Meatless diet: Moving beyond intellectual assent?

Meat eating and its industry are harmful to human beings and our environment. Vegetarianism is a better way of life. No doubt about that. But when we speak of vegetarianism as a “better way of life,” do we move beyond scientific investigation to the realm of values? Arguments for vegetarianism often do just that—from touting the health benefits of a meatless diet to raising issues of morality.

The question is: Is it morally obligatory to adopt a vegetarian diet?

Tom Regan, a prominent advocate for animal rights, helped to raise the discussion of what some call “ethical vegetarianism”1 into the realm of morality. Regan believed that upon considering sound arguments, his audience should choose to become vegetarians. “Most of those who should happen to read this essay,” said Regan, “will be leading lives that, if my argument is sound, ought to be changed in a quite fundamental way.”2 Like many others, Regan was not simply seeking to present a strong case for vegetarianism. Rather, he was setting out to change lives—to change not just the way people think, but also how they eat. But are the arguments for a meat-free diet sufficiently weighty to produce both intellectual assent and behavioral change?

Puzzling over these questions invites consideration of the arguments in favor of vegetarianism. While these arguments might be grouped in a variety of ways,3 we have selected five categories.

The health argument

Scientific study has now shown that animal protein is not an essential element of a human diet. Furthermore, certain studies show that the incidence of some diseases is significantly reduced for those who forgo meat in their diet.4 Some who approach the question from a Christian perspective argue that vegetarianism was God’s “original diet.” They point to Creation story and the plenty that God provided Adam and Eve in Eden. According to this view, people were designed to flourish without the use of flesh for food.

A second argument from the Christian perspective depends upon scientific evidence that the vegetarian diet is healthier. Because God intends our bodies to be the habitation of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16, 17; 6:19, 20), we are obliged to live the most healthful lives possible. Thus, once one understands that vegetarianism is a healthier diet and once this diet is possible, it becomes the morally preferable diet.

Animal rights

Blending the language of utilitarian benefits with that of animal rights, some authors focus attention upon ethical duties toward animals.5 Crucial to this perspective is awareness of the harm and suffering experienced by animals when they are killed for food. It is considered immoral to cause such suffering merely to satisfy one’s dietary preferences.

Among the studies that culminated in their book, The New Vegetarians: Promoting Health and Protecting Life, Paul R. Amato and Sonia A. Partridge identified 11 reasons why people choose the vegetarian lifestyle. At the top of the list was a “concern over animal suffering or a belief in animal rights.”6 Widespread and popular understanding of the language of rights makes this a particularly easy argument to accept. Sadly, however, the rights of unknown, unseen cows, chickens, and pigs are often overridden by the desires of the palate. Furthermore, both the philosophical foundations and the practical applications of the concept of rights continues to be difficult enough to establish for humans and, thus, even more difficult for animals.

Environmental concerns

Despite the efforts of advocates like Jeremy Rifkin7 and Francis Moore Lappe,8 and despite the huge success of their books, only a small number of people appear to have changed their diet as a result of environmental concerns. For example, Amato and Partridge’s survey, noted above, found that only five percent became vegetarians out of concern for the environment.9 Thus, while environmental ethicists urge more careful methods of land use and conservation, they rarely, if ever, explicitly refer to vegetarianism as a moral obligation.

Social evolution

Under this rubric, we place a variety of authors and viewpoints that call for socio-political change. There is some overlap here with other categories. The work of Lappe, for instance, should be considered in more than one category. Consider Lappe’s concern noted in the preface to the revised edition of A Diet for a Small Planet: “I had a more profound doubt…what of the impact, what of the direction that I was suggesting for people’s lives. Would the readers of my book become so interested in, even fixated on, the nutritional nuances as to forget or neglect the real message after all?10 (Italics supplied).

What was the “real message” Lappe sought to spread? More than anything, she wanted her work to highlight how individual diet “relates each of us to the broadest questions of food supply for all of humanity.”11

With the publication of the revised and updated edition, she was particularly concerned, not only with making cooking and eating simpler and better but also fundamentally with the “political and social significance” of our dietary choices.12


The principle of stewardship incorporates the concerns voiced by environmental ethicists and animal rights activists as well. Andrew Linzey, writing of stewardship from a Christian perspective, urges a radical change in the way Christians have interpreted their relationship to the entirety of God’s creation. Linzey challenges the traditional Christian notion that this world and all that is in it was made solely for the uplifting of humankind. Humans remain unique in the orders of creation, and this uniqueness urges a special duty upon humans to take up the role of “servant species.” As servants of all creation, stewards are to care for the creation, just as God cares for it. Drawing upon the theological concept of a suffering God, Linzey proclaims: “It cannot be sufficient merely to have a negative vision of what we should do to prevent suffering in the world. We need positive vision of how we can take upon ourselves the suffering of the world and transform it by the power of the Holy Spirit.”13

