I met Meghan, one of my closest friends, at the slaughter of her two pigs two years ago. I was a vegetarian going almost 2 years strong, and she was readying herself to part with two animals she had come to care for and love. She’s a farmer and had decided to raise pigs that year on her small-scale low-impact farm in New Hampshire.
I had never before seen a livestock animal killed. It happened on site – on the soil and grass on which they were raised, and didn’t take very long. One pig was killed at a time, so one had to see the other die. That really got to some of us, especially Meg. Once the pigs were dead, skinned, and strung up by the USDA certified slaughterers, we took the hogs to the local butcher. I remember saying to her dad when he joked if I was going to go back to being an omnivore, “No, but this is good. It’s good to see what the alternative is, this was more humane.”
“Without systematic animal death, you have no animal farm—factory or otherwise, big or small, conventional or organic.”
He goes through the moral logic of advocates against factory animal farms – that animals are sentient beings, they deserve to live happy and healthy lives, and there is a morality surrounding their existence that is not respected within the mass-scale animal production system. In this system, slaughter is the least of the worries. The animal suffers at every step along the production chain, to the point that slaughter may be the kindest act – relieving the animals of ghastly and deplorable conditions of life. But, as McWilliams notes, with slaughter, therein lies the moral dilemma. If a person holds moral convictions throughout the animals life, why not hold them to the point of slaughter – to the point of death. Slaughter is the act of killing, some would say murdering, an animal whose functional role within that system is to be raised to be killed and commodified. This holds true no matter the type of farm.
“[T]he moral argument for small-scale farms—crumbles on this point. To end a sentient animal’s life is to suddenly objectify the animal after previously treating her as a subject worthy of moral consideration.”
Last summer I apprenticed for Firsthand Foods, a sustainable meat hub in North Carolina and engaged with some of the most humane and sustainable small-scale livestock operations in North Carolina, which is one of the leading global producers of pork. Firsthand provides a consistent and reliable supply of humane pasture-raised pork and beef to many of the Triangle’s (Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill) most socially-responsible and environmentally conscious restaurants, businesses, and consumers. Visiting those farms it was evident how happy and in their natural element the animals were – they were not suffering. But the elephant in the room was always… they’re going to die.
I remember being at lunch with some friends in the field and we were talking about the Carolina Meat Conference. The subject of large-scale commercial marketing came up, and the dissonance between what’s put out there and the reality of the industrially-produced product. Someone reiterated that humanely raised meat is of course preferable, but “No one actually feels good about eating it. It had to die for you.”
Now, I know that an animal raised on a smaller farm that practices sustainable and humane husbandry will be happier and healthier than any animal in a factory farm, but I see what McWilliams’ is talking about with the omnivore’s moral contradiction. Slaughter is an aporia, a word containing an irresolvable logical disjunction. To slaughter is to kill an animal for food, but just because that animal was raised for that purpose – for the means of commodity and ultimately profit of the producer, does that make it O.K.? I ask this question in all sincerity. My diet is plant-based, but I eat animal protein when I can afford to get it from a reliable local source (humane, no added hormones or antibiotics, small-scale production) because my body becomes sick without small amounts (I learned this the hard way). But just because the source is reliable, does it mean that it is just?
Saint John Paul II in his first encyclical warns that human beings “see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption.” This is a blanket assertion, but it is the blunt truth. In our systems of meat production, “sustainable” or not, we produce to make profit (use) and consume to meet our own needs (hunger) which arguably could be met through other means (plant-based protein or other non-slaughter animal products). Saint John Paul II goes on to note the need to “safeguard the moral conditions for an authentic human ecology.” This notion of human ecology is all encompassing, it is the ecosystem of our existence as living beings in our lived environments, those natural, social, and built. It is not simply a matter of the food chain, and that we purportedly are “at the top.” We must ask these hard question, explore these contradictions, and challenge the morality of our actions and choices so that we do not get lost in the facade and temptations of our present wants and non-pressing needs. I for one do not need to eat meat everyday, nor do many others.
As Pope Francis writes in his Encyclical Letter, “authentic human development has a moral character. It presumes full respect for the human person, but it must be concerned for the world”, and, quoting Saint John Paul II, “take into account the nature of each being and of its mutual connection in an ordered system.”
Thus, our development as humans is contingent on our subsistence but both systems are fractured not only when it comes to health and sustainability, but also and especially morality. With commodification, profit, and consumption being inherent characters of the act of slaughter, a moral re-evaultion of the whole system is required for us to understand what it really means to subsist and progress as human beings, not simply material beings who give and take life away to meet our needs. Ultimately, we are not the final say on which life deserves to continue and which life does not, but that’s all in theory – because in practice, in animal agriculture, we do.
Sentient beings deserve to have their emotions, thoughts and natural behaviors respected, but when sentience comes to slaughter moral questions abound. I don’t think any of us will ever “feel good” about eating a piece of meat. We may feel a craving, a sense of excitement, appreciation, or gratitude, but I don’t think we can ever truly reconcile the fact that a living feeling being had to die… not for us to live, but for us to eat.