Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A Comparison of Veganism and Religion

Posted by Sherry F. Colb

In my column for this week, I discuss the case of a prisoner, Paul Cortez, who has been unsuccessful in his efforts to persuade prison authorities to supply him with vegan food in prison.  About a year ago, Cortez became a vegan when he came to see the consumption of animal products (accurately) as participation in unjustified violence toward nonhuman animals.  My column takes up the questions whether Cortez is entitled to accommodation under a federal statute (RLUIPA) and why, even if he is not, a decision to refuse to facilitate a commitment to nonviolence in prison may be independently ill-advised.

In this post, I want to explore tentatively the relation between ethical veganism (by which I mean the decision to avoid animal products because the violence involved in producing such products is wrong) and conventional religion, as a question separate from the doctrinal one of whether statutory and constitutional protections for religious exercise do or ought to apply to the practice of veganism.

One component of veganism that very much parallels religious devotion is a commitment to doing what is morally right.  A religious person might look to religious doctrine to determine what is and is not moral, as mediated by religious leaders.  A vegan might instead look to her own conscience.  The division here is somewhat artificial, however, because religious people regularly confront difficult questions and must consult their own sense of right and wrong, just as vegans may find a particular issue difficult and consult a vegan friend for guidance.  The important parallel is the role of conscience in the lives of both.  Religious people and vegans attempt to organize their behavior around pursuing what is just and avoiding what is unjust, even if their "sources" for moral instruction may be quite different.

Beyond this parallel, there is another that may have more to do with public perception than with reality.  Those who are not religious often view religious people as "fanatical," in just the way that nonvegans often view vegans.  Like secular people with respect to religious people and "sin," nonvegans tend to think that vegans secretly crave the (in my view nauseating) products of animal cruelty and slaughter.

In both cases, in other words, those outside the group seem to imagine the conduct of those inside the group as suffering some sort of hardship in "abstaining" from pleasurable activity.

I suspect that there are some religious people and some vegans who do secretly wish that they could do the things they believe to be wrong.  On the religious front, of course, there seem to be daily scandals in which promoters of religiously-defined family values turn out to be engaged in what their own faith considers sinful conduct (usually having to do with sex).  And among vegans, there are "former" vegans who now commit themselves to spreading the gospel of how they were all wrong before and how great it is to consume animal products again.  (A kind of "born again" in reverse).

Yet on the whole, religious people and vegans seem to find their/our lives quite full and satisfying and do not fantasize about going over to the other side.  This does not make for a salacious story, of course, so reporters have no reason to emphasize it.

An apparently important distinction between religion and veganism is the presence or absence of God and the notion that He (or She) has issued inerrant commandments that people are required to follow.  If one believes that God is all-knowing and all-powerful and all-good and that He or She said it is wrong for two men to have sex with each other, then it follows for such a believer that it is in fact wrong for two men to have sex with each other.  If one does not accept the idea of an inerrant God who explicitly identified some practices as an abomination, on the other hand, then the wrongness of homosexuality seems far less self-evident.

For ethical vegans, by contrast, there is no turning to a canonical text to support one's claims that unnecessarily inflicting suffering and death on animals is wrong.  There are instead premises shared with the rest of the human population, premises based on moral intuitions, followed by reflection on the sometimes-unexpected implications of those moral intuitions, some of which call into serious question the behavior that most of us have been raised to consider normal and ordinary (i.e., the eating and wearing of products of animal torture and killing).

I say the distinction is "apparently" important, however, because the reality is that religious doctrines generally contain directives that track many of our moral intuitions, including injunctions against murder and robbery and commandments to help the stranger in need and the widow and orphan.  For secular people, it should come as no surprise that religious people have arrived at many of the same moral rules as they. 

Furthermore and more importantly, when religious directives come into direct conflict with widely shared moral norms and intuitions, devout people tend to adjust their faith to conform to the intuition rather than doing the reverse.  A classic example is the presence in what Jews call the Bible (or Torah) and what Christians call Old Testament of discussion and regulation that accepts and condones human slavery and the deliberate killing of defenseless captives, including children, who are captured in the course of a war with an enemy nation.  Few Jews or Christians alive today view this discussion of slavery and the killing of defenseless captive children of enemy nations as a guide to moral behavior in the modern world.

All of us, then -- the religious and the secular, the vegan and the nonvegan alike -- attempt to live our lives in a manner that is more or less consistent with what we view as principles of morality and justice.  All of us also have conceptions of what is right and what is wrong that emanate, at least in part, from moral intuitions that we share with one another and from which we draw conclusions after reflecting on their implications.  We all act in accordance with our conscience sometimes and against our conscience at other times (and with moral ignorance -- whether deliberate or not -- at yet other moments).  This is why we can all talk to one another and try to persuade one another of our respective views of right and wrong.  One cannot do that with no shared assumptions.  And it is why, as well, each of us has the capacity to change our minds and our behavior.

