Society & Animals Journal of Human-Animal Studies
Logo - Society and Animals Journal
Volume 12, Number 3, 2004

Moral Disengagement and Attitudes about Violence toward Animals

Scott Vollum , Jacqueline Buffington-Vollum, Dennis R. Longmir
Sam Houston State University


ABSTRACT

Despite a growing body of evidence linking nonhuman animal cruelty to violence toward humans and increasing knowledge of the pain and suffering that animals experience at the hands of humans, research on violence toward animals is relatively sparse. This study examines public attitudes about violence against animals and the criminal justice response to such acts. The study included, as part of a statewide survey, questions of Texas residents gauging the perceived severity of numerous violent acts against nonhuman animals as well as the preferred criminal justice response. The paper presents descriptive analyses and employs OLS Regression to assess the relationship between Bandura’s (1990, 1999) mechanisms of moral disengagement and violence toward animals. The paper discusses implications for future research on animal cruelty and animal abuse.

The study of violence against nonhuman animals largely has been ignored in the realm of criminological inquiry. Although much research has addressed animal cruelty as predictive or indicative of other violence against humans (Arluke, Levin, Luke & Ascione, 1999; Ascione, 1999, 2001; Merz-Perez & Heide, 2004; Merz-Perez, Heide & Silverman, 2001), the study of animal cruelty and abuse as a form of crime in itself remains extremely limited.

Despite the prevalence and pervasiveness of such criminality in society (Humane Society of the United States, 2001; Kellert & Felthous, 1985) and the considerable violence and suffering involved, little attention has been given to the etiology of violence against animals and animal cruelty. In recent years, however, animal cruelty is beginning to be acknowledged by both the criminal justice system (Frasch, Otto, Olsen, & Ernest, 1999; Sauder, 2000; Schlueter, 1999; Tischler, 1999) and criminologists (Agnew, 1998; Beirne, 1995, 1999).

Beirne (1995, 1999) suggests that criminology historically has been characterized by a “speciesist” approach to the study of crime and violence. Beirne (1999) argues that animal cruelty should be drawn into the realm of criminological inquiry as it has importance on multiple levels:
1. Animal cruelty may signify other actual or potential interpersonal violence;
2. Animal cruelty is, in many forms, prohibited by criminal law;
3. Violence against animals is part of the utilitarian calculus on the minimization of pain and suffering;
4. Animal cruelty is a violation of rights; and
5. Violence against animals is one among several forms of oppression that contribute, as a whole, to a violent society.

Agnew (1998) agrees with Beirne (1999) contending that “animals are worthy of moral consideration in their own right” and that “humans have a rational interest in the study and alleviation of animal abuse” due to its interrelationship with violence perpetrated against humans (p. 178). Whether one agrees with all these reasons, it is clear that the time has come for the study of violence against animals and animal cruelty to enter the realm of legitimate deviance and criminological inquiry.

This study examines public attitudes about violence against animals, specifically gauging the degree to which the public considers violence against animals a legitimate social concern deserving of legal and criminal justice attention as well as punitive attitudes in response to such acts. Additionally, this study employs Bandura’s (1990, 1999) theory of moral disengagement as a theoretical framework to examine general attitudes toward the treatment of animals in relation to the degree to which individuals feel animal cruelty and other acts of violence against animals should be taken seriously. It is an attempt to understand, at a societal level, the degree to which individuals disengage morally from otherwise objectionable acts of violence against nonhuman animals. The specific processes by which people justify or rationalize such harmful behavior in society are examined under this framework. As Agnew (1998) points out, such attitudes are integral to the etiology of animal cruelty in society and, we argue, provide a social foundation from which such violence arises and persists.

Prior Research

Researchers have examined attitudes about animals in several diverse veins. Some have conducted research gauging the attitudes among particular groups such as animal rights activists (Plous, 1991) and supporters and protestors of animal experimentation (Broida, Tingley, Kimball, & Meile, 1993); others have examined differences in attitudes based on demographic characteristics such as gender (Hills, 1993; Kellert & Berry, 1987; Herzog, Betchart & Pittman, 1991), age (Kellert, 1980; Ascione, 1992), religion (Bowd & Bowd, 1989) and even country or culture (Kellert, 1993; Pifer, Shimizu & Pifer, 1994). Several have focused on attitudes about human-animal relationships or the human-animal interaction in general (Hills, 1993; Blackshaw & Blackshaw, 1993), while others have focused more specifically on topics such as attitudes about wildlife (Kellert; Kellert & Berry), or attitudes regarding the use of animals in research (Broida; Pifer et al.). Finally, some researchers have examined personality and motivational factors underlying attitudes toward animals (Ascione, 1992; Broida; Herzog et al., 1991; Mathews & Herzog, 1996; Hills; Plous, 1993), some specifically exploring the mechanisms at work in how attitudes toward animals are formulated and manifested (Hills; Plous).


Kellert (1980) identified 10 types of basic attitudes toward animals. Included in his typology were categories such as utilitarian attitudes, which were characterized by a “[p]rimary concern for the practical and material value of animals,” (p. 89) and “dominionistic” attitudes, which revolve around “mastery and control over animals” (p. 89). Other types included “humanistic,” “moralistic,” “ecologistic,” “naturalistic,” and “aesthetic” attitudes in which animals generally were considered in a positive light. “Negativistic,” “scientistic,” and “neutralistic” attitudes, like the utilitarian and dominionistic attitudes, generally were representative of a more negative or neutral view of animals. Kellert’s findings suggest that Americans are split evenly on views of animals between the negative (35% exhibited neutralistic attitudes and 20% exhibited utilitarian attitudes) and positive (35% exhibited humanistic attitudes and 20% exhibited moralistic attitudes) perspectives .


