Carnism describes the invisible belief system that conditions us to eat (certain) animals. This point about invisibility is an important one, after all, most people who eat animals would never accept this label, and will usually protest that they don’t actually follow this belief system at all.

Eating animals is ‘just what we do,’ they say, it’s ‘normal, natural, necessary.’ If
everyone around us eats animals, their mutilated corpses are displayed on television, on the side of buses, happy animals serve up their own ribs and wings in smiling caricatures, we never really stop to realise that engaging in all of this involved a belief system; the belief that it is justified to exploit and kill animals for our benefit.

This system is far from being a harmless one. Carnism is, at its very foundation, a violent ideology. It is not possible to procure meat without violence, but it is important that consumers are shielded from this truth. This is why you will never see a meat company advertising their slaughter procedure, and it’s why it’s so difficult to get anywhere near a slaughterhouse unless you work there. We all know that animals are slaughtered in these places, but we cannot see inside, nor would we want to. The animals who suffer under the system of carnism do so out of our sight and out of mind, which is exactly how we like it.

It is only in those brief, accidental breaks in that illusion that most of us are presented with anything even resembling the truth. An undercover slaughterhouse video demonstrates what is essentially just standard industry practice, in response we demand change and that someone is held responsible. The mistake isn’t that the animal was treated so poorly, it’s that for a moment, the mask slipped and we as consumers were forced to look at what we would
rather not see. That is not acceptable to us.

The invisibility of carnism is one of the things that makes it so powerful, and it remains invisible by being an unnamed social norm. It achieves this by keeping its victims out of sight and out of public consciousness. Animals are the most obvious victims of course, most of them being hidden inside large, windowless facilities far away from public view, yet they are not the only ones. As we already know, animal agriculture, and therefore carnism, also victimises our environment, workers and the consumers themselves.

Carnism is a useful descriptor precisely because it is invisible, and as a consequence of that it is not a system we have ever really tried to name. If people who oppose animal exploitation are vegans but there is no word for those who support it, then it makes it look as if animal exploitation is the default position, the ‘normal’ behaviour, making any alternative viewpoint abnormal by comparison. It doesn’t help that carnism is reinforced so often and so thoroughly in our everyday lives. This is a belief system that almost everyone we know subscribes to and it is pushed on us from birth by social and cultural norms, as well as a multi-billion-dollar industry and its propaganda.

We are encouraged to divorce ourselves from the reality of animal farming, we
see idealised family farms on the front of our factory farmed meat packages, if we see them at all, and even our language contributes to this. We eat ‘pork,’ not pigs, ‘beef’ not cows, ‘veal’ not calves. We all know that these products come from animals, but to know it intellectually is not quite the same as truly understanding it. We look at a dismembered corpse on our plate and we see food, rather than someone else’s rib cage. When we finally do see it for what
it is, when we finally see an animal rather than food, it is a shocking and profound epiphany; like a veil being lifted. We vegans call this ‘making the connection,’ and once it happens, it can never really be undone.

The really interesting thing about carnism is that it’s not a belief system that anyone actually chooses. Has anyone ever really asked you if you believe in eating animals? Most peoplenever even consider the question, we eat what our parents give us, and they give us what their parents give them, without anyone in the chain ever stopping to really think about whether or not this what they actually believe is ethical. Most of us put more thought into what we want to season our meat with than which animals we are eating, and why.

This is one of the reasons why people can be made so uncomfortable and defensive by vegans, encountering us is often the first time they’ve ever really had these beliefs challenged in any meaningful way. Until a vegan arrives at the dinner table there ar no ‘carnists; or ‘vegans,’ there are just ‘eaters,’ and no one feels the need to pick a side. When faced with us, however, we are reminded that eating animals is a choice. By the time this happens, eating animals is already such an ingrained behaviour that we are then forced to defend it, which is why we come up with quite so many irrational justifications in defence of
eating animals, or why we eat some animals and not others.


Carnism as an ideology is part of a larger belief-system known as speciesism. Speciesism is the belief that the human species is superior to all others, and it refers to the institutionalisation of this belief within our society. Our medicine, science, food, philosophy, and politics all work under the basic assumption that human animals are just inherently superior to non-human animals, and that our lives are therefore more valuable.

