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In this paper, I examine the relationship between evangelical Christian faith and the morality of food choices. I explore the extent to which non-human animals deserve moral consideration. I outline three models of moral status that philosophers have debated for the past four decades: (a) the viewpoint that animals lack any moral status and therefore deserve no moral consideration, (b) the viewpoint that animals deserve equal moral consideration as do humans, and finally (c), the sliding-scale model, according to which animals deserve moral consideration commensurate with their cognitive and/or emotional complexity and sophistication (i.e., their degree of sentience). I argue for the third perspective, and use it to suggest context-relevant, theologically-informed, and morally sound reasons for minimizing the suffering of animals higher on the sliding scale while taking seriously the growing global needs for food. In short, I conclude with an argument for pescatarianism. Michael McGowan, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Florida Southwestern State College.


In the summer of 2003, Gourmet magazine sent David Foster Wallace to the Maine Lobster Festival. Wallace was a master of creative non-fiction, and his writing often provided a point of view that many readers had not considered and did not share, at least initially. In the piece, Wallace urged readers of Gourmet to “Consider the Lobster” as they sort out what morality requires of them vis-à-vis their potential gustatory pleasure. Wallace describes in detail the process of boiling hundreds of sentient creatures alive en masse and closes the essay by asking his readers to reflect on the morality of their choices. “Do you think much about the (possible) moral status and (probable) suffering of the animals involved?” he asks. “If you do, what ethical convictions have you worked out that permit you not just to eat but to savor and enjoy flesh-based viands?” Because, “after all, isn’t being extra aware and attentive and thoughtful about one’s food and its overall context part of what distinguishes a real gourmet?”1

The infliction of pain on animals to satisfy our taste buds extends well beyond that of crustaceans. In his chapter on vegetarianism in the Oxford Handbook of Animal Ethics, Stuart Rachels describes the harsh treatment inflicted on animals in what he calls “factory farms.”2 Following the language employed by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, we will refer to them as “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations,” or CAFOs.3 Rachels says cows and pigs are often branded and castrated without anesthetic, sometimes held in confining spaces that allow not even for basic minimal movement. He laments that they spend years standing in their own waste and breathing in the fumes, separated from their parents at an early age. Chickens and hens, he also notes, are debeaked, raised in windowless sheds, subjected to conditions that foster respiratory disease and sores, selectively bred to grow more quickly, spend days without being fed, and are sometimes discarded (when their egg-laying capabilities are finished) by being thrown into dumpsters, burned alive, or thrown into wood chippers.4 For Rachels, it is important to note that these are not species-typical behaviors; chickens do not debeak themselves and pigs do not seek out cages in which to confine themselves. Rachels adds that the immoral food-cultivation practices do not end with livestock. He says the farm-raising of salmon leads to unhealthy fish, and wild-caught fish are often killed inhumanely. Rachels uses example after example to make the case that CAFOs of all kinds are painful for animals, and if we perpetrate their pain, our behavior is patently immoral. When we participate in this behavior by consuming meat produced in these ways, we partner with institutions that foster unnecessary acts of cruelty. And contrary to what he would hope for, Rachels believes “things are getting worse.”5 Regardless of whether Rachels is correct that things are getting worse,6 his charges of animal abuse and our complicity should give us pause.

No one wants to avoid this subject more than I do. I have been a life-long red meat and poultry eater, and I have thoroughly enjoyed my food choices. There are few greater joys than a large, medium-rare filet mignon or non-fatty cut of prime rib. However, becoming reflective of our moral choices is required of spiritually serious evangelical Christians. We strive to submit our entire lives to the Lordship of God, subjecting all our choices to moral scrutiny, and we are forced to ask what makes an action right or wrong, better or worse. We do so not in an attempt to reprimand others legalistically but to live lives of virtue out of concern for all of God’s creation.

People of faith are sharply divided on the morality of animal consumption. Many non-Christian religions include prohibitions against eating at least some animals. For example, many Buddhists, Hindus and Jains refrain from eating meat and Islam disallows eating pork. But what moral obligations do Christians have with respect to their food choices? What role does faith play in a distinctively evangelical Christian’s approach to meat-eating and animal ethics? A decade ago, Charles Colson warned about aggressive animal rights activists in Christianity Today, urging readers to keep “pets in their place” because “we can’t afford to treat animals as humans.”7 He argues that humans are unique among creation: we alone are self-aware, can conceive of death, are capable of great works of creativity, and possess eternal souls, the last of which “confers unique moral status.” Colson is not alone. A friend of mine recently authored a paper, “In Defense of Eating Meat,” in which he argues that the connection between sentience and moral status is insufficiently defined.8 However, more moderate voices are also entering the fray,9 and even some progressive ones. Since the Christian Scholar’s Review lists only one publication in its online index relevant to the field of animal ethics, Robert Wennberg’s “Animal Suffering and the Problem of Evil,” written almost 30 years ago,10 the issue is worth exploring again. What moral justifications, if any, can be offered for people to continue to eat meat that has been procured in the ways Rachels describes?

In this paper, I take up Wallace’s challenge, qualifying it not to Gourmet readers but to morally serious evangelical Christians who are simply trying to be virtuous in their food choices. I will broadly survey three models of moral status among contemporary ethicists, asking what kind of moral consideration animals deserve, and then close by exploring an issue that has received insufficient attention in the animal ethics and theological ethics literature, the concept of humane killing.

Animals Without Moral Status

The first major theoretical framework in which to situate food choices claims that animals lack moral status. An animal with “moral status” has interests that should be considered in ethical deliberation, but if animals have no moral status, then discussion about animal pain or other potential harms (confinement, death) is wasted time. Put another way, any interests animals have – survival, procreation, and so on – do not bear on the moral responsibility of their consumers if they have no moral status.

