The MWS Podcast 88: Melanie Joy on Carnism

This week’s guest is the social psychologist and social activist Dr. Melanie Joy. Melanie is perhaps most well known for coining the term Carnism, which she popularized in her book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows. She’s the founder and president of Beyond Carnism, a charitable organisation which she founded in 2010 and Carnism will be the topic of our discussion today.


MWS Podcast 88: Melanie Joy as audio only:
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About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

9 thoughts on “The MWS Podcast 88: Melanie Joy on Carnism

  1. A great podcast! I first encountered Melanie’s work in her TED talk (which I highly recommend), but here she is able to go into the issues in more depth and respond to some of the objections raised. As Barry says towards the end, I think the value of her work lies particularly in challenging people’s conventional assumptions about the burden of proof. It’s the people who are using massive resources and creating unnecessary suffering who need to provide a justification for their habits, not those who are trying to eat in a more sustainable and less repressive way.

    However, there are some ways that I think Carnism could be presented a little more consistently. I’m going to go into some criticisms here that should be read as examples of devil’s advocacy coming from a desire to strengthen Melanie’s case, not to weaken it.

    If Carnism is a repressive ideology and it means something distinct from meat-eating per se, then I think it is confusing to refer to it, as Melanie does here, as ‘the opposite of veganism’. This has the effect of conflating veganism as a dietary practice with veganism as an ideology (and I note that later on, Melanie also refers to veganism as an ideology). Surely it is inconsistent to separate ideology from practice at one end of the spectrum and not the other? It is also helpful to separate veganism as a dietary practice from veganism as ideology, because, as Melanie also seemed to acknowledge, there may be some circumstances (such as that of being a traditional Inuit) where meat-eating is genuinely necessary. People in those circumstances may reject Carnism, and avoid all rationalisation of meat-eating, and yet do it. If it turned out that in some way meat (or more likely fish) was in some sense genuinely necessary for human health, I think we should also be open to the careful examination of that evidence, and the possibility that it might put us in a similar position to the Inuit.

    All of this makes me want to argue that Melanie needs to make a clearer distinction between absolute and non-absolute forms of Carnism (or, if Carnism is defined as absolute, to give more weight to the distinction between Carnism and practical reasons for meat eating). When she described Carnism as ‘inherently a problematic ideology’ that suggests to me that she assumes Carnism to be absolute. This is reinforced by what she says about denial and cognitive distortion, both of which are characteristic of absolutised beliefs, about the abstraction with which Carnism tends to view ‘edible’ animals, and by the denial of choice of alternatives. However, we need to acknowledge that people may have reasons for eating animal products that have nothing to do with such absolutisations, and also that people are capable, on the other hand, of absolutizing veganism.

    All of this, I think, might help make Melanie’s campaigning as successful as it needs to be. She obviously does have ways of addressing conflict and defensiveness which she discusses. However, if there is any suspicion from meat-eaters that she is attributing motives to them that they don’t possess and lumping them into a ‘straw man’ category or a false dichotomy, defensive dismissal becomes all the more likely. Personally, I’m very much behind Melanie’s approach in general and would like it to succeed. But my own veganism is non-absolute for what I consider to be important reasons: that in the bigger analysis, Carnism is just one of many examples of absolutisation that are causing us major problems in human society.

  2. I appreciate the feedback. I do not usually write such nuanced deconstruction of carnism because my focus is on the practical application of understanding this system in order to reduce suffering as widely and efficiently as possible. As an activist, I focus my energy on providing information that brings about practical change; my outreach and writing is for a wide audience for whom such analysis would not, in my opinion, be terribly productive. Moreover, I am a psychologist, not a philosopher, and I prefer to communicate within my area of expertise.

    That said, in my book I do in fact discuss the difference between those who eat animals out of necessity and those for whom eating animals is a preference. I point out that the former is a form of self-preservation and as such requires a different — though not entirely different — psychology. (Consider the difference between killing someone who is trying to kill you, versus killing someone because doing so brings you pleasure.) In order to kill or otherwise harm another individual, one must disconnect empathically or killing would feel akin to suicide; however, the motivation for such an empathic disconnect matters.

