Pro-Life Vegetarians: Can’t We All Just Get Along?

I broached the ethical linkage between the pro-life and vegetarian movements in a blog post a couple of weeks ago, where I introduced an essay by Matthew Scully that purports to make a case for vegetarianism on ethical grounds. I have mentioned before my dislike of the moniker “pro-life,” though I have yet to find a more politically-palatable name when “anti-choice” is offered as its replacement. Given my options, I’ll run with “pro-life” henceforth. I have also mentioned my dislike for the manner in which Scully makes this argument, appealing less to rationality than engaging a PETA-like appeal to theatrics.

In this second overview of the issue, I reference an article in First Things from over four years ago written by Mary Eberstadt, an author and research fellow at the Hoover Institution, and someone for whom I have a high regard. She finds herself in agreement with Scully’s overall principles, with a more intellectually cautious, less bombastic approach than his, but carries the moral imperative for vegetarianism further, connecting it to the defense of human life. That the proponents of each appear to find little common ground today she finds less an issue of intellectual and moral acrimony than a failure of competing ethical frameworks to engage one another. This dedication to the ethical agenda of various groups has essentially led (as I quite loosely paraphrase) to people that can’t play well together in the sandbox.

She describes the principal proponents of ethical vegetarianism (if I can call it that; it suggests that people like Bill Clinton who have essentially embraced veganism to avoid an imminent death from cardiovascular disease are “unethical vegetarians;” I will leave it to political non-partisans to parse those terms). They are a group of utilitarians like Peter Singer and postmodern eco-feminists like Carol J. Adams. Neither group is especially amenable to the views from an alliance of conservative Catholics and evangelicals that make up much of the pro-life movement. Evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics put away their differences in a conjoined white-hot lather against people like the utilitarians and eco-feminists who do the same against them. It’s like the 1980s where the Moral Majority and People for the American Way largely existed to antagonize each other and finally just got tired of it. But these groups aren’t tired yet.

Eberstadt notes that, among the “pro-animal” (again, I dislike the term, but will stick with it) adherents within utilitarianism and feminism, “both are hostile to the idea of admitting unborn human life to their circle of approved moral sympathy.” In the case of utilitarianism, animals can suffer pain in ways that unborn humans cannot, so they “trump” the unborn ethically. Eco-feminists find that both women and animals have been victimized, by rape and slaughter, respectively. Protection for animals means that they should not be killed for food; the protection of women means that all rights, including reproductive rights like abortion, must be preserved at all costs. Add that to an open hostility of both groups to matters of religious faith and you have created a very inhospitable sandbox indeed.

The pro-life forces, in Eberstadt’s view, are largely against vegetarianism because it is so often associated with wackos. We’re against it because they’re for it. This defensive crouch, she finds, is counter to the long history in the church of vegetarians like Francis of Assisi and John Chrysostom. Unfortunately this is where her explanation of this position ends, failing to address Biblical scholarship that permits meat-eating, in moderation like most things, as morally-acceptable.

Her solution rests upon an appeal to moral intuition (she avoids the term “natural law” for whatever reason). The comparison is made between those who joined the pro-life or pro-animal (i.e., vegetarian) cause as a consequence of a moral epiphany. Something happens, and we realize that our prior position is wrong. Certainly pro-life supporters use ultrasound images to sway the thinking of those who don’t seem to fully comprehend the moral significance of an unborn human. Likewise, images from grievous practices in some commercial farming or slaughter operations can create a moral reprehension toward the eating of livestock. Eberstadt now finds that we really are all playing in the same sandbox, one where our deepest, most intuitive assessments will prevail to embrace the value of all life, human and animal.

But this is where natural law, or moral intuition, loses me. Moral intuition is a terrific system in the absence of sin, when separated from the realities of the fall. It is still with us in some form, as the notion of “common grace” would have it, but it isn’t perfect. Our moral intuition may change with a compelling argument, perhaps a morally-invalid one. Moral intuition is not disembodied from our feelings at any given time.

During a recent time-wasting exercise of clicking-on-a-link-from-another-link, I was led to an advice column in Salon magazine, that sentinel of moral rectitude. I didn’t expect a lot, but was taken aback by the comment of what should prevail in moral decision-making:

“I think, within certain limits, in our social arrangements, it is right for us to behave according to how we feel. Feeling is a great regulator of human behavior.”

I won’t go further in how ghastly that idea is; I’m glad flash mobs are so in touch with their feelings. Fallen human beings can and do fall prey to their feelings and emotions when setting a moral compass. There need to be deeper principles than just profound moral intuition when processing ethical claims.

More importantly, frankly there are frankly moral issues that trump others. It is not necessary to make false equivalencies to justify moral repugnance to meat-eating and taking the lives of unborn humans. Both are substantial moral quandaries, but they aren’t the same. To make them so is little better than how the utilitarianism of Peter Singer or the rights-theory of Tom Regan sentimentalize all life, with no distinctions made for the moral weight of human beings. At some point, there needs to be recognition that there are indeed two very different games being played in the sandbox.

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