Our Treatment of Animals and the Pursuit of Virtue

There is a debate within the National Review regarding the ethical treatment of non-human animals. The first paper written by Scully criticizes the way we treat non-human animals, followed by a rebuttal by Cam Edwards. Take a gander at both of them.

In his essay, Edwards writes:

Scully’s moral argument against meat eating sounds great, as long as you don’t think about the mice, rabbits, squirrels, moles, groundhogs, and other creatures great and small killed by the combines in the cornfields and green spaces where our vegetables are grown. Anybody who lives in the country has seen turkey vultures circling and swooping down on the fields where the cornstalks have been reduced to stubble, or the murders of crows that gather to slowly hop and pick their way across the earth, taking sustenance in the animals killed in the raising of vegetables. There’s a hard truth in life that many of us either don’t think about or choose to ignore: We all eat to survive, and that means that something had to die in order for you to live. Chances are, even if you’re the most committed vegan you know, animals died in the making of your last, and next, meal.

Now, Edwards has a point: animals are killed by combines. And that sucks. And we should try to devise a way to fix that, but Edwards neglects a few obvious points:

  1. The number of animals killed by those combines are far fewer than the number of animals killed in slaughterhouses. Thus, the effect of society with a vegetarian lifestyle, though not free of unintentional death, involves far fewer deaths than those with a meat-eating lifestyle. Hence, the effect of a vegetarian lifestyle is still better, if we are at least considering the number of animals killed.
  2. Contrary to what is implied, we don’t use combines to kill non-human animals. These animals don’t die “in order for you to live”. Instead, those animal deaths are unintended effects of the use of combines. Yet, in the meat industry, animals are intentionally killed for the sake of their meat; and so Edwards neglects to consider intention, a significant variable in assessing moral blameworthiness, virtue and vice. Edwards cannot just look at the effect—he needs to consider whether these animals die with the intention of that end.
  3. We need plants for sustenance and survival, particularly if we are going to live as vegans or vegetarians. Hence, if we are to live, then some animals might be incidentally killed during the process of developing our vegetarian food. Their unintentional deaths, though unfortunate and regrettable, is a lesser evil than allowing for our demise.

For those three reasons, taken together, I think Edwards’ argument fails to problematize vegetarian diets. Of course, that’s no reason to accept vegetarianism, but we do have good reason to think that his rebuttal fails. So what about vegetarianism? Why am I a vegetarian? I’ll explain.

I readily grant that animals do not have a claim to life comparable to our own, though that does not suggest that we can kill animals willy-nilly, nor does it suggest that we can treat them however we wish. Animal lives are not purposed for whichever end we might choose. But why? Well, in virtue of their personal qualities (e.g., conscious, intelligent, intentional, social, and emotional) animals are fundamentally distinguishable from things and automata, taking a place on the hierarchy of being (scala naturae) far greater than minerals and plants, just underneath human beings. That is no small consideration, for the creator of this world, and of all that exists, and the highest good, is Himself personal. The personal is part of His perfection and glory, and He has chosen to bestow that upon animals. In this way, then, animals approximate and reflect some of the goodness and greatness of God–they carry a spark of the divine.

Thus, in having those personal qualities, animals are imparted with some objective value; and so we have an obligation, if not toward animals, then to God Himself, to treat animals with care and respect because of the kinds of things they are created to be.  So here I find my duty to care and respect animals. And I presently express my duty by refusing to kill animals for the needless consumption of their flesh. Sounds reasonable, no? Perhaps. But suppose this reasoning is too God-y for your taste. That’s fine. I’ll approach this issue differently.

Ignore the question about the moral status of animals. Instead, ask yourself what sort of person do you want to be. Presumably, you want to be virtuous, and so do I. But what is it to be virtuous? It is virtuous to be compassionate, kind, respectful, thoughtful, and empathetic. But compassionate toward whom or what? Minimally, compassion is directed toward entities capable of pain and suffering, because pain and suffering suck for those who can feel itWe know that because we have also felt pain and suffering. So in being compassionate, kind, respectful and empathetic toward such entities, which surely include animals, we should avoid causing them any unnecessary suffering, harm or pain, and we should also try to save them from unnecessary suffering or duress. Likewise, in being compassionate and kind, we should, within reason and opportunity, promote their well-being, allowing for them to experience the many joys and ends in their life. Sounds fair, moderate and reasonable, right? Sure. In fact, we often behave and think that way (see here and here, for examples)

Apply this pursuit of virtue to our diet. Omnivorous diets require animals to be slaughtered, which can be a painful event often following some degree of psychological suffering such as dread. These diets also involve an animal’s loss of life (quite obviously), which therefore removes the possibility for this animal to experience any further joy or pleasure. That’s pretty crappy scenario for the animal, and we haven’t even considered the conditions upon which animals are raised and housed in farms and factories, but never mind that for now. From this, it is fair to say that, for the slaughtered animal, there was a lot of pain and suffering in its life or death; and moreover, upon its death, any future opportunity for joy and pleasure was extinguished (see here for an idea of what some animals endure for some human diets).

