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Ethics of eating meat: a reflection (not only) for Lent

Keywords: Ethics of eating meat, ethics of consumption, animal ethics, vegetarianism, livestock farming, ecological sustainability

A few weeks ago I met a friend of mine who has chosen complete abstinence from meat and egg products of any kind. She told me that she was invited for dinner the day before. During the meal the table community started a conversation on love for animals. Almost everybody had a pet at home and they were talking about how cute their pets are and how much love they feel for them. My friend was silent because she doesn’t have any pets, but at the same time she was the only one at the table who because of her love for animals didn’t eat meat, and ordered a vegetarian dish.

Various motivations for vegetarianism

There are many different lifestyles and forms of nutrition which reflect concerns over the use of animal products. Worldwide a growing number of people become vegetarians or even vegans by ethical conviction and renounce all consumption of animal products.[1] Many people have religious motivations, especially followers of Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. Others focus on health issues,[2] or are motivated by an increasing sensitivity to ecological sustainability and to negative environmental effects of industrial livestock farming.[3] Many people on the one hand reject the conditions in which animals are kept and fattened in intensive agriculture and livestock farming, but on the other hand still keep consuming animal products that are obtained or produced from this kind of farming. For a growing number of people, however, the question arises whether and under which conditions the consumption of animal products is ethically justifiable. For example, they ask themselves if they are complicit in ethically unacceptable forms of livestock farming, i. e. farming with negative ecological effects or livestock rearing which is not animal-welfare oriented, when they consume animal products.

Consumption of animal products and the responsibility of the consumer

Sometimes in discussions you can hear something like: “The pig doesn’t care anymore whether I am eating a schnitzel or not, because my decision whether to eat meat or not has no more effects on the way it has been kept, fattened and killed.” But this argumentation is not valid, because the consumer, through his buying and consumption behaviour, does indeed have a strong influence on which animal products are produced and under which circumstances. Even if it is not a question of immediate cooperation in the keeping and killing of animals in a narrow sense, it is always a question of indirect cooperation and complicity in the broader sense, since the keeping, treating and killing of an animal on the one hand, as well as the marketing and consumption of animal products on the other hand, are integrated into the same process and cannot therefore be judged independently of one another.

It is important to sensitise consumers to the fact that they are co-responsible for the way animals are kept, treated and slaughtered, because, as has already been said, by buying animal products they implicitly approve and directly co-finance how these products have been produced. Analogous to the basic principles of fair trade, it is therefore a matter of sensitising both the producers – i. e. the farmers, butchers and retailers – and the consumers of animal products to the ethical concerns of dealing with animals and of motivating them to do justice to animals, i. e. to ensure that they are treated in accordance with their species-specific needs and capabilities and in a species-appropriate animal husbandry.

It is important for consumers to be ready and prepared to research into the questions of where animal products they consume come from and from which kind of animal husbandry: How have the animals been kept, cared for and slaughtered? With today’s possibilities of obtaining information, but also by exercising the right to obtain information from the producer and seller of these products, this is a reasonable and bearable effort.

Lent as “kairos” to think over one’s meat consumption

It was a century long tradition in the Catholic Church that during Lent and on Fridays the consumption of meat was not allowed. According to the CIC 1983 “abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday” (can. 1251). The historical motives for abstinence from meat were mainly two: Firstly, it was a kind of limitation of consumption of luxury food,[4] and an expression of penitence in memory of Jesus’ death on the Cross. Secondly, it was a social practice to save expenses in order to share the savings with the poor. To fast, therefore, had also a strong social meaning.

As Christians we ask ourselves about the deeper meaning of those acts that we undertake voluntarily in preparation for Easter. Abstinence from meat during the whole season or at least on some days is still a widespread practice. In our contemporary context, at least in the western world, abstinence from meat has a significant importance due to the aforementioned reasons of environmental and animal ethics. To reflect on one’s consumption attitude and to change it, if one consumes regularly meat without checking its provenance, may be an ethical challenge and a commandment of the hour. Besides the philosophical and ethical discussions of whether or not keeping and killing animals is principally allowed from an ethical point of view, a significant reduction of meat consumption is requested. Acknowledging the complex ecological and social nexuses of industrial husbandry this is not only a question of voluntary renunciation, but of social and ecological responsibility. To verify one’s meat consumption under these ethical aspects of organic farming which respects the environment and animal welfare is more than a supererogatory action; a responsible meat consumption is an ethical demand. The complete abstinence of meat may be a supererogatory action, but for Christians especially in the Western World it could be a clear and strong sign not only of responsibility towards animals, but of ecological sustainability and social justice.

In conclusion: A recent court decision in Germany

In March 2019 for the very first time in Germany a farmer was sentenced to three years in prison due to cruelty to animals in mass animal husbandry.[5] According to the reasons for the judgement, hundreds of pigs had died as a result of the desolate conditions in the barn or had to be killed because of their massive injuries. The judge spoke of a “mass animal hell”. The infringements were uncovered by animalists in 2013. In the past the animalists usually were accused and found guilty of intrusion, but in this case (and hopefully also in the future) the judge considered the intrusion as justified and very clearly argued that animal protection represents a legal property superior to the right of sanctity of the home.

The judgement was welcomed not only by animalists, but also by the Federal Minister of Agriculture. At least in Germany this judgement can be seen as a sign that with regard to animal welfare there is a growing social sensitivity for animal ethics.  This gives reason to hope that things will change for the better.

[1] In many countries the number of vegetarians and vegans has grown steadily over the years. The Worldatlas statistics report the following countries with the highest rate of reported vegetarianism around the world (report published on May 1, 2017): 1. India (38%), 2. Israel (13%), 3. Taiwan (12%), 4. Italy (10%), 5. Austria (9%), 6. Germany (9%), 7. United Kingdom (9%), 8. Brazil (8%), 9. Ireland (6%), 10. Australia (5%). In India and Taiwan most of the vegetarians have religious motivations, in Israel vegetarianism has roots in religious restrictions of the consumption of animals, but gradually is becoming also a lifestyle choice even for those who identify as non-religious. Cf.

[2] See e. g. Richi E. Battaglia et al.: “Health Risks Associated with Meat Consumption: A Review of Epidemiological Studies”, International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research 85 (2015), pp. 70–78. Available online:

[3] See e. g. Anthony J. McMichael et al.: “Food, livestock production, energy, climate change, and health”, The Lancet, vol. 370, issue 9594 (Oct. 6, 2017), pp. 1253–1263. Available online:

[4] Up to the last generation and in many regions of the world still today meat is a luxury food. It is only in the western world that due to industrial livestock meat has become a mass-produced good and is available at a low price and therefore affordable for all people.

[5] See (unfortunately there is no English media report available on this case).