Vegetarianism and Religion

Seth Freedman posts a bolshy defence of vegetarianism, railing against fellow veggies who meekly apologise for their choice.  He takes no prisoners:

While vegetarianism is, of course, good for humanity in purely selfish terms (the land required to feed cattle bred for meat can be used to feed far more humans per square foot), the bare bones of the matter is that there is a serious moral deficiency in anyone who has no problem taking a creature’s life in order to fill their own stomach.

(Via Sunny on Twitter).
Hilariously, the article has gleaned a total of 648 comments and counting, with many a proud carnivore taking issue with Seth’s uncomprimising moral stance.
Their responses, while valid, stumble into a pitfall that is common in the bloggy landscape, that of a failure to ask the question who is the article for? Freedman makes it clear that he is complaining about the timidity of his fellow vegetarians, Hadley Freeman in particular, for whom calling meat-eating a “serious moral deficiency” is a persuasive and motivating argument.
One a separate note, is there not an analogy between arguments for carnivorism, and for religion? Carnivores often accept Freedman’s argument that the land required to feed cattle bred for meat can be used to feed far more humans per square foot, yet they still assert that they have a right to eat meat due to historical and cultural reasons: its always been this way, why should we change? Similarly, social conservatives give historical and cultural reasons to argue that religion should play a part, and have a moral claim over society, even though it is accepted that there are actually no factual basis for these claims: its always been this way, why should we change?
What’s interesting here is that the ‘no-nonsense’ types who scoff at vegetarians are often the same atheists who condescend to religious folk.  In one case, they think that the historical and cultural argument holds water; while in the other case they call it invalid.
I have to admit that I am an infuriating agnostic in both cases!  For domestic reasons, I’m a de facto veggie, without having actually made a firm and binding committment to myself!  And while I also consider myself an aetheist, offended and afraid of organised religion, I still think that faith, spirituality and even tradition serve a valuable purpose.

25 Replies to “Vegetarianism and Religion”

  1. I haven’t read the links yet (or the comments), but rather than the “tradition” argument for meat-eating, I would look to the animal kingdom. Carnivery is ok for lions and tigers and things, isn’t it? Then what have they got that we haven’t? Especially when they wouldn’t think twice about eating us
    Personally, I think making murderous feasts of the defenceless peace-loving vegetable is the morally suspect option.

    1. Then what have they got that we haven’t?

      As Will said above, we have free will, conscience, and – most importantly – and ability to look beyond our raw instinct to think long term.
      Interestingly, I think that there is something in the old testament styley religious argument for vegetarianism that rings true. Man truly is lord over all the animals, and so is held to a higher standard.

  2. In response to Clarice:
    As much as I enjoying entertaining the idea of an environmental ethics based on inadvertent mutual consent as a result of the possibility of defense or some kind of ‘fair game’, do you think that:
    1. this really counts as valid for reared animals of which are most humans form of meat consumption, and
    2. that humans are not in ANYWAY distinct from animals and therefore do not have any grounds for acting with a moral conscience or with different ethical demands.
    Maybe I have misread an ironic gesture, but justifying human actions through reference to the animal kingdom seems to commit a biologically based version of the same accusations Rob made of social conservatives justifications for meat-eating.
    Personally I feel that since the ‘storm in the victorian teacup’, which brewed together (via Francis Galton) Darwin’s theories with a metaphysical and religious idea of a first origin, a linear history and continous historical progress, this idea which can justify so much cruelty in a humanly defined sense of development has been rightfully destroyed.
    Here is an article from the Guardian arguing from a similar basis but for homosexuality in humans, as justified through the actions of animals:
    I wonder what your thoughts would be for that?
    Thanks for the post Rob. I think vegetarianism is one of the most interesting ethical arguments, not because it involves as much heavy commitment as other issues (abortion, euthanasia, ivf) but because of how it most immediately addresses the question of ethical principles and whether they are purely pragmatic through its everyday familiar context.
    From a crude pragmatist perspective though of weighing up the consequences of ‘what works’ from previous experience I can imagine Carnivores justifying meat-eating through references to the food chain, bodily health and diversity of diet, with a pinch of respect for how animals are reared, whilst arguing that religion has often been the cause of wars and thus should no longer play any integral part in moral claims of a society.

