The conflict between instinct and intellect in exploiting animals

Posted on July 20, 2019

End Animal Slaughter contributor PAUL STEVENSON writes that we will never self-actualise so long as we cause other animals to suffer.


Man is a social, innately moral, animal. When we treat others with kindness and respect we feel good about ourselves, but being cruel destroys us.

Human beings have needs of different kinds, ranging in priority from basic survival needs to ultimate self-fulfilment. Like the foundations of a building, basic needs must be met before we can begin to achieve higher ones. The psychologist Abraham Maslow termed these our “Hierarchy of Needs”

Abraham Maslow (1908 – 1970) was a famous American clinical psychologist. He was particularly specialized in the area of humanistic psychology and became famous with his ground-breaking theory on the Hierarchy of Needs. This model is known as Maslow’s pyramid.


All humans have similar survival needs – food, clothing, shelter – and all share similar needs for esteem and a feeling of belonging. However, although our highest needs are more personal in nature, morality and integrity are absolute essentials. The house of our being requires a sound foundation and the mortar of integrity to bind all the bricks.

The brain is central to this issue. The human brain is comprised of parts of varying ages dating back millions of years to our earliest reptilian ancestors. In general, older parts perform automatic, unconscious maintenance activities and control unthinking responses. Only the cerebral cortex, the most recently evolved part, permits rational thought. Although we can think rationally, we are not fully rational animals as much of our behaviour is controlled by the ancient, unconscious parts of the brain.

Internal conflicts can arise when we get different messages from both older and newer parts of our brain. Man has an instinctive preference for animal foods as they contain complete protein and are rich in energy and vitamins. People consume them eagerly whenever they get the chance. We also crave foods high in fat, sugar and salt as these are of high survival value and scarce in nature. Although instinct tells us that such foods are highly desirable, our cerebral cortex – our “advanced” brain – allows us to consider them rationally.


We are thus confronted with the following problems regarding the consumption of animal products:-

1. We know we can nourish ourselves perfectly adequately on plant foods alone, without having to consume animal foods.

2. We know that the consumption of animal foods causes unspeakable suffering to the animals concerned because we can empathise with them as we too are animals.

3. We know that the production of animal foods causes immense environmental destruction both on land and at sea. It also creates hunger and poverty as it is grossly wasteful of energy and requires vastly more land than is available.

4. We know that eating animal foods causes many “lifestyle diseases” that lead to debilitating illness and premature death.

Thus we face a dilemma over the consumption of animal foods. We appear to be driven by ancient, unthinking instinct, but our rational mind tells us that eating animal products is indefensible. Because we are moral beings we must deceive ourselves to justify it. When we deceive ourselves we generate self-contempt and damage our self-respect. However, self-respect, or self-esteem, is a primary psychological human need as Maslow shows. We must approve of ourselves in order to function fully as human beings.

Integrity and morality are essential components of self-esteem. A false image of integrity may fool others but never oneself. When we deceive ourselves we cannot be comfortable within ourselves and cannot have peace in our heart.

The ultimate irony therefore is that when we steal from others we end up stealing that which is most precious of all from ourselves: our self-esteem and integrity. The harm we so callously inflict on others returns to destroy us along with our dreams.

If we wish life to be good we must practise it. Intellect must rule instinct. Good lives are moral lives. Moral lives consist of showing respect, not just to other humans, but especially to those poor innocent creatures whose lives we so abominably abuse by our execrable behaviour. Only when we do that can we achieve our full human potential, ultimate “Self-actualisation”.