Letter to the Editor: Aligning our values and our diet

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by Andria Skornik

 

In a recent Episcopal Cafe post, readers were asked what they thought of the arguments presented by Nathanael Johnson in his article “Is there a moral case for meat?”

 

Honestly, I found the article dissatisfactory, if not a bit disturbing, not least because of his odd and seemingly self-serving beginning. He admits he’s looking for a philosophical defense for something he’s routinely convinced is morally wrong, which is that he likes to eat meat (and most people do too), so there must be a good reason for it being okay. But if that’s the basis for moral decision making, then we’re simply justifying our preferences with the word “ethics,” rather than holding ourselves up to a standard of what is right. If the upshot of his thought experiment is that we all should do better and that we should not judge one another en route to doing better, the downside is a readily available excuse to simply keep doing what we’ve always been doing, since no one’s totally perfect anyway.

 

 
Johnson asks if Christian virtue ethics could provide a model for an ethics of eating. But his emphasis is too much on what is unattainable (in his view) than the many measures available to us to end animal suffering now. In the case of Christian virtues, the ideal of perfect love may be impossible, but his concern over abstaining from meat – by far the most effective means of reducing animal suffering – is actually very doable for most people in first world western societies. One thing Christian virtue ethics definitely would not say is that if the person next to you is suffering, and you have the resources and capacity to end their suffering with a simple action, then to stand by and do nothing is ethically okay. The parable of The Good Samaritan is a good example of how we are morally obligated to alleviate particular instances of suffering when we see it. But even this parable is only partially sufficient, for when it comes to animal suffering we aren’t innocent bystanders making decisions about whether to attend to suffering or look the other way; when we buy and consume meat that has been resourced through unjust means, then we actively participate in the harm done.

 

Johnson is looking for a principle that can be applied to all people, in all places, and his examples of food choices in India and the (apparent) quality of life of caged hens certainly complicate efforts to arrive at such universals. But perhaps what is truly needed here is an ethic that takes into account the complexities of the individual experience and that guides us in ethical decision making in the everyday questions of what we eat.

 
If we assume that meat eating is inevitable in our society, as Johnson seems to, we can still spend more time asking how we can be more just in our practices rather than justifying what we already do. Examining factory farming – as he does to a limited extent – is a great place to start. Right now factory farming accounts for more than 99% of the meat we eat in America. These animals are subject to confinement, neglect, and abuse from workers who are themselves abused by an unjust system. Often these animals’ deaths are brutal and far from humane.

 

While this is how we procure meat in our country, it doesn’t seem to line-up with people’s values. As a society, we love animals. Ask people how they feel about their pets. Watch people feeding ducks. Consider the number of animal videos that go viral. We love animals and are fascinated by them. And studies show that the animals we eat have the same capacity for thinking and feeling as the animals with whom we share our homes. I recently visited a Farm Sanctuary where I got to hang out with pigs who love a belly scratch as much as any dog, and some of them found great pleasure in doing tricks for treats. There would be moral and public outrage if we knew the abuses of factory farming were inflicted upon dogs and cats; those fortunate animals we name, feed and mourn when they are gone. Most of us wouldn’t even be able to watch what happens at a factory farm. It’s time to bring our actions – what we eat and how we get it – in alignment with the value we already have for animal life.

 

What is most amazing is that we can all make a significant difference to minimize the cruelty of factory farming simply by what we put on our plate. We don’t have to write a check. We don’t have to volunteer. We just have to make better decisions, meal by meal. And as an added benefit, research is showing the overwhelmingly positive impact a plant-based diet can have on one’s health and the environment.

 

Gandhi once said, “The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” We need reform in the factory farming industry because the current practices are cruel, unnecessary and not morally justifiable on any account. As people of faith, however, it goes a step further. God has called us to care for God’s creatures, especially animals, as God cares for them. They are truly the most vulnerable among us. Caring for animals is the first thing that God asked humans to do in the creation account. It is fundamental to who we are and what we have been called to do. This is our ethical standard and we are more than capable of rising to this task.

 

 

 

The Rev. Andria Skornik is Rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Rockford, IL

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Vinnie Lainson
Guest

This is a topic I feel passionately about. My views have been expressed in other comments by other people, so I will only share a couple of thoughts that are pivotal for me.

