Showing posts with label vegetarian. Show all posts
Showing posts with label vegetarian. Show all posts

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

In Defence of Christian Vegetarianism? Introduction

For a very long time in human history, there have been people who did not eat animal flesh. The ancient Greeks referred to vegetarianism as "ἀποχὴ ἐμψύχων", or "abstinence from beings with a soul", and one of the more famous Greeks, Pythagoras, was a vegetarian. In the East, both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions have strong vegetarian tendencies. Among the Christian saints, St John Chrysostom and St Basil the Great seem to have been vegetarians. More generally among Christians, St Augustine of Hippo (certainly not a vegetarian himself) notes that Christians who abstain from meat are "without number" (cf. On the Morals of the Catholic Church).

Still, neither humanity nor Christianity have by any means been traditionally vegetarian. Even the many other Christians who abstained from meat have typically not done so for ethical reasons, but as part of some form of asceticism. Nonetheless, it is necessary to examine our practices, even those which have been practised for thousands of years, and ask: is this ethical?

Having thought about this issue on occasion for about a month now, I think there are about twelve arguments of varying strength for being a vegetarian, and about a dozen objections to Christians being vegetarians, each of which is worthy of note, but none of which are, in the end, successful. Not all the arguments for Christian vegetarianism are explicitly Christian, and I would not consider them all to be entirely convincing - for instance, I do not believe in human rights, so I am far from accepting the "extension" of these to animals. However, since talk of human rights is frequently found in Christian parlance, I have included it in the list. On the other side, I doubt most Christians will readily accept explicitly utilitarian arguments, even though I tend to find these more convincing than the rights-based ones.

Allow me to briefly summarize my position: the ideal for human life is to live in a world without death, both of animals and humans, where we live at peace with each other, creation, and God. However, whilst the coming kingdom of Heaven is like that, this is not the world we live in yet. Right now, there is death, pain and suffering, and the way we live our lives must recognize this fact. However, where possible, we should try and minimize unnecessary death and pain. Hence, we should avoid eating meat. More generally, however, our food (and other) choices should take into consideration the amount of suffering that is required to produce that food, and the meat industry, in general, produces more suffering than can be justified. It is therefore not right to eat meat, since this constitutes formal cooperation with the evil of that suffering. This is a position taken in light of current meat-rearing practices, and cannot necessarily be projected onto the past.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Christian Vegetarianism? A Reflection and Review of "For Love of Animals" by Charles Camosy

Book finished on January 2nd, 2014. Disclaimer: I ignore some parts of Camosy's treatment of the issue in this piece, and expand on it with my own thoughts - please read the book to understand what Camosy writes on the topic.

I heard about the argument of this book a from a brief news article that I read in late October, 2013. I thought to myself, "hey, there might be something in this", added the book to my rather long booklist, and I suspected I would get round to it within the next few years. Something tickled my curiosity, though: did a consistent ethic of life really include animal life? Surely by "life" one meant "human life", after all, even bacteria are alive, and nobody argues for duties towards bacteria (unless they benefit whoever has them).

Near the end of November, a friend who had it messaged me telling me that the book was great, "very challenging, definitely going full on veggie now. Will bring it next time I see you." This chap certainly seemed to have been changed in a quite meaningful way by the message of the book, and even though people seem to be convinced by all sorts of oddities, I doubted he would be altered by any old nonsense - so, given that he was going to lend it to me, I thought I would bump it up my list. It could hardly hurt to explore the idea of vegetarianism inspired by Christianity.

At only about 150 pages, it only took a few hours to read - some late at night (or the morning of the 2nd) and the rest after I got up from bed. It seems to be one of those books which are easy enough to read, but one has to think about whether or not the thesis is as sensible as one was lead to believe as one read. At its core, I think For Love of Animals is, whether fortunately or unfortunately, quite compelling, even if I disagree on some points.

The book could be divided into two parts, the first being a look at Christian views on non-human animals in the past, in the tradition, and the second half looking at now, today, and what we should do about the current situation.

To begin a book about a moral relationship with other animals, however, Camosy has to step back a bit and ask: what, as a Christian, constitutes an ethical treatment of anyone, be it dog, a woman, a black person, or even oneself? So he starts with something which is central to Christianity, and it is justice. He notes flat out, "perhaps one reason why questions of justice are often so difficult to discuss - and provoke such strong reactions - is that a genuine concern for justice means that we might risk rethinking our familiar and comfortable ways of seeing the world." (p. 3) Uh oh. That sort of sentence always seems to preface arguments with conclusions that would be highly inconvenient if true - think of the slave traders or owners being confronted with anti-slavery arguments. It's not enough to appeal to one's legal rights, or the majority concensus - it is the heart of rationality that sound arguments have true conclusions, and true conclusions must be followed. Whether it be the misguided language of slavery "rights" or abortion "rights", justice makes demands on our liberty and autonomy which are very often inconvenient.

Whilst I think the last sentence as an add-on is a bit awkwardly phrased as a definition, and I would prefer justice to be couched in terms of duties and not rights (or being "owed" something), this definition does seem to be the correct product of a Christian deliberation on the justice made manifest in Jesus Christ: "Christian justice means consistently and actively working to see that individuals and groups - especially vulnerable population on the margin - are given what they are owed. It will be especially skeptical of practices which promote violence, consumerism and autonomy." (p. 7)

And so he turns to animals: what does justice towards animals entail?

