Philosophy in Raising and Butchering Livestock

By Barbara Corson, Department of Agriculture, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

Most people feel some discomfort when confronted with the idea of killing an animal that they know as an individual. There are different ways of dealing with the discomfort, including trying not to think about it and buying the meat once it is not recognizable as an animal anymore; or discounting animals’ interests (“it’s PIG for gawds sake! Why would you feel bad about killing a PIG?”); or becoming a vegetarian and going to great lengths to avoid using any animal products. None of these solutions works for me.


The answer I have come up with (so far) is to remember that all living things die and are “recycled” in some way. Whether you are talking about an oak tree, a deer, a human being or a domestic sheep, the question is not “will it die?” but “how will it die, and when, and why?”

I believe there is a covenant between humans and domestic animals that is thousands of years old. The agreement is not “live with me and I will see that you never die.” Rather, the agreement is “Live with me, and I will do my best to protect you from painful injury, debilitating disease, and a slow, messy death. Live with me and you will have a better life and a better death than you would have in the wild. In return for my care, you will give me food, fiber, power, fertilizer and a unique kind of companionship that human society cannot duplicate.”

Of course, even if you agree that such a covenant exists, it is clear that we humans have not always upheld our side of the bargain, any more than we always honor our other commitments as individuals, to our families, communities and environment, etc. For me, these failures to attain the ideal do not destroy the validity of the concept. In my study of history, it seems to me that many of the skills of our agrarian past developed out of an attempt, consciously or unconsciously, to work with and care for the animals that have made civilization possible. In the past 75 years, technology has seemingly rendered many of these skills obsolete, yet I believe they are still valuable and worth preserving for aesthetic as well as practical reasons. So I hope to see more interested people learning and teaching each other about animal skills from our agrarian past and incorporating these skills into our present lives. Perhaps we can create a future in which humans honor our responsibilities to animals better than we ever have in the past!

This is an excerpt of an article that first appeared as: Barbara Corson, “Animal Handling 101,” in Debra Reid, ed., Proceedings of the 2003 Conference & Annual Meeting, 151-159.

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4 thoughts on “Philosophy in Raising and Butchering Livestock”

  1. I say “AMEN!” to Barbara’s thoughtful and (as usual) “on target” comments. Having never disatched a domestic animal as a source of food, but several as an expression of respnsibility and deep affection, the “covenant” that she describes seems very real and something that more of us should subscribe to whether we administer death with by our own hands or rely upon an industrial processor or a burger-peddling clown to do the deed on our behalf. I expect to be roasting a pork tenderloin this afternoon and, thanks to Barb, I’ll be thinking of it as more that just an inanimate chunk of protein that’s morally equivalent to tofu.

    1. On second and third thought, I need to walk back some of my prior comments regarding the concept of a “covenant” between humans and the domestic animals that furnish them with food, fiber, power, fertilizer, companionship, etc.

      While I certainly subscribe to the idea that the lives of animals ought to be respected even in the context of their eventual slaughter, it’s not quite right to consider this obligation as a “covenant.”

      A covenant, after all, is a two-sided agreement — presumably between willing parties who are both aware of and agreeable to the consequences. But in the case of animals (at least those not represented by legal counsel), that concept breaks down. Thanksgiving turkeys are not given the opportunity to weigh the slim odds of survival in the wild against the pleasures and ease of relative but temporary security. Along with pigs, cattle, chickens, etc., they aren’t offered a choice. So, while humane treatment of animals can and should be advocated as a moral imperative that humans ought to impose upon themselves, it’s something of an exaggeration to think of it in covenant terms.

      I recall reading a lengthy 19th century letter from a Jamaican plantation owner to a friend in England in which he raised a parallel argument to justify African slavery on the grounds that plantation slaves enjoyed a degree of security and protection as a slave-owner’s property beyond what they ever would have had in their homeland. While there may have been some verifiable truth in that argument, there were probably few 19th century slaves who would have agreed, and fewer still who would have regarded their relationship to their owners as a matter of mutual agreement or covenant.

  2. An absolutely brilliant way of presenting this dilemma. I chose a long time ago as a teenager to do the act of slaughtering out of respect for the animal and what it takes to get meat. I believe that “covenant” is the most appropriate word that one could come up with to explain the relationship.

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