A Philosopher's Blog

Debating Meat II: Theology of Meat

Posted in Ethics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on February 18, 2010
Thomas Aquinas was the most important Western ...

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While religion is often used to justify eating meat, it is rather interesting to note that some significant Christian thinkers have seriously considered the ethics of the matter. This does make perfect sense. After all, the bible is clear that killing is a sin and it would certainly be unfortunate to end up in hell for eating a hamburger.

St. Aquinas addressed the matter of killing living things in his Summa Theologica. His approach is to raise and reply to three arguments against the killing of animals (primarily for the purpose of consuming their flesh).

In his first argument he contends that it appears to be unlawful to kill living beings. His concern, is of course, that breaking God‘s law leads to damnation. He further notes that divine providence seems to command that all living beings be preserved. As such, killing would be against divine law. Given his ethical theory, this would also make killing animals an immoral act.

In response to this, Aquinas avails himself of St. Augustine’s argument about eating meat. Augustine’s argument for the acceptability of eating meat actually has three parts.

First, he contends that the injunction against killing does not apply to trees (because they “have no sense”) or animals (because they “have no fellowship with us”). Thus, the injunction against killing does not apply to plants or animals. Of course, there are those who contend that trees do have sense (or at least some sort of awareness) and fairly strong case can (and has) been made that animals to have fellowship with us. As Hume argued, animals seem to differ from us mainly in degree rather than in kind.

Second, Augustine makes use of some of Aristotle‘s philosophy to present a teleological argument for eating meat. He begins with the assumption that it is not sinful to use something for the purpose for which it was created.  Following Aristotle, he notes that there is an order of things in the universe and asserts that the “imperfect are for the perfect.”

Interestingly, he notes that this follows the process of reproduction: beings go from a lower to a higher state. In the case of man, he asserts, there is “first a living thing, then an animal, and last a man.”  he then returns to his main focus, and contends that because plants have mere life, then they exist as food for animals. Since animals are inferior to men, they are thus food for men. As such, it is morally acceptable for humans to eat meat.

This argument, obviously enough, assumes that there is a hierarchy of beings and that being lower down on this hierarchy allows the higher ups to eat one. This would certainly seem to imply that beings higher than man could lawfully eat men.  Fortunately for us, angels do not appear to have a taste for human burgers (perhaps they subsist on angel food cake).

Put a bit more roughly, his argument seems to be that we are better than animals, so we can eat them. This “we are better than you” reasoning has, of course, been routinely used in history to justify a wide variety of misdeeds ranging from oppression to slavery to outright genocide. As such, it certainly seems to be a justification that is morally questionable.

Third, Augustine presents a theological argument for eating meat. He begins by noting that animals need to eat plants and men need to use animals for food. This, of course, typically requires killing the plant or animal. This is justified because the bible says it is:  (Gn. 1:29,30): “Behold I have given you every herb … and all trees … to be your meat, and to all beasts of the earth” and  (Gn. 9:3): “Everything that moveth and liveth shall be meat to you.”

This argument assumes that God exists and has given us permission to eat animals. Obviously enough, those who do not share these assumptions will find the argument rather less than compelling. Another point that can be contended is his assumption that humans need to eat animals. While this might have been true in the past, today there is no such necessity. As such, while we might still have permission from God to eat meat, this still leaves us the option to chose not to do so.

The second argument that Aquinas considers is based on the assumption that murder is sinful because it deprives a man of his life. Since animals and plants are also alive, it would seem that it would also be sinful to kill them.

Aquinas responds to this by using what certainly appears to be views taken from Aristotle. To be specific, he claims that animals and plants lack reason and are driven by mere natural impulses. Because of this, they are “naturally enslaved” and exist for our use.

This is, of course, another version of the “we are better than them so we can eat them” argument.  If we take this principle literally and apply it consistently, then it would seem that rational humans could thus consume humans who are not rational (such as infants).  After all, as Augustine argued, a human infant would seem to be on par with a mere animal.

Various people have also argued that some animals do possess reason (such as elephants, primates and whales). If so, killing them would count as murder under Aquinas’s view of the matter.

Aquinas’s third argument is purely theological. He notes that divine law requires special punishments only for sins. There is a special punishment for a man who kills another man’s ox or sheep, so it would seem that killing animals would be sinful.

