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Is ‘Christian Agrarianism’ Thoroughly Compassionate? Is ‘Humane Slaughter’ an Oxymoron?

Nicolette Hahn Niman argues in her recent book, Righteous Porkchop, that it’s acceptable to raise animals for food as long as they are treated humanely and killed quickly. She assures consumers that the animals at the ranch that she manages with her husband, Bill Niman, have a “good life and an easy death.”1 Similarly, meat industry advertisers are doing all they can lately to assure consumers that “grass-fed beef” and “happy cows” are the antidote to any guilt they may be feeling about their dietary choices. 

There is also a movement afoot, which some have called ‘Christian Agrarianism’, that seeks to establish smaller, family-owned farms that avoid the environmental toll and health hazards of large-scale operations, as well as the costs of transporting animal products over long distances. Farmers who pursue this model have been variously dubbed “conscientious carnivores” or  “locavores.” Joel Salatin’s farm is a case in point. His Polyface Farms website describes it as follows:

“Today the farm arguably represents America’s premier non-industrial food production oasis. Believing that the Creator’s design is still the best pattern for the biological world, the Salatin family invites like-minded folks to join in the farm’s mission: to develop emotionally, economically, environmentally enhancing agricultural enterprises and facilitate their duplication throughout the world. The Salatins continue to refine their models to push environmentally-friendly farming practices toward new levels of expertise.”2

I’m among the many who applaud what Joel Salatin is doing for the sake of healthy food production, environmental integrity, and the welfare of farmed animals while they’re alive. However, there is a basic issue or ethical “disconnect” in Salatin’s rationale that he has not adequately addressed: the apparent inconsistency of urging “humane treatment” of animals on the one hand, while continuing to slaughter and consume them on the other. If treating creatures ‘humanely’ means at least ‘avoiding harm or cruelty’ toward them, it raises the question whether killing animals can ever properly be called a harmless or cruelty-free act—in short, whether ‘humane slaughter’ is an oxymoron. In other words, isn’t killing by definition an inhumane act? In the context of animal farming, are not compassion and killing in principle irreconcilable? 

The anticruelty tradition has been a powerful force in shaping our moral and legal codes since the early nineteenth century. The predominant attitude regarding animal interests today is that what animals require for an enjoyable, satisfying life (e.g., freedom to roam, freedom from pain, and life itself) may be routinely sacrificed in the pursuit of human happiness, provided the animals are not treated sadistically and are spared suffering that can be conveniently and economically avoided. Thus, the anticruelty-to-animals tradition continues to consider and treat animals fundamentally as resources for human consumption, limiting moral concern to the humane handling and processing of those “resources.”

“Liberating” animals refers to putting an end to the routine sacrifice of animal interests for human benefit, even where the sacrifice is executed humanely. As a key advocate for the movement, philosopher Tom Regan argues for what he calls a “direct duty” or ”nonconsequentialist” view of moral rights, according to which all “subjects of a life” deserve equal respect in virtue of their “inherent value.” Thus, even if talk of “liberating” animals and extending moral “rights” to them cannot plausibly refer to changing animals’ attitudes toward themselves, it can and does plausibly refer to changing our attitude toward animals from seeing them as instruments or resources for our use to seeing them as fellow beings, whose interest in an enjoyable, satisfying life must be respected and protected in the same way that basic human interests are respected and protected. 

The contrast between ‘anticruelty’ and ‘liberation’ echoes the current debate between “welfarism” and “abolitionism” in animal ethics. Basically, welfarist farmers, who argue for more “humane” treatment of animals, support improving the conditions under which they are raised (free-range exercise, natural nursing, natural diets, etc.). Abolitionists argue that, while improving the conditions of raising animals is a step in the right direction, it ignores the paradox of the ultimate goal of “animal agriculture” (itself a misnomer), which is to end their lives. In other words, while both agree that conditions of treatment ought to be harmless or “natural”, the welfarists who continue to slaughter and consume animals fail to treat them with unconditional respect—that is, as if their lives were intrinsically valuable—as “ends rather than means”, to use Immanuel Kant’s terminology. This is tantamount to asking not merely “Ought we to raise them humanely?”, but “Ought we to kill them at all?”