    Because I have addressed this issue elsewhere I won’t go into detail here but wanted to provide some feedback. The focus of our outreach at Beyond Carnism is on those who have the ability to make their food choices freely, not on populations for whom eating animals is a necessity — in order to reduce animal suffering as much as possible. So our messaging is presented accordingly.

  3. Hi Melanie,
    Thanks for your response, and obviously I should look at your book (which I haven’t) for the full case. I think you are wise to focus on aspects of the case that make a practical difference for your audience, but my reason for offering this point was because I do think it makes a practical difference.

    The strength and specific value of your case does seem to depend on your focus on Carnism as an (absolute) ideology, and there may be many people who are more prepared to look at it initially in that light than to start off by confronting their own eating habits immediately, provided you are consistent enough in your treatment of it in that light. The bigger point, I would argue, is that there are many other widely recognised problems created by absolutisation as a barrier to judgement, and that comparing Carnism to other kinds of absolutisation, from fundamentalism to dogmatic political ideology to views of the self, gives it a place in a wider pattern so that people who recognise other examples may well feel obliged to also recognise this one.

    That’s as much, in fact more, of a psychological point than a philosophical one, and in any case the two are completely interdependent. Absolutisation is primarily a psychological problem with certain types of belief, within which I would place Carnism – it’s not something that tends to emerge from a purely philosophical way of thinking. If you want an academic account of it, you can find one at https://www.academia.edu/19366090/Cognitive_error_as_absolutisation .

  4. I appreciate that Barry (according to his plug on Facebook) framed one of my objections to “carnism” as an interview question to Dr. Joy. It’s not every day that I feel like I had a direct impact on a podcast episode.

    That said, a “migglish” approach, to my mind, is not only incrementalist in practice (e.g. by gradually reducing the share of animal products in one’s diet), but is also somewhat dialectical in how it deals with theoretical opposites (e.g. eating meat is always wrong vs. eating meat is always right). If Dr. Joy reached her conclusion in this way, then I could not tell from this interview. Mind you, I don’t doubt that she resolved a moral problem that she faced in her own experience, but her conclusion strikes me as so near to the extreme end of the spectrum that I have a hard time seeing it hang under a “middle way” banner.

    Robert’s comment above does help me in this regard, inasmuch as he acknowledges that “that people may have reasons for eating animal products that have nothing to do with such absolutisations, and also that people are capable, on the other hand, of absolutizing veganism.” I would only add that the combined forces of biology & culture make it so easy to act omnivorously (and so hard not to, unless perhaps one has already inhabited the rarified vegan sub-culture for a long time) that it’s no wonder if vegans strike others as more ideological when it comes to their diets.

    Note that this is not an appeal to nature, normality, or necessity as rational justifications for a particular behavior so much as it is an acknowledgement of relevant conditions at a high level. This much leaves us plenty of room to also acknowledge that these conditions are attended by logical inconsistency and cognitive dissonance. Whether it’s easier for one to accept these conditions or to alter the behavior (and, if so, by how much?) presumably varies by case.

    In my case, the solution more or less follows an “animal welfare” approach to the moral problem (as oppose to an “animal rights” one, which a younger version of myself tried on for a while). It’s by no means a perfect solution, but it’s one that I can live with, given the specific conditions that I face on a daily basis.

  5. Hi Jason, I have to admit that you were a prime example I had in mind when arguing above to Melanie about the practical value of clearly separating the ideology from the practice. You seem to be willing to engage with this approach in a way that you wouldn’t with a more ordinary type of vegan argument – am I right?

