Why aren’t vegetarians and pro-lifers more closely aligned? After all, the best writing about ethical vegetarianism—the moral case for refusing meat, as opposed to the more self-interested arguments from health or finance is good enough to provoke serious reflection, even among nonvegetarians. Yet while this increasingly thoughtful literature flourishes, reflecting the movement of many Americans (especially younger ones) into the varieties of a meat-free diet, it has also proved a one-way street. Vegans and vegetarians do talk to one another, but usually without anyone in the rest of the world talking back—especially those committed to defending human life.
One reason for the current estrangement between vegetarians and moral traditionalists starts in the universities. Most academic thinking about vegetarianism and related dietary ethics today falls into two general pools of thought: utilitarianism and postmodern feminism. Both are hostile to the idea of admitting unborn human life to their circle of approved moral sympathy. As such, both have rendered themselves off limits to other serious people—those who draw their moral code from traditional Judeo-Christian thought—who might in different circumstances be open to persuasion.
The utilitarians, for their part, owe much to the work of Peter Singer. Singer’s thesis, which is known almost as well among his adversaries as among his allies, is deceptively simple. Following Jeremy Bentham and other utilitarians who argued that the capacity to suffer is “the vital characteristic that gives a being a right to equal consideration,” Singer takes the definition to its next step. “No matter what the nature of the being,” as he puts it in his book Animal Liberation, “the principle of equality requires that its suffering be counted equally with the like suffering—insofar as rough comparisons can be made—of any other being.” In short, when properly understood, animals have rights of the same sorts as humans—and in some cases, depending on the state of sentience, rights that trump those of certain humans. “Surely,” as Singer puts it in one of many formulations often quoted by his adversaries, “there will be some nonhuman animals whose lives, by any standards, are more valuable than the lives of some humans.”
Though admirable is not the first word that leaps to mind when facing some of the practical consequences, Singer’s theory does have the virtue of a ruthless consistency. We know this because, for decades now, the author has been spelling out the more malodorous of those consequences with some gusto. Perhaps most infamously, he has argued that, since a newborn infant lacks self-consciousness, autonomy, and rationality, “killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living.”
Along the way, Singer has alienated moral traditionalists, especially those concerned with abortion, more successfully than any other contemporary academic thinker—which is quite a feat. For good measure, he is also overtly hostile to Christianity, arguing that despite the relatively enlightened opinions of a few vegetarians—St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom, St. Isaac the Syrian—the Christian tradition is fatefully marred by its “exclusively speciesist preoccupation” with human beings.
For a spokesman who would persuade the world toward the practice of vegetarianism, Singer has almost certainly lost many more potential practitioners of a “cruelty-free” diet than he has gained. Subsequent utilitarians have generally followed in his antihumanist and pro-abortion steps. Tom Regan is perhaps the second-most prominent academic in the business of moralizing about animals, and in his influential 1981 book, The Case for Animal Rights, he proposes that, if humans have a natural right to life that is independent of their ability to be rational agents, then so too must animals.
Regan has been coy on the obvious question of whether his moral solicitude for nonrational animal life might logically extend to unborn human life. In a well-known essay called “Empty Cages,” he does go so far as to refer, once, to what he calls “the terribly difficult question of the morality of abortion.” But whether this terrible difficulty means that his philosophical principles might extend toward unborn human life as well as animal life is, apparently, off limits apart from that opaque observation.
In short, neither the grim consistency of Singer nor the reticence of Regan endears the utilitarian defenders of animals to anyone concerned with protecting unborn human life. And neither does the other set of academic ideas most commonly arrayed in vegetarianism’s name: postmodern feminism.
Consider the work of Carol J. Adams, whose 1990 book The Sexual Politics of Meat was widely hailed even outside academia as an exciting new contribution to the theory of animal rights. Adams argues what has become the cornerstone of “ecofeminism”: the notion that the so-called objectification of animals in a carnivorous society and the so-called objectification of women in a patriarchal society are somehow linked.
The claim may not be quite as novel as it sounds. Early women’s-rights activists, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, were also advocates of kindness to animals, and Wollstonecraft saw her 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Women pilloried in an anonymous (and influential) publication called A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes. Many early feminists took up animal well-being as a related moral issue, and many people interested in animal well-being through the years have similarly made alliances with feminists.
Nonetheless, Adams’ obfuscating postmodern language invites no comparison to the early feminists. Abounding in such terms as absent referent and Âanarcho-vegan, as well as in the usual hostility toward the other sex with which postmodern feminism is riddled, this kind of effort has little chance of persuading moral traditionalists. To most of them, Adams’ work on behalf of animals would be just as repugnant as Peter Singer’s—if it were anywhere near as readable.