There are three interrelated concepts in this approach: anthropocentrism, inegalitarianism, and dominion. Anthropocentric approaches to ethics suggest that our moral choices should be guided by that which is most beneficial for humans. To avoid inconsistency, anthropocentric approaches must rest on inegalitarian conceptions of human and animal status such that human interests are all that matter. Anthropocentrism is not a distinctively religious approach to ethics unless paired with a “dominion theology,” which argues for the subdual of non-human creatures for human benefit.11 A dominion theology is based upon a specific reading of the first Genesis creation account in which God instructs Adam and Eve to “subdue” or “rule over” or “have dominion over” the world, including its fish, birds, and “every living thing that moves on the earth.”12 A dominion theology may also extend well beyond the treatment of animals; its proponents see the entire non-human world as full of resources of all kinds to be tapped for human flourishing.13

Although this perspective seems to comport with the biblical text, it neglects three relevant factors. First, those who argue that animals have no moral status do not do justice to the plethora of voices – that is, the ambiguity – in the biblical text itself. To note a rather obvious example, Genesis 1 prescribed a vegetarian diet prior to the covenant made with Noah. Only after the flood is meat-eating permitted. Moreover, other passages indicate that animals have value independent of what they can offer humans, and where animals do offer humans something, it is not what one would expect: Proverbs 12:10 declares that “A righteous man
cares about his animal’s health but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel.” There appears to be something at stake for the human in relationship to animals: her character. This “indirect duty” view is a different sort of anthropocentrism than the person who would advocate preserving animal lives because, in the end, if we are mean to them they will rebel against us. The latter is self-interested whereas the former is selfless. The virtuous person will be concerned about animals because of what treating them poorly does to her character, not for potential security or gustatory benefits the humane treatment of animals affords. If God is interested in shaping our characters, and if righteousness is connected to one’s treatment of animals, whatever gustatory pleasure we might get from animals raised in CAFOs is secondary to how we are being spiritually formed. We carry the moral requirement, a “burden” to those of us who enjoy eating meat, of caring for the health of our animals.

Second, if character-driven anthropocentrism is unpersuasive to those holding a “no status” approach for animals, perhaps the seemingly immoral implications of its perspective might. For example, the Last Person argument (originally used in conversations about environmental ethics) shows the consequences of a world in which selfish human interests alone determined that which is morally permissible.14 Daniel DeGrazia offers this short thought experiment: “Cruelty to animals would presumably be wrong even in hypothetical situations in which harmful consequences for humans were impossible (say, if one were the last living person on Earth).”15 It is unlikely that those who support dominion theologies would deem it moral or even morally neutral to abuse an animal if one were the last person alive, and the “wrongness” of the action could rest on three kinds of claims without question-begging:16 (a) from a virtue/character perspective, according to which one is interested in becoming the kind of person God desires one to be, and God does not want us to be abusive; (b) from a utilitarian perspective, according to which an animal’s sentience is relevant to its interests, and its interests are relevant to our moral obligations to them; or (c), from an animal rights perspective, according to which they are not here “for us” but rather have value independently of what they offer humans; that is, they have intrinsic value. Third, “no status” approaches face tremendous challenges squaring their view of animals with the latest scientific and anecdotal data. We continue to learn just how rich animal minds and emotions are, often displaying dispositions and abilities with which humans are very familiar, qualities we previously thought were unique to humans. In Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, Carl Safina endeavors to show connections between animal capacities and human ones.17 What is striking about this book are the ways in which animal experiences, when studied closely on their own terms, seem to parallel human experiences. Like humans, animals teach and learn (for example, older elephants teach younger ones what is safe to eat and what is not).18 They also possess concern for others, even to the point of displaying what looks like altruism (such as pack-leading wolves letting others eat first or whales helping humans survive in unfamiliar surroundings).19 Animals can display what appears to be empathy; they are “intelligent, social, emotional, personable, imitative, respectful of ancestors, playful, self-aware, compassionate.”20 Animals can make and use tools,21 and many have reasoning and problem-solving capacities. For example, Safina describes a bird that could not reach food in the bottom of a tube with its beak, so it filled the tube with water to raise the floating food to a height it could attain.22 Whales, too, can solve problems, like when a harpooned whale was pushed up to the surface by its pod members to breathe but after noticing that the sailors had ill intentions, the pod members pushed the whale down and away from the harpooners.23 Animals can even display what looks like an aesthetic sense (for example, bowerbirds decorate their courtship huts using a unique assembly of colors and shapes, and if a human changes their decorations or adds to them, the birds will restore their hoped-for aesthetic24). In some cases, strikingly, animals can even display what appears to be magnanimity. For example, one particularly impressive wolf, clearly its pack’s superior fighter, did not do what others would expect of the natural world. After he neutralized a threat or won a fight, this wolf let his defeated foes live.25 Qualities such as these force us to ask about what it is that “makes” or “constitutes” a person. Some of the people with whom Safina came into contact during his research for the book, and even Safina himself, began to see their research subjects less as non-personal animals and more as persons in their own right.26 Although Safina begins his book by arguing that we need to take animals on their own terms, he repeatedly compares animal behavior to human behavior, which leads him to doubt that we are as advanced as we think we are. For example, we use tools all the time and do not know where they came from or how they are made: computers, microwaves, cars, and so on.27

Safina’s Beyond Words provides significant insights into the minds and behaviors of animals, even if one does not follow him to all of his conclusions regarding animal personhood. What he does demonstrate is that at least some animals are not, as past philosophers opined, simply machines with the appearance of consciousness.28 Neither the mechanistic universe of early modernity nor anthropocentric approaches to animal status and dominion theologies do justice to the data of animal behavior.

