Chapter 10: Case Study: Animal Welfare and Food Ethics

10.2 Animal Ethics

Blessing of Animals at Our Lady or Perpetual Help Church, Grove City, OH. Photo credit: Sister Nancy Miller OSF

Integrally tied to food ethics is a concern for animal welfare and animal rights; despite many earlier precedents [1] mainstream attention to these concerns likely correlates with the rise of vegetarianism in America in the 1970s. This rise followed popular attention to world hunger from Frances Moore Lappé and other popularizers of the vegetarian movement in America and was developed further by the ethical arguments of Peter Singer in his book, “Animal Liberation” in 1975, which we will consider in closer detail below. These arguments and movements, as if cued by the Lynn White thesis, proceeded with only limited attention to religious arguments; sometimes, if anything, vegetarians in America have run into disagreement with traditional or conservative Christians, Jews, and Muslims, whose religious traditions have always tended to permit eating meat. Indeed, one can easily imagine moral claims that eating meat is wrong clashing with claims from religious traditions that do not outrightly prohibit eating meat.

It is worth noting that some of the first organized attention and advocacy for animal welfare in the West, with the founding of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in the UK in 1824, was motivated by Christian organizations, and based on basic Christian values of compassion extended to all creatures. [2]While contemporary ethical movements around vegetarianism or animal welfare and rights have offered strong and distinctive moral arguments about rights and wrongs regarding treatment of animals and foods, such questions are nothing new to religions. [3] Christianity has not historically provided a distinctive food ethics system (despite the existence of Christian Vegetarian organizations [4] and the influences mentioned above). Beyond limiting meat consumption during Lent (thus Catholic and other Christian Friday fish fry traditions), Christianity tends to not condemn meat eating in general and has not provided as much ethical leadership to deal with contemporary food and animal system concerns. Christianity is also fairly ubiquitously associated with conventional American farming, where moral concerns to “feed the world” have tended to accompany support for increasing agricultural yields and use of industrial agriculture systems with a focus on large-scale economic efficiencies, [5] which involves numerous ecological risks that often pit agricultural industry and economics against environmental interests. Despite the ecological risks of these agricultural techniques, American Christian values of hard work, modesty, and service to others have been virtues that have benefitted and guided farmers within those systems. So Christianity, the dominant religious system affiliated with large-scale American food and animal agricultural systems, has never had a strongly developed view of food and agriculture ethics that also addresses ecological concerns linked to agriculture; if anything, Christianity has more often (wittingly or not) been a religious and cultural force for maintaining the status quo in America and supporting industrial food and agriculture systems that have long concerned environmentalists.

Judaism and Islam, by contrast, have highly developed food ethics systems that have operated for over 1,000 years, so these will be given more focus in this chapter, Islam now standing as the second most prominent religion in America, and Judaism maintaining significant political and cultural influence. [6] Jewish food ethics are associated with kosher/kashrut (related to Jewish dietary laws) food systems, and a distinctive Jewish environmental food movement has emerged since the 1990s, invoking a wide range of Jewish teachings and raising the profile of eco-kashrut, a movement which overlays broader Jewish ethical concerns for justice, human rights, sabbath care of land, and other tenets upon the specific food laws of traditional kashrut. Likewise, the Muslim system of halal has picked up ecological concerns similar to eco-kashrut, though currently with less momentum and cultural development than in Judaism. With both kashrut and halal, meat (except for pork) is not traditionally forbidden, and many in both religions maintain that it is not permitted to require someone to abstain from eating meat; nonetheless, the relatively well-developed food ethics traditions and reasoning in Judaism and Islam, together with their cultural salience in America, make them ideal case studies for how religion impacts and intersects these food ethics issues.[7]

Because religious food ethics began influencing contemporary American food ethics mainly after the secular environmental food and animal movements gained momentum, we’ll look at some of the key arguments that have been provided by the American environmental movement. Indeed, in attention to food and animals, some of the more “religious” facets of American environmentalism (principled, devoted, and passionate) have been evident. [8]

Some of the basic moral arguments related to world hunger and environmental concerns are exemplified by Frances Moore Lappé’s “Diet for a Small Planet” (1971), where she linked overproduction of meat with global food scarcity. Her basic point was that animal agriculture requires much more energy and resources to create the same number of human nutrition calories from plants; [9] for instance, Lappé pointed out that at the time, 80% of US grain production was consumed by livestock, so if Americans simply ate 10% less meat, there would be enough grain to feed all the world’s hungry. If we look at how much fossil fuel and other (polluting) inputs are needed to grow corn to feed cows (so people can eat cow meat) compared to how many people could be fed by just growing plants, it seems like a no-brainer that we should shift American diets to consume more food from plants and less from meat (especially given that heart disease and other health problems are correlated with American diets that are too high in meat consumption). If most of the corn fields across America are for feeding cows, not people, imagine how much more “feeding the world” could happen if the meat/plants ratio in American diets were to shift further towards plants.