Humans can indeed be argued to have superiority in many ways – in our intelligence, in our technology, our ability to create and to plan, but none of these things mean that we are of more moral value than any other animal. When vegans talk about equality between species, this is usually what we are referring to. We aren’t arguing that non-human animals and human animals are on the same level in every arena, or that animals should have exactly the same rights as humans, but we are asserting the basic principle that animals do morally matter.

The principle of equality demands that similar interests deserve similar treatment regardless of race, sexuality, gender identity or species. Speciesism, like all forms of discrimination and oppression, violates this truth by treating similar interests unequally. The speciesist values the interests of their own group, their own species, over any other – even in cases where the interests of others should clearly take precedence. When an animal’s life and liberty is weighed against a human’s desire to eat their flesh, the animal’s interests would be more important in any fair assessment of the situation. It is only speciesism that allows us to choose our own palette pleasure over the life of a sentient being.

Like carnism, speciesism is a mentality that most of us can go our whole lives without ever really noticing. The more widespread an ideology is, the less noticeable it becomes. We are all socialised to be speciesist, it is how we are raised, how we are conditioned from birth. If you and everyone you have ever met are speciesist, you would recognise it far less than if only half of you were. Without anything to compare it to, speciesism is just the norm, and norms don’t need to be named or evaluated. It is only when compared with veganism that
speciesism becomes visible, which is one of the main reasons why people feel so threatened by veganism as an ideology.

Speciesism is not a belief system that anyone arrives at through logic, but humans have tried to justify their superiority and subsequent domination of all other species in a variety of ways. The appeal to intelligence is perhaps the most common of these, the argument that since humans are vastly more intelligent than other animals, we are superior and therefore our interests matter more. However, intelligence is a poor way to judge moral worth. Are we really happy to suppose that the interests of intelligent humans matter more than those who
are less intelligent?

Besides, we don’t select which animals we want to eat and which ones we refuse to on the basis of intelligence. Pigs are at least as intelligent as dogs, yet we love one and slaughter the other. If it were really about intelligence, we’d be eating less complex creatures exclusively – mostly worms, bivalves and insects.
Speciesism doesn’t just manifest in how we view ourselves in relation to the rest of the animal kingdom, it also determines how we view animals relative to each other. Humans have imposed this bizarre hierarchy onto other animals on the basis of arbitrary criteria, dogs are pets, cows are food, we eat chickens but not seagulls, goats but not cats.

We can grasp at straws to try to justify the places of the various animals in the hierarchy we have set out for them, but what it really comes down to is that we assume our designation of an animal as food, as a pet, a test subject or a source of entertainment fundamentally changes something about their moral worth. Pigs and cows are not entitled to live their lives because we say so, not because of anything inherent in the animals themselves. This speciesism is endemic in our society; it infects our politics, our ethics and even our legislation.

Just look at how our animal cruelty laws are determined. What can legally be done to a pig on even a high-welfare farm or in a slaughterhouse would land you in prison if you did it to a dog. Pigs at least have laws that do apply to them but, in the US, chickens and other poultry are excluded from almost all animal protection laws. Things are even worse for fish, who have almost no protection anywhere in the world. There is no real attempt to rationally justify why some animals should have more protection than others either, or why intelligence
should be a significant factor in how much pain it is legal to subject an animal to.

There is no rational justification for any of this precisely because speciesism is not a rational ideology; it is one borne out of prejudice, discimination and ignorance. In all the ways that matter, non-human animals are our equals. Animals suffer just as we do, they too would prefer comfort to pain, being fed to being starved, staying alive to being slaughtered. That animals cannot compose a symphony or sculpt a statue is absolutely irrelevant when it comes to how we are to treat them. Animals are the centres of their own unique experiences, personalities and identities. There is no logical reason to assume that a
lamb values their life any less than we value ours.

We are all speciesists to varying degrees and going vegan won’t immediately change this. We can only overcome our prejudice through the long process of examining and dispensing with the internal biases we may not even be aware that we hold. This can be a difficult thing to reflect on, and you may find yourself learning things about yourself that you are not entirely comfortable with. This is why we must rethink animal use in all its forms, and learn precisely
what it is that we have been supporting all of these years.


In order to maintain the speciesist view of animals as inherently lesser, it is also necessary to believe that they are intrinsically other. Animals cannot be effectively oppressed and exploited as commodities if the public relate too strongly to them, so a conscious effort is made to remind us of our differences rather than our sameness.

