The ethics of eating animals: Which factors influence Americans' views?

Taylor OrthDirector of Survey Data Journalism
April 17, 2023, 10:42 PM GMT+0

A new YouGov poll delves into the factors that influence Americans' views on the ethics of eating animals — exploring reasons for vegetarianism, acceptable animal species for consumption, and the impact of animal treatment on the morality of eating them. The poll also includes thought experiments related to meat consumption and experiences with meat alternatives. The primary reason American vegetarians cite for adopting their diet is the health benefits of doing so. In terms of which animal species are acceptable for consumption, there is a clear distinction drawn between commonly consumed animals — such as chickens and cows — and animals often kept as pets or known for their intelligence. The treatment of animals, including whether they have clean living conditions and are slaughtered humanely, is deemed by many as an important factor in determining the morality of eating the animals.

Reasons to become a vegetarian

Nearly one in five Americans (17%) say they've been a vegetarian at some point in their lives, including 7% who currently identify as a vegetarian — defined in the poll as a person who does not eat meat. Men and women are about equally likely to have ever been vegetarians, but Democrats are about twice as likely as Republicans to have ever been vegetarian (25% vs. 12%).

When asked to select all that apply from a list of possible reasons for their current or former vegetarian practice, people who have been a vegetarian at some point are most likely to cite the lifestyle's health benefits (55%), followed by personal taste (38%), food safety concerns (31%), weight management (30%), and moral reasons (29%). Only around one in five say each of the following is a reason they became a vegetarian: cost (20%), allergies (19%), cultural reasons (18%), or religious reasons (17%).

The poll also asked people who have never been vegetarian what reasons to stop eating meat they find compelling. While 40% say they don't find any reasons compelling, the most common reason selected by those who chose at least one reason from among the options provided is health benefits (31%), followed by weight management (20%). Fewer than one in five cited each of the other reasons asked about.

Which species of animal are acceptable to eat?

Chickens, cows, and pigs are eaten far more often than most others in the United States. To understand what moral considerations dictate the species most commonly eaten, the poll asked Americans to rate the importance of 13 factors in moral acceptability of eating a specific species. The factor Americans are most likely to say is "very important" when considering whether it is morally acceptable for people to eat a certain species of animal is whether the species is rare or endangered (61% say this). More than half also say it is very important whether the animal frequently carries diseases (57%). Nearly half say it's very important to them whether the animal is commonly kept as a pet (48%), and nearly as many cite whether they have a sentimental attachment to the animal (45%).

Compared to people who have never been vegetarians, people who have been vegetarians are far more likely to say that the following are very important considerations in deciding whether it is morally acceptable to eat a certain species of animal: the animal's capacity for pain (+27), the environmental impact of farming the animal (+22), the animal's life expectancy (+21), and the animal's intelligence (+20).

When asked whether it is morally acceptable for other people to eat each of 20 specific animal species under normal circumstances, the five most likely to be considered acceptable to eat are chicken (86%), cow (81%), salmon (79%), pig (78%), and duck (78%). The five animals least likely to be viewed as morally acceptable to eat are two that are most commonly kept as pets — dogs (18%) and cats (20%) — and three that are often understood to have high intelligence — chimpanzees (14%), elephants (17%), and dolphins (24%).

People who have never been vegetarians are more likely than those who have been to say it is morally acceptable for people to eat animals that are commonly eaten in the U.S.: chicken, cow, pig, salmon, and duck. The opposite is true for several animals that are eaten less often — chimpanzee, elephant, cat, dog, horse. Current or former vegetarians are more likely than people who have never been vegetarians to say that these animals are morally acceptable to eat.

How the treatment of animals affects the morality of eating them

When asked to consider how six factors affect the moral acceptability of eating a particular animal, the largest share of Americans say that it's very important whether the animal was slaughtered in a humane way (53%). Around half also say it's very important that the animal has clean and comfortable living conditions (48%) and the same share prioritize whether the animal is given artificial growth hormones (48%).

Current and former vegetarians are significantly more likely than people who have never been vegetarians to say that most aspects of animal treatment are very important in their consideration of whether it is morally acceptable for people to eat a certain animal. The one exception is "whether the animal is slaughtered in a humane way": People who have been vegetarians are nearly equally likely as people who haven't been to say this is very important.

Thought experiments related to animals

The survey asked Americans to consider three thought experiments related to the consumption of animals. First, respondents were asked to imagine living on a small farm where they have to raise, care for, and eventually slaughter the animals they eat. In this scenario, 48% of people say they would still consume meat, while 32% say they would not. Men (62%) are nearly twice as likely as women (35%) to say they would eat meat if they had to do the work themselves and witness the entire process. Republicans (62%) are more likely than Democrats (40%) and Independents (45%) to say they would.

A second thought experiment asked Americans to consider a future in which lab-grown meat and plant-based meat alternatives are indistinguishable from animal meat in terms of taste, nutrition, and cost. In this scenario, 40% of Americans say they would support the farming and consumption of animals, while 31% say they would oppose it. Men (45%) are slightly more likely than women (35%) to support animal consumption in this hypothetical future, and Republicans (47%) are more likely to support it than Democrats (35%).

To understand how Americans weigh the relative value of human and animal lives, we adapted a simplified version of a thought experiment initially conducted by a group of researchers in 2020. In our survey, half of respondents were asked questions about three scenarios. Each scenario involved two sinking boats, one which contained a person and one which contained one or more pigs. In the three scenarios, the second boat contained either one pig, 10 pigs, or 100 pigs. For each scenario, respondents were asked to choose who they would save: either the person or the pig(s). The other half of respondents were shown similar scenarios — with the difference being that the second boat held dogs, not pigs.

In the scenarios involving pigs, only around one in 10 people said they would choose to save the pig or pigs rather than the person. The number of pigs did not have much of an effect on responses: When there was one pig, 7% said they would save it rather than the person, and when there were 100 pigs, 10% said they would save the pigs. People who saw the dog scenarios were roughly twice as likely as people who saw the pig scenarios to choose to save the animal or animals over the human. Unlike with the pigs, the number of dogs did have a significant effect: 14% said they would save one dog rather than one person, while 23% said they would save 100 dogs rather than one person.

Experiences with alternatives to animal meat

Very few Americans say they regularly consume any of three alternatives to animal meat asked about: plant-based alternatives, insect-based alternatives, or lab-grown meat. While 41% have ever tried plant-based meat alternatives at some point, far fewer have tried insect alternatives (11%) or lab-grown meat (11%). Among the people who haven't tried insects, 22% would be open to trying them; that figure is 42% for people who have never tried plant-based meat and 37% for people yet to try lab-grown meat.

— Carl Bialik and Linley Sanders contributed to this article

See the results for this YouGov poll

Methodology: This poll was conducted online on April 5 - 7, 2023 among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to March 15, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 28% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 4%.

Image: Adobe Stock (Alexandra)

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