Willed Blindness: A Discussion of Our Moral Shortcomings in Relation to Animals


This article describes how we seem to live in a willed blindness towards the effects that our meat production and consumption have on animals, the environment and the climate. A willed blindness that cannot be explained by either lack of knowledge or scientific uncertainty. The blindness enables us to see ourselves as moral beings although our lack of reaction to the effects of our actions tells another story. The article describes the consequences of intensive meat production and consumption to animal welfare and environmental degradation and discusses different strategies to overcome the willed blindness focusing on the development of either a new moral vision of our obligations or new visions of what a good life is.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. 1.

    An apologetic remark: Several of the references are to Danish publications. They mainly refer to the examples of animal welfare issues. I rest assured that similar examples will be possible to find in other languages.

  2. 2.

    It should be noted that this way of distinguishing between the three welfare perspectives, as useful as it is to show the differences, understates the communality between them.

  3. 3.

    It should be noted that this choice of focus does not imply that the other reasons behind our willed blindness are not important to analyze closer or that there are not others not even mentioned here. The choice is governed by the wish to discuss how visions of the good life can help change our perception of the situation. Finally I suggest that readers interested in a more theoretical discussion on self-deception in moral thinking go to Gardiners A perfect moral storm and read chapter 9 (Gardiner 2011).

  4. 4.

    I here assume that a reduced meat intake would provide us with the economic possibility to purchase animal products from animals who have had a higher welfare than the average intensively farmed animal—and that we would do so. If one chooses to go vegetarian or vegan the number of animals will drop, but there is no guarantee that the animals left will have a better life. Agricultural areas previously used for producing animals could on the other hand then be left for wild animals. Whether this in the end will produce the largest sum of welfare is an interesting discussion—especially for utilitarians. For the purpose of this article it is simply assumed that, all things being equal, a reduced consumption of animal products will result in higher animal welfare for some animals, a possibility to restore some wild areas and a lessened environmental impact. That it is not necessarily so, but demands more than just a Meat Free Monday, is clear. One could easily imagine a family that bought less meat, but then spent the economic surplus gained from this in a way that damaged animals and the environment just as much or more. As with other areas of human existence, e.g. food waste, it is necessary not only to stop doing what is seen as “wrong” but also to choose to do what would be seen as “right” with the new opportunities (Gjerris and Gaiani 2013).


  1. Abram, D. (1996). The spell of the sensuous. New York: Vintage Books.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Abram, D. (2011). Becoming animal. An earthly cosmology. New York: Vintage Books.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Acampora, R. A. (2006). Corporal compassion. Animal ethics and philosophy of body. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Ambrosen, T. (2010). Problematikken omkring trædepudekvaliteten. Nyhedsbreve fra Dansk Slagtefjerkræ (2). http://www.danskslagtefjerkrae.dk/Faglig_information/Nyt_fra_Dansk_Slagtefjerkrae/2010/Nr_2/Taedebrudekvalitet.aspx#.UyGPFdzg2QY (accessed 13.03.2014).

  5. Bassett, A. (2009). Foot Pad Dermatitis in Poultry. Technical paper no 7. Animal Welfare Approved. http://www.animalwelfareapproved.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/TAFS7.pdf (accessed 16.02.2013).

  6. Baxter, E. M., Lawrence, A. B., & Edwards, S. A. (2012). Alternative farrowing accommodation: Welfare and economic aspects of existing farrowing and lactation systems for pigs. Animal, 6, 96–117.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Bittman, M. (2012). FAO yields to meat industry pressure on climate change. The New York Times. http://bittman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/11/fao-yields-to-meat-industry-pressure-on-climate-change (accessed 16.02.2013).

  8. Bock, B. B., & van Huik, M. M. (2007). Animal welfare: The attitudes and behaviour of European pig farmers. British Food Journal, 109(11), 931–944.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Borkfelt, S., Kondrup, S., & Gjerris, M. (2013). Closer to nature: The ethics of ‘green’ representations in animal product marketing. In H. Röcklinsberg & P. Sandin (Eds.), The ethics of consumption: The citizen, the market and the law. Wageningen: Wageningen Academic Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Broom, D. (1991). Animal welfare: Concepts and measurement. Journal of Animal Science, 69, 4167–4175.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Brown, F. (2009). Meat consumption per capita. The Guardian 02.09.2009 http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/datablog/2009/sep/02/meat-consumption-per-capita-climate-change (accessed 05.05.2013).

