The Ethical Irrelevance of Killing Your Own Food

Some friends raise meat rabbits; I went over today to help with a slaughter. I didn’t quite kill a bunny, but I did see it hopping around right before I watched it die, and I peeled its skin off with my bare hands while the body was still warm.

Throw that one in the bucket with losing my virginity as a completely overhyped rite of passage. I mean, it’s cool to learn a new skill – I’d never gutted a mammal before – but I’m not like become Death the destroyer of worlds. I don’t think I even leveled up in locavore. (I need 159 XP! Better go pick some cottonwood buds for salve, before they leaf out.)

Here are a couple of common views about slaughtering and butchering your own meat, which are wrong:

  1. If you can’t bring yourself to personally kill a food animal, you should be a vegetarian. (Optional addition: If everyone had to go through this there would be a lot more vegetarians.)
  2. Killing your own meat is morally superior to buying it pre-butchered from someone else, because you are “in touch” with the source of your food.

If you look at human history you will see lots of societies where people were much more intimately involved with the sources of their meat than we Internet-readers are today – and that process did not turn particularly many of them into vegetarians. Turns out it’s not difficult to learn to shut off one’s usual empathy for long enough to smash a bunny in its adorable face. Indeed, looking at human history, it is shockingly easy for people to shut off their usual empathy in all manner of horrifying circumstances.

But blindly saying yes to empathy isn’t always the right answer either. Think about what happens when someone tries to point out that domestic cats wreak havoc on ecosystems and so maybe, even if you can’t stomach outright killing the feral cats, you should at least keep your precious Mittens indoors.

Human empathy is a strange and wonderful thing that has never read a single book on logic or utilitarian ethics. Developing your natural empathy into a fully-formed conscience is a weird, personal process; you can believe that it’s okay to kill animals for food, and believe that you personally would break an important part of your personal conscience if you had to do it yourself. Because the emotional underpinnings of conscience are so personal, using logic to decide what’s okay for other people to do, and supplementing that with squishy feelings about what’s okay for you personally to do, is a completely fine form of moral decisionmaking.

If killing your own meat or feeling some other form of direct connection to your meat animals improves the performance of your personal conscience, that is also fine. The only not-fine thing is projecting the details of your own empathy-brain onto others and insisting that they must therefore act like you. People are different and there is no single best way to grow a good conscience.

So when your argument about why people should or should not participate in slaughter rests on amorphous things like “awareness” or “respect” or “disgust”… can you rephrase your concern in terms of something external, like the animal’s likely experience of its life and death, or the environmental impacts of how it was raised? If not, you might be projecting.

I think the most important moral issues of our time are all to do with systems. We’ve constructed intricate social machines which clearly do harm, even as they tend to seem reasonable as individual interactions. So I think about how my feelings affect the way I interact with these systems. Whether I personally smash a bunny in the face with a dumbbell handle, or whether my friend does it instead, feels, for me, essentially beside the point.


  1. erica wrote:

    Awesome. I’m still here. Cheers.

  2. Nick wrote:

    I think one good reason to suggest that people should try slaughtering their own meat is not that it’ll make them less likely to do it, but that it’ll make them more likely to consider what else is involved. There’d be fewer processes whereby we torture animals in order to make them more delicious after they’re killed, for example.

  3. Maria wrote:

    Nick, I don’t think that’s any more plausible on its face than the idea that participating in slaughter will create more vegetarians. You got any supporting evidence or are you just speculating?

    I mean, the *Egyptians* force-fed geese. Compromising an animal’s happiness for the sake of deliciousness is not a historically recent development.

  4. Darren (Green Change wrote:

    Interesting thoughts. In some ways, I think it’s more enlightening to be involved in the care of the animal to be slaughtered, rather than the actual slaughter.

    You have to check on the animals at least daily (with no days off!), feed them, change their water, monitor their health, and generally try to give them a good life. If you know you’re going to be eating the animal eventually, you don’t really want to see it suffering every day – if only because it’s a bit queasy to think of eating a sickly animal.

    I know that when I butcher one of my own animals, I want to use every part of it and not waste anything, because I know the effort that went into raising it. I tend to try to cook nicer, more “special” recipes with it, and serve smaller portions to make it stretch further. I make broth or stock with the bones, and eat the offal as well. We get maybe 3-4 meals out of a single chicken or rabbit.

    When eating cheap supermarket chickens, it’s easy to overindulge and throw out the leftovers, because it’s just an economic decision. It can be seen as not worth the effort to make stock with the bones and leftovers, that are worth maybe $1 of the original purchase price, when you can buy cheap stock cubes for about that price anyway. So people only get 1 meal out of the chicken.

    Anyway, interesting thoughts, and I’m off to look around some more of your site. Thanks!

  5. Maria wrote:

    Hm. That makes sense to me, Darren. Although I’m not sure that that enlightenment necessarily leads in any particular direction – the people who run large-scale operations don’t want to see their animals suffering, either, but they do tend to have a particular take on whether conditions in a hog barn actually constitute “suffering”.

    Honestly, the more I learn about DIY meat production, the more I appreciate the staggering efficiency of modern animal agriculture. (Appreciation which so far has had no noticeable impact on my behavior and is therefore irrelevant.)

  6. Darren (Green Change wrote:

    Yeah, I guess I’m assuming that if you’re doing it at home you want to be doing it “better” than an industrial operation. Each of us probably has a slightly different definition of “better”.

    I think people who work in those places (and in places like abattoirs) get desensitised to the living conditions of the animals. Their focus will be on numbers – how many animals can be pushed through the system, how efficiently they can fatten them, how quickly they can kill them, etc. There’s little time to consider the individual animals.

    Home meat production tends to focus more on quality (both of life, and of the final product). You have a relationship with the animals that tends to cause you to take better care of them.

  7. Rebecca wrote:


  8. Maria wrote:

    One person’s desensitization is another person’s sentimentality. Er, I mean, one person’s sensitivity is another’s realism. I mean. Yeah.

    My own definition of “better” is based on environmental impact; animal welfare is at most an incidental side benefit.

  9. Rebecca wrote:

    I think the point about killing your own meat is not simply to ‘be in touch’ with neat but rather you can skip the cruel money spinning factory farming industry where animals are routinely abused.

  10. alyssa kopke wrote:

    I’m writing a paper in class and I don’t know how to find the right evidence. I’m trying to find info about when you kill your animals (hunting yourself, and cooking) vs when yu buy it like what diseases are in it

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