How Does Something Become a Moral Issue?

New research explores factors that lead people to moralize meat-eating.

Posted Jul 16, 2019

((brian)) CC BY 2.0
Source: ((brian)) CC BY 2.0

There are many things we choose to do or not to do that don’t seem to tap into our moral sense. I like ice cream. Recently, I was trying to lose weight, so I stopped eating ice cream for a while. There was no sense of morality associated with eating it or not. Eating ice cream conflicted with another one of my goals and so for several months I went without it.

Other actions may not have a moral component but come to develop a moral element for some people. Many people choose to eat meat. For most of them, that decision has to do with what they enjoy or what they feel is good for them, and does not have any moral implications. Some people choose not to eat meat. For many of those people, the choice to avoid meat has a moral component to it. How does an activity like eating a particular food come to have a moral dimension?

This question was explored in a paper in the July 2019 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Matthew Feinberg, Chloe Kovacheff, Rimma Teper, and Yoel Inbar. They looked specifically at what makes people turn eating meat into a moral issue.

They argue that there are some forces that drive people away from thinking about behavior as a moral issue. Getting pleasure from an activity, like eating meat, will make it less likely that people moralize it. In addition, when faced with the conflict between their actual behavior (eating meat) and the prospect that it has a moral dimension, people will experience cognitive dissonance. A common way to reduce that feeling of conflict is to avoid treating meat-eating as a moral action.

Other forces drive people toward treating an issue as moral. One is if they experience emotions like guilt, shame, disgust, or anger related to these actions. These emotions are often associated with morality and can help to moralize a behavior. Another force is if people think about the issue in ways that are explicitly moral, that can lead them to lend a moral dimension to the behavior. For example, if you think about the degree to which eating meat can cause suffering for animals, that can lead you to moralize meat-eating.

In one study, a diverse group of people in the United States were surveyed several times about attitudes and intentions related to meat-eating over the course of a month. In between surveys, participants watched videos that were intended to invoke moralization about meat-eating by highlighting animal suffering.

The questionnaires in the survey looked at how much people enjoy eating meat, how strongly they experience emotions around eating meat (like disgust, guilt, or outrage), how much they experienced emotions like sympathy and compassion when thinking about animals, and how much they think about the suffering of animals. The survey also asked the degree to which participants thought that eating meat was an immoral thing to do.

Consistent with the researchers’ proposal about moralization, when people think meat is tasty and they enjoy eating it, they are unlikely to treat meat-eating as a moral issue. The more that people experience moral emotions about meat-eating, and the more that they think about animal emotions and animal suffering, the more that they are likely to think about meat-eating as a moral issue.

One advantage of the study taking place over time is that the researchers could analyze whether emotions and thoughts at one time predicted a change in beliefs about moralization later. Experiencing emotions around meat-eating and when thinking about animals at one time predicted greater moralization of meat-eating in later questionnaires. Thinking about animal suffering predicted moralization as well, but to a lesser degree. The more that someone thought of meat-eating as a moral issue, the more likely they were to express an intention to decrease their meat consumption or to become a vegetarian.

The researchers obtained similar effects in two other studies. One study focused primarily on participants who were frequent meat-eaters, and a similar pattern of results was obtained.

This set of studies suggests that there are two particularly powerful sources of moralization. One is cognitive dissonance. When people enjoy an activity, that drives them away from thinking of that activity as a moral issue. As a result, people can enjoy that activity without feeling guilt or shame or feeling outrage toward other people who also enjoy that activity.

When people experience emotions related to morality (like guilt, shame, outrage, but also compassion and sympathy), then that leads people to be more likely to think of that issue as a moral issue in the future. These emotions are a more powerful way to get people to moralize an issue than just getting them to think about the moral dimensions of the issue.

One reason why having a moral dimension to an issue is interesting is that moral issues are also powerful drivers of behavior. The emotions of guilt and shame are strong, and people are motivated to avoid feeling those emotions. Moralizing a behavior is particularly useful when the aim is to get people to stop performing a behavior they were performing in the past (or are tempted to perform in the future). It is hard to get people to stop performing a behavior, so bringing powerful emotions to bear on that behavior can be a good way to help people start developing a new set of habits.


Feinberg, M., Kovacheff, C., Teper, R., & Inbar, Y. (2019). Understanding the process of moralization: How eating meat becomes a moral issue. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 117(1), 50-72.