The Dilemma of Humane Execution and Humane Slaughter


At the end of April, Clayton Lockett was led to the room where he was scheduled to be executed by the State of Oklahoma. There were witnesses in attendance, and sedatives were injected to precede the chemicals that would bring about the death of the condemned. But something went wrong. Though it had already been announced that he was unconscious, Lockett plainly regained consciousness (or had never lost it) when he began writhing and trying to speak after the lethal portion of the injection was initiated, at one point yelling “man!”

The blinds were soon closed, so that witnesses could no longer watch what was happening to Lockett, and the execution was stopped. Shortly thereafter, Lockett died of a heart attack. Though Texas Governor Rick Perry said he was not sure that what had occurred was “inhumane,” the consensus appears to be that this botched execution was indeed inhumane and shockingly so.

The slaughter of nonhuman animals for human use as food represents another area in which the words “humane” and “killing” regularly appear together in the same sentences. In the context of animal slaughter, federal law requires that, with an exception for religious slaughter, large mammals such as cows, pigs, and sheep be stunned prior to slaughter. By its terms, this law does not apply to the vast majority of animals slaughtered for human consumption in the flesh and egg industries—birds and fishes. But the reality of actual slaughterhouses is that even the “protected” large mammals often have their throats cut while they are still conscious, and many remain conscious when the ripping and boiling of their bodies begins. Most people (those who experience empathy for nonhuman animals) would agree that being stabbed in the throat, skinned , and boiled alive, all while conscious, fall substantially short of “humane slaughter,” however it might be defined.

In this column, I will take up the notion of “humane” killing, in the context of the death penalty and the slaughter of animals. The notion in these two areas has features in common that make them useful subjects of study. There are differences, however, and these too are worth considering, both by advocates in debates over capital punishment and the consumption of animal products, and by those who observe these debates and wonder what position to take.

Is All “Humane Killing” Paradoxical?

At first (and perhaps even second) glance, the idea of humanely killing someone might seem like an oxymoron. What could be humane about taking someone’s life away from her, whether she is a human or a nonhuman animal? Humane killing is not, however, an entirely unfamiliar concept, even for those who categorically oppose the death penalty, the slaughter of animals, or—as an increasing number do—both unnecessary practices.

Consider two contexts in which the phrase “humane killing” would seem quite apt. First, in Oregon, Washington, and Vermont, humans who wish to take control over the timing and manner of their deaths have a limited right to do so with the help of a willing physician. Second, a family whose beloved animal companion, whether a dog, a cat, or a member of another species, is incurably sick and suffering tremendously, might make the difficult decision to end the life of the animal companion, with the help of a veterinarian, amid tears and heartfelt goodbyes. In these two contexts, physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia of a suffering nonhuman animal, there need be no contradiction between killing and humaneness, because the very purpose of providing the option of a painless death is to facilitate a humane alternative to “letting nature take its course.” At its best, providing a humane death for a suffering being is a way of honoring that being’s interests rather than of either aggressively or indifferently violating those interests.

Humane Execution

The death penalty, by contrast to euthanasia, has never been aimed primarily at easing the suffering of the condemned. The point of executing someone is to punish him or her for a putatively unforgivable violation of the moral rules that govern a social group. Historically (and currently, in some places), people have embraced capital punishment as a penalty for violent offenses like murder and rape as well as for religious offenses like adultery or blasphemy. The common thread in executions, whatever the crime, has been retribution: someone has done something that is perceived as an extremely grave offense (because of the crime itself, the manner in which it was carried out, and/or the particular victim or victims targeted), and the surrounding society wishes to impose its greatest penalty from which there is no return.

When a group imposes the death penalty publicly and soon after the crime, it is also more likely to serve as a deterrent to others who might consider engaging in conduct similar to that of the condemned. And if the execution is drawn out and painful, such as a stoning or a burning at the stake, then the retributive and deterrent effects of execution are both in evidence. Though execution also serves to “incapacitate” the criminal from further wrongdoing, that is arguably a third-place objective, given the ready alternative of incarceration for this purpose.

