It is curious that people will show great concern for how farmed animals are treated when alive and yet do not seem to be troubled by their slaughter. This fact seems to demonstrate a general inability to appraise the various gradations of moral transgressions, with killing being at the furthest end of the spectrum of immorality. Especially with respect to animal slaughter, there is a general tendency to ignore gradations of violent and harmful actions.
Our criminal justice system is based on the idea that punishment must be proportional to the crime, and we, as a society, have institutionalized varying gradations of punishment proportional to how serious we consider a crime to be. There is a general consensus that taking another’s life is amongst the most serious type of crime.
In the United States, the death penalty is practiced in thirty-three of the fifty states and almost exclusively when the most horrible crime has been committed: murder. (1) Even then, extraneous circumstances must have also occurred—pre-meditation, kidnapping, rape, etc.—to warrant the death penalty. The extent to which our society values the human animals’ life is highly admirable. Why is a nonhuman animal not afforded the same consideration? While I am certainly not advocating a position where people who kill animals receive the death penalty or are treated as murderers, there are compelling parallels between killing animals and killing humans. An animal has the same will to live as a human does. And, as stated in the introduction, they have the same consciousness, awareness, and emotional capacity. Are they really so different?
In our tendency to deny farmed animals a place in our circle of compassion, we fail to properly assess the gravity of the act of killing and tend to exclusively consider the conditions in which an animal lives. There is a sense that it is okay to slaughter an animal as long as she has been treated well, the “one-bad-day” scenario. In this sentiment, we fall short of extending the same recognition to animals that is the cornerstone of our criminal justice system: that taking life is the highest transgression, much worse than any crime that allows for the survival of the victim. For example, would you rather have six months in a five-star hotel and then be executed or have a lifetime in jail? Most everyone would take the lifetime in prison, even if the conditions were harsh. Because animals share similar behaviors to humans regarding their will to live, it is safe to assume that they would share the preference for living as well. Life is an animal’s most cherished possession and animals, like humans, will fight to survive. It is absurd to speak of humane treatment of animals when it comes to their handling, management, food, and shelter if you deny them the most basic right—to live out their lives—and condone or are complicit in their slaughter. Clearly, the killing of the animal is the most severe transgression, greater than any mistreatment that allows the victim to live. And because of that, our greatest concern should not necessarily be the treatment of the animal, though this is obviously very important; rather, the greatest consideration should be that the animal be allowed to live.
To propose another question: Would you rather be murdered or assaulted with a baseball bat? Even though being hit with a baseball bat would be very painful or potentially debilitating, most rational people, if faced with this horrible choice, would prefer to be victimized in a way that allowed them to live. Even if there is no assurance of full recovery (excepting cases where there is ongoing and irreversible suffering) it is preferable to live, because most people value life above all other considerations of well-being. This is a value that animals share, and it should be extended to them. To illustrate the point differently: Would you hit a pig with a baseball bat? Of course not, and it would be unacceptable for a rancher to do so, also. So why is it acceptable to inflict the greater violation—killing the pig? As a society we tend to consider the lesser infraction of animal cruelty to be a much greater moral wrong than the much greater transgression of killing, and somehow we find it acceptable to condone the killing of animals that are marketed as humanely raised. Labeling killing “humane” is as contradictory as calling the lifeless remains “happy.”
The consideration that killing is the worst of transgressions is not limited to humans in our society. Our comprehensive anti-cruelty laws for companion animals also follow this logical progression. Captain Cindy Machado, Director of Animal Services for over twenty-nine years at the Marin Humane Society in Novato, California, has explained that the severity of animal cruelty has a bearing on the level of the charges against the person responsible for the crime. Captain Machado said, “In the maximum punishments we’ve seen, the animal has to have been brutally injured or killed. That makes a difference whether or not cases are charged at the felony level or just a charge of a misdemeanor.” She added, “If an animal is killed as a result of abuse or neglect, the punishment is likely to be more severe.” It is considered cruelty, so extreme that you could acquire a felony charge and jail time, if you kill a dog (2)—but kill hundreds of cows a day, and you get a paycheck.
We have made farmed animals exempt from our basic moral understandings of the degree and severity of offenses and have somehow compensated for this nagging, unconscious compunction with the compromise that farm animals must at least be treated well while alive. This is a good first step in bringing to our conscious awareness the admission of their suffering, but the logical extension of this thinking is that we should not kill them at all, as killing is the worst of all the acts we can commit against one another.
There is a strong disparity between the enjoyment that we receive from consuming animal flesh and the sacrifice that an animal has given to provide this pleasure. We receive relatively little, and the animal is forced to give everything. This is a complete inequality for the animal who has been killed for the momentary indulgence. Such a fleeting enjoyment cannot match the value of the permanent state that is death, and therefore the animal has given much more than the consumer has received. This is injustice. Robert Grillo eloquently wrote in his blog Free From Harm, “and even when the human interest is trivial and the animal interest is a matter of life and death—as in the case of satisfying our palate pleasure—we still place our interest over theirs. And we do this automatically because that’s how it’s always been done—not because we’ve really given any serious moral consideration to the issue—but simply because we can.” (3)
The idea that you can humanely kill an animal is completely absurd. The very act of killing is the greatest source of inhumanity and the worst act of violence. Based on the formulation of betrayal articulated above, the more humanely an animal is treated, the greater is the bond of trust, and the greater the bond of trust, the more severe the crime of betrayal. By this standard, killing “humanely” treated animals could be a much greater act of betrayal.
