Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Slaughter for Hire

April 26, 2015 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicists, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is my take on today’s post, ”Slaughter for Hire” (The New York Times Magazine seems to be doing a special issue this weekend without an Ethicist column so I’m pulling up an old one, from May 30, 2014.)


I have recently been worrying about eating meat, but not for health, religious or even environmental reasons. I worry about whether it is ethical for another reason: Could I kill an animal myself? And eat it? Would I have the “stomach” to do that? If the answer is yes, then I am paying for the service out of convenience. But if the answer is no, then am I a hypocrite for paying someone else to do my “dirty work”? Is it ethical to pay someone else to kill an animal because I can’t, or don’t want to know what’s involved? M. R., NORTH CAROLINA

My response:  Oh brother. It seems I picked a column with at least one juvenile question.

You’re asking the ethics of what you eat. Only you can figure out what rules you follow or not. First you write your rule, then you ask someone else to interpret it for you. If you want answers about applying your rules to your behavior, only you can figure them out for yourself. Yes, that’s a struggle, but how else do you find out your values? No one else can tell you your values.

I call the question juvenile because the reader is asking someone else to tell them their ethics, like a child might ask their parents, without figuring it out for themselves. Only the reader can answer.

The New York Times response: There are obviously a lot of people who believe that eating animal flesh is inherently immoral, and they will cite your discomfort with killing the same creature you’d like to consume as proof that — deep inside your subconscious — you share the same opinion. I do not doubt that the percentage of vegetarians in the United States would drastically increase if we could eat only the animals we slaughtered personally. But the ethics of this are complicated by the difference between not wanting to do something because we think it’s wrong and not wanting to do something because we think it’s difficult. Certain people could never draw their own blood or inject themselves with a syringe, even if a gun was pointed at their head. This does not mean they are ethically ineligible to have such acts performed by someone else.

The question really comes down to this: Is it the process of killing animals that bothers you, or the very idea?

Let’s imagine that everything about the killing of animals for meat was indeed a personal responsibility, but a highly automated and efficient process. You would watch a healthy heifer stroll into a metal box, you’d push a single button on the machine’s exterior face and the animal inside would be instantly killed and sliced into steaks. You would undeniably be the executioner, but the act would be easy and devoid of visible gore. Would this bother you? If the answer is still yes, you probably shouldn’t be eating meat. You are clearly unable to confront the reality of what’s happening in this transaction. If, however, this is an act you could easily perform, there is no problem with your current relationship to meat; as far as you’re concerned, this hypothetical is (more or less) what’s happening already.

So as an experiment, try this: Watch videos of cows on YouTube for 10 minutes. After that, spend another 10 minutes reading expository, nonpolitical articles about cattle-slaughtering practices in North America. If you still want a burger after those 20 minutes, you no longer have to worry about this problem. You are not a hypocrite. You’re merely squeamish.


I am a young, female law student who represents indigent clients in criminal matters. I have learned (both from professionals at my school and from studies on subliminal biases) that female attorneys are more likely to be taken seriously if they have straight hair and wear makeup, skirts and heels. This is not a norm I want to perpetuate. However, I know that I have an ethical responsibility to represent my clients to the best of my ability. But do I have to conform to gender norms I find oppressive if there is a chance it will help my client? NAME WITHHELD

My response: Your premise seems tenuous. You “have learned” something. Can you quantify the effect? If it’s a minuscule effect, like it affects 0.01% of the population and changes how seriously they take female attorneys 0.01%, it may be detectable but negligible. If it affects 95% of the population and changes their impressions 95%, you might consider it necessary to avoid losing cases. How do you quantify how seriously someone takes you anyway? Was there an experiment? Was it reproducible? Was it in a lab or in the field? What external factors did it depend on?

Since you just heard this stuff, you probably don’t know. I’d wager no one has quantified the effect and even if they did, I’m wager again that they didn’t consider how that effect interacts with others. What if you’re more comfortable styled otherwise and your comfort affects your performance? What if they are taken more seriously but also ruled against more? How many other variables are at play and how do they affect how well you represent your client?

My point is that you’re talking about one effect among myriad. It seems to me negligible compared to what law school taught you in your classroom.

If you want to cover yourself professionally, I’m sure there are professional associations for ethics for lawyers who could do so.

The New York Times response: I would agree that you have an ethical responsibility to represent your clients to the fullest extent of your potential. But there are limits to what you are obligated to do, and this situation falls right on the cusp of that territory.

The fact that a lawyer’s attire should not matter to an intelligent jury is not relevant — you concede that it does, rightly or wrongly. But I don’t think this necessarily means you must dress in any specific way. “Serious attire” can mean different things to different people. Obviously, it would not serve your clients’ interests if you purposefully dressed in a manner that upended traditional definitions of professionalism — if you showed up in the courtroom wearing a “Frankie Says Relax” T-shirt and hemp pants, you’d force the jury to view you unconventionally (which is what you’re trying to avoid). But there are many shades between not caring at all and wholly conforming to an inflexible dress code. You do not, for example, need to wear makeup, particularly if doing so makes you uncomfortable with yourself (which might hurt your client far more than appearing as your regular self). You’re ethically responsible to present yourself professionally, but the details that define that professionalism are myriad.

That said, I do think you need to prioritize your goals here. What is more important to you: the representation of your client or your discomfort with antiquated gender norms? Almost all occupations require the mild subjugation of certain personal freedoms. If you believe that dressing in a specific manner would serve your client most effectively, your reasons for not doing so must matter more than the consequences of possibly losing a case for reasons unrelated to actual evidence.

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