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November 19, 2013 1:35 PM   Subscribe

Philosophical persectives on slaughtering animals for food required. Help me work through unexpected questioning?

I'm a confirmed meat-eater, I've done butchery courses and have absolutely no problem taking a carcass and turning it into delicious parts to cook and eat. I love to cook meat, it all tastes good and I've devoured everything from lamb's tongues to tripe, pigs ear to ox tail. After a lot of city living I've recently taken on a very rural smallholding back in my family/childhood home and begun to raise my own animals (sheep, pigs, chickens mostly) with the full intention of turning them into food. However after a year in which I've birthed, raised, fed and tended to these beasts I've slowly begun to question my ethics and right to take their lives. The issue is that I've been surprised at how complex they are as creatures, far from being dumb animals. Working with them constantly for a full year I witness their mothering skills, social behaviour, fear, trust, affection even joy (spring lambs playing), intelligence, how they interact with us... I'm also very aware of how raw in tooth and claw nature is and that death is not only inevitable but usually downright nasty. Yesterday for example I sat and watched the cat stalk and kill a mouse, playing with its life for fun before eating it as it kicked its last, we've lost animals to bad weather and other carnivores, things kill and are killed, I get that completely. I just can't seem to now draw a dividing line between animals, the lambs here are in reality no different from the cats, or indeed I. I'm kinda starting to see the falseness of justifying the killing of a living creature based solely on my desire for food that, really I don't actually need to survive.

Tldr - I no longer feel relaxed and at peace with myself about plans to send animals to slaughter next year. So...apart from simply just hardening my heart, steeling my resolve and getting on with it (which is what I plan to do) can anyone throw a little philosophical spin on the situation that might make me feel better about the task soon to be at hand? Conversely if there's no way to justify such things I'd like to hear that side of the argument too. Thanks.
posted by Caskeum to Religion & Philosophy (23 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
There's nothing wrong with changing your mind on eating meat generally or eating Lammykins specifically. If you don't want to do it, then don't.

That said, bear in mind that most domesticated animals wouldn't exist (in their current form) if it weren't for the thousands of years that humans have devoted to breeding in certain traits and breeding out others, and that the existence of your specific animals are much easier to trace to your personal decision to breed and raise them. Raising them humanely and killing them quickly and with a minimum of pain and fear is not nearly as morally unjustifiable as factory farming.
posted by Etrigan at 1:41 PM on November 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

This is a really, really personal thing, and you're going to get a lot of pros and cons in here.

i'm going to try to go with a middle ground that a friend of mine espoused; she chose to remain a meat eater, but dealt with the "karmic offset" by cultivating a taste for every part of the animals she ate. For a couple reasons:

1. It felt more respectful to her, somehow, to go on to make sure that no part of an animal was wasted if it was being killed for her sake. Killing the animal was uneasy-making enough - but killing an animal and then regarding some of that dead animal's body as waste felt like adding insult to injury to her.

2. From a simple economic standpoint - the more parts of a given animal you eat, the more meals you can get out of that animal. And the more meals you can get out of a single animal, the less animals overall you have to kill.

So because of that, and because she chose to continue to eat meat, she also tried to cultivate a taste for offal and organ meats and such - tripe, cows' brains, calf's liver, head cheese, blood pudding, pigs' feet, sausage, marrow bones, oxtail, etc. It felt more "spiritually" right to her, for lack of a better word, but also more practically right.

It's something to consider, anyway.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:46 PM on November 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

What Etrigan says is true: You are raising those animals far more humanely than any animals whose meat you have ever purchased has been raised.

I would just sort of listen to yourself for a while, and give yourself permission to not do anything you don't feel comfortable with. I've wavered back and forth from omnivore to vegetarian to vegan and back again throughout my adult life, and I expect I will continue in that pattern for the rest of my life. Sometimes it just feels okay for me to eat meat, and sometimes it doesn't. The last thing you want to do is send your animals to slaughter and have such deep feelings of regret that you can't even eat the meat.
posted by something something at 1:49 PM on November 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

The ethics of eating meat cannot depend on your personal decision to breed and raise those animals, or their comfortable living conditions prior to slaughter. If those were sufficient reasons to justify eating them, then you should probably eat your children too, heh.

I think you'll find that the ethics of meat eating have a lot more to do with cultural norms than rigorous philosophical arguments. Likewise, your current discomfort has a lot more to do with your experiences than some philosophical perspective. I suspect philosophy won't really do much to resolve your problem.
posted by ryanrs at 1:59 PM on November 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

As Etrigan pointed out, you are raising them humanely. These animals are only alive because you raised them and it seems like during their life they have been treated well. For animals this is pretty much as good as it gets.