At some level, this may sound like an argument against special rights for religious over secular practice.  But I don't mean to say that, exactly.  My view is that there are times when we act on the basis of moral commitments, and there are times when our "moral sense" is not engaged at all.  (This seems to be evident on brain scans when people consider various dilemmas posed to them while they are monitored).  When people act out of conscience, whether their act is to refuse to go work on a holy day, or whether it is to refuse to attend a nonvegan communal meal, or whether to serve on a jury charged with considering the death penalty, their actions should receive a heightened level of respect and accommodation, whether or not they are adherents to a formal religion.

10 comments:

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

Sherry,

In the conscientious objection to war, the Supreme Court has recognized non-religious moral beliefs that are “sincere and meaningful” and said to occupy a place in the “life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God….” (U.S. v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163 (1965). So there is some legal support for the idea that “acting out of conscience” involves according a “heightened level of respect and accommodation,” whether or not one subscribes to what is traditionally described as a “religion.” We should speak of non-religious (‘secular’) worldviews that have many of the characteristics and functions of religious worldviews to further fill out the idea that “All of us, then—the religious and the secular, the vegan and the nonvegan alike—attempt to live our lives in a manner that is more or less consistent with what we view as principles of morality and justice” (hence the title of Ninian Smart’s book, Worldviews: Crosscultural Explorations of Human Beliefs).

Historically, there have been some philosophies with many of the characteristics typically found in religious worldviews (including ‘spiritual exercises’), as we see, for instance, in the Hellenistic schools like Stoicism as discussed by Pierre Hadot and Martha Nussbaum (and a contemporary philosopher, Michael McGhee, provides us with a non-religious yet philosophical and spiritual worldview reminiscent of these earlier philosophical schools). Avowed atheist philosophers like Owen Flanagan and Julian Baggini deal with the centrality of questions of (moral and non-moral) meaning and value in a way that parallels that found in religious worldviews (not unlike that found among some existentialist philosophers).

Re: “An apparently important distinction between religion and veganism is the presence or absence of God and the notion that He (or She) has issued inerrant commandments that people are required to follow.”

Of course “religion” here is largely in reference to the three semitic monotheistic traditions and thus does not include, for example, Daoism, Confucianism or Buddhism.

One might cite religious (’canonical’) texts in religious traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism to “support one’s claims that unnecessarily inflicting suffering and death on animals is wrong” by way of demonstrating the similarity or analogy used in the CO determination above. And there are of course Jews, Christians, and (yes) Muslims who (while they may be vegetarians and not vegans) argue their religious beliefs justify the proposition that “unnecessarily inflicting suffering and death on animals is wrong.”

Finally, I think our moral sense may be engaged quite frequently or our moral awareness be understood as fairly continuous (as Iris Murdoch has explained), but it is only occasionally, owing to special circumstance or situation, that it is rightly seen as rising to the level necessary for and exemplified by the claim that a particular belief or action involves (moral) conscience as such.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Patrick,

FindLaw is based on the west coast and so they tend to put up new material mid-day for us on the east coast. When you see Sherry's column (which I've seen in advance copy), you'll see that she addresses the particular case in part as an exemplar of Buddhism, and also mentions the role that veganism could play in Hinduism and Jainism.

One interesting question raised by your comment is whether the definition of religion is uniform across federal law. Seeger interpreted the Universal Military Training and Service Act, albeit under the influence of the First Amendment's religion clauses. The First Amendment jurisprudence has changed significantly since then. In addition, as Sherry discusses in the column, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) refers to religion as well, and lower courts have tended to borrow the Seeger definition. However, it is not clear that "religion" and "religious belief" are or should be treated uniformly across contexts.

Meanwhile, a propos of Sherry's post and Patrick's response, there is a normative case to be made for treating all strongly felt ethical obligations as equally worthy of protection, even if they are not part of any (religious or secular) system of belief. Eisgruber and Sager have argued for something along these lines.

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

Thanks Mike.

While I understand why "there is a normative case to be made for treating all strongly felt ethical obligations as equally worthy of protection, even if they are not part of any (religious or secular) system of belief," I wonder if, as seems to occur in some prisoner "free exercise" cases, the courts are looking for some kind of "objective" standard or criteria by way of assessing the sincerity of ethical conviction(s), and thus when a "strongly felt ethical obligation" follows from subscription to or is understood as an integral part of a (religious or non-religious) worldview, there's thought to be prima facie evidence for sincerity of belief and commitment of the sort lacking in "free-standing" (or ad hoc-like) ethical beliefs.

Charles said...

I'd like to take this opportunity to retract (and apologize for) my criticism of Prof Colb's previous post re "morality talk". As a result of Prof Dorf's response to my comment, I decided that my complaint was properly not with "morality talk" per se but (ala Prof Dorf) with normative vs descriptive language. (Although I prefer to distinguish between using the intentional idiom for assertions and not, the former making it clearer that an assertion is "in the mind" of the speaker, ie, an opinion.) I checked Prof Colb's previous article (and this one), and she appears to have used "morality talk" only as non-predicate adjectives or adverbs - close enough to descriptive for me.

