Why we don't care

Why we don't care

Vegan Society of Canada News
June 4th 2021

This article was born from this question: Why don’t people seem to care about things like animal exploitation?

From that question, a follow-up question emerged: If they do not care, how can we help them do so?

The intent of this article was to take a look at the literature surrounding human morality and the underlying mechanics that lie behind people’s seeming apathy toward the killing and exploitation of animals. This is a broad topic, so the focus was kept on identifying potential areas of interest that could be of assistance when trying to postulate potentially fruitful avenues of future research and inquiry.

When it comes to the matter of killing, at least of the sanctioned variety, there is one form of organization that will most readily spring to mind: the military. The insight that we can glean from studying the military is twofold. First, by observing the habits and characteristics of soldiers, people who are both sanctioned and expected to kill, we get insight into the inherent nature of human animals and whether or not the apathetic response to killing is innate. The second point of interest, that arises from the first, is that if the cavalier attitude toward killing is not an inherent trait for most people, how does the military manage to overcome these limitations and convince people to kill?

Military Matters

To answer our questions about the inherency in killing, we looked at Grossman’s work. He sought to analyze the subject of killing and to provide insight into several points that we were interested in. The usefulness of his work to our own is apparent early when he outlines his intended focuses which include:

[Providing insight into] the existence of a powerful, innate human resistance toward killing one's own species and the psychological mechanisms that have been developed by armies over the centuries to overcome that resistance... [and] The techniques that have been developed and applied with tremendous success in modern combat training in order to condition soldiers to overcome their resistance to killing.

This declaration of an innate repulsion possessed by human animals toward killing, at least in the case of killing fellow members of the human species, indicates that there is some inherent desire within human animals not to kill others, a desire that can be corrupted and mitigated with the proper techniques.

Grossman provides evidence for his assertion that even trained soldiers are hesitant to kill by providing both qualitative-based evidence (i.e. interviews with former soldiers) and quantitative-based evidence (i.e. studies about soldiers’ hit rates). One of the most compelling bits of anecdotal evidence put forward is an account by a soldier assigned to a World War II firing squad who boasted about the tactics that he employed to avoid landing a killing shot on the hapless prisoners:

He knew that the commands would be "Ready, aim, fire," and he knew that if he aimed at the prisoner on the command of "aim," he would hit the target he was aiming at on the command of "fire." His response was to aim slightly away from the prisoner on the command of "aim," enabling him to miss when he pulled the trigger on the command of "fire." My grandfather bragged for the rest of his life about outsmarting the army in this manner. Of course, others in the firing squad did kill the prisoner, but his conscience was clear.

Grossman’s information regarding soldiers firing and hit rates are no less interesting with his research estimating that a vast majority of Civil War soldiers overcame their military training through “powerful instinctive forces and supreme acts of moral will.” World War II-era counterparts were not overly distinct in this regard, with the estimations being that "of every hundred men along the line of fire during the period of an encounter, an average of only 15 to 20 would take any part with their weapons" with this 80 to 85 percent of non-firing soldiers taking alternative methods of assistance such as rescuing comrades, supplying ammunition, and running messages, all while not firing their weapons at the enemy, even while under attack themselves. Grossman’s conclusions on this matter:

. . . men will kill under compulsion — men will do almost anything if they know it is expected of them and they are under strong social pressure to comply — but the vast majority of men are not born killers.

Naturally, that compulsion is something that both the military and we have the most interest in. The fact remains that even if people do inherently shirk from killing, they still can and will do so, and therefore the mechanisms for this being permitted is something that needs to be understood.

According to Grossman, the training methods that were employed by the American military to increase the firing rate from 15-20 percentestimated for World War IIto 90 percent seem to have been based on classical and operant conditioning techniques. For example, modern training attempts to simulate the environment of an actual combat situation as much as possible (i.e. the training soldier is fully equipped, realistic targets are presented, etc.) with a reward being provided for scoring more hits.

Several factors were also highlighted as major influences in forcing people to more easily kill and a brief overview of them is given below.

Authority Figure

An intense, proximal, legitimate, and respected authority figure telling soldiers to fire was regarded as "the most critical factor" by combat veterans.

Group Anonymity

As seen in the bystander effect, diffusion of responsibility can be caused by the anonymity created in a crowd. This was also seen in the firing squad discussion previously.

Physical/Mechanical Distance

Increasing the physical distance between the killer and the target through a TV screen, a thermal sight, a sniper sight, or some other kind of mechanical buffer allows the killer to more easily soothe their qualms.

Cultural Distance

Racial and ethnic differences permit the killer to dehumanize the victim: "It is so much easier to kill someone if they look distinctly different from you."

