The Ethics of Nonviolent Eating

University Essays: Lesson 8, Reading 1

by Helen Nearing

I wonder of what sort of feeling, mind, or reason, that man was possessed who was first to pollute his mouth with gore, and to allow his lips to touch the flesh of a murdered being; who spread his table with the mangled forms of dead bodies, and claimed as daily food and dainty dishes what but now were beings endowed with movement, with perception, and with voice?  Plutarch, On the Eating of Flesh. 70 A.D.

This book on simple food is vegetarian, of course. It is the simplest, cleanest, easiest way to eat. I take it for granted that to live on plants and fruits, seeds and nuts is the way for rational, kindly and perceptive people to live. By the time mankind has fully advanced from complex back to simple living, flesh will have been dropped from the diet and that cruel costly fare will be left to the carnivores. The readers of this book may be beyond that repulsive custom, but for those who are not, I set down what I consider legitimate arguments for a vegetable diet. However, I realize in advance I shall make little dent upon the general public, long-time confirmed in its savage custom.

The sight of slabs of flesh should horrify and disgust any sensitive person if they exercised their inborn compassion. Habit has dimmed their native kindliness. Their palates have become abnormally corrupted and conditioned by a taste for dead food, its flavoring and odors. People who eat slaughtered creatures every day find it hard to imagine what to substitute for meat, not realizing that meat is the substitute for vegetables.

Nature has provided man with an abundance of food for full nourishment instead of putrefying corpses, which repugnant diet decent folk would abhor if generation upon generation had not, through use and custom, habituated themselves to the ghoulish practice of making their stomachs the burial ground for dead bodies.

The word “vegetarian” derives from the Latin “vegetus” — whole, sound, fresh, lively. The meat humans eat is neither whole, sound, fresh, or lively. It is dis-limbed, tainted, decaying, stale and dead. A diet consisting of green leafy vegetables, root crops, grains, berries, nuts and fruits supplies all the body needs for strength and well-being. It is healthful food, aesthetic, economical, harmless to our brother animals, easy to grow, to prepare and to digest.

Flesh-eating by humans is unnecessary, irrational, anatomically unsound, unhealthy, unhygienic, uneconomic, unaesthetic, unkind and unethical. May I elaborate?


Meat is not a necessity, but a cultivated want. We need not butcher our fellow creatures for food. Millions of people throughout the world and through the ages have lived their whole lives on plant food and been none the worse; in fact, they have probably been in better health because of their abstemious diet. I had the good sense to be born in a vegetarian family and have lived into my seventies in good health and strength, without meat. Scott became a vegetarian in his mid-thirties and has lived into his nineties, hale and hearty, with plenty of brain and brawn, and without meat. It is obviously not necessary to eat cooked flesh.

A vegetarian friend, Henry Bailey Stevens, wrote some Rhymes for Meat-Eaters, from one of which I quote:

With lentils, tomatoes and rice,
olives and nuts, and bread,
Why does a man care to gnaw a slice of
something bleeding and dead?


The argument is frequently made that if we did not kill and eat animals, the creatures would take over and cover the earth. This is not necessarily so. The process of natural selection would intervene as it does with wild animals. If we stopped breeding and cozening domestic animals, the rate of their population growth would immediately and drastically diminish. Animals need not be bred; they need not be killed; they need not be eaten. “But it is natural for us to eat animals” is the usual remark—”Animals were made for us.” That is hardly logical. Animals were on earth aeons before man. They waited long before their devourers arrived.

I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other. He will be regarded as a benefactor of his race who shall teach man to confine himself to a more innocent and wholesome diet.    Henry David Thoreau, Walden. 1854

If it were so natural, why not catch and kill your own animal, cut a slice from the carcass or tear a leg off he living beast and eat it “naturally,” fresh and whole? You could do that with a fruit or vegetable, but not with your pet cat or dog’s quivering flesh. Many who learn to love animals and have them for pets would lever kill and eat their own Bunny Boy. But others’ pets, other animals’ offspring and parents that have been murdered by others, can be put into the stew pot and callously consumed.

Most meat-eaters have a squeamish limit beyond which even they will not go. They will not eat worms, slugs, garden snails (though they are said to be an excellent source of protein), or insects, mice, rats, cats or dogs, horses, or human beings. “The Samoans, who ate dogs, despise eggs and chickens. Similarly, the Qitoto of Brazil, who eat rats, frogs, lizards, snakes and turtles, eat the eggs of reptiles but despise those of birds.” Bernard Shaw spoke of meat-eating as “cannibalism with its heroic dish omitted.”

And Bronson Alcott remarked to Emerson who was dilating upon the horrors of cannibalism while carving up a roast: “But Mr. Emerson, if we are to eat meat at all, why should we not eat the best?” I would agree, in that I have often thought a baby’s chubby arm looks delicious and (if I ate flesh) good enough to munch on.