This relates to the present post in that I consider that non-intentional assertions often indicate attachment to a position that suggest commitment based on faith rather than reflection. "I think/consider/feel/am of the opinion that/etc X is immoral/wrong" leaves room for discussion and the possibility of reconsideration. "X is immoral/wrong" doesn't. And I think this distinction important because the certainty and immutability suggested by the latter leaves no room for compromise or even mutual respect. If for you X is unequivocally immoral and I support X, then for you, I am unequivocally evil.

Unfortunately, such potentially dangerous inflexibility can be to any ideology, as evidenced by today's overheated political climate.

Bob Hockett said...

Thanks for the wonderful reflections, Sherry,

For what little this might be worth, my own tendency is to think of religions in 'way of life' terms rather than in 'metaphysical belief' terms, an understanding which might have some basis in the etymology of the word 'religion' itself. I thus find myself strongly in favor of the judgment that vegans ought to be accommodated at least as readily as ought practitioners of any traditional religious faith (some of which faiths themselves would entail veganism). I also, for more or less the same reasons, find myself very much drawn to the line of thought Mike mentions in connection with Chris Eisgruber and Larry Sager.

Interestingly, Rawls used to employ the generic term 'comprehensive views' to embrace religious commitments and their functional equivalents. While the move to a more generic term was well advised, I tend to think, I fear that the suggestion of propositional belief connoted by 'comprehensive views' might have been unhelpful, for reasons hinted at above. If 'religion' is at least as much about action as it is about belief, as I think it is, then the operative 'function,' for purposes of functional equivalence, surely ought to be or include the way-of-life-forming, or as we also might put it, the identity-constitutive, function.

Vegans, Stoics, practitioners of non-theistic 'religions,' all manner of serious and conscientious folk, it seems to me, accordingly ought to be considered 'religious' for accommodationist purposes -- as well as for role model and related purposes. For these purposes all sound in respect for persons and the identity-constitutive choices of action they take -- at least where such choices do not work harm to others. Of course, content-neutrality might not always be possible, given the difficulties occasioned by trying to define 'harm' workably -- I suppose there might sometimes be sincere conscientious believers in human sacrifice on both ends of the knife, just as Richard Hare noted there can be fanatical amoralists -- but happily there does seem to be a great deal of common ground among varying identity-constitutive ethics. And that ground typically seems to include the eschewal of violence, not only in deed, but also in psychic or spiritual orientation, in our relations with one another and with all sentient beings. The real problem we face with non-vegans in most cases, I suspect, is with sheer ignorance of the processes by which critters land on their plates. Doubtless there is weakness of will too, but methinks the latter would be far less serious a problem were folk actually to *see* and *hear* and *smell* what occurs in these dreadful farms and abattoirs.

Thanks again,
Bob

goodsasa33 said...


監視器


監視器材


手機訊號強波器


亂剪
 雷門刺青

京王監視器
 大哥大訊號強波器  網站SEO

Stella亂剪旗艦店

網站排名首頁

fet said...

buy femara

lency said...

Vegans, who follow a balanced diet is the possibility of receiving a lot of vitamins and minerals, nuts and vegetable-based diet plan to reduce their chances of serious illness has increased the life span.

Xanax Online Cheap

每当遇见你 said...

Here’s a list of tools you will need to start: Jewelers’pandora jewellery wire cutters - If you can only afford one pair, get memory wire shears. pandora charms These are designed to make clean cuts on tough memory wire, so can also be used for pandora charms uk softer wires. Chain-nose pliers sometimes called cheap pandora charms needle-nose pliers – Very versatile for picking up and grasping small items, pandora charms sale bending eye pins, closing jumps rings, even closing crimp beads. discount pandora charms Round-nose pliers – Used for creating loops on beaded head and eye pins. Can also be used for winding your own jump rings and as the second pliers you’cheap pandora ll need for closing jump rings. Optional pliers – Wire-looping pliers which have several graduated circumferences to allow you to form perfectly uniform jump rings and loops in place of the pandora discount uk round-nose pliers mentioned above. Crimping pliers which have little notches to allow you to both flatten a crimp bead and then bend it to form a rounded finished look instead of the flat crimp you pandora uk get using the chain-nose pliers. As for materials, I recommend some assortment packs of beads in coordinating colors, some decorative metal spacers, seed beads in both silver and gold These can serve as spacers and beautifully set off pandora sale your other beads., tube-shaped crimp beads Buy the best you can find – these are what hold it all together!, head and eye pins. Other than that, let your choice of project be your guide. You might want some silver or pewter charms.q

RS Gold said...

We offer easy and quick process of buying WOW Gold. So you don’t need to waste too much time placing the order and recieving your World Of Warcraft Gold.We choose face to face deliver method to make sure your Cheap WOW Gold is delivered fast and also to protect the safety of your account.