Linzey insists that Christians must move beyond the notion that God only suffers when humans suffer. When we can fully accept the fact that “God suffers in all suffering creatures” we will be better able to accept our role as stewards.14 Unfortunately, for advocates of stewardship, like for the advocates of each of the other arguments, the audience is likely to give a simple response; namely, “Yes, but…”

Moving beyond “Yes, but…”

Each of the arguments noted above has enjoyed widespread acceptance in both philosophical and popular audiences, but the number of those who are choosing the vegetarian lifestyle is not reflective of these levels of acceptance. People are giving intellectual assent to the arguments while enjoying yet another hamburger. It is true that vegetarianism is more acceptable now than it was 20 or 30 years ago, but why don’t more people make this lifestyle change? And of those that do make the change, as Amato and Partridge’s survey shows, why are they doing it largely out of concern for animals who suffer the cruel fate of human consumption?

Philosophical argument, personal conviction, and practical action

Advocates do an admirable job of describing the moral problems associated with meat eating, but when one moves beyond description to prescribing obligations and personal actions, it is necessary to have the hearts of the audience. Changes in personal practice often emerge more from the heart than the head. Good arguments do not necessarily bring personal convictions to bear in lifestyle change. (Please read the sidebar stories to understand how both authors experienced the emotional motivation to move toward a vegetarian diet.)

Critical of many environmental groups, Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin charges that these groups have failed to “spread the ‘V’ word for fear of losing the ‘M’ words—members and money.” Her observations about the issues environmental groups highlight and the methods used to do so further illustrate our point that the practical actions toward the vegetarian lifestyle will arise only as persons are moved emotionally as well as intellectually. As Bloyd-Peshkin analyzes the reasons why environmental groups are not as likely to be vegetarians, she reveals that it is not so much a sound argument that persuades people to make difficult choices, rather it is the movement of peoples’ emotions that brings concrete results.

Bloyd-Peshkin is correct to note that “the environmental impact of meat eating is too indirect.” One is not moved to give up meat in the checkout line at the grocery store. However, one is moved to outrage and action when confronted with the scenes of animal suffering and torture that precede the appearance of their flesh on the grocery store shelf. As Bloyd-Peshkin puts it, one is “far more likely to…get mad about the industrial plant you pass on the way home; you see the filth coming out of its stack.”15

Hume and the movements of human sentiment

Of course the realization that moral agents are moved more by emotion than reason is not a fresh revelation. David Hume’s philosophical works highlighted this reality in the 18th century. But the hegemony of rationalism in the morality of Western society has served to prejudice its philosophers against using appeals to emotion in the process of making moral arguments. The use of emotion in a moral argument is often derided as sappy sentimentality.16

Hume refused to ignore the force of sentiment in the moral life of humankind. In fact it is the sentiment, felt in his day to be unique to humans, that distinguishes human capability for living a moral life. It is the “sentiment of disapprobation” that we as humans “unavoidably feel on the apprehension of barbarity or treachery” that causes us to pronounce such acts as criminal or immoral. Hume insists that human actions are never attributable to the “cool and disengaged” reason. Reason may convey “knowledge of truth and falsehood,” but it will never serve to attach valuations of virtue and vice, the essence of morality. Furthermore, reason can never motivate a person to action. Sentiment is the “first spring or impulse to desire and volition.” In Hume’s view, “The ultimate ends of human actions can never, in any case, be accounted for by reason, but recommend themselves entirely to the sentiments and affections of mankind, without any dependence on the intellectual faculties.”17

Hume’s most prominent and capable defender today, Annette Baier, summarizes this point for us: “For any motivation to action, and for any evaluative reaction, ‘reason’ must ‘concur’ with some ‘passion’; the ‘head’ must work for the ‘heart.’”18 Thus it is the cultivation and practice of these human sentiments that allow for the practical reality of living a moral life.

What does this mean for the advocating of vegetarianism? More is required in the effort to move people toward change in their dietary habits. Good philosophical arguments do not make vegetarians. Moral sentiments, however, more often do. We are encouraging the moral force of movements of the heart as an essential element of the argument for choosing the vegetarian lifestyle.

