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:
- 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.)
- 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.