Plous (1993) indicates that humans are more likely to regard animals positively who are similar to humans and that concern about well-being of animals is mitigated by the perceived utility or usefulness of that animal. Hills (1993) supports this, revealing that farmers are likely to exhibit high levels of “instrumentality” or instrumental interests in animals and low levels of empathy for, or identification with, animals. Animal rights advocates, on the other hand, were found to display just the opposite pattern of motivations. Plous suggests that such attitudes and motivations are deeply rooted in the socialization processes that humans are subject to, asserting that “psychological factors are deeply interwoven in our use of animals” (p. 43).


A recent study by Raupp (1999) indicates that childhood socialization regarding companion animals in the home significantly affects their subsequent attitudes and behavior toward companion animals as adults. Not surprisingly, children who grew up in homes in which pets were neglected or abused were found more likely to perceive such treatment as acceptable and, ultimately, to exhibit patterns of abuse similar to that of adults. This research further indicates the important and intricate role of extant attitudes about animals and the treatment of animals in the etiology of violence against animals.


Although much research has been conducted on attitudes about animals and the treatment of animals in general, far less has been done in the way of examining attitudes specifically regarding animal cruelty. Most of the relevant research has focused on institutionalized and “legitimate” violence against animals as opposed to criminal acts of violence. Several studies have examined attitudes about animal experimentation, finding that support for harm-inflicting research varies across societies and cultures (Pifer et al., 1994), religions, political perspectives (Bowd & Bowd, 1989; Broida et al.), and by gender (Broida et al., Herzog et al., 1991; Pifer et al.). Women and political liberals are more likely to oppose animal research, whereas men, political conservatives, and religious fundamentalists are more likely to support it (Broida et al.). Moreover, countries that are more urbanized and industrialized exhibit more support for animal experimentation (Pifer et al.). To the degree to which such findings can be generalized to attitudes about other acts of violence against animals or even about criminal acts of animal cruelty, they may shed some light on the social factors conducive to the prevalence of such violence and abuse.


Only a few studies have attempted to assess attitudes about illegal or non-“legitimate” forms of violence against animals. Braithwaite and Braithwaite (1982) appear to have been the first, studying Australian college students’ attitudes about animal suffering. Although their study focused primarily on “legitimate” harm to animals such as hunting or research, they also asked questions pertaining to animal abuse and neglect. They found that the majority of respondents disapproved of most forms of violence against animals but that disapproval was stronger in the cases of overt and “unnecessary” abuse and cruelty (starving a pet dog to death as opposed to painful medical research).


They concluded that attitudes reflected general support for the alleviation of the suffering of animals but that there was a disjunction between these attitudes and actual behaviors. Specifically, people seem to show concern for animal welfare, but their concern wanes as the perceived utility of that suffering for humans increases. Ninety % disapprove of the use of inhumane slaughter methods, but only 41 % disapprove of eating meat produced from inhumane slaughter practices. Other studies have yielded similar findings but have gone beyond this to suggest that socialization and personality traits are two factors integral to the formation of attitudes about violence against animals (Bowd & Bowd, 1989; Kellert & Berry, 1987; Mathews & Herzog, 1997).
The relative absence of research on attitudes about animal cruelty or criminal acts of violence against animals is notable but not surprising. Given that criminal sanctions for acts of violence or cruelty against animals historically have been minimal and laws often largely ignored or un-enforced where they do exist (Lacroix, 1998; Tischler, 1999), it is not surprising that little is known about public attitudes about such violence. It appears, however, that things are beginning to change. Currently, every state has some form of animal anti-cruelty statute. Recently, many have adopted felony provisions and more stringent penalties (Frasch et al., 1999). Animal cruelty is receiving increasing attention in criminal justice (Lacroix, 1998), and public awareness appears to be following suit Lockwood, 1999).


The Present Study

In addition to examining attitudes reflecting general concern and punitiveness regarding animal cruelty, this study uses Bandura’s (1990, 1999) theory of moral disengagement as a framework for understanding public attitudes about violence against animals. We assert that such attitudes, inasmuch as they exhibit the processes of moral disengagement from cruelty and violence perpetrated against animals, provide a broad social foundation from which animal cruelty arises and persists. As indicated by McAlister (2000, 2001), mechanisms of moral disengagement are implicit and often manifested in the attitudes pervasive in society. These attitudes form the foundation by which members of that society are socialized which, in turn, plays a significant role in the development of morality from which self-regulation and self-censure derives. Bandura (1999) states, “[a] full understanding requires an integrated perspective in which social influences operate through psychological mechanisms to produce behavior effects” (p. 207). Therefore, it is an important first step toward understanding the etiology of animal cruelty to assess the attitudes about violence against animals that exist in society.


