"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Common cause

In the posts on humanism below, I quoted and supported the idea expressed by Richard Norman that theists, atheists and agnostics (and others) should work together for common causes, even if they don't quite see eye to eye on everything. So it gives me great pleasure to point you all towards Greg Boyd on his vegetarianism:

Almost immediately after making this pledge I began to understand why the Lord had wanted me to make it. Scripture says a little yeast leavens all the dough (1 Cor 5:6). Well, I discovered that the little yeast of my willingness to engage in violence towards animals and other creatures for self-serving reasons (e.g. appetite, convenience) was polluting my heart and to some degree compromising my capacity to love. It felt like – and still feels like – my commitment to total non-violence has had, and is yet having, a purifying effect on my heart.

Obviously, my reasons for not eating meat are different to his, but there does seem to be a considerable overlap in our attitudes.

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Blogger Alex said...

I thought of you when I read that. Happy to see you stumbled across it.

I attended a service at Boyd's church last weekend. Then I ran into him at a steak house afterwards...

Well, actually, it was a burrito shop. Was kind of fun.

9:09 AM

Blogger Timmo said...


I wrote a short piece arguing that Scripture commands that we should become vegetarians, "Man as the Steward of Nature. Also, you might want to check out one of my favorite books, Animal Theology, by Fr. Andrew Linzey.

8:05 PM

Blogger Matt M said...

Hi Timmo,

Thanks for the link - will definitely check it out when I have a spare moment.

Boyd's religious arguments for vegetarianism have got me thinking about morality in general - or at least certain attitudes about it.

In debates with theists, I've often had it pointed out to me that my atheism apparently undermines my morality (though I disagree) - and that the natural consequences of my outlook should, apparently, be a rampage of violence and hedonism.

I've always thought this approach was a little strange. It'd be like me going to Boyd: "Your God doesn't exist. Therefore your arguments are wrong and you should eat animals."

But that would mean advocating something I consider wrong, which hardly seems to make sense. Instead, the approach I've chosen is to promote his actions, while at the same time promoting non-religious arguments for being ethical (which, as I see it, will ultimately encompass not treating animals as disposable).

If theists really believe that atheism is incompatible with being moral, then surely the last thing you'd want to do is point that out without having provided a common groundwork to replace it.

5:03 AM

Blogger Timmo said...


From a practical point of view, that it probably right. If you persuade atheists that theism is necessary for morality, but fail to persuade them of theism, then things have been made much worse!

Perhaps, then, theists who believe that God is, in some sense, the foundation of all ethical prescriptions should act as "noble liars" and fabricate a basis for ethical prescriptions suitably ingenious so as to encourage moral behavior from atheists. For instance, it has sometimes been argued that that we are not very good utilitarians when we try to be good utilitarians. We have limited insight, and are not very good circumstantial engineers. As a result, it turns out that widespread belief in, say, religious-based morality is more effective at maximizing utility than widespread belief in utilitarianism. Consequently, utilitarians ought to be "noble liars" and promote moral philosophies which they regard as incorrect so as to better secure greater happiness for all!

Despite Alex's valiant defense of the thesis that we have objective morality if and only if theism is true, I remain unpersuaded that there would be no moral prescriptions if God did not exist. It seems to me that the arguments for theological voluntarism are so threadbare that, given the availability of so many well-articulated, alternative metaethical views, it really should be considered a last resort for someone upholding the legitimacy of what morality demands from us. Instead, I find Kant's view that morality springs from the autonomous use of practical reason very attractive. Moral principles are just those principles which we necessarily impose upon ourselves by exercising practical reason.

I suspect you would really enjoy Hume's An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. According to Hume, morality is rooted in human nature. We are naturally sympathetic creatures, so morality is good for us. Moral behavior enlarges our sense of self because we are able to take a "common point of view" toward ourselves. Check out what the Stanford Encyclopedia's article about Hume's moral philosophy says:

Hume sides with the moral sense theorists: we gain awareness of moral good and evil by experiencing the pleasure of approval and the uneasiness of disapproval when we contemplate a character trait or action from an imaginatively sensitive and unbiased point of view... it is because we are the kinds of creatures we are, with the dispositions we have for pain and pleasure, the kinds of familial and friendly interdependence that make up our life together, and our approvals and disapprovals of these, that we are bound by moral requirements at all.

I worry, though, what the resulting morality would be if we consistently applied Hume's logic to a drastically different understanding of human nature, such as Kant's or Nietzsche. The kind of morality that would prove good for us might be something we really ought to regard with disgust.

10:39 PM

Blogger Matt M said...


I'm not sure that I want to get into another debate about the nature of morality right now - so I'll just limit myself to how we should approach those whose morality is based on radically different concepts to our own.

The idea of creating a "noble lie" was something that kept bothering me after I wrote my last comment here - but, after giving it some thought, I don't think it's entirely necessary, if necessary at all.

I think that Boyd's vegetarianism is based on flawed premises - but, were I to discuss the issue with him, my focus would not be on why he is wrong (though I would mention that I thought so), but on how a non-religious argument for vegetarianism can be constructed.

Or, to put it more crudely: Why my arguments are valid rather than why his arguments are invalid.

6:15 AM

Blogger Matt M said...

PS - I have that book by Hume, though strangely I can never seem to finish it. I think it might be because I consider the points he makes in it to be fairly obvious (to me at least).

Personally, I subscribe to a form of desire utilitarianism, with various "rules of thumb" used in place of constant weighing up of consequences.

6:30 AM

Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

All's fair in love and meat, imho. He who has of meat will be meat, and that's the truth of it.

It's The Great Cycle in action.

I believe our obligation, as empathetic creatures, is to minimise suffering. There's no nourishment to bad from any other thing's suffering. Suffering never tastes good. Not even with mayonaise.

I think the Biblical basis for vegetarianism is stretching it, though. It's like the Biblical basis for drinking grape juice instead of wine. To be honest, I think one could mount a better case for vegetarianism with an appeal to naturalism, whether it be on the basis of environment, health or ethical purity (causing no voluntary suffering etc).

5:22 PM

Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

nourishment to bad from

Should read,

nourishment to be had from

5:23 PM


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