Most people like animals and have no desire to hurt them. An estimated 63% of American households own at least one pet, and many love their pets like children, doing everything possible to ensure their health and well-being. At the same time, however, at least 80% of Americans eat animals as a regular part of their diet. In recent research, Brock Bastian and colleagues refer to this as the "meat paradox," and they propose that people attempt to reconcile this paradox (and reduce the cognitive dissonance associated with it) by reassuring themselves that the animals they consume (unlike their pets) do not really have minds - that is, they cannot think, feel, and understand their fates, and therefore they do not really suffer.
The researchers found that participants tended to see food animals (e.g., cows, sheep) as having lower mental capacities, such as the potential to feel fear, pleasure, or pain, compared to non-food animals (e.g., horses, cats),and therefore as less deserving of moral treatment. This denial of mind was more pronounced when participants were reminded of the suffering animals experience during meat production (vegetarians, not surprisingly, did not show this pattern), and when they expected to eat meat (vs. fruit) later in the study. In sum, participants appeared to be motivated to see food animals as mind-less when doing otherwise could threaten their own sense of morality. Not a flattering tendency, but an understandable one. As the authors note, meat not only tastes good, but it is also culturally and personally meaningful for many people, and some find it difficult to eat a balanced, nutritious diet without including some animal products.
In the essay An Animal's Place, Michael Pollan argues that although meat-eating is not necessary for survival, it is part of our "evolutionary heritage" and our identity as animals ourselves. According to Pollan, one way to reconcile the meat paradox without denying an animal's mental capacity is to eat meat more conscientiously, buying from smaller-scale farms that treat animals humanely, and in moderation, prioritizing minimally processed plant-based foods. Some argue, however, that this attitude is just another attempt at dissonance reduction.
Other ways to reconcile the paradox? Try fake meat, like Tofurkey and meatless meatballs (if you do this long enough, you may forget what real meat tastes like and stop missing it, according to a vegan friend of mine). Or hold out for petri dish meat, which is "a real animal flesh product, just one that has never been part of a complete, living animal." Why does that sound grosser than eating animal meat? Either way, this could be a useful innovation if they get it right -- no cruelty, better for the environment, and better for your health.