What are the N-Words meat-eaters use when defending their diet? A team of researchers produced the first empirical study of meat-consumption rationalizations and justifications. Nothing brings out our deep-seated defenses like dietary debate.
Table Of Contents
- What's Behind the Need to Justify?
- Introducing the 4Ns
- N #1: Eating Meat Is Natural
- N #2: Eating Meat Is Necessary
- N #3: Eating Meat Is Normal
- N #4: Eating Meat Is Nice
- Meat-Eating Justifications Outside of the 4Ns
- A Focus on Rationalization vs Ignoring & Avoiding
- The Results: Insights into Rationalizing Meat Consumption
- What Lies Behind the Rationalizations
- In Closing...
When it comes to dietary-centered discussions between non-vegans and vegans, things can easily become heated. One team of international scientists decided to analyze the arguments from the meat-eating camp by bringing out the big guns: the N-Words (known as the 4Ns).
Humans have a wide array of reasons for eating animals, from taste, to tradition, to nutrition, to the absurd assertion that animals want to be eaten—yes that’s a thing.
But what’s behind this need to justify, explain and rationalize the consumption of animals? Why do omnivores often offer up unbidden impassioned defenses of their dietary practices upon learning someone is vegan—whether they be passive apologies for consuming meat in their presence or outright attacks and challenges?
Well, nothing provokes our knee-jerk defenses or our human capacity for award-worthy rationalizations and impassioned justifications quite like the perceived judgment of behaviors we’re already insecure about.
In 2015, an international team of researchers headed by Jared Piazza produced the first empirical systematic study of meat-consumption rationalizations, more or less corralling the multitudes of justifications into four main categories, denoted by what they call the 4Ns.
The 4Ns are the belief that eating meat is:
- necessary, and
Building off of the 3Ns presented in Dr. Melanie Joy’s landmark text Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows, the team added the 4th N of “Nice” to capture “the enjoyment people derive from eating meat,” which they said “is a major barrier to reducing meat consumption and/or adopting a vegetarian diet,” as they found that, “meat-eaters…often appeal to the tastiness of meat, or the hedonic pleasure that they derive from it, as a justification for its continued consumption,” a rationale not encompassed within Joy’s original 3 strata.
In this video and article, I’ll be presenting:
- an overview of this study (“Rationalizing Meat Consumption. The 4Ns.” Piazza et al.),
- the drive behind the human need for rationalization, and
- touch upon the broader implications of the 4Ns—which, the researchers propose, reach far beyond the realm of dietary dissonance into “[m]any historical practices, from slavery to sexism.”
Let’s start with a quick look at the 4N’s as defined within the study’s parameters. (Note: all quoted text defining the 4Ns is from the Piazza study).
According to the researchers, the first N (eating meat is “natural), “[a]ppeals to biology, biological hierarchy, natural selection, human evolution, or the naturalness of eating meat.”
- “It is natural for humans to eat meat”;
- “Humans are carnivores”;
- “We’ve always eaten meat and/or have evolved to do so“;
- “We have canine teeth”;
- “Animals eat other animals”; and
- “Animals are here for us to eat.”
The second N (eating meat is “necessary”) “[a]ppeals to the necessity of meat for survival, strength, development, health, animal population control, or economic stability.”
- “Humans need meat to survive”;
- “Meat provides good nutrients;
- “Our bodies need the protein“;
- “Protein is a necessary part of our diet”; and, one of my personal favorites:
- “Because if we didn’t, there would be an overabundance of certain animals.”
The third N (eating meat is “normal) “[a]ppeals to dominant societal norms, normative behavior, historical human behavior, or socially constructed food pyramids.”
- “Society says it’s okay”;
- “I was raised eating meat”;
- “Meat is culturally accepted or an important part of tradition“;
- “A lot of other people eat meat”; and
- “It’s abnormal NOT to eat meat.”
As I mentioned, the fourth N (eating meat is “nice”) was introduced by the researchers to capture “[a]ppeals to the tastiness of meat, or that it is fulfilling or satisfying.”