Theoretical Background

In 1998, Agnew proposed a general integrated theory of animal abuse--the first serious attempt to explain the causes of animal cruelty in the field of criminology. In developing his theory, Agnew drew heavily from existing literature and research on attitudes about animals, incorporating public attitudes as a significant foundational aspect in the explanation and understanding of animal cruelty. In this regard, Agnew drew on Bandura’s (1990, 1999) concept of moral disengagement as the potentially mediating, social psychological process connecting societal attitudes to violence against animals. Bandura (1990, 1999) proposes that although one’s actions are often governed by one’s moral standards, there are times when one’s actions are contrary to one’s moral standards resulting in inhumane or malevolent behavior. This, according to Bandura, occurs through a process of “moral disengagement.” This process of moral disengagement involves several primary processes:
1. the cognitive restructuring of harmful actions or behavior as good or moral through mechanisms of moral justification, drawing palliative or advantageous comparisons to harmful acts of others, and the euphemistic labeling or use of euphemistic language in regard to harmful conduct;
2. the obscuring or minimizing of personal agency in harmful actions by either displacing or diffusing responsibility for harmful or morally reprehensible behavior;
3. the disregarding or distorting of the harmful consequences caused by one’s actions; and
4. the marginalization of the victims or subjects of harmful actions either by attributing blame to them or by dehumanizing them.


The presence and activation of these mechanisms at a societal level, it can be argued, provide a foundation from which people on a large scale can disengage from inhumanities to which they may, in small or substantial ways, contribute. In turn, support for, and actions contributing to, many pervasive societal harms and inhumanities may be allowed to persevere.


In regard to attitudes about animals and animal cruelty, such processes of moral disengagement, suggests Agnew (1998), foster and perpetuate beliefs and values conducive to a society in which violence against animals persists. He further suggests that certain cultural and structural conditions in a society foster ignorance of the harm that animals suffer as the result of human behavior as well as beliefs and attitudes that justify violent or abusive treatment of animals.


Others have made similar assertions. Eliason and Dodder (1999) studied the use of neutralization techniques (Sykes & Matza, 1957)--concepts very similar to those comprising Bandura’s (1990, 1999) theory of moral disengagement--by deer poachers. Much as Bandura would, they suggest that poachers “who believe in the moral principle that poaching is wrong use neutralization techniques as a cognitive dissonance reduction strategy” (Eliason & Dodder, p. 236). They found that denial of responsibility (akin to Bandura’s displacement or diffusion of responsibility) and the defense of necessity (similar to Bandura’s notion of moral justification or palliative comparison) were common techniques of neutralization used by poachers in response to their illegal and violent acts against animals (Eliason & Dodder).


Further, Plous (1993) examined various psychological mechanisms similar to those suggested by Bandura (1990, 1999) and their role in human use of and infliction of harm on animals, specifically referring to the attitudes people hold in this regard. He asserted that the study of such psychological mechanisms is essential to gaining an understanding of the use and abuse of animals in society.


Hypotheses and Variables

This study specifically examines the degree to which the prevailing societal attitudes about violence against animals reflect several of Bandura’s (1990, 1999) proposed mechanisms of moral disengagement. The particular mechanisms of moral disengagement considered in this study are moral justification, palliative comparison, euphemistic language, and dehumanization of victims. Several particular attitude types are assessed to reflect these mechanisms of moral disengagement. Four categories of attitudes toward animals and animal cruelty were created: (a) Dominionistic, (b) Utilitarian, (c) Dehumanization, and (d) Property. These attitudinal dimensions are examined in relation to respondents’ reported concern about animal cruelty as a crime or deviant act and level of punitive attitudes toward such acts. It is hypothesized that those reporting higher levels of moral disengagement will exhibit less concern about animal cruelty and lower levels of punitiveness toward acts of violence against animals.

Independent Variables

Dominionistic Attitudes are those characterized by a belief that humans are inherently superior to animals and therefore have a right to treat them as they wish. Bandura’s (1990, 1999) moral justification mechanism is reflected by this attitude. This variable was measured by the degree of agreement or disagreement on a 5-point Likert-scale response to the following item: “Humans are a ‘higher order’ species, therefore it is our right to use animals to satisfy our needs and desires.” Respondents were asked whether they “strongly agree,” “agree,” “neither agree nor disagree,” “disagree or strongly disagree” (coded 5 through 1, respectively).
Utilitarian Attitudes are based on the perceived need that humans have for animals and the view that animals should, at least to some extent, serve those needs. This is analogous to Bandura’s (1990, 1999) notion of palliative comparison and, more generally, moral justification. Five-point Likert-scale responses to the following item were examined to assess utilitarian attitudes: “Humans need animals to survive (for food, clothing, etc.), therefore killing animals for these purposes is not wrong.”
Dehumanization Attitudes revolve around the distinction between humans and animals. This is of obvious (and literal) relation to Bandura’s (1999) mechanism of dehumanization of the victim. Bandura notes that “[i]t is easier to brutalize people when they are viewed as low animal forms” (p. 200). There could not be a more blatant example of such a victim as when the victim is actually non-human. Nevertheless, the degree to which individuals hold such dehumanizing attitudes toward animals varies. Five-point Likert-scale responses (reverse-scored) to the following item were used to measure this variable: “An animal’s right to live free of suffering should be just as important as a person’s right to live free of suffering.”

Property Attitudes refer to whether one views animals as human property or not. Such attitudes reflect Bandura’s (1999) concepts of dehumanization of the victim and euphemistic labeling. The reference to animals as property is one way to separate oneself from them as living, and potentially suffering, creatures. This variable was measured by 5-point Likert-scale responses to the following item: “Because pets are an individual’s property, the law should not intervene on owners’ actions and treatment of their pets.”