In the United States, however, the death penalty has evolved over time into something quite distinct from what it once was (and what it remains in some parts of the world). First, of those who commit crimes against the individual, only murderers may now be executed, because the Supreme Court has ruled that other crimes against the individual—including violent crimes such as rape and child molestation—are insufficiently serious to merit death as a matter of retributive proportionality. Where people used to be publicly executed, moreover, executions currently take place in private, usually inside a prison with a small number of approved witnesses, and in a manner intended to limit both the appearance and the actuality of suffering on the part of the condemned.

The main method of execution in the United States is now lethal injection, which is—at least potentially—a painless and low-drama method that puts the subject into a state of unconsciousness before ending his life. In addition, because the United States provides various (albeit constrained) opportunities for a convict to challenge a conviction and a death sentence on a number of grounds, the execution of the condemned ordinarily occurs long after the crime for which he or she is to be killed. These realities, of less drama, pain, and immediacy, inevitably reduce the deterrent effect of the penalty as well as the public symbolism and significance of any one execution. Ironically perhaps, it was the fact that Clayton Lockett’s execution did not go at all as planned—the fact that he did suffer greatly and that he died in a manner that was not prescribed by his sentence—that caught the attention of the populace and attracted charges of inhumanity.

The various ways in which the death penalty has evolved over time have resulted in an institution of capital punishment that contains some difficult contradictions. The primary contradiction lies in the fact that the objective of the penalty is to punish the condemned, to take something from him as part of rebalancing the scales of justice after what he took from his victim(s), but the method by which he is killed must, as a matter of the Eighth Amendment, minimize his suffering in the process of dying. In other words, he is to be killed as a means of imposing suffering for his crime, but he is to be killed in a manner that prevents him from suffering much during execution. Given what the death penalty is primarily aimed at doing, the concept of “humane execution” is a peculiar one, even if it is possible.

I say “even if it is possible” for a few reasons. First, in considering the suffering associated with the death penalty, it is artificial to think only about the suffering of the condemned during the actual killing process. The condemned knows for an extended period of time that he will at some future date be put to death by the state. This knowledge predictably generates tremendous anxiety and psychological distress in many inmates. In fact, Justice Stevens proposed in one opinion that the mental torment of a condemned anticipating execution for years on end might be sufficiently intense and protracted in some cases as to render the penalty, including the period leading up to the killing itself, a violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishments.”

In addition to the suffering involved in living on death row and in contemplating one’s planned demise during that time, there is also an unpredictability involved in executions that will occasionally yield a “botched” one, like what the state of Oklahoma encountered in April, and anticipation of that possibility can add to an inmate’s anxiety. Whatever method is used, human beings will carry it out and will sometimes make errors. To eliminate altogether the chance that the condemned will suffer during an execution would therefore require the abolition of executions.

Humane Slaughter

Unlike humane execution, the concept of “humane slaughter” has been with us for a very long time. Religiously prescribed methods of Kosher and Halal slaughter, for example, were originally designed at least in part to reduce the suffering that an animal endures in the process of being killed. Kosher slaughter requires the use of an extremely sharp blade with no nicks or irregularities in it, because a defective blade will add to the suffering of the animal who is slaughtered. And with the increased consumption of animal flesh and secretions over time, mass slaughter has become the norm and has motivated laws like the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (referenced earlier in this column), which is at least nominally aimed at making the mass killing of animals less painful for them.

Why is the concept of humane slaughter such a familiar one, by contrast to that of humane execution? It is likely because the main purpose behind slaughtering animals for use as food has never been to punish the animals for being bad, notwithstanding the bizarre ceremony in which the President of the United States “pardons” a few turkeys among the tens of millions subjected to slaughter every Thanksgiving. The fact that the farmed animals to be eaten and used happen to be alive and capable of suffering has typically proven a source of inconvenience for the people who have wished to produce and consume them, an inconvenience highlighted by the euphemisms that abound within the slaughter industry, such as “meat processing plant” for slaughterhouse and “harvesting” for killing. Unlike a punishment that is not supposed to hurt the one being punished, there is nothing inherently contradictory about wanting to kill an animal to consume her and her reproductive secretions, on the one hand, and wanting to prevent the animal from enduring much suffering, on the other.