His reply is a very easy one-the sin being committed is not a sin of murder but of theft. This is because the killer is depriving another man of his property. This, of course, does make it sinful (and immoral given Aquinas’s moral theory) to kill animals that people own (such as pets).

My main thought on these arguments is that while they do argue that eating meat (and plants) is morally and theologically acceptable, they do not show that we must eat meat. After all, even if it is agreed that we can eat meat, it does not follow that we are required to do so. In light of the concerns raised by Aquinas and Augustine, it would seem reasonable and ethical to avoid eating meat except when we must do so to survive.

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26 Responses

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  1. magus71 said, on February 18, 2010 at 7:31 am

    Jesus ate meat–lots of fish.

    How would primitive man have survived without meat? No clothes, no Vitamin B12.

    Here’s a list of the nasty things that happen when you don’t get enough B12–which will happen if you’re a vegan and don’t supplement with vitamins, which are very new invention of the modern age.

    I refuse to adhere to a morality that harms or maims me without truly helping the greater good.

    Veganism seems to be the fad of females 18-23. They phase in and out of it as they please. When their body screams for meat (and it will) they cheat, but claim moral superiority, as if eating only celery prevents cows form suffering.

  2. magus71 said, on February 18, 2010 at 7:31 am

    Lack of B12 does the following:

    http://www.wrongdiagnosis.com/v/vitamin_b12_deficiency/symptoms.htm

      • magus71 said, on February 19, 2010 at 12:58 am

        Yes, now search Pub Med for the results concerning the reducing carbohydrates of your diet.

        This study says:

        “Detailed information regarding their medical records, alcohol intake, physical activity and smoking habits was recorded”

        Smoking is by far, the worst thing people regularly do to themselves. The study doesn’t say how much smoking correlated with ACS. And the number one indicator as far as blood samplings go asto if you will have a coronary event is triglyceride to HDL ratio. Triglycerides are bad. The way to drop triglycerides? Drop carbs.

        The study doesn’t say if the people more likely to suffer a ACS were obese, smoked or anything, just that the info was recorded.

        Eating too much of anything is bad for you. I’m happy with the results I have, which seem to be better than most people who claim to know a lot but walk aroun fat and unathletic.

        Seemsyou’re tellling me we shouldn’t eat meat and since we KNOW we can’t subsist on vegetables without artificial supplementation…hmmm.

  3. magus71 said, on February 19, 2010 at 3:00 am

    And while I realize that this post is not about health impacts of eating meat, however, I do think that one has to examine this when considring if something is moral.

    It amazes me that I keep coming back to Nietzsche. But I think he is on point in several subtle ways.

    Throughout Mike’s posts on the ethics of meat eating, people have countered my arguments for meat eating with idealogical counters. In other words, it seems they don’t want meat to be healthy, because the act of killing animals offends them. The two issues are not related.

    So, back to Nietzsche. His primary argument against the Christian church was what he called the church’s Transfiguration of Values.

    That is, it took certain activities, which Nietzsche considered natural or even empowering, and called them “sin”.

    He contrasts this with Buddism. He says that Christianity is the “struggle against sin” but that Buddism is “the struggle against suffering”.

    Nietzsche’s view of the Christian church was particularly dim because he was–like all of us–a person of his times. Human error, polititical ramifications and inertia all worked together to form a church that was overly legalistic and contrlling of the individual, seemingly ignoring the central tenet of the Gospels: Man is fallen and cannot rise above his own evil–but Christ took care of that.

    So where am I going with this?

    First, it is my central argument against a good portion of Dr. LaBossiere’s ethical arguments; the arguments tend to put the fiction of morality above material suffering or health.

    There is no science without measurement, and there is no morality beyond an actions ability to help or hurt someone. This includes our own bodies.

    If meat is healthy and we can’t live without eating some of it–than it is not moral to not eat it. Dr. Labossierre would argue against this, perhaps. He may ask me if eating humans is moral. I’d say I’m not an absolutist, but that I’ve read the book, ALIVE, and I would have done the same thing, though I wouldn’t kill a man to eat him.