Yet this gulf of separation assumed between human animals and non-human animals is not universal, and is still a relatively recent social phenomenon. Many indigenous cultures maintain a deep understanding of the relationship between
humans and animals,61 with many ancient oral traditions still recognising animals as kin, no matter how different from us they appear to be. That view of animals as fellow travellers and spiritual entities with their own lives and value could scarcely be any different to our modern conception of animals as radically different and wholly inferior.

While basic biology and animal psychology has moved us away from that Cartesian idea of animals as unthinking automata, the idea that animals are irredeemably different to us and therefore less than us, has largely been maintained. This misguided philosophy has not been a result of our scientific understanding of animals, which has increasingly revealed to us the complex inner lives of animals and our shared evolutionary history, it is more the result of necessity than evidence.

After all, if we acknowledged that animals are far more biologically, cognitively and emotionally similar to us than we would like to admit, how could we justify our continued exploitation of them? This is the reason for our constant insistence that animals must be both separate from us and lower than us – such a fabrication is necessary to maintain the violent ideology of carnism.

Our natural human capacity for empathy makes us relate to those who are like us, which limits the cruelty we are able to inflict upon them. This is perhaps why all exploited groups are made ‘other’- a group is first separated, then isolated, then systematically oppressed. What’s more, any attempts to point out the similarities of humans and non-human animals are met with derision, or dismissed as anthropomorphism. Yet this hierarchy of animals is a strictly human way of organising the world, and is based on some fairly arbitrary standards.

Is a dog less ‘other’ than a pig? Has one earned their lives by their relationship with humans, whereas the other has not? It is not just the case that we ‘other’ non-human animals in order to make them separate from us, but the way in which we other groups are in many ways modelled on our existing othering of animals. In social psychology, the Interspecies Model of Prejudice proposes that
the greater the human-animal divide, the more value is placed in representing human groups as ‘animal-like,’ which serves to exacerbate prejudice against said group. As Dr Gordon Hodgson puts it:

“Put simply, we dehumanize other human groups because we consider animals beneath humans in value and worth in the first place. If we didn’t, representing others as animal-like would have no social currency.”

The narrative of human supremacy over animals has been a dominant one for centuries, yet the flaws in this story are beginning to show. Animals have been able to live ecologically successful lives in harmony with their environment for millennia, while we have destroyed ours. We have discovered the existence of animals who have developed senses beyond our comprehension, who seem to possess knowledge and abilities that we cannot fully explain. No longer can any scientifically minded individual seriously contest that animals do not
possess sentience or any degree of consciousness, or that they do not value their own lives.

No one who has ever spent any significant time around animals can deny their capacity for emotion, their unique personalities and experiences of the world. These are the ways in which we share an intrinsic kinship with animals as fellow earthlings – they resemble us in all the ways that matter.
All this being the case, we do not need to insist that animals are identical or even similar to us in order to be worthy of moral value, since humans are not the bench-mark for beings who matter.

Animals do not have moral value only insofar as they resemble humans. It is tempting to argue for animal rights on the basis of how similar animals are to us, in their capacity to think, feel, experience fear, joy, sorrow and hope. While it is perfectly true that non-human animals do resemble us in many significant ways, we still can acknowledge our differences while recognising the inherent value of all beings. Though writing in the context of human othering, John Powell, Director of the Haas Institute For a Fair and Inclusive Society puts it beautifully:

“The opposite of Othering is not ‘saming’, it is belonging. And belonging does not insist that we are all the same.”


Carnism and speciesism survive not only by keeping the truth hidden from us, maintaining these ideologies also requires us to deny truths even when we do stumble upon them. The fact that the meat and dairy industry spends millions of dollars on propaganda will come as no surprise, since these industries have an obvious vested interest in actively hiding and distorting the truth.

We have seen this in multiple campaigns, factory farms displaying green
fields on the packaging of a product produced in a warehouse, ‘Got Milk’ propagating blatant falsities about the health benefits of dairy, and just about any advert would have us believe in the idyllic lie of a utopian version of animal agriculture. What is far more surprising though, is that much of this distortion and denial of basic, verifiable facts comes not just from the industries, but from consumers themselves.