Moral Distance

Perceived moral superiority against the victim as well as vengeful/vigilante actions.

Social Distance

Classifying the target as less important than the killer's group.


The killer is convinced that the opponent is different in some fundamental way (i.e., not even human). Targets are simply another breed of animal to be hunted and killed.


Combat and killing are simulated realistically and repeatedly to create a pattern that will be executed without issue in a real-life combat situation.

Denial Defence Mechanisms

The conditioning has been repeated so often that the killer is able to convince themselves that real-life killings are just another target.

Although Grossman intended to analyze and discuss interactions that were related to human animals against each other, there are obvious parallels that can be utilized to understand justifications for animal exploitation at large. The most glaring example is in the desensitization factor where the killer is convinced that their actions are acceptable because their target is not even human. It stands to reason that if human animals can be convinced of killing each other, it is substantially easier to convince them that a non-human animal's life is worth even less.

Consider as well the cultural distance factor which would support this desensitization by providing the obvious physical differences between animals. It becomes obvious how these factors contribute to convincing people that non-human animal lives are irrelevant enough to justify any amount of exploitative abuse.

Most of the remaining factors can be attributed to the fact that the majority of the population has been raised and trained to accept animal exploitation as normal. This provides the average person with a near-endless supply of conditioning reinforcement, authority figures, fellow group members, and increased durability for denial.

Moral Disengagement

Bandura agrees with Grossman’s analysis when he states that “what is rarely noted is the equally striking evidence that most people refuse to behave cruelly, even under unrelenting authoritarian commands.” Although we can certainly lay a portion of the blame for people’s apathy on societal causes, the fact remains that there is an internal process at play: moral disengagement.

Several of the factors that were noted by Grossman are similarly mentioned by Bandura to be factors that enable stronger moral disengagement. These factors include distancing oneself from the action/victim via euphemistic language, diffusion of responsibility, and divesting the victims of human qualities.

The basic framework for what Bandura is arguing is that for a person to engage in reprehensible activities, they must first self-justify their actions to some extent to cognitively reconstruct the burden of culpability into righteous or acceptable behaviour. We saw this phenomenon occurring with Grossman's examples of soldiers mentally reconstructing the shooting of live targets into the more acceptable behaviour of shooting training dummies. This makes sense since, according to Bandura, the process of self-sanction occurs most drastically when a person acknowledges their personal agency in causing or helping to cause some reprehensible outcome.

As for the individual factors we broadly covered in the previous section, it is beneficial to see a more direct definition of them here. Bandura’s explanation for the use of euphemistic language is that by sanitizing the terminology around a reprehensible activity, it is easier for the guilty party to mentally make benign their destructive conduct and divert responsibility through the use of convoluted verbiage.

Diffusion of responsibility can occur in several possible ways. One method we haven't touched upon yet is making a group of individuals serve separate tasks that are harmless until taken as a whole. A great historical example of this is the building of the first atomic bomb, where many people were kept in the dark as to what they were working on. There is also the more familiar method of diffusing the responsibility among a group by making it so that if everyone in some way bears a fragment of the burden of responsibility, then everyone can feel less culpable. To quote BanduraThe triumph of evil requires a lot of good people, doing a bit of [evil], in a morally disengaged way, with indifference to the human suffering they collectively cause.

The final factor of note is the divestment of the victim's human qualities, which is to say the victim's ability to feel joy and suffering. According to Bandura, victimizing someone who the aggressor acknowledges as possessing human qualities is difficult and can result in personal distress, whereas the suffering or abuse of devalued victims evokes little sympathetic concern. On the other hand, humanization, or the attribution of the aforementioned qualities, leads to the arousal of empathetic sentiments and social obligation that can trigger self-sanctions, humane activity, and altruistic actions.

As opposed to Grossman, who was focused on a specific type of human animal killing each other, Bandura’s scope is somewhat broader and thus his factors are more easily applicable toward all animals. One particular standout example from Bandura’s factors is the aforementioned euphemistic language which has been employed by industries of animal exploitation by replacing more emotionally charged words and phrases such as slaughter, which was already a somewhat sanitized word choice, with more benign and undescriptive terminology such as process.

We also again see the dangers that diffusion of responsibility can have upon a person’s self-appraisal of their morality. This danger is exemplified when individuals far removed from the entire process are not able to see their immediate actions as wrong, like buying goods tested on animals or produced by slavery or slavery-like conditions. By distancing themselves so much from the exploitation, they are able to avoid the moral qualms that would come with the territory. It also goes without saying that the discussion of human-animal qualities presents an inherent problematic assumption that non-human animals do not possess those qualities.

How Can We Make People Care?

