(Extract from an article which appeared in The Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics of 1921):
" 2. The ethical argument. - The appeal to human compassion in the matter of the treatment of animals, though logically cogent, has been made with very little success even in this country, where the sentiment of kindness towards animals is strongly developed, as compared with that of other European peoples. If man could prove that flesh-foods were indispensable to his existence, of course there would be nothing more to be said. Nor would it be denied that, if such food maintained him in rude health more certainly than any other, he is right to eat it. But humane vegetarians assert that neither of these contentions can be verified, that, on the contrary, so large a proportion of mankind has subsisted in vigour on fruits and herbs for many generations together that the plea of necessity breaks down in presence of admitted facts. If this be so, no defence is possible of the practice of taking the lives of animals. Moreover, as long as man accustoms himself to kill them for food, knowing or suspecting that he could live quite well if he spared them, his whole attitude towards them is vitiated by selfishness. Very few individuals can concern themselves seriously or for long together about the welfare of animals while they are conscious that society as a whole condones the slaughter of them for no other reason than that flesh foods are preferable, or that a certain amount of inconvenience would be caused by a change of diet. Till the ethical question is fairly faced, the general conscience is violated by the daily commission on the largest scale of an act which we uneasily suspect to be a crime. Further, unless there had been a conspiracy to hide the facts, the hideousness of the slaughter-house system would long ago have roused public sentiment to a pitch of fury; and even now, assuming what is very doubtful, that the butchering is as painless as possible, there remains against man's whole treatment of his helpless fellow-creatures the broad indictment that to rob millions of them of life unnecessarily is a kind of murder.
It is difficult to say what answers to the above arguments are made, as public opinion is too lax on the question and custom is too strong to have allowed the matter to be fairly discussed. The truth is, an enormous majority of people are too much under the yoke of custom to be awake to the moral appeal. Many would readily admit that they cannot meet it, nor are they at pains even to excuse themselves save on the plea of convenience. Meanwhile it would be difficult to measure the mischief caused to our social life by this particular form of heedlessness. Compared with foreigners, Britons are peculiarly sensitive to the claims of the animal kingdom. Such kindness as we show is based on religion, but is also the outcome of an inherited sentiment, powerful to-day, but, it must be admitted, of somewhat recent growth. If, then, both sentiment and religion are flouted by any particular custom, and little or no protest is raised against it, the very foundations of our moral principles are assailed by a deadly form of insincerity, all the more deadly for being largely unsuspected. Indeed, if these considerations are sound, we, as a society, are under the ban of Christ's denunciation of the Pharisees, who were guilty in proportion as they were blind.
But there must be plausible arguments for a practice so general as the slaying and eating of animals. Probably the most prevailing is the idea that it makes on the whole for health. The physiological aspect of the question must be dealt with separately. Here it is only necessary to observe that, granted the fact, there need be no dispute as to the principle asserted. It may be conceded that man is on so much higher a plane than animals that his welfare must take precedence of theirs in all cases where there is a direct conflict. But that there is such a conflict is exactly what the humanitarians deny. They maintain that the evidence of fruits, cereals, etc., being sufficient to support human life in full vigour is abundant; and their main argument is not that men should suffer in order to spare animals, but that, as long as there is reason to believe that animal flesh is no better (indeed is inferior) as food for man than fruits and vegetables, it cannot be right to kill animals and eat them.
To this it is replied that, if abstinence from meat became general, intolerable evils would result, such as the means of livelihood being taken from millions of workers, and the loss of skins which are needed for clothing and which are supplied at present from animals bred or preserved for food. There would be a prospect also of large industries being destroyed and thousands of workers being thrown out of employment.
One obvious answer to these misgivings is that they are based on the assumption that a vast revolution in diet could come about suddenly. There is of course no reason to assume anything of the kind, least of all in a country where conservative prejudice on this subject is adamantine. But that is not the kind of answer that touches the conscience. The truth is, the results of conduct in this case, as in many others, are far too uncertain to be worth arguing about. Nor would there be any need to forecast the future with the laborious precision which is often affected, if once it were made clear that obedience to divine law means obedience in spite of uncertainty as to results. The training of the Apostles was directed to this end throughout, that they should walk by faith and not by sight. But to limit obedience to occasions of utility is to destroy its faithfulness. Thus, if man recognizes the claims of animals to good treatment, it is futile to defend the slaughter of them because the results of the opposite line of conduct are not easy to foresee. This is the point at which religious considerations supplement ethical. If we believe that God has committed animals to us, we are bound to treat them kindly, even if the results were likely to be far more inconvenient than they possibly could be. Indeed, the experience of food shortage has taught us that all the difficulties supposed to be inherent in vegetarianism are faced without hesitation as soon as the situation is understood. In other words, professing followers of Christ ignore what is admittedly a divinely sanctioned claim, but recognize it as soon as ever 'provision for the flesh' against which St. Paul (Ro 13.14) and our Lord (Mt 6.25) warn us, seems to be in question.
