Moral decisions about eating, pt. 2

A distinction that I’ve found provocative when thinking about moral decisions about eating is the three-way distinction between those decisions give priority to other human beings, those decisions that are most concerned with one’s own self, and those decisions that give priority to non-human beings. For example, one can distinguish between three types of strict vegetarians:

  1. Strict vegetarians who don’t eat meat and animal products because they are concerned that animal food products can use up to 16 pounds of grain per pound of animal, which could mean that raising animal products could take food out of the mouths of starving people;
  2. Strict vegetarians who don’t eat meat because they are concerned that meats may adversely affect their health;
  3. Strict vegetarians who don’t eat meat because they are concerned that raising and slaughtering animals for food leads to unnecessary pain and poor lives for the animals.

In reality, of course, many strict vegetarians use all three types of moral reasoning; but even so, usually one of these three types of moral reasoning generally will feel most important to any one person.

The first type of moral reasoning above is likely to be acceptable to nearly all religious liberals. Even though we will argue about the specifics, we commonly hold an ethical standard that we should act in such a way that we minimize harm to other people. Thus, if we all agreed that eating meat is really going to take food out of the mouths of starving people, causing them serious harm, we would generally agree that we should stop eating meat. (Of course, we don’t all agree that eating meat is going to harm others; the devil in moral reasoning is often in the details.)

The second type of moral reasoning above is least likely to be given much weight by religious liberals. While most of us would agree that it’s important to take care of oneself and to refrain from damaging oneself, nevertheless we are not particularly concerned with treating our body as a sort of holy temple; we’d place a much higher priority on making the world a better place for all persons. (I’d even say the reason many religious liberals take care of their health is to have more energy to make the world a better place for all.)

The third type of moral reasoning above remains under contention among religious liberals. While every religious liberal that I know feels that taking care of the entire ecosystem is a moral imperative, some religious liberals want to do this because we humans depend on the health of the ecosystem for our own health; that is, not harming the ecosystem is of secondary importance to not harming human beings — whereas other religious liberals want to take care of the ecosystem because they feel it is more important than human beings. (This latter position is sometimes referred to as Deep Ecology, or being “deep green” rather than merely “green.”)

If we let it, this conversation can take us to some interesting questions:— What’s most important in the universe: humanity, or something else? — and what do we name that something else? —God? —creation? (which begs the question, created by what or whom?) —earth? —the universe?

And those interesting questions, and others like them, can lead us to examine the roots of our theologies. Thus, one of the reasons I can’t call myself a humanist is that I can’t place utmost importance on human beings; I would call myself a Transcendentalist where my understanding of the universe tells me there’s something that transcends humanity, something before which I and all humanity must feel very small and insignificant; and this leads me towards some kind of Deep Ecology. By contrast, many of the liberal Christians I know are humanists; that is, even though they are committed to protecting God’s creation, they would consider human beings to be of utmost importance. (Here I’m using “humanist” in the broader sense of the word that goes back at least to Erasmus; I’m not using “humanist” in the new, reductive sense of the word that merely means “rejecting God”.)

From what I’ve seen, there’s an almost unresolvable difference between those who place humanity at the center of the universe, and those who place something else at the center of the universe. And in the latter group we can also find some unresolvable differences; there are those like me who place something hugely and transcendentally larger than humans (the ecosystem? God? Gaia?) at the center of universe; there are others who are more concrete and specific about what’s placed in the center of the universe (animals including perhaps human animals, etc.). All these nearly unresolvable differences help explain why our moral arguments about eating don’t often seem to get very far — we are often arguing from very different frames of reference.

11 thoughts on “Moral decisions about eating, pt. 2”

  1. Reason one can be eliominated from the discussion. While it is true that it takes a lot of grain to raise meat, that does NOT take food from starving people- the United Nations says the world raises enough grain to provide 3,500 calories per day to every person on Earth. Hunger is caused by war, politics, and greed, NOT a lack of foodstuffs.

  2. This is very interesting. I suppose I never though about how the ethics of eating, and the reasons behind it, would highlight a divide among people who agree with each other (at least, on the surface). I’m going to have to think about that.

    Thank you :)

  3. Your analysis of your third point seems to avoid the issue it raises.

    You write, “3. Strict vegetarians who don’t eat meat because they are concerned that raising and slaughtering animals for food leads to unnecessary pain and poor lives for the animals.”

    In your analysis of that statement, no mention is made of the morality of harming and killing another living, breathing, sentient being – another Earthling, if you will – for a taste preference.

  4. I agree with your categorization. I’ve sometimes had a hard time discussing these categories with those who don’t like to think about categories – people who are in a potential fourth category of “vegetarians as trendy.”

    But I have never thought of category 1 and 2 as “moral” decisions. It seems like they ought to be, but are often not, in the realm of “subject to factual discussion.” If meat takes up more resources – does it actually have an impact on others? What is the magnitude of the impact? What about purely grass-fed beef – that doesn’t use up grain, but I have found few small-planet vegetarians interested in that distinction. They are probably really type 3, but want to dress it up as type 1.