To be sure, one does not necessarily need to endorse Cartesian skepticism about the rationality of animal minds to believe that animals have no moral status. One could just as easily have an oversimplified theology of animals in which either (a) the Noahic covenant permits unrestrained consumption of animals without concern for the suffering animals might endure, and/or (b) humans are possessors of souls and animals lack them, which leads to an unbridgeable distance between the moral status of animals and the status of humans. With respect to (a), two points deserve mentioning: first, God’s covenant with Noah was made with “every living creature” (Gen. 9:10), not just humanity; second, even though meat-eating is permitted post-Noah (Gen. 9:2-3), it was not God’s original design, which, as mentioned above, more closely resembles the vegan lifestyle (Gen. 1:29). God seems to have lowered the standards by which earlier humans were judged, which may explain some of the complexity involving meat-eating in the Levitical laws: it is not inconceivable to suggest that God permitted consumption of animals after a long, arduous process of selection, cultivation, and cleaning to urge them to eat as they were originally designed. With respect to (b), I do not intend to burden this article with an extended discussion of whether animals possess souls comparable to humans. Suffice it to say, there is no morally compelling reason to suggest that a human soul constitutes the only sufficient reason to be concerned about animal welfare.

Animals with Equal Status

Animals act in ways that indicate at least some level of cognitive or mental depth, but just how far do these observations go? The second major theoretical framework in which to locate animals argues that instead of conceiving animals of having no moral status we should recognize their full and equal moral status. This type of thinking about animals is found in Peter Singer and Tom Regan.

Now a classic in the field, Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, asks why, in a time when discrimination based on gender or skin color is seen as wrong, we do not extend equality to animals. The important difference, he notes, is not “equal or identical treatment; it requires equal consideration” and “equal consideration for different beings may lead to different treatment and different rights.”29 There is nothing inherent in “black” or “female” to suggest a deficiency of intellectual or ethical ability, and “this, it may be said, is why racism and sexism are wrong.” Given the differences inherent among people – I, for example, would make a terrible accountant – “equality is a moral idea, not an assertion of fact.” He continues: “There is no logically compelling reason for assuming that a factual difference in ability between two people justifies any difference in the amount of consideration we give to their needs and interests.” Abilities do not determine the level of moral consideration a human gets, and Singer makes the case that the same applies to animals. To adopt any other approach with respect to animals is to discount their experience and deny what morality requires; it is akin to sexism and racism. “Speciesism,” Singer says, “is a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of another species.” Instead of adopting an abilities approach, Singer, a Benthamite utilitarian, believes that sentience confers interests, which demand consideration. Otherwise expressed, Singer argues that the “capacity for suffering and enjoyment is a prerequisite for having interests at all.” The situation is simple for Singer: if a human or animal can suffer, there are no morally compelling reasons or justifications to refuse to take its suffering into account. If both humans and animals can suffer, both humans and animals have interests; if humans and animals have interests, they both deserve equal moral consideration.

Tom Regan also makes a case for equal consideration, but he disagrees with Singer about the effectiveness of utilitarianism to reach equal consideration; he concentrates less on interests and more on rights.30 Harsh treatment of animals is not wrong because of the pain it causes, for “these compound what’s wrong” or “make it much, much worse.” The fundamental wrong is anthropocentrism, “the system that allows us to view animals as our resources, here for us.” Like Singer, Regan argues against speciesism by comparing a feature of humanity and asks what that feature would mean if applied to animals. Unlike Singer, it is not racism and sexism but rather humankind’s “inherent value … that we are something more than, something different from, mere receptacles” that serves as his launching-off point. Like Singer, he argues that varying capacities do not justify discrimination in humans or animals, for although animals cannot do advanced arithmetic or build a bookcase, “neither can many human beings.” Morality requires that a creature with inherent value is not to be used as a means to some other creatures ends, and each creature that has inherent value has it equally. For Regan, animals have this level of inherent value – equally, with humans, containing all the benefits that value affords, including a right to life. Moreover, “this view in principle denies that we can justify good results by using evil means that violate an individual’s rights … [which] would be to sanction the disrespectful treatment of the individual in the name of the social good.” These subordinations can never be justified, which proscribes all uses of animals for human ends whether through biomedical research, cosmetics testing, CAFOs, or gustatory pleasure. The vast implications of Regan’s animal rights view are, as he says, “clear and uncompromising.”31

Both Singer’s and Regan’s equal consideration theories of moral status have been challenged. One could press Regan on the clear and uncompromising implications of his views of animal rights, which, to those who disagree with him, are unreasonable. The main difficulty in accepting Regan’s claims arise when one gets “into the weeds,” as it were, by sorting out how we might handle specific situations of competing human and animal interests. One of the implications of Regan’s approach is that it is never appropriate to subordinate an animal’s interests to that of a human’s, regardless of the potential benefits to an individual human or group of humans. This “utility-trumping equal consideration” has been challenged in several ways, including (a) appeals to species dominance, according to which it is self-evident that humans are superior, (b) contract theory, in which animals are incapable of designing/consenting to them, (c) appeals to moral agency, which has historically been lacking from conceptions of the mental lives of animals, (d) appeals to social bonds, in which our obligations are determined by our closeness to the people/animals in our lives, and (e) appeals to the commonsense differences between assistance and killing.32 It is beyond the scope of this paper to address each of these challenges fully or to present rejoinders to the equal consideration proponents’ replies to those challenges. Here it is only sufficient to offer another thought experiment that shows the impracticality and moral difficulties of utility-trumping equal consideration: in societies, cultures, and communities where meat-eating is not only pleasurable but necessary for survival, utility-trumping equal consideration necessitates letting humans die as an implication. This is a prospect that seems, one would imagine, patently unacceptable on a moral level to most people, including evangelical Christians.

Responding to Singer’s argument is more challenging because he allows for competing interests in extreme situations to produce a winner. Singer considers a hypothetical scenario in which experimenting on an animal in such a way that it will cause the animal to suffer or die saves thousands of human lives. To be sure, he argues against the possibility of a scenario like this in both human and animal cases: “Putting morality in such black-and-white terms is appealing, because it eliminates the need to think about particular cases; but in extreme circumstances, such absolutist answers always break down.” In the end, Singer concedes that “if it were possible to save several lives by an experiment that would take just one life, and there were no other way those lives could be saved, it would be right to do the experiment.” However, Singer argues that our time is better spent dealing with what is already the case – animals suffering for no good reason – than to deal with hypotheticals such as these. “When we have ceased to carry out all those experiments,” Singer says, “then there will be time enough to discuss what to do about the remaining ones which are claimed to be essential to save lives or prevent greater suffering.” Singer’s argument, then, is not that any one human is less valuable than any one animal; rather, he argues that humans as a class do not live lives that are more valuable than the lives of animals as a class.

