The Repetitive Moral Injury of Eating Animals

That Better Be Vegan
5 min readAug 13, 2021

When you talk to most people who eat animals, they will tell you they love animals, and in fact may even deeply materially care for specific animals. Others make no pretense to care about the animals, but most people when seeing an animal in real life will feel an emphatic bond and feel traumatized from seeing that animal come to harm or the image of a dead or harmed animal. The website, does the dog die shows that so many people find the idea of even fictionally harmed animals appalling and upsetting.

Most people, when asked, “do you believe animals should be harmed?” Will honestly answer no, or “only when necessary”. And yet, despite study after study showing the safety and health benefits of switching to a plant based diet people keep consuming animals. There is no shortage of footage of what happens at factory farms, and at the end of the day, even if the animal is being killed in the nicest possible way (which they never are), watching an animal pass away peacefully is still traumatic.

It’s no surprise that rates of PTSD are higher(pdf) in those that are paid to work in animal slaughter.

So of course, people go out of their way to avoid thinking about what happens at industrial slaughter plants and factory farms. They go even further out of the way to avoid footage of what happens. They put up mental walls to avoid thinking about how they are perpetrating direct harm to animals by paying for and consuming animals bodies.

A moral injury’s definition is not well defined but for the basis of this essay i will draw on this review, from the Journal of Traumatic Stress:

moral injury is generally assumed to result from exposure to events1
that involve either perpetrating or witnessing actions that violate one’s core beliefs.

The knowledgeable carnist is fully aware of their actions. If they are able to watch an animal be slaughtered in front of them — smell the blood, feel the dying breath, hear the fearful shrieks and have no emotional reaction, then perhaps they truly do believe to their core that the animal deserved to die.

However, judging from most carnists’ unwillingness to watch footage of what happens to the animals they’re paying to be killed for their direct consumption, and their general kindness to “non-food” animals (at least in comparison), i think most carnists would say that hurting animals without a good reason is wrong.

Of course, then the carnist can subjectively deem their few minutes of oral pleasure as a good enough reason to breed an animal into existence just to end their life, but again, i think carnists are unwillingly or willingly deluding themselves out of self-protection. The way people treat animals they care about versus animals they have deemed non-persons is purely arbitrary and a result of cultural conditioning and individual bonding. This confusing hypocrisy extends even to people claiming to be dog lovers who accept animal testing on the too-loyal-for-their-own good beagles, despite there being dubious scientific benefit, or those who treat some subtypes of dog badly compared to their own favored “breed”.

Among other defense mechanisms, vegans are all too familiar with how their former carnist self engaged in compartmentalizing favored animals versus “food animals”, and used denial to downplay the connection between directly financially supporting animal slaughter and the person they’re paying to hold the axe.

In contrast to to direct PTSD,

the moral injury profile included guilt, shame, anger, anhedonia, and social alienation.

How many vegans have seen an otherwise rational empathetic person confront veganism in this way? Instead of engaging with the vegan rationally and dealing with the moral injury that comes from hurting animals, the carnist feels guilt, shame, anger at the vegan, then real and political numbness as they compartmentalize thinking about animal harm. Finally, the carnist might begin to start socially isolating themself from the animals rights activist so as to not be re-trigger the reminder of their moral injury.

Vegans have come up with their own term for this from the other side. Vystopia describes the social isolation of feeling alone in a cruel, unjust world. That also fits the outlined definition of a moral injury. Their social isolation though, is from being unable to prevent the moral harms from continuing, rather than the carnist who is unable to stop perpetrating the moral harms.

This is consistent with evidence that the association between exposure to betrayal-based events and distress is mediated by anger whereas the association between exposure to perpetration-based events and distress is mediated by guilt and/or shame

The animal rights activist, facing knowledge of systemic distress and feeling betrayed by their fellow members of humankind, feels angry at the humans that continue to harm innocent animals needlessly. The carnist, facing knowledge that they are doing harm but unable to stop, use guilt and shame to deal with the moral injury instead.

So what does this mean? Research on moral injuries is fairly new but,

preliminary evidence has indicated that the family, community, and culture to which the individual returns is a key part of the healing process.

For vegans, this means engaging with other vegans and finding community and expanding vegan culture. For the carnist, this means they finding comfort in their carnist groups, specifically disinviting vegans and attempting to avoid all information about animal rights.

Every time they are faced with the knowledge of what they are doing — which is potentially every time they eat, the moral injury is re-triggered. And when it hurts, and then what happens?

Guilt, shame, anger, social alienation, and lack of feeling. Dissociation while eating. Papering over discomfort with jokes, or even retreating into fascistic lines of thinking, such as worth being determined by intelligence. The cycle repeats, harming the animal victims and the human who keeps self harming their own morality. Carnists may attempt to deal with the dichotomy between their values by changing their own moral values, which could unfortunately be worse for their mental health -

Specifically, personnel who reported violating their own values (Maguen et al., 2012), rejected previously held religious beliefs (Currier, Smith et al., 2017),reported spiritual distress (Kopacz, Hoffmire, Morley, & Vance,2015), or felt unforgivable (Bryan, Theriault, & Bryan, 2015) appeared more likely to attempt suicide in some cases.

Do i think the worst moral injury combat troops develop is as likely to cause as many self-harming attempts as considering the beautiful eyes of a cow and then thinking about what you ate?

No. But if your deeply held belief is to “do no harm” and you realize you are doing quite a lot of harm to animals and consequently feel shame, anger, social isolation, anger, and decide nothing matters at all, even feeling numb emotionally, then you are fitting the symptom pattern of those experiencing moral injuries. And it goes without saying that those who are perpetrating a moral injury cannot begin to heal from it until they stop re-opening the moral wound and end the harm they are causing to themselves and others.