I think it is probably morally ok to eat meat - what is NOT morally ok is to cause them to suffer for a life-time, drug them, confine and abuse them and then, inhumanely slaughter them. Period. That is not ok. And, I believe, the moral cost is reflected in the entire chain of the industry and in the health of the consumer. The meat I will eat has had a "good life and one bad day" (to quote Joel Salatin). If I am unsure where the meat comes from, I will not eat it. Unless it is pork - I will not eat pigs under any circumstances....they sing to the moon. Nuff said.

Like all of you, I have heard tons of sermons through my life and remember few. One of the few I remember was when I was in seminary, it was given by Dr. Ellen Davis (OT Prof. now at Duke Univ.) where she said, (and I paraphrase here) "one day all of creation will be given it's voice and invited to sit at table with each other...and we will have to hear, to listen to all the pain and suffering we have caused." I believed her. And the thought of having to hear all that suffering, all those cries and terror and sadness made me stop eating industrialized meat. Chickens, cows, pigs, duck, geese.....all of them. I stopped.

One last thing. One of my sons goes hunting once a year to get one deer. We all share in this deer meat. The first time he came home with a kill, he told me he looked into her eyes and she into his just as he pulled the trigger. I asked him how he could kill her after looking in her eyes, and he said, "If we cannot look into the eyes of the animal we are about to kill, we have no right to eat them." He dressed her in the field himself, as he gave thanks for her life and for the nourishment she would give. And I knew I had found the ground of my moral compass on this issue. I wonder, how many meat eaters would be willing to look into the eyes of the yearling calf as they kill it for veal piccata....not many, would be my guess. Because we are humanely attached to our animals. That is a good thing.

I believe that God loves all of creation - loves all of it. Which means for me that the suffering I cause by eating industrialized meat grieves the heart of God. Every day of suffering by any and all of God's beloved creatures is a day of suffering for God. I do not want to be any part of that.

Sorry so long....it's the preacher in me 🙂

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John Chilton
Editor
John Chilton

The supply chain argument in the comments is a tricky one. If one chooses not to purchase a product from supplier X because of their labor practices you could well be making their employees worse off, not better, because they lose their jobs. You need to communicate that *you* are willing to compensate the supplier for taking on their added cost by paying a higher price. And, of course, you need to be able to monitor their practices.

Most surveys show Americans are willing to pay more to improve working conditions, but not enough to create the incentive for firms to do so. But they are willing to purchase the lowest priced good, quality held constant. And when they do so they are creating jobs in the poorest of countries.

The morality of what we eat does not stop at meat.

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Carolyn Peet
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Carolyn Peet

My British White cattle have a lovely life. And then they have One Bad Day.

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Catherine Jo Morgan
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In the world as it is, many vegetables, fruits and nuts are grown in ways that entail suffering and sometimes even slavery for the people who grow and/or harvest and process them. It seems to me that rather than make general moral judgments about how everyone on earth should eat, it makes more sense to examine one's own "supply chain" and ask for spiritual guidance about what one's personal "necessity" is. Maybe one of us should eat meat, and a neighbor should not. Just my current point of view -- open to other viewpoints.

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James Yazell
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I agree that it is important that we recognize just how implicit suffering is in our current economic models and just avoiding animal products doesn't absolve us of all the other types of exploitation occurring in the world.

With that said, I'm still curious to hear how exactly someone with the luxury of considering their own "supply chain" could have a necessity for consuming animal products. Unless of course, you are arguing for a moral relativism where each person decides for themselves what they think is right and wrong.

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Ann Fontaine
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There are many cultures that eat very little or no meat and have healthier lives and big brains. If you are going to eat meat would be good to raise it and kill it your self to see what a gift the animal is giving you (giving thanks to that being for giving its life for you). I think prepackaged meat gives people no sense of animals except as a product for consumption. Also there are many animals that have much less impact on the environment than beef (also won't give you "mad cow disease")

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David Streever
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David Streever

Hi Anne:
I think the environmental impact of cattle are actually up for debate, depending on the location. Australia, for instance, is a huge producer of cattle, and it's because it has a natural habitat which is ideal for raising pastured cattle. The extensive grasslands in Australia are not good for other agriculture, and indeed, it would be a massive ecological blow to convert the grasslands to farmland, resulting in large-scale habitat destruction for small mammals, birds, and insects. Cattle raised for meat are able to co-exist with the native flora and fauna.