Dependent Variables

Concern about Animal Cruelty and Abuse. A summary scale based on two items was employed to measure concern about animal cruelty . Respondents were asked whether they “strongly agree,” “agree,” “neither agree nor disagree,” “disagree or “strongly disagree” with the following two items: (a) “Intentional and malicious torture or killing of an animal should be a felony,” and (b) “Willful neglect (failing to provide adequate food, water, shelter, etc.) of an animal should be a felony.” Responses were summed and divided by two to obtain a mean summary score (Chronbach’s α = .83).
Punitive Attitudes toward Animal Cruelty and Abuse. Respondents were asked to indicate what punishment they think should be given in response to each of a series of 15 acts of violence or cruelty to animals. The acts included in the measure are indicated in Table 1. Respondents were asked whether they thought the act warranted no punishment, a fine, probation, jail, or prison, scored 1-5, respectively. Scores on the 15 items were summed and divided by the valid number of responses (the number of items for which the respondent registered a response-- non-missing values) resulting in a mean summary scale score of punitiveness toward animal cruelty and abuse (Chronbach’s α = .94).
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Table 1. Punitive Attitudes toward Acts of Violence against Animals.

 

 

 

 

No Punishment

 

Fine or Probation

 

Jail or Prison

Items

 

Mean

 

#

%

 

#

%

 

#

%

Slapping a pet.

 

1.82

 

372

46.4%

 

378

47.1%

 

52

6.5%

Kicking a pet.

 

2.14

 

205

25.4%

 

523

64.7%

 

80

9.9%

Hitting a pet with a stick or other similar object.

 

2.27

 

184

22.8%

 

513

63.5%

 

111

13.7%

Hitting a pet with a closed fist.

 

2.34

 

132

16.4%

 

547

67.9%

 

127

15.8%

Locking a pet in a cage for more than 10 hours without food or water.

 

2.60

 

84

10.3%

 

542

66.7%

 

186

22.9%

Failing to provide adequate food and water for a pet.

 

2.72

 

20

2.5%

 

607

74.8%

 

185

22.8%

Working a farm animal to the point of exhaustion.

 

2.72

 

83

10.2%

 

518

63.6%

 

214

26.3%

Tying a pet up outside without food and water.

 

2.76

 

50

6.2%

 

536

66.0%

 

226

27.8%

Intentionally running over a cat or dog with a car.

 

3.00

 

23

2.8%

 

467

57.2%

 

326

40.0%

Working a farm animal until they can no longer stand up.

 

3.19

 

36

4.4%

 

423

52.0%

 

354

43.5%

Intentionally causing one animal to fight with another

 

3.66

 

12

1.5%

 

277

33.9%

 

528

64.6%

Intentionally harming or killing another person's pet.

 

3.69

 

10

1.2%

 

261

32.1%

 

543

66.7%

Killing an endangered species for sport.

 

3.76

 

9

1.1%

 

260

32.0%

 

544

66.9%

Intentionally harming or killing another person's livestock.

 

3.98

 

4

0.5%

 

167

20.5%

 

644

79.0%

Engaging in sexual activity with an animal.

 

4.11

 

21

2.6%

 

161

19.8%

 

630

77.6%


-----------------------------------
Data and Methods

Data for this study were obtained as part of the 2001-2002 Texas Crime Poll conducted by the Survey Research Program in the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University. Several sets of questions regarding the treatment of and violence against animals were included as part of this annual public opinion survey of attitudes about crime and criminal justice in Texas. A random sample of 3,114 households throughout the state of Texas was obtained from Survey Sampling, Inc. and a systematic selection process was employed. Names and addresses were obtained from the most current white-page telephone directories throughout the state. Surveys were sent via mail to all 3,114 households.

In an attempt to maximize survey response, a combination of initial mailings and follow-ups were utilized in line with Dillman’s (1978) total design method of survey research. In spite of these efforts, only 821 completed surveys were received, yielding a return rate of 27% . A substantial proportion (approximately 5%) of surveys were returned by the Post Office undelivered due to bad or unknown addresses, were returned uncompleted due to the fact that the respondent was either disabled or deceased, or were returned after the closing date established for data collection procedures. A follow-up investigation of a random sample of 400 subjects who did not respond to the mail questionnaire was undertaken and yielded some enlightening findings.

Overall, attempts to contact those selected indicated weakness in the original sampling frame. Specifically, a high proportion of disconnected numbers, bad addresses, and deceased subjects was detected (43.3% of the sample). If we extrapolate back onto our response rate based on these findings, we can conclude, conservatively, that a more accurate response rate might be in the range of 40 to 50 %, a much more acceptable and “normal” level of response for lengthy social science postal surveys (Dillman, 1978). Footnote #3 provides further discussion of this issue and also includes a table of the results of the attempts to contact the subjects.

A final issue regarding our sample is the disproportionate representation of some demographic groups. The Appendix presents the demographic breakdown of our sample. Clearly, males, Whites, older persons, and those with higher household incomes and higher levels of education are over-represented. Although this disproportionate sample presents a potential methodological weakness, we suggest that our findings are all the more salient. In effect, we have an oversampling of the portions of the population known to be more active in public policy.

OLS Regression was used to test the relationship between the noted mechanisms of moral disengagement and attitudes toward animal cruelty. Two models were specified, one with concern about animal cruelty as a crime as the dependent variable and one with punitive attitude toward animal cruelty as a dependent variable. For each, the aforementioned four independent variables were regressed on the dependent variable to assess the overall and relative impact of the mechanisms of moral disengagement on attitudes about animal cruelty. Based on extant research, sex was included as a control variable in the regression models. Prior research has consistently indicated that males and females differ significantly in their attitudes toward animals and the treatment of animals differ significantly (Herzog et al., 1991; Kellert & Berry, 1987; Mathews & Herzog, 1997). Kellert and Berry conclude that “gender is among the most important demographic factors in determining attitudes about animals in our society” (p. 370). Thus, it was deemed necessary to control for its impact in our models.