    I would also say this: Assuming we know meat is healthy andthat we need to eat some, if only a little, what if I were to deny a prisoner meat and thus damage his health? Many would jump to the defense of the prisoner and say that I’m abusing him.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 19, 2010 at 10:18 am

      The evidence seems to be that humans can be healthy without meat, but this is a factual matter. If we cannot, then I would agree that it would be morally acceptable for us to eat meat so as to avoid suffering from ill health. After all, while morality does require us to make some sacrifices it cannot require us to make unreasonable sacrifices (although it could be awfully good of us to do so).

      But, if meat is not essential to our well being then eating meat cannot be justified on these grounds.

  4. T. J. Babson said, on February 19, 2010 at 8:24 am

    A video on test tube meat…

  5. magus71 said, on February 19, 2010 at 10:55 am

    It’s so pretentious and false of people to equate people with animals. Do they mourn for weeks, months or years when they step on an insect, as they may if theyt accidentally ran over a child with their car? Few people really think animals are equal–they just like that animals don’t talk back or challenge their authority–or have silky fur.

    People like to feel superior for any reason. It’s like CS Lewis said about the sneaky ways a human mind can use good intentions to make itself feel good: “Oh my–I AM a truly wonderful person, because look how humble I am!”

    The best measure of a person is when things go badly for them, and like Kurt Vonnegut said–how you treat people who have no connections.

    If we weren’t meant to eat meat, could we digest it and gain any nutrition at all fromm it? We’re omnivores, obviously.

    • dynamomelano said, on February 19, 2010 at 2:05 pm

      Hydrochloric acid can “digest” glass, that does not mean that it is advantageous to eat glass.

      • magus71 said, on February 25, 2010 at 5:42 am

        Hmmm. Has anyone yet found that a human being can gain nutriants from eating glass?

        Next contrarian question please.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 19, 2010 at 2:12 pm

      But we can eat and digest people, but I wouldn’t take that as justifying cannibalism.

    • kernunos said, on February 25, 2010 at 1:37 am

      Depends on how cute the animal is. The cuter it is than the less yo should eat it. Mmmmmm, meat.

      • magus71 said, on February 25, 2010 at 5:40 am

        Mike,

        “But we can eat and digest people, but I wouldn’t take that as justifying cannibalism.”

        I’ll reprint what I write above–because I knew you’d say this.

        “First, it is my central argument against a good portion of Dr. LaBossiere’s ethical arguments; the arguments tend to put the fiction of morality above material suffering or health.

        There is no science without measurement, and there is no morality beyond an actions ability to help or hurt someone. This includes our own bodies.

        If meat is healthy and we can’t live without eating some of it–than it is not moral to not eat it. Dr. Labossierre would argue against this, perhaps. He may ask me if eating humans is moral. I’d say I’m not an absolutist, but that I’ve read the book, ALIVE, and I would have done the same thing, though I wouldn’t kill a man to eat him.”

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 25, 2010 at 7:59 pm

          Morality cannot simply be assumed to be a fiction. Also, take a look at Aristotle and Plato’s arguments about how ethics is critical to true health (that of the soul).

          Also, take a look at the arguments in Kant about ethics being a matter of duty rather than consequences.

          • T. J. Babson said, on February 27, 2010 at 12:26 am

            I’d like to return to Magus’s earlier point about the size of the animal. Should the size of the animal matter? Is it worse to kill a cow than a mouse? If by harvesting wheat we kill lots of mice is that really any different than killing cows for beef?

  6. monkeywithpants said, on February 19, 2010 at 12:18 pm

    Most people I know that choose not to eat meat do it more for moral reasons than for health. And if it’s a moral reason, thats about as easy to make people understand as your reason for believing in one faith over another. Eat a steak, don’t eat a steak, decide for yourself and leave the rest of us alone. And instead of debating endlessly on whether Hungry Man is the end of western civilization try focusing your mental energies on more serious issues…..like why Blizzard won’t let me skin gnomes in Warcraft.

  7. magus71 said, on February 19, 2010 at 1:28 pm

    All I know is the ribs and baked beans with a can of Miller Genuine Draft I just had is about as good a meal as I can ask for…

    • P.E.N.Name said, on February 20, 2010 at 12:00 am

      Dump the beer. Empty calories. Have a nice slice of Deep Chocolate Cheesecake instead.

