Could dogs eat a dead human body?

Some animals are man’s best friend, others end up on the plate. If you ever get served the wrong animal - as the current horse meat scandal shows - the outcry is great. The American psychology and sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, Melanie Joy, in her book "Why we love dogs, eat pigs and raise cows" (to be published in German on May 15). A conversation.

Süddeutsche.de: Ms. Joy, you have been dealing with the psychology of eating meat for years. When was the last time you bit into a piece of dead animal?

Melanie Joy: That was in 1989 when I ate a hamburger contaminated with bacteria and ended up in the hospital. After that I didn't feel like eating meat anymore and dealt more and more with the conditions in the meat industry. I found out that eating meat is contrary to my basic ethical principles.

You then dealt professionally with the topic of meat consumption. What did you find out?

For my doctoral thesis I interviewed people from the meat industry, people who breed and slaughter their own animals, "normal" meat consumers, but also vegetarians. I found that virtually all of them were uncomfortable on some level with harming animals. But there was a psychological separation between this discomfort and her behavior. To resolve this moral contradiction, they used various psychological defense mechanisms. The whole thing can be compared to an invisible belief system that is internalized by all who are born into that system. I named it "Karnismus".

What does this belief system do to us?

Most people have compassion for animals. Even so, they eat their body parts regularly. This is only possible because Karnismus teaches us not to feel. The whole system is designed to block our awareness and empathy.

And because our empathy isn't totally blocked, do we only eat certain animals while keeping others as pets and developing close relationships with them?

Exactly. We eat a burger with one hand while petting our dog with the other. In our culture, for example, many people love dogs and sometimes treat them like family members. But we eat pigs and wear cow skin. Pigs and cows are at least as intelligent as dogs and have the same ability to experience emotions and suffering. Most of them are completely unaware of this contradiction. The mechanism behind this can also be found in human conditions of exploitation. We bomb some people, we save others. Some are enslaved, others glorified. But the difference has nothing to do with the individual as such. The difference has something to do with our perception of the group they belong to.

Tell us about the different defense mechanisms of karnism.

The first mechanism is denial. If we deny that there is a problem, we don't have to do anything about it. Denial is expressed, for example, in the fact that we almost never see all of the animal production, the slaughterhouses and so on. The modern meat industry is arguably one of the most brutal practices in human history. Each year around ten billion animals are killed for their meat in the United States alone. These animals often live in terrible conditions, cramped in playpens and cages, treated like living machines, like production units. These victims are kept away from us. But there are other defense mechanisms, I call them the three "N": That eating meat is normal, necessary and natural. Such arguments have also been used to justify other violent practices such as slavery or patriarchy.

Let's talk about the three "N" s: Why shouldn't it be normal to eat meat?

Because it's a free choice. People who do not eat meat are called "vegetarians" and have to justify themselves. However, the one who eats meat has no name and does not have to justify himself. Many people do not even realize that they are making free choices when they eat meat.

We come to the second "N", the nature argument.

People who say that eating meat is natural view human evolution in a very one-sided way and keep silent about the fact that our close relatives from the animal kingdom, for example, mainly eat vegetarian food. There are also other human practices that are at least as "old" and correspondingly "natural" as meat consumption: child murder, murder, rape and cannibalism. We don't try history to justify this either.

And why shouldn't it be necessary to eat meat?

There is this protein myth, the argument that humans depend on animal proteins, especially for strength development. The strongest man in Germany is, for example, an avowed vegan. There is also growing evidence in research that a meatless diet has health benefits. But even if you don't want to take note of this, you know that there have been vegetarians for thousands of years who not only live healthy, but also live very long.