As a Christianity Today article notes, “Every year on his 550-acre farm, 450 acres of which is wooded, Joel Salatin produces 40,000 pounds of beef, 30,000 pounds of pork, 10,000 broiler chickens, 1,200 turkeys, 1,000 rabbits, and 35,000 dozen eggs. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan says the land, despite being used so intensely, ‘will be in no way diminished by the process—in fact it will be the better for it’.”3 However, one has to wonder whether the Salatins’ professed economic goal “to refine their models to push environmentally-friendly farming practices toward new levels of expertise” could not devolve into a mere quest for ‘new levels of efficiency.’

‘Locavore’ farmers, like Joel Salatin, typically try to justify their practice by arguing that ‘animals are necessary to sustainable food’—by which they mean something like “their poop is good for the soil.” I won’t take the space here to fully critique that argument—although, for starters, they need to confront the following problems: (a) Concentrated animal feeding operations—even those that distribute locally—result in quantities of manure that may overload the surrounding environment and pollute the water table; (b) Raising “livestock” for consumption generally is less efficient than growing crops, since it takes about 700 calories worth of feed to produce just 100 calories of edible beef; (c) “Sustainable” animals may actually be less eco-friendly than those raised conventionally, since they take longer to raise and eat more feed; and (d) The “locavore” model can never be universalized, since there is not enough arable land in the entire world to raise enough pasture-fed animals to meet the world’s current demand for meat.4

However, even if raising a few farm animals produces good fertilizer, that doesn’t justify killing the animals (since they poop only when they’re alive). If the land were becoming polluted and overgrazed, one should simply raise fewer animals. What locavores fail to address are three important ethical questions: (1) If farm animals deserve to be treated humanely because they are sentient creatures with whom we can empathize, how can we “gracefully” or “lovingly” kill them once we have grown emotionally attached to them? (2) Are farm animals just “renewable resources” that can be consumed as long as we make their deaths painless (through lethal gas or injection) and breed more of them? This rationale echoes Peter Singer’s ‘replaceability’ argument. (3) If preborn humans deserve protection (against abortion) because they have ‘sanctity’ and a potential future, why don’t other preborn mammals deserve similar protection?

I have yet to hear Joel Salatin or any other pro-life commentator offer a coherent answer to these questions without reducing animals to mere instruments for a human agenda (like that of raising “healthy meat”), which reflects a view of nature that is both anthropocentric and utilitarian—not theocentric and deontological. One might even ask whether Christian agrarians (and “trophy” hunters) are not really ethical Darwinists, insofar as they tacitly reason that ‘in nature, animals prey on each other; humans are ‘natural’ beings; therefore we are justified in preying on them.’ As many authors have pointed out, appeals to what is “natural” have been used to rationalize all sorts of abusive institutions—including racism and slavery, sexism and patriarchy. In an interview with senior editor Madeline Ostrander, Salatin argued: 

“It is a profound spiritual truth that you cannot have life without death. When you chomp down on a carrot and masticate it in your mouth, that carrot is being sacrificed in order for you to have life. Everything on the planet is eating and being eaten. If you don’t believe it, just lie naked in your flower bed for three days and see what gets eaten. That sacrifice is what feeds regeneration. In our very antiseptic culture today, people don’t have a visceral understanding of life and death.”5 

It is true that predation is common in nature, and some people may lack a “visceral understanding of life and death.” But clearly, there is a fundamental weakness in Salatins’ argument: A carrot is not a sentient animal, and humans are able to raise animals for manure without consuming them as an inefficient source of protein. 

To be sure, Salatin’s approach to animal husbandry is not without merit. When asked about his feelings of responsibility to the animals he raises on Polyface Farm, Salatin replied:

Our first responsibility is to try to figure out what kind of a habitat allows them to fully express their physiological distinctiveness. The cow doesn’t eat corn; she doesn’t eat dead cows; she doesn’t eat cow manure, which is what is currently being fed to cows in the industrial food system. We feed cows grass, and that honors and respects the cow-ness of the cow. Chickens—their beaks are not there for us to cut off, as industrial operations do. Their beaks are there for them to scratch and to hunt for insects. So we raise them out on pasture, in protected enclosures, in a free environment, so they can be birds. We look at nature and say, “How do these animals live?” And we imitate that template.6

