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Don't Be Caught Grinning at Your Lamb Chops

22/04/2015 17:06 BST | Updated 21/06/2015 10:59 BST

So-called 'extreme hunters' like giraffe killer Rebecca Francis regularly and deservedly receive public shaming, but few of us think twice about grinning at our lamb chops come dinner time.

No, this will not be another tired vegetarian diatribe; I want to pose the question as to why we humans seem to have a tendency to readily aboard the vigilante bandwagon for the giraffe killer but not the lamb killer. If both animals are equally peaceful and unthreatening to us (giraffes and lambs), what makes us react to Rebecca Francis with such vitriol but then react with such nonchalance to human omnivores, ourselves included?

There's no shortage of gruesome scenes being pictured in animal rights campaigns, so the macabre happy snaps next to the dead giraffe couldn't have been macabre only due to the dead animal being in frame. No, it was probably the fact this dead animal was a giraffe. I mean, come on! A giraffe! Who does that?! Well, perhaps we're simply unaccustomed to the idea of dead giraffes. It might be so far from 'normal' (to us) that it just makes it automatically wrong.

It's a bit like if I said I had intimate relations with my sister. For the record, I have no sister and so have had no such relations. But if I did, you'd probably say it was disgusting and unethical - but why? Couldn't there be some instances of incest which are moral? What if we'd used protection, were both adults at the time, fully consented to whatever standard, no one other than ourselves knew, and it didn't have any negative consequences whatsoever now or in the future? According to research by moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, you're still more likely than not to react negatively to this scenario, despite there being few if any good reasons left for thinking so. Haidt termed this 'post-hoc rationalisation', our tendency to jump to an intuited moral answer and then come up with its justifications afterwards.

Have we merely intuited our moral outrage to Rebecca Francis' photo next to her long-necked victim? Partly, perhaps. If the economic world was flipped and our centres of global commerce and industry were in Africa, we might live in a society which farmed giraffes and wildebeest instead of sheep and cattle. In such a society, a dead lamb might set off the same reaction as a dead giraffe has in our society, it would be equally far from 'normal'.

Though this isn't just about what's normal and what's not. Part of our reaction was reasoned, not all of it was intuited - or, at least, our intuitions happened to be supported by good reasons in this instance. Online commentators reasonably posed questions like Where's the fun in killing a giraffe? and Can't you find enjoyment someplace else, perhaps where you're not killing?

What's intriguing about these questions is how easily they can be transposed to the act of eating lamb chops: where Rebecca Francis killed a giraffe for apparent mere enjoyment, many of us regularly participate indirectly in the killing of lambs for mere enjoyable sustenance. Where's the fun in killing a lamb? and Can't you find enjoyable sustenance someplace else, perhaps where you're not killing?

Now, I did promise this wouldn't get too preachy, so instead of dwelling on these questions, let's consider how and why this cognitive dissonance occurs.

For one thing, most of us who eat meat aren't directly involved in the killing or otherwise of the animal, whereas Ms Francis was (and seeing a grinning killer lying next to a carcass readily sets off emotional dials). And how could someone be happy about such a peaceful animal's death if it was only for that sake alone? At least lamb-eaters aren't necessarily happy about the death of the animal they're eating, but are merely happy about their culinary experience - a consequence of the animal's death.

However, if the experience of 'extreme hunting' is actually what Rebecca Francis is happy about (which seems likely), then her enjoyment isn't necessarily anything more than - like meat - a consequence of the animal's death.

If mass-produced lab meat was indistinguishable from 'real' meat, might we feel more comfortable hoeing into our lamb chops? I think so, and I think we'd care a lot less about Rebecca Francis' happy snap if it was taken next to a life-life robot giraffe.

Such technologies are unavailable for now and we are left with the choice leaving our wants satisfied or unsatisfied. Our choices are a matter of ethics, and so too is the question of whether we ought to have such wants in the first place. Just to be safe, however, perhaps leave the lamb out of your next dinner party photos.