I believe the vast majority of human beings have always been morally uncomfortable with the idea and concept of killing, increasing with the perceived similarity to humans, and to some extent, the size and complexity of the animal being killed. Many people are undisturbed by killing a fly, but would not want to kill a dog, horse or monkey, let alone a human being. Every individual and all societies and cultures have to decide where to draw the line and some realise that this line is arbitrary and attempt to remove all killing if possible – even killing of plants for frugivores. And yet cultures that will lock a citizen up for life or (ironically in my opinion) dish out the death penalty for murder, will quite willingly endorse and sanction killing of ‘the other’, ‘the enemy’, ‘the perceived threat’ in a war situation. However, the fact remains, soldiers are human beings and, with very few exceptions (namely psychopaths), human beings are blessed with the characteristic known as empathy. This means that soldiers too are naturally averse to killing. The ways around this are, denial and manipulation of emotion (especially stirring up feelings of hurt, violation, anger, vengeance and retribution, along with kinship, patriotism and service), exaggeration of the ‘otherness’ of the enemy, justification (emotional and rational), shared responsibility, desensitisation, distancing from the act and the most powerful of all, sanction from the gods.
The same is true of meat. Many people happily eat meat, but would not be willing or able to kill an animal to eat themselves – some could kill shellfish or even fish (no arms or legs), maybe a bird, but a mammal, a lamb, a cow??? The same techniques apply. Many people avoid thinking about it and are in complete denial about the emotional aspect, or the fact that an animal has been killed to enable them to enjoy a steak. The emotions are blocked and they become desensitised to it, and again, we see the exaggeration of otherness. Animals may not think and communicate like us, but I believe they feel exactly like us; that is to say they share an identical emotional life with us, the same fears, desires, loss, grieving, suffering and pleasures. Responsibility is shared (everybody eats meat, so I can too), and in a similar way, people justify it rationally to solve it morally – arguments such as ‘all our grazing animals would die out if people stopped eating meat’, or ‘our grasslands need grazing to preserve the habitat’. These arguments for some, solve the issue morally, but do not solve it emotionally. When faced with killing for a meal, in the society I live in, most people would be horrified. This is why individuals in more traditional societies – hunter-gatherers especially, make offerings, rituals and prayers when they kill an animal. They recognise that the necessity of taking a life to prolong their own lives goes against the creation and causes suffering to the animal and its kin; they accept responsibility for this and in effect, apologise, ask forgiveness and give thanks. Above all, they recognise they are taking a life. However, in rich, modern countries, meat is mostly a commodity, a product raised for profit, no different to a microchip or a toy car. The only way people can accept it emotionally is by not recognising it as an animal whose life has been taken at all. This is enabled by the abattoir and the supermarket, where neatly butchered and dissected animals are packaged up in sterile plastic covers with all the blood washed away. This is the distancing from the act, the same as we see in the continuing history of warfare. Battles were once fought with clubs and sticks, then swords – all hand to hand. Distance increased with bows and arrows, then guns, then bigger guns and tanks, bombs and air strikes and now, almost perfectly it would seem, unmanned drones controlled remotely thousands of miles away. The net effect is that killing gets easier and I think that is a very dangerous situation to be in.
But the most powerful, especially to people without all this modern arsenal, where killing is still difficult, remains divine sanction. Just as Abraham was willing to sacrifice his own son for his God, animals are still sacrificed today and many thousands of thinking, feeling, empathic human beings will kill in the name of religion. In its extreme form, this is exemplified by the suicide bomber who knows, in some circles he or she will be almost sanctified on Earth, and also, s/he believes, deified in Heaven.