However, notwithstanding such positive departures from the industrial model, there is reason to doubt whether Salatin fully accommodates the natural life-cycle of farmed animals or appreciates their desire to live. When asked by Michael Pollan how he could bring himself to kill a chicken, Salatin replied, “That’s an easy one. People have a soul, animals don’t;… Animals are not created in God’s image. So when they die, they just die.”7 His straightforward assertion that animals don’t have souls is too simplistic even from a biblical perspective, since the Hebrew scriptures attribute nephesh or ‘soul’ to animals as well as humans, and both share the same breath or spirit, ruach, and perhaps the same destiny.8 (Moreover, even if it is true that, unlike people, animals “just die,” that would seem to support an argument that human death is less tragic than animal death, because humans enjoy a continuity that animals lack.) His willingness, when hosting children age 8 to 11, to “give them a knife and let them slice some throats”9 probably just furthers the desensitization those children have already acquired from their families of origin, where domination and consumption of animals is customary. Lastly, Salatin’s opposition to Proposition 2, an initiative sponsored by the American Humane Society to outlaw the worst abuses of factory farming, is disturbing. As Vasile Stanescu notes, “While Prop 2 initiatives are themselves controversial within the animal rights community, since they result in larger cages instead of no cages, Salatin’s critique is not that they do not go far enough. Instead his claim is that people should be able to, legally, do whatever they want with farm animals.”10

The key ethical question for animal husbandry is whether the concept of being ‘humane’ and ‘compassionate’ should apply only to methods of rearing and containment (“handling and processing”) prior to their slaughter, or should entail honoring the natural longevity of sentient mammals who don’t differ in morally relevant ways from the “pets” we treat like family members. No one really knows whether a wildebeast about to be eaten by lions or a crocodile thinks conceptually about life and death, or simply flees in fear of being eaten. For that matter, it is doubtful that a human infant thinks conceptually, either! But whether we are talking about wildebeasts or infants, the sentience criterion (“Can they suffer?”, as Jeremy Bentham put it) is sufficient to consider them moral “patients.” There is no doubt that wildebeasts, cows, pigs, chickens and the like suffer. Farm animals may not be reflexive in the way that humans are. They may not share our sense of justice or moral culpability—but neither do pets or infants. So to end their lives arbitrarily and prematurely for our profit or gustatory pleasure seems no more defensible than to end the lives of cats, dogs, and infants who have a potential future. Notwithstanding conflicts of interest, ethical normativity must be founded on some principle of unconditional respect for the lives of all creatures. 

I recognize that there will be compromises and exceptions to the ideal position vegetarians advocate. If I lived in a polar region or any other region inhospitable to growing my food, I would have to kill my food. I do not fault that (unlike “trophy” hunting, which is stroking one’s ego)—although agriculture is an option in most modern industrial countries. Hunter-gatherer practices have a long history, especially among nomadic tribes. But contemporary culture seems blind to the incongruity between “animal compassion” and the horrors of CAFOs and the slaughterhouse, which annihilate mammals that do not differ from our beloved dogs and cats in any morally relevant way. In principle, I see no non-arbitrary way to maintain a categorical distinction between ‘companion animals’ and ‘cuisine animals’ without showing morally relevant differences that would justify different treatment. (Enter the Argument from Marginal Cases, or the Argument from Species Overlap)

Those who were reared on a meat-based diet act as if domestic dogs and cats morally count, whereas farm animals (chickens, pigs, cows, calves, sheep, and the llike) don’t, or at least not nearly as much. But is there any reasonable ground for this presumption? Professor Alastair Norcross at Rice University argues that this presumption is untenable:

“So, what gives puppies a higher moral status than the animals we eat? Presumably there is some morally relevant property or properties possessed by puppies but not by farm animals. Perhaps puppies have a greater degree of rationality than farm animals, or a more finely developed moral sense, or at least a sense of loyalty and devotion. The problems with this kind of approach are obvious. It’s highly unlikely that any property that has even an outside chance of being ethically relevant is both possessed by puppies and not possessed by any farm animals. For example, it’s probably true that most puppies have a greater degree of rationality (whatever that means) than most chickens, but the comparison with pigs is far more dubious…. This is, of course, simply the puppy version of the problem of marginal cases…. The human version is no less relevant. If their lack of certain degrees of rationality, moral sensibility, loyalty, devotion, and the like makes it permissible to torture farm animals for our gustatory pleasure, it should be permissible to do the same to those unfortunate humans who also lack those properties. Since the latter behavior isn’t permissible, the lack of such properties doesn’t justify the former behavior.”11

Although well-meaning Christians stand on both sides of this ‘omnivore’ debate, I think we need to continue serious dialogue on these issues and reassess our relation to other creatures on this planet so that we may properly respect their lives and habitats. With few exceptions, the church has not taken a vegetarian turn in history. Regrettably, it has followed the dominant culture in which productivity and efficiency are the values and watchwords of the day, which in turn has led to ever increasing “economies of scale” and the “processing” of animals (like material commodities and resources) for maximum “output.” Ironically, a meat-based diet has turned out to be less healthy, more polluting, and less efficient (in terms of yield-per-acre) than a plant-based diet. Except for unalterable health factors (high fat, high cholesterol, low fibre), pollution and land-use problems can be mitigated by small-scale farming; but changes in scale alone do not address the ethical question of whether systematic slaughtering for human consumption is justified. Surely good “stewardship” of our bodies and the resources around us will entail some consideration of what we consume, not just how much we consume.

