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Children are less likely to see farm animals as just “food”

A new study led by the University of Exeter has found that children differ dramatically from adults in their moral views on animals. Unlike adults, children claim that farm animals should be treated the same as people and pets, and consider eating meat as less morally acceptable than adults do. These findings suggest that humans are not born with the mental processes used to justify eating meat, and that “speciesism” – a moral hierarchy which gives different value to different types of animals – develops only during adolescence. 

“Humans’ relationship with animals is full of ethical double standards,” said study lead author Luke McGuire, a lecturer in Psychology at the University of Exeter. “Some animals are beloved household companions, while others are kept in factory farms for economic benefit. Judgements seem to largely depend on the species of the animal in question: dogs are our friends, pigs are food.”

In order to map the developmental timeframe of such views, Dr. McGuire and his team surveyed 479 people living in England, from three age groups: 9-11, 18-21, and 29-59. They found that the two adult groups had relatively similar views, suggesting that attitudes to animals generally change between the ages of 11 and 18.

“Something seems to happen in adolescence, where that early love for animals becomes more complicated and we develop more speciesism,” said Dr. McGuire. “It’s important to note that even adults in our study thought eating meat was less morally acceptable than eating animal products like milk. So aversion to animals – including farm animals – being harmed does not disappear entirely.”

The survey also revealed that, as they age, people are more likely to classify farm animals as “food” rather than “pets,” while children where equally likely to consider animals such as pigs as falling into either of these categories.

According to the scientists, although adjusting attitudes is a natural part of growing up, the moral intelligence of children is also valuable. “If we want people to move towards more plant-based diets for environmental reasons, we have to disrupt the current system somewhere. For example, if children ate more plant-based food in schools, that might be more in line with their moral values, and might reduce the ‘normalization’ towards adult values that we identify in this study,” concluded Dr. McGuire.

The study is published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer 

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