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The Morality of Meatlessness: Why Children Choose Vegetarianism

The study began a few years ago when Karen Hussar, Ed.M.'06. Ed.D.'07, then a doctoral student, became interested in children who chose to become vegetarians at a young age (6-10) despite being raised in meat-eating families. To what extent, she wondered, was this decision based on morals, not health?

In September, Professor Paul Harris, Hussar's advisor and project collaborator, presented Hussar's ongoing research at a discussion sponsored by the Ed School's Civic and Moral Education Initiative. Harris explained that Hussar studied these "independent vegetarian" children, as she called them, as well as "family vegetarians" -- children who grew up in vegetarian families -- and a third group who, Harris said, "ate and enjoyed meat."

The initial question they explored was how these children view meat eating and why they might not eat meat. The independent vegetarians overwhelmingly cited animal rights as a top reason for not eating meat, while family vegetarians split the reasons between animal rights, family influence, and religion. Meat eaters said health and taste were top reasons for not eating certain meats.

"This first study was simple yet provocative," said Harris, "with the independent vegetarians giving genuine moral reasons: the suffering and death that meat eating entails. They empathize with the pain and distress."

Hussar took the study one step further, asking the children to think about four types of actions and whether or not they are wrong, not only for themselves, but for others: pushing another child (moral action), going to school with the wrong clothes (conventional deviation), expressing a particular preference (personal choice), and eating meat.

Harris said that with the first three actions, answers varied sharply, but, surprisingly, when it came to meat eating, the independent vegetarians were not any more "judgmental" than the other two groups of children. They believed that if someone was morally committed to not eating meat, but then did, it was wrong. But if someone had not initially made that commitment and ate meat, they were more tolerant.

This raised a question about commitment, Harris told the audience. If "commitment" to vegetarianism was an important factor for independent vegetarians, why was it not as important when it came to other moral decisions? With lying, for example, committing to not lying didn't matter -- no one was supposed to lie, they said.

"So how come they don't think about eating meat in the same way?" Harris wondered. "How come they think of it more as an option to commit?"

And, of course, the bigger, lagging question, he said, is why do independent vegetarians make the decision not to eat meat in the first place? He initially thought these children might have a special affection toward animals. But with pet ownership so widespread, even among meat eaters, that explanation is unlikely. Other possibilities, proposed by Harris and audience members, were that independent vegetarians have a greater understanding of suffering or are born as vegetarians. Harris also offered one more suggestion.

"Most of us receive an enormous number of messages that eating meat is a good thing, one associated with celebrations," he said. "Most of us who eat meat and look at our plates don't think about the slaughterhouse. My sense is that these children have a more complicated relationship to that plate."

To add your possible explanations, go to the Civic and Moral Engagement Initiative blog at http://cmei-harvard.ning.com/.