A more solid objection is advanced when it is urged that the Founder of our religion and the Pattern of our conduct did Himself habitually partake of animal food. How can humane-minded people take their stand on a divinely sanctioned law which the Son of God Himself disobeyed?
To face this objection fairly, it is necessary to point out that the oft-quoted parallel of Christ's silence concerning slavery is not at first sight applicable. Against slavery He did undoubtedly establish principles of charity between man and man which were certain, if followed, to overthrow the institution sooner or later. But it cannot be said that any teaching of His can be quoted which bears at all directly against the practice of slaying animals for food; and it is quite legitimate to argue that He had no such objection to the practice on humane grounds as He must have had against the practice of depriving a fellow-man of his liberty. Moreover, the question is not, 'Why did He refrain from denunciation?' so much as, 'Why did He participate in the practice?'
The explanation must take account of the main purpose which - as far as we can grasp it - the Saviour set before Himself in His work on earth. From no other point of view can the fragmentary character of Christ's ethical teaching be understood. But any adequate statement on such a theme would range far beyond the limits of this article. This much, however, may be said, that, in proportion as any interpretation of Christ's work falls short of the full doctrine of the NT as to His person, it will fail in explaining the gaps in the ethical teaching. In other words, if Jesus is regarded only as a divinely-gifted prophet, His life and teaching were not only abortive, but needlessly so. With slight precaution He could have escaped an early death and extended His teaching and the sublime example of His conduct for other fifty years. There is no way of meeting this criticism except by holding fast to the Christology of St. Paul and St. John. The task before the Lord was not to teach mankind, but to save them by His incarnation, death, resurrection, and the gift of the Holy Spirit from heaven. Now, while engaged on this task, He gave just enough time to evangelization to reveal what human life would be if men lived it in the full conviction and certainty of God's love and presence among them. The revelation was grievously misunderstood at the time and subsequently, owing to men's tendency to turn the gospel into a burden of moral law, more crushing than that of Moses because more spiritual and exacting. Therefore the teaching was in the main barren of precepts dealing with everyday conduct. The danger of literalism of interpretation was imminent, and we may conclude that, if Jesus had given us anything like a complete code of moral precepts, or even a full picture of a sinless life extended far into old age, our attention would have been diverted finally and completely from the difficult task of understanding His work of redemption to the far simpler but hopeless endeavour to live up to the level of His moral example - i.e., to reject God's scheme of salvation owing to utter inability to rise up to its meaning. Hence the Saviour refrained from all attempt to guide His followers by rules, but gradually taught them - what they are still very slow to learn - that their lives were to be quickened by the Holy Spirit whose indwelling was to be to them their strength and inspiration for all time. In view of this prospect, we can understand why His ethical teaching was so suggestive but so paradoxical, so figurative, and incomplete. It was designed, not to save us from the trouble of thinking, but to turn our thoughts to the Comforter whom He promised to send.
But, in considering the moral example of Christ, we have to recognize the fact that He resolutely declined to gratify the expectation of the Jews that He should set before men a pattern of conduct to be imitated unintelligently. Not only the Pharisees but all mankind are ready to go through almost any unpleasantness if thereby they can escape the pain of recasting their ideas. From the beginning of His ministry, however, Christ set Himself sternly against this temper. His first word spoken in public (Mt 4.17) was an echo of the Baptist's injunction: 'Change your minds: for the Kingdom of the Heavens is come nigh.' Clearly the Lord intended that deep principles should be learned by men, and that, as they were learned, human conduct should change. Supposing, then, that He had set Himself in opposition, not specifically to a principle of conduct, but to a social custom the meaning of which was widely misunderstood, that would have been an attempt, foredoomed to failure, to improve human life without human co-operation; for it is certain that moral improvement cannot be achieved if we do not know what we are doing and why we are doing it.
Therefore Christ taught principles based upon the fact of God's Fatherhood, one of them being that the human body was to be honoured. This was taught not by a formulated rule, but by the fact of the Incarnation as soon as it was accepted. Hence, in the course of the history of Christianity, social customs have to be considered and modified in accordance with the underlying principle of reverence being due to our bodies made in the image of God. Thus the question of the kind of food that we eat arises naturally as the Incarnation is gradually being better understood.
Further, Christ's life on earth was an exhibition of divine power triumphing in and through the uttermost of created weakness. By His endurance of that weakness He manifested His personal strength, inherent and inalienable, as the Son of God. Now that strength was the strength of a Redeemer, a Transformer, an Uplifter. Christ found mankind sunk in evil prejudices and evil customs. He took upon Himself our poisoned nature, as it was, that He might cleanse and re-invigorate it; what He did not do was to better the conditions so as to make His task easier. He took on Himself all the disabilities which resulted from human blundering, to show how, not so much in spite of them but by means of them, He could triumph over Satan. Hence the freedom from temporary restrictions and the universality of His teaching.
From: The Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics; published in Edinburgh by T & T. Clark between 1908 - 1926 and edited by James Hastings. #