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  • Virtuous Meat Consumption:A Virtue Ethics Defense of an Omnivorous Way of Life
  • Beth K. Haile (bio)

Contemporary Christian ethicists and moral theologians have not, for the most part, attempted a serious ethical defense of an omnivorous way of life. Those who take the question of eating meat seriously from both an ethical and theological perspective usually do so in order to either oppose eating meat as totally unethical or to defend a vegetarian way of life as more morally sound than an omnivorous way of life. Stephen Kaufman and Nathan Braun's book Good News for all Creation: Vegetarianism as Christian Stewardship argues that Christians should adopt a vegetarian way of life as not only an embodiment of the love and compassion of Jesus Christ, but also the ideal way of practicing Christian stewardship.1 In a similar approach Stephen Webb, co-founder of the Christian Vegetarian Association, argues in his book Good Eating that a vegetarian diet is a biblical ideal, advocating it "not as a prerequisite for Christian faith, but [as] a consequence of the Christian hope for a peaceable kingdom, where God will be all in all and all violence will come to an end."2 In The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist Vegetarian Critical Theory, Carol Adams argues that there is an underlying affinity between feminism and vegetarianism in that historically, women have [End Page 83] been treated as "pieces of meat" by men who objectify, commodify, and eventually consume them. According to Adams, the oppression of animals and the oppression of women are both byproducts of a patriarchal system that can be challenged by adopting a vegetarian lifestyle.3 In an article in America Magazine, Thomas Witherell writes about his own moral struggle with adopting a vegetarian life and concludes that on an ideal level, "both the Jewish and the Christian moral imaginations move towards vegetarianism and cosmic non-violence."4 Though he notes that vegetarianism is not an absolute moral requirement, he offers no moral defense of a meat-eating way of life besides the fallenness of the world, in which sometimes, humans need to kill in order to survive.

Recently, John Berkman published an article in Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture entitled "The Consumption of Animals in the Catholic Tradition." This article, rather than presenting a moral argument either for or against the consumption of meat, rather presents a survey of the complex history of Catholics on the topic, exploring the ascetical, medicinal, and eschatological reasons Catholics have chosen to abstain from flesh. Berkman concludes that Catholicism is a religion most certainly compatible with, if not encouraging of, vegetarianism.5

What does not exist in the literature, however, are any moral theologians offering a moral defense of eating meat, despite the fact that most do. The question of eating meat is an important issue for moral theologians to address, not just in order to defend a vegetarian way of life, but in order to defend an omnivorous one, especially in light of all the moral arguments against eating meat. Working within the Roman Catholic tradition, this paper will attempt to provide a moral defense of an omnivorous way of life by following the principles of virtue ethics. This tradition, as Romano Guardini writes, "seeks to do justice to the living majesty, nobility, and beauty of the good."6 [End Page 84]

The Questionable Ethics of Eating Meat

Many people realize the questionable ethics of eating meat when they learn about modern husbandry and slaughtering techniques.7 In 2008, 17,328,000 cattle, 4,590,314,000 chickens, and 57,542,000 hogs were slaughtered for food. The factory farm industry uses selective breeding and growth-promoting antibiotics to unnaturally and painfully produce animals ready for slaughter as quickly as possible. Most factory farms house their animals in small, overcrowded confinements, prohibiting the animals from engaging in their natural habits like foraging, nesting, roaming, and running. The slaughtering processes themselves are also quite atrocious, with practices like cutting the beaks off of chickens and the tails off of cows pre-slaughter commonly utilized. As slaughter lines run at rapid speeds, mistakes are recurrent, with many animals left suffering for...


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