Two replies may be made to Singer, both of which take their cues from Safina: (a) intellectual abilities and (b) concepts of death. First, one difference between animals and humans relates to human intellectual abilities: people can mentally categorize the world in which they live in an attempt to understand it intellectually. A truth that progressives wish to avoid – which Safina concedes – is the simple fact that as far as we can tell humans have a much greater reasoning capacity, due in large part to our more sophisticated degree of sentience, which Bentham himself admitted.33 If one accepts that sentience comes in degrees, and if sentience confers rights, then there are degrees of consideration animals deserve. For our purposes, it is an important distinction that many animals just “care about survival,” while humans are able to “chop concepts into so many pieces, you’d think behavior was shish kebab.”34 And although animals can communicate in subtle ways, they cannot understand higher order or more sophisticated communication (as best we can tell). “As humans,” Safina reminds us, “we understand metaphor and detect the difference between the humor of a well-meaning joke and the offense of a sarcastic one.”35 In the end, Safina acknowledges and concedes some important differences between humans and animals. He is bound by the canons of science, and its methodological naturalism. This leads him to accept the conclusions his book tries hard to avoid:

I am a hard-hearted disbeliever of things unknown. As a scientist, I am persuaded by evidence. And I tend to discount the less material explanations of puzzling phenomena. More importantly, I don’t see evidence [in the communication of more sophisticated animals like] whales – even if they are more intelligent than us (whatever ‘intelligence’ means) – would be “sending us a message.”36

Moreover, one could argue that full and equal consideration of animal interests is itself anthropocentric insofar as it relies on the abstract rational concepts of rights, interests, and so on, concepts to which animals have no apparent access.

A second reply to Singer involves conceptions of death. It seems to me that a central issue is whether, in their ingenuity, seeming emotional connectedness, human-like abilities, and, to some, personhood, animals possess similar concepts of death as do humans. Safina is helpful on this point; he acknowledges that animals have no concept of death, but he couches this claim in a simplistic and reductionistic explanation of human attempts to arrive at metaphysical insight:

I’m not saying that wolves have insight into death, or know the inevitability of their own mortality. After all, why would we expect them to understand more than we do? Most people cannot conceive of an end to themselves. Most people believe they will exist forever, in a place called heaven or in a wheel of karma and reincarnations. That’s both the breadth and the limit of human imagination. We exist. We cannot imagine that someday we will not exist. The conceptual limits of the human mind, for most of us in an everyday way, lie remarkably confined by what we’ve already experienced.37

On this point, Safina is simply mistaken.

While it is true that Safina recounts experiences of remarkable animals who display amazing qualities (such as the aforementioned wolf who spares his opponents), these stories are noteworthy precisely because it is the rare animal that would do such a thing.38 Conversely, this is not the case with humanity. It is the rare human in our time who will not spare his opponent when the threat has been neutralized. Most humans believe it to be wrong to kill someone when it is unnecessary, a gross violation of human rights.39 Many developed countries have codes of innocence before guilt and due process. This is to say, the rare and most interesting animals will do what is nearly ubiquitous in human behavior in the twenty-first century, namely, judge situations using a sophisticated moral framework and subject decisions to a noble ethical compass. Using ethical frameworks for decision-making – rooting one’s actions in principles instead of self-interest alone – is an activity in which humans alone participate, as best we can tell.40 It reveals a level of cognitive and intellectual complexity and sophistication that animals simply do not share. This leads us to our third model of moral status, the sliding scale approach.

The Sliding Scale Model

The third approach contending for consideration is the “sliding scale” model of moral status. Its adherents see it as a moderate/middle position along the continuum of moral status. The sliding scale model argues that animals can be arranged hierarchically according to their level of mental or cognitive complexity and sophistication, brain functioning, and degree of sentience. The higher one moves up the scale, the greater moral consideration an animal deserves.41 Along the scale there are a number of differentiating strata, or checkpoints, in which one can draw morally significant differences between levels of animals. Homo sapiens sapiens, as the most intellectually sophisticated and sentient among all animals, would receive full moral consideration/status while animals with significant degrees of sentience and thinking capacities – dolphins, apes – would be just below them, receiving almost as much consideration as humans. Below advanced mammals are regular mammals (cows, pigs, sheep), and below those, fowl (chicken, turkey, duck). Below fowl are reptiles, amphibians, and fish. The scale moves downward to cephalopods, cyclostomes, decapod crustaceans, and eventually simple organisms – amoebas, plankton, and so on – that may still qualify as “animals” in the broadest sense.

The sliding scale accepts that humans and non-human animals receive unequal consideration in ethical deliberations, but with qualifications.42 Any pejorative connotations of “unequal consideration” are not warranted because the sliding scale proponent need not fix humans at the top of the scale indefinitely (against anthropocentrism) and the sliding scale need not support the subdual of all non-human animals (against dominion theologies). The intuitive appeal of the sliding scale has a broad reach. Even most equal consideration proponents will argue that the killing of (birthed) people is a greater loss than the killing of an animal.43 Rather, the sliding scale is a recognition that, as best we can tell, our degree of sentience is greater, that our cognitive and intellectual lives are more sophisticated, than that of animals. But it is also a recognition that some animals operate at a higher intellectual level than others.

The sliding scale model meets Christian faith in the type of person it has the potential to engender. As we have been suggesting throughout this essay, advanced intellectual capacities carry with them certain moral obligations toward sentient beings that are unable to help themselves. That would certainly be consistent with the concerns of evangelical Christians, who have historically been proud of their activism.44 Moreover, the sliding scale does justice to the rich diversity of life on the planet: one can simultaneously accept that human cognitive and intellectual lives are more sophisticated than animals, but one may also accept that the emotional or relational lives of animals are worthy of some consideration. It is simply not the case that animals lack emotional and relational depth. As Safina has shown, there are good reasons to believe that at least some animals have rich enough emotional and relational lives to warrant at least some consideration by humans.