    As regards the Middle Way, Melanie did show an appreciation at the end of the podcast of the Middle Way as being about the way one holds a view, whatever that view is. To hold a view in a migglish way now does not necessarily require us to have arrived at it in that way. In fact the history may be pretty much irrelevant. However, I would agree with you about the usefulness of dialectically engaging with criticisms in order to practise the Middle Way in relation to any view. Like you I would have liked her to have done more of that, but perhaps we should also both read her book before judging too readily on the basis of mere omissions in the podcast.

    However, I would very much like to take issue with you on “her conclusion strikes me as so near to the extreme end of the spectrum that I have a hard time seeing it hang under a “middle way” banner. ” The Middle Way is not necessarily anywhere near the middle in terms of conventional opinion. It’s just the space we arrive in by avoiding absolute claims whether positive or negative. Melanie gives lots of evidence for the absolutisation and denial that often accompanies Carnist positions, which tells us that the Middle Way on this topic, for most people in the Western world at least, probably lies nowhere near the conventional ‘middle’, because the conventional ‘middle’ is Carnist. We need to follow where the evidence and the avoidance of biases goes, whatever unforeseen and ‘extreme’ space that may lead us into.

  6. Robert, in the range of moral options between “eating meat is always wrong vs. eating meat is always right” (to quote my previous comment), I think it’s safe to say that “eating meat is always wrong” is one of two extremes. In other words, it is not a point that occupies the middle ground.

    That said, you are of course free to define “middle way” in a way that favors that extreme. But I will remind you that we’ve already reviewed some of the arguments for and against veganism, yet all I have seen thus far (particularly after I’ve checked the relevant factual claims and factored in my personal experiences with human and non-human animals alike) is compelling arguments for (human) omnivores taking animal welfare more seriously. That assessment by no means rules out a vegan diet and ethos, but it also by no means inevitably leads there. For example, it could just as well lead to a less radical solution, not merely as a means but also as an end.

    Still, I’m already accustomed to our agreeing to disagree on this topic, so I won’t be surprised if we do so again here and now. Besides, I thank you and the MWS for distracting me from American politics, if only for this weekend. 😉

  7. Jason, I’d agree that “eating meat is always wrong” would be an absolutisation and thus an extreme. However, I’ve never subscribed to that, and judging by her comment above, nor does Melanie. I’d also agree with you that the Middle Way might take a variety of forms in practice in relation to dietary decisions, depending on individual circumstances. Melanie also at least implicitly acknowledged that by supporting incremental approaches to changing one’s diet.

    Nor am I defining ‘Middle Way’ in a way that favours that extreme. As you well know, my account of the Middle Way long pre-dates this specific discussion, and has been applied to a wide range of other issues. Assuming the Middle Way to be a conventional middle, however, is a misunderstanding not just of my approach, but even of the Buddhist account of the Middle Way.

    1. Robert, I’ll try once more to express my understanding of this matter, before I bow out of the discussion.

      There are increments towards veganism and there are increments towards more moderate goals, such as a flexitarian or semi-vegetarian approach, both of which can be inspired by the same evidence (if not the same logic and emotional profile). I gathered that Dr. Joy does not endorse the latter goal, except perhaps as a short-term stop on the way to the former, more restrictive goal. As a point on a continuum, the latter is, after all, closer to her veganism than its opposite extreme, which she calls “carnism.”

      That said, I don’t believe that there is a monolithic meaning to “middle way” even in Buddhism. But I plead guilty to taking license with its linear metaphor (or Source-Path-Goal image schema, if we draw upon Lakoff & Johnson). It just comes so naturally to me. 😉

  8. Hi Jason
    You’re welcome and it was pleasing to see that Melanie was pretty much in agreement with you about not foisting ‘names’ on people and avoids using the term ‘carnist’ (which I will also do from now on). I was also pleased to able to use other people’s questions. I think the podcast in general would benefit from that, not only because it would arguably make the podcasts more participatory and diverse but also I can often feel a bit out of my depth when considering what to ask the interviewee! I’ve tried canvassing members via our newsletter if they’d like to pose a question to a future interviewee with not much success but maybe Facebook is an avenue to explore in this regard.

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