The academic feminism concerned with animal suffering appears incapable of facing violence to the human fetus with an open mind. In a 1995 book called Neither Man nor Beast: Feminism and the Defense of Animals, Adams herself tackles the question of what an animal-rights theorist should make of abortion, only to conclude that appealing to the principle of nonviolence in both cases would be hypocritical: “As long as women and animals are ontologized as usable (rapable on the one hand and consumable on the other),” she explains, “both animal defense and abortion rights will be necessary.”
Another representative foray into ecofeminism, a 1995 collection of essays called Animals and Women: Theoretical Feminist Explorations, exhibits a similar blindness to any moral connection between prerational human life and nonrational animal life. At times the backpedaling is so furious that one expects to see treadmarks on the page. “[Even] if we grant that the fetus is sentient (at least in some phases of its existence),” runs one typically contorted example, “or that the fetus is a rightholder in the sense that philosopher Tom Regan . . . contends, we are still confronted by the question as to who is the appropriate moral agent to resolve any potential conflict between the primary rightholder (the woman) and the subservient rightholder (the fetus). The only choices are to let the primary rightholder decide, or to relegate the responsibility to a legal system dominated by actors and ideologies that are inherently sexist.”
The sheer decibel level of unreason surrounding the issue of abortion in academic writing about animal rights tells us something interesting. It suggests that, contrary to what the utilitarians and feminists working this terrain wish, the dots between sympathy for animals and sympathy for unborn humans are in fact quite easy to connect—so easy, you might say, that a child could do it.
There is another reason that vegetarians and their friends seem stuck in a ghetto far from moral traditionalists. This one concerns not theory but practice—the self-defeating and often obnoxious practice of political theater as pioneered by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), perhaps the leading headline hog in the pro-animal cause today.
PETA, as is not acknowledged nearly enough, has done much to discredit both vegetarianism and the humane treatment of animals. This is so not only among pro-lifers but also in the public more generally. The group is inescapably enamored of campaigns that make clear its own loyalty to the idea that man is just one of the animals—and emphatically a lower-order one at that. “Holocaust on Your Plate,” an ad campaign equating leather and meat-eating with the extermination of the Jews, was one example. PETA’s “Animal Liberation Project,” comparing chimpanzees in cages to Africans, was another.
Just how much of this animal-liberation grandstanding is approved by actual vegetarians and vegans, as opposed to how much of it is mere political theater aimed at shocking what by now must be a shockproof bourgeoisie, is a question that never seems to get asked anywhere—and should be. It may well be true, as Wesley Smith has observed, that “the more radical elements of the movement increasingly resort to vandalism, arson, theft, violence, and intimidation in the name of protecting animals—and PETA has repeatedly refused to condemn such tactics.”
Yet again, PETA’s claim to represent actual vegans and vegetarians seems highly doubtful. Even Peter Singer has used his own status as éminence grise to warn against the fringe elements of the movement. “It would be a tragic mistake,” he writes in his preface to the 1990 edition of Animal Liberation, “if even a small section of the Animal Liberation movement were to attempt to achieve its objectives by hurting people.”
None of this is to say that the fringe movements purporting to benefit animals enjoy no support; clearly they do, in the same way that, say, the IRA at the peak of its violence enjoyed money and funds from at least some supporters who would never have dreamed of fashioning a Molotov cocktail of their own. But one hears little or nothing of such animal-liberation activism in the mainstream gathering places of vegetarianism, such as the International Vegetarian Union (IVU), let alone the more run-of-the-mill venues of interest to noncarnivores that are dominated instead by recipe sharing, health news, and personal-conversion stories.
One more reason for the impasse between vegetarians and pro-lifers needs to be noted. Conservatives, including religious traditionalists, have been generally disinclined to give vegetarian views a hearing. No less an authority than Richard John Neuhaus gently reprimanded readers a few years ago after receiving letters unhappy with the respectful review he had given to the book Dominion, Matthew Scully’s evangelical case for vegetarianism. “Some readers,” Fr. Neuhaus wrote, “think vegetarianism is so manifestly and self-evidently wrongheaded that, after rejecting it on first encounter, one would be a moral idiot to give it a second thought.”
Much of that conservative dismissal, of course, is not about vegetarianism as such but about the baggage that has come to be associated with it. Certainly in the 1960s, vegetarianism was heavily identified as a hippie, fringe kind of movement with about as much moral force as tie-dying and ukulele strumming. Even though the movement has matured since its flower days, many vegetarians and vegans can be—like moral converts of any stripe—self-righteous and proselytzing to an annoying fault.
Yet leaving those historical accidents aside, what is there intrinsically about vegetarian practice for a moral traditionalist to object to? As a matter of history, over the centuries a number of serious Christians have spied a connection between vegetarianism and religious belief—a history that is somewhat at odds with the frequent conflation by conservatives of vegetarians with tree-hugging pagans.
