The Ethics Of… Murdering Meat

My very first published article, thanks to the St James Ethics Centre in January 2012. In retrospect, just an tiny, tiny bit dramatic. Got an interesting reaction though.

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I’m going to kill some children.

I’m going to confine them and force them up a crowded metal ramp towards a narrow door, passing though one at a time. They don’t understand what’s going on or why, but the reek of blood is enough to bring panicked cries from them.

One by one they are pushed through the door and killed; shot through the head by a man who doesn’t even blink as he does it. He’s been doing this all day.

The dead children are then hung up on a hook, skinned and the muscles sliced from their bones. The children’s skin is treated and turned into cloth for my coat and bag. The children’s muscles are sliced up and packaged for me to eat. The children’s bones are crushed to fertilise my garden.

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Is this unethical? Well according to most people that depends entirely on which species of child we’re talking about.

Why is it that we have such different reactions to the idea of killing and eating different species? Put cows into the scenario above and some people will choose not to eat the meat, but most will.

What about dogs? In Australia that would be considered barbaric and cruel. Not so in other cultures.

And suggesting that those are human children we are slaughtering for food will earn you outright horror from virtually everyone.

But how do we justify this discrimination? After all, we’re all animals in the end. So if it’s acceptable to eat a cow, what’s wrong with eating people?

A religious person might say that humans are spiritually significant and animals were created to serve us, but how can this be proven? We have no evidence of a human soul that animals lack, and different faiths teach us different, often contradictory, rules about eating animals.

It is often argued that intelligence is the critical factor – the more intelligent the animal, the less acceptable to kill it. It is hard to argue that cows and chickens are intelligent. Dogs, cats and dolphins are clearly much more so, and humans by far the most advanced. Where is the harm in killing an animal that stands in a field all day?

But where does that leave intellectually disabled humans? If a person is less able to care for themselves than the animals we are content to kill, can they also be eaten?

Some would argue that it is simply a matter of dominance. Humans have conquered other animals and may treat them as we wish.

However few have the stomach to follow that philosophy to its logical conclusion, and those who do tend to give it up around the time they meet someone stronger than they are.

A more persuasive argument is the utilitarian approach that anything can be justified if the circumstances are right. Under this approach it is less important whether the animal is killed or not – after all, it will die one day anyway – and more a question of whether the benefits gained by killing the animal outweigh the costs.

Consider this: if a cow were not farmed by humans for meat, would its quality of life be better or worse? Would it be safer? Less afraid? More healthy? Less hungry? The answer depends entirely on the situation.

If a cow is kept healthy and cared for by a farmer, it is safe to say that its quality of life is better than in the wild where food, shelter and safety are uncertain at best. If the cow is killed cleanly and without trauma, then what does it lose? A cow lived well then died, and through that death, benefited humans with food and wealth. The benefits for both the cow and the farmer are good and the costs are reasonably low.

Compare this to a human; we no longer live in the wild. Human habitat is now constructed and our quality of life as free individuals significantly better than when we are confined, regardless of how well we are treated. A free human has opportunities thanks to our vast intelligence; we have the power to create, to achieve goals beyond mere survival. Therefore to cut short a human’s life would cost far more than the benefit we would receive from the food and money gained.

So we are justified in discriminating about the animals we eat, and it appears we can justify that killing in the first place if the benefits outweigh the cost.

But what if the cow suffers to produce that meat? Torn from their mothers, crammed into over-crowded pens, fed hormones for unnaturally fast growth, and finally forced towards an alien machine that reeks of blood where they are slaughtered messily and occasionally unsuccessfully – this is the face of modern factory farming and the suffering it guarantees far surpasses the uncertainty of the wild. Can we justify this cost for the benefit we gain?

If you were starving and there was no alternative then perhaps you could. But the reality in Australia is that we are all too often willing to accept this sort of suffering for the mere benefit of a few dollars less per kilo. Meat which is almost without exception chosen as a matter of taste, not need. Can we justify this?

The Indonesian abattoir scandal shows that there are some costs we will not accept for the benefit of meat. But the reality is that the costs we accept when we buy meat from factory farming processes are already far too high, and whether we like it or not we are all responsible for perpetuating this suffering, either through our indiscriminate purchase of cruelly produced meat, or through our failure to support ethical farmers or demand better from our producers and regulators.

In the end the only difference between me running a cow or a human being through that slaughterhouse is the difference between the cost incurred and the benefit gained. If the cost outweighs the benefit, what we are doing is wrong. And if we ignore this injustice and carry on anyway in the name of cheap meat, ask yourself the question:

How can you excuse yourself from the blade?

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5 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Murdering Meat

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