All We Can Eat?

Thinking about Vegetarianism

After living in England for a year, and eating one too many dishes of poorly cooked, unidentified meat, I came home to the United States a vegetarian. Over Thanksgiving dinner, my uncle jokingly proclaimed that I had become an Episcopalian. Admittedly, what makes the joke funny is obscure. But there is a hint in it that becoming a vegetarian is not, well, altogether kosher—that it is something like giving up old-world Catholicism for new-age Episcopalianism. The joke hints that there is something about being vegetarian that isn’t very Catholic, and perhaps even a little...heretical. Which is perhaps why, even if the joke isn’t very funny, it somehow makes a bit of sense.

Generally speaking, vegetarianism is, as the French say, pas très Catholique. From very early in church history, abstaining from meat was met with suspicion. (The unappetizing word “vegetarian” dates from only the nineteenth century.) Origen distanced “our ascetics” from the Pythagoreans, who abstained from meat “on account of the fable about transmigration of souls” (Against Celsus). Augustine praised “perfect Christians” who abstained from meat “in order to gain mastery over their passions,” but attacked the Manichean elect who abstained as a matter of doctrine (On the Morals of the Catholic Church). And it goes on. Augustine argues in The City of God that the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” does not apply to animals, since “these do not share the use of reason with us.” Instead, “by the most just ordinance of the Creator, both their life and their death are subject to our needs.” The text in question here is Genesis 9:3, where after the flood God gives Noah and his family “every creature that is eat.” Lest there be any doubt, Aquinas affirmed the justness of God’s “ordinance” many centuries later in Summa contra gentiles. He reasoned that, since man is the end toward whose generation all of nature is directed, man rightly “employs all kinds of things for his own use: some for food, some for clothing.” In the words of Psalm 8, quoted by Aquinas, everything has been put at our feet.

Or so it was once thought. But should we, many centuries and several conceptual revolutions later, still believe it today? The growing ranks of vegetarians and vegans have answered no, and it appears that many others don’t know quite what to think. The remarkable number of discussions in our periodicals of what we eat and how we raise our food, along with the popularity of “free-range,” “cage-free,” “grass-fed,” “organic-pastured,” suggest that change is afoot. And that makes sense. The question of meat eating has long been bound up with the question of human beings’ status in nature. As the historian Tristram Stuart observes in his new book, The Bloodless Revolution, there is a deep connection between “the ancient question of man’s nature” and “the equally ancient question of man’s natural food.” Against the background of major changes in our conception of nature, the question becomes natural itself: What ought we—and in particular we Catholics, committed as we are to the dialogue of faith and reason—to think about meat-eating today?

The news hasn’t gotten to my uncle, but I am no longer a vegetarian. I’m an omnivore again, though there is still much that I won’t eat and think others should not eat. What follows is an account of some of the thinking that got me to my current position, and some of the quite difficult issues that a person who takes the question of meat eating seriously must reckon with nowadays.

It is true that there are some dissonant voices on the question of meat eating in the tradition. For example, St. Jerome considered God’s giving Noah the animals to eat a grudging concession to our fallen nature. After all, in Genesis 1, God gives humankind “every seed-bearing plant over the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it” as food; it is only after learning that “the desires of man’s heart are evil from youth” that God relaxes the rules in Genesis 9. (It is often overlooked that, before then, the prescribed diet had been vegetarian.) In Against Jovinianus, Jerome went so far as to argue that “by fasting we can return to paradise, whence...we have been expelled.” The church responded, however, not by prohibiting meat altogether, but by institutionalizing periodic fasting, as in Lent. Even St. Francis, who (legend has it) preached to the birds, did not preach vegetarianism. The problem wasn’t only that beggars can’t be choosers (Jesus instructs his disciples in Luke 10:8 to “eat what is set before you”); it was also that by rejecting meat one risked being associated with the Manicheans and the Cathars—which meant a date with the Inquisition. Seventeenth-century religious radicals like the Diggers in England echoed Jerome’s call to renounce meat, and argued for extending the Golden Rule to animals; but, according to Stuart, “‘vegetarianism’ as a separate religious position did not take hold as much in Catholic countries as it did in Protestant regions after the Reformation.” Ironically, Catholic fast laws also institutionalized the eating of meat—that is, on those days it wasn’t prohibited.

