Virtue and Killing and Eating Animals: A Response to Catholic Hulk

Recently, the Hulkster has argued that, unless one needs meat for survival or to feed other animals, one should not kill animals for food. He gives two arguments, one theological and the other non-theological.  Since he spends most of his time on the non-theological argument I will focus on it as well. He avoids some controversy in his non-theological argument by making no appeal to the moral status of animals, rather he focuses on human virtue and argues that “virtue demands” that one be a vegetarian (in non-survival circumstances).

A bold claim. Virtue demands that one be a vegetarian. In other words, unless one needs to kill an animal in order to survive in the wilderness, one cannot be virtuous if one kills animals for food. Presumably he has moral virtues in mind, so he is saying that one cannot be morally good (or perhaps fully morally good as far as life this side of the Beatific Vision is concerned) if one kills animals for food. But there is more! Not only is it against moral virtue to kill them for food, it is against virtue to eat animals farmed for food even if you were not involved in the killing:

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 what sort of moral virtues does Hulk have in mind? And precisely how is one not living up to or cultivating these virtues if one is eating farmed animals? He adds, “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 it.” 

Perhaps under the influence of Pope Francis rather than St. Francis, Catholic Hulk appeals to such squishy modern virtues (if virtues they are) as compassion, kindness, thoughtfulness, and empathy rather than hearty, traditional virtues such as fortitude (bravery!), temperance, justice, and wisdom.  The idea is that if one even eats food as a result of farming animals unnecessary for survival, this is against the cultivation of these virtues. Why? It’s unclear, but it has something do with animals being subjects of pain and suffering–though this can’t be what he thinks gives them moral worth because, recall, he intended his argument to make no appeal to the moral status of animals.

On a plausible reading, Hulk is channeling Kant and his argument against the cruel treatment of animals. Kant famously held that animals are not subject to moral appraisal and have no moral worth due to a lack of autonomy, nonetheless humans should treat them as if they had worth because in doing so one is more likely to treat humans with dignity. Similarly, one should avoid the cruel treatment of animals because it will lead one to treat humans cruelly.

There are several problems with Kant’s argument, but I will focus only on one, since it seems to apply to Hulk’s argument as well. Kant’s claim, notice is an empirical one, so it needs to be supported with empirical psychology for it to be plausible. For it could very well be the case that human psychology is such that (at least for the most part) humans can and do treat animals differently than humans all the while cultivating without hindrance the virtues Hulk has in mind. In fact, it seems manifestly true that in a number of areas we treat animals quite differently, so much so that it hardly seems worth mentioning. We humans have routinely shot animals in mercy killings but are reluctant to do so when it comes to humans. We routinely bury humans we’ve never met in war but only bury our pets. We treat other humans as morally responsible agents deserving of moral praise and blame but rarely treat animals that way. The western world has for the most part abolished slavery but we routinely sell and use animals for their labor. And only in the most dire of circumstances have humans been eaten by other humans but animals have been eaten by us and by each other since the very beginning (or, well, since very near the beginning, depending on your interpretation of Genesis).

I find it very hard to see how someone who does not even think about the ethics of eating meat–something not even on the radar of most Walmart shoppers–would be affected in any way in terms of their virtues or vices. To repeat, we’re ignoring whether animals have objective worth and considering only whether the cultivation of virtues is inconsistent with meat eating. Couldn’t a Walmart shopper still cultivate justice? Temperance? Faith?  Fortitude? Wisdom? Or even compassion, kindness, respect, and empathy (though perhaps not with respect to meat eating since we’re stipulating that the person hasn’t spent much time thinking about that the ethics of it)? It has only been relatively recently in human history that humans have been afforded the luxury of worrying more about the ethics of factory farming than finding their next meal. Have all the meat eaters in centuries past been deprived of these virtues when they spent little time thinking about the ethics of meat eating? If not, why would most people today who similarly think little about the ethics of meat eating be deprived of virtue?

But more to the point, some of what Hulk lists are not even in fact virtues. Empathy is not a virtue for the reasons given by Kant. It is as morally unreliable as self-interest. Both are aimed at someone’s happiness, in the former at someone else’s and in the latter my own. Empathy can and often does go wrong, for instance when one empathizes with a murderer and lets him go. Compassion? Jesus was compassionate but only in certain circumstances. Perhaps compassion is a virtue but it’s not obvious that it is. The cardinal virtues like justice, wisdom, fortitude, and temperance, on the other hand, are obviously and always good. It’s never bad to be wise, for example.

In conclusion, my hunch is that the only plausible non-theistic arguments for vegetarianism will need to appeal to the moral status of animals to justify its moral claims, and such arguments, in turn, will be only as plausible as utilitarianism.


A former police officer, AR-15 (or “AR”) knows the difference between an assault rifle and home defense rifle. AR now fights with other weapons and demolishes arguments. He agrees that the pen is mightier than the sword, but he isn’t so stupid to bring a pen to a gunfight.

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  1. Well said. I left this link on this same topic over in CH’s combox, but it fits equally well here.

    Love the “meat love” pic btw, an alternative might have spelled “P.E.T.A.” (People Eating Tasty Animals).

  2. Philosophers have a tendency to complicate things so I’ll attempt to simplify.

    Folks wisdom about good and bad, right and wrong, is based on a needs-hierarchy; Aristotle and Maslow came in different ways to formulate the theoretical groundings of this. (Aristotle spoke in terms of eudaimonia, Maslow in terms of self-actualizing. Both explanatory-justificatory frameworks essentially treat goods as synonymous with needs(-satisfaction).)