So knowing this, how do virtuous men behave? Do we need to kill these animals for their meat?  Maybe. If a person lives deep within Inuksuk, Canada, then he might need to hunt to survive. That’s fine. I have no qualms with that. But what about in developed areas? In developed areas, we depend upon animal meat for the sustenance of some animals within our care (e.g., cats), so some animals are killed for their meat on that basis. That’s fine, too, I suppose. But what about killing animals for our sustenance or consumption? Many of us in the developed world don’t need to kill animals for our dietary needs, because some vegetarian diets are accessible and sufficient for our well-being. Yet, vegetarian diets involve far less pain and suffering of animals than omnivorous diets, and only vegetarian diets do not remove the possibility for future pleasure and joy of those animals. Hence, for many of us, a vegetarian diet is the virtuous option, because these diets are far more compassionate and kind while still meeting our needs. In contrast, keeping an omnivorous diet, when we do not need to do that, appears callous and indifferent to animal pain and suffering, a vice. Thus, for us, in the developed areas, it is good to be vegetarians. Virtue demands it.

It will do someone no good to rebut that he doesn’t directly slaughter the animals in his meat consumption, if he shops at Wal-Mart, say, for if he is purchasing animal meat, then he is directly perpetuating and cooperating with animal slaughter. It’ll also do him no good to justify any decision to keep an omnivorous lifestyle with the claim that meat is tasty and enjoyable to eat, because giving up some of what we like to eat, but do not need to eat, is a small but totally acceptable sacrifice for the virtuous life. But we often don’t want to make that sacrifice (sometimes we even lie to ourselves about the warrant for our concern. See here). And why don’t we want to make that sacrifice? Because, well, sacrifice is hard: The consumption of meat is tasty, habitual and culturally prominent. But guess what? No one said virtuous living is easy. Indeed, being good is often experienced as taxing and burdensome, right? Of course. But these experiences stem from our flaws, those characteristics that confine us to be lesser men than we can be. The task in being good men is to break free from these vices, even if it sucks, so that we have the freedom for excellence. That takes discipline. That takes sacrifice.

So in seeking to become a more virtuous person, that is, a good man, I keep a vegetarian diet. Thus, my answer is this: I now choose a vegetarian diet because I choose to live virtuously. Persons who choose otherwise, despite being in life-conditions similar to my own, choose badly. That is, they are not acquiring, developing or exercising the virtues they should; thus, they herein act as lesser men.

Readers should notice that, in this approach, I didn’t remark upon the moral status of animals or their rights, nor did I rely on any idea that presumes some positive moral status or utilitarian calculus (See here and here and here). I don’t need to do that. I’m only interested in how virtuous men (compassionate, kind, sensitive, thoughtful, etc.) behave upon unnecessary pain and suffering; and it seems proper to say that, in the pursuit of virtue, we should strive not to participate in unnecessary pain suffering and suffering, and that we should allow for animals to experience the joy and ends in their lives inasmuch as we can. In my own case, and in the cases of many other westerners, virtuous living requires vegetarianism.


    • I am not making a blanket moral prohibition against eating meat, so I’m not sure what the fact that Jesus ate meat has to do with this. I suppose the question would be with whether Jesus was in a situation comparable to my own.

  1. Also, why would it be vicious to kill invasive species that eat crops and kill other species such as wild boar, deer, and so on? The populations have to be controlled or they will either kill other animals or end up killing themselves due to starvation, so why not eat them?

    • If members of an invasive species were harming the hosting ecological system, or your crops, then I see no problem in taking their lives, if that were necessary to preserve the well-being of the ecological system or your crops. And if it that were necessary, it might also be fine to eat the invading species, lest their flesh go to waste. But here you’re not killing them so that you can eat them, but killing them only because their invasive and harmful. That you eat their flesh later is only incidental to their death.

