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Meat is “Justifiable Homicide?”

There’s a debate about whether meat is murder or "justifiable homicide" (and prepare yourself for some mighty interesting moral acrobatics here) in and after "The Compassionate Carnivore," which Jenny alerted me to.

Let’s deconstruct:

  • Tom Hodgkinson was a vegetarian for ten years. He now raises, kills and eats his own pigs, and thinks his actions may be called "justifiable homicide." Talk about backsliding.
  • "The adrenalin ran high on pig killing day. . . .  they were shot in the head with a pistol, while the man with the gun stroked their heads. One squealed for a few seconds before dying, the other simply dropped to the ground. Then each animal was tied by its back legs to the tractor and hoisted into the air. There was quite a bit of kicking. I was struck by the calm gentleness of the whole operation.
    We cut the pigs’ throats and drained off the blood, which we immediately stirred to make blood pudding. Thus began the enormous job of processing the pigs: they say that every part of the pig can put to good use apart from the squeak, and we certainly used most of the beasts over the next couple of weeks." I get the homicide part. I’m still waiting for the "justifiable" part.
  • "What was surprising was the amount of tenderness that we felt towards the animals when they were killed. We did not sob in a sentimental way as we did, for example, when the bunny died. But we experienced an emotion that was a sort of mix of sadness and gratitude: you wanted to say, thank you, noble pig." I’m stuck on tenderness that’s not sentimental. Maybe the sobbing was for his conscience that died with his pig. And what’s this about gratitude? Thank you, noble pig, for trusting me so I may betray you at will? I’m not sure which definition of noble Hodgkinson is using, but whether he’s calling the pig distinguished or saying the pig has high moral qualities, is this some kind of complimenting-them-before-you-slaughter-them mentality that makes the person on the slaughtering end of the equation sleep better at night?
  • Hodgkinson describes his method of killing as "humane and painless" to his friends who are appalled by what he’s done. They do love the taste of the meat, though.
  • Hodgkinson continues: "[A] very strong argument for being veggie is that in so doing, you reduce the size of the market for factory-farmed meat. But eating meat that you yourself have cared for yourself is a different matter. My vegan friend Graham told me that he did not really have a moral objection to what we did. His veganism is part of a general attack on exploitative capitalism. Small scale farming is a way of grabbing back some control over our food production from the big guys." What about by begin vegan you decrease dominance, exploitation and violence? Isn’t what Hodgkinson just described about as violent as a situation can get?
  • Finally, we get into the real delusion: philosopher Roger Scruton’s outline for being a "conscientious carnivore" (so I guess there’s no grain and very little veggies and fruit in their diet?). "Duty requires us therefore, to eat our friends." I can’t wait to read how he’s going to get that to make sense.
    • "The animal brought to the table will have enjoyed the friendship and protection of the one who nurtured him, and his death will be like the ritual sacrifices described in the Bible and Homeric literature – a singling out of a victim, for an important office to which a kind of honour is attached." How disappointing. I thought he was going to provide an explanation difficult to decimate. He even called the pig "him" rather than "it." But we still haven’t explained why the homicide is justifiable. Singling out a victim to kill when you do not need to kill anyone at all is in fact unjustifiable homicide: murder. He just unwittingly disproved his own thesis because he has not provided a reason why it’s necessary to kill anyone. Next, it’s 2008 and in the developed world ritual sacrifices have gone the way of, well, ritual sacrifices. That comparison is absurd. The only thing remotely "epic" about this scenario is the betrayal of the pig by someone who acts one moment as friend and nurturer, and the next as executioner.

Check out the debate following the article. Not everyone is buying what Hodgkinson is selling. What’s important for us is to constantly point out the hypocrisy, denial and grave misuse of language that the peddlers of all things animal cling to in the hope that people aren’t paying attention or thinking for themselves.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Incredible. If it was all "dark comedy" I would disapprove but understand. That they actually take what they write seriously disproves the claim that humans are intellectually superior to non-human animals.

    January 22, 2008
  2. Great post.

    January 22, 2008
  3. I was recently disappointed to discover another "compassionate carnivore" on my intellectual radar screen: Richard Dawkins.

    For a man who, with almost Einsteinian imagination, can visualize and describe with great accuracy the biological and evolutionary connections between all life, he still can't see make the humanist-evolutionary leap of scientific compassion to veganism.

    From an interview in American Scientist:

    INTERVIEWER: You mention in the book that you are appalled at the works of liberal thinkers from 100 years ago—I think this is part of "The Grasshopper's Tale." You are appalled at their comments on race, and you wonder what scholars 100 years from now might be appalled at. You speculate that it might be our treatment of other species. This made me wonder: Are you a vegetarian?

    RICHARD DAWKINS: No, I'm not, and that's an interesting question. What I believe is that we should try to minimize suffering. And so I would have no objection to killing something to eat it, provided it doesn't suffer. So I'm much more worried about the suffering in slaughterhouses and in factory farms—the dread that might enter the mind of a cow or pig when it's being led to the slaughter. To the extent that slaughtering practices are humane, I see no objection to using animals for meat.

    The objection to using humans for meat would be not just that they are human, but that they would feel fear, they would know what was coming to them, they would be in a position to suffer in a way that a pig or a cow, if it was well treated, would not. So my aim would always be to reduce suffering, not to take a kind of absolutist position that there is something special and unique about humans which entitles them to exploit and use other species of animal for any purpose.

    (The interview is worth reading in its entirety: on all issues, Dawkins comes across as brilliant, but on the issue of "justifiable killing" he joins the crowd of his least intelligent critics in religious circles, and pretty much justifies his meat-eating with the old "tastes great, if only it were more humane" argument.)

    January 22, 2008
  4. That Dawkins quote broke my heart! And by the way, I get dozens of visitors to Animal Person from people googling: Is Richard Dawkins a vegetarian?

    I'm so disappointed.

    January 22, 2008
  5. I think it's interesting that:

    a) their method was illegal – probably for health reasons and human safety reasons, but illegal nonetheless
    b) responses on the forum are negative
    c) the hypocrisy is so apparent, even to many meat-eaters. Most people understand that killing pets is wrong, period. We just need to stretch that understanding of pet a littler further.

    January 22, 2008
  6. Yes, Vegan Screenwriter. That Dawkins is not vegan does amaze me, particularly after having read this from his The Ancestor's Tale:

    "Many of our legal and ethical principles depend on the separation between Homo sapiens and all other species. Of the people who regard abortion as a sin, including the minority who go to the lengths of assassinating doctors and blowing up abortion clinics, many are unthinking meat-eaters, and have no worries about chimpanzees being imprisoned in zoos and sacrificed in laboratories. Would they think again, if we could lay out a living continuum of intermediates between ourselves and chimpanzees…? Surely they would. Yet it is the merest accident that the intermediates all happen to be dead. It is only because of this accident that we can comfortably and easily imagine a huge gulf between our two species – or between any two species, for that matter."


    "I suppose we should take comfort from the change that has come over our attitudes (regarding racism) during the intervening century. Perhaps in a negative sense, Hitler can take some credit for this, since nobody wants to be caught saying anything that he said. But what, I wonder, will our successors of the twenty-second century be quoting, in horror, from us? Something to do with our treatment of other species, perhaps?"

    January 23, 2008
  7. jack #

    If Dawkins is a man of science, he should value veganism for health and longevity befits as well as environmental benefits for ecosystems, biodiversity, ozone layer, etc.

    November 23, 2008

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