One would imagine that figures like those above would suffice to spark a large-scale shift in diets, but many factors have worked against such a shift. First, meat is widely considered delicious. And meat is a part of traditions related to food that bring communities together. Second, many of the predominant religions in America still hold that it isn’t necessarily wrong to eat meat, per se. And third, the meat industry in America has heavily influenced diet charts, and has a powerful lobby in Washington to keep the meat industry humming. [10] Yet, the share of organic agriculture and concern for humanely raised animals and ecologically raised crops and healthy, “whole” foods has significantly increased in the US; there are trends in directions that environmental ethicists can applaud. This is significant cultural change ― however, to make U.S. food less a matter of “meat and potatoes” and more a matter of “veggies and potatoes” is easier said than done. [11]

While attention to resource use in various forms of agriculture (as well as runoff and other pollution issues) has caused some to shift their diets towards less meat consumption, any larger shift is still a work in progress. Notably, a number of the original American leaders of the vegetarian movement have since shifted back to eating meat, so long as the meat comes from animals who were grass-fed or otherwise ethically and ecologically raised, in recognition of the value meat can have to diets, to taste, to culture, and to the aesthetic values of food. [12] Many also point out the importance of animal agriculture to cyclical and holistic food and agriculture systems ― the waste of animals can indeed make fine fertilizer, which eliminates the need for artificial fertilizers whose widespread application have caused such water pollution problems like toxic algae blooms. In some regions of the world, the grasses that grow locally might not be edible (or digestible) for humans, but animals can eat those local plants, and the people can eat the meat of the animals, so a natural system of providing food from indigenous plants can be a virtue of small scale animal agriculture systems. Some who care for ecology and healthy environmental systems argue that it may well be the scale of livestock systems that most results in ecological issues ― large scale industrial agriculture that doesn’t have sufficient protections for animals or ecological systems (especially where large profits become a driving force) tends to sacrifice local ecologies for economic gain, while small scale animal agriculture can provide a more sustainable, holistic system that requires fewer synthetic inputs. [13] Or so the argument goes.

A long-time volunteer at Shepherd’s Corner Ecology Center gives the sheep a treat after pulling out old collard greens that are bound for the compost pile. The greens were fertilized by previous years of sheep manure. From manure they came, to manure they shall return. Photo credit: Julie Laudick

Peter Singer

With all of these contextual comments in place, let’s look more specifically at some of the more significant moral and ethical arguments related to food and animals, specifically the arguments of Peter Singer. The main reason to focus on Singer is that his animal welfare arguments from “Animal Liberation” are probably the best known and have been the most influential intellectual arguments about animal treatment in America and beyond. [14] His effective and persuasive claims spurred the animal welfare movement and saw it succeed in improving treatment of animals in animal agriculture. Singer is a secular philosopher, and his arguments do not tend to invoke religion ― if anything, Singer’s classic animal welfare arguments disregard religion as outdated, and largely ignore religion save in a footnote. However, the ethical ideas Singer supports do overlap with religious moral and ethical tenets, so there is room for dialogue.

In Singer’s first chapter of “Animal Liberation,” “All Animals Are Equal,” he states that the ethical principles that support human equality require humans to extend equal consideration to animals, too. To set up his claim, he relates an 18th century view that we clearly would scoff at today ― Thomas Taylor’s satirical argument that because equal rights for animals is absurd, thus equal rights between women and men is absurd.[15] Singer discusses what the basis of equal rights might be ― men and women might have rights that animals don’t share, because women, unlike dogs, can make rational decisions, so male-female human equality might be based on men and women being similar in ways that non-humans are not. Yet men and women are still different, Singer says ― men don’t need a right to an abortion, just as dogs don’t need a right to vote. Thus, “the extension of the basic principle of equality from one group to another does not imply that we must treat both groups in exactly the same way, or grant exactly the same rights to both groups. The basic principle of equality does not require identical treatment; it requires equal consideration. Equal consideration for different beings may lead to different treatment and different rights.” Therefore, there is nothing absurd about extending equal rights to brutes, says Singer, because it’s based on the same principles by which we grant equality to genders, sexes, and races.