      Where populations truly need to be controlled, I also take no issue to culling and then consuming their meat. However, often times hunters hunt just so that they can eat animal flesh, ensuring only that they do not take more than what can sustain a species’ population. Killing to control a population from getting too big is not comparable to killing just until a species is still sustainable.

  2. Very thoughtful post, Catholic Hulk. Your “God-y” reasoning for being a vegetarian reminds me of this passage from Richard Swinburne I recently came across:

    “The very existence of God makes new actions obligatory or otherwise good, … [and] the mere existence of God makes acting morally always more important and sometimes very much more important than it would otherwise be. For we owe it to God not to waste the life he has given to us, but to use it in good ways, as (to a much smaller degree) we owe it to our parents (if they are nurturing as well as biological parents not to waste our life. So it is obligatory to fulfill our human obligations for a reason additional to the reason that it is good for them that we should do so. Further, other humans (and indeed animals) are, like ourselves, God’s creatures, and so in a sense our brothers and sisters; therefore, our obligations to them are much stronger than they would be otherwise. And if we harm them we harm their creator, God, just as if I hurt your child, I wrong not merely the child but also you who have languished your love on her. And since each of us is God’s creature, we have an obligation to God … to care for ourselves. So, even without any commands issued by God, our scope for doing good or bad becomes much greater if there is a God.”

    From “How God Makes Life a Lot More Meaningful,” in Seachris and Goetz (eds.), God and Meaning: New Essays, pp. 154-155.

    • Thanks. It’s interesting to see such similar thought, since I had no familiarity with this author. I’m glad some other people see the connection between God and animals.

  3. So under your paradigm you’re personally more virtuous than Jesus Christ who kept the passover observance of eating lamb.


    Your Romanist works-righteousness is lovely.

    • Hi, CRD.

      It’s not moral relativism. Nothing I said disqualifies any sort of objective, moral realism about what virtue demands in my scenario.

      Secondly, nothing I said implies that i am more virtuous than Jesus. I am not in Jesus’ shoes, in his context and faced with his survival needs.

    • John the Baptist ate locusts and wild honey and met his “survival needs”. In your scenario was he more virtuous than Jesus Christ because the latter ate meat?

      Also *God* prescibed in very clear and graphic terms the sacrificial system for OT Israel. Is this lacking in virtue?

    • Hi CRD,

      I’m not sure relativism follows from the fact that virtuous behavior depends upon context. Indeed, Aristotle and the ethical tradition he fathered placed prudence as the highest virtue precisely because life is messy, and the virtuous person will have to be prudent in order to determine properly the course of action in a particular circumstance. What would be a courageous act in one battle could be reckless in another, despite being the same act in both cases. The prudent general recognizes when to charge, when to hold the line, when to retreat, and so on, in individual cases, and not from some top-down moral calculus or a priori definition of courage.

      This is why Aristotle makes plain up front in *Nicomachean Ethics* that we shouldn’t expect more precision from ethics than exists to be found, i.e., geometry is a pretty precise science, and so it is very easy to determine precisely where and why someone has gone wrong always and everywhere. Ethical reasoning isn’t quite so clean, and we shouldn’t demand that it be.

      As such, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to indict CH for relativism by suggesting that eating meat 2,000 years ago could have been permissible, while holding that it would not be so today.

    • It simply reveals that you’re a diseased tree bearing bad fruit, and therefore are not a trustworthy source.

      It also plainly undermines your self-righteous system of personal virtue. No one is more virtuous than Jesus Christ, who ate meat even when alternative diets were plainly available as shown by the contemporary counter-example of JtB.

      Your readers need to be warned about you:

      “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”

    • Yes, well, at least we established you’re not challenging the argument itself.

      In regards to me, I refer you to what Stephen Krogh said.

    • Catholic Hulk: you might like to read Augustine, Confessions III.12-14, if you’re not already familiar. (It’s about how Abraham et al. could engage in polygamy, live animal sacrifice, etc. and still be righteous–though A grants that it would not be righteous to engage in those practices in his own day.)

