Animals and the Limits of Lame Appeals to Religion

Published (under a different title) in Ecorazzi on 08/17/16. Original can be found here.

This essay is not a condemnation of religion. It rather addresses two general nonvegan arguments from religion that supposedly relieve religious individuals from the ethical obligation of veganism. As a scholar of religion and a vegan advocate, I am intrigued and admittedly disappointed by the way in which religious traditions are invoked to skirt the issue of unnecessary and avoidable violence towards animals, and one’s own participation in it.

The two general arguments from religion go as follows:

(1) Religious figure X uses and consumes animals, so I can use and consume animals.

(2) Religious text Y permits the use and consumption of animals, so I can use and consume animals.

Whether or the not X actually uses (or used) and consumes (or consumed) animals is irrelevant to the subject of this essay, as well as whether Y actually and under what circumstances permits the use and consumption of animals. However, what is relevant to the present subject is a conspicuous feature of almost every single religious tradition. This is the absence of any figure, decree, doctrine, or ethic specifically forbidding the non-use and non-consumption of animals. I know of no widespread religious tradition that explicitly forbids an abstention from the everyday use and consumption of animals (rare rituals excepted, which are themselves questionable). While religious traditions may permit the everyday use and consumption of animals, they simultaneously permit the everyday non-use and non-consumption of animals. In short, “Thou may use and consume animals” does not equal or imply “Thou may not not use or not consume animals.” It is not sacrilegious to abstain from using and consuming animals in everyday life. One can go vegan with a perfectly clear and clean religious conscience.

If this is the case, and there is nothing religiously problematic about going vegan, then the religious individual ultimately faces the same question as the non-religious individual:

Should I use and consume animals knowing that it causes immense pain and death, and this immense pain and death is both unnecessary and avoidable?”

Confronted with this inevitable question, the religious individual may recognize the ethical obligation of veganism and decide to forego the use and consumption of animals. If not, they will be forced to summon either the battery of insufficient arguments commonly expressed by secular opponents of veganism, or defensively resort to arguments (1) and (2) above. They may say: “Since X uses and consumes animals, I should use and consume animals” or “Since Y permits the use and consumption of animals, I should use and consume animals.” These are clearly unsatisfactory responses as neither X nor Y claim that not using and not consuming animals are forbidden, i.e. are what one shouldn’t do. Similarly, it does not follow that since X and Y do not forbid causing unnecessary and avoidable pain and death to animals, then causing unnecessary and avoidable pain and death to animals is what the religious individual should do. The religious individual is not morally obliged to use and consume animals in everyday life any more than to not use and not consume animals in everyday life (and there is a strong case for the latter). Therefore it remains up to the religious individual to ask themself whether they should cause immense pain and death to animals when it is both unnecessary and avoidable. Any regurgitated appeal to the permissibility of do so according to X or Y fails miserably in circumventing this fundamental question.

Using and consuming animals causes immense pain and death. Using and consuming animals is both unnecessary and avoidable. Hence causing immense pain and death is both unnecessary and avoidable. Not using and consuming animals is not forbidden by religion. Thus the religious individual is free to abstain from using and consuming animals, free to abstain from causing unnecessary and avoidable pain and death. The question of what they should do survives.

It is difficult to imagine any individual, religious or otherwise, who would not agree that the absence of unnecessary and avoidable violence towards animals is morally preferable to its presence. If this is so, shouldn’t we all, religious or otherwise, abstain from such violence?

Shouldn’t we all just go vegan?

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