In summary, I applaud what Joel Salatin is doing for local, smaller scale farming. However, my objection to “responsible animal agriculture” is that, given the end result (death), Salatin’s goal is really the production and sale of “healthy meat”—not mercy for animals. Rhetorically, recommending that family-owned farms “slaughter humanely” makes less sense than advising alcoholics to “drink responsibly” or casino addicts to “gamble responsibly.”12



1. Nicolette Hahn Niman, Righteous Porkchop (New York: Harper Collins, 2009).


3. Christianity Today,

4. See Vasile Stanescu’s essay, “Green” Eggs and Ham? The Myth of Sustainable Meat and the Danger of the Local, in Journal of Critical Animal Studies, Vol VIII issue I/II (2010), pp. 8–29.

5. “Should We Eat Animals?” An interview with Foodie Farmer Joel Salatin, by Madeline Ostrander, in YES! Magazine (Spring 2011), pp. 24–27. Also available online as “Joel Salatin: How to Eat Animals and Respect Them, Too” (March 27, 2011) at:

6. “Should We Eat Animals?”, loc. cit.

7. Genesis 1:20, 21, 24, 30, 2:19, 9:4–5, 10, 12, 15; Leviticus 24:18; Job 12:10; Proverbs 12:10. See also Psalm 36:6, Eccl. 3:18–21, and New Testament references to the redemption of all creation, Romans 8:18–21, Ephesians 1:10, Colossians 1:20.

8. Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (New York: Penguin Press, 2008), p. 331.

9. “Annie Corrigan, Joel Salatin and Polyface Farm: Stewards of Creation” in EarthEats (March 26, 2010).

10. Stanescu, op. cit., p. 28.

11. Alastair Norcross, “Puppies, Pigs, and People: Eating Meat and Marginal Cases” (a paper presented at the APA conference in Pasadena, 2004).

12. I am not implying here that telling someone to ‘drink responsibly’ or ‘gamble responsibly’ makes no sense, but that telling farmers to ‘slaughter humanely’ makes less sense insofar as it seems contradictory.

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Comment by Paul Hansen on January 27, 2012 at 5:33

Actually, Tim, when I mentioned ‘order and purpose in the cosmos’, I was not referring to the purpose that individualshave for their lives, but the belief that conscious individuals are the RESULT of a cosmic purpose, whence their intrinsic value derives. Martin Heidegger once wrote, “Consciousness is not [just] a faculty that Man has; it is a happening that has Man.” (Make that gender-neutral, if you wish.) Furthermore, there are actually good philosophical and scientific arguments why a theistic worldview better explains known phenomena than a naturalistic worldview (where ‘naturalistic’ is understood to mean materialistic, physicalistic, and purposeless). I won’t elaborate here. 

Comment by Tim Gier on January 26, 2012 at 0:33

Thanks for your response Paul.

Myself, I do take a naturalistic view of the world, and think it's not likely that purpose is somehow given to conscious beings from outside. I believe that beings aren't created, not in the same way that an artifact is created: to serve some use or function designed into them from someone or something else. At the same time, I do not believe that consciousness arises simply as a result of the process of efficient causation either. We conscious beings have a purpose, but it is the one we give to ourselves, as the creators of our own lives. This is, as you say, something that volumes could be written about (and, indeed, have!).

I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on this and other topics. Thanks for contributing them here.

Comment by Paul Hansen on January 25, 2012 at 13:54

(2) In paragraphs two and three, you venture into questions about meta-ethics, or the ultimate “ground” or “foundation” for moral obligation—questions about how we “justify” obligations to people in general or animals in particular. This is a huge and very interesting query, about which debates over ‘moral realism’ have been spun and many books written. So rather than address it here in a short blog response, I would prefer to do so in a separate paper.

However, I will give you a brief “hint” as to what direction my response might take. 