      • kernunos said, on February 25, 2010 at 1:38 am

        Beer keeps the blog-rage going. I’ll stick with that.

  8. magus71 said, on February 20, 2010 at 4:02 am

    This book The Vegetarian Myth, is written by a feminist who drank all the grape kool-aid and paid the price. Her health was permanently damaged by 20 years of veganism. Eventually she came to explore the real implications of veganism, and found that it is unsustainable as a world-wide diet.

    Only people who are motivated by ideology or religion can continue in veganism. They will, over a period of years, watch their health and physical capabilities rapidly decline.

    I have never met a vegan who was physically strong. They may be able to run for distance (even this capability will diminish much quicker than if they were not vegans) but they simply have no physical power. If you find an Olympian who is a vegan, it will be in an endurance, aerobic dominated sport, not an anaerobic power sport like bobsledding. This is because power sports exert much more stress on the body. I remember reading something written by All-Pro tight end for the Atlanta Falcons, Tony Gonzalez. He decided to go vegan one off season. When he went to the ream’s first workout session inthe gym, he could barely lift the dumbbells that before he’d thrown around for high repetitions. He made some adjustments to his diet, and in his new book, recommends small amounts of meat.

    My sister experienced the same sort of thing when she went to play rugby in college. She was a vegetarian, but quickly found that she only performed her best if she ate meat. In high school, where she was the best female athlete on the track and field team as well as cross-country, she simply didn’t experience the stressors of rugby–which is a power-sport with vast endurance requirements.

    Vegan seems to me to attract those looking for The Way. Hence the nearly religious mindset.

    Can one survive survive without meat? Oh yes–go to India and find vegans, who because of their religious convictions eat only vegetables and suffer from the worst mal-nutrition in the world, not to mention some of the lowest IQs because of stunted brain development. Can a vegan in the West do better? Yes, by micro-managing their diet to a point that would make me miserable, and that is only sustainable bythe very thing that many in the vegan community would stand against: Industrialisation. Without industry there is almost never the selection of food that we have here. Not in the wilds of Africa or the Rainforests of South America. In other words, the claim that veganism as practiced by the most Westerners, is wrong. The diet is in fact a product of Western living, not nature, in which man will eat anything once living in order to survive.

  9. magus71 said, on February 25, 2010 at 5:48 am

    Wow. Is life really this difficult?

    Don’t YOU eat meat Mike? Do YOU think it’s immoral?

    If we are to argue that animals are equal to humans therefore we can’t eat them, then we should hold them to equal standards as ourselves. Therefore, animals should not be able to eat meat either, therefore carnivores are clearly evil creatures. Come to think of it, so are herbivores; I’m sure they ingest many insects and they simply don’t give a damn.

    Again–Nietzsche–the Anti-Christ. Who would have thougt I could find such an ally. He despised a moral “system”, and so do I. Even the people who want to boil morality down to a mathmatical fomulae can’t get it to work and don’t really live like this. We live mostly by instinct–what we feel is right or wrong.

    “I mistrust all systemizers and avoid them.”~Nietzsche

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 25, 2010 at 7:58 pm

      I do eat meat. I have some good reasons to think it is immoral. Therefore, I have some good reasons to think that I have been acting wrongly.

  10. magus71 said, on February 26, 2010 at 2:50 am

    It’s settled for me. There is virtually no scriptual argument for the vegetarianism for ethical reasons:

    Jesus said:

    “When He had called all the multitude to Himself, He said to them, “Hear Me, everyone, and lunderstand: 15 There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are the things that mdefile a man. 16 nIf 6anyone has ears to hear, let him hear!”

    17 When He had entered a house away from the crowd, His disciples asked Him concerning the parable. 18 So He said to them, p “Are you thus without understanding also? Do you not perceive that whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, 19 because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, 7thus purifying all foods?” 20 And He said, “What comes out of a man, that defiles a man. 21 For from within, out of the heart of men, sproceed evil thoughts, tadulteries, ufornications, murders, 22 thefts, vcovetousness, wickedness, wdeceit, lewdness, an evil eye, yblasphemy, zpride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within and defile a man.”~Mark 7:14-23

  11. magus71 said, on February 26, 2010 at 3:19 pm

    Inuits only have access to meat. That’s all they eat–fish, seals etc….

    Bad people those eskimos.


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