In a larger sense these animals as breeds only exist because of their use to people. If there are wild cows or sheep that were never domesticated then I'd imagine their numbers are vanishingly small, and likely to get smaller. If these animals weren't useful to us they would have likely been wiped out by now.

If you are concerned with issues regarding the killing of livestock I'd recommend reading some Peter Singer, particulary Animal Liberation. I will warn you that it may hasten your aversion towards the killing of these animals, or consuming animal products in the future.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 2:30 PM on November 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

My golden rule has always been that I won't eat any animals with whom I have a personal relationship. You seem to have developed a personal relationship with your animals, and that will certainly make it tough.
posted by slkinsey at 2:34 PM on November 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

You might ask yourself if you've noticed any kind of continuum with regard to personality or intelligence from crustaceans to fish to chicken to cow to lamb to pig or what-have-you. Shades of gray rather than black and white.
posted by goethean at 2:40 PM on November 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

... can anyone throw a little philosophical spin on the situation that might make me feel better about the task soon to be at hand? Conversely if there's no way to justify such things I'd like to hear that side of the argument too.

I'm of the opinion that if you're blessed/wealthy enough to be able to have meaningful choices about it in the first place, diet is absolutely the most complex personal decision you can make on a regular basis: it involves choosing the source of nutrients you want to fuel and sustain you. However, as ryanrs notes, the perceived morality of relegating animals into various categories like "eat," "keep as pet," "tolerate," and "avoid" is also very closely tied to your cultural background -- some folks think cows are sacred, some think pigs are unclean, some think dogs and cats are little more than a reliable source of protein. But as you've observed, non-human animals are undeniably complex, feeling, sentient beings that tend to defy the tidy boundaries humans try to create for them. They just lack the ability to tell us about their experiences with language we can understand.

Here's a previous Ask that might help you look at differing philosophical ideas around this topic: How can I eat more ethically?

From the perspective of someone who thinks killing/eating animals for the sole purpose of brief gustatory pleasure is never justified barring poverty or at least some degree of scarcity, as well as someone who has always been able to physically thrive on a vegan diet, I can say that the point at which I felt I could more directly embody my personal ethics through daily lifestyle choices was a grand and momentous occasion. It gives me a sense of communion with my fellow living beings, like I am working to respect the vast unified organism of which we are all part. I feel very lucky to be able to opt out of participating in their ongoing subjugation; not consuming products made from their bodies makes me feel closer to them, like a tangible acknowledgement of my belief that we are much more similar than we are different. I am never struck by guilt or fear when I interact with an animal of any species because I know they have absolutely nothing to fear in me. I don't believe that a vegan diet is going to save the world, that choosing it makes vegans morally or ethically superior, or that vegans will ever make up more than 1-2% of the population; it's just the same idealistic reasoning that inspires me to only buy second-hand clothing, only buy fair trade coffee/chocolate, eschew the use of any kind of pesticide or chemical in my garden, etc.

Ultimately, I just came to the conclusion that loving (LOVING) to eat meat -- it was probably 60-70% of my daily caloric intake until I was 18 -- was significantly less important than the thoughts and lives of the animals that had to die so I could eat whatever I wanted to. Being able to nosh on a steak or bacon or whatever was just not that important to me, and I knew I could live without it. It's incredibly important for me to make choices that I can justify and support in the long term, choices that will let me sleep at night, choices that will let me minimize the damage I inflict just by walking on the earth. So for me, with those aspirations in place, my only real choice is veganism. The incredibly delicious food and health benefits are just icing on the [dairy- and egg-free] cake.

Here are a few books that have guided me along the way:
Peter Singer, Animal Liberation
Jonathan Safran-Foer, Eating Animals
Matthew Scully, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy
Melanie Joy, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism

My recommendation is to dig very deep and try to figure out what can you live with, yourself. Can you gently caress the soft ears of a happy pig, watch him wriggle with undeniable glee in the pastures, and tuck into his well-sauced ribs a few days later? Could you watch him die? Could you make the final cut yourself? There's your answer.
posted by divined by radio at 2:40 PM on November 19, 2013 [9 favorites]

can anyone throw a little philosophical spin on the situation that might make me feel better about the task soon to be at hand?

Better to have been alive for a few years in a reasonably humane farm than never to have been born at all because the farmer was squeamish about doing things humans have been doing for millions of years, or the farmer went out of business because they didn't have anything to sell.

Death is inevitable for all of us - can it be so bad to hasten the arrival of the inevitable?

I just can't seem to now draw a dividing line between animals, the lambs here are in reality no different from the cats, or indeed I.