Notwithstanding the lack of an inherent contradiction between wanting to kill someone for food and wanting the process to be painless, there are—as in the case of the death penalty—contradictions in reality, and those contradictions in the term “humane slaughter” have never been clearer than they are today.

Humans on this planet are currently demanding the deaths of over 55 billion land animals and even more aquatic animals every year, just to provide the flesh, dairy, and egg products that people choose to consume. These numbers leave to one side the animal deaths due to the chosen use of animals for clothing, experimentation, and entertainment. Consumption of animal-based food thus generates the slaughter of over 150 million land animals and even more aquatic animals every day. Most people who consume animals, moreover, delegate the act of slaughter to a relatively small number of “others”—generally the least educated, most economically disadvantaged, and most vulnerable people living in our society. This delegation necessitates kill lines at slaughterhouses that are extremely fast and that virtually never stop moving, even when very bad (even worse than normal) things are happening.

For a small window on what “humane slaughter” looks like in the United States, read Every Twelve Seconds, a book whose title refers to the frequency with which cows at the slaughterhouse in question have their lives taken from them. If human executions will predictably be botched on occasion when each human is executed singly, with several decently paid employees and with media witnesses in attendance, and where time is not of the essence, just imagine the rate of “botched” slaughters of animals being killed in a long line, with speed at a premium, by inadequately trained, overworked, and poorly paid employees whose conditions have led to citations of slaughterhouses for human rights violations. As Gail Eisnitz documented in her book, Slaughterhouse, workers become so frustrated and traumatized by their work that it is not unusual for them to turn on the animals there with rage and sadism and to torture them even beyond the pain and terror that is already part of being slaughtered.

Finally, the truly painless methods of killing an animal (human or nonhuman) are simply not feasible when the flesh of the animal must be preserved for human consumption: no one wants to have his or her meat or cheese contaminated with high doses of sedatives or pain killers, and such sedation could be prohibitively expensive as well. Thus the notion that the billions of animals slaughtered for consumption either are or even could be killed humanely is a fantasy, whatever people’s intentions might be and however loosely some might define the term “humane.”

A Further Contradiction in “Humane” Execution and Slaughter

As discussed above, wanting to make someone pay for his crime while simultaneously wanting to make sure that he pays without suffering much pain manifests an inherent tension, while having the goal of slaughtering over a hundred billion nonhuman animals annually while ensuring that their slaughter does not impose much suffering is, practically speaking, an impossibility. There is, however, a separate, philosophical reason for questioning the coherence of a regime of “humane” execution and “humane” slaughter: the concept of “humane” carries with it the idea that something bad may inevitably and necessarily be happening to someone, but we aim to minimize the harm entailed, given that we cannot protect them altogether from that harm.

Returning to the case of the very ill patient who wants to die, we—by hypothesis—cannot save this patient from the disease from which he is suffering; all we can do is reduce just how much he suffers, either by providing palliative care or—in the case of assisted suicide—by helping him end his life. We lack the option of protecting the terminal patient from death. When, by contrast, we have the option of protecting a patient but choose not to exercise it and instead allow the disease to run its course, we call that behavior not only inhumane but a human rights abuse, such as in the case of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments on African Americans that ran from 1932 to 1972.

As a society, however, to work at reducing or (futilely) at eliminating the suffering of people on death row and of animals on their way to slaughter, by contrast to providing palliative care for terminal patients, may be a suspect choice, when one can instead work to eliminate death row and slaughter altogether. It is, after all, not necessary to execute criminals (because there are other, much cheaper, options for punishing and deterring crime and protecting the public than execution), and it is not necessary to slaughter animals (because there are other, cheaper and far more healthful and planet-friendly options for satisfying our dietary needs and desires than the flesh and secretions of living beings). To choose to support humane execution and humane slaughter is therefore to take the position that even though the suffering in these zones is in truth unavoidable and tremendous, one will nonetheless embrace and subsidize that suffering except for the portion of suffering that can be eliminated while still maintaining a death penalty and while still consuming animal products. That is, the suffering of the condemned criminal and the sentient farmed animal is morally significant enough for attempts at mitigation within a system of unnecessary violence, but somehow not sufficiently significant to actually reject the unnecessary and violent practices.