The online sites devoted to Catholic vegetarianism claim numerous saints among their number—Francis of Assisi (though his vegetarianism appears in doubt), Clare, Martin de Porres, John Chrysostom, and Anthony of Padua among them. It is also a fact that Trappists, Cistercians, Benedictines, and Franciscans traditionally adopted vegetarian diets. Various other notables, East and West, have seen in vegetarianism a code congruent with spiritual beliefs. Both Mahatma Ghandi and Leo Tolstoy, among others, were not only vegetarians but ones who gave literary and religious accounts of their reasons for that practice.
In short, vegetarianism is not easily dismissed either morally or intellectually, despite the fact that some traditionalists have relished doing just that for several decades now. Like the boutique academic theorists speaking in vegetarianism’s name, these traditionalists seem to have missed the moral forest for its more superficial trees.
My purpose in untangling these distinctions is not to put anyone in the moral dock, whether vegetarian or carnivore. It is rather to point out something easily overlooked—that there is more common moral ground between vegetarians and people concerned with the life issues than either side seems to realize.
Most people who adopt a vegetarian or cruelty-free diet do not do so on the basis of the antihumanist, anti-life ideas that prevail in academic thought. On the contrary, evidence abounds that most people change their dietary habits not because of carbon footprints or absent referents but through a very different process—acknowledging and acting on a moral intuition.
This important point—overlooked, perhaps, precisely because it is so simple—is the moral key to a place where actual vegetarian lambs can easily be imagined resting alongside pro-life lions. Consider, for example, the explanation most commonly offered for vegetarianism. A 1989 book called The New Vegetarian found, after three hundred interviews, that 67 percent cited “concern for animal suffering” as the primary reason for their decision—by far the most common explanation. Similarly, in the 2006 Vegans and Vegetarianism Today (which features “Former Meat Eaters Tell Their Stories” as its first chapter), the editors emphasize that the “one path to vegetarianism” is defined as “the sudden, powerful emotional punch to the soul that people who have empathy, love, or just respect for animals feel upon discovering the details of the origins of meat.”
“I told myself that I could no longer eat something that had at one time experienced the gift of life,” one vegetarian writes online. “Vegetarianism fits with Christian ethical principles,” adds another. “I’m against the maltreatment of animals,” declares a third. These will not strike readers as terribly sophisticated explanations—which is exactly the point. They are not the arguments made by people who have been reasoned by esoterica into a new belief. They are explanations by people in possession of what they believe to be an intuitively appealing moral principle.
Since ethical vegetarianism as a practice appears commonly rooted in an a priori aversion to violence against living creatures, so does it often appear to begin in the young. In an engaging collection of essays from 2001 called Voices from the Garden: Stories of Becoming a Vegetarian, editors Sharon and Daniel Towns observe of their fifty authors that “some were children when they realized that the meat on their plates came from the adorable ‘duckies’ and lambs in their storybooks and on their bedroom curtains. Usually, but not always, a parent intervened and forced or persuaded the questioning child to be quiet and eat their dinner. Those children often grow up to think about the issue later in life, and, this time, to make their [vegetarian] pledge stick.”
This same fact—that childhood insight writ large is a common denominator for many noncarnivores—is also observed by Matthew Scully. In Dominion, he describes his own formative experience at age twelve of killing a baby bird to put it out of its misery, only to find himself “horrified at the bluntness of what I had done, obliterating this beautiful tiny creature so finely made who tried so hard to live.” Such childhood epiphanies, as he perceives, are common among vegetarians and others concerned with animal protection—indeed, they are perhaps the most common denominator of all, as Scully himself notes: “I once asked a friend who is prominently involved in the animal-rights movement what it was that got him started. He said that, from the time he was a child, he could not bear the thought of animal suffering, of the helplessness of any creature subjected to cruelty. . . . That original motivation, that basic conviction common to so many people in the rights cause, perhaps runs deeper than any theory they might profess.”
In 2002, Richard John Neuhaus, though no vegetarian, affirmed this same point with his own personal story of youthful epiphany about animals. “This twelve-year-old,” he relates, “had deep thoughts about our rights to pork chops and bacon” when faced with the actual slaughter of the farm’s prize hog. Neuhaus was not entirely persuaded by Scully’s and related arguments; he went on to suggest a limited defense of meat eating and a call to regulatory intervention into the crueler factory farming practices. Even so, he cautioned readers against dismissing in principle the budding moral sentiments of our twelve-year-old selves. “Such reactions,” he cautioned Scully’s critics, “are not to be brushed aside as juvenile squeamishness but should be thought through with care.”