Anatomically Unsound

Animals (and man is one of them) are structurally and functionally adapted to a particular mode of nutrition. The rabbit, to which a vegetarian is often disparagingly compared, is of the Rodentia order, feeding entirely on vegetable matter, the pig is Omnivora; its diet is closest to the typical human omnivorous diet of today. The domesticated pig is not particular about what it eats. Like millions of contemporary humans, its diet includes practically nothing edible, of both animal and vegetable origin. Physiologically, a fruit and vegetable diet is more in line with the human anatomy. The teeth, the digestive system, the hands, feet and mammary glands of humans resemble the ape family to a great extent.

Primitive humanity was, no doubt, like the anthropoids, mainly frugiverous.    Robert Briffault, The Mothers (1927)

The digestive juices of man are not sufficient to tackle what the carnivores eat. The carnivores secrete hydrochloric acid about ten times as strong as that of humans and have a very short intestinal tract so that meat is quickly digested and expelled. Man’s digestive tract is three times as long, holds food for two or three days, forming a putrefying mess if on a meat diet.

The structure of the teeth gives an important clue as to the natural food of a species. Flesh-eating animals have tusks and fangs for tearing and gnawing; herbivores and frugivores have smooth teeth for grinding and chewing. Man and gorilla both belong to the Frugivora family. Our front teeth are for biting and our back teeth for crushing and pulping; therefore human diet should be similar to that of the apes: raw fruit, raw vegetables, nuts, shoots and sprouts.


During World War II, Denmark was put on emergency rations and the king called for a meatless program for a year. Denmark established a world record for lowered death rate that year and a marked decrease in the illness rate. Going back to meat-eating the next year sent the death rate back to the pre-war level. The strongest of animals, the bull, the elephant, the gorilla, the hippopotamus, are all vegetarian. The camel, also a vegetarian, has long endurance records; the horse and deer have speed records.

A farmer says to me,” You cannot live on vegetable food solely, for it furnishes nothing to make bones with”; and so he religiously devotes a part of his day to supplying his system with the raw materials of bones; walking all the while he talks behind his oxen, which, with vegetable-made bones, jerks him and his lumbering plough in spite of every obstacle. Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854

As to the vaunted necessity for protein and the high protein content in animal flesh and animal products to maintain robust health: protein is certainly required in the body for growth and repair, but is there not a maximum as a well as a minimum beyond which one should not go? Too much protein overtaxes the vital organs. The excess must be eliminated as waste or be stored in the muscles, which become hard and inflexible. One might well ask: How little protein does one require, not how much does one need?

There is protein in nuts, beans, peas, lentils, mushrooms, cheese, milk, eggs, wholemeal cereals, and many green vegetables. Practically no common foodstuff is devoid of some protein. Plants manufacture it from the nitrogen of the air. They make the simpler type of protein, but the same amino acids as in meat. Vegetable protein is the original source of meat protein. Nuts are not a substitute for meat; meat is a substitute for nuts. All fruits average out with about as much protein as in mother’s milk. The banana has more protein than mother’s milk. Vegetables average out to about 3 percent protein, nuts to 15 percent and seeds about 20 percent.

If one fed adequately on fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and sprouts one could do without animal flesh and dairy products and still be above the minimum necessary intake recommended by orthodox nutritionists.


It is not only healthier but cleaner to eat fresh vegetables and fruits instead of putrefying meat. Animal carcasses are often full of poisons and sicknesses, and of food additives and chemicals that have been used to fatten or soften or preserve the corruptible flesh. These poisons go into the human bodies that consume the dead meat. With a carnivorous diet the human is a tomb for animal disease. Dead animal bodies contain heavy concentrations of toxic wastes, virulent bacteria and are often diseased with tumors, cancers, tuberculosis, swine fever, and other dangers to health.

Most meats available today are virtually saturated with antibiotics, hormones, tranquilizers, pesticides, dyes, deodorants, and radiation. The majority of processed meats contain preservatives, stabilizers, plastic residue and other harmful substances.  The Mother Earth News. No.2, “Meat Is No Treat”

No one knows better than meat inspectors how much disease there is among animals slaughtered for food. A woman attended a banquet and ordered a vegetable plate. At her side sat a stranger who also chose a vegetable plate. “You too are a vegetarian?” she asked him. “No, madam,” he replied, “I am a meat inspector.”


Too many thousands of acres of valuable land are being devoted to pasturage or fodder-feed for animals that are fattened to be eaten by man: over half of all agricultural land in the United States. This land could be planted with crops for direct, firsthand feeding to man, a much quicker and economical way of obtaining food than at secondhand, through animal’s bodies. An estimated 40 percent of the world’s livestock production is derived from vegetable sources that could be used for human food.

Vegetarianism could go far toward solving the world food problem by eating lower on the food chain. To feed the world’s population more adequately and economically, the enormous quantities of grains, pulses and legumes fed to farm stock animals should be drastically curtailed or eliminated entirely.


Carcasses that are displayed and hung in butcher shops, or slickly plastic-packaged in supermarkets, would shock any fairly sensitive or artistic person who could bring himself to view the sight objectively. Aesthetically, fruits and vegetables are certainly more attractive than cut-up carcasses and ground-up pieces of flesh, raw and red, or roasted or broiled.

