The ethics of food-2: Religious implications

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The role of religious beliefs on the question of meat eating can take people in different directions. As far as I know, Hinduism is the only major religion that unequivocally advocates vegetarianism. Surely it is no coincidence that the tastiest vegetarian meals can be obtained in the homes or restaurants of Hindus. Hindus really know vegetables.

Buddhism seems a little more equivocal because there are many variations of that religion. While it says that individuals should not kill anything, even insects and pests, some Buddhist philosophers assert that it is acceptable to eat meat from animals that were not specifically killed for you for that purpose (Writings on an Ethical Life, Peter Singer (2000), p. 68). In other words, buying and eating a hamburger from a store is acceptable because that animal was not killed specifically to meet your needs, is now dead anyway, and your not eating the hamburger is not going to bring it back to life.

One sees how such an argument might have had some force a long time long ago when people lived close to the land and one ate the animals that lived around you. Then choosing to eat meat for a meal meant that a chicken in your vicinity received a death sentence while choosing to forego meat probably meant a direct reprieve. But we now live in an era when most of us are far removed from the animals that provide us with meat, so this type of highly nuanced prohibition does not provide any benefit for animals.

Judaism and Islam have only minor restrictions on eating meat and Christianity has none at all. The Bible says that humans are special, that god has given them dominion over all the Earth and its beings, and they thus have the right to kill and eat them. After all, god does tell Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Genesis 1:28) And in the New Testament, the Bible says that Jesus’s disciple Peter was shown a vision of all kinds of animals and told “Rise, Peter, kill and eat.” (Acts 10:13).

As a result, there is no religious prohibition in Christianity against eating meat. In his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), Michael Pollan describes farmer Joel Salatin, an evangelical Christian who practices a very humane form of agriculture in which the animals are treated decently while they are alive, unlike most of what goes on in the food production process in the US. (More on Pollan’s book and Salatin later in this series.) Salatin takes great care to treat all his animals well and seems quite fond of them. And yet, when the time comes, he has no hesitation in personally killing and eating them or selling the meat. When Pollan questions him about how he can bring himself to do this, he responds: “That’s an easy one. People have a soul, animals don’t. It’s a bedrock belief of mine. Animals are not created in God’s image, so when they die, they just die.” (Pollan, p. 331)

This view that animals are inferior because they do not have a soul is just a specific form of the more general philosophical view that animals are merely machines. This may seem bizarre to us now but it was based on the highly successful mechanical view of the universe that arose in the sixteenth century and reached its zenith with Newtonian mechanics in the seventeenth century. It seemed natural to the people of that time to think of everything in mechanical terms and the more that was learned about the workings of organisms, the more that mechanical metaphors were used to describe them – “the stomach as retort, veins and arteries as hydraulic tubes, the heart as pump, the viscera and sieves, lungs as bellows, muscles and bones as a system of cords, struts and pulleys.” (God, the Devil, and Darwin, Niall Shanks (2004), p. 32). The idea of the watch (then seen as the apex of precise mechanical engineering design) as a metaphor for nature, and of god as the ultimate watchmaker/designer flowed naturally out of this way of thinking.

The philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was interested in the relationship of the mind/soul to the body and he felt that it was because humans had a soul that they were elevated from being mere machines. Because animals lack such a mind/soul they remain machines, although exceedingly complex ones that might superficially give the impression that they possess minds. But since they are nothing but sophisticated automatons, they cannot feel pain and we should have no more ethical qualms about killing them that we would have about taking apart a computer.

Nowadays the argument that nonhuman animals are merely unfeeling machines can be dismissed out of hand. Modern science has shown that their neural systems are wired similarly to ours, and that it is very likely that they experience very similar sensations to what we do. It is clear that animals can feel pain and can suffer.

But the underlying idea that humans possess some unique quality, the soul or some other thing, that obliges them to privilege their own kind but allows them to exploit other animals is still popularly held and is used to justify meat eating.

Next: What does the theory of evolution imply for meat eating?

POST SCRIPT: New South Wales?

Ever wondered how some parts of the world got their strange names? Mitchell and Webb have an idea.


  1. kural says

    There are many Hindu traditions that advocate vegetarianism -- and as a rule ascetics are expectd to give up intoxicants, narcotics, flesh, fish, and fowl. But again, there are many other traditions where the consumption of all meats except beef is encouraged and even enjoined. Although Hindus may not be carnivorous on the scale of Westerners -- which again is a more recent phenomenon due to the vast agricultural surpluses of the Western Hemisphere -- a majority of them have been found to be not vegetarian. But vegetarianism remains a goal for non-vegetarian Hindus in some way or the other. It is the Jains who are unequivocal about vegetarianism, and possibly even veganism. Jains postulate (not simply believe as there is logical inference involved in the philosophy) that everything is sentient -- and needless to say plants as well. Which is why some orthodox Jains will not eat onion, garlic, and tubers as all of tehm have to be uprooted. They abstain from dairy products as well as it requires us to steal milk that is rightfully the calves’.

    Some Sikhs are also known to abstain from meat and intoxicants as a matter of belief. According to the Sikh Gurus, if one must, one may eat only an animal that has been felled with a single stroke. As a rule in Sikh Gurudwaras, only vegetarian food is served as “langar” or food from the community kitchen, cooked by the community and served to one and all. After one has shared the responsibilities of cleaning the gurudwara, kitchen, and helped with the cooking, a simple langar meal of chappatis, lentils, and vegetables, is best comfort food one can have.

    I believe -- as a lapsed vegetarian and now meat eating Hindu -- that we don’t need philosophy to tell us about the soul and other such things. It is there for us to see that when an animal is put down for food or otherwise it suffers. Its pain is real. I do hope that I can turn vegetarian some day!

  2. Anonymous says

    A variant of Jainism practitioners -- Digambara jains actually wear a mask over their mouths (so they accidentally swallow a bug), walk with a broom, so they can clean the part of the ground they are going to step on next of bugs and insects…

  3. says

    Hi, first, thanks for the great article, i learned so many things, however, there is something that just dont make sense for me, it’s this phrase:’Buddhist philosophers assert that it is acceptable to eat meat from animals that were not specifically killed for you for that purpose’, how can a someone forbidden to kill animals eat meat.
    I’m a vegan and i know that killing animals or making them suffer is bad, so, i wont tollerate my self eating meat what so ever.
    anyways, thanks for the article.

  4. says

    Garlic guy,

    I am not a Buddhist so you should refer this question to someone who is more authoritative but I’ll take a shot at answering your question.

    If the ethical principle is that what is bad is to cause suffering, either by killing or causing killing, then there should be no problem. What is already dead cannot suffer so eating meat is ok.

    Note that it is not ok to buy meat from a grocery because that animal is killed in order to provide meat to eat. But an animal that is not deliberately caused to die to provide meat (say roadkill) is ok to eat.

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