Children motivated by morality rather than social norms

Children draw heavily on moral principles and concerns when discussing whether it is good or bad to eat meat and animal products.

New research has shown that young people are very aware of animal welfare, whether or not they find it acceptable to eat animals or their products.

Adults, on the other hand, tend to use societal-based reasoning to justify eating meat, citing that it is “natural” and “necessary” to do so – although they too rely on considerations moral if they take the opposite view.

This new insight into the relative prioritization of moral concerns about animals builds on research published earlier this year that revealed how children believe animals should be treated as well as, if not better than, humans. It’s a belief that children can tend to lose during adolescence when they begin to develop a sense of moral hierarchy that places different values ​​on different animals.

Researchers from the University of Exeter say these new findings could be important when considering global meat consumption and that any attempt to reduce it may require approaches tailored to different age groups.

“We know that children find eating animals less acceptable than adults and think we should treat farm animals better,”

says Dr. Luke McGuire, lecturer in psychology at the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences.

“Here, we asked them ‘why?’ they thought that. The answers partly explain why most children in the Western world are socialized as meat eaters despite their obvious concern for animal welfare.

In this new study, the researchers sampled more than 400 people, in three distinct age groups: 9-11, 18-21 and 29-59. Everyone was asked to rate the acceptability of eating animals and explain why. They were further asked if it was okay to eat animal products such as milk and eggs.

The researchers analyzed the responses and separated them into those that related to a moral domain – issues of welfare, harm, fairness – those that related to a social domain – as if it were natural, normal or necessary to eat or not to eat meat – and those that contained a mixture of the two.

Overall, 77% of adults said it was “ok” to eat animals, compared to 51% of children. Within this population of children, the researchers found that there was still a strong focus on moral considerations, primarily animal welfare.

Dr McGuire says:

“In these cases, some of the children say it’s ‘ok’ to eat animals, but they still express concern for the welfare of the animals. You can see them struggling with the moral dilemma in this reasoning. It may well be that many simply do not fully understand the connection between animal, death and food.

Adults who felt that eating animals was “ok” relied more on social reasoning, or a mix of social and moral domains, suggesting that it was “natural” and “necessary” to eat meat for a healthy food, but that the issues of ‘humane slaughter’ and ‘animal welfare’ were important.

When academics looked at the responses of adults and children who said it was “not okay” to eat meat, they found that the reasons were heavily focused on the moral realm, such as rights and animal welfare.

The image relating to attitudes towards animal products was less controversial, with 94% of adults saying it was ‘ok’ to eat them, compared to 89% of children.

“This lack of age-related differences speaks to the unique moral quality of killing in the use of animals,”

said Dr. McGuire.

“Children and adults seem to largely agree that because animals are not killed to produce milk, eggs and cheese, these products and practices are more acceptable.”

“Taken together, these results suggest that it is the knowledge about food systems that arises in adolescence that alters our reasoning,”

concludes Dr. McGuire.

“We are moving from focusing on ethics to thinking about human hierarchies and meat as integral to survival as ways to counter the cognitive dissonance we experience when we think of animal harm.”

The research, Age-related differences in reasoning about the acceptability of eating animalsis published in Social development.