Of course, the sliding scale model is not without its challenges, two of which shall be addressed here. One challenge involves the problem of “marginal cases” and the difficulty in determining the level of intellectual sophistication an animal might possess. If a severely mentally retarded human is less intelligent than a very advanced orca, does this mean that the mentally retarded person deserves less consideration than the orca? How can the sliding scale overcome the difficulty of drawing non-arbitrary lines on the sliding scale? Although readers of Christian Scholar’s Review will not likely need an argument in favor of prioritizing human life in cases of either atypical species performance (disability) or utility-trumping hypotheticals – presumably there is widespread theological agreement on the anthropological significance of the imago dei and the unique value with which being created in the “image of God” endows humans – one response to this challenge is to note that the mentally challenged person is a member of a species that is not normally limited in these ways. Disabilities are not a species-typical conditions for humans. This is to say, an animal’s location on the sliding scale should be determined by species-typical conditions and behaviors, and we already have reliable schemas of categorization to show animal capabilities.

A second challenge to the sliding scale model relates to the possibility that a more advanced species could supplant humans at the top of the scale. This is, obviously, as far-fetched as the hypothetical scenario to which Singer responds – whether he would authorize hurting one animal to save a thousand humans – but the answers are similar. If more sophisticated and advanced creatures were to come to earth, they would be justified in viewing humans as having lower moral status and deserving less moral consideration. Recall, however, that the top location on the scale is not a license to abuse all lower level animals, but rather a responsibility to care for their well-being until utility-trumping scenarios emerge. The more/most advanced species would carry the moral burdens that at present fall to humans.

An Evangelical Christian Response

This paper has, in very broad strokes, explored some of the literature on the moral status of animals in an attempt to ascertain what morality requires or forbids us to do in our food choices. I argued that animals have at least some moral status and are worthy of some moral consideration, but not necessarily the level of concern humans deserve; I defended the sliding scale model of moral status. I also argued that the higher their position on the sliding scale, the greater the wrong it would be to kill them for food. We can also conclude that the person interested in cultivating virtue – presumably every morally serious evangelical Christian – views their position at the top of the scale with respect, views their power in stewardship terms, not dominion.45 They are entrusted to take care of the life around them, not treat it harshly. If this is true, then the practices of CAFOs and any other institution that fosters unnecessary suffering in animals (such as testing cosmetics on animals to make sure they are safe for humans) is wrong.

The question lingers, however, of whether and why humane killing is wrong. By “humane killing,” I mean the ending of animal lives in which no suffering is involved, usually due to a stunning method aimed at rendering an animal unconscious of pain. Regan certainly believes humane killing is immoral; if animals deserve equal consideration as humans, and if humans have a right to life, animals do, too. No one and no situation could justify countermanding it. But what would the sliding scale model of moral status justify? What does morality require with animals that have (a) not been subjected to harsh conditions in CAFOs, and (b) not been held in cages, overly confining nets, or other apparatuses that preclude species-typical functioning? How should we view the killing of animals that have not been made to suffer but are killed for either human survival or human gustatory pleasure? To put the question positively: is painless and sudden death a harm to non-human creatures? As we noted above, animals lack the concept of death in the same way species-typical humans do. For some, this will be sufficient to authorize the use of animals for human gustatory enjoyment. For others, it will not.

One response uses a “precautionary principle,” according to which we should err on the side of making sure we do not harm animals when the level of consciousness of animals is uncertain. In his article, “Consciousness in non-human animals,” R. H. Bradshaw suggests that we should be liberal in “adopting the precautionary principle.”46 For Bradshaw, the methodological difficulties of determining animal consciousness are many: animal consciousness cannot be measured directly, they cannot tell us about their conscious experiences, and even the humans on which consciousness studies are performed result in varied and inconclusive findings, which complicates discussions of consciousness in any sentient creature. In light of the difficulty in adequately discerning the inner workings of animal consciousness, Bradshaw says we should proceed with caution so as not to harm a creature that may experience life in a richer way than we previously understood. Since many animals are sentient, and increasingly we are seeing that some are sapient as well, perhaps we ought to adopt a conservative precautionary principle. Unless the benefits to humans are overwhelming, the precautionary principle suggests, we should not take animal lives.

What might qualify as an “overwhelming benefit” to humans? Surely survival is one such benefit, but are there others? According to Nick Fiddes, humans have significant interests at stake in meat-eating:47

these interests are by no means abstract theory. Rather, they reflect a realization that to study food habits divorced from their entire social contexts is futile; once we have met basic survival needs, eating becomes a matter of love and belongingness, of self-esteem, and of self-actualization.

Surely love and belonging are deep-seated human needs, but they are animal needs as well. My Labrador Retriever needs affection and attention more than some humans I know. Since both humans and animals share emotional ties to their counterparts, perhaps this response to Bradshaw is a nonstarter.48

Another potential response to the precautionary principle against humane killing concerns the pragmatic challenges facing humans in the face of an ever-growing population. Christian ethics requires that people make hard choices at times, taking into consideration not only that which has been revealed on the subject, but also prudentially balancing needs and costs of meeting those needs against the (potential) rights of all individuals impacted by one’s decision. In response to this complicated situation, I have argued two interrelated points: (a) people with higher moral status on the sliding scale are saddled with certain obligations regarding the treatment of animals, and (b) humane killing of an animal does not harm the animal, provided that the animal lived a species-typical life up until the death. With respect to the first point, I contended that higher cognitive complexity and sophistication carries with it moral burdens,49 chiefly the burden of acting as stewards of animals instead of consumers. That is to say, the ability to discern ethical obligations based on principles does not justify taking advantage of animals by making them suffer needlessly but rather places on humans the moral burden to act in ways beneficial to humans and animals.

