Frequently Asked Questions
Is carnism the opposite of vegetarianism or veganism?
Technically, carnism is the opposite of veganism. “Carn” means “flesh” or “of the flesh.”
Because vegetarians eat certain carnistic products (eggs and/or dairy), they probably harbor some degree of carnistic thinking. For example, vegetarians may be comfortable eating hens’ eggs and drinking cows’ milk, but feel disgusted by the idea of eating eggs from turtles or pigeons or of drinking milk from rats or gorillas.
It can be useful to think of carnism and veganism on a spectrum. Vegetarianism is one point along that spectrum.
If I eat meat, eggs, or dairy from animals who were humanely raised and killed, am I still supporting carnism?
One way to answer this question is to substitute a dog for a typical farmed animal: Would you be comfortable eating the meat from a golden retriever who had been given life for the sole purpose of being killed? Would you consider it humane to slaughter a perfectly healthy dog for no reason other than because people like the way her thighs taste?
Also, so-called humane meat, eggs, and dairy is a myth. It is a marketing strategy designed to offset consumers’ growing discomfort with eating animals as more of the truth about meat, egg, and dairy production reaches the public. We can consider the “humane myth” simply another carnistic justification, since it is virtually impossible to raise and kill an animal humanely, let alone multiple animals at a time. The “humane” carnistic products that make it to the supermarket are, inevitably, products of misery.
What is the difference between speciesism and carnism?
Speciesism is the belief system, or ideology, in which animals, including humans, are perceived as having more or less moral value—as more or less worthy of being treated with respect—based solely on their membership in a species. Humans, who are of course the creators of speciesist ideology, occupy the top rung of the speciesist hierarchy.
Carnism is the ideology in which it’s considered appropriate to eat some of the animals on the lower rungs of the speciesist hierarchy. Carnism is a “subideology” of speciesism, just as anti-Semitism, for instance, is a subideology of racism. Carnism, like anti-Semitism, is a specific expression of a broader ideology.
Both speciesism and carnism are systems of oppression, or powerarchies, as Melanie Joy describes them. They share the same structure and reflect the same mentality.
Some have criticized comparing the oppression of humans with the oppression of animals, even though the systems that enable such oppression are similar. What are the reasons for this criticism?
One reason is that people are simply unaware of the extent of violence directed toward animals.
Another reason is that most people don’t realize that speciesism and, by extension, carnism, is a powerarchy—a system of oppression like sexism, racism, or classism. All powerarchies share the same basic structure and they all reflect the same mentality: the belief in a hierarchy of moral worth. The primary difference among powerarchies is who is oppressing whom; the nature and psychology of the oppressions are the same. It can be helpful to think of oppressions as spokes on a wheel, with powerarchy as the hub.
The powerarchy of speciesism has conditioned us to believe that nonhuman animals are “inferior others” whose suffering is fundamentally different from human suffering and whose interests matter less than human interests. For example, most people rarely, if ever, question whether humans should have the right to wield complete control over nonhuman animals’ bodies, habitats, lives, and deaths; or whether the tremendous suffering inflicted on billions of animals in order to serve human interests is just.
“Human privilege,” the belief that humans are entitled to use animals for our own ends, causes us to react defensively to the suggestion that humans and nonhumans have an equal capacity to suffer, have an equal desire to live free from harm, have lives that are equally important to them, or deserve equal consideration of their interests. And, like other forms of privilege, human privilege is deeply ingrained, largely invisible, and strongly defended.
A final reason people may criticize comparing human and nonhuman oppression is because such comparisons tend to focus on the experience of the victims, rather than on the mentality of the perpetrators. It is impossible to know—or therefore to accurately compare—the experience of two individuals or groups. However, the mentality that enables all oppression is the same.
How is carnism similar to other oppressive systems, and why is it important to examine these similarities?
Carnism is informed by the same belief system that drives all forms of oppression and abuse, which Melanie Joy refers to as powerarchy. All “powerarchies” (patriarchy, classism, racism, an abusive relationship or work culture, etc.) share the same basic structure and, more importantly, reflect the same mentality: the belief in a hierarchy of moral worth, that some individuals or groups are more worthy of moral consideration, or being treated with respect, than others. The primary difference among powerarchies is who is oppressing whom; the nature and psychology of the oppression is the same. It can be helpful to think of oppressions as spokes on a wheel, with powerarchy as the hub.
If we fail to address the common mentality that drives oppression—if we don’t work to transform oppression at its core—we risk recreating oppressions in new forms. We will simply trade one set of victims for another. True social transformation requires not only changing attitudes and behaviors toward a particular group of individuals, but changing the deeper belief that anyone, human or nonhuman, is not worthy of being treated with respect.