    Type 2 is also a question of facts. How much impact on your health? Does it differ by type of meat?

    It seems like a valid response to 1 and 2 might be moderation in meat-eating, not complete vegetarianism; and the balance of that moderation depends on the actual impact.

  5. Christine @ 2 — Yeah… I’m making myself think about the same thing. And some of those thoughts are maybe a little uncomfortable.

    Tom @ 4 — Facts are certainly important, but what I’m hoping to do here is to look at underlying moral stances. Not to be too cynical, but sometimes we have these moral stances where we’re sure we know what’s right, and that actually affects the way we choose facts to back up our moral stance. So what I’m trying to do here is to take a bird’s-eye view of the wider moral landscape of decisions about eating, and trying to uncover assumptions that might really affect how we perceive facts. So, for example, I’m willing to bet that Joel@1 has a moral stance that places humans as most important, while Charlie@3 probably puts humans on a par with (or even as lesser than) other beings — if Joel and Charlie were to talk about this issue, they’d be starting from such different moral stances that it wouldn’t matter what facts they used, they’d be talking about really different things.

    Your last paragraph is helpful to me — “moderation” is a good word. I’m thinking of moderation not so much in an Aristotelian or Buddhist sense, but maybe more related to what Charles Sanders Peirce called critical common sensism. To put it another way — We humans are fallible beings, and because of that I’m very wary of broad moral pronouncements. Reality is too messy for broad moral pronouncements to have much validity.

  6. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

    Eating vegetarian or not won’t make much difference. Sorry.

  7. Jean you write that eating vegetarian or not won’t make much difference.

    Please consider the farm animal’s point of view as you take a look at this twelve-minute video, From Farm To Fridge, produced by Mercy For Animals and narrated by James Cromwell. Going veg would make a huge difference to individuals like them, here and now, regardless of what the future might hold for the world.

  8. Joel, I believe you’re misreading that stat, which, properly understood, means the opposite of what you are saying. The world raises enough grain to feed every person on Earth, but we give so much of it to animals (which are for comparatively wealthy people to eat) that we are shortchanging poor people who could eat the grain. That is not, of course, the only reason people starve. And it’s complex–we raise a lot of corn in the US that might count in the UN’s calculation but couldn’t really be fed to people; it’s only good for animals, or better yet ethanol or corn syrup. But the point is that it’s raised on arable land that could be used more efficiently.

  9. When I led an “Ethical Eating” study group at church, the conversation tended to drift away from issues of worker safety, environmentalism, economic justice, and animal rights/welfare and settle on health. I don’t think we can draw conclusions about religious liberals in general from this snapshot, but it’s interesting.

    I do consider myself a humanist, but definitely not in the sense that I put humans above other beings. And I agree that the fact that I don’t see a moral justification for putting humans above all other beings underlies my ethics about food, animals, environmentalism, etc. More significantly, I think it is bad logic and poor philosophy to assert “humans are the most important beings” as axiomatic. It could be defended but it does need to be defended, not treated as a given.

    I would take “strict” out of the three categories for a variety of reasons, chiefly that in most areas of ethics we admit gray areas and uncertainties. For example, there are plenty of people who are not pacifists but hold to a very rigorous standard, such as just war principles, before considering war justifiable. It is often more fruitful to discuss the vast realm of middle ground rather than focusing on the extremes such as “What if your wife were being held at gunpoint?” I am not a strict vegetarian but I do take principles 1 & 3 seriously. (And 2, but it has less moral impact, one’s own health being by and large one’s own problem–again, setting aside extremes such as mistreating one’s body to the point of creating hardship for one’s family. Though I am actually too much of a communitarian to really dismiss personal health as a moral issue.)

  10. Lions eat gazelles. Bears eat salmon. Chickens eat bugs. Dogs eat … well, dogs eat whatever they can get their teeth into. Being dogs and all. People eat (can I say this?) a bit like dogs.

    I get that the way we “process” animals and make factories to produce them is horrific. I do live in the Midwest after all, where factory farms are everywhere. It’s astonishingly awful. For the animals. For the people who work with the animals.

    Read this nuanced and clear-eyed article: “Watching the Animals.” Harper’s, Mar. 1970. Richard Rhodes’ essay on an Iowa slaughterhouse. And on his own boyhood where slaughtering animals was a considered and conscious act. Part of the food chain.

    Eating meat, in and of itself, is not morally wrong. How we ask the animals to live, how we bring them to death, that is what needs to be considered. There are ways to eat your beef and be a moral human being too. Take a look at Bill McKibben’s article:

  11. Recently I wrote a blog entry offering a leftist critique of the ideology of “Green” environmentalism, deep ecology, animal rights activism, eco-friendliness, and lifestyle politics in general (veganism, “dumpster diving,” “buying organic,” etc.). I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the matter and any responses you might have to its criticisms.

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