  12. Coetzee, J. M. (1999). The lives of animals. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Counihan, C., & Van Esterik, P. (1997). Food and culture—a reader. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Det Danske Fjerkræråd. (2012). Årsberetning 2012. København: Det Danske Fjerkræråd. http://www.danskfjerkrae.dk/Om_Fjerkraebranchen/Det_Danske_Fjaerkraeraad/Aarsberetning/ (accessed 14.03.14).

  15. Det Dyreetiske Råd. (2006). Udtalelse om malkekvæg. Justitsministeriet.

  16. Duncan, I. J. H. (1996). Animal welfare defined in terms of feelings. Acta Agriculturae Scandinavica. Section A. Animal Science, 27(Suppl), 29–35.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Duncan, I. J. H., Gillian, S. S., Seawright, E., & Breward, J. (1989). Behavioural consequences of partial beak amputation. British Poultry Science, 30(3), 479–488.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Edgar, J. L., Lowe, J. C., Paul, E. C., & Nicol, C. J. (2011). Avian maternal response to chick distress. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 278(1721), 3129–3134.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Farm Animal Welfare Council. (2009). Five freedoms. Farm Animal Welfare Council. http://www.fawc.org.uk/freedoms.htm (accessed 19.02.2013).

  20. Foer, J. S. (2009). Eating animals. New York, USA: Little, Brown and Company.

  21. Fraser, D., Weary, D. M., Pajor, E. A., & Milligan, B. N. (1997). A scientific conception of animal welfare that reflects ethical concerns. Animal Welfare, 6, 187–205.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Fredriksen, B., Font i Furnols, M., Lundström, K., Migdal, W., Prunier, A., Tuyttens, F. A. M., et al. (2009). Practice on castration of piglets in Europe. Animal, 3(11), 1480–1487.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Gardiner, S. M. (2011). A perfect moral storm. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Gjerris, M., & Gaiani, S. (2013). Household food waste in Nordic countries: Estimations and ethical implications. Nordic Journal of Applied Ethics, 7(1), 6–23.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Gjerris, M., & Gamborg, C. (2010). Is there more to life than welfare? How the concept of animal integrity can contribute to discussions of animal ethics. In C. M. R. Casabona, L. E. San Epifanio & A. E. Cirion (Eds.), Global food security. Ethical and legal challenges (pp. 295–300). The Netherlands: Wageningen Academic Publishers.

  26. Gjerris, M., Olsson, A., & Sandøe, P. (2006). Animal biotechnology and animal welfare. In Ethical eyeanimal welfare (pp. 89–110). Wageningen, The Netherlands: Council of Europe.

  27. Glendinning, C. (1994). My name is Chellis and I′m in recovery from Western civilization. Gabriola Island, Canada: New Catalyst Books.

  28. Gold, M. (2004). The global benefits of eating less meat. Compassion in world farming trust. http://www.ciwf.org.uk/includes/documents/cm_docs/2008/g/global_benefits_of_eating_less_meat.pdf (accessed 05.0513).

  29. Goodland, R., & Anhang, J. (2009). Livestock and climate change. What if the key actors in climate change are… cows, pigs, and chickens. World Watch Institute. http://www.worldwatch.org/files/pdf/Livestock%20and%20Climate%20Change.pdf (accessed 05.05.13).

  30. Hamilton, C. (2010). Reqiuem for a species. London: Earthscan.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Hansen, H. O. (2011). Relationerne mellem forbrugerpriser og råvarepriser i landbruget. Institute of Food and Resource Economics, University of Copenhagen.

  32. Hovgaard, T. (2011). Hård vinter og sygdom rammer fjerkræet hårdt. Food and Culture, 5, 30–31.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Jensen, O. (2001). At hente rummet ind igen. Teologiske betragtninger over vort naturforhold. In L. D. Madsen & M. Gjerris (Eds.), Naturens sande betydningom natursyn, etik og teologi. Copenhagen, Denmark: Multivers.

  34. Joy, M. (2010). Why we love dogs, eat pigs, and wear cows: An introduction to carnism. San Francisco: Conari Press.

    Google Scholar 

  35. Koneswaran, G., & Nierenberg, D. (2008). Global farm animal production and global warming: Impacting and mitigating climate change. Environmental Health Perspectives, 116(5), 578–582.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Lai, L., Kang, J. X., Li, R., Wang, J., Youn, H. Y., Hao, Y., et al. (2006). Generation of cloned transgenic pigs rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Nature Biotechnology, 24(4), 435–436.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Løgstrup, K. E. (1997). The ethical demand. Danish 1. ed published 1956. Notre Dame, USA : University of Notre Dame Press.