- “It tastes good”;
- “It’s delicious”;
- “Tastes great (I mean bacon…come on)”;
- “Meat adds so much flavor to a meal it does not make sense to leave it out”,
- “The best tasting food is normally a meat-based dish”; and
- “Meals without meat would just be bland and boring“.
It’s important to note that a number of objections and diversion tactics fall a bit outside the realm of the 4Ns. In the first two studies, wherein respondents offered spontaneous justifications, categories of:
- Humane slaughter,
- Miscellaneous, and
- Unscorable (for when they did not answer the question or rejected the premise that eating meat is not okay).
At the study’s outset, the team clarified that while “there are numerous strategies available to omnivores to bring their beliefs and behavior in line, including denying that animals used as food suffer or that such animals are worthy of moral concern,” their goal was to focus on the “common, yet under-studied mechanism [of] rationalization.”
Unlike straight up denials of animal sentience, willful ignoring or passive avoidance of what we do to animals—essentially the “I don’t see it so it doesn’t happen” mentality—“rationalization involves providing reasonable justifications for one’s behavior when it comes under scrutiny or criticism, or when one’s behavior is perceived as discrepant with an integral aspect of one’s character.”
They did, however, subsequently included concepts of religion, hierarchy, and fate within the “Natural” category and health arguments within “Necessary.”
The higher a group’s 4N score, the more that group rationalized meat consumption. When a group is said to endorse the 4Ns, this also means they expressed stronger beliefs in and use of the rationalizations for eating meat.
Overall, as expected, “omnivores had the highest 4N scores, followed by semi-vegetarians [meaning people who only eat some animals].” And, also unsurprisingly, “[v]egetarians and dietary and lifestyle vegans had the lowest 4N scores.”
Men endorsed the 4Ns more strongly than did women and engaged in more direct justification strategies, while women tended towards “indirect strategies of dissociating or avoiding thoughts of animal suffering.”
In regards to whether “individuals…who consume higher quantities of meat…tend to be more supportive of inequality in group relationships” and “endorse anti-egalitarian values,” they found, as did previous research, that “meat justification appears to be related to inequality justification.”
The researchers invoked Dr. Joy’s examples of the 3Ns employment across others issues, from slavery to women’s suffrage, drawing the parallels of justification:
“Opponents of women’s suffrage… appealed to the necessity of denying women the vote to prevent ‘irreparable damage’ to the nation, to the natural superiority of male intelligence, and to the historical normalness of male-only voting as ‘designed by our forefathers.’”— Piazza et al. (partially quoting Joy, 2010)
In the end, it’s the reasons behind the rationalizations—and the very need for them at all—that are the most profound aspect of this entire issue. It’s something I’ve gone into in depth in many of my videos, including this revealing speech.
Living in a state of cognitive dissonance wherein our actions directly conflict with our own professed morals and values, causes extreme disease within us.
Eating animals is, in essence, living a double life. Attempting to be animal lovers and animal killers. Needing to see ourselves as good people while we pay others to carry out barbaric acts of cruelty we would never ourselves inflict upon another being.
This is what the researchers refer to as the “meat paradox.”
Omnivores are left with the choice of either changing their behaviors to align with their values by ceasing to eat animals and their byproducts, or manipulating their perception of reality in such a way that it at least appears that their behaviors align with their values.
Not surprisingly, the majority of the world chooses the latter. Because changing our behavior when it comes to eating animals means confronting head-on our complicity. It means facing the horrors we’ve supported and vehemently defended. It means looking ourselves in the mirror with outright honesty.
In reality, there is bliss in ignorance. For the ignorant.[tweet this]
I hope that this video and article were helpful, and perhaps even prompt the slightest moment of self-reflection at the aspects of our behavior we strive so ardently to justify.
Please share it around to spark discussion. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
To support educational content like this, please consider making a donation. Now go live vegan, and I’ll see you soon.
— Emily Moran Barwick