We all know what a vegetarian is—a person who doesn't eat meat. And today many of us know what a vegan is—a person who eschews all animal products. Though some people may choose to become vegan (or vegetarian—the focus though, is on veganism for reasons that will become clear) to improve their health, many vegans stop eating animals because they don't believe it's ethical to do so. Most of us realize that veganism is often an expression of one's ethical orientation, so when we think of a vegan, we don't simply think of a person who's just like everyone else except that they don't eat animals. At three or four stations along the treasure hunt clues are accompanied by sweets and treats.
We think of a person who has a certain philosophical outlook, whose choice not to eat animals is a reflection of a deeper belief system in which killing animals for human ends is considered unethical. We understand that veganism reflects not merely a dietary orientation, but a way of life. This is why, for instance, when there's a vegan character in a movie, they are depicted not simply as a person who avoids eating meat, eggs, and dairy, but as someone who has a certain set of qualities that we associate with vegans, such as being an animal lover or having unconventional values.
If a vegan is someone who believes that it's unethical to eat animals, what, then, do we call a person who believes that it's ethical to eat animals? If a vegan is a person who chooses not to eat animals, what is a person who chooses to eat animals? Currently, we use the term “meat eater” to describe anyone who is not vegan or vegetarian. But how accurate is this? As we established, a vegan is not simply a “plant eater.” Eating plants is a behavior that stems from a belief system. Both “vegan” and “vegetarian” accurately reflect that a core belief system is at work: the suffix “arian” (shortened to “an” in “vegan”) denotes a person who advocates, supports, or practices a doctrine or set of principles.
In contrast, the term “meat eater” isolates the practice of consuming meat, as though it were divorced from a person's beliefs and values. It implies that the person who eats meat is acting outside of a belief system. But is eating meat truly a behavior that exists independent of a belief system? Do we eat pigs but not dogs because we don't have a belief system when it comes to eating animals? In much of the industrialized world, we eat animals not because we have to; we eat animals because we choose to. We don't need to eat animals to survive or even to be healthy; millions of healthy and long-lived vegans have proven this point. We eat animals simply because it's what we've always done, and because we like the way they taste. Most of us eat animals because it's just the way things are. We don't see meat eating as we do veganism—as a choice, based on a set of assumptions about animals, our world, and ourselves. Rather, we see it as a given, the “natural” thing to do, the way things have always been and the way things will always be. We eat animals without thinking about what we are doing and why because the belief system that underlies this behavior is invisible. This invisible belief system is what I call “carnism.”
Carnism is the belief system that conditions us to eat certain animals. We sometimes think of those who eat animals as carnivores. But carnivores are, by definition, animals that are dependent on meat to survive. Those who consume animals are also not merely omnivores. An omnivore is an animal—human or nonhuman—that has the physiological ability to ingest both plants and meat. Both “carnivore,” “omnivore” are terms that describe one's biological constitution, not one's philosophical choice. In much of the world today people eat animals not because they need to, but because they choose to, and choices always stem from beliefs.