It is fairly uncontroversial to acknowledge that many people remain shockingly ignorant of how their food is produced, and that applies to many vegans as well. When it comes to animal agriculture practices however, what people exhibit is often more than mere ignorance, but active denialism. In the same way that climate change deniers actively work to obscure demonstrable fact, people very often seek to deny practices that are not even secretive, often ones that are openly acknowledged and discussed by the industry themselves.

It goes far beyond simply not knowing, and becomes an active process of revising and denying truths which cannot rationally be denied. Take dairy as an example. It is an undeniable fact that female cows need to be impregnated
to produce milk, it is also well understood that dairy calves are often separated from their mothers shortly after birth, and that many male calves are killed. This last practice is slightly more hushed, but none of these are difficult to verify with a quick search online, which will yield testimonies, inspection reports, mainstream media articles, industry websites and hundreds of hours of footage demonstrating that these are standard practices.

Yet, consumers routinely deny that this happens, believing dairy cows to be milk producing machines who need to be constantly milked no matter what, and that this is for their own good. On the less extreme end of the spectrum, many believe that the milk sold in stores is purely ‘excess’ after the calf has been fed, which is again completely untrue for the vast majority of commercially sold dairy. The industry does not even need to cover up after itself or obscure the truth, because the desire of consumers not to know facts that may inspire guilt is so powerful that it does the work for them.

This, as it turns out, is an even more significant vested interest than profit,
since it drives people to extremes of denial, and not just individual denial either. Entire groups maintain what are blatant falsehoods – that animal abuse only happens on the worst farms, that animals don’t suffer when their throats are slit, that animals who are killed for their flesh live good lives and have dignified deaths. These untruths are socially accepted and have become deeply ingrained in the social fabric of meat eating that they have formed part of a publicly maintained mythology surrounding our food and where it comes from.

It would be easy to dismiss this as simple ignorance, that the public just aren’t well informed on animal agriculture and so they believe things that aren’t true. This is easy to believe until you begin to appreciate the scale of the beliefs held by so many people which are just intuitively false, even without having any information on the topic to hand. For example, almost every vegan has had it said, to their face or online, that ‘we can’t survive without meat.’ It is one thing to not know that you can get calcium without milk, for example, but to
say to a living vegan that we cannot live without animal products isn’t a case of ignorance, it is the wilful denial of self-evident truths.

Similarly, those who defend animal product consumption do so using arguments they would recognise as being deeply flawed in any other context, such as meat eating being ‘natural’ and therefore moral, or that it is ‘normal’ and so morally justified. These bizarre denials are evidence that what we are dealing with is
not mere ignorance, but an almost perfect example of Orwellian principle of ‘doublethink.’ Comparisons can be drawn between this denialism and other forms which are more widely recognised. Climate change denial similarly relies on the dismissal of a huge body of evidence that our world is getting warmer, that extreme temperatures and weather are the result of a global trend, and that humans are causing an environmental crisis.

Evidence of this is easily accessible and there is an overwhelming scientific consensus on it, yet it is still denied by a not insignificant portion of the population. Just like the facts of animal agriculture, climate change is denied by those who have a vested interest in not knowing – particularly those with
an incentive to deny that their own actions are having a negative impact on our world. Curiously, many environmentalists who scoff at climate change deniers are themselves guilty of similar delusions, refusing to acknowledge or discuss the massive role of animal agriculture in global warming.

Evidence of animal abuse and environmental damage across the entire sector of animal agriculture is abundant, from small farms to factory farms. This information is so easily accessible online that the only possible reason we can have for not knowing is that we just don’t want to. This is not to condemn
anyone – that impulse is very understandable, because who really wants to actively seek out information that they will make them feel guilty and possibly even compel them to give up the things they enjoy? But to choose to contradict verifiable facts based solely out of a desire for them not to be true is not only insincere, but dangerous.

These beliefs are easily identifiable as lies, yet they remain appealing regardless. This is particularly the case when it is backed by social norms and entire groups who all agree to believe the same thing, regardless of how much evidence they are shown to challenge it. The widespread belief in the lies of animal agriculture has less to do with the availability of information and more to do with our unwillingness to seek it out.

Cognitive Dissonance

Denialism goes further than just denying obvious truths, it sometimes results in a person’s behaviour being completely incongruent with their beliefs, just as we often see people who eat animals holding two seemingly contradictory beliefs simultaneously. This phenomenon is something that psychologists call ‘cognitive dissonance’; first investigated by Leon Festinger in the context of cult behaviour.