In recent times, the most forceful challenge to meat eating may be the late philosopher James Rachels’s Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism. Catholics may have trouble agreeing with Rachels’s anthropology, but his argument must be engaged. Rachels begins by claiming that “after Darwin, we can no longer think of ourselves as occupying a special place in creation—instead, we must realize that we are the products of the same evolutionary forces, working blindly and without purpose, that shaped the rest of the animal kingdom.” Darwinism “poses a problem for traditional morality,” according to Rachels, because traditional morality, like traditional religion, “assumes that man is ‘a great work’” and “grants humans a moral status superior to that of any other creatures on earth.” But what happens to this belief, Rachels asks, “if man is but a modified ape?” His answer is simple: “Human life will no longer be regarded with the kind of superstitious awe which it is accorded in traditional thought, and the lives of nonhumans will no longer be a matter of indifference.”

We will revisit both these conclusions, but for now what’s important is to understand Rachels’s argument. It turns on an analysis of the “core idea” of human dignity and the grounds for our belief in this idea. Rachels identifies two parts to this idea.

The first part is that human life is regarded as sacred, or at least as having a special importance; and so, it is said, the central concern of our morality must be the protection and care of human beings. The second part says that nonhuman life does not have the same degree of protection. Indeed, on some traditional ways of thinking, nonhuman animals have no moral standing at all. Therefore we may use them as we see fit.

If traditional morality is founded on the idea of human dignity, Rachels argues, and if this idea founders once we take evolutionary theory to heart, then traditional morality also founders and we can no longer hold that human life enjoys nearly absolute protection and nonhuman life none, or next to none. In Rachels’s words again, “Darwinism provides reasons for doubting the truth of the considerations” supporting the idea of human dignity, namely, “that humans are morally special because they are made in the image of God, or because they are uniquely rational beings,” essentially different (say in terms of soul) from all other animals. That we evolved from animals means that we, too, are animals, different only in degree, not in kind, from the rest of the animal kingdom. This is the burden of Darwin’s argument in The Descent of Man.

It may well follow from Rachels’s argument, if we take it to heart, that “human life will no longer be regarded with the kind of superstitious awe which it is accorded in traditional thought.” It is noteworthy that a collection of writings by Rachels’s fellow animal liberationist Peter Singer is frankly titled Unsanctifying Human Life. And it’s also noteworthy that Rachels authored a very clever and frequently anthologized article in favor of voluntary active euthanasia. But does “unsanctifying human life” threaten to liberate much more, and much worse, than Rachels hoped for? As Stuart documents in The Bloodless Revolution, “vegetarianism was in fact as prominent [in the early twentieth century] in the Fascist Right as it was on the Left.” There were a variety of reasons, from attraction to “the vegetarian rhetoric of purification” to “antipathy to Judeo-Christian anthropocentrism.” But what ought to give one pause is that the Nazis’ “insistence that humans were just another animal in the doubt rationalized their decision to treat some humans in ways which their own animal protection laws would have proscribed.” It might well be asked, then, whether it would be wiser to increase our estimation of some other animals—for example, those capable of what the philosopher Mary Midgley has called “emotional fellowship”—rather than lower our estimation of humanity.

We might wonder, too, whether undercutting human dignity necessarily means bringing liberation to nonhuman life—or, as Rachels puts it, making nonhuman life “no longer...a matter of indifference.” Rachels never considers whether there is a connection between belief in human dignity and commitment to the moral life. He seems to take for granted that people will always care about morality and even consider it of utmost importance. But it could be that denying human uniqueness risks jeopardizing our sense of responsibility to the natural world, and might thereby lead to precisely the indifference that Rachels seeks to vanquish. If humans have no special place in nature, why would we feel any special responsibility to be its steward?

So long as we do care about morality, however, the case for vegetarianism cannot be easily dismissed. After Darwin, there is no disputing our kinship with the rest of the animal kingdom—and so Rachels’s central claim stands: Darwinism presents a challenge to traditional morality’s “double standard” for human and nonhuman life. Though Catholics and others might want—with good reason—to rebut Rachels’s attack on human dignity, the conviction that humans are made in God’s image and likeness must not lead to a denial of God’s bounty elsewhere in creation. It is worth recalling that, at the end of the book of Job, God goes on and on about his care for animals (including lions and asses and ostriches), apparently reproving Job for his self-centeredness.