Before we move on to the next topic, it is important, given that our vision is to end animal exploitation, to reiterate that from what we have seen thus far, most people have to be trained into apathy or at the very least don’t see their actions as being detrimental or negative. Bandura has this to say on the topic:

Disengagement practices will not instantly transform considerate persons into cruel ones. Rather, the change is achieved by gradual disengagement of self-censure. People may not even recognize the changes they're undergoing. Initially, they perform milder aggressive acts that they can tolerate with some discomfort. After their self-reproof has been diminished through repeated enactments, the level of ruthlessness increases, until eventually acts originally regarded as abhorrent can be performed with little personal anguish. Inhumane practices become thoughtlessly routinized.

Keep that in mind as we go forward. For the most part, we are not dealing with cold, unfeeling, automatons, but with people who have simply been skewed in their perspective on an issue. We are dealing with mistaken individuals, not malicious ones.

Now we come to the second of our two questions: How can we override or reverse the process of disengagement? To discuss this, we look at Buttlar et al. and their work on the meat paradox.

Buttlar – Meat Paradox

Buttlar & Walther describe the meat paradox as the internal conflict that is generated in meat-consuming individuals in light of the globally increased awareness of the negative consequences associated with the consumption of meat. This paradox generates ambivalence in the person due to the mental inconsistency that occurs when one simultaneously holds two opposing evaluations toward the same issue. The paradox highlights the disengagement that occurs when consumers of animal products are confronted with the morally troublesome aspects of their action, for example, the suffering and killing of non-human animals. They identify three somewhat familiar strategies that the people afflicted by the paradox tend to employ to dismiss these negative consequences:

  1. Denying the harm done to the non-human animals by denying their qualities of emotional capacity and capability to suffer.
  2. Denying responsibility for the negative aspects of meat consumption with justifications or rationalizations for their meat consumption.
  3. Detaching one's identity from the negative consequences.

Omnivorous consumers will often prefer to resolve the meat paradox with this strategy of denying inflicted harm, diffusing responsibility, or bolstering their identity rather than engage in the process of rectifying the source of the paradox, i.e. cease their consumption of meat.

They posit that omnivorous consumers attributed less mind and emotion to non-human animals, which are further intensified in omnivores when ambivalence is heightened. They also suggest that omnivores used significantly more rationalizations of meat consumption than non-omnivores did. Therefore, they seem to have indicated that moral disengagement practices similar to those seen above are being employed in omnivores if meat-related ambivalence is present. This is to be expected since we have already established that reprehensible actions are usually correlated with stronger moral disengagement.

What is more interesting for our purposes is the 2020 experiments conducted by Buttlar et al, where the goal was to try to create an effective method of suppressing moral disengagement when a person’s beliefs were placed under fire. A part of the impetus for their work was based on a critique in the assumption that informing the public about scientific issues would lead them to employ the expected attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours. The idea was that if the public was informed about something like the scientific dangers of meat consumption or climate change, they would understand the threats and respond accordingly. As we have readily seen with climate change, this is not always the case.

For some people, there is no amount of scientific data that will change their minds. Instead, it seems the more scientific data there is, the more they will dig their heels in and reject scientific consensus to preserve their own beliefs on the matter. Therefore, Buttlar et al. set out to formulate a method that would engage people in dialogue and take their perspectives and reservations on scientific issues into account.

They worked with an animal rights activist group utilizing a "cube of truth" strategy, which presented videos that depicted distressing animal agriculture scenes, followed by engagement with seemingly interested passersby to attempt to get them to modify their dietary choices by addressing their reservations about the scenes. The hypothesis employed was that the ambivalence of the passersby toward meat would increase if they spoke with the activists and that they would be more willing to discard meat consumption if the activist successfully suppressed their moral disengagement strategies.

They found there was a non-significant link between the participants’ elevated attributions of animal emotion following the dialogue and their evaluation of meat. However, they also found that there was a significant association between the participants’ attributions of animal emotion and their willingness to reduce their meat consumption. In addition, they determined that the dialogue did indeed affect attributions of animal emotion, however, attributions of animal mind and rationalizations of meat consumption were found to not have been significantly affected (although both variables were lowered post-dialogue). This seems to indicate that the dialogue in some way helped to mitigate the effects of moral disengagement strategies.

However, there are many issues with this study. First, they note the oddity that only the subjective attribution of the animal's emotional capacity seemed to be a variable of interest; with other attributions of animal mental capacities, for example, intelligence, did not increase the level of moral concern toward animal exploitation. It would seem that a focus on the emotional capacity of animals would be something to consider when engaging in transformative dialogue.