This contradiction poses especially difficult problems for advocates for the abolition of the death penalty and of animal slaughter. If one rightly believes that we should not kill anyone unnecessarily, and that “anyone” includes both the most violent convicted criminals and the thoroughly innocent sentient beings whose lives are taken in slaughterhouses, then how does one bring about the desired end?

One answer is that one reaches out to the public and educates it about the utterly gratuitous violence that makes up both the death penalty (supported by citizens’ votes) and the slaughter of animals (supported by the multi-daily consumption of animal products by each individual who consumes them). But is it right for an advocate—who herself rejects both the death penalty and the slaughter of animals—to attempt to make the processes by which these lives are unjustly taken less painful or more “humane”?

The answer is complicated. If one complains about how inhumane it is to kill someone in a particular way (whether it be by the electric chair, for a human condemned to death, or by electrocution and suffocation for a bird whose flesh or eggs people enjoy eating), the tacit implication is that there might be a morally acceptable way to go about killing that same someone. The complaint tends to make the central issue one of “how” we go about killing someone rather than “that” we are needlessly killing someone at all. Yet inflicting suffering is an independent offense against someone whose life is unjustly taken. Does it therefore make sense to campaign against this independent offense?

My answer is that if one does so at all, one must do so very carefully, staying as clear as possible about the underlying injustice of the entire practice and the reality that suffering and terror are in fact unavoidable features of being executed to pay for one’s crimes and of being slaughtered to satisfy someone’s culinary choices. I would then ask the following question: Does highlighting the cruelty of a method help turn people away from the whole practice?

In the context of the death penalty in the United States, the answer might be yes, because we have seemingly come close to running out of “acceptable” methods, and because people have become increasingly uncomfortable with the death penalty in practice, for an array of reasons (including exonerations). If lethal injections were to be stopped or prohibited, for example, this could spell the end of the death penalty in quite a few states, because many might be unwilling to return to methods like hanging and electrocution, which carry their own (significant) risks of inflicting great suffering. In the case of animal slaughter, by contrast, the primary reason that there is so much unimaginable suffering (separate from the independent harm against the animals of taking their lives) is connected with the sheer number of animals who are killed. Mass killings cannot be accomplished humanely, their scale magnifies the total suffering, and it is consumer demand—rather than the particular methods employed for ending the lives of those who want to live—that drives the reality that animal slaughter is a project of mass killing, a project that in reality entails torture. To see footage of a “humane” operation, see this.

It is also the case that many death penalty proponents may want the condemned to suffer, and their support is thus unlikely to change due to the methods deployed. By contrast, consumers—whose desires for animal flesh and secretions drive the practice of slaughter—seem to want a supposedly “suffering-free” product. Therefore, reducing the appearance of suffering in slaughter may have the effect of relieving consumers’ discomfort and thus of spurring demand—thereby, ironically, generating suffering for more animals. As a study in Ireland indicates, demand for an animal product rises when people hear about “humane” versions of the product, and the measures provide far less (if any) benefit to animals than what consumers seeing words like “enriched cages,” “free range,” and “humane” imagine they do.

I have accordingly concluded that “humane” measures for animals are likely to prove more harmful than helpful to animals, while “humane” measures for death row inmates could reduce an inmate’s suffering and could also help to hasten the end of executions. For that reason and others, I reject campaigns for supposedly “humane” eggs, dairy, and flesh as little more than free advertising for animal products, even as I support Eighth Amendment and advocacy challenges to painful executions. I believe that a demand for “cage-free” eggs will not usher in an end to—or even a reduction in—the atrocity of animal slaughter, while a demand for “humane” executions just might end the death penalty in the United States.