Perhaps the most common example of cognitive dissonance in the context of eating animals is the idea of the ‘animal lover.’ You may have noticed already that most people think of themselves as animal lovers, some even make that a fundamental part of their identity. Yet, these same people are often avid meat eaters. The idea that you can both love someone and pay to have them killed seems intuitively contradictory, yet this remains a very common mythology among those who continue to consume animals, despite having a good idea of what happens to animals in slaughterhouses.

We see this same dissonance in our most fundamental perceptions of animals; studies have demonstrated that since people are unwilling to consume animals they perceive as intelligent, they are much more likely to deny the mental capacities of the animals they consume as opposed to those they do not.64 This results in them denying the minds of animals rather than confronting the fact that they are eating intelligent animals, despite believing that this is wrong. How can we account for such widely held yet obviously inconsistent belief systems?

The answer, in part, lies in how we want to see ourselves. No one wants to self-idenfiy as the villain of their own story, just as no one wants to see themselves as someone who would knowingly support animal cruelty. So we find a way to both believe we love animals and act in a way which is obviously not loving; this is cognitive dissonance. We as a society have come up with all sorts of ways of maintaining this shared delusion, perhaps foremost is the characterisation of some animals as ‘food’ and some as ‘pets.’

In order to be loving towards our pets we need to treat them kindly, yet to be loving towards farmed animals we apparently can allow them to be exploited, abused and killed. The belief that an animal can be ‘humanely’ slaughtered feeds into this narrative; that there is somehow a ‘loving’ way to end
the life of a sentient being for the sake of our taste preferences or fashion choices. This self-deception seems like a lot of effort to go through just to eat animals, but it still represents the easiest option for most people. When presented with the fact that our behaviour is inconsistent with our ethics, we only have three viable choices.

The first is to change our behaviour so that it better matches our ethics, which is what vegans do. This involves facing up to the fact that you have been acting immorally according to your own ethics, it demands introspection and not a small amount of self-sacrifice as a result. Alternatively, we can change our ethics to better match our behaviour, yet this is something most people are unwilling to do, since again, none of us want to see ourselves as a cruel
person. This leaves us with our third option, and by far the most popular; we change our own perception of our behaviour so that it seems to fit with our ethics, even if that means holding completely contradictory beliefs at the same time.

This is not usually a conscious decision, yet it is so pervasive that it goes almost completely unchallenged. As well as defining how we perceive our existing beliefs and behaviour, cognitive dissonance also has an impact on how we approach new information we encounter. For example, it is very common for environmentalists to deny the environmental impact of eating animals, regardless of how incontrovertible the evidence may be. These facts
directly contradict our existing beliefs, and rather than have those beliefs challenged, we find a way to dismiss the reports of authoritative, independent environmental organisations as ‘vegan propaganda.’

Our cognitive dissonance enforces a confirmation bias which has us dismissing any information that doesn’t fit with our existing world view, and cherry-picking the information that does. This is how ‘fake news’ sources thrive in the digital age; they know that people will not fact-check information if that information reinforces their existing attitudes, beliefs and assumptions. As humans, we are very good at deluding ourselves, and relatively poor at recognising when our beliefs are inconsistent with the available evidence, or are incongruent with our own behaviour.

Cognitive dissonance can be resolved, but it requires real self-reflection,
introspection and facing up to some hard truths about how we prioritise our own desires against the needs and the rights of other animals. It is understandable that engaging in denialism and maintaining our dissonance would be the more tempting option, but personal growth can only be achieved when we are willing to wrestle with uncomfortable truths about
our own attitudes and behavior. Only in this way can we take responsibility for our actions, and work to change ourselves for the better.

Making The Connection

The desire to deny what is happening to animals and to ignore our kinship with them comesfrom a need to protect ourselves. We want to not only avoid truths we would rather notknow, but also to avoid taking responsibility for the harm we have been causing. To face upto our own bias, and in doing so come to terms with the reality of the role we played in thesuffering of the animals on our plates, is no easy thing.

