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Age-related differences in the moral view of animals

Image: 12019, Ireland Sheep Lambs, Pixabay, Pixabay Licence

This paper explores how people’s moral views towards different animals change between childhood and adulthood. Based on surveys with participants in the UK, children were found to be less likely than adults to show speciesism (defined as assigning moral worth to beings based on their species), less likely to categorise farm animals as food as opposed to as pets, more likely to think farm animals should be treated better (than adults would treat them), and less likely to think it is morally acceptable to eat meat or animal products. The authors hypothesise that people learn to reconcile inner moral conflicts about eating animal products by forming a hierarchy in which some animals are given a lower moral standing.


Humans care for the well-being of some animals (e.g., dogs) yet tacitly endorse the maltreatment of others (e.g., pigs). What treatment is deemed morally appropriate for an animal can depend on whether the animal is characterized as “food.” When such categorization of animals emerges and when a moral hierarchy of beings depending on their species membership (speciesism) develops is poorly understood. We investigate this development across samples of children (9–11 years old), young adults (18–21 years old), and adults (29–59 years old; total N = 479). Compared with young adults and adults, children (a) show less speciesism, (b) are less likely to categorize farm animals as food than pets, (c) think farm animals ought to be treated better, and (d) deem eating meat and animal products to be less morally acceptable. These findings imply that there are key age-related differences in our moral view of an animal worth that point to socially constructed development over the lifespan.



McGuire, L., Palmer, S.B. and Faber, N.S., 2022. The development of speciesism: age-related differences in the moral view of animals. Social Psychological and Personality Science, p.19485506221086182.


Read the full paper here. Lead author Luke McGuire has written a TABLE blog post on his research here: Loving some animals, eating others: Food preferences in childhood. See also the TABLE explainer What is animal welfare?

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