With respect to the second point, we saw above that humans have unique moral status in the sliding scale: that of full moral consideration, which no non-human animal shares. And in instances when the moral burdens imputed to humans have been fulfilled, humans have utility-trumping interests. They can use animals for survival and gustatory pleasure because death is not a harm to an animal if it occurred quickly and painlessly. To reiterate the point: the humane killing of an animal does not harm that animal, provided that the animal lived a species-typical life up until the death. We adopt the “species-typical” test because animals functioning typically are not suffering at our hands or for our enjoyment. Insofar as our food choices create the demand for CAFOs which cause animals to suffer, we bear some moral responsibility for their unnecessary suffering. What would make the killing wrong is if that animal (a) shared our concept and understanding of death, (b) was made to suffer, (c) had future ambitions, goals, and projects beyond the instinct for survival, or (d) made other animals suffer in its loss. The first three of these do not apply to animals that are killed humanely and quickly. According to Safina, animals may desire to stay alive,50 but they do not have the concept of death. Mostly, they desire to avoid suffering, which is an experiential harm. Knowledge of the future and its opportunities is not available to animals. Death forecloses the future, but can do so in humane ways. But in animals higher on the sliding scale, the loss of a parent, child, sibling, or “friend” is a potential harm: some animals, Safina reminds us, can feel what appears to be grief after one of their own is killed. Therefore, the precautionary principle would urge us to consider that only animals lower on the sliding scale are morally permissible for consumption; only they would constitute humane food cultivation.

What avenues are available for this sort of humane food cultivation? Most of the current food industry practices of CAFOs that Rachels mentioned in the Introduction would be strictly forbidden, for they are not only death operations but also – and much more egregiously – they are suffering operations. Are there new and/or emerging methods of cultivation that do not cause animals to suffer for our gustatory pleasure? What about organic and so-called “free range” animal products?

Let us put Rachels’ remarks regarding livestock and fish farming in context. The United Nations projects that in the next four decades, global population will reach 9.7 billion people, up from today’s estimate of 7.3 billion people.51 With a higher global population comes increased need for sustainably farmed food. These are real needs that we, as a global community, have. For those of us unwilling to countenance “lifeboat” scenarios, letting people die when it is within our power to save them,52 other options must be considered. Given this context, it seems as if Rachels is simply not paying attention to the global demand for food and protein. I argued above for a utility-trumping permissibility for humans to kill animals for survival purposes coupled with a moral burden to minimize the suffering of animals in the process. Given the prevalence of suffering-inducing CAFOs, are there any institutions that claim to be humanely killing animals? Since our measure is “species-typical functioning,” only those institutions that allow animals to function as they would in the so-called “wild” are morally acceptable.

The “free range” food market purports to fill this void, but there are strong reasons to believe that even there these animals are made to suffer in the United States.53 “Free range” chickens, for example, are only judged by this standard: “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.”54 Although “free range” means that these animals spend some time outside, it does not indicate how much space they are given or how long the time outside lasts. Further, free range animals are often bred just like non-free-range animals are bred, and removed from their parents just as early. These practices could be more humane; they do not meet the species-typical functioning test.

A more acceptable option for food production is Aquaculture, the growing of water-based animals (fish, shellfish, and so on) for human consumption, and it has much to recommend it. While it is true that Rachels endorses Peter Singer and Jim Mason’s view that fish feel pain,55 it is presently unclear whether shrimp, crabs, and lobsters can feel pain in the same way as mammals and fowl (Rachels believes the research suggests that they do56). With respect to other types of seafood, Rachels concedes that it is (almost) certainly the case that clams, mussels, and scallops do not feel pain. Now, if Singer and Rachels are correct that fish feel pain, it is true that their deaths would bring about this result,57 but given the global context of need, this is simply an unfortunate consequence of trying to be as moral as we can in our current situation (contra utility-trumping equal consideration).

The reader is no doubt already aware of the biblical significance of fishing – as an evangelistic metaphor and as a way Jesus fed thousands – but Aquaculture also meets the species typical functioning test: these fish swim where and how they please until the moment at which they are apprehended. They are fed just as they would be if raised in the wild. In terms of efficiency and sustainability, Aquaculture is a zero-sum method of production: what is required to feed these fish is roughly equivalent to the return on investment: one pound of food will produce one pound of fish. This is not the case with livestock in CAFOs, in which protein conversion rates are striking. While figures vary according to which (a) source one cites, (b) geographical region in which the farming takes place, and (c) specific animals are focused on (cows, chickens, lambs, and so on), there is widespread agreement livestock require a grossly disproportionate amount of food and water to produce a small amount of product, with beef being the most inefficient.58 Furthermore, fish farmers can control what the fish eat and the entire life cycle of the fish, which limits the potential contaminants that make their way into the food source.59 That is to say, even on anthropocentric grounds, there are good reasons to take Aquaculture fish farming seriously. This leads at least one entrepreneur and fish farmer, Michael Velings, to claim that “Fish is the most resource-efficient animal protein available to humankind.”60 Taking Aquaculture seriously means a rethinking of how we use the ocean, Velings says, insofar as we “must start using the ocean as farmers instead of hunters … The day will come where people will demand fish on their plates that’s farmed well and farmed healthy – and refuse anything less.”

For Christians concerned not with domination and subordination of animal resources but rather with meeting the needs of real people in as ethical, virtuous, and Christ-like a way as possible, Aquaculture offers a path forward. After considering the lobster, as David Foster Wallace urged us to do at the start of this essay, we can accept it and add that we consider the fish. And it would be no small thing to remove the structures of pain-producing CAFOs that currently exist. The reservations we may have about the pain of fish could be addressed once we have successfully ended the suffering of animals higher on the sliding scale. If one seeks to subject the entirety of one’s life to Christ’s Lordship, food choices included, we should cast our nets to the right side61 by limiting our consumption of meat to those found in the sea.

