Moral Disengagement and Animal Cruelty
There’s a special kind of animal killer that, as readers of Eating Plants, know, I’m obsessed with trying to comprehend. It’s not the slaughterhouse worker. He, after all, is effectively protected from the inherent brutality of the machine in which he’s a functional cog. Nor is it even the small, pasture-based animal farmer that the mainstream media treats as the heroic answer to the corruption of industrial agriculture. This person merely raises his animals with a modicum of dignity, calls them happy, and ships them to the nearest USDA approved slaughterhouse. No muss, no fuss there. The figure who really grabs my attention and makes me think, question, ponder, and investigate is the intrepid self-slaughterer, the very person who aims to eat the animal she raises (and yes, it is often a she).
In the simplest—and genuinely most curious—sense, I want to know something quite basic: how do they do it? How, that is, do these sangfroid slaughterers raise an animal in close quarters, come to know that animal as an individual, sometimes mark that animal’s identity with a name, and then, in a whiplash-inducing turnabout, kill the sweet beast? Culture is culture and habits are habits. But within every sentient human, however buried it may be, there’s a fertile seed of compassion, a pregnant kernel of empathy, that informs us, whether we want it to or not, that this kind of behavior isn’t exactly the right thing to do.
My curiosity led to me explore a great deal of psychological research over the past several months. Not fun reading, this. I did, however, discover that the mechanisms of “moral disengagement” or “amorality” speak directly to our elusive backyard hackers in ways that strike me as quite useful. To summarize my takeaways from the literature of moral disengagement, I would say that at least four themes deserve our attention as psychological nodes of activity. It is upon these that we can focus our efforts in the quest to highlight the unneeded brutality of backyard slaughter and, in turn, devise ways to combat it. That’s the idea anyway: a playbook to put ethics into action.
The first theme is one of marginalization. I’ve read enough narratives by backyard butchers to notice that, after a long discussion about how well the animals were treated, there’s an inevitable linguistic shift that reduces dinner-to-be to an instrument. It’s common, for example, for a slaughterer to note how “it served us well” before going through with the horrid deed. This linguistic adjustment, which directly reflects a self-protecting mindset, is frequently complemented by physical gestures and poses that reduce the often dead animal to an object. One example I vividly recall is of a guy who had placed his fists into the cavities of plucked chickens and was using the carcasses as boxing gloves. This, at its essence, is marginalization.
The second theme is distortion. Again, without going too deeply into specific narratives (there’s an archive of them here at Eating Plants, just search “backyard slaughter”), I’ve identified a powerful and, again, self-protective tendency for killers to shield their own psyches from the potentially jarring consequences of their actions. This habit is best glimpsed in the rationales that DIY butchers will almost always provide: “death is just one day,” “it didn’t know what was coming,” “dead is dead,” and “it was making the ultimate sacrifice.” These explanations are, of course, obvious distortions of reality and it doesn’t take an ethicist to explain why. But they are uttered so often, they parade as truth. We need to start uttering back.
A third theme is comparative moral justification. Backyard butchers often come off looking like the good guys because they effectively position themselves against the nearly unfathomable reality of industrial slaughter. This juxtaposition is convenient for backyard killers, But it’s disingenuous in at least two respects. One, very often the death blow delivered by a DIY slaughterer is executed with complete incompetence (see below) and is thus worse than an animal would experience in a slaughterhouse. Two, just because one form of suffering might be less than another hardly serves as a foundational justification for that action. It would be better if I arbitrarily punched someone in the face rather than shoot them with a gun. The moral thing, of course, is to do neither.
A fourth and final theme is substitution. Backyard butchers well might admit that there’s something cruel in what they do. Then, however, they portray it as a necessary evil integral to achieving an ulterior, more noble, goal. Two examples stand out. It’s common to hear butchers explain that they are exercising their agency in a food culture that has gradually stripped them of all control. In this respect, they portray themselves as taking power away from corporate monopolizers of the food system and, in so doing, obscure the brutality of their act in the nobility of a larger cause. We also see this happening when butchers argue that what they are doing is good for the environment—again, in comparison to factory farming (see entries on Green Mountain College).
It’s easy to be outraged at these slaughterers. It’s harder to understand, however, why they do what they do. It’s not because they are bad people. One of the most difficult aspects in covering the human-animal relationship is that so often very good people do terrible things and have no idea that they are complicit in structured evil. It is thus all the more critical that advocates work to identify and communicate the psychological and rhetorical strategies that prevent a more authentic assessment of what it means to kill an animal that you do not have to kill.