The ‘compromised pacifist’ position on animal rights

Do animals have rights? What about trees? When does life begin? Will the Cubs ever win the World Series? These … Continued

Do animals have rights? What about trees? When does life begin? Will the Cubs ever win the World Series? These are all very difficult questions and have no easy answers (well, except for the last one!); and answers will range across a broad spectrum based, indeed, on ones religious and spiritual beliefs.

The question of the moment is about animals, and I will begin with a personal reflection and end with a more general assessment of my own faith tradition’s various perspectives on the topic.

I grew up on a dairy farm in Indiana, and I never considered any alternative understanding of the place of animals in the “great chain of being” other than for human use. We raised chickens, hogs, and beef for consumption and milked cows for our main source of income. I loved those animals and reveled in the beauty of baby chicks, pigs, and calves, yet I never thought of them as having “souls.” They certainly had personality, though, and I had favorite animals. I knew they felt pain, sought comfort, and, especially the cows, responded to human touch and compassion. We tried to make them as comfortable as possible, attending to their “creature comforts” and feeding them well.

But I ate them. My religious upbringing taught me that animals were placed on earth for human use, and I never questioned it. When one of my cousins went off to college and came back a vegetarian, she was spoken of in hushed tones at family gatherings as if she had become a Communist!

Largely through the influence of my own daughters, one who became a vegetarian and the other a vegan, I have learned a great deal about issues related to how we view animals, how they are treated in the food industry, and how “prideful” it is of us humans to claim the “top spot” in the great chain of being and see all other life forms below us as having fewer rights.

But I’m still not a vegetarian. My wife and I have cut back on our consumption of red meat; purchase grass-fed and locally raised beef when we can; grow much of our own food in our garden; try to assuage our consciences. I just haven’t arrived at what I will admit to being the nobler position: recognizing that the “spirit” in animals is connected to our own spirit, and though their consciousness and “soul” is not the same as ours, they have rights as fellow creatures on G-d’s earth.

Okay, so I’m a compromised pacifist! I won’t kill fellow humans, but I will eat meat. I’ll admit to being somewhat hypocritical – in the same way that some “pro-lifers” are in favor of capital punishment and many fellow pacifists are okay with abortion. Heck; I even know fellow Christians, followers of Jesus, who are okay with serving in the military and “wasting” anyone in an “enemy” uniform! Maybe what really does differentiate us from animals is our ability to rationalize!

As for my faith tradition, Quakerism, there is no “doctrine.” Many Friends have extended the traditional peace testimony to include vegetarianism and environmental concern. Most have not. The founders of the Religious Society of Friends seemed to take the basic biblical view that animals were placed on earth (especially after the Flood) for human use, but that we are to be good “stewards” and treat other creatures with care. Only a few early Friends, as far as I can tell, were vegetarians. One well-known early Quaker vegetarian, Anthony Benezet, saw his choice of diet as consistent with his opposition to slavery and his support for Indian rights. Asked in for dinner at a fellow Quaker’s house once, he inquired about the menu; when told it was fried chicken, he politely demurred with the comment, “I make it a policy never to eat my neighbors.”

Another well-known Quaker, John Woolman, though perhaps not a vegetarian, was very concerned about how the “animial creation” was treated. He refused to ride in stage coaches, owing to the abuse of the horses, and often walked long distances rather than riding horseback.

I guess for me it boils down to this: All life is, indeed, interconnected. Basic physics knows that; religion knows that. At the same time, nature is, in fact, “red in tooth and claw.” It is nigh on to impossible, probably even for Jains, to escape the destruction of any life form as we seek to exist ourselves. We should take as much care as possible not to abuse fellow creatures, to minimize their abuse and discomfort, and, as with many in the Native American tradition, use “all” of the animal if we are going to kill it – offering thanks to the Creator for the gift of the creature, and thanks to the spirit of the animal for its sacrifice. If we treated animals more reverently, perhaps we would use them more sparingly.

I will admit to absolute hypocrisy on this subject. I would no more kill and eat our beloved pet dogs than I would another member of my family (although I have been tempted more to “taking out” my children at times than I have been by our dogs!). Proximity probably affects my attitude more than theology. I am growing in this regard. Who knows; perhaps by the time I am more mature, I will be where my daughter was at age 20: identifying all the edible weeds on her college campus and eating those rather than ingesting anything remotely connected to flesh. But I am still weak in my “flesh.”

Pray for me; but don’t eat me!