The border between humans and animals is an arbitrary one, like the borders between nations.

If you're opposed to arbitrary borders, you're opposed to nations themselves, and if you're opposed to nations you're anti-American. You don't want to be anti-American, do you? Substitute your country of choice if not american.
posted by Mike1024 at 2:42 PM on November 19, 2013

The fact that you are raising them humanely is orthogonal to whether or not you can kill them for food, so I'm not sure why everyone's talking about that so much.

My own personal view is that the cycle of animals dying to feed other animals is a very core part of nature itself, as much as birth, death, and the rising of the sun. The fact that we feel (or don't feel) a certain way about it has little bearing on whether it is "right" in any objective sense (honestly, myself, I don't really believe in any objective morality, but that's an aside) and animals do not participate in the social contract that we have as a society to prevent us from killing one another.

You can kill and eat your sheep for the same reason that a wolf can kill and eat a rabbit. The fact that you think harder about it doesn't make you behavior any less natural or justifiable.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 2:43 PM on November 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Another book recommendation:

Hal Herzog, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals
posted by box at 2:49 PM on November 19, 2013

I think it's great that you're thinking about these questions. Some observations and contradictions that may or may not be compelling to you:

If you forgo eating meat, you'll subsist on plants, presumably (unless you yourself can photosynthesize). But plants are alive, just as you or I or those animals on your farm are alive. No one doubts the morality of killing a plant for food--though I'm sure most on Metafilter would decry senseless destruction of the environment. There was a story a few years ago about a centuries-old tree in California that was poisoned with herbicide--or this story from Texas--and it's a real downer for me--though I myself eat a mostly vegetarian diet.

So, plants are alive, and we don't want them abused, but we eat them without compunction. Of course, a plant doesn't cavort in the clover, or have a face, and presumably doesn't feel pain (one hopes). There's an easy distinction: plants are lower forms of life than humans, so we can eat them, but animals are lower (arguably) but not so low that we don't imbue them with feelings that should be respected.

But at the same time, we don't imbue them with all the rights of personhood. So, perhaps you won't eat them, but you'll keep them in a (I assume humane) pen or cage. If they escape, you'll go catch them and bring them back. Perhaps if your child taunts the family dog and is bitten, you'll put the dog down, not your baby. There are rights of humans, even "natural" rights like freedom and autonomy, you do not deign to share with your livestock. Without putting too fine a point on it, you keep animals on your land because it pleases you; your pleasure in keeping them supersedes their right to be free.

And of course, you really can't just let them go. Even if you decide today that it is wrong to keep those sheep solely because you want their companionship (and meat), you can't just leave the gate open and let them make their way in the world. These are not wild animals, like a mountain ram, they're animals who have been bred in long lines of domesticated stock, thousands of generations to be meat, or to be pets. Which is not to say that they have a "destiny" to be eaten, but they have no real other function at this point other than being your meal or being your pet. You're choosing pet because it seems kinder, but from a first principles perspective, I'm not sure it's much better (though I'm sure the animals would certainly prefer being your pet!).

In summary: while we might decry senseless destruction of living things, we eat some of them without second thought, and others with qualms, and still others only under extreme duress (people, housecats, etc.). Great lovers of animals tend to keep them as pets, despite the arguable incongruity of "owning" another creature. Perhaps stewardship of animals is an obligation, because we have bred them over millennia to be our companions (and our servants, and our meat). And perhaps we would do best by letting them all die out (via sterilization, not neglect) to "undo" the work of domesticating them.

You'll make your own conclusions about where the final line is drawn. It sounds like you're comfortable owning animals, but not eating them. Why is that? Because reasons? If that's right, can't you eat those animals because reasons? Why do you keep animals as pets--clearly showing them as lesser orders of living creature, since you don't respect their autonomy--when so many of your fellow humans go hungry and without shelter? Probably because reasons.

"Because reasons" works much of the time, but sometimes it's like staring into the abyss. I eat some meat; while I don't make a habit of eating every part of the animal, I don't want them to suffer, either. "Because reasons" kicks in for me a bit earlier in the thought process. For you, it may be a bit later--though it will at some point, I'm sure.

Because reasons.

Best of luck.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 2:54 PM on November 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

I stopped eating meat when I couldn't justify the distinction between pet animals versus meat animals. I am not much of a philosopher, but utilitarianism (Singer) and rights-based approaches (Regan) are often applied to this topic. The approach you take depends on the assumptions you make. Is your main concern to limit suffering? Or do you think all living creatures have a right to live, regardless of lack of charm? By raising the animals yourself you have limited the amount of suffering entailed (possible utilitarian pass), but you're going to kill them because you believe your right to a delicious meal trumps their right to be alive (rights fail, possible utilitarian fail if suffering in death outweighs good in life).