Findings
General Concern about Violence against Animals

Table 2 displays the responses to five items gauging the general level of concern about animal cruelty as a crime and social problem. Respondents exhibited a general level of concern about animal cruelty with 78% endorsing the attitude that intentional and malicious acts of animal cruelty should be a felony and 65% that acts of neglect should be felonies. Moreover, nearly 80% disagreed with the statement that police should not waste their time on cases of animal cruelty. The concern about violence toward animals diminished, however, when placed relative to violence against humans: Only 51% agreed that the courts should take cases of violence against animals as seriously as cases of violence against animals. Overall mean concern for the total sample as measured by the index of concern about animal cruelty is 3.80 on a scale from 1 to 5 indicating a relatively high level of concern.
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Table 2. Attitudes Regarding Concern about Animal Cruelty as a Crime.

 

 

 

 

Strongly Agree/Agree

 

Neither Agree nor Disagree

 

Disagree/Strongly Disagree

Items

 

N

 

#

%

 

#

%

 

#

%

Police should not waste their time responding to calls about animal cruelty.

 

819

 

102

12.5%

 

74

9.0%

 

643

78.5%

The courts should take cases of animal cruelty as seriously as they do cases of violence against humans.

 

817

 

416

50.9%

 

86

10.5%

 

315

38.6%

The abuse of animals is not a social problem because humans are not the victims.

 

817

 

50

6.1%

 

69

8.4%

 

698

85.4%

Intentional and malicious torture or killing of an animal should be a felony.

 

817

 

634

77.6%

 

67

8.2%

 

116

14.2%

Willful neglect (failing to provide adequate food, water, shelter, etc.) of an animal should be a felony.

 

816

 

526

64.5%

 

127

15.6%

 

163

20.0%


-----------------------------------
MANOVA models were employed to investigate differences between groups based on geographical residence, household income, sex, age, race, education, and presence of a household pet (Table 3). The most significant difference found was between males and females. Women, on average, exhibited more concern than men (mean score = 4.03 compared to 3.67 for males; F = 25.190, p < .01). Respondents with a college degree exhibited less concern about animal cruelty than those with only a high school education or less (F = 4.65, p < .01) and respondents over 70 years of age indicated significantly greater concern than all other age groups (F = 2.95, p < .05). A final factor related to concern about animal cruelty as a crime was the presence of a companion animal or household pet, with those reporting the presence of a pet showing more concern about animal cruelty as a crime (F = 8.65, p < .01).
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Table 3: Demographic Comparison for Mean Index of Concern about Animal Cruelty and Mean Index of Punitiveness toward Animal Cruelty

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mean Index of Concern About Animal Cruelty

F value     (significance level)

Mean Index of Punitiveness Toward Animal Cruelty

F value     (significance level)

 

 

 

 

 

Total Sample

3.80

n/a

2.98

n/a

 

 

 

 

 

Race/Ethnicity

 

 

 

 

White

3.81

 

3.00

 

Black

3.57

F = 1.05

2.75

F = 2.03

Hispanic

3.82

(p =.392)

2.98

(p = .06)

 

 

 

 

 

Gender

 

 

 

 

Male

3.67

F = 25.23

2.83

F = 34.03

Female

4.03

(p < .01)

3.25

(p < .01)

 

 

 

 

 

Education

 

 

 

 

Less than High School

3.99

 

2.95

 

High School Degree

3.88

F = 4.65

3.06

F = 2.58

College Degree*

3.58

(p < .01)

2.87

(p = .052)

Graduate School

3.82

 

2.97

 

 

 

 

 

 

Age

 

 

 

 

Under 26

3.74

 

2.84

 

26-35

3.77

 

3.00

 

36-45

3.72

F = 2.95

2.95

F = 2.81

46-55

3.74

(p < .05)

3.01

(p = .92)

56-70

3.77

 

3.00

 

Over 70**

4.12

 

2.98

 

 

 

 

 

 

Household Income

 

 

 

 

Less than $15,000

3.89

 

2.90

 

$15,000 - $30,000

3.90

F = 2.49

3.03

F = .920

$30,000 - $60,000

3.86

(p < .05)

3.03

(p = .45)

More than $60,000

3.66

 

2.93

 

 

 

 

 

 

Presence of Pet

 

 

 

 

Yes

3.88

F = 8.65

3.10

F = 37.79

No

3.66

(p< .01)

2.76

(p < .01)

 

 

 

 

 

* Post-hoc test (Bonferroni) reveals significant difference from "Less than High School" and "High School Degree" at   p < .05.

**Post-hoc test (Bonferonni) reveals significant difference from all other groups at p < .05 level.


-----------------------------------
Punitive Attitudes toward Violence against Animals

The overall mean punitiveness index score for the total sample is 2.98 which, on a scale from 1 to 5 (1 = “no punishment” and 5 = “prison”), represents a moderate level. The results of responses to each of the 15 items ascertaining attitudes regarding punitiveness in response to various acts of animal cruelty are exhibited in Table 1. The items for which respondents indicated the lowest levels of punitiveness were those referring to acts of physical violence against pets. Slapping a pet scored lowest with a mean score of 1.82. Kicking a pet, hitting a pet with a stick or similar object, and hitting a pet with a closed fist elicited slightly more punitive attitudes but still were among the items with the lowest average scores.

