I have long thought that Catholicism, or even Christianity in general (though Catholicism provides this more strongly), may provide the necessary ethical principles for one to argue veganism consistently. I take it that arguments which vegans of an anti-religious persuasion often submit to others are usually philosophically naive. For instance, vegans often aren’t clear whether they believe in objective moral values and duties which are binding quite apart from anyone believing them. If they are atheists, for instance, then they have to answer whether their account of the world is naturalistic in such a way as would imply broad causal determinism, which would make moral responsibility a chimera. If they are utilitarians with regard to ethics, then it seems difficult to see that vegans should be pushing for the vegan ideal instead of pushing for the sanitized killing of animals in such a way that they never experience suffering (which I think we also have the technology for, or else will very soon have). As an alternative, then, I suggest that vegans might adopt a Catholic theology to justify the vegan principles they are so adamant about. On the one hand, if successful, this argument has an apologetic appeal for vegans. On the other hand, if too strong, it implies that all Catholics are either obliged to, or else plausibly should, adopt vegan dietary principles. I am not, myself, a vegan, though I am not closed to becoming a vegan if my arguments here convinced me over time – though I see a problem with them related to another argument about Catholic morality implying that one can never morally purchase goods which they do not need for survival or mundane happiness.
First, let us turn briefly to the Catechism:
2415 The seventh commandment enjoins respect for the integrity of creation. Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity. Use of the mineral, vegetable, and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperatives. Man’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation.
2416 Animals are God’s creatures. He surrounds them with his providential care. By their mere existence they bless him and give him glory. Thus men owe them kindness. We should recall the gentleness with which saints like St. Francis of Assisi or St. Philip Neri treated animals.
2417 God entrusted animals to the stewardship of those whom he created in his own image. Hence it is legitimate to use animals for food and clothing. They may be domesticated to help man in his work and leisure. Medical and scientific experimentation on animals is a morally acceptable practice if it remains within reasonable limits and contributes to caring for or saving human lives.
2418 It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. It is likewise unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery. One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons.
Some of you may remember that I used these principles in a paper for a class on Theodicy (or – the Theological treatment of the problem of evil) where I argued for an eschatological Theodicy for animal suffering. Here, I want to adopt these principles as the platform from which one can propose valid arguments for veganism. First, let us hold in mind the principles highlighted in these paragraphs:
- Animals glorify God by their mere existence, independent of any particular benefit they may serve to man immediately, and thus their existence constitutes a ‘good’ which increases the overall good of the world.
- It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer OR die needlessly.
- The Christian reaction to animal life ought to take as its paradigmatic examples the response of St. Francis of Assisi among others, who expressed a familial relation to all of creation as his intimate kin.
- Though it is morally legitimate for man to use animals for the benefit of man (such as Jesus Christ eating a fish after his resurrection) this use of animals has to be tempered with the realization of a “religious respect for the integrity of creation” such as that expressed by St. Francis.
- And most importantly, this use of animals as means to ends “cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperatives”
Now, it seems to me that the principle concern of vegans is not merely that killing for food makes them squeamish in principle, for then they might be satisfied with vegetarianism or fruitarianism or what have you; no, it seems that the vegan is somebody who recognizes a moral imperative to be a vegan. Somebody who feels strongly that animals are being so cruelly treated by us, and without sufficient cause which might justify it, that they have chosen to forgo consuming any product which has been produced by means of the aforesaid cruelty. That this cruelty to animals is, in other words, an unecessary cost which constitutes an instance of incredible evil and suffering for which we as human beings are directly and immediately responsible and morally culpable.
Should the vegan wish to make of religion an enemy in the fight for these convictions they will, I submit, be making a terrible, not to mention elementary, mistake. Certainly many of the people responsible for the poor treatment of animals are religious – most human beings both currently and historically have been religious, at least nominally. However, religion does not often imply cruelty to animals (sure, we can all imagine a religion which requires people to kill the great majority of animal life, but that doesn’t look very much like any religion which has survived to the present day – probably for the same reason those religions which had labelled sexuality as a morally evil act aren’t around either). Instead, and especially in the case of Christianity or particularly Catholicism, religion provides the principles upon which the vegan ethic can be justified, and without which the vegan ethic cannot be justified.
I will proceed with two arguments to demonstrate this. The first one will be rather weak, and it is one of which I am convinced has significant pull for any serious theologian. The second will be much stronger and is either overstated, or else necessarily implies the vegan ethic as a corollary of Catholicism in the context of the present predicament.
The (weaker) Argument from Catholic ethics for Veganism
- Being a vegan is possible.