I rarely used animal food, not so much because of any ill effects which I had traced to them, as because they were not agreeable to my imagination. The repugnance to animal food is not the effect of the experience, but is an instinct. I believe that every man who has ever been earnest to preserve his higher or poetic faculties in the best condition has been particularly inclined to abstain from animal food.  Henry David Thoreau, Walden. 1854


Let’s look at meat-eating from the animal’s point of view. They have rights not to be infringed on. They love their lives and their families. Wild creatures are hunted and killed cruelly with no compassion. Domestically bred animals are wrenched from their families, transported callously and carelessly to abattoirs; there, frenzied with fear at the crowding, the mutual cries and the stench, they are pole-axed, hooked on moving belts for final slaughter, their throats cut, their dangling, twisting, agonized bodies slashed and skinned often before all of life is extinct. I know, because I’ve seen it on two horrifying visits to slaughterhouses in Chicago twenty-five years ago.

We cannot eat flesh without unkindness and violence and cruelty. Fish are dragged from their natural element with ferociously sharp hooks; whales’ gigantic bodies are tracked in the sea and mercilessly stabbed until death; seals are murdered with clubs and stripped half-living of their skins; crabs and lobsters are boiled alive.

What about “humane killing” you may ask. How can one be cruel humanely? Killing is killing. It has been estimated that man kills in one day more cattle than carnivorous animals kill in a hundred years. Let me quote words from lofty philosophers on the cruel and gruesome, and human, custom of slaying and eating our fellow creatures.


“How could you select such an occupation?” asked a horrified onlooker to a worker in the stockyards of Chicago. “We’re only doing your dirty work, sir,” was the scornful and silencing reply. Whoever eats the meat without killing the animal himself is having his dirty work done for him.

We are not only killers; we are slave drivers and exploiters; we are food robbers. We rob the bees for honey; we rob the chickens, for eggs; we rob the cows, for milk. Cattle in the wild suckle their calves for 15 months. Domesticated cows are pushed beyond their normal breeding capacity, separated from their calves often at birth and are fooled into giving us milk instead of to the calves. As to wild poultry, most birds lay four or five eggs a year. Factory farming forces birds to lay hundreds. Milk is food for the infant of its species. Eggs are food for the embryo bird. Neither should be consumed by human adults.

Slavery of animals to man is one thing. Men also exploit themselves and become slaves to animals. Breeders, milkers, shepherds, graziers, farmers, slaughtermen, all involve labor devoted to being valets and nursemaids to animals. The time and care would be better centered on breeding and caring for better human beings.

We humans are privileged animals. We will not be cooked for a cow’s dinner or infected with a disease so that a monkey can find out the cause of its illness; or taught to run round and round in a wheel to make a squirrel laugh; or caged and our throats slit to make us sing sweetly for our supper; or locked behind zoo bars as examples of curious human beings, or our breast-milk stolen to give to calves. Nor will our babies be sent to the slaughterhouse and sliced up for someone’s dinner.

All diets are relative to the consciences of the eater. One cannot be perfectly consistent in living, but a more or less harmless way of life is possible, and if not as pure as the purest one can at least try not to be as gross as the grossest. So far, eat we must, in order to survive. Therefore we should look to the less sentient forms of life for sustenance. Life is inherent in every food substance that we imbibe, and one has to kill to eat, whether it be an apple, a tomato, or a blade of grass. By what right do we consume these marvels of nature? Plants have an important place on earth. I salute the trees and apologize if I cut one down. I shrink from picking a daisy or a pansy, or biting into an apple or radish. Who am I to take their lives in their prime?

We should widen the range of human feeling until it encompasses all life on earth, doing the most good to the greatest number and the least harm to the least number. Standards and relative degrees of harm and harmlessness will vary with each one of us. Some will continue to eat fish and fowl while eschewing red meat; some will eat nothing that walks or wiggles-still eating dairy products; some will eat no products at all of the animal kingdom-no eggs, milk, cheese or honey. But we can all be constantly aware of the rights of others, be it baby lamb, bison, fly or cauliflower. We can modify our food habits so that we approach the ideal of living on fruits and nuts and seeds which have finished their life cycle and with which the tree or bush or plant is finished.

The time will come in the world’s history, and a movement is setting in that direction even now, when it will be deemed as a strange thing to find a man or a woman who eats flesh as food, as it is now to find a man or a woman who refrains from eating it.  Ralph Waldo Twine, Every Living Creature. 1899

The time will come when men will look on the murder of animals as we now look on the murder of men. Leonardo Da Vinci

Man alone consumes and engulfs more flesh than all other animals put together. He is, then, the greatest destroyer, and he is so more by abuse than by necessity. George Louis Leclerc De Buffon, L’Histoire Naturelle, 1749

Our monstrous habit of bringing millions of animals into existence for the purpose of barbarously slaughtering them, roasting their corpses and eating them. George Bernard Shaw, On Going to Church, 1896

This reading is from The Class of Nonviolence, prepared by Colman McCarthy of the Center for Teaching Peace, 4501 Van Ness Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20016 202.537-.372.


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