Items representing acts of neglect scored higher in the degree of punitiveness than more overt acts of violence. The reason for this only can be speculated, but it appears possible that the physical acts may be viewed as more acceptable due to their perceived relation to discipline and training of animals. Among the items scoring the highest mean punitiveness score were acts that entailed harming or killing animals considered the property of someone else. Harming or killing another person’s pet had a mean score of 3.69 and harming or killing another person’s livestock yielded a mean score of 3.98. This sheds light on the likelihood that individuals may tend to view animals as property and, as such, should be protected as any other piece of personal property.
Finally, the item scoring the highest was “engaging in sexual activity with an animal.” It is interesting to note, however, that, although yielding the highest mean punitiveness score, 2.6% (a relatively high proportion among the highest scoring items) of the respondents indicated that there should be no punishment for such acts. Although there was some divergence in the responses to this item, it clearly was considered a deplorable act worthy of severe punishment by the majority of respondents.
Referring back to Table 3, MANOVA was used to examine group differences in punitiveness. Only gender and presence of companion animals were found to exhibit significant group differences. Women were more punitive in their attitudes toward violence against animals than were men (3.25 and 2.83, respectively; F = 62.76, p < .01) and those with pets exhibited more punitive attitudes than those without (3.10 and 2.76, respectively; F = 38.21, p < .01).

Effects of Moral Disengagement on Attitudes about Animal Cruelty

OLS linear regression was employed to examine the relationship between the attitudinal measures of moral disengagement and concern about and punitive attitudes toward animal cruelty as a crime. Two models were estimated, one for each dependent variable. The results for each model are displayed in Table 4.
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Table 4. OLS Regression, Moral Disengagement Attitudinal Measures on Concern about Animal Cruelty and on Punitiveness toward Animal Cruelty

 

 

MODEL I

Concern about A.C. as Crime

 

MODEL II

Punitiveness

Independent Variables

 

Coeff.

(beta)

 

S.E.

 

Coeff.

(beta)

 

S.E.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Constant

 

5.204*

 

 

.155

 

4.042*

 

 

.115

Dominionistic Attitude

 

-.001

(.000)

 

.028

 

-.126*

(-.208)

 

.021

Property Attitude

 

-.181*

(-.163)

 

.032

 

-.188*

(-.228)

 

.024

Dehumanization Attitude

 

-.497*

(-.571)

 

.026

 

-.230*

(-.354)

 

.020

Utility Attitude

 

.007

(.008)

 

.028

 

-.013

(-.020)

 

.021

Sex

 

.009

(.032)

 

.060

 

.171*

(.109)

 

.045

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

R-square

 

.403

 

.394

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* p < .05

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


-----------------------------------

Model One
The first model, regressing the four attitudinal variables related to moral disengagement as well as the single control variable of gender on the dependent variable of concern about animal cruelty, indicates a generally strong explanatory model (R2 = .403). Approximately 40% of the variance in concern about animal cruelty is explained by the four attitudinal variables reflecting moral disengagement and the single control variable, indicating general support for Bandura’s (1990, 1999) theory. An examination of standardized beta coefficients reveals that attitudes reflecting dehumanization (beta = -.571, p < .05) account for the highest proportion of variation in concern about animal cruelty followed by attitudes regarding animals as property (beta = -.163, p < .05). These results suggest, in line with Bandura’s (1990, 1999) propositions, as attitudes reflecting moral disengagement in the form of dehumanization of the victim and euphemistic labeling increase, attitudes reflecting the acceptability of harmful or violent acts will increase (concern about animal cruelty decreases). However, both dominion and the utility attitudes are not significant, suggesting a lack of relationship between the moral justification and palliative comparison components and concern about animal cruelty. The control variable of gender also was not a significant indicator.

Model Two

Model two is similar to model one but with punitiveness toward animal cruelty as the dependent variable. Again, a relatively robust explanatory model results (R2 = .394), providing solid general support for Bandura’s (1990, 1999) theory. Unlike model one, all but one of the independent variables are found to have a significant impact on the dependent variable. Dominionistic, property and dehumanization attitudes as well as the control variable gender, yield significant regression coefficients and standardized beta coefficients in the model. Utility-oriented attitude is the only variable found to be insignificant. Dehumanization again yields the highest standardized beta (beta = -.354, p < .05) thus having the greatest impact on punitiveness toward animal cruelty. This is followed closely by property (beta = -.228, p < .05) and dominionistic (beta = -.208, p < .05) attitudes. Gender is a significant control variable yielding a beta of .109 (p < .05).


With the exception of utility attitudes, attitudes reflecting mechanisms of moral disengagement are negatively related to punitive attitudes toward animal cruelty. To the degree that a lack of punitiveness toward animal cruelty reflects general acceptance of inhumane acts against animals, Bandura’s (1990, 1999) theory is supported by these data. Bandura’s mechanisms of moral justification (as measured by dominionistic attitudes), dehumanization of victims (as measured by dehumanization and property attitudes), and euphemistic labeling (as measured by property attitudes) are salient to understanding attitudes that are accepting of, and possibly provide a foundation of justification for, inhumanities and violence toward animals.


Discussion

Violence against animals and animal cruelty are phenomena that have entered the realm of criminal justice, law, and criminological inquiry. However, little is known about such acts or the attitudes that revolve around cruel treatment of animals. This study examines public attitudes about violence against animals, specifically focusing on views expressing concern about animal cruelty as a crime and social problem and attitudes indicating punitiveness in response to such acts. The results indicate that the public is relatively concerned about animal cruelty and believe it to be a social problem worthy of criminal justice and legal attention. The results further indicate that citizens desire relatively severe punishment for acts of animal cruelty. This is true particularly when considering acts of violence against another person’s pets or livestock.