- Whenever being a vegan is possible, it is also laudable on the presumption of Catholic ethics.
- Therefore it is laudable, on the presumption of Catholicism, to be a vegan.
First, what I mean by ‘laudable’, in order to dissolve any ambiguity, is precisely “that it would be better than not”. Therefore the argument can be read through to the conclusion as implying that Catholic ethics imply that it would be better, where possible, for anyone to adopt veganism, than it would be for them to fail to adopt veganism. Let’s take a closer look at the premises. The first premise seems relatively uncontroversial, as most people can point to living examples of those who carry it out and seem to be none the worse for wear. Perhaps one could rephrase it in a more sophisticated way to make the point stick:
- It is possible today for those with the economic and industrial disposition experienced in the modern western industrialized world, to be vegans.
Premise 2 seems to follow from everything which has been established in the principles derived from the Catechism, at least given the presumption that animals today are suffering needlessly. If one wishes to justify the current state of animal suffering then I need only direct one to any vegan who can, I am confident, pull out arguments to demonstrate the contrary – I will leave persuasion on that point to the Vegans.
Premise 3 seems to deductively follow from the truth of 1&2, and might be read as:
- Therefore it is laudable, on the presumption of Catholic ethics, for anyone with the economic and industrial disposition in the modern western industrialized world to be a vegan.
Although this argument does not imply that Veganism is morally required on the presumption of Catholic ethics, still it implies not only that Veganism is something a Catholic can feel free to adopt, but that Veganism may be better to adopt than it would be to fail to adopt for anyone, Catholic or not, given the presumption of Catholic ethics. This argument has advantages in many ways because it isn’t so strong as to create hostility from either side, and it also plausibly serves to both reduce Catholics to vegan diets as well as to reduce vegans to Catholicism.
The (stronger) Argument from Catholic ethics for Veganism
- Whatever is laudable, given Catholic ethics, is a moral injunction whenever it is possibly realized
- Veganism is laudable and possibly realized
- Therefore, given Catholic ethics, Veganism is a moral injunction.
This argument is stronger, and it is inspired, I must admit, by an argument which was shared with me by a friend of mine, Michael Long (whose podcast I link to at the bottom of the homepage for this blog). He is a philosophically brilliant atheist, and he put to me the following argument once. He argued to the effect that whenever a Christian spends money on a good which they did not need to have, they have literally, given the assumption that Christianity is true, committed a sin. This means, for instance, that purchasing candy or ice cream, let alone shoes or hockey tickets, may constitute a sin. The logic of this argument is, I think, impressive. Consider the definition of sin – as the Greek word implies etymologically, and thus, if you like, literally, sin is that which ‘misses the mark’ – as the word is borrowed from archery and missing one’s target. This argument works especially well on Catholic theology, where sin is divided not only into venial or mortal categories, but more significantly where sins may be of commission (those you ‘commit’) or omission (those instances of good one fails to realize, for which one is morally culpable). In any case, the argument goes that where one purchases a good which brings only pleasure, and doesn’t contribute to the mundane happiness or health of the world, at least where it was possible to purchase anything which does contribute to the mundane happiness of the world, one has committed an immoral action. As a thought experiment, imagine that you are on your way to buy ice cream, when you know that the dollar you will spend on it will not contribute to your health or the health of the world around you – but where that same dollar could have been donated to save somebody from dying of hunger today on the other side of the world. People think such considerations are abstract because the plausible alternative to purchase the good of saving somebody’s life for a day is simply not so realistic an alternative. However, since geography makes no difference to such moral arguments – imagine for the sake of the thought experiment that the person dying of hunger was sitting next to the ice cream stand, and now you have to choose where that dollar goes. Isn’t it morally reprehensible, even inexcusable, for somebody to purchase the ice cream? How is that different from the situation in which we don’t visually see the person dying of hunger when we purchase the ice cream?
This argument obviously isn’t aimed to persuade Christians that all purchases are immoral – for indeed I might need to purchase a car for the sake of my job (contributing to the mundane happiness of the economy, civilization, the family, and even myself), or other such things. However, the argument at least demonstrates that when and where Christians purchase anything just for the pleasure it brings, without it realizing ‘health’ or mundane happiness, they are committing an action which ‘falls short of the mark’ (literally, is sin). Of course, one has to realize that, in some sense, the purchase of even ice cream might contribute in a minimal and confused way to my mundane happiness or ‘health’ – by providing me the means to release stress and mental anxiety, for instance. However, although such matters require discernment from day to day, the principle, it seems, stands solidly – whenever a Christian purchases something which does not significantly contribute to the mundane happiness of the world where and when it could have, they have betrayed their worldview, and on a Christian account of ethics they have even committed a sin. Moral culpability obviously presumes one’s awareness, and therefore the argument would not imply that anyone was sinning in committing such a transaction, technically, until they had been made aware of this argument. Once they know that somebody is dying of hunger who could be saved, the choice is an intellectually and morally live option.