  4. G-d bless Catholic Hulk & Matthew Scully. I’m a failed vegetarian, Noachide. This is the bottom line: HaShem, the Creator of the universe, commands all non-Jews to observe the 7 Laws of Noah, one of which precludes eating the flesh of a living animal. http://www.noachide.org.uk/7-Laws/7-laws.html#6

    This is also a prohibition of cruelty to animals. “Moral and legal rules concerning the treatment of animals are based on the principle that animals are part of God’s creation toward which man bears responsibility. Laws and other indications in the Pentateuch and the rest of the Bible make it clear not only that cruelty to animals is forbidden but also that compassion and mercy to them are demanded of man by God.” http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0002_0_01108.html

    The evidence for this position is the eyewitness testimony of 2,000,000 people: http://www.mesora.org/god No other moral system or religion can make this claim.

    This is arguably the best Noachide site: http://redneck_rastafarian.tripod.com He’s a fundamentalist who converted to Catholicism, then he found the ultimate “conservative” position. ;0)

    • @CH, if you’re too dense to see that your argument fails based on the very simple counter-example I provided vis a vis Jesus Christ, then you’re even more incorrigible than I first suspected.

      Your follow appeal to an *Aristotilian* view of virtue instead of grounding the argument from, or even dealing with, Scripture serves to further demonstrate your moral bankruptcy.

    • (Disclaimer: I’m not a trinitarian, but I’ll assume the doctrine of the Trinity for the sake of this argument, since I assume that you believe it:)

      CRD, Is it very simple? Jesus is God, and God doesn’t have moral obligation as we do. For instance, we can’t intentionally kill innocent persons, right? But, God can and has. So, if Jesus is God, he can do those things without necessarily implying that we can. (In fact, it seems possible that even if not God, he could still have such authority so that his doing X doesn’t mean that we can.)

      Also, while John might have been able to care for his needs by eating honey and locusts, would it be feasible for Jesus to do so? Presumably Jesus moved about far more frequently that John, so saying that John could, doesn’t mean that Jesus could, since it might not have been possible.

      Concerning God’s command of animal sacrifices, their religious purpose seems more than enough to justify their killing them, but this reason is lacking today.

  5. Sean K., On Trinitarianism Jesus qua man *did* have moral obligations to the Father during His incarnation, so that point falls flat.

    CH’s flaccid, self-preening post hinges on the virtue of being a vegetarian over and against an omnivorous diet. It’s really just an absurd argument, but to point the fool to his folly I gave one simple counter-example using the most virtuous person who ever lived.

    Also to your point, JtB was a *desert dwelling ascetic* whereas Jesus traveled from town to town preaching. Have you ever been in the desert? It streches logic to the breaking point to suggest Jesus had *less access* to very basic sustenance than a desert dwelling hermit.

    For anyone who actually cares about this type of thing (I don’t and I think my work is done here wrecking CH’s furniture), here’s a link to a post on this topic from a rational perspective.

    • CRD, I personally don’t agree with him that in our day one must be a vegetarian to be virtuous. I was trying to give some attempts to save his position from your objections, and I’m inclined to agree that they fail. For what it’s worth, though, I do think it its accurate to portray his position as implying that ‘So moral virtue is situational,’ and I don’t think it as self-preening.

      in fact, one case seems to give the reason why eating animals is justified. The good from eating them justifies killing them, just as the religious good of the sacrifices. It’s not out of malice that we kill them, and one can before for nicer treatment, so I don’t see how eating them is against living a virtuous life.

    • Thanks for the feedback Sean K. In closing I think the terrified, tear streamed bovine eye at the top of the post looks like it would be delicious with some fava beans and a nice chianti.


    • Hey, Sean K. Which good from killing them so that we can eat them? Nutrition? Sustenance?

      Those are doubtless goods, but, for many of us, those same goods can be attained without causing them such pain, suffering and removing the possibility for any future please and joy. Hence, we have the same goods attained in a way more compassionate way, so what’s the issue?

    • First, I notice a typo in my above comment; I meant ‘I don’t think it is correct to portray. . .’.

      It seems that in addition to the goods you mentioned, there is fact that we ought to enjoy the food we eat. Since we derive some pleasure from eating meat, pleasure that we might not find at the time from eating something else, or to a different degree, this justifies the otherwise indifferent act of killing the animal. It doesn’t necessarily justify all the modern practices that go on in the meat industry.

      I have these Scriptures in mind:

      “Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.” 1 Corinthians 10:25,26

      “If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?” – 30

      “God created [food] to be received with thanksgiving.” 1 Timothy 4:3

      Also, Ecclesiastes 9:7; 10:17, but I won’t quote them here.

      Using these illustrations, perhaps I can explain what I’m thinking.

