Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Should We Be Vegetarians? St. Thomas Aquinas Weighs In.

(Note: take a look here before you read this post.)

We want to know whether we should stop eating meat. Concerning this question there are four points of inquiry:
  1. Whether becoming a vegetarian has good consequences for the world;
  2. whether vegetarianism makes us healthier;
  3. whether we have a religious obligation to be vegetarians; and
  4. whether we can justify vegetarianism without any of the preceding points' being the case.
Let us begin with the first article. Does adopting vegetarianism have good consequences?
  1. It seems that vegetarianism does have good consequences. Abstaining from meat leads to the death of fewer animals.
  2. Moreover, vegetarianism reduces our negative impact on the environment.
  3. Moreover, vegetarianism, if it's selectively applied to meat-producers with egregious slaughtering practices, induces slaughterhouses to treat their animals better.
On the contrary, as Nathan Nobis argues, "the conclusion... it ought to be the case that we are all importantly different from the conclusion that she ought to be vegetarian."

I answer that my refusal to eat my grandmother's brisket has a trivial influence on commercial meat production. If I stop eating meat, there is no empirical evidence that, even over the course of my life, I will reduce aggregate demand enough to induce any slaughterhouse to reduce its output by even one animal. The calculations that meat producers make are simply too gross to account for any one consumer's behavior. So while it would be morally preferable for the whole country to become vegetarian, that's irrelevant to the question of whether I should. Unless I'm willing to proselytize and convince as many people as I can that they should be vegetarians, my individual decision to stop eating meat is akin to urinating into Allagash Falls. (Which, by the way, I can attest has no effect.)
Either way, the moral of this oft-quoted parable does not apply in this case: there is no individual cow that I can point to and claim to have saved by being a vegetarian.

Replies to the objections: The above answer should make the replies to the objections clear.

Let us proceed to the second article. Does vegetarianism make us healthier?
  1. It seems that vegetarianism makes us healthier. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, together with many other reputable organizations, has long advocated a vegetarian diet  on the grounds that it is associated with lower rates of cancer, diabetes, hypertension, asthma, and  gallstones.
  2. Moreover, typical foods that vegetarians eat are on the whole healthier than typical foods that meat-eaters eat. Quinoa is better than chicken soup, and kale than a tongue sandwich. (That cadence works better in the original.)
On the contrary, in 1928, the Republican Party proposed to promote good nutrition by promising a chicken in every pot.

I answer that the claim that vegetarianism makes us healthy is unsubstantiated. Good health is strongly correlated with good socioeconomic status, and most vegetarians are not working class, so it's unclear that the association between vegetarianism and health is causal. Furthermore, it is unlikely that a vegetarian diet is significantly different from a diet that simply includes less meat. Finally, our healthiest president was an avid hunter. (N=1, I admit. Even so!)

Replies to the objections:
  1. There's no reason that a person can't eat meat occasionally and still enjoy the benefits that the PCRM lists. The PCRM might have a case for encouraging us to eat less meat, but not for the absolute abstention implied by vegetarianism.
  2. Eating meat does not necessarily mean eating unhealthy meat. White meat in moderation, for example, is high in protein and low in fat. We can also get a good supply of iron from moderate amounts of red meat.
Let us proceed to the third article. Do we have a religious obligation to be vegetarians? (I will answer this question from a Jewish perspective, but I think that a similar argument applies to many Christians and Muslims.)
  1. It seems that we have a religious obligation to be vegetarian. Prohibitions against cruelty to animals are found throughout Jewish law, as in Exodus 23:5, which commands Jews to relieve even their enemies' donkeys from their burdens. And modern slaughtering practice—even kosher slaughter—is tantamount to the cruelty described in the Bible.
  2. Moreover, the Bible permitted eating meat before a time when vegetarianism was possible for most people. Now that it is indeed feasible, there is no reason to assume that the Bible's lack of a prohibition on meat is sufficient evidence that God does not expect us to be vegetarians.
On the contrary, God specifically permits meat to the human race in Genesis 9:3.

I answer that God does not expect us to refrain from eating animals. God is primarily concerned with our treatment of other human beings, and though we have an obligation to be kind to animals, what counts far more is our kindness to our brothers and our enemies. (In this vein, I think that some animal-rights campaigns can even be counterproductive if they distract people from pursuing human rights.) 
At any rate, God sometimes even requires us to eat meat. Every Jew, for instance, used to be—and one day will be—required to eat the paschal lamb on Passover.
So while God insists that we refrain from cruelty to animals, if we treat them well, they're fair game (pun intended).

Replies to the objections:
  1. The Bible makes clear throughout that cruelty to animals, not killing them, is the problem. This might mean that current slaughter in the United States is prohibited given the conditions to which it subjects animals, but the killing is not prohibited in itself. On the basis of the Bible, it might make sense to eat, for instance, only grass-fed beef, but there's no justification for complete abstention.
  2. In the absence of new revelation, we cannot presume to know that the will of God with respect to all human beings has changed on this question. 
Let us proceed to the fourth article. Even though vegetarianism has no effect on the world, is not divinely mandated, and doesn't make us healthier, should we still do it?

I believe firmly that we should. I start from the premise that killing sentient beings to eat them is objectively wrong, and even if it's not egregiously wrong, it would be morally preferable not to kill them. Vegetarianism, understood rightly, is an act of moral revulsion at this wrong. (I say moral revulsion—vegetarianism ought to have more behind it than squeamishness at the sight of blood.) Even though our diet has likely no effect on the environment or on animals' well-being, we still shouldn't be able to stand the fact that animals are regularly put to death for our benefit. Abstention from meat doesn't follow logically from the conviction that killing animals is wrong, but it follows emotionally. (Though the connection between belief in the wrongness of killing animals and the decision not to eat them is emotional, the original decision that killing animals is wrong is not.) As Peter Singer says, "becoming a vegetarian is a way of attesting to the depth and sincerity of one’s belief in the wrongness of what we are doing to animals (quoted by Nathan Nobis)."

Being convinced of the wrongness of killing animals was all it took for me—I couldn't stand being a part of systematic slaughter, so I stopped being a part of it.

By the way, as far as I'm concerned, the actual act of killing is the problem. Nevertheless, there's a good argument to be made that the suffering of animals in slaughterhouses is enough grounds to oppose eating meat.

Let this suffice as our answer.

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