  38. Lund, V., & Röcklinsberg, H. (2001). Outlining a conception of animal welfare for organic farming systems. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 14(4), 391–424.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. MacDonald, D. B. (2006). Pushing the limits of humanity? Reinterpreting animal rights and “Personhood” through the prism of the holocaust. Journal of Human Rights, 5, 417–437.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Martelli, G. (2009). Consumers’ perception of farm animal welfare: An Italian and European perspective. Italian Journal of Animal Science, 8, 31–41.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. McIntosh, A. (2009). Hell and high water. Climate change, hope and the human condition. Edinburgh, UK: Birlinn.

  42. Miele, M. (2010). Report concerning consumer perceptions and attitudes towards farm animal welfare. European Animal Welfare Platform, Cardiff, UK . http://www.animalwelfareplatform.eu/documents/ProjOutput-consumerconcerns.pdf (accessed 05.05.13).

  43. Moore, K. D., & Nelson, M. P. (Eds.). (2010). Moral ground. Ethical action for a planet in peril. San Antonio: Trinity University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  44. Naso, R. C. (2007). Beneath the mask. Hypocrisy and the pathology of shame. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 24(1), 113–125.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Patterson, C. (2002). Eternal Treblinka. New York: Lantern Book.

    Google Scholar 

  46. Popkin, B. M., & Gordon-Larsen, P. (2004). The nutrition transition: Worldwide obesity dynamics and their determinants. International Journal of Obesity, 28, 2–9.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Post, M. J. (2012). Cultured meat from stem cells: Challenges and prospects. Meat Science, 92(3), 297–301.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics. (2012). Turn down the heat. Why a 4 °C warmer world must be avoided. International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/World Bank. http://climatechange.worldbank.org/sites/default/files/Turn_Down_the_heat_Why_a_4_degree_centrigrade_warmer_world_must_be_avoided.pdf (accessed 05.05.13).

  49. Richardson, K., Steffen, W., Schnellnhuber, H. J., Alcamo, J., Barker, T., Kammen, D. M., et al. (2009). Synthesis report from climate change: Global risks challenges and decisions. Copenhagen 2009, 10–12 March. University of Copenhagen and the International Alliance of Research Universities. http://www.climatecongress.ku.dk/pdf/synthesisreport (accessed 05.05.13).

  50. Rocklinsberg, H. (2012). Vegetarismens lange tidslinje. In M. Gjerris, R. Klingenberg, G. Meyer & G. Tveit (Eds.), Køden antologi (pp. 129–49). Copenhagen, Denmark: Tiderne Skifter.

  51. Rollin, B. (1993). Animal welfare, science and value. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 6(Suppl. 2), 44–50.

    Google Scholar 

  52. Roszak, T., Gomes, M. E., & Kanner, A. D. (1995). Ecopsychology. Restoring the earth, healing the mind. London: Sierra Club Books.

    Google Scholar 

  53. Shriver, A. (2010). Not grass-fed, but at least pain free. New York Times 19.02.2010 http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/19/opinion/19shriver.html?_r=0 (accessed 05.05.13).

  54. Steinfeld, H., Gerber, P., Wassenaar, T., Castel, V., Rosales, M., & de Haan, C. (2006). Livestock′s long shadowenvironmental issues and options. Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations. http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM (accessed 05.05.13).

  55. Sztybel, D. (2006). Can the treatment of animals be compared to the Holocaust? Ethics and the Environment, 11(1), 97–132.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. Te Velde, H., Aarts, N., & Van Woerkum, C. (2002). Dealing with ambivalence: Farmers’ and consumers perceptions of animal welfare in livestock breeding. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 15(2), 203–219.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  57. Vanhonacker, F., Verbeke, W., van Poucke, E., & Tuyttens, F. A. M. (2008). Do citizens and farmers interpret the concept of farm animal welfare differently? Livestock Science, 116(1–3), 126–136.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  58. Yeates, J., Röcklinsberg, H., & Gjerris, M. (2011). Is welfare all that matters? A discussion of what should be included in policymaking regarding animals. Animal Welfare, 20, 423–432.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Mickey Gjerris.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Gjerris, M. Willed Blindness: A Discussion of Our Moral Shortcomings in Relation to Animals. J Agric Environ Ethics 28, 517–532 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10806-014-9499-6

Download citation


  • Animal production
  • Animal welfare
  • Climate change
  • The good life
  • Willed blindness