      Suppose that it’s not fully possible for me to sustain myself without eating meat occasionally, say, once every two months. But that’s all I need, the rest can be provided for with fruit. To be perfect in my compassion, shouldn’t I only eat meat as often as I reasonably judge I need it to sustain myself? I think you’d answer yes.

      Now, as it turns out I eat meat every three weeks. I have friends who invite me to their houses and they serve meat. I partake and have a good time. Sometimes, in fact, I prepare the meal, which includes meat. Am I acting uncompassionately because I partake?

      Suppose that eating meat was costly, as it was in the first century, when meat wasn’t eaten as often. My friend’s son just returned from tending swine and wasting his money on prostitutes, and so he was overjoyed to see him. He decides to throw a feat for his relatives and friends. He orders that an animal be prepared. He doesn’t have to slaughter the animal, does he? Not to provide for his nutrition needs, anyway. But it is a time of rejoicing and, to make a guess, preparing the animal, since it is more costly is a better way to express his joy over his son’s return and his generosity. The goods of enjoyment: of the food itself, and the act of preparing the celebration, and of the meal itself, couldn’t be enjoyed, at least not as well, by eating only bread and fruit. So, the killing of the animal, while unnecessary to satisfy one’s nutritional needs, is justified and I don’t think reflects poorly on the man’s virtue.

      Of course, even if it could be nearly as enjoyable, it seems that eating meat would be justified. Here’s a hypothetical case that I think illustrates what I believe: If I invite a friend over, it is likely that, whatever I serve, as long as it is made well, will be enjoyable and the meal will strengthen our friendship, which is good. Now, though, my friend has this favorite dish, and I figure that if I prepare that meal, it would be an even more enjoyable occasion; the dish includes meat. I prepare it and we have a great time. We gain just a little more pleasure, which probably will be forgotten after not to long, yet, it seems worth it, and thus doesn’t seem to impute anything bad about my character.

      I think that as long as the animals are treated well before being killed, not in horrid living conditions, then eating meat is rather unobjectionable. Everything should be done in moderation, of course, but barring that, I don’t see anything unvirtuous in eating meat as such.

      God gave mankind animals to eat, within such bounds. Nowhere in the Scriptures does it suggest that the bounds are, ‘You can eat meat, which, like food generally, is made for enjoyment, only if you can’t find other sources of food sufficient for yourselves, since barring that, you would not be perfect in compassion were you to kill animals.’ True, something were permitted out of the hardness of the people’s heart, but it doesn’t seem like meat eating is one of those things. (In fact, the distinction between clean and unclean animals was absolved, allowing more animals to be eaten.)

      Thanks for your time. Those are my thoughts, and hopefully they make sense, even if your disagree with them.

  6. CH,

    First off, I would like to thank you for your contributions to Rightly Considered. I always enjoy your posts.

    I enjoyed this article a great deal. The moral, and religious arguments for vegetarian diets are–in my eyes–the strongest case for such a lifestyle change.

    I am curious though: do you abstain from eggs and dairy, or specifically animal flesh? I think a case can be made for dairy harvesting causing undue suffering in cattle, but I haven’t heard any such things about eggs.

    • Hi.

      I don’t abstain from milk and eggs. I just stay away from animal flesh killed for the purpose of my consumption. However, suppose a deer was accidentally hit by my car. On that case, if it were legal, I could consider eating its flesh. What matters for me is why the animal was killed and what a virtuous person would do in that particular situation.

      There might be a case against milk and eggs, and if that were the case, I’d have to reevaluate my diet.

      Thanks for the compliment.

    • Well, that’s one way of putting it I suppose, but I am curious how you view transubstantiation in light of your pursuit of virtue via outward forms, in particular dietary intake. Presumably you find it virtuous to eat the flesh and drink the blood of a slaughtered human, albeit so long as it only becomes human flesh and blood *after* it is consumed. Correct?

      You also failed to interact with the specific Scriptural reference I provided, of which many more could be produced (e.g. Mark stating that Jesus declared all foods clean, Paul’s admonitions specifically about the moral acceptability *eating meat* offered to pagan idols, and Jesus’ declaration that that which is eaten doesn’t defile [morally/ritually], but that which proceeds from the heart).

      You simply ignore the Bible, and Rome hasn’t promulgated any authoritative position on the topic, so your authority is apparently “self”, which reduces your virtue-diet-paradigm to an ethic of self.

      Am I wrong?

Leave a Reply (Be sure to read our comment disclaimer)