It would be extremely expensive and destructive to switch from cattle pastures to arable land, and eliminate an industry which provides jobs to many, many Australians, and relatively inexpensive protein & nutrition. There is no economic path that would supplant the cattle industry without many people losing their livelihoods, and combined with the ecological damage that switching to farm land would cause, I'm not sure that we can say that raising cattle in Australia has a net negative impact.

I think in an ideal world we'd see human activity contextualized in this way; there is no doubt (for instance) that cattle raised in the Amazon has an incredibly destructive outcome. In my ideal world, we'd see cattle raised where it's the least destructive, and vegetables planted where that's the least destructive, and we'd see human demand/consumption increase or decrease in unison.

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John Chilton
Editor
John Chilton

And yet to become the Adam and Eves we are (with the capacity to love God) meat-eating seems to have been essential to the development of the human brain. (I will be glad to be corrected on the science -- I'm referring to something I read from 2012.)

http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/sorry-vegans-eating-meat-and-cooking-food-is-how-humans-got-their-big-brains/2012/11/26/3d4d36de-326d-11e2-bb9b-288a310849ee_story.html

Eating meat and cooking food made us human, the studies suggest, enabling the brains of our prehuman ancestors to grow dramatically over a few million years.

Although this isn’t the first such assertion from archaeologists and evolutionary biologists, the new studies demonstrate that it would have been biologically implausible for humans to evolve such a large brain on a raw, vegan diet and that meat-eating was a crucial element of human evolution at least a million years before the dawn of humankind.

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James Yazell
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Do you always look to pre-historic humans for moral guidance? I'm afraid that if we use this as criteria we may begin to proclaim many horrible things as permissive since they allowed us to get to where we are today. If you do want to advocate for the consumption of animals, you may want to look to something other than consequentialism: which offers the most well known and arguably robust argument for the complete abolition of animal consumption.

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David Streever
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David Streever

This is really great; I am glad to see the conversation that has followed posting the Johnson piece! I was hoping to see some discussion around ethics & morality.

I think a lot of this is really solid, but, I do think his actual argument gets a little bit lost here. I'll try to supply the points I think he was trying to make:

1. I don't think he's trying to defend something just because he likes doing it. I think he's engaging with the world as it is; for the vast majority of people on Earth, it's not feasible (economically or otherwise) to derive the majority of their daily protein needs from vegetable sources. I think we make a mistake if we assume he's merely referring to people living in developing nations; there are many people in America (myself included) who could not eat the medically recommended amount of protein without animal products like eggs and meat in moderation.

2. Johnson's point about how few people are successful vegetarians is not specious. If we consider most moral commands (thou shalt not kill/etc) they have pretty high adoption rates, that is to say, a majority of people do see them as practical, doable, and true. There is no such consensus around vegetarianism/veganism, and there are many unproved arguments for vegetarianism which haven't been satisfied in a thorough sense.

3. I don't think Johnson sets out to find a universal principle; rather, he's responding to the ethical argument that there is a universal principle that eating meat is wrong. Johnson challenges if that really is a universal truth, and does so by the same means; he uses the Kantian Categorical Imperative. I would say he succeeds, as he shows that we can't universally label people eating meat as immoral. (Are we comfortable declaring that a 6 year old boy who eats an egg in a rural part of India immoral?)

4. Ultimately, I think Johnson makes many of the same points you make; it is ethical to seek better treatment for animals and to reduce meat consumption if we can, and it's a more complex issue than a simple argument for/against suggests.

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James Yazell
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I appreciate your distillation of Johnson's points but I don't think they adequately address what my (And I assume Mother Skornik's) concerns are.

Some point by point thoughts:
1) It is in fact very easy to get the daily recommended amount of protein from plant sources so long as you eat the recommended amount of calories each day. Certainly the case can be made that people in non-industrialized parts of the world rely on animal products in order to survive. But that isn't really a problem for the vegan/vegetarian argument which is that we should avoid unnecessary harm to animals. The key word their being unnecessary. Now, whether a particular instance of harming an animal was necessary can be argued, but the point remains that we should avoid unnecessary harm.

2) The lack of high adoption of a vegan/vegetarian diet isn't particularly compelling once we look at it in context of other moral blind spots our society has had in the past. At one point, the majority of people in America had no problem with slavery. It took the efforts of early abolitionists to convince the rest of society. Food is very much tied into culture and tradition; while it shouldn't be surprising that adoption is low it also doesn't excuse us from our moral obligations.