How can I change my diet and stop eating animals?
There are many excellent resources to help you move beyond carnism. An excellent way to begin your transition is to try a pledge or challenge.
One thing to keep in mind is that carnism exists on a spectrum, and the direction in which you’re heading matters more, in some ways, than where you’re at. Most important is to commit to being as vegan as possible: each meal, ask yourself how vegan you can make it.
Does carnism exist across cultures?
Yes. The types of animals consumed differs from culture to culture, but the way people relate to the animals they eat is similar. For example, in carnistic cultures around the world, people tend to consider only a handful of animals edible—out of millions of species—and they often find the idea of eating “inedible” animals disgusting. And people typically consider their own culture’s choices to be rational and other cultures’ choices offensive and disgusting. Carnism is a social and psychological system that dictates how we experience eating animals, not simply which animals we eat.
Does the concept of carnism apply to people for whom eating animals is a necessity for survival?
The concept of carnism does not fully apply to those who lack the economic means to make their food choices freely, or to those who live in geographic regions where eating animals is necessary for survival. While some similar defense mechanisms no doubt influence their experience of eating animals, people who are unable to make their food choices freely are not operating in quite the same system as those who can choose not to eat animals, nor are they the focus of Beyond Carnism’s outreach.
As long as animals are classified as legal property, which means their interests are superseded by those of their legal owners, isn't it a waste of time for those concerned about animal rights to focus on raising awareness of carnism?
No. Eating animals defines, in large part, how we think of and relate to them: how can we objectively consider the rights of animals if the most frequent and intimate contact we have with them is through the consumption of their bodies? The fact that eating animals shapes our attitudes toward them was highlighted in a study that found a decreased concern for animal suffering after the consumption of meat. As long as carnism is a widespread ideology, eating animals will likely remain a widespread practice, and it is therefore unlikely that many animal rights measures will receive widespread public support.
The Problem with the “Moral Consistency” Argument
Those working toward animal rights argue for moral consistency in people’s attitudes and behaviors toward animals. If, for instance, we believe that nonhuman animals—like human animals—have lives that matter to them and feel pleasure and pain, then we have a moral obligation to honor their interests, to grant them the right to be the subjects of their own lives (not the property of humans) and to live free from harm.
The “moral consistency” argument assumes that ideology exists independent of psychology, that the logic of a moral argument should be enough to persuade people to change. But more often than not, the facts do not sell the ideology: many people can, for instance, learn about the horrors of factory farming and agree that a vegan diet is nutritionally sound, and still continue to eat (and otherwise support the exploitation of) animals.
Human psychology is messy, often illogical, complicated, and diverse. Our moral choices are determined by our stage of psychological development, personal history, temperament, and current life circumstances, among many other things. What is most consistent in our relationship with animals appears to be our inconsistency. So, while moral argumentation is an important component of working toward animal rights, it is simply one piece of a complex whole.
Social and Psychological Change Precede Legislative Change
Abolishing the property status of animals would, of course, abolish the institution of animal agriculture, since animals would have rights that would protect them from being used to serve human ends. However, given the reality of human psychology, such cause and effect is unlikely. It is far more likely that abolishing, or at least weakening, carnism will come before the abolition of the property status of animals. Legislative change comes about only after there has been significant social change, and social change is bound up with psychological change: imagine, for instance, if citizens were given the opportunity to vote on abolishing the property status of animals, and the voting public was made up of a majority of vegans.
In the past, people were more comfortable slaughtering animals. Aren’t contemporary people more sensitive about this process because they’re so removed from it—they’re just not used to it anymore?
It’s true that many people were less removed from, and therefore more comfortable with, killing animals in the past. It’s also true that many people were less removed from and therefore more comfortable with killing humans in the past: consider the Roman games and public hangings and slayings, which would be considered reprehensible in most places in the world today. We’re not encouraged to re-adopt such practices because we realize that desensitization to the suffering of other human beings is often problematic; we understand that empathy and compassion are qualities we should strive to cultivate, rather than transcend. And this same can be applied to our relationship with nonhuman beings.
What is neocarnism?
Neocarnism is a category of new forms of carnism. These “neocarnisms” emerged as more people became aware of the reality of animal agriculture and began to question the Three Ns of Justification: eating animals is normal, natural, and necessary.
Each neocarnism bolsters one of the Three Ns of Justification by promoting the myths that not eating animals is abnormal, unnatural, and unnecessary. And they each target one of the three main arguments for veganism: animal welfare, environmental protection, and human health.
Melanie Joy wrote an article explaining her theory of neocarnism in 2012, when she realized that carnism was morphing in order to counter what she believed was a backlash against veganism. You can read the full article here.