In establishing a baseline equality between human and nonhuman life, Rachels is on common ground with many other philosophers. Singer, for one, has urged “that we extend to other species the basic principle of equality that most of us recognize should be extended to all members of our own species.” The most tried and true way to distinguish humans from other animals is to observe that, as Augustine put it, “these do not share the use of reason with us” (a prerequisite for free will, another human prerogative). Lacking reason, nonhuman animals lack the necessary condition for having obligations and duties. Therefore, it is claimed, they do not belong to the moral community. Yet, against these observations, it can be countered that not all human beings “share the use of reason” at every point of life (notably the beginning and the end); and some, such as the profoundly disabled, do not even have the potential to do so. What’s more, the fact that a person does not—or even cannot—have obligations implies neither that she cannot be the beneficiary of obligations, nor that others have no obligations toward her. (Think of children, to whom we owe more rather than less when they are very young.) The fact that animals “do not share the use of reason with us” cannot be the reason why we hold that they can be eaten. Otherwise, horribly, we would have to agree that it is licit to eat many human beings as well. What is it, then, that matters morally? In a footnote deep within his book The Principles of Morals and Legislation, the arch-utilitarian Jeremy Bentham made a claim that, more than two centuries later, remains basic to the animal liberation movement. Referring to animals, Bentham wrote, “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” For him, not rationality but sentience, which makes suffering possible, is the criterion for moral consideration. As Singer has written more recently, “If an animal feels pain, the pain matters just as much as it does when a human feels pain.”

Yet there is, as often in philosophy, much more to say. Not only do so-called deep ecologists argue that ecosystems merit moral consideration despite the fact that they aren’t sentient and so, strictly speaking, can’t suffer; there is reason to think that, even if sentience is the criterion for moral consideration, giving equal consideration to all sentient creatures does not take us very far.

Stuart tells the tale of Richard Brothers, an eighteenth-century British religious radical who sought to revive the prelapsarian diet of plants and fruit and for various reasons suffered the fate of many other radicals of his day: he was thrown in jail. There, Stuart writes, “the jailers’ masterstroke was giving these prisoners a choice: eat beef or starve.” Brothers ate beef, and who could blame him? It is difficult to imagine that there could be much to say for the claim that he failed morally—though surely he would have failed had he agreed to eat, say, newborn human babies, or the profoundly disabled. Pace Rachels and Singer, partiality toward our own kind appears to be not only justifiable, but even obligatory, as it is toward our families.

Brothers’s quandary appears to make clear that a human being’s interest in living weighs more heavily than that of a nonhuman animal, even many animals. A strict utilitarianism appears untenable. This opens, however, a very full can of worms. If it was justifiable for Brothers to have eaten meat, what else is licit? What about the use of animals—any and all animals—in research that might lay the ground for someday saving human lives? More to the point, is it permissible to eat meat in less exceptional situations, like lunch or dinner today? After all, we don’t eat animals only because they taste good to us; we eat animals to live.

One question here is whether the fact that there are alternatives to eating meat obliges us to take those alternatives. Normally, adults don’t need meat in order to survive, and there are vegetarian options that are nutritious and quite tasty themselves. Another question is: What should our position be toward the natural order? And yet another: Just what is our own nature? Most philosophers hold that the suffering caused by predators who need meat in order to survive is justifiable. In the words of the philosopher David DeGrazia, “Nature really seems to be ‘red in tooth and claw’ when it comes to carnivores”—which is all right, as he sees it, since predators have as much a right to live as prey do. What is not all right, DeGrazia claims, is for us humans to try to justify our hunger for meat by claiming that we need it when we don’t. But it might well be asked why eating meat is justifiable for carnivores but not for omnivores when we, too, eat meat to live. Although adult human beings normally don’t need meat to survive, eating meat comes naturally to us by way of our evolutionary history. Recall Stuart’s observation that there is a deep connection between “the ancient question of man’s nature” and “the equally ancient question of man’s natural food.” For philosophers like DeGrazia (whose book Taking Animals Seriously is one of the best in the literature), eating meat is justifiable for carnivores because they have no choice; but humanity’s reason requires us to correct our nature.