The possibility exists that the graphic imagery that was employed in this study might have skewed the effectiveness of emotional appeals since this kind of imagery tends to be extremely emotionally charged by its very nature. This was something that Buttlar et al. noted might be caused by the participants' employment of moral disengagement strategies intended to deny the animal's capacity to suffer, in turn making arguments that target that belief directly more effective and likely to have a noticeable effect.

Another flaw in the experiment is that not only is the sample size small but it is not a random sample of the general public. We posit that the people who are more apt to stop and watch the video are already in some way more open to change than the people who do not stop. Therefore, any claim that pertains to apply to the general public is invalid.

Perhaps the most serious concern is that there was no measurement of whether any of these changes in perception translated into any change in actions, for example, to avoid products that are the result of animal exploitation, whether immediately or in the future. Ultimately, we are only interested in changing people’s perceptions if this results in a change of actions. As we know with climate change, human animals are experts with words, but actions are another matter.

Since people tend to revert or default to behaviour that they consider moral without the presence of other factors, it seems likely that the change of perception is transitory and most people would resume their usual habits and disengagement tactics fairly quickly after being removed from the anti-disengagement environment. Therefore, we must find a way for this change of perception to not only translate into actions but to be long-lasting.

Looking Forward

Having looked over a significant amount of previous research, we are now in a good position to postulate on potentially useful future projects. There is, of course, plenty of room for further exploration along the same track that Buttlar was working on. One of the most notable points that we could elaborate on would be determining if the basic procedure that was employed, is of significant use to us.

Although they claim it has a “profound effect of the dialogue on attributions of animal emotion” we still have no proper confirmation of whether we can achieve any effects, let alone meaningful ones, on a person’s behaviour. Additionally, based on the various limitations of the study, we are currently unaware of whether the videos that were employed had a synergistic effect that may have tipped the scales in the participant’s responsiveness to emotional appeals. This means that we are also unsure if there could be situations where the conditions could be more favourable for the employment of other non-emotional attributions of mental capacities.

We could potentially address some of these issues relating to lack of confirmation about behavioural adjustments with the creation of a longitudinal study that would routinely check in on the participants to test whether or not this type of strategy does result in both attitude and behavioural adjustment over a longer period of time. We could also experiment if more anti-disengaging dialogue over time could mitigate humans’ ability to mentally regress back to old habits. In addition, we have to find a way to design our experiment to have a good sample of the general public, and we also need to know which technique, if any, works best for which segments of the population.

Grossman’s work provides us with interesting avenues of inquiry. We’ve learned that we can increase the level of violence by training people to shoot realistic targets with some sort of reward being employed to incentivize the maximum number of hits. Based on this, we could try to find out if the process could be as successful when the intent was inverted. For example, if we were to stick with the shooting gallery setup, we could reward participants for not scoring a hit or punish them for landing a hit on a target. The application of some sort of tax, actual or mental, would be the key to employing this technique on a broader, real-world scale. Further expanding on this idea of taxation, a study could be constructed that would test the effectiveness of various levels of taxation applied to various forms of animal exploitation. This would serve as a roundabout way of affecting people’s ability to care by exploiting their vested self-interests.

Another avenue of inquiry is surrounding humanization. The technique of dehumanization, or perhaps more appropriately simply objectification, has been the underpinning for centuries of various exploitations including sweatshops, racism, genocide, animal circuses, and factory farming. Therefore, in order to end animal exploitation, we need to have a good understanding of all the mechanisms behind objectification.

As was demonstrated by Buttlar et al., successfully convincing people that a non-human animal possesses the capacity to experience suffering showed signs of temporally adjusting a person’s apathetic attitude toward the atrocities the animals experienced. There may be some benefit to exploring the possibility of success with the use of other non-emotional attributes like intelligence. It would also be important to understand all the factors at play between the objectification of human animals in slavery or slavery-like conditions producing many of our goods today, most regrettably including goods labelled and certified by some as vegan, and those of non-human animals also being killed and exploited.

It would also be interesting to understand the dynamics of the differences between killing and how this relates to exploitation. There are a lot of things to explore in this area. While it seems human animals have an aversion to killing and need to be trained to suppress this aversion, perhaps we have no aversion against exploitation in general, and as such we may not be able to use this to end the exploitation of animals. It might also be possible that the factors involved in getting people to stop killing are completely different from those which relate to us ending animal exploitation.

As we have seen, our lack of scientific knowledge with regard to the exploitation of animals is vast. We have hypothesized in the past that this lack of knowledge is in part a cause of the fragmentation we see today in people and organizations that have a similar vision to ours. Facing a lack of scientific knowledge, there is simply little that can be said for or against any approach, and as such everyone firmly believes that their approach is optimal. It is in part why we believe that scientific research to further our understanding of all aspects of animal exploitation is crucial if we want to end it.