Shedding Light on Extant Attitudes

This study advances knowledge about violence against animals by shedding light on the extant attitudes about the treatment of animals among the public and extending an important line of inquiry in the study of animal cruelty, specifically examining relatively neglected dimensions of attitudes toward animals and violence against animals in society. Furthermore, the findings lend some (albeit limited) support for an important theory of animal abuse (Agnew, 1998), as well as Bandura’s (1990, 1999) compelling theory of moral disengagement. Finally, the findings show that people are concerned about the social problem of animal cruelty and believe that it should be taken seriously by the criminal justice system.


Going beyond general concern and punitiveness in regard to violence against animals, employing Bandura’s (1990, 1999) theory of moral disengagement, we attempted to explore the social-psychological underpinnings of such attitudes among our sample. We found, in line with Bandura’s propositions, those exhibiting mechanisms of moral disengagement in regard to the treatment of animals displayed less concern about violence against animals and were less punitive in their attitudes toward such acts. Furthermore, OLS regression models indicated that the mechanisms of moral disengagement measured in this study accounted for a substantial proportion of the variation in attitudes reflecting concern and punitiveness regarding animal cruelty.


Dehumanization and property attitudes were the strongest predictors of concern both about animal cruelty and punitiveness toward those who commit acts of violence against animals. It is not surprising individuals who are able to separate themselves from nonhuman animals by marginalizing them through such mechanisms of moral disengagement would be less concerned about them as victims of violence. These two forms of attitudes have predominated throughout history as rationales for relegating non-human animals to a position unworthy of compassion and consideration (Regan, 1983; Singer, 1975).


Surprising Finding

Our findings suggest that such attitudes persevere today. It is somewhat surprising, then, that dominionistic attitudes--also deeply rooted in history--(Scully, 2002) are found to have no effect on concern about animal cruelty and that attitudes reflecting the utility of animals to humans have no effect on either concern about animal cruelty or punitiveness toward it. This latter finding is surprising, particularly in light of the previously mentioned research by Kellert (1980) that found utilitarian attitudes to be some of the most prevalent. At this point, we cannot fully explain why some forms of attitudes and mechanisms of moral disengagement appear more predictive of concern about animal cruelty and associated punitiveness than others. More research, incorporating different and more in depth measures of these constructs, is needed to develop a better understanding of these effects and the distinction between the different attitudes and mechanisms addressed in the present study.


Several Limitations

Although yielding some important findings, the current study has several limitations that must be considered. The use of single-item and very specific measures of moral disengagement designed for this particular study present some potential weaknesses in the assessment of these factors and their effect on attitudes about animal cruelty. Such measures are often less reliable and produce less variability, thus limiting statistical power and the ability to identify significant relationships. Better measures of the mechanisms of moral disengagement need to be developed to gauge more adequately the different dimensions of these processes and their impact on attitudes.


The incorporation of multiple, more broadly applicable items in the measurement of moral disengagement would allow a deeper exploration of the effect of such factors on attitudes about violence against animals. Further, the sample admittedly is disproportionate in its representation of certain demographic groups, biased toward reflecting the views of white, middle-to upper-class, educated men. However, we argue that this inadvertent skew potentially lends to the practical significance of our findings. At a practical level, these groups tend to comprise the most active constituents – and leaders – in state and federal policymaking. Thereby, the reported attitudes toward animal cruelty and the law enforcement and punitive response have particularly meaningful practical significance. In any case, the sample is constrained to a single (and, many would say, unique) state. We suggest that greater attention to different regions and more sufficient representations of various demographic groups are important directions for future studies of these issues and phenomena.


In spite of these limitations, the results of this study provide some important inroads in the study of animal cruelty. These findings, we argue, suggest a connection between attitudes regarding violence against animals and the acts of animal cruelty that prevail in society. Specifically, we suggest that attitudes reflecting moral disengagement among members of the public provide a social and cultural foundation from which the violent treatment of animals can flourish. The degree to which this proposition is true is unknown and will require much more research, particularly research directly examining the attitudes and mechanisms of moral disengagement among those who actually commit acts of violence against animals. Also, more direct assessment of the cultural and structural factors of society must be assessed in order to understand the dynamics of what we are suggesting.

 
Conclusion

At this point, we are making a leap in suggesting that social psychological processes of moral disengagement among the populous of society will lead to higher rates of violence against animals. Again, much more research is needed. A logical next step would be to examine the prevalence of animal cruelty across different demographic groups and see if the prevalence matches the attitudes--whether those who exhibit the most moral disengagement also are those most likely to be perpetrators of animal cruelty. It also would be fruitful to examine attitudes among known populations of animal abusers. To this end, the present research provides an important starting point and platform from which such research might proceed.