This does not imply that it is more ethical to abuse and then kill an animal, because in this scenario there is no element of betrayal. Rather, this is only to posit that regardless of how the animal is treated there is a moral transgression. If the animal is treated well before slaughter, then betrayal is the infraction preceding the act of killing. If the animal is treated badly, then abuse is the preceding crime. Either way, if animals are raised for the purpose of ending their life to serve the interests of the human captor, regardless of how the animal is treated, whether abused or betrayed, it is wrong.
While violence is undoubtedly a severe criminal act, some might argue that betrayal is even worse. In Dante Alighieri’s fourteenth-century epic poem Divine Comedy, the first part, entitled Inferno, famously reserves the deepest of the nine circles of hell for the betrayer, while violence is only considered the seventh, followed by fraud, which is the eighth. Because these concentric circles represent a gradual increase in wickedness, Dante is issuing a clear statement: to covertly deceive with malicious intention is even worse than an overt act of violence. Perhaps this distinction is subjective, but it is important to note that violence, betrayal, and fraud are all committed in the act of killing an animal, especially one with whom we’ve developed a bond of trust (betrayal) and one that will be labeled humane (fraud). Yet we find on “alternative” farms that most animals are not at all humanely treated, despite misleading labeling to the contrary. We will delve deeper into this deception in chapters 2 and 3.There can be no such thing as happy meat. Meat is dead. It has no emotion. However, it came from a living, breathing, sentient being who had the capacity for happiness; one assumes that this is what the folks who use this term mean—that the living animal, before he became a piece of meat, was happy. But this just perpetuates the fatal flaw in the entire concept of eating animals and animal products. One day soon, no matter how happy the animal is, she will be dead. And no sentient being is happy to be killed. On the contrary, any animal will fight to live. Death is an unhappy option—an unwelcome prospect. Animals desire to continue living. The concept of happy meat is erroneous, and as will be revealed in the following chapters, “happy” farmed animal operations are anything but.
Unless you were with an animal through her entire life and accompanied her to the slaughterhouse you do not know what kind of life or death she had. It is impossible to really know. Manufacturers will tell stories that pacify, labels show pictures that appease, and websites offer fabrications that soothe the conscience. If you cannot be sure, don’t take the risk, because the animal behind the delightful label was not happy and may have suffered considerably. The industry will lie to sell products.
The idea of being an ethical meat eater or a compassionate carnist (4), has inherent contradictions. This is not to say that people who consume animal products are fundamentally without compassion or ethics. People can be extremely compassionate and ethical in some areas of life, such as when it comes to children, the poor, the environment, companion animals, etc., and then go home and eat a cheeseburger. The implications of this later action contradict the values expressed in the previous actions. I have seen friends weep over the loss of a dog or cat, but then shed no tears for the animal they will eat that day who certainly suffered much more than their dog or cat. If they knew the pig, and the misery she endured, they would likely also be distressed by her life cut short merely for a meal. Most people have compassion for helpless beings and don’t want to see them die, but their window of compassion is only open for certain species. Open the window wide and let farm animals into your sight of concern. Farmed animals have the same ability to suffer as any other animal and they are worthy of our sympathy, just like an injured bird that fell from a nest, just like a starving, stray dog. We would offer assistance to these animals if it was within our ability to help them — why are pigs, cows, and chickens exempt from this compassion? How can we, in good conscience, kill when it is unnecessary? (5) Causing another’s death when there is no benefit to our health or to the planet, and indeed, when it is harmful to the environment and our bodies, simply is not consistent with the dictates of ethical living. We must widen our circle of compassion to embrace all nonhuman animals.
This essay is reprinted, with permission, from the book, The Ultimate Betrayal: Is There Happy Meat?, by Hope Bohanec. Learn more at www.the-ultimate-betrayal.com.
(1) “Facts About the Death Penalty,” Death Penalty Information Center, Sept. 26, 2012, Deathpenaltyinfo.org
(2) Unless the dog is legally euthanized in a shelter. However, the point is the same. If it is wrong to kill an individual animal, then it should be worse to kill large numbers of animals, irrespective of their species.
(3) Grillo, Robert. “Defending Animals from Cultural Bias and Journalistic Integrity” Free From Harm Blog, 2013
(4) Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows, Melanie Joy, Conari Press, 2010, pp. 29–30. Joy writes: “We eat animals without thinking about what we are doing and why, because the belief system that underlies this behavior is invisible. This invisible belief system is what I call carnism … Carnism is the belief system in which eating certain animals is considered ethical and appropriate. Carnists—people who eat meat are not the same as carnivores. Carnivores are animals that are dependent on meat to survive … Carnists eat meat not because they need to, but because they choose to, and choices always stem from beliefs.”
(5) It is important to realize that we should not pretend that it is entirely possible to abstain from the process of killing. Irrespective of what we choose to eat, some animals are killed in the process. Even in the cultivation of plant foods, insects are killed, the environment and wildlife can be jeopardized, and human workers may be exploited. We must not pretend that we can somehow be so perfect that we do not participate in killing at all. However, there is a gradation, and people who are conscious of the effects of their actions can follow the axiom of least harm. It is easy to see how there is excessive and unnecessary killing involved in the production of animal foods. There is infinitely less carnage in plant production than in animal agriculture, so the clear ethical choice is to reduce or abstain from animal foods.