In a recent pitch for veganism, The Face on Your Plate, Jeffrey Masson relates in the opening how, when teaching Sanskrit at the University of Toronto in the 1970s, “I came across a phrase that stopped me dead: ashrayaparavrtti—a sudden moment of life-changing insight.” The reason he was so struck by the phrase was its resonance with his own experience and that of others about their decision to embrace vegetarianism. “Many people,” he observes, “become vegan in just that way: a sudden moment, a blinding insight, a turning of one’s back on conventional wisdom.”
All of which brings us to the deepest point that so many vegetarians and moral traditionalists seem to have overlooked through the years, and why it seems fair to speak of a missed moral opportunity between the two.
A sudden insight, igniting empathy on a scale that did not exist before and perhaps even a life-transforming realization—this reaction should indeed be thought through with care. It is not only the most commonly cited feature of the decision to become a vegetarian. It is also the most commonly cited denominator of what brings people to their convictions about the desperate need to protect unborn, innocent human life.
Joseph Bottum, for one, has memorably described just such an epiphany in an essay for a book I edited called Why I Turned Right. In his case, it came knocking one day when, as a student in the Georgetown library, he sat watching idly through the window as a mother wrestled fruitlessly with her dog, leash, and baby stroller. All the while, as he watched, the baby laughed with delight, “clapping her small hands at the slapstick world into which God and her parents had unexpectedly delivered her.” Enter what Masson identifies as the ashrayaparavrtti: “It was at that moment,” Bottum writes, that there arrived “the sudden, absolute conviction that babies are good. . . . Always for me it comes back to this touchstone: Anything that participates in the murder of a child . . . is wrong. All the rest is just a working out of the details.”
Many other pro-life writers and activists—prominent or not, religious believers or not—have related similar formative experiences. Fred Barnes has written that his own moment came in a doctor’s office with his pregnant wife, as they contemplated for the first time the real meaning of amniocentesis. My own Damascan moment (described in the same volume where Bottum’s essay appears) remains vivid for me in every detail: Cornell University, 1980, watching a circus-atmosphere debate between a small-town Baptist preacher and a ferociously pro-abortion tenured Marcusian feminist. Wesley J. Smith, one of America’s most eloquent opponents of the culture of death, had a different kind of epiphany; it was the suicide of an ailing friend that prompted him to rethink and redirect his life.
For a great many other people, too, as one hears often at pro-life rallies, moral intuition about abortion was sparked by quotidian events—that first picture of an aborted fetus, the birth of their own first child, and the first moment of watching a fetus move on a sonogram. As with the vegetarians, once such an insight is digested and acted on, few people turn back to where they were before—a fact that speaks as no other could to the transformative power of the insight in question.
And therein lies the real key to a possible vegetarianism that casts off its utilitarian and feminist baggage to embrace a more logically consistent approach to creation. Despite those who act and write in their name, actual vegetarians and vegans are far more likely to be motivated by positive feelings for animals than by negative feelings for human beings. As a matter of theory, the line connecting the dots between “we should respect animal life” and “we should respect human life” is far straighter than the line connecting vegetarianism to antilife feminism or antihumanist utilitarianism. Any moral intuition powerful enough to cause second thoughts about a widely accepted practice—and to reshape personal behavior accordingly—is an intuition that religious believers ordinarily take seriously indeed.
How could they not? Moral traditionalists recognize and value such intuitions readily enough when a child points to a picture of a fetus and says “baby” (as all children do). Theirs is the correct instinct, and so is our valuing of it. Why shouldn’t the instinctive repulsion that some of them feel to eating the animals they’ve just petted on the farm not spring from the same pure stream of conscience—or at least be similar food for moral thought in the rest of us?
None of this is to introduce a moral equivalency between killing animals and killing humans—let alone to imply that moral sentiment, especially when fleeting, is a sufficient foundation for the good. As Hadley Arkes among others has wisely observed, moral sentiment was unreliable in the case of slavery—to which we might add many other examples of how custom can successfully blunt what may once have been the stirrings of real conscience, thus leading us on various fronts into grossest error.
Even so, if we turn our eyes away from the detour into antihumanism taken by prominent activists on behalf of vegetarianism—if we keep our eyes fixed instead on what it is that has actually drawn a significant number of individuals to the practice of vegetarianism—then we can see something unexpected and important: Vegetarians and pro-lifers are strangers to one another for reasons of accident rather than essence, and they also, furthermore, have a natural bond in moral intuitionism that should make them allies.
The work of developing that bond could be done, and the benefit might be immense for both sides—like finding a few million friends that you never knew you had.
Mary Eberstadt, a contributing writer to First Things, is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, author of Home-Alone America, and editor of Why I Turned Right: Leading Baby Boom Conservatives Chronicle Their Political Journeys.