Meat: An ethical challenge for theologians

Meat: An ethical challenge for theologians

Last month the New York Times Magazine ran a contest inviting essayists to argue for eating meat. According to Ariel Kaminer, the Times’ Ethicist, the five contest judges are “some of the strongest ethical critics of meat, or at least of the way we consume it.”

Three thousand essays were entered, and essays citing scripture were disqualified because they were not considered to be making arguments about ethics. None of the finalists mentioned religion in their essays, although theologians and philosophers of religion have been arguing for and against vegetarianism for thousands of years.

Thus Sightings invites theologians and scholars of religion to reflect on the place of religion in food cultures around the world, and on the relationship between ethics and religion in secular societies.

In the winning essay, “Give Thanks for Meat”, Jay Bost quotes ecologist and environmentalist Aldo Leopold: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” In this statement Leopold defines ethical action based on its ecological and environmental consequences, and Bost follows suit. He argues that in some parts of the world, like Arizona, eating meat is more environmentally responsible than eating anything else: “A well-managed, free-ranged cow is able to turn the sunlight captured by plants into condensed calories and protein with the aid of the microorganisms in its gut. Sun > diverse plants > cow > human.

This in a larger ethical view looks much cleaner than the fossil-fuel-soaked scheme of tractor-tilled field > irrigated soy monoculture > tractor harvest > processing > tofu > shipping > human.” He does not mention that the meat industry, in large swathes of the world, produces more greenhouse gases than transportation or other industry, a finding made by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Bost argues that eating meat is ethical when it can better preserve the ecological system in some locales, if the meat is farmed ethically. However, he admits that his argument fails to address the fact that an animal is killed in order to be eaten. He gives us three tasks in order to turn the killing of the animal into an ethical action: “accept the biological reality that death begets life on this planet and that all life (including us!) is really just solar energy temporarily stored in an impermanent form. Second, you combine this realisation with that cherished human trait of compassion and choose ethically raised food, vegetable, grain and/or meat. And third, you give thanks.” This human-centered approach does not recognise animals as creatures with their own dignity, consciousness, or spirituality–aspects of animal existence that have been recognised by many Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and peoples of other religions for thousands of years.

Like the runner-ups, Bost’s essay makes its arguments without referring to religion. Yet for many vegetarians and meat-eaters, one’s diet and its ethical implications is based on religious law, or one’s spirituality. In fact, some of the most ardent defenders of meat-eating and vegetarianism have been revered religious figures. Religions have dietary laws that stipulate what can and cannot be eaten, and how one is to eat what is permissible.

One might even argue that something akin to the New York Times’ competition took place about a thousand years ago, when a group of thinkers in Iraq wrote a tale in which the animals sue humans for mistreating them. Both the animals and the humans defend their case with scripture and rational arguments over hundreds of pages in Ikhwan Al-Safa’s Epistles. Written first in Arabic in the tenth century, the tale was translated into Hebrew by Kalonymos b. Kalonymos in 1316 in Provence. He argues that this Epistle, unlike Kalila wa-Dimna and other animal fables, is serious philosophy and so should be taken seriously. The tale was later adapted into Latin, and it continues to capture the imagination of readers to this day, having been translated into Yiddish, German, and English among other languages in the modern period.

Sightings welcomes submissions of 500-750 words exploring the issues of religious ethics and our communities’ various relationships with animals and their meat. Essays should be sent to the editor at Author guidelines can be found here.


Ariel Kaminer, “The Meat You Eat,” New York Times Magazine, May 3, 2012.
Jay Bost, “Give Thanks for Meat,” New York Times Magazine, May 3, 2012.
Nathan Fiala, “How Meat Contributes to Global Warming,” Scientific American, February 4, 2009.
Lenn Goodman and Richard McGregor, The Case of the Animals Versus Man before the King of the Jinn (Oxford University Press, 2010).

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


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