On the virtues of vegetarianism

Sympathy is one of a class of virtues often referred to as “other-regarding.” The principal focus of this trait is the object of attention, but it presupposes a certain ability in the agent to engage in altruistic and empathetic dispositions. Thus when some other person or being is suffering, we are moved out of sympathy to respond in a fashion that would relieve their suffering. Following Hume, Edward F. Mooney writes that sympathy is “the ‘mechanism’ whereby we sorrow in the plight of others and are moved to respond benevolently.”19

Compassion is closely related to sympathy in that it also is other-regarding. Etymologically, its emphasis is upon a fellow feeling with the other; literally, to suffer with. There is a sense of shared community with other humans in this virtue—and for advocating notions of stewardship noted above, a sense also of an extension of this shared community to include all sentient and non-sentient beings. Like other virtues that involve engaging the emotions of the agent, compassion moves beyond a simple affective state to action. As Lawrence Blum notes, however, acting from compassion means that one will often act “very much contrary to one’s moods and inclinations” because it is fundamentally other-regarding. Indeed, even when one’s actions may not immediately eliminate the suffering of the other, it is “valuable to the sufferer for its own sake, independently of its instrumental value in improving” the lot of the other.20


What practical effect will come from including the practice of sympathy and compassion with the intellectual arguments for vegetarianism? Our contention is that if we move toward becoming a society in which these virtues are valued and practiced, we will see vegetarianism increase and meat eating decrease. These virtues will serve to move us beyond an intellectual assent to the arguments for the vegetarian lifestyle toward the actual practice of vegetarianism.

Does the weight of the philosophical arguments serve to establish a moral obligation for vegetarianism? Does the added element of virtue insist that meat eaters should become vegetarians? And, if so, should society take the next step of prohibiting the production and consumption of meat?

Pressing for moral or legal obligations remains problematic even in the face of powerful arguments for vegetarianism. We can no more require people to be virtuous than we can require them to eat certain foods, particularly at this stage in our societal evolution. Perhaps the time will come when the environmental and socio-political crises faced by human society on this planet will force policy makers to mandate such dietary practices. For now, we must settle for the notion that vegetarianism is simply morally praiseworthy.

The rabbit’s squeal

A few magnificent evergreens towered over the old guest cabin where we had focused our attention. Dad, my brother Pete, and I were out on our first rabbit hunt at Grandpa’s farm in Michigan. The rabbits that made these trees their home were, according to Dad, particularly fast. Pete and I did not utter a word as we circled around the back of the cabin. We knew that if the rabbits heard us coming they would run away too quickly to allow for a shot.

I readied my .20 gauge shotgun as we rounded the edge of the cabin. Dad came around the other side, and just as he reached my peripheral vision I saw the rabbit bolt for the underbrush at the perimeter of the yard. Nothing could have broken my concentration on that rabbit as I kept it in my visual range as Dad had taught me. It came to a stop just this side of the underbrush that defined the yard. I knew that I would have to get closer to shoot it with my shotgun so I crept closer, but before I had shortened the distance between us, the hunt was over. The shock wave from Dad’s rifle rolled over me at the same instant that I saw the rabbit collapse. By the sound of the rabbit’s squealing I knew Dad’s shot had not immediately killed it. The squeal was so intense and piercing we each hurried to the spot where it lay writhing in pain. Dad reached down and grabbed it by the hind legs, laid it out on the ground, put his foot on the rabbit’s head and pulled. Blood spewed from the rabbit’s body as its heart spent its final effort in sustaining life.

I’m sure I tried, but failed to hide the horror I felt inside. Dad must have seen it in my face, since what he said revealed his own need to justify his action in front of his two boys. “It’s the quickest way to put it out of its misery,” he said. —Mark F. Carr

The pheasant’s feathers

I was intensely proud of my new .12 gauge shotgun. I had earned the money for it by picking string beans. My goal was to learn the art of hunting pheasants, Canadian geese, and other “game birds,” so abundant in the Willamette Valley of my youth. My parents seemed confident that 14 was old enough for this activity.

The first couple outings with my friend Bob were unproductive. Despite our best efforts and the fact that Chinese pheasants can be slow and noisy when they begin flight, we missed every one. Mainly, we had long walks on damp, fall mornings, punctuated with a few moments of exciting but inept shooting.

Finally, one weekend morning we went hunting with the “big guys,” Bob’s older brother and his friend. As the junior members, Bob and I were instructed to go to the far end of the cornfield and wait. The other two, along with their German shorthaired retriever, would hunt in our direction. If they missed their targets, our job was to shoot the birds as they came flying in our direction.