To diverge for a moment, I will say that, for the most part, I agree with Singer’s arguments and the moral principles he discusses, but in one important way that impinges on Singer’s relevance to religious thinking, I think his arguments less persuasive. In particular, Singer comments in a footnote that in examining the basis for moral arguments about animals, humans, and equality, he is not considering religious arguments that humans are made in the image of God. His reasoning, no doubt resonant among secularists and perhaps bolstered by sociologists of the time, [16] was that since religious views don’t “offer a reasoned explanation” of why humans in particular might have immortal souls, or because religious doctrines are “no longer as widely accepted as they once were,” it is safe to ignore them. [17]

However, it is probably much more likely the case that the very principle of equality, for many Americans, is defensible precisely because of the moral idea that all people are created in the image of God and are equal in the eyes of God.[18] It is also possibly the case that the idea of equality itself became established because of such religious views (Singer does not deny this ― he acknowledges that these views have probably been historically important, but nonetheless assumes that they have lost relevance). This is a fine point, admittedly, but I diverge to point out the following: Singer sees fit to cast these views aside, but never supplies an alternative basis for the principle of equality itself. Borrowing on equality as an established principle, he argues to extend the principle beyond humans to all sentient beings by force of logical arguments about the similarity of sentient beings; but without basis for equality, there seems to be no logical reason to accept Singer’s basic case. [19]

Nonetheless, as Singer argues, equality is a moral idea, not an idea based in some fact of equality by physical or intellectual standards. For many, that moral idea has authority because it is supported and supplied by religions, which propose the equality of humans in the eyes of God. These systems also propose that animals should be valued, not because they are equal to humans in the eyes of God, but because they are deserving of fitting treatment as creatures of God, valuable in the eyes of God just as humans are (even if not as much as humans).[20] A moral principle such as this, which is already broadly agreed upon by American religious communities and supported by the predominant religious traditions of America, might have a much better chance of gaining widespread acceptance by Americans than a set of arguments that marginalizes religious principles.[21] Here again, the wisdom of re-examining these 1960s and 1970s biases against religion becomes clear, and indeed a growing literature has done so.[22]

Despite the confusion in Singer’s arguments about the role of religion and the basis of equality, his reasoning about the implications of equality is helpful on many levels, especially in improving the treatment of animals. He clarifies that to say that “all humans are equal” isn’t to say they are the same ― if the demand for equal treatment were based on sameness, Singer says we would have to stop demanding equality (some are faster than others, some smarter, some more artistic, some larger, some smaller, etc). To claim that people should be treated equally does not depend on equal intelligence, moral capacity, physical strength, or similar matters of fact or ability. As a moral idea, not an assertion of fact, Singer says the principle of equality of human beings is not a description of an alleged actual equality among humans, it is a prescription of how we should treat human beings, and differences in ability among people do not justify any difference in the amount of consideration we give to their needs and interests. Concern for well-being of children requires us to educate them; concern for well-being of pigs requires us to give them room to root around.

Singer hearkens back to Jeremy Bentham, founder of the utilitarian view of moral philosophy, in the belief that each person “counts” for the same. In terms of moral consideration of animals, Bentham said “The question is not, Can they reason? Nor Can they talk? But, Can they suffer?” The idea here is that the capacity for suffering ― or more strictly, for suffering and/or the enjoyment of happiness ― is a prerequisite for having interests at all, a condition that must be satisfied before we can speak of interests in a meaningful way. It’s nonsense to say a rock has an interest in not being kicked. But with the capacity for suffering and enjoyment, Singer says, a being has interests ― at an absolute minimum, an interest in not suffering. Bentham spoke of rights, but Singer is careful only to speak of welfare; he’s an animal welfarist, not an animal rights advocate. [23] He says an animal doesn’t need rights to be given moral consideration. If a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration. For Singer, the limit of sentience (the capacity to suffer and/or experience enjoyment) is the only defensible boundary of concern for the interests of others. [24]