He knows that justice for animals sounds like a strange concept to most, and probably associated with anti-Christian animal rights activists. But, he says, we already have a basic intuition for the duty of kindness towards animals, for instance, when we hear of horrendous abuse of pets (just google images for "animal abuse" if you have never heard of such cases) or other animals, we intuitively respond with compassion, with moral outrage.

Still, he knows he has to dedicate a chapter to defending the idea that non-human animals even make it to moral status. He goes through the Christian tradition briefly and notes all the sorts of creatures who have moral status, yet are not human - angels, for instance, and that mysterious reference to nephilim might refer to non-human animals with moral agency. Moreover, people are beginning to consider the hypothetical of aliens - a little bit crazy at the moment, but not outside the imaginable - and they may too have moral agency. The point is not so much a defence of the existence of these beings, but that it is still conceivable that non-human animals be accorded with moral status.

Sure, so we do not exploit angels or aliens or whatnot. But animals? They were given to us to eat, right? Well, yes and no. The Edenic state appears to be quite pointedly a vegetarian (probably even vegan) one, and it is not until after the Fall that eating animals is acceptable. Is this total permission, or accomodating permission - by which I mean, is it like the permission to eat from any tree in the garden (except one), or is it like the permission to own slaves? It is unclear, and although Camosy spends a little more time on it, I think his argument will ultimately be unaffected by the distinction.

He makes an important point about creation, though, which is worth pausing for a moment to consider: whilst we frequently think otherwise, creation is not about or for us. All of creation, including animals, are said to be good entirely independent of humankind. We are to have dominion over it, be caretakers of it, subdue it and make it fruitful - that is to say, with all these activities we are to partake in the creative nature of God. I will write elsewhere about the clear Temple and Covenant motifs which appear and re-appear in discussions of creation (Genesis and elsewhere), but the basic point is a rather obvious one, that just because we live on God's green earth, does not mean we have absolute property rights. We are stewards entrusted with creation. We have broken this covenant of care, and so Christ has had to redeem not only us, but the whole of creation, which now "waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time." (Romans 8) And that was before the industrial revolution!

This is a part of the Catechism which is likely to be expanded in the years to come with new encyclicals and the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium as it addresses the destruction humanity unleashes on the world, not least to do with our effects on the climate, on natural treasures and the conservation of natural habitats - but nonetheless, the Church is not silent on care for creation. The relevant section is CCC 2415-2418 (bold mine): "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.

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.

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.

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."

I have largely skipped over Camosy's discussion of the Christian tradition's engagement with non-human animals, as well as statements from recent Popes, holy people and saints, and entirely omitted almost all discussion of the Sacred Scriptures. These are relevant, and raise some potentially thorny questions, to which proper response must be given in due time. For now, the Catechism's summary of care for creation should be sufficient for Catholics. I want to turn, then, to the practical application of these ideas; of Christian justice, stewardship of creation, and the teaching of the Catechism. Camosy's conclusion is probably slightly stronger than the one I am going to give here, but the weaker version will suffice:

It is quite clear that the Catechism permits eating animals. I need not argue that this is merely a circumstancial liberty (like owning slaves) that will be erradicated later on. I wish to point out instead that the Catechism moderates the claim by pointing out that it is nonetheless wrong ("contrary to human dignity" - that is, a violation of our intrinsic ideal and purpose) to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. One must ask, given the quite deplorable conditions from which a substantial portion of our meat comes - not all, and in Australia we are a bit luckier - does spending money to fuel the factory farming industry constitute a real need? I cannot see any justification for it. Note that this is not a conclusion that rejects eating meat outright - it objects to excessive meat consumption (which would constitute needless death) and particularly to the way in which animals are caused to suffer in order to maximise profits for the farm in question. Just because I am well known for advocating that standard logical form be used more often in these discussions, the argument could be expressed:

1. If it is unnecessary to cause an animal to suffer and/or die, then causing it to suffer and/or is morally wrong.
2. The meat that is eaten comes predominantly from animals that have suffered needlessly (in particular, from factory farms).
3. Needless buying and consumption of that meat is cooperation with, and subsidy of, the moral wrong of premise 1.
4. Therefore, needless buying and consuming of that meat is wrong.

The conclusion is not as universal as "meat eating is wrong." It is far more measured: supposing that eating the meat does not constitute a need (which, for most of us, it does not), and supposing the animal did suffer and die needlessly (highly likely, but not guaranteed), then such meat eating is morally wrong.

Not eating meat is hard, and no matter how many reasons are given (sustainability, an eschatological observation, personal health, environmental, et cetera), the social structures that exist in the world, in our families and in our wider communities do not favour vegetarianism. Particularly for men: vegetarianism is seen as effeminate and hence negative, a violation of our proper steak loving manliness. Traditional family meals all tend to have meat - Christmas meals, for instance. The argument I have given, however, demands either our assent or the rejection of its soundness - although I note again, not all meat eating is made bad by that particular argument. If one can get an animal that did not suffer needlessly, and that did not die needlessly, then as far as this argument is concerned, eat away! Perhaps that means a rather large cost - but that is fine, succumbing to cheap meat qua cheap meat would be formal cooperation with injustice, it would be failing to pay our debt of kindness to animals, and hence, wrong. Camosy would probably want to go further than that, but at present, I am only comfortable assenting this far.

The issue at hand, to conclude, is one of justice. Christians of all people should lead firmly by example into new depths of justice, kindness, and care for what God has entrusted to us.