While I would differ with your suggestion that ethical relativism or subjectivism or emotivism defeats moral objectivity (a claim which itself requires another paper), I think you are correct about there being “no compelling, rational basis” for arguing that we have duties to animals. BUT, I think that pessimistic conclusion obtains only for those who subscribe to a naturalistic worldview, which is utilitarian, physicalistic and atheistic—i.e., an ontology that recognizes only “matter” and efficient causation but not order and purpose in the cosmos. In my view, humans and animals are not valuable because they have “rights”, but should be accorded rights (against harm and abuse) because they are valuable. “Rights”—in any sense that is irrevocable or “inalienable”, not merely contractual—can only be defended for creatures who have intrinsic value—not mere instrumental value; and intrinsic value, in turn, must be conferred or derived from some source or subject other than the creature. Absent an ontology that countenances intrinsic value, duty, and purpose (telos), we are left with an ethics that is at best contractual—which robs paternalism of its moral foundation.

I'll offer a longer response in a separate post, which I will probably give the title, “The Paradox of Paternalism: A Dilemma for Naturalism.”

Comment by Paul Hansen on January 25, 2012 at 13:52

Tim, thanks for your query & comments, most of which have little directly to do with the issue I was addressing in my essay—the apparent inconsistency in the ‘welfarist’ position, which urges “humane treatment” of animals on the one hand, while continuing to slaughter and consume them on the other.

However, the questions you raised are very significant. In attempting to respond to them, let me try to restate them somewhat to see if I understand you correctly.

(1) In paragraph one, you seem to be alluding to the possibility that, while humans may value animals (for various reasons), the animals themselves may not actively “take an interest” in the future continuity of their life, or in avoiding harm and death. Some have argued that, while “having an interest” (in avoiding harm and death) in the passive sense is sufficient to accord animals moral patienthood, only “taking an interest” in the active sense would warrant ascribing moral agency or reflexivity to them. Some anthropocentrists use this as a reason to affirm “dignity” or “sanctity” to humans, but deny it to nonhumans. I disagree with them. 

However, I think it is reasonable to conclude—empirically—that humans seem to be the only species on the planet that “does ethics” and has a rational sense of JUSTICE or fair play (i.e., is able to give reasons why certain behavior is right orwrong). Nicholas Wolterstorff, for instance, suggests that, while animals (at least the larger mammals, like wildebeasts) obviously feel pain and fear being harmed, they cannot feel offended or wronged. Thus, we attribute moral praise and blame only to human behavior—not to predatory behavior in the wild, however “vicious” it appears.

Empirically, no one really knows whether a wildebeast about to be eaten by lions or a crocodile thinks about “life and death,” or simply flees in fear of being eaten. For that matter, it is doubtful that a human infant thinks about it, either! But whether we’re talking about wildebeasts or infants, the sentience criterion (“Can they suffer?”, as Bentham put it) is sufficient to consider them moral “patients.” There is no doubt that wildebeasts, cows, pigs, chickens and the like suffer; but we are not so sure about the “lower” animals, such as insects, echinoderms, mollusks, and bacteria.

Comment by Tim Gier on January 23, 2012 at 0:59

Isn't it the case that one can hold the view that how others live is of necessary importance while not granting that they have any interest in life itself? That is, isn't the essential question, which seems to be not resolvable on empirical grounds, a question of which other animals suffer a harm in death?

I am, as one might imagine, quite sympathetic to the view that most other animals do suffer harm in death, and that they therefore ought not to be killed unnecessarily (and virtually all of the killing of other animals happening now is unnecessary.) Unfortunately, I've yet to discover a compelling and rigorously developed philosophical argument that answers this question decisively. Perhaps it cannot be answered. If that is the case, and I think it is, then what does that mean for the future of animals' rights (if that's even the correct term)? 

I believe it is the case that most people act morally most of the time (towards other people, on the interpersonal level at least) despite the fact that there is no one ethical system on which all people agree, or indeed, even that which each person recognizes and acts consistently on the basis of themselves. What I believe most people do most of the time is act in ways that "feel right" to them, as a result of their socialization and in accordance with vague principles concerning what is good. I also believe that if most people thought deeply about their own ethical beliefs they'd be very surprised to find the number of contradictions and incongruities they live with, in all areas of their lives, not just when it comes to how they regard other animals. This is not a condemnation of how most people approach questions of ethics (although I do think most people ought to study ethics and the history of ethical thought). Rather, it is to say that there is something about ethical inquiry itself that is lacking, and that as long as we leave matters of what is good to be decided by individuals according to their ethical beliefs, the "animal question" will remain unanswered.

Thanks for this post. 


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