Humans and (other) animals: animal ethics and vegetarianism

1. The moral status of animals

2. Vegetarianism and the environment

3. Points for discussion

Key aims:

  • To introduce issues about the moral status of animals
  • To consider the range of biblical perspectives on this topic
  • To think about the arguments for vegetarianism, including biblical texts used in support

Ethical questions about animals often feature in the news, for example in issues such as the use of animals in laboratory experiments, hunting and factory farming. However, animals remain a rather neglected topic in ethical discussions and textbooks.

Animal ethics is an area in its own right and deserves full consideration. We include it here for two reasons:

  1. Views on stewardship and the environment have implications for our view of the status of animals in relation to humans. Actions to preserve our environment very often require that we think carefully about animals, both wild and domestic.

  2. Just as biblical texts have contributed to religious views of the environment, so they have also shaped religious views of animals. It is therefore worth thinking about some of the relevant texts and their potential influence on Christian attitudes. However, it is also crucial to bear in mind that biblical texts come from ancient societies, in which attitudes to animals (as well as to slaves, women, etc.) are likely to be very different from those held in today's modern societies.

Watch an introduction by Dr Cherryl Hunt:

Do animals have moral value? If so, how might this value be compared with the moral value attached to human life? Can we talk about animal rights in the same way we talk about human rights?

Peter Singer famously and provocatively put the issue of animal rights firmly onto the agenda. He argues that animals deserve equal, although not necessarily identical, rights to humans because animals also have the ability to suffer. Valuing human life above animal life, he argues, represents a form of speciesism – it prioritises the interests of one's own species above those of other species. Just as modern movements have advocated the liberation of humans from prejudices based on sex and race, so Singer argues for the liberation of animals from the sufferings caused by speciesism. In particular, he argues against animal experimentation and meat-eating.1

Not everyone agrees with Singer's argument. However, it is worth looking briefly at how it relates to biblical themes. 

Humans as unique: Genesis 1.26-28 tells us that humans are uniquely made 'in the image of God': humans alone are given a divine vocation to subdue and have dominion over all other living things.

  • How far does this underpin a preferential valuation of human life?
  • What about, as Singer asks, in the case of those who are new-born or severely disabled?
  • Can this special valuing of human life be justified on rational, non-religious grounds?

The moral worth of humans and animals: as on many other ethical issues, the Bible's contribution is diverse, ambivalent and subject to varying interpretations.

  • Animal sacrifice in Leviticus 1 would seem to suggest that they can be used and killed, both for food and religious ritual, in ways that humans cannot.
  • On the other hand, the rules of the Jewish law (the Torah) in Deuteronomy 5.15, 25.4 and Proverbs 12.10 include regulations implying a compassionate and moral concern for animals. The Apostle Paul, however, quotes one such text in 1 Corinthians 9.9-10, applying the teaching to humans and seeming to imply that God is not concerned about animals.
  • Jesus' sayings in Matthew 6.26-30 indicate that God cares for all creatures, no matter how small and insignificant, but in Luke 12.24-28 he is equally clear that humans are of much greater value.
  • The drowning of pigs following one of Jesus' recorded exorcisms in Mark 5.1-14 also seems to suggest a greater value placed on human life.
  • Biblical ideas about the praise of all creation or about the liberation of the whole creation in Christ, for example in Romans 8.19-23 and Colossians 1.15-20, might provide a theological basis for arguing that all living things have moral and religious value.

Peter Singer's argument for vegetarianism relates primarily to the moral status of animals. Other people argue in favour of vegetarianism on the grounds of human health, social justice or the environment.

These reasons do not necessarily imply that people should become vegetarian, but they do imply benefits in reducing levels of meat consumption:

  • High levels of meat consumption with their associated levels of saturated fats play a part in causing the health problems associated with the Western diet. In particular, eating too much red meat is now thought to shorten life expectancy.2
  • Meat production uses large amounts of food that could be directly consumed by humans. The Report of the Independent Commission on International Development Issues states that 'to produce one unit of meat protein uses up eight units of vegetable protein, which could be consumed directly...[and] poultry and cattle which are raised on cereals consume...3 to 9 kg for each kg of edible poultry or meat - sufficient to supply a large proportion of the world's hungry people with cereal products'.3
  • Intensive farming of animals uses large amounts of energy, especially oil. A cow which eats 25 pounds of corn a day and reaches a weight of 1200 pounds will consume the equivalent of 35 gallons of oil - nearly a whole barrel - over the course of its lifetime.4
  • Cattle and sheep produce relatively large amounts of methane because of their digestive processes. This is a significant contribution to global warming.5

Biblical texts have also played a significant part in arguments for Christian vegetarianism:

  • In Genesis 1.30, the food originally allocated for all animals and humans consists only of plants.
  • Explicit permission to eat meat only comes in Genesis 9.1-5 which is after the story of the Flood. This implies that this is not how things were originally intended.
  • The prophets' visions of a renewed creation, for example in Isaiah 11.6-9 and Isaiah 65.25, where violence and conflict are no more, include an end to predation and killing in the animal world.
  • Some writers see significance in the fact that Jesus is not explicitly recorded as having eaten meat (except fish), although meat would most likely have been part of the Passover meal in which he participated.
  • As a result of these texts, some Christians believe that we should avoid killing and eating animals in order to anticipate the coming kingdom of God and to live peacefully in the way that God ultimately desires.
  • To what extent do you think there are logical grounds to regard human life as more valuable than the lives of other animals?
  • Do you think the idea that humans are made in the image of God has a big influence on decisions about animal ethics? Is it a good influence or not?
  • Do biblical texts have anything to contribute to our thinking about the moral value of animals? If so, what?
  • What do you see as the reasons for and against adopting a vegetarian diet? Which of these reasons are most important?
  • Do you think a future vision of a creation at peace is of any value in guiding contemporary ethical decisions? Can you think of other areas of life in which such visions have an influence?

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References

1Singer’s views are concisely summarised in his 1974 article, 'All Animals are Equal', reprinted in David R. Keller (ed.), Environmental Ethics: The Big Questions (Oxford: Blackwell, 2010), pp. 169-75. See also Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (London: Pimlico, 1995).

2'Red meat increases death, cancer and heart risk, says study', BBC News website, 12.03.2012.

3North-South: A Programme for Survival - The Report of the Independent Commission on International Development Issues under the Chairmanship of Willy Brandt (London & Sydney: Pan Books, 1980), p. 101

4Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma (London: Bloomsbury, 2007), pp. 83-84

5'Eat less meat to prevent climate disaster, study warns', Guardian website, 13.04.2012. More recently, see also Fiona Harvey, ‘Eat less meat to avoid dangerous global warming, scientists say’ Guardian 21.03.2016

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