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God Squad: Vegetables or meat? Who's to judge?

My recent column on vegetarianism touched a nerve in many readers. My vegetarian readers of course focused on the selfishness and immorality of causing suffering and death to a sentient being just to have a burger when a salad would be both morally and nutritionally preferable.

To these readers, I say again that I believe they tread the higher road, but it's not the only road. The vast majority of people are burger eaters, and burger eaters are simply not moral monsters.

When it comes to ethics, we must rely upon commonly accepted moral intuitions to make our arguments and the common moral intuition of the bulk of humanity is that meat is just not murder.

As much as vegetarians might wish that all people would share their moral choices, they do not, and vegetarian vituperation is not helpful in getting people who eat meat to perhaps eat a little less of it.

The moral ambiguity of eating meat is seen even among vegetarians. Some vegetarians who are not vegans see no moral problem in eating dairy products from factory farms, wearing leather that's a byproduct of slaughter houses, or using drugs (not just cosmetics) or medical protocols that are tested on animals. Some (pescaterians) even eat fish and still call themselves vegetarians. I'm not here to judge such people as hypocrites, but merely to point out that even within the vegetarian community there exists a moral intuition that some human use of products that cause animal suffering is ethically acceptable. My carnivorous readers have just made a broader compromise.

Some moral judgments are clear. It's always wrong to murder an innocent human being. Some moral judgments are impossibly difficult ("Who do we save when we cannot save everyone?") Most moral judgments, like whether it's right to eat meat, fall in between the clear and the cloudy.

The vegetarian debate ought to remind us that in ethics and in religion, there are usually many levels of how to do good.

Through revelation, God has shown us higher and less high ways to serve God. Maimonides identified several moral levels of charity. All of them are good, but some of them are better. God wants us to give on the highest moral level possible, while also remembering that lower ways are still blessed.

I think of this as my Christian brothers and sisters are sacrificing something in their daily life for Lent. My Muslim friends did that during Ramadan, and I'm about to do that for Passover. We all must sacrifice something, but we all could sacrifice more than we do. In religious life as in secular ethics there are many levels of human virtue and human holiness and there are good people on both sides of this debate.

I was especially moved by the comments of a dairy farmer from Kaukauna, Wisconsin, regarding my earlier column. He was hurt by what he felt were my unfair generalizations about the suffering of animals, "I work for one of those large, modern farms that you deride as a factory. We take great pride in the care and comfort of all the animals in our care," he wrote. "I could throw dozens of facts and figures at you, but I'll simply observe that it's counterintuitive for any conscientious farmer to treat their herd with malice.

"Those animals are our lifeblood, our bread and our butter. The happier and more comfortable they are, the more productive they are. To subject them to suffering -- or worse yet, what you call 'terrible suffering' -- would make no sense even from the most selfish of perspectives."

In this Lenten period of reflection, it's important to remember that we can't always find the right way to live a decent life. Our appetites so often intrude. That's why we need to be led to the truth in this season, and in all seasons, by God's strong hand and outstretched arm.

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