And so it happened. A magnificent Chinese pheasant, a “rooster,” flew up, was missed, and headed straight toward where I was crouched. I took aim and fired when it was just overhead. Feathers flew everywhere. The dog came running and fetched the largest part of what was left of the pheasant. It was nearly blown in two. But in what remained I could see the stunning white ring on the neck, the red and deep-green feathers of the head, and the rich stripes of the long tail feathers. Bob’s brother took one look at the dead bird, pronounced it not worth taking home, and threw it in some blackberry brambles.

Covering disappointment and feigning bravado, I took one of the long feathers and stuck it in my hunting cap. Later, alone at home, I studied the feather. I could not erase the image of that colorful bird, minding its own affairs, and blown apart for no good reason. The irretrievable stupidity of it all overwhelmed me. I put the shotgun in the closet, sold it the following year, and never hunted anything again. —Gerald R. Winslow

Mark F. Carr (Ph. D., University of Virginia) is associate professor of religion, and Gerald R. Winslow (Ph. D., Graduate Theological Union) is dean and professor of Christian ethics at the faculty of religion, Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California. Dr. Carr may be reached through e-mail: Dr. Winslow, at e-mail:

Notes and references:

  1. “Ethical vegetarians” are not vegetarians who are morally upright persons. Rather, this term refers to vegetarians who choose this diet for ethical reasons. See Paul R. Amato and Sonia A. Partridge, The New Vegetarians: Promoting Health and Protecting Life (New York: Plenum Press, 1989), p. 35ff; Andrew Linzey and Jonathan Webber, “Vegetarianism,” Dictionary of Ethics, Theology and Society (New York: Routledge, 1996); Gotthard M. Teutsch, “Killing Animals: Reflections on the Ethics of Meat Eating,” Universitas 2 (1993): 98- 107.
  2. Tom Regan, All That Dwell Therein: Animal Rights and Environmental Ethics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), p. 4. Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals (New York: Avon Books,1975) also moves the question beyond simple concern for the treatment of animals when he says that vegetarianism is “not merely a symbolic gesture….Becoming a vegetarian is the most practical and effective step one can take toward ending both the killing of nonhuman animals and the infliction of suffering upon them” (p. 165).
  3. See William O. Stephens’ article “Five Arguments for Vegetarianism,” Environmental Ethics: Concepts, Policy, Theory (Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1998; Jordan Curnutt, “A New Argument for Vegetarianism,” Journal of Social Philosophy 28 (Winter 1997) 3: 153-172.
  4. For a good introduction to one line of research that illustrates this point, see G. E. Fraser, “Associations Between Diet, Cancer, Ischemic Heart Disease, and All- Cause Mortality in Non-Hispanic White California Seventh-day Adventists,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 70 (supplement, 1999): 5325-5385.
  5. Peter Singer and Tom Regan are the two most prominent authors who fall under this category. Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation (1975) served to move the advocating of vegetarianism into the moral realm.
  6. Paul R. Amato and Sonia A. Partridge, The New Vegetarians: Promoting Health and Protecting Life (New York: Plenum Press, 1989), p. 34.
  7. See Jeremy Rifkin, Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture (New York: Dutton Books, 1992).
  8. See Francis Moore Lappe, Diet for a Small Planet, rev. ed. ( New York: Ballantine Books, ninth printing, 1978).
  9. Amato and Partridge, ibid.
  10. Lappe, p. xviii.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid., p. xix.
  13. Andrew Linzey, Animal Theology (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995), pp. 58, 59.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin, “Mumbling About Meat,” Vegetarian Times, October, 1991, p. 72.
  16. Tom Regan reveals this disposition when he writes in All That Dwell Therein, p. 4, that it is possible to suppose that vegetarians, “suffer from a perverse sentimentality.” That they “represent a way of life where an excessive sentimentality has spilled over the edges of rational action.” Thankfully, Regan rejects this response, but he does ignore the force of sentiment as he proceeds with his effort to provide a “rational foundation” for vegetarianism.
  17. David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, reprinted from the edition of 1777 (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court Publishing, 2d ed., seventh printing, 1995), p. 134.
  18. Annette Baier, “Hume, David,” Encyclopedia of Ethics (New York: Garland Publications, 1992).
  19. Edward F. Mooney, “Sympathy,” Encyclopedia of Ethics.
  20. Lawrence Blum, “Compassion,” in Explaining Emotions. A. Rorty, ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), p. 515.