As carnivores, humans are, so to speak, born to kill. But does that automatically make killing edible prey moral? What about other killing?

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I watched uncomfortably as a municipal employee expertly slit the terrified little goat’s throat in Dammam, Saudi Arabia. It was 1985.

The tiny, skittish beast made not a sound during the quick execution, except for the hyper-nervous skittering of its hoofs slip-sliding on the concrete floor as it was dragged into the blood-smeared killing room.

It was tradition. The goat bled out. A plastic bag filled with warm meat was minutes later handed to us at a back door. And human life continued unaltered.

My friend, Haza al-Haza, a young, recently married Saudi man, was required by tradition to provide a meal for his extended family featuring fresh lamb or cheaper goat (all my friend could afford at the time) to celebrate Eid, the next day’s celebration marking the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of dawn-to-dusk fasting. I had accompanied him to the slaughterhouse, which was government-run under Health Department auspices.

At the time, I was living in nearby Al-Khobar, a Persian Gulf (aka, Arabian Gulf) port city. As I drove to an Eid feed early the next afternoon on the outskirts of town, sheep and goat carcasses awaiting slaughter hung from trees lining the endless seaside thoroughfare. It was that way every Eid, as families flowed into coastal desert areas and slaughtered mostly sheep and goats to celebrate the holy feast.

Although it brings lots of joy to Saudis, Eid also brings lots of stress and death to sheep, goats, and camels. It’s been this way for hundreds of years since the advent of Islam in the 7th century.

Why should species matter in the morality of killing?

The philosophical question is, why do human beings feel that the wholesale slaughter of non-human animals is justified, even appropriate, while simultaneously feeling that killing members of our own species generally isn’t?

I’ve always believed, and do still, that human killing of animals for food and warmth is morally justified because evolution designed us as omnivores, which means we upright bipeds will eat virtually anything edible, including meat. Unlike, for example, koala bears, who have evolved to only eat Eucalyptus leaves. Our meat-tearing incisor teeth—smaller but with the same function as that of, say, lions and tigers—seems clear evidence of our in-born carnivorousness.

An argument therefore can be made that since we are literally born to chew meat, that to deny that instinct would be more sentimental than rational.

But, naturally, not everybody agrees, such as PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), whose members believe animals should have the same personal sovereignty rights as people, including the right to not be murdered, even for food.

That’s not the real world, however, where humans widely condone such industrial-scale killing, to which the bulging selection of meats attests in grocery stores throughout the United States and the world.

As I read a fascinating book by Dave Grossman—On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society—I’m thinking more broadly at the moment about the moral and ethical quicksand that killing inhabits.

Killing in war is Grossman’s primary focus. A longtime soldier, military officer, and psychologist, Grossman, like Leo Tolstoy, author of the classic novel War and Peace, is more interested in the psychology than strategies of warfare. A Tolstoy quote opens the book’s “Acknowledgments” section:

War has always interested me; not war in the sense of maneuvers devised by great generals … but the reality of war, the actual killing. I was more interested to know in what way and under the influence of what feelings one soldier kills another than to know how the armies were arranged at Austerlitz and Borodino.

Why don’t many soldiers fire their weapons?

One of the surprises Grossman discovered in researching On Killing was “a reassuring conclusion about the nature of man”—that “despite an unbroken tradition of violence and war, man is not by nature a killer.” While interviewing many World War II veterans, including retired Col. Albert J. Brown, he found that a high percentage of them purposely “never fired their weapons.”

Regarding Brown, he wrote:

As an infantry platoon leader and company commander in World War II, (Col. Brown) observed that, “Squad leaders and platoon sergeants had to move up and down the firing line kicking men to get them to fire. We felt like we were doing good to get two or three men out of a squad to fire.”

A study by S.L.A. Marshall of US soldiers’ firing rates in World War II noted “extraordinarily low killing rates among Napoleonic and American Civil War regiments,” and that “the vast majority of combatants throughout history, at the moment of truth when they could and should kill the enemy, have found themselves unable to kill.”

Many soldiers even balked, counterintuitively, when their own lives were immediately in danger, Marshall found.

Read: A dead World War I hero’s poem deconstructs ‘glory’ of war

The result of Marshall’s post-Korean War theory that different training was required to increase the firing rates of US soldiers—and, thus, enemy kill rates—new firearms instruction was developed with “realistic” scenarios that “include[d] stress, decision-making, and shoot-don’t shoot training.”

Why do human beings feel that the wholesale slaughter of non-human animals is justified, even appropriate, while simultaneously feeling that killing members of our own species generally isn’t?

Such training appeared to come to fruition in the Vietnam War when “extraordinarily consistent high firing rates” became the norm, Grossman emphasized.

Grossman is not a proponent of high fire and kill rates—ironic, considering his decades in the military—but of a more morally and ethically justified killing.

He bristles at the reality of appalling wartime atrocities throughout history, the role of violent video games in conditioning violent behavior in youth, the general ignorance that abounds about what killing truly requires and unleashes, what its enduring consequences are to everyone involved, and how such behavior should be controlled.

Human reluctance to attack humans is inborn

Grossman points out that human reluctance to attack fellow members of Homo sapiens is natural. In nature, he stresses, intraspecies violence is rare—intimidating posturing rather than fighting is more the norm—while interspecies violence can be gratuitous and wanton.

To that point, Austrian zoologist Conrad Lorenz, author of the seminal On Aggression (1963), has explained that “piranhas and rattlesnakes will bite anything and everything, but among themselves piranhas fight with raps of their tails, and rattlesnakes wrestle,” Grossman notes.

As is evident, killing—in war or peace—is complicated for human beings. However, with the right training, mindset and motivation, people are the deadliest of creatures. For example, during World War II, Allied forces firebombed Japanese cities, killing tens of thousands of civilians in a single raid. Then, the war ended with two epoch-making, horribly lethal atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Wrote Newsweek in a 2020 article:

In Hiroshima, on August 6, around 80,000 people were killed immediately when the bomb was dropped. In Nagasaki, on August 9, around 40,000 people were killed instantly. Tens of thousands of others died in the aftermath, of radiation poisoning and their injuries.

US civilian and military leadership justified the attack by arguing that an estimated one million American soldiers would have died if an invasion of the Japanese islands were necessary. Days after Nagasaki, the Japanese capitulated.

How is slaughtering cows different than killing people?

Still, this doesn’t answer the question of whether the human killing of animals for food—sport shooting for trophies and bragging rights is another question entirely—is morally and ethically justified.

Just because our human brains have evolved to the point where we, unique among all species, can even comprehend a potential moral dimension to killing, does that require us to, so to speak, deny our birthright of carnivory? To swear off Thanksgiving turkey, filet mignon, and ribeye steak?

It’s a philosophical question, as is whether war, which is always attended by atrocity and horror, is always immoral except in cases of direct self-defense.

But, unique among primates (humans, monkeys, gorillas, etc.), we humans have the capacity to feel a visceral sense of injustice, feel the pain, as it were, when, for instance, we watch a little goat being arbitrarily slaughtered for a feast.

We feel that whether or not such a killing is fundamentally any more unjust than a lion dragging down a wildebeest to feed its pride.

After all, isn’t nature, as the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson immortalized it, always “red in tooth and claw”?

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...