental concerns of meat consumption.
But consumer preferences are changing. A 2020 Gallup survey found that 25 percent of Americans have cut back on meat, while more recent data show that people worldwide have been eating less meat during the pandemic, likely due to economic concerns.
Setting the pandemic aside, the 2020 Gallup survey found that people are cutting back primarily because of health concerns and also because of environmental concerns. The meat industry, after all, is one of the world's biggest contributors to climate change.
But despite changing habits and growing concerns about climate change, there's no indication that most meat-eaters are going to turn vegetarian anytime soon. Why? It likely hinges on the simple answer: meat tastes good.
One force that could curb consumption is the alternative meat industry, which includes newer companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, as well as meat-industry titans like Tyson, Smithfield, and Perdue.
These companies are betting not on consumers' ethics, but mainly on their taste buds: When an Impossible Whopper tastes, more or less, as good as the real thing, consumers might start preferring meatless products.
Speaking at Web Summit 2020, Impossible Foods CEO Patrick O. Brown said the two biggest threats to humanity are rapidly progressing climate change and the catastrophic loss of biodiversity.
"By far, the biggest factor in both [of those problems] is the use of animals as a food technology, globally," Brown said. "It's by far the most destructive technology in human history." He added that the animal food-product industry is more damaging to the environment than fossil fuels.
"By next year, I think our mainstream product will actually, if we do a side-by-side comparison with nothing by meat eaters, will be preferred by a majority of them."
Will that happen? Maybe. But the reality is that the future of meat consumption will be up to meat eaters, not environmentalists or ethicists.
- We're Ethically Bound to Eat Braindead, Legless Chickens - Big Think ›
- What meat eaters really think about veganism – new research ›
- Why some philosophers think you should be a vegetarian - Big Think ›
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
Meteorologists propose a stunning new explanation for the mysterious events in the Bermuda Triangle.
One of life's great mysteries, the Bermuda Triangle might have finally found an explanation. This strange region, that lies in the North Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda, Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico, has been the presumed cause of dozens and dozens of mind-boggling disappearances of ships and planes.
A unique exoplanet without clouds or haze was found by astrophysicists from Harvard and Smithsonian.
- Astronomers from Harvard and Smithsonian find a very rare "hot Jupiter" exoplanet without clouds or haze.
- Such planets were formed differently from others and offer unique research opportunities.
- Only one other such exoplanet was found previously.
Munazza Alam – a graduate student at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.
Credit: Jackie Faherty
Jupiter's Colorful Cloud Bands Studied by Spacecraft<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8a72dfe5b407b584cf867852c36211dc"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GzUzCesfVuw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
- The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.
Credit: Scientific Reports
Beware the Bobbit Worm!<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1f9918e77851242c91382369581d3aac"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_As1pHhyDHY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The idea behind the law was simple: make it more difficult for online sex traffickers to find victims.