If you are looking for online reading, check out this friendly Philosophy Bro post, and The Philosopher's Magazine blog series on historical approaches to meat-eating: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Offline, if you are willing to reconsider your love of meat, Jonathan Safran Foer's "Eating Animals" is worth a read.
posted by esoterrica at 2:56 PM on November 19, 2013

For a philosopher's take on this particular dilemma have a look at Cora Diamond's paper Eating Meat and Eating People.
posted by Chairboy at 2:59 PM on November 19, 2013

I gave up eating meat when I read up on the meat industry. As an animal-lover, I couldn't justify eating an animal when I had no way of knowing how much it suffered while it was alive, and when it was killed. There are a lot of terrible things that happen to animals within a large-scale industrial operation, meat we eat is often processed, and there are huge environmental impacts also. How people eat meat today is vastly removed from how humans have traditionally hunted, killed and eaten animals.

However, I don't necessarily agree that eating meat is *never* ok. And one way I think it can be justified is in a case like yours. If you know for certain (as obviously you do) that the animal was genuinely cared for and respected in life, given a humane death, and butchered with care, then I think an argument can be made that it has fulfilled it's purpose, and that by mindfully and gratefully eating it you are in effect absorbing it into yourself, and the life-cycle continues. It's the needless cruelty that stopped me eating animals, but what you are describing is not that. If I could say for certain that the pig that gave me my delicious smoked bacon (man I miss bacon) had a wonderful life before death then I might think differently about eating it, but I can't be sure it didn't suffer. You can.
posted by billiebee at 4:05 PM on November 19, 2013

I believe that what you are encountering is questions of ethics,

is it ethical to eat meat? what rights to life does an animal have?

I would also second the suggestion of peter singers, animal liberation, he very succinctly describes the ethics behind eating meat, and contextualises the animal rights movement in light of other rights movements, which i personally found very incisive and important for me to read to make decisive decisions about eating meat based on ethics
posted by frequently at 4:50 PM on November 19, 2013

Sounds like they've entered your heart and become pets. Hard way to have a sustaining farm, unless you've got money to spare to spend on it.

When I was 12, I got a rabbit to show in 4-H. The next year, I added a market lamb. I had tears running down my face. Had an unusual thing happen; the purchaser gifted her back to me. I could keep her, resell her, use her for meat... my choice. My parents allowed me to keep her, and that ewe, plus my sister's, started our herd of sheep. (My sis was too young to be in 4-H yet, so hers was a pet/companion to mine.)

After that, we had our pets - the "keepers", as we called them, and the others. The keepers got names and love and attention and were almost always our showmanship animals, and spoiled rotten to boot. The others got names, and we gave them necessary attention, but not that extra-special pet kind of love. Ewes would come along that we wanted to keep, but the males, we knew they were eventually bound for the table. (And I owned a ram for several years; one was quite sufficient, thank you!) And there *was* one wether that just stuck around, even though we didn't have a good reason.

Other kids were raised that all livestock was fair game, so don't get attached to any of it. For us, a middle of the road approach satisfied pretty much everybody... and it kept us on an even keel, money-wise, when the alternative would be having to get rid of them all and never having any, because we couldn't afford to have them as just pets.
posted by stormyteal at 5:40 PM on November 19, 2013

Most of Zen teacher Cheri Huber's work is not available online, but this essay is: One Less Act of Violence. From the essay:
When I am present with my eyes and heart open, what do I want to do? Do I really want to eat the flesh of another creature? Of course I like to eat "meat." I have grown up in a society that eats "meat." I have been conditioned not to think about what it was, who it was, that it lived, breathed, slept, ate, had babies, was afraid, sought to live...I can't think about that, it's dinner. So of course I like it. Of course I want it. Of course I would miss eating it if I were to stop eating creatures. That's why it is not helpful to stop as a should.

Perhaps a more helpful approach would be to go right on eating as I always have and pay very close attention. Perhaps if I didn't stop the thoughts about this meat, if I were really present to the texture of it, the smell of it, the feel of it under my knife and fork and in my mouth, I would simply choose not to eat it. Because the real point is not what I am doing to it, the point is what I am doing to me. A few years ago, on a layover in the middle of a cross-country train trip, I visited the Friends' Meeting House in Philadelphia. There I learned this story: William Penn converted to Quakerism as a grown man. In those days, the fashion was for gentlemen to wear a sword, and after a while Penn began to feel uncomfortable about being a Quaker, a member of a completely non-violent religion, and at the same time wearing a sword, an instrument of violence. He went to a friend who had assisted in his conversion. What should he do about his sword? he asked. The answer was this: "WEAR IT AS LONG AS YOU CAN."
I find that the longer I have a Zen practice, the less right eating meat feels for me.
posted by Lexica at 6:13 PM on November 19, 2013

Also, from Cheri's book Trying to Be Human:
Discussions of harmlessness often lead to questions like, where do you draw the line about what life forms you do and do not kill?

