Definitions can make certain aspects of reality seem more important and make others barely noticeable. The categories we use can influence the ability of people to feel empathy or a sense of justice towards other animals. For example, in a 2011 study, a group of psychologists found that when animals are categorized as food, people are more likely to see them as having a diminished capacity to suffer and as less worthy of moral concern. This may help explain why cultures differ in which animal species they consider food and which they consider it disgusting and immoral to eat.
“Most people love animals and love eating meat. One way of reducing this conflict is to deny that animals suffer and have moral rights. We suggest that the act of categorizing an animal as ‘food’ may diminish their perceived capacity to suffer, which in turn dampens our moral concern. Participants were asked to read about an animal in a distant nation and we manipulated whether the animal was categorized as food, whether it was killed, and human responsibility for its death. The results demonstrate that categorization as food – but not killing or human responsibility – was sufficient to reduce the animal’s perceived capacity to suffer, which in turn restricted moral concern. People may be able to love animals and love meat because animals categorized as food are seen as insensitive to pain and unworthy of moral consideration.”