  3. Well, yes, Will, but in vino veritas, so it doesn’t hurt to rehearse the arguments.
    I don’t think it counts as valid for vegetarian animals, no. I would use a different argument for them, based solely on their inferior cognitive capacities. I do believe that our species is different from other species and for this reason I believe it is arrogant and wrong to anthropomorphise when we talk about non-human animals, for instance when we argue that killing them is wrong.
    And I do not think that humans are in any way distinct from animals, no. To think so is likewise in my view arrogant in the extreme, not to mention misguided.
    I don’t think that article is arguing for exclusive homosexuality, such as is seen in the human kingdom, so I’m not sure the analogy really applies. But if we, as lords over ALL the animals, reckon that carnivery is so wrong, then surely our global stewardship role (and lets face it, we’re doing really well at that) behoves us to enforce it *wherever* it happens, if we’re so concerned about its victims, no?
    What I do think is that, on the subject of not eating meat, veganism is the only consistent and defensible position Not that I have to worry about this of course. Vegetarianism is a matter of personal choice and nothing more. I’ve yet to see a consistent argument for the broader principle, and I don’t quite get why vegetarians, if their choice is being respected, feel the need indirectly to try and enforce their view on others by claiming a superior status for it.
    I am surprised at Rob’s comment – I wonder what evidence you have for the existance of free will? I’m sure there are philosophers and cognitive scientists out there who would bite off their own arm if you could prove it for them conclusively. Long-term thinking? Tell that to our glorious leaders and pen-pushers. And being held to a higher standard? By whom? Have you taken religion?
    Never heard such a bunch of selective self-serving wishy-wash in all my life.

  4. Not for the fourth time, Clarice, I think you miss the point of my comment here. I was responding to your bizarre assertion that humans and animals should be treated similarly as moral agents. The argument for vegetarianism rests on that not being true, and I was merely giving some common arguments for that. I should be able to have a discussion over the doffrent types of argument in a political debate, without endorsong wholeheartedly the position I describe.
    The “humans are different from other animals” premise rests at the heart of a lot of other arguments, not least, sexual politics and laws. In a sexual assault case, say, would you argue that holding men to a higher standard than a street dog is ‘arrogant’?
    When vegetarians make the case for the exceptional nature of humans, I think it is the opposite of arrogance. They argue that, unlike the rest of the animal kingdom, we’ve comprehensively buggered up our relationship to the planet, and disturbed the equilibrium. They apply similar reasoning to the lack of forward thinking. Yes yes, of course you’re right to say there isn’t enough of it in politics. This is precisely what the veggies lament.

  5. I’m not so sure that I have, in this instance, Rob.
    On the sexual assault front, men *should* be held to a higher standard than a dog, but only because their assaults do a great deal more damage than those of a dog; they have a far higher power than a street dog. Female dogs do not become traumatised, depressed and fearful or unable to function as a result of an “assault” upon them, as women do. Unlike in the rest of the animal kingdom, our culture takes a judgemental and controlling view on women’s sexuality (dogs don’t have pornography, or prostitution, or punishment of single mothers, or murder of sexually active women, I could go on) plus I think we have more lethal STDs, plus there is the raising of children to think about, plus, I don’t think street dogs have the capability for sadism, as humans do. All these things make human sexual assault a rather different kettle of fish than that which occurs between other animals. Human women necessarily require more protection from same-species sexual assault than other female animals. Nothing to do with a higher moral standarad whatsoever. Unless you count the control and exploitation of women’s sexuality as in some sense “moral”.
    The point I was making was that *all* species are unique, and humans are not unique in that. We have a greater capacity to make other animals’ lives a misery, yes, and of course it is wrong to do that. But that is not necessarily an argument for vegetarianism.
    And don’t forget, we would not have reached the pinnacle of evolutionary success that we have done, if, in our competition against other animals for resources and survival, we had given away our advantage through a wimpish, misguided sense of guilt.
    What it boils down to is that some people think that killing animals for their carcass is wrong, and some people don’t. It’s a matter of opinion, and there *is* no objective answer. Same for killing foetuses or small babies. It’s a shame that some vegetarians are so insecure that they feel the need to defend their personal and subjective choice as if it had some objective validity. It doesn’t.

  6. Clarice is obviously untutored in the arguments for not eating meat. Veganism is the only defensible position? Vegetarianism is a matter of personal choice and nothing more? Yet to see a consistent argument for the broader principle? That animal suffering is not necessarily an argument for vegetarianism? Pah.
    Perhaps you missed Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation” (1975)? Or Lao Tzu, Confucious, Plato, Ghandi? Obviously just a bunch of wishy-washy namby-pambies!
    There are many good moral arguments for *not* eating meat. Perhaps Clarice can come up with a few reasons why she *should* eat meat?