Animals feel pain, says Singer, so we can’t morally justify regarding the pain an animal feels as less important than the same amount of pain or pleasure felt by humans. [25] For those who object, Singer raises the criticism of speciesism ― to give more consideration to our own human species than others ― which Singer paints as equally morally blameworthy as sexism and racism. [26] Against the resistance by many people to accepting his accusation of speciesism, Singer capitalizes on a notion that many people believe that humans are more valuable because of their higher degree of intelligence than other creatures. He confronts this notion, saying that since a high degree of intelligence doesn’t entitle humans to mistreat less intelligent humans because of that capacity, how can it entitle humans to mistreat non-humans for the same reason? Most people would accept some of this reasoning, but this needn’t be persuasive ― who said anyone thinks humans are entitled to mistreat animals because we value humans more than other animals? While Singer maintains that equality must be extended to non-humans, just like it’s extended to all humans, this argument only makes sense if you believe that viewing nonhumans as inferior to humans will permit humans to mistreat animals.

Singer does nod to more traditional views on human value when he considers the morality of killing animals versus humans. If suffering is avoided, says Singer, then the moral ideals he outlines about welfare are not violated, so killing an animal quickly and painlessly avoids the moral wrongness that Singer identifies. Humans, on the other hand, says Singer, can plan for the future, can have their plans foiled, and can suffer from anticipating their death; for those reasons if one had to choose between killing a human and a dog (or another non-human sentient animal), it would be better to avoid killing the human. Singer comes to a conclusion that our lives may be more valuable than a pig, but our suffering is not more valid. The conclusions of animal liberation come from the idea of minimizing suffering alone.

These conclusions provide a powerful argument for reducing animal suffering in animal agriculture, but it is unclear whether such an approach is likely to gain significantly more allies than those who already favor secular environmental concerns. Many people aren’t devoted to Singer’s rational principles and approach; others do not resonate with his dismissal of religion as outdated, or they may not buy “utilitarianism” (which is Singer’s basic stance) as the best overall perspective. And despite making claims that he avoids emotional arguments, his readers have been able to respond with compassion, emotion, and care to the horrific photos he included in his book that substantiate the terrible treatment of animals that he described. However, Singer’s arguments have been thoughtful, academically and socially prolific, and have very likely resulted in a great deal of good, including change for the better in animal agriculture systems. He is a giant of contemporary moral thinking by any measure.