Max Carter
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  • haveaheart

    I think this is one of the saddest commentaries I’ve ever read on this discussion group. The idea that a Quaker, a self-professed pacifist, would keep excusing his behavior by saying “I will admit to absolute hypocrisy on this subject” — as though that’s supposed to mitigate the harm he is perpetuating — simply boggles the mind.Supporting one’s personal desires with disingenuous comments like “I’ll admit to being somewhat hypocritical – in the same way that…many fellow pacifists are okay with abortion” is simply offensive. How can a pacifist possibly compare the brutal violation and killing of existing sentient beings with the medical termination of dividing cells within another’s body without realizing that this thinking is way more skewed than just “somewhat hypocritical”?And then this: “…Nature is, in fact, ‘red in tooth and claw.’ It is nigh on to impossible, probably even for Jains, to escape the destruction of any life form as we seek to exist ourselves.””Nature” isn’t what puts dairy cows into reproductive bondage and keeps them constantly pregnant (while taking away their babies immediately upon birth) to keep the milk supply flowing, wearing them out in very few years and then sending them to the horrors of the slaughterhouse assembly line, where they are very likely to be skinned before they’re dead.”Nature” isn’t what puts a chain around the neck of a downed cow on a flatbed truck and then drives away, leaving the cow in the heat on the road with four broken legs, where no one finds her for 12 hours.”Nature” isn’t what packs tens of thousands of laying hens so tightly into battery cages that their claws typically grow around the wires, after first debeaking them without anesthetic.”Nature” isn’t what throws live male chicks into meat grinders because they aren’t of any other use.”Nature” isn’t what clubs small animals for their fur and then skins them while they’re still fully cognizant, stepping on their heads to keep them from squirming.To use the excuse of nature being vicious when you’re referring exclusively to man-made hideousness isn’t just disingenuous; it’s horrific.

  • haveaheart

    Continued from previous post…Max Carter tells us that “we should take as much care as possible not to abuse fellow creatures, to minimize their abuse and discomfort.” So where are his pacifist ideals when he’s consuming animals that have been subject not only to “abuse and discomfort” but to maiming and torture? Apparently, his ideals are hiding behind the proud claims of eating only “grass-fed beef” — which, by the way, is great for the consumer but does nothing for the cows.Willful ignorance is what stands between people who normally have strong consciences and their rationalizations for eating flesh and other animal products. If we don’t know what is being done to animals, on our behalf, by our agricultural industry, then somehow we get a free pass to continue consuming animals, their offspring, and their “by-products.”But what we’re really consuming when we eat animals is violence and brutality, and an avowed pacifist should be sensitive to the spiritual damage we do to ourselves by ingesting the horrors of the slaughterhouses and the battery cages.It’s all very well to romanticize our interdependence with animals by talking about Native American practices, but the reality for the animals being chopped up and shrink-wrapped for our consumption is that they haven’t been treated with reverence; they’ve been “grown” as commodities and are treated like food products for the entirety of their miserable lives.Ultimately, everyone has to live with his own choices. Max Carter has to live with the decisions he’s made to justify his continuing wish to eat meat. But I hope that he will make a choice at some point in his life to educate himself about the agriculture industry in the U.S. Once he learns what really happens to those animals before he eats them, perhaps he’ll decide that pacifism and animal consumption are not compatible within his faith tradition.

  • haveaheart

    paganplace,I understand the rationalization involved in your position. If you can separate yourself and what you consume from the animal agriculture industry that is widely known for its brutality, then you can feel virtuous and innocent about the food choices you make.My point here, though, was that it’s sad to see someone who is so committed to pacifism in all things cavalierly dismiss the rumblings of his conscience when he wishes to commit an act that he would normally abjure because of that conscience.You might be interested in reading Harold Brown’s story at

  • APaganplace

    What this means, Haveaheart, is not that it’s a ‘sin to be a carnivore’ ….but that maybe we ought to do something about the brutality visited upon the animals we eat, and not just shout at people andlook away. It’s become increasingly possible to obtain animal products from more-responsible sources than agribusiness. Maybe not for everyone, but much more doable than ten or twenty years ago. Small farms, community-supported agriculture that shows more respect for what we eat: it’s a way for both a *fat* nation to eat better food, less of it, and respect what we eat and who brings it to us in the process. It’s not an inherent property of meat-eating that it must come out of nightmarish machines that hurt both farmers, people, communities, economies, ecosystems, and of course, animals and our relationship to them. Grassfed beef, and less of it, was the *norm* not too long ago. Tastes a whole lot better, too. All this militant Veganism does is make people look away, instead of supporting a *farmer.*

  • mcarter1

    “Haveaheart,”That said, I am still not “clear,” as Quakerspeak would have it, about vegetarianism – and even my vegan daughters adjusted their absolutist positions as they faced the challenges of eating disorders and motherhood. Quakerism is about “living up to the Light one has” and trusting that more will be granted. As of now, all rationalizations aside, the Light simply has not yet led me to your position, as much as I admire it.No offense taken by your comments – even though you were, obviously, offended by mine. The process of seeking truth, of discernment, requires such “tough love” and such “speaking truth to power.” And I agree with much of what you say, which is why we have adjusted so many of our eating habits. I’m just not where you are yet. It’s not because of any “cavalier” attitude. Cavaliers, after all, were hardly pacifists! And I’m certainly not from Virginia!

  • zachferg

    You excellently spelled out how your upbringing, belief in pacifism and your self-admitted hypocrisy shape your view about eating meat- but what wasn’t clear to me was, what makes you continue to eat animal products if it goes against your values/conscience?Do you simply like the taste too much to quit? Have you not found alternatives to animal products (soy milk, veggie burgers, agave, etc.) or find these products lacking? Are you concerned about protein or another nutrition issue? Do your local restaurants not serve many vegan options or would your friends give you grief for it? I think discussing what prevents you from becoming vegan/vegetarian might have made this article more complete.For me, a fairly recent convert to vegetarianism, it was my superficial understanding of the issues. Checking out some good books from the local library and really examining the ethical, environmental and health benefits of going vegan/vegetarian made it an easy switch for me.