This is how we can watch footage of animal slaughter, can be in agreement that thistreatment is horrifically cruel, then continue to consume more animals who were likelyslaughtered in a very similar manner. It isn’t usually the case that we view such treatment asunfortunate but ultimately necessary either. Most of us agree that such treatment is utterlyindefensible, but we rarely connect the dots between our own behaviour and the cruelty weobserve.

For most of us, our reaction to witnessing these acts are not so different from ourreactions when watching bombs fall in some far away place. What we see upsets us, we knowin our hearts that it is cruel but we don’t feel that we are in any way to blame. We are not theones committing these acts, and we see no reason to feel personally responsible. The cruelties inflicted against animals are evil, most of us don’t view ourselves as capable ofsupporting evil, so we cannot think of what we are doing as in any way contributing to thatcruelty.

Vegans understand how flawed this thinking is. Through the act of purchasing animalproducts, we create the demand which results in, and in fact necessitates – the cruelty we seeon screen. Trying to inspire the observer to recognise their part in the cruelty they arewitnessing is no easy task though; people have a personal incentive to not recognise thistruth. There are several powerful psychological and social factors at play which allow us todisavow ourselves from the cruelty we see, despite the obvious role we have to play in it.Often simply pointing out the fact that this is exactly how the animals they consume areslaughtered is met by either disbelief or outright derision.

The marketing of superkets andsuppliers has a role in this too. Consumers see the fields of grass and pigs roaming in thesunshine on their packet and assume that the animal in that clip must have led a completelydifferent life than the one they consume. These clips must be from the worst of the worstfacilities, we tell ourselves, places who supply stores we would never buy from.A large part of this has to do with the fact that, while most people understand the concept ofsupply and demand, they don’t often apply that knowledge to their own consumption ofanimals.

This is never revealed more clearly than in the response to when someone stopsconsuming animals, arguments like ‘what difference will it make?’ and ‘the animals will die ifyou eat them or not’ are all too common. The popularity of these arguments demonstratethat people do not intuitively grasp how their own consumption has played a part in thatanimal dying, or how lowering your own personal demand could possibly have any impact at all.

Paradoxically, people see their own purchasing of the animal product, and the act ofbutchering the animal to provide that product, as two separate and almost completely unrelated events. This is clearly not rational, but is a collective delusion which theoverwhelming majority agrees to, making it comfortable to believe in – to proceed with thepretence. When a lie is complete, even the one telling it is convinced. Part of the problem is that the lie is often easier to believe than the truth. This is especiallythe case when we are dealing with numbers of deaths which are higher than we would bediscussing in literally any other context.

Upwards of 70 billion land animals per year is anincredible number, and when including fish the death count reaches the trillions. It is almostimpossible to even conceptualise trillions of deaths, much less empathise with those being killed. These are numbers that cannot even be counted in anything close to a human lifetime,and however much we would like to believe otherwise, compassion does have its limits. Wecannot feel responsible for the deaths of trillions of animals, or even the thousands ofanimals an individual will consume in their lifetime; it is just too difficult of an idea for us to grasp. It is too much for any of us to let ourselves feel. To help us deal with this, a diffusion of responsibility takes place between the act of slaughterand the act of consumption.

There are so many steps in the chain, so that being the one at theend of that long process who eventually consumes the product feels a world away from beingthe slaughterhouse worker who wields the blade that kills the animal. Even though theconsumer is the one who ultimately funds the breeding, exploitation and slaughter of theanimal, and is the one who ultimately benefits from it, many of us would be offended by thesuggestion that the responsibility is in any way ours. Arguments arise that we cannot blame consumers for the actions of corporations, or that consumers can’t control how an animal isslaughtered, but these become redundant when we realise that for most of us, this act ofconsumption is a choice made among many other alternatives.

This is what vegans mean when we talk about ‘making the connection.’ It is connecting thefood on your plate to the animal who died to produce it, as well as how our own behaviourand the demand we created helped make all of this happen. That is the key differencebetween vegans and non-vegans, that instead of seeing food when we look at a rack of ribs, we see someone else’s rib cage served up on a plate – an animal who died because we wantedto eat their flesh.

Responsibility for the cruelty required to obtain that product rests with usbecause we could have acted otherwise but chose not to, despite being aware of the consequences. You shouldn’t dwell on this or beat yourself up about it, what matters is thatyou are making yourself learn what you would rather not know, and changing your behaviour accordingly. That is something you can be proud of.