Cite this article
Michael McGowan, “Cast Your Nets to the Right Side: Faith, Virtue, and the Morality of Food Choices”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 49:2 , 127-145


  1. David Foster Wallace, “Consider the Lobster,” in Gourmet (August 2004), 50-64. Reprinted (with alterations) in David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2006).
  2. Stuart Rachels, “Vegetarianism,” in Tom Beauchamp and R. G. Frey, eds., Oxford Handbook of Animal Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 877-883.
  3. See logistics of the USA Dept. of Agriculture’s description and differentiation of Animal Feeding Operations (AFOs) and CAFOs here:
  4. Sarah Withrow King presents a similar assessment of the situation facing CAFOs. See her Animals are Not Ours (No Really, They’re Not): An Evangelical Animal Liberation Theology (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016), chapter titled, “Being in Right Relationship to Animals.”
  5. Rachels, “Vegetarianism,” 881-883. One could respond to Rachels that CAFOs work to the benefit of the animals in their production systems who would otherwise struggle in the elements; rather than endure a hostile winter in cold and wet conditions, uncertain where their next meal would come from, animals in CAFOs are given temperature-controlled surroundings and automated, predictable food delivery.
  6. There is evidence, contrary to Rachels, that legislatively things are getting better (albeit very slowly). The Animal Welfare Act of 1966 ( extended protections to animals in non-farming contexts; it “regulates the treatment of animals in research, exhibition, transport, and by dealers.” However, some states have begun regulating more heavily. Gestation crates, for example, have started to be phased out in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington. Some have begun to phase out battery cages and/or veal crates (California, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Washington). In California, 2008’s Proposition 2 covers all animals and their products produced and sold within California’s borders. See the CA explanation of Prop. 2:
  7. Charles Colson, “Keepings Pets in their Place: Why We Can’t Afford to Treat Animals as Humans,” Christianity Today (April 29, 2008),
  8. Timothy Hsiao, “In Defense of Eating Meat,” in Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics (2015): 28: 277-291.
  9. Mark Oppenheimer, “Scholars Explore Christian Perspectives on Animal Rights,” New York Times (December 6, 2013),
  10. Robert N. Wennberg, “Animal Ethics and the Problem of Evil,” Christian Scholar’s Review XXI (1991).
  11. Language of “dominion” is used in C. S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain, in which Lewis argues that “The error we must avoid is that of considering [animals] in themselves. Man is to be understood only in his relation to God. The beasts are to be understood only in their relation to man and, through man, to God… Man was appointed by God to have dominion over the beasts, and everything a man does to an animal is either a lawful exercise, or a sacrilegious abuse, of an authority by divine right.” See C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 123-124. Interestingly, however, even while Lewis advocated human superiority, he elsewhere showed sensitivity to animal pain and suggested that people who make animals suffer are acting on satanic impulses. See Andrew Linzey, “C. S. Lewis’s Theology of Animals,” Anglican Theological Review 80.1 (Oxford Center of Animal Ethics): 60-81. For more on Linzey’s interpretation of Lewis, see www.oxfordanimalethics. com/who-we-are/director.
  12. Genesis 1:28 (NIV, KJV).
  13. This obviously connects animal ethics with environmental ethics. For a concerned evangelical perspective that addresses the environmental impact of dominion theologies, see Randall Balmer, Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical’s Lament (New York: Basic Books, 2006), ch. 4.
  14. Last Person Arguments were introduced by G. E. Moore (1903) in Principia Ethica, but given explicit formulation by Richard Routley, who changed his name to Richard Sylvan. See his paper, “Is There a Need for a New, an Environmental, Ethic?” in Encyclopedia of Environmental Ethics and Philosophy, eds. J. Callicott and R. Frodeman (Farmington Hills, MA: Macmillan, 2009).
  15. Daniel DeGrazia, Animal Rights: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).
  16. It is worth noting that the Last Person Alive argument, which seems self-evident to many, has been called fallacious. The logic that enables the conclusion that the LPA would be acting immorally if s/he were to abuse an animal assumes that which it is trying to prove: that it would be immoral. See J. O’Neill, “Last Person Arguments,” in International Encyclopedia of Ethics (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012). In response, I here offer three ways to make the argument without begging the question; LPAs show that it is wrong to abuse an animal on other grounds than because it is wrong to abuse an animal, which would be tautological.
  17. Carl Safina, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2015).
  18. Ibid., 108. Similarly, Safina has observed birds, even those of different species, teaching other birds how to proceed in unfamiliar surroundings (like Safina’s cage at home); one of his birds used water to soften up its food and make it more digestible, and the other bird learned from the first.
  19. Ibid., 144, 133.
  20. Ibid., 38: Describing whales, Safina says, “When he looked at you, someone else said, his gaze ‘had need in it, and your empathy lit up right away.’ People saw ‘an awareness, a presence, a longing.’”
  21. Ibid., 194.
  22. Ibid., 193.
  23. Ibid., 368: “Apparently they first assessed that its main problem was its need to breathe; then they realized that the most urgent thing was to keep it from the ship. They want to live. And when under attack, they try to live.”
  24. Ibid., 56.
  25. Ibid., 145.
  26. Ibid., 125: Upon seeing an elephant named Europa, Safina says, “I don’t see an elephant. I see someone painfully beautiful” (emphasis added). The same is true for whales: “Luna was … at a loss for company. He’d catch a salmon and then hold it in the air. ‘He was certainly showing us what he had caught,’ one person opined. ‘You realize,’ said another … ‘This is somebody.” Similarly, “A wolf is a ‘who’” (140), and “killing a wolf is like killing a brother,” one of Safina’s colleagues tells him.
  27. Ibid., 198.
  28. Tom Regan and Peter Singer, eds., Animal Rights and Human Obligations, 2d. ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1989), 13-19.
  29. Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (New York Review), see 1-9, 36-37, 40, 81-83, and 85-86.
  30. Tom Regan, “The Case for Animal Rights,” in In Defense of Animals, ed. Peter Singer (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 13-26. This chapter sketches the main themes of his longer work, The Case for Animal Rights.
  31. Although Kant suggested that animals have been provided for human ends, and although Regan sharply disagrees with Kant on this point, their absolutist perspective regarding ends and means is actually not overly dissimilar. See, for example, Groundwork for Metaphysics of Morals for Kant’s absolutist ends/means argument, which Regan extends to animals.