3) The problem with Johnson's argument isn't that he fails to commit to a universal principle. The problem is that he advocates for a Virtue Ethic but then fails to recognize what virtue ethics calls of us to do. Instead, he seems to be using it as an excuse to avoid doing much of anything beyond some vague call to animal welfare. It's simply a misuse of virtue ethics in the effort to disregard our obligation to avoid harming animals unnecessarily.

4. The problem is that while he seems to be making exactly that point out of one side of his mouth, out of the other side he seems to be doing nothing more than paying lip service to some welfare reforms in order to placate his conscience.

Thanks,

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James Yazell
Guest

I think Animal Rights already offers a rather robust couterpoint that I alluded to earlier.

The argument isn't that all animal consumption is inherently wrong. Rather, the argument is that it is inherently wrong to cause unnecessary suffering. This accounts for the boy in India as well as the middle class woman in the US.

There may be certain disagreements about when and where it is necessary to harm animals, but that doesn't take away from the thrust of the Animal Rights argument: that animals are worth moral consideration and thus harm should be avoided where possible.

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David Streever
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David Streever

Ah--I think Johnson is addressing rather the idea that veganism is an inherently morally right choice; the argument you refer to (that animals are worth moral consideration and thus harm should be avoided where possible) seems to be something he's accepted de facto, unless I've misread him.

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James Yazell
Guest

Hi David,

1. I obviously cannot speak to your personal experiences but eating a balanced, plant based diet is not inhernetly expensive. In fact, if you avoid overly processed meat substitutes it can even be cheaper. After all, Rice and Beans is incredibly cheap and full of nutrition. There is also the simple fact that most Americans over estimate their protein needs. So, barring unusual circumstances, it is incredible easy and affordable to eat a plant based diet.

2. I'm operating from the assumption that killing animals is wrong because Johnson does the same thing. He isn't arguing against the immorality of killing animals but rather is arguing that if we view that immorality from a virtue ethics perspective then we can advocate for better animal treatment while acknowledging that people will still eat meat. My point is that this line of reasoning is inconsistent with virtue ethics. I'm not sure how you are getting moral relativism out of my statement. My whole point is that something can be immoral even if the majority do not recognize it as so, which would be the exact opposite of moral relativism.

3. & 4. I'm taking Johnson at his word when he says "I was left with the conclusion that the vegans were right." He then points out that even realizing the vegans are right he still likes to eat meat. So he points out that "Thompson’s solution is to treat vegetarianism the way religious traditions treat virtues". That to me, seems to be an endorsement of virtue ethics in explaining how veganism can be seen as the morally praiseworthy thing to do. But if so, then the problems I outlined early exist for Johnson's specific treatment of it.

I'd be interested to hear if you have a more robust defense of animal consumption since Johnson was unable to find one.

Thanks again for your thoughts.

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David Streever
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David Streever

1. Unfortunately, I can't eat that quantity of beans on a daily basis; it would cause me extreme gastrointestinal distress. It's something I've tried. The quantity of fiber it introduced to my diet made me quite sick.

2. Maybe I've misunderstood you, but I think you're leaving part of his argument on the table. I don't think he's arguing that people will eat animal products just because they like it--he's acknowledging that that is true--he's arguing that for some people, consuming animal products is going to provide a necessary diversity of nutrition that they won't be able to get otherwise, such as his example of the boy in India. It is going to be hard to find a cheaper source of reliable, stable protein than eggs from hens which the family owns. His question is, if we accept the vegan proposition that it's inherently immoral to consume animal products, do we say that the boy is inherently immoral for eating these eggs?

3. & 4. I think we're still reading him differently; I'm not reading him as saying it's a binary yes/no. I'm reading him as saying that it's similar to how religion views poverty and wealth. Does Christianity view anyone with luxury/money as more immoral? If not, then it seems we have space to accept people who eat less animal products/more humanely produced animal products as being more moral.

I don't think that a more robust defense exists, because I don't think the critique is as robust as it could be! The critique assumes a binary position, but doesn't account for the reality that we cause environmental damage & harm just by existing. We don't need to own and operate cars, build long-term housing, use mosquito repellent, medicine, use AC, etc; all of these actions cause considerable environmental damage and harm to other lives. We do all of these things regardless. I see consuming animal products--meat, eggs, milk, honey--as being similar issues. In moderation, all of these things make our lives easier, more stable, safer, longer, and/or healthier. None of them are quite as binary as enemies of them may claim.