Within myself, it is not necessary to draw any lines, because I am always responding to an internal sense of how something feels to me. Obviously I eat. People will ask me, "What about a carrot? Don't you think a carrot feels?"

Maybe it does. However, looking into the eyes of a carrot and looking into the eyes of a cow, I have a very different experience, such that right now I am going to eat the carrot, and I am not going to eat the cow. I would ask people who can eat cows with no difficulty to spend a little time looking in the eyes of a cow and see if it seems like there is anybody home there.

It is not compassionate to this creature (pointing to self) not to eat anything at all - nor would it be compassionate to force myself to eat the cow.
posted by Lexica at 6:19 PM on November 19, 2013

I've raised animals for meat and eggs and milk (all on small farms, in small quantities, organic, free range, etc). It baffles me that so many people separate meat from eggs/milk. You have to breed animals to produce eggs and milk - you need to replenish your stock, and you need the babies. Lots of those babies will be male - and what are you going to do with them all? It is not financially viable or practical to just feed them and care for them like pets. For me, it's all tied up together - diet is all or nothing - so I'm an omnivore and not a vegan. I think for most people throughout time, they needed the protein and they needed to survive. You have the option because you live in relative luxury, and the choice is a weight.

The truth is, most animals - including wild variations of our domesticated ones - can't expect a particularly long life. They're born, and if they survive long enough to reach adulthood and breed they've succeeded. That's it. And during that process nature can provide lots of horrible experiences they struggle with: forest fires, early winters, long winters, too-hot summers, populations correcting themselves and balancing out, accidents, fights with each other, being ostricized, getting lost, migrating in the wrong direction... it goes on and on.

Humans are animals too, and I don't believe we're any better or worse. All animals will show bizarre acts of both compassion and cruelty. If your animals have had a good life and can be given a good death and are used in their entirety - I'd feel pretty good about that. For me, the far bigger issues are quality of life and death, and efficient use.

Watch some nature documentaries.
And remember - most other animals wouldn't bat an eyelash at killing a human. You've just been isolated from that! I lost my sympathy when a full grown bull made every attempt to spear me with his horns. I had no problem eating those hot dogs (he had a great life, too). I don't know where you live, but I grew up spending a lot of time in the Sierra Nevadas, and was always very aware of all the things that might eat/kill a little girl (bears, mountain lions, etc...).

I'm 100% sure if my adorable affectionate housecats woke up tomorrow 10x their size they wouldn't recongize me and they'd eat me for breakfast.
posted by jrobin276 at 6:44 PM on November 19, 2013

I'm not a big fan of Singer's approach to animal rights. I find the abolitionist arguments of Francione more convincing. Though not convincing enough to follow a vegan lifestyle. As a woman and a feminist, the other writer who made me stop and consider longest (though the one book I read was more observational than philosophical) was Carol Adams. I think you are in very personal ethics territory, and second the suggestion above that it may be more useful to focus on what feels like the right choice for yourself, whether or not you find support in any philosophical arguments.
posted by eviemath at 7:28 PM on November 19, 2013

Oh! Oh, I just remembered something that Joseph Campbell quoted in that big famous Conversation With Bill Moyers PBS thing - a mediation from the Hindu Upanishads, which is a reflection on the universality of the state of being of all creatures -
Oh, wonderful! Oh, wonderful! Oh, wonderful!
I am food! I am food! I am food!
I am a food-eater! I am a food-eater! I am a food-eater!
Campbell describes it as a sort of acceptance that all life forms survive by eating other life forms, but at the same time, all life forms themselves become food for other life forms, and knowing that sort of puts us all in the same big cosmic boat.

So yeah, you're eating the lambs. But someday worms and bacteria and maggots are gonna eat you. And that's as it kind of should be. We all eat food, and we all ARE food.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:05 AM on November 20, 2013

I might look at this less as an ethical argument about whether or not killing and eating animals is okay, but rather as a moral question about where YOU see yourself in the world.

You are not raising and killing animals (even humanely) for their sake, it is for your sake and your sake alone.
posted by MetalFingerz at 1:15 PM on November 20, 2013

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