  32. These are the five arguments DeGrazia attempts to refute in Animal Ethics, 23-33.
  33. For Jeremy Bentham and present-day Benthamites like Singer, sentience comes in degrees, but ultimately does not matter on the question of rights. In An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), Bentham argues that the relevance of reasoning and speaking for the conferral of rights are wrongheaded: “The day may come when the non-human part of the animal creation will acquire the rights that never could have been withheld from them except by the hand of tyranny… Perhaps it will some day be recognized that the number of legs, the hairiness of the skin, or the possession of a fail, are equally insufficient reasons for abandoning to the same fate a creature that can feel? What else could be used to draw the line? Is it the faculty of reason or the possession of language? But a full-grown horse or dog is incomparably more rational and conversable than an infant of the day, or a week, or even a month old. Even if that were not so, what difference would that make? The question is not Can they reason? or Can they talk? but Can they suffer?” (New York: Dover, 2007).
  34. Safina, Beyond Words, 243.
  35. Ibid., 258.
  36. Ibid., 364.
  37. Ibid., 186.
  38. Ibid., 145.
  39. This statement relies on modern conceptions of human rights to which many throughout history had no access. See Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights: A History (New York: Norton, 2007), chapter 5: “The Soft Power of Humanity: Why Human Rights Failed, Only to Succeed in the Long Run.”
  40. t is quite possible that the animals whose stories were shared above, the ones doing seemingly selfless or helpful activities, were acting selflessly, but again, this would be the rare animal and rare situation, so rare, in fact, that the stories made their way into Safina’s book.
  41. Daniel DeGrazia, “Moral Status as a Matter of Degree?” in The Southern Journal of Philosophy XLVI (2008): 181-198.
  42. Models that argue that animals lack moral status are also technically “unequal consideration” models – zero and one are unequal numbers – but these “no status” approaches should be differentiated from the sliding scale because animals toward to top of the scale receive almost as much consideration as humans, a move the “no status” approach would never countenance.
  43. DeGrazia argues that “it is consistent with equal consideration to hold that, regarding a wide range of animals, the moral presumption against killing humans is stronger than that against killing those animals. (The claim receives further support from other considerations, including the greater emotional harm that loved ones typically experience when a human dies.) And, in the case of such animals, the moral presumption against confining them is somewhat weaker than the presumption against confining humans” (Animal Ethics, 66).
  44. David Bebbington argues that “All those displaying conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism are evangelicals.” See his “Evangelicalism in Its Settings: The British and American Movements since 1940,” in Evangelicalism, eds. M. A. Noll, D. W. Bebbington, and G. A. Rawlyk (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 367.
  45. See also Andrew Linzey, Animal Rights: A Christian Assessment (London: SCM Press, 1976); Christianity and the Rights of Animals (New York: Crossroad, 1988); and Andrew Linzey and Tom Regan, Compassion for Animals (London: SPCK, 1988).
  46. R. H. Bradshaw, “Consciousness in Non-human Animals: Adoption of the Precautionary Principle,” Journal of Consciousness Studies 5.1 (January 1998): 108-114.
  47. Nick Fiddes, “Social Aspects of Meat Eating,” in Proceedings of the Nutrition Society (1994): 271-280.
  48. Safina argues that animals can feel grief in profound ways. So the social value argument for meat-eating does not get off the ground because animals also have social structures that value life, love, belonging, and so on.
  49. The word choice of “burdens” is intentional; these responsibilities toward animals are more than duties and obligations. One can fulfill a duty or obligation without significant cost to oneself or others. “Burden” connotes serious cost and investment. When compared with the treatment of animals one finds in today’s meat-producing institutions and CAFOs, to shift to humane killing would indeed be a burden.
  50. Safina, Beyond Words, 81: “Self-destructive behavior … seems distinctly human. Depression-related suicide appears non-existent in free-living animals. Most animals do everything they can to stay alive.”
  52. See, for example, Garrett Hardin, “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor,” Psychology Today (Sept. 1974), in which Hardin argues that situations of food shortage are like a lifeboat with fixed carrying capacities. Though there are people trying to board the boat to save their lives, Hardin says we should “preserve our small safety factor and admit no more to the lifeboat. Our survival is then possible although we shall have to be constantly on guard against boarding parties. While this … solution clearly offers the only means of our survival, it is morally abhorrent to many people. Some say they feel guilty about their good luck. My reply is simple: ‘Get out and yield your place to others.’”
  53. Note, food production in the European Union is more tightly regulated, so “free range” is more meaningful than in the United States. If the US were to adopt standards on “free range” terminology in as strict as the “organic” food market, which is controlled by the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act, the term would be more meaningful.
  55. Peter Singer and Jim Mason, The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter (Emmaus, PA: Rodale, 2006), 131.
  56. See also Robert Elwood and Mirjam Appel, “Pain Experience in Hermit Crabs?,” Animal Behavior 77 (2009): 1243-1246.
  57. Whether fish have moral status is addressed more fully in B. Bovenkerk and F. L. B. Mejboom, “The Moral Status of Fish: The Importance and Limitations of a Fundamental Discussion for Practical Ethical Questions in Fish Farming,” Journal of Agricultural Environmental Ethics 25 (2012): 843-860.
  58. Citing a 2013 report from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), The Economist that “The results confirm that efficiency in livestock varies hugely. Chickens and pigs convert grain into meat at rates of two or three to one (i.e., it takes 2 kg. of feed to produce 1 kg. of chicken). The ratio for lamb is between four and over six to one and that for beef starts at five to one and goes as high as 20 to one. This has long been known.” In “Livestock Meat and Greens: How Bad for the Planet is Eating Meat” (December 31, 2013),
  59. Whereas “factory fish farming” would limit contaminants to a greater degree than Aqua-culture would, it does not pass the species-typical functioning test.
  60. Michael Velings, “The Case for Fish Farming,” TED Talks:
  61. John 21:6.

Michael McGowan

Florida Southwestern State College
Michael McGowan, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Florida Southwestern State College.