One must consider this argument seriously. If it works, then it implies that Christianity calls people to an ideal which is rarely realized by Christians. Moreover, if applied to the issue of Veganism, it would seem to imply that failing to become a Vegan, at least once one is made aware that Veganism is laudable, is also literally sinful given the presumption of Catholic ethics.
I realize, of course, that I have not yet demonstrated the insufficiency of adopting a Utilitarian ethic for justifying veganism. This, however, is trivially easy to demonstrate. One can imagine on Utilitarianism – which proposes that only that which contributes towards maximal pleasure and detracts from maximal suffering in the world is morally right – that the situation in which one normal person finds herself in a room with ten hungry cannibals is a situation in which it is plausibly moral for the cannibals to eat her. One might argue that the suffering due to her might not itself exceed the pleasures the cannibals would receive from eating her, but that perhaps the grief it will cause her family and friends greatly outweighs the pleasure the cannibals would receive. However, one just has to imagine a homeless person with no family relations or any friends to speak of, and the situation is just as problematic. Moreover, one can imagine drugging the victim in their sleep, so that they never suffered in any way, physical or psychological, and very easily it becomes morally right (maybe even morally laudable) for the cannibals to eat the one human victim. On such a system of ethics, Veganism is not strongly implied, as one might imagine negotiating the suffering caused by the farming of animal goods in such a way that there was more pleasure elicited than suffering. Veganism then looses its bite, so to speak, because it no longer has a right to be morally scandalized at the treatment of animals which causes unnecessary suffering. On Catholicism, the benefit of using animals which justifies them being thus used has to be that it contributes significantly to the mundane happiness of the world, and one ought to inculcate a respect and love for animal life in principle. On Utilitarianism one can use animals whenever and wherever the whole project implies a greater increase of pleasure than of pain.
At this point I think the moral argument for the existence of God itself should be noted in passing. Obviously this argument, if successful, demonstrates that without some commitment to theism one cannot consistently maintain that there are any objective moral values or duties. However, we all apprehend such a realm in our moral experience, for which we have no more reason to be skeptical than the sensible-physical objects apprehended in our sensible-physical experience. As Dr. Craig, an apologist for Christianity and a philosopher, points out, any argument that one can make for being skeptical about the reality of moral truths apprehended in moral experience easily has a corresponding parody which will be an argument that one can be skeptical about the reality of the physical world we apprehend in our sensible experience. I agree, and like Dr. Craig I see no sufficiently good reason to think that objective moral values and duties don’t exist. However, if they do exist, then we have to ask what possibly accounts for that fact? In the absence of God there is no logically possible ontological foundation for moral values and duties. Theism implies that these are grounded in God, and that God by definition is a necessary being (in the modal sense). Since the Vegan is usually a moralist, I take it that such an argument should, in itself, serve to add something compelling to the suggestion that Catholicism, or something relevantly similar, must justify Veganism, and that no alternatives can do so as plausibly. It contributes to a cumulative case, as it invites the Vegan to give some account of their moral convictions, and implies that at least theism must be true for their moral convictions to have muscle.
Finally, the Vegan might object by saying that since Catholicism, or something relevantly similar to Catholicism, implies that one can treat animals as means to ends (where other human persons can only be treated as ends in themselves), and that this doesn’t sit well with their moral instincts. However, I think they are simply wrong about their moral instincts. Consider, for example, whether a lion killing its cub is the moral equivalent of a father killing his child. Consider whether a cheetah forcefully breeding with a mate is the moral equivalent of rape. Such thought experiments (usually) serve to demonstrate that we find that there is something qualitatively different about mankind. Moreover, I think there is more than Speciesism at play when we find it morally acceptable to let the lion eat the ox, but find it unacceptable to let the lion eat a human child. In one case, we feel a sympathy for the victim, but often restrain ourselves because we realize that it is morally responsible to allow the lion to eat the ox – where we do not have the same reaction when the lion is eating a child – and indeed we would feel it was morally reprehensible for somebody to not interfere by killing the lion. Therefore, our moral instinct clearly witnesses to the qualitative moral difference between human persons and animals in such a way that the claim that in our moral experience we apprehend that human persons can only be treated as ends, where animals can legitimately be treated as means to ends, is simply self-evident.