24 July 2004

Religion and Meat-Eating

I still get e-mail from people who say, in response to my posts, that meat-eating is allowed by their religion. This puzzles me. Do you disobey your god’s commands (or violate your god’s laws) by forswearing meat? Is vegetarianism prohibited by your religion? Will you go to hell if you decide to do better by animals than you have to? Surely the answer to these questions is “No.”

Let’s make a typology of actions. Every action is either permissible or impermissible. Every permissible action is either required or not required. So there are three categories of action:
1. The required (i.e., the obligatory or mandatory).
2. The impermissible (i.e., the prohibited or forbidden).
3. The permissible but not required (i.e., the discretionary or optional).
No religion, to my knowledge, requires meat-eating, although some religions forbid the eating of certain meats. So meat-eating is discretionary. The decision whether to eat meat must be based on nonreligious grounds, such as what effect it has on overall happiness or the amount of misery in the world.

Suppose you enjoy the taste of meat. You might reason that, since you enjoy it and it’s not prohibited by your religion, there is nothing wrong with eating it. But the meat you eat was produced, in all likelihood, in atrocious conditions. The animals whose flesh you consume were made to suffer terribly in its production. Do you think your god is indifferent to this suffering? Wouldn’t a rational god expect his or her subjects to refrain from inflicting suffering on his or her creatures, especially if the only reason for doing so is taste? Don’t say that animals lack souls. That’s irrelevant. The question is not whether animals have souls but whether they can suffer, and surely they can. Suffering does not require ensoulment.

Please don’t use your religious beliefs to rationalize self-interested behavior. That your religion doesn’t forbid meat-eating doesn’t imply that you should do it, all things considered, much less that you should do it no matter how the meat was produced. You have a responsibility to your god (I assume) to act wisely and benevolently. If you’re Christian, ask yourself whether Jesus would look kindly on factory farms and those who support them. I tend to believe that if there is a god, he or she will consign meat-eaters to hell, for they disrespect divine creation. But that’s a subject for another post.

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