* Scott Vollum, Sam Houston State University


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Table 1. Punitive Attitudes toward Acts of Violence against Animals.
No Punishment Fine or Probation Jail or Prison
Items Mean # % # % # %
Slapping a pet. 1.82 372 46.4% 378 47.1% 52 6.5%
Kicking a pet. 2.14 205 25.4% 523 64.7% 80 9.9%
Hitting a pet with a stick or other similar object. 2.27 184 22.8% 513 63.5% 111 13.7%
Hitting a pet with a closed fist. 2.34 132 16.4% 547 67.9% 127 15.8%
Locking a pet in a cage for more than 10 hours without food or water. 2.60 84 10.3% 542 66.7% 186 22.9%
Failing to provide adequate food and water for a pet. 2.72 20 2.5% 607 74.8% 185 22.8%
Working a farm animal to the point of exhaustion. 2.72 83 10.2% 518 63.6% 214 26.3%
Tying a pet up outside without food and water. 2.76 50 6.2% 536 66.0% 226 27.8%
Intentionally running over a cat or dog with a car. 3.00 23 2.8% 467 57.2% 326 40.0%
Working a farm animal until they can no longer stand up. 3.19 36 4.4% 423 52.0% 354 43.5%
Intentionally causing one animal to fight with another 3.66 12 1.5% 277 33.9% 528 64.6%
Intentionally harming or killing another person's pet. 3.69 10 1.2% 261 32.1% 543 66.7%
Killing an endangered species for sport. 3.76 9 1.1% 260 32.0% 544 66.9%
Intentionally harming or killing another person's livestock. 3.98 4 0.5% 167 20.5% 644 79.0%
Engaging in sexual activity with an animal. 4.11 21 2.6% 161 19.8% 630 77.6%



Table 2. Attitudes Regarding Concern about Animal Cruelty as a Crime.
Strongly Agree/Agree Neither Agree nor Disagree Disagree/Strongly Disagree
Items N # % # % # %
Police should not waste their time responding to calls about animal cruelty. 819 102 12.5% 74 9.0% 643 78.5%
The courts should take cases of animal cruelty as seriously as they do cases of violence against humans. 817 416 50.9% 86 10.5% 315 38.6%
The abuse of animals is not a social problem because humans are not the victims. 817 50 6.1% 69 8.4% 698 85.4%
Intentional and malicious torture or killing of an animal should be a felony. 817 634 77.6% 67 8.2% 116 14.2%
Willful neglect (failing to provide adequate food, water, shelter, etc.) of an animal should be a felony. 816 526 64.5% 127 15.6% 163 20.0%



Table 3: Demographic Comparison for Mean Index of Concern about Animal Cruelty and Mean Index of Punitiveness toward Animal Cruelty

Mean Index of Concern About Animal Cruelty F value (significance level) Mean Index of Punitiveness Toward Animal Cruelty F value (significance level)

Total Sample 3.80 n/a 2.98 n/a

Race/Ethnicity
White 3.81 3.00
Black 3.57 F = 1.05 2.75 F = 2.03
Hispanic 3.82 (p =.392) 2.98 (p = .06)

Gender
Male 3.67 F = 25.23 2.83 F = 34.03
Female 4.03 (p < .01) 3.25 (p < .01)

Education
Less than High School 3.99 2.95
High School Degree 3.88 F = 4.65 3.06 F = 2.58
College Degree* 3.58 (p < .01) 2.87 (p = .052)
Graduate School 3.82 2.97

Age
Under 26 3.74 2.84
26-35 3.77 3.00
36-45 3.72 F = 2.95 2.95 F = 2.81
46-55 3.74 (p < .05) 3.01 (p = .92)
56-70 3.77 3.00
Over 70** 4.12 2.98

Household Income
Less than $15,000 3.89 2.90
$15,000 - $30,000 3.90 F = 2.49 3.03 F = .920
$30,000 - $60,000 3.86 (p < .05) 3.03 (p = .45)
More than $60,000 3.66 2.93

Presence of Pet
Yes 3.88 F = 8.65 3.10 F = 37.79
No 3.66 (p< .01) 2.76 (p < .01)

* Post-hoc test (Bonferroni) reveals significant difference from "Less than High School" and "High School Degree" at p < .05.
**Post-hoc test (Bonferonni) reveals significant difference from all other groups at p < .05 level.




Table 4. OLS Regression, Moral Disengagement Attitudinal Measures on Concern about Animal Cruelty and on Punitiveness toward Animal Cruelty

MODEL I
Concern about A.C. as Crime MODEL II
Punitiveness
Independent Variables Coeff. (beta) S.E. Coeff. (beta) S.E.

Constant 5.204* .155 4.042* .115
Dominionistic Attitude -.001 (.000) .028 -.126* (-.208) .021
Property Attitude -.181* (-.163) .032 -.188* (-.228) .024
Dehumanization Attitude -.497* (-.571) .026 -.230* (-.354) .020
Utility Attitude .007 (.008) .028 -.013 (-.020) .021
Sex .009 (.032) .060 .171* (.109) .045

R-square .403 .394

* p < .05


Appendix
Demographic Characteristics of Sample

% (N=821)
Race/Ethnicity
White 77.8% (639)
Black 4.4% (36)
Hispanic 10.5% (86)
Other 5.5% (45)
Refused/Don't Know 1.8% (15)
Gender
Male 61.5% (505)
Female 37.5% (308)
Refused/Don't Know 1.0% (8)
Education
Less than High School 8.6% (71)
High School Degree 45.7% (375)
College Degree 23.9% (196)
Graduate School 20.5% (168)
Refused/Don't Know 1.3% (11)
Age
Under 26 2.6% (21)
26-35 10.8% (89)
36-45 19.2% (158)
46-55 22.4% (184)
56-70 27.6% (227)
Over 70 15.7% (129)
Refused/Don't Know 1.6% (13)
Household Income
Less than $15,000 8.5% (70)
$15,000 - $30,000 16.7% (137)
$30,000 - $60,000 32.0% (263)
More than $60,000 36.9% (303)
Refused/Don't Know 5.80% (48)
Presence of Pet
Yes 66.0% (275)
No 34.0% (534)


 

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