  7. Well, call me ungracious, but to me, “Pah” does not constitute a valid counter-argument. As such, I shall disregard your first paragraph. Ditto for the name-dropping one.
    Unlike Bogle, I do not presume to tell other people what they should or shouldn’t eat, and as such, my personal diet choices are mine, and mine alone, requiring no supporting arguments whatsoever. That my government and the majority of my compatriots share my view is, presumably, neither here nor there.
    It is for those who would wish to dictate, persuade, or otherwise harrass other people who would need to be providing arguments. As it happens, I do not believe that I should eat meat (indeed, very often I choose not to), so why on earth should I be expected to provide reaons for a conjecture I do not endorse?
    The reason why I have no objections to eating meat is because there’s no a priori reason not to. There is no objection that has convinced me. Simples.
    Perhaps Bogle should go off and polish his leather shoes, while wearing his leather belt, and washing his hair with animal-tested shampoo. And heaven help him if he should get ill or injured, and require the benefit of medical science, as we all know who that relies upon…
    I can’t believe I’ve dignified this with a response.

  8. How so?
    Saying something doesn’t make it true you know.
    Your comment is meaningless.
    Please stop wasting everybody’s time with your numskull remarks.

  9. Despite his/her initial reserveations, Bogle has just made him/herself look like a fool and an idiot to boot 🙂
    (See what I mean? I rest my case)

  10. Clarice, just because you’re not keeping up, don’t assume the rest of us aren’t. Resorting to invective isn’t big and it isn’t clever.

  11. The thing is, Bogle, that Rob hasn’t moderated my comment yet. The long one before the steak one. So to me, until he has done, all this is academic trifle.
    And as to your last comment, your memory is short.
    Better to be clever than a hypocrite 🙂

  12. I do not presume to tell other people what they should or shouldn’t eat, and as such, my personal diet choices are mine, and mine alone, requiring no supporting arguments whatsoever.

    Hold on, Clarice. A huge part of the vegetarian argument is that diet choices do affect everyone else in a very real way. As Freedman pointed out, its pretty much accepted that vegetarian is many times more efficient in terms of land-use, which will become a major issue before the end of the 21st century. So I don’t think you can use such a solipsistic, personal argument any more than a car driver can say that his burning of fossil fuels is only a ‘personal’ choice.

  13. Um, I don’t think I did use a different email address, and I don’t think I can be held responsible for other people’s private choices on blog-moderation.
    Still, at least we are getting on to the meat of things (pardon the pun).
    The thing is, Rob, meat-eaters don’t presume to tell vegetarians what to eat, and they don’t (on the whole) refuse to eat vegetables. So we are not stopping vegetarians from being able to make their own personal choices about what to eat or not eat. Efficiency in food production does vary, it’s true, but that’s no reason to only endorse the single most efficient way. Otherwise, we’d only be able to justify growing the single one most efficient crop. And probably it would have to be GM, if efficiency is all. So I just don’t think efficiency is a very good argument.
    Everybody’s choices affect everybody else in some way, but that is a fact of life. It’s no reason to deny them.

  14. LOL. I wouldn’t assume that silence means that your arguments are irrebuttable! It may be that others find the arguments too crass, immature and/or pointless to engage with. Or they may have just moved on: perpetuating a blog discussion three or four weeks after the initial post is a rare thing indeed. Though welcome here, obv.
    So far as I can see, much of your argument boils down to “Its my choice, and who are you to tell me what to do?” Personally, I find this unsatisfactory, because its the same argument that Jeremy Clarkson uses to drive Humvees at great expense to the environment. When the entire discussion is about the various arguments people give for (positive) vegetarianism or (negative) anti-meat-eating, then I don’t think its enough to simply say “its my choice, how dare you question it” without rebutting some of those arguments. If you don’t want to engage, then there’s no need to take up bandwidth saying so.

    Efficiency in food production does vary, it’s true, but that’s no reason to only endorse the single most efficient way. Otherwise, we’d only be able to justify growing the single one most efficient crop. And probably it would have to be GM, if efficiency is all. So I just don’t think efficiency is a very good argument.

    My understanding of the argument, is that the disparity between arable and pastoral farming land-use is such that we could grow a pretty diverse set of crops, and still sustain the world’s growing population. That, vegetarians say, is a better and sensible approach than meat-eating. Of course, one could be more extreme. But just because they do not recommend the most extreme policy choice, it doesn’t mean that what they do recommend is worthless or invalid as a moral choice.
    I think sensible vegetarians probably recommend GM as part of the mix, too, although there will be others who advocate purer forms.
    Surely “sustainability” is the concept at issue here. If we’re threatened with a food-shortage, exacerbated by global warming, then surely the onus is on us to come up with ideas for sustainable food production. Personally, I think the argument that says that we can’t do this without resorting to an almost exclusively plant-based diet, is the most persuasive argument for vegetarianism.
    I do think that our sentience means we have to make moral choices too, but explaining why that should apply to a concern for the souls of farm animals, as Seth Freedman seems to, is a much more difficult argument.


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