When Shalt Thou Kill?

Perhaps I’ve grown up so fully immersed in a Christian culture that I rarely stop and question the Seventh Commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” Sure, of course, don’t kill. (Or in even simpler terms, “duh!”) But every day is full of killing. And I don’t just mean by police or mentally unstable people with guns (which seem to overlap). I mean by us.

That means killing both directly: ants on our countertops, moths in our pantry, weeds in our gardens. And far more killing, indirectly: chickens, cows, pigs, and turkeys in our diet, and countless animals as they choke on the toxic byproducts we release, whether when our garbage is burned, or plastic microfibers are released into the water from the washing of our polyester clothes, or—going further upstream—when animals’ habitat is destroyed by mining or factory-building, or birds smash into the smokestacks and wind turbines that are generating the energy I “need” for my daily living.

So this vague commandment has always felt kind of meaningless or even hypocritical—made more so in a culture that so willingly and lustfully takes human life as well: whether through the death penalty, wars and drone strikes, or the racist and violent actions (murders) of police and citizens alike. And while I know some people who are Buddhist and try not to kill anything—whether caterpillars on their cabbages or cows on their plates—I do not see that as optimal as it is neither necessarily sustainable nor ecologically consistent. As Arne Naess noted, even biospherical egalitarianism “necessitates some killing, exploitation, and suppression.”*

So is there an alternative commandment we could propose?

How about: Thou Shalt Not Kill Needlessly Nor Mindlessly

This revision was prompted by two experiences. First: the genocide I’ve waged on sugar ants these past two summers living in Connecticut. They’re relentless and they’re everywhere. While I recognize this house is their habitat too, I find it very hard to simply coexist, especially when they discover a way into a poorly sealed container. So they get wiped away (literally and figuratively) while they’re foraging on our food supplies.

Carnage from the ongoing war inside my pantry, leaving scores of innocent victims—victims who were just trying to live their lives.

But the real driver is last week’s reflection—on the shame I felt in participating in the unnecessary death of a jellyfish minding its own business. And that made me realize that there should be criteria/qualifications to make Thou Shalt Not Kill a truly useful as well as ecologically grounded guide.

If every time we are in a position to take a life we pause and make sure we do so mindfully, that’s a start. And as we focus our consciousness, we then ask ourselves ‘is this necessary?’ together, if we take both of those steps, this might go a long way in reducing killing. (Imagine if the officer who shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back did this.)

Let me unpack these two steps and attempt to make it visual. But first a caveat. Some of you will disagree with the placement of certain actions. This is an attempt to make this visual, not an exact placement or valuation of life. The bigger point is that much of the killing we do is nonconscious, reflexive, instinctive, or truly mindless—that is done without awareness at all (like buying sterile, plastic wrapped bits of meat from the grocery store). And of both the mindful and mindless killing, Some is far more necessary than others. Pausing and assessing both of these attributes could help reduce killing significantly.

Some killing we do reflexively—killing a pantry moth after opening a cupboard, for instance. Or mindlessly, like grabbing a package of hamburger from a store. That purchase led to the death of that animal. But the distance allows us to not think about it. When I participated in the killing and dressing of a turkey a few Thanksgivings ago, taking that life mindfully certainly made me doubt the need or joy of the Thanksgiving Turkey. In fact, I remember wanting to let the turkey go instead of shoving him head first into the awaiting cone of death. That killing wasn’t mindless, but certainly was not necessary either (though I do think meat eating is necessary and natural—in limited quantities, as I discuss here).

But some death is quite consciously executed. Organizing a trip to pull up invasive plants. Pulling weeds from your garden. Taking antibiotics. Hunting. You know that these actions are intentionally ending the lives of other beings—some sentient, others not.**

Another victim—still warm—slaughtered in celebration of Earth’s bounty, which doesn’t really feel right.

But there’s the bigger question, even if we can pause long enough to ask ourselves, do I do this with intent or by automatic action? If we do intend to take a life at that point, we should stop to ask ourselves, is there a need? Clearly, killing a jellyfish or to take another extreme example—spraying pesticides on one’s inedible lawn (killing weeds and scores of other life, and sickening yourself, your family, and neighbors indiscriminately in the process)—is both mindless and needless. Some actions are necessary but done reflexively: self-defense, for example, or swatting a mosquito caught landing on your arm (to avoid discomfort, risk of disease, and repeated attempt of blood sucking, we squish you).

Ultimately, there’s no need to belabor this point. How you judge necessary vs. unnecessary will shape what lives you take. The key is to allow yourself to become more mindful of how much death is interwoven into our lives—and then determine which are truly necessary. We all do this already—even as I go out of my way to kill a pantry moth I see flying in the kitchen, I spend minutes gently, lovingly corralling a bumblebee in a cup to bring it outside. Our choices to take life are based, consciously or not, on our values, including our understanding of the world and our place in it. Becoming mindful of this and acting accordingly isn’t easy but as all lives, including our own, are part of Gaia, allowing ourselves to consciously consider the ending of life and the necessity of that choice would certainly be a reasonable course of action, and even, one might argue, a commandment.

*Worse, when we choose to keep our own lives free of killing, we often do so in a way that leads to a net increase in killing. Is using plastic instead of leather a cause of less suffering? Or in the long-run, as it pollutes the environment, more? Is a highly-processed vegan diet, dependent on massive amounts of fossil fuel, chemical inputs, and industrial facilities, truly better for life than a local farmer raising a dozen chickens? It’s a difficult calculus to compute, but it is a calculus, one that needs active reflection.

**I recognize that the non-sentience of some life is often an excuse for killing. I fell into that trap at the beach. But if there is no need, any taking of life should be questioned.

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4 Responses

  1. Brian Stewart

    I very much appreciate the dual scales of need and mindfulness, and as I strive to be mindful (I might also say deliberate) in my interaction with Gaia, I have to interrogate the idea of “need” further.

    Need implies a goal or desire. “I intend to live, so I need to kill to eat”. But also: “I intend to maintain a conventionally beautiful lawn, so I need to apply fertilizer and pesticides”. And one can peel back the layers: “I intend to maintain my status within my community, so I need to maintain a conventionally beautiful lawn”.

    How does one establish a hierarchy of need so that we can achieve a position of simultaneous self-respect and respect for Gaia? And how can we communicate this position to those less aware of the issue?

    • Erik Assadourian

      An excellent point. Determining need vs. want is critical, as is determining a hierarchy of needs. Certainly sustenance is a more essential need than comfort. But articulating that for ourselves (and others) would be a valuable exercise.

  2. Ian Whyte

    Hello Eric:

    Thanks for your newsletters.

    I’m playing with the term ‘do least harm’ as a handy summary of how to behave for a person leaning strongly towards ecocentrism. It has several advantages: it covers the field and more, it’s easy to state, it’s easy to remember, it’s hard to contest (who’s for more harm?). I think it alone might lead to a new paradigm.

    I think it covers the ideas in your article, plus maybe some more.

    Keep well.

    Ian

    • Erik Assadourian

      Thanks for your comment, Ian.

      Yes, do most good and least harm (though I imagine they don’t always come without conflict) are valuable in the utilitarian sense. But it’s in determining the harm–to whom?, to what extent?, the minimization of which harm prioritized?–that makes this a difficult exercise.

      Erik

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