Remember when cans of tuna used to say they were dolphin friendly? Some wise guy would always say, “They’re not friendly to tuna, though, are they?”
Of course, we all knew what that was about.
Dolphins are intelligent. They form social groups. They communicate with sound. They pass the mirror test.
A dolphin can learn how to do tricks, perform in front of an audience or in front of a camera.
Dolphins have names.
Tuna, on the other hand, are just fish.
But it gets more complicated.
A recent study suggests that an animal’s perceived intelligence is the main factor in determining whether or not we will be disgusted by the thought of eating it.
The key word here, though, is “perceived”.
According to this study, people tend to ascribe lower levels of mental functioning to animals that they are about to eat.
So do we eat tuna because tuna aren’t very intelligent, or do we tell ourselves that tuna aren’t very intelligent so that we can eat them?
What about cultures where eating dogs or horses is considering normal? Would the people who eat these animals ever think about training them to perform in front of an audience?
The thing is, our beliefs about animal intelligence don’t always mesh with scientific observations.
This paper reports on experiments suggesting that chickens might have a primitive form of self-consciousness (an understanding that one is an individual separate from other individuals), have a limited sense of time and delay gratification in exchange for a greater reward.
Some fish seem to be able to recognize other individuals within their shoals, to work together to catch food, to form long term memories, and to use tools.
It seems that the more we learn about animal cognition, the more we are surprised by how intelligent familiar animals can be.
If the thought of eating an intelligent animal is repulsive to you, then the obvious solution is to become a vegetarian.
In fact, vegetarian organizations go out of their way to publicize research suggesting that animals are smarter than most people think.
That’s a simplistic answer, though. Although it is certainly possible to live one’s life as a vegetarian, the health benefits of vegetarianism vs. omnivorism are in dispute – and like any other topic that touches on ethical beliefs and cultural traditions, research on the topic is subject to confirmation bias.
When looking at meat eating from an ethical standpoint, it is important to understand that ethics is never about deciding between absolutes – it is about making tough decisions and understanding the necessity of compromise.
Behaving ethically means considering whether it is better to lie or to hurt someone’s feelings, or whether you should report the poor old woman who has hidden food in her handbag to the store manager or pretend to look the other way.
If you believe that an omnivorous diet is essential for optimum human health, then you have to make some difficult choices.