  1. In addition to more ancient examples, vegetarianism and concern for treatment of animals gained some attention in the 1800s and 1900s, with quite a lot of religious justification, though never established a widespread following, such that even today these concerns make up something of a minority movement, but with greater attention since the 1970s. See for instance:; ; ;  
  2.  This is highlighted by British Anglican priest and theologian Andrew Linzey in his books, “Animal Theology” and “Animal Gospel: Christian Faith as if Animals Mattered”
  3. Ancient precedents trace to Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Jewish and Muslim traditions, predating modern animal welfare concerns; some contemporary arguments might be considered secular recapitulations of earlier (and ongoing) religious arguments.
  4. See for instance: ; and  
  5. These systems often require dependence on inputs (chemicals, fertilizers, pesticide/herbicides, hybrid seeds, gmo seeds, etc) manufactured by large agriculture corporations, which shifts influence on land use from the practices of local farmers towards the products and profits of large corporations.
  6. Consider that the Jewish term for acceptable food, “kosher”, has been adopted as a more general term for things that are acceptable.
  7. Additional chapters and whole books could be added to explore Eastern religious perspectives on animals, and indeed religious vegetarianisms are more commonly associated with Eastern religions.
  8. To the extent that extreme passions and moral statements are often associated with “religious” behavior or fanatic devotion, this is part of how these movements have become known ― think of animal rights activists infiltrating industrial food system animal confinement centers to liberate animals, think of PETA and their attention-grabbing videos and bold moral claims. Moral passions can run high around these topics.
  9. For many who put environmental health at the top of their moral concern list, any action that reduces environmental impact or use of natural resources is considered important, and for those keeping count of water and energy use in various systems, moving away from agriculture that feeds animals is something of a no-brainer. Skewed “food pyramid” charts promoted by the US meat industry (which argued for diets much higher in meat than have traditionally been considered healthy) have typically been blamed for institutionalizing such high meat consumption traditions in the US (
  10.  Some of these ideas are expanded upon in the New York Times article, “Unhappy Meals,” by Michael Pollan.
  11. Consider the story of Iowa Interfaith Power and Light founders of the “Cool Congregations” program, which popularized calculating the carbon footprint of congregation member households. This program inspired many people ― and later spread nationally beyond Iowa ― to take actions to reduce their carbon footprint. They spurred people to shut off unused lights, dial down their thermostats, and insulate their homes; but even though “changing your diet from more to less meat” is a significant way to reduce your carbon footprint (because animal agriculture involves a great deal of fossil fuel burning between production and transport), the Cool Congregations founders realized this wasn’t an area they should emphasize. Why not? “This is Iowa ― we wanted the program to succeed, not fail!” they said. Enough said. More recently, however, Iowa Interfaith Power and Light has developed a Food, Faith and Climate program that addresses these questions, which is a good example of how education and ethics campaigns evolve.
  12. Elizabeth Telfer’s “Food for Thought” provides arguments about the aesthetic value of taste and pleasure in eating food, and claims that while feeding the hungry is an essential concern, these aesthetic dimensions are not as insignificant as often they are made out to be by those arguing against eating meat.
  13.  MTSO Seminary Hill Farm is a good case study in this ethos. Wendell Berry also makes arguments for the economic sense of local economies and smaller scale agriculture in his book Home Economics (see especially the essays “Two Economies” and “A Defense of the Family Farm”).
  14.  The publishers of Animal Liberation tout it as “the book that started a revolution”...
  15. Taylor, a Cambridge philosopher, published his comments anonymously, as a parody of Mary Wollstonecraft's arguments for the vindication of the rights of women (1792) - he thought the argument for equality between men and women was absurd, so he tried to demonstrate that Wollstonecraft's same arguments could be made for equality between humans and animals ("brutes"); because Taylor's culture would think any argument for human-animal equality absurd, he hoped to persuade readers that his biases against male-female equality were sound by drawing a connection between the claims.
  16. Some sociologists subscribed to the idea that religion might just fade away, such as Peter Berger, who later said his conclusion that religion would fade was the most mistaken conclusion of his career, given how religion has not only not faded, but rebounded worldwide in the meantime (see Berger’s book, The Desecularization of the World).
  17.  Singer’s anti-religious bias is also clearly on display in chapter 5 of his book: “Man’s Dominion: A Short History of Speciesism…”
  18. Richard Baer was fond of making this point in his religion and environment courses at Cornell.
  19. Ironically, Singer is making much the same move that Taylor made in the late 1700s.
  20. Omar Saqr, a guest lecturer on Islam and the Environment in my class at OSU, emphasizes the point that Islam is both anthropocentric and biocentric, and shares with the other Abrahamic traditions, overall, a theocentric orientation.
  21. The problem is this: claiming that the likes of "equality in the eyes of God" is irrelevant, but then depending on the principle of equality anyway, seems like a biased move; perhaps a similar bias has underlain some animal rights and welfare arguments that have tended to be set in opposition to traditional moral views and mainstream moral communities in America.
  22. See for instance Peter Berger's book Desecularization of the World:  
  23. Lilly Marlene-Russo published an article as a special supplement in the May/June 1990 Hastings Center Report entitled, “Ethical Theory and the Moral Status of Animals.” This article does a nice job of describing the contributions of a range of ethical theories, such as utilitarianism and deontology, to reasoning about the morality of experimentation on animals. Russo describes a thought process that often leads to a “judicious combination of theoretical commitments” ― as humans, we tend to draw from different bases of concern to justify our actions and values. Thus, we may draw on a utilitarian argument like Singer’s in some cases, on deontology in others, on contract theories in others, etc, demonstrating that an adequate ethical theory for food and animal (or any other) concerns will most likely draw on multiple ethical perspectives. Religious perspectives will also be in the mix for most humans when they think about such issues.
  24. Singer spends five pages establishing and defending that animals do suffer ― despite claims to the contrary ― based on what we know about physiology.
  25. Singer further qualifies this in terms of equal consideration ― a swat on the rump of a horse would be equivalent to a soft tap on a human baby, equally considered.
  26.  Here I suspect that people may take issue and disagree ― Singer’s argument of speciesism would only be true for those who accept an ultimate belief in the moral equality of humans and non-humans, which many people do not. A more palatable belief for many humans would likely be that, just as Singer says, animals are deserving of consideration of their suffering and well-being, but that needn’t require a belief in human/non-human equality.


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Religion and Environmental Values in America by Gregory E Hitzhusen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.