From one perspective—that of Augustine—there is a hint of heresy here, a worrying suggestion that nature fundamentally needs correction. From another—that of Jerome—there is a truth: Nature needs correcting because it is fallen. (In Paul’s words in Romans 8:22, “All creation is groaning in labor pains even until now.”) Ultimately, it may be that the question of what to think about meat-eating comes down to how we understand nature and our place in it. Is the natural order good? Is it good that there are human beings? These are rather big questions, to say the least. So it is no wonder so many people today don’t know quite what to think about eating meat.

For my part, I gave up vegetarianism because, after several years of it, I didn’t feel healthy. I also didn’t know much about nutrition then, which means that my experience doesn’t count for much; but, as I’ve come to learn a little more, my hunger for meat has grown and my attraction to vegetarianism diminished. The claims that “humans prefer animal proteins and fats...because they contain all the essential amino acids needed for life in the right ratio” and that plant proteins “are inferior in quality and even quantity”—these are the stuff of controversy, as demonstrated by the recent kerfuffle in the New York Times over an article in which these claims appeared, Nina Planck’s “Death by Veganism” (May 21, 2007; and letters, May 23). I tend to agree with Planck’s claims, however, which are supported in detail in her book, Real Food: What to Eat and Why. And so my justification for eating meat is that it’s natural for human beings to do so-more precisely, that we are constituted to benefit enormously from it (especially before birth and during infancy and pregnancy). Even if we don’t strictly need meat in order to survive, it can help us flourish—and this, I cannot but believe, is good.

This doesn’t mean I think we may treat all other animals however we please. If the justification for eating meat is that it is natural for us and helps us flourish, consistency requires that we respect in turn the natures of the animals we eat: chickens, pigs, cows, fish, sheep, turkeys, and many others. Today’s methods of industrial farming—AKA agribusiness—do not show this respect. The conditions of life down on the factory farm have now been amply documented; see the Web site of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals ( for more than you probably want to know. As one oft-quoted exposé puts it, “cruelty is acknowledged only where profitability ceases.” In Singer’s concise summary, “Animals are treated like machines that convert low-priced fodder into higher-priced flesh, and any innovation that results in a cheaper ‘conversion-ratio’ is liable to be adopted” without regard for the animals’ natural impulses and needs. Even antivegetarians like Planck agree. According to her, “factory farms wreck the natural order,” abusing animals, degrading the environment, and spoiling the quality of the meat we eat, with noxious consequences for our health. (My conversion to vegetarianism in England was surely helped by the outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy—“Mad Cow Disease”—at the time.) Vegetarianism and veganism represent one response to this disturbing reality. The local-food movement represents another.

Consistency with my justification for eating meat—that it is natural to us and as such helps us flourish—also requires one positive injunction. While the conditions of life on factory farms are not natural and ought to be resisted, the extension of our powers of sympathy beyond our own human species is natural and ought to be encouraged. One consequence of this injunction is that cruelty should not be an afterthought, “acknowledged only where profitability ceases.” As Proverbs puts it, “The just man takes care of his beast, but the heart of the wicked is merciless” (12:10). Another consequence is that our appetite for meat should not be unrestricted. Animals that exhibit what Midgley calls “social and emotional complexity of the kind which is expressed by the formation of deep, subtle and lasting relationships”—animals like the great apes, elephants, and dolphins, among others—naturally elicit our sympathy and lay claims on us for respect, irrespective of what other intellectual capacities they have. I hope it is not sentimental to say so, but on this point those notorious animal-lovers, children, have much to teach us hardened and world-weary adults.


Read more: Letters, September 14 and October 12, 2007

Related: Free Birds, by Michael Peppard

Published in the 2007-07-13 issue: 

Bernard G. Prusak is professor of philosophy and director of the McGowan Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. His co-edited volume, with Jennifer Reed-Bouley, Catholic Higher Education and Catholic Social Thought, will be published by Paulist Press in February 2023.

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