    Living beings have needs-hierarchies; they are more complex given the complexity of the organism involved. Humans have the most complex needs-hierarchies but the other animals have similarities to ours.

    Both Aristotelian-style and Kantian-style logical consistency will show us that we would be incoherent in affirming that the similar needs of beings similar to us don’t matter ethically. (This need not commit us to utilitarianism or consequentialism as typically understood: those normative theories take aggregation as a grand moral criterion, and that is, shall we way, too controversial a criterion to so much as assume here, and simplicity considerations make this a topic for another time. Further, it is murky how aggregation criteria are supposed to match up in significant ways with folk wisdom.)

    This of course doesn’t require our taking the same ethical stance toward the other animals that we take toward human beings with their rationality capabilities. But it does mean that insofar as we share certain needs with them, we accord those needs – on pain of incoherence – the appropriate considerations. Deliberately causing unnecessary suffering to a sentient being fails under coherence criteria (under the needs-hierarchy-as-value-conferring framework).

    This doesn’t mean that we owe animals consideration on the basis of autonomy; that applies to humans. This does lead to a conclusion that some animal-rights radicals might not find, uh, palatable. It means that if we raise animals for food but in comfortable and healthy conditions, with normal socialization and other commonly-animal needs being met, and then kill them painlessly and stress-free for food purposes, then we are morally within the pale. (The radicals will hold that we violate some principle of *respect* for animals, fail to treat them as “ends in themselves” and not merely as means. My only problem with this is how we make the justificatory steps toward such a radical position, despite a certain degree of intuitive appeal contained therein, some grain of truth in there somewhere.) The main moral obligation on our part in such a case is to raise animals whose lives are worth living, that they aren’t made worse off for our having brought them into existence (which is arguably what happens under current industrial agricultural practices).

    As for virtues, they are contextually conditioned by the needs-hierarchy analysis. So dispositions such as empathy have to be qualified by the needs (as distinct from wants) served thereby. (Same goes for a eudaimonic conception of rational self-interest, a la Rand.) And under an Aristotelian eudaimonic normative framework, how does thoughtfulness not be the central virtue contextually informing all the others? Good human living is generally speaking thoughtful and intelligent living; the rest is a matter of specific application.

    • I agree with most of what you say above, Ultimate. Regarding “thoughtfulness” it’s not clear to me what it means so I ignored it. e.g. “That was very thoughtful of you.” Whatever thoughtfulness is referred to in ordinary tokens of that sentence does not seem like a central virtue.

  3. “Philosophers have a tendency to complicate things so I’ll attempt to simplify.”

    *That* was simplified? :0)

    I’m not sure I could follow your technical explanations!

    • Awww, are your wittle feewings hurt, Hulkie-wulkie? Maybe mama will make you a nice seaweed smoothie before she tucks you in tonight, sweetie!


    • CRD: reading my comment again I am myself struck by the number of places where I did not express my points as clearly as they could have been. (One instance: “Living beings have needs-hierarchies; they are more complex given the complexity of the organism involved.” Is the “they” after the semicolon a reference to needs-hierarchies (as I had intended) or to living beings? ) Unfortunately this blog does not yet have comment-editing capability. But I can help clarify what you would need clarifying.

      I think perhaps the simplest way to phrase my point is: If we are going to uphold our own needs-satisfactions as a value/good which has implications for how we ought to behave, then we deny this value-status in the case of others’ needs-satisfaction only on pain of contradiction (incoherence).

      I’m thinking of how this (IMO) intuitively-appealing idea might be put into more formalized terms. The general principle involved would be *something like* the following: For any needs-having being, the fulfillment of its needs is of positive normative significance and the frustration of its needs-fulfillment is (all else being equal, i.e., absent an overriding reason) of negative normative significance.

      (This would have to be filled in by certain specifications such as: all else being equal, a moral agent ought to pursue what makes that own agent’s needs-satisfactions go best – this is referred to in the literature as the agent-relativity of value or reasons, which would be a decisive consideration against consequentialist or utilitarian aggregation, even if there are good agent-relative reasons for taking an interest in the needs-hierarchy of other beings given the positive normative significance of those needs being satisfied. The issue there is how exactly the needs of another generate reasons for me to act in responsiveness to that normative significance.)

      This general principle would have implications for how we ought to behave toward living things generally (including, e.g., plants, the wanton destruction of which has negative normative significance, even if not nearly as much normative significance as the wanton destruction of a sentient being, much less a rational sentient being).

    • I grant the point that the average Wal-Mart shopper can manifest and maintain various virtues without reflecting on their shopping or eating habits.

      Nevertheless, as wisdom is a part of virtue and wisdom emerges from reflection, one might conclude that the virtuous person OUGHT to reflect serious on their shopping and eating habits. Moreover, serious reflection on the way in which meat products are sourced should, at the very least, give the virtuous person pause.

      Suppose the fundamental moral question is “what kind of person should I be?”

      It’s very difficult for me to imagine someone answering with: “the kind of person who knowingly contributes to unnecessary suffering.”

      Of course, the CRDs of the world remind me that imaginability isn’t an entirely reliable guide to possibility, which is just one of the reasons this herbivore strongly supports the 2nd amendment.

  4. @Lysias, cute. People like CH and you can eat all the veggies you want, heck, I guess you can be *physically intimate* with veggies if that rings your bell, just stop with the absurd social posturing that pretends what you defecate and flush makes you more virtuous than other people. The emperor has no clothes.

    Silliness like that is insufferable.

  5. @Lysias

    The unimaginable suffering of a vegan diet is far greater than any suffering experienced by an animal. Veganism is unnecessary suffering.

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