I'd make--and have made--a *very* binary argument against any sort of personal or familial automobile use. The creation, transportation, and usage of automobiles is a destructive and exploitative practice which hurts and kills people while degrading the quality of life for many people, in the service of a perceived comfort and convenience. I gave it up for over a decade without making any real burden or sacrifice. I don't think a robust counter-argument exists, but I also don't think that my earlier binary argument was really accurate; at some point, we have to make the same allowances Johnson makes for people to try and eke as much stability and comfort as they can out of life.

One of the points in favor of some consumption of animal products is, of course, that people need to earn incomes in our capitalist society, and that not all areas are suitable for growing vegetables; I talked about that in my response to Anne, which you might find interesting.

Thank you--
David

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Ann Fontaine
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Ann Fontaine

Most people in India are Hindu - who do not kill animals. Indians are mostly vegetarian. I don't think using the boy in India as an example works for his argument.

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John Chilton
Editor
John Chilton

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vegetarianism_by_country#India

According to the 2006 Hindu-CNN-IBN State of the Nation Survey, 31% of Indians are vegetarians, while another 9% consume eggs.[5] Among the various communities, vegetarianism was most common among the Lingayat, Jain community and then Brahmins at 55%, and less frequent among Muslims (3%) and residents of coastal states. Other surveys cited by FAO[6] and USDA[7][8] estimate 2%–4% of the Indian population as being vegetarian. These surveys indicate that even Indians who do eat meat, do so infrequently, with less than 30% consuming it regularly, although the reasons are mainly cultural and partially economic.[8]

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David Streever
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David Streever

He's not just talking about vegetarianism, but eating all animal products (i.e. veganism); the boy in his example eats chicken eggs, which is fairly common in India.

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David Streever
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David Streever

Hi James:

1. I live in America & have never been able to afford an entirely plant-based diet that would provide me the amount of protein that is recommended. I think you're neglecting the economic realities that many people face, even in wealthy nations.

2. I think you're comparing an apple and an orange, here. You're operating from the assumption that killing animals is morally wrong; not making a case for it. Slavery is morally wrong; enslaving a human being is wrong. It's moral relativism to suggest that slavery and eating meat are equivalent. Anyone who argues that slavery is acceptable is stating that some humans are less than other humans, which is a logically (and morally) indefensible position. It is however quite easy to demonstrate that humans are different from other orders of living beings.

3. & 4. I think we're each reading Johnson differently. You seem to be putting him in the context of advocacy--I read him in the context of wondering, exploring, and questioning. I see Johnson as questioning if the case against meat eating is as well-developed as advocates purport it to be, and exploring the arguments. I also read him as saying that reducing our consumption of meat is a good goal, and one we should pursue, which sounds rather unambiguous to me; I don't get that he's ultimately making a vague statement.

My bias is that I don't think there is an iron-clad argument against eating meat; I have seen a number of sloppy scientific claims advanced to support it, and an underlying assumption which I question about the sentience and will of some animals. I may be wrong; the argument may exist and I may not see it. The argument also may not yet exist, and may emerge as a result of people continuing to discuss, argue, and debate.

Thank you for the discussion & exchange!

(One of the more fascinating things to me about the exchanges we've all been having is that they mirror my own arguments in favor of abandoning automobiles; that they serve no necessary function, that they are environmentally destructive and are literally killing a massive number of animals and people, and that they are created in ways that would horrify & shock any person of good conscience. There is no automobile which is not produced at some level via the exploitation of the least privileged people on this Earth. I gave mine up when I was 22 and largely lived without for over a decade; I now rarely use one and feel shame. I have advanced many of the same arguments in support of abandoning private automobiles that I see advanced by people advocating for veganism.)

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James Yazell
Guest

As a vegan who follows Christian virtue ethics I really appreciate this post. You've done a great job of voicing exactly what my concerns were with Johnson's article.

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Ann Fontaine
Member
Ann Fontaine

Thanks Andria. And then there is the impact of eating meat (especially beef) on the environment.
http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jul/21/giving-up-beef-reduce-carbon-footprint-more-than-cars

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