Vegetarianism: The Ethical Perspective

Picture of vegetables lounging around and swimming in a sink filled with water


The practice of abstaining from meat has been found in many cultures throughout history, and ethical reasons have been a major motivation behind the choice to eat a vegan or vegetarian diet for centuries. Eastern traditions such as Buddhism and Hinduism have a long history of vegetarianism. Ancient Greeks such as Pythagoras based their abstention from meat on the idea that transmigration of human souls after death meant that an animal might have the soul that formerly inhabited a human body. The interest in a meatless diet in the West had a rebirth in the 18th and 19th centuries with the Enlightenment. Rationales for adopting a vegetarian diet have changed over time. For some, the concern is over cruelty to animals and a wish to avoid that. Others are concerned that the enormous quantities of grain fed to cattle to be consumed by rich Westerners are contributing to world hunger. Another ethical concern is how the resources required for raising animals for food affects the environment. One other reason commonly cited, especially recently, is for health reasons; this subject will not be treated in this pathfinder although some of the sources cited contain information on vegetarian nutrition and health benefits.


This pathfinder is aimed at undergraduates who are interested in researching various ethical and religious aspects of vegetarianism. The goal is to give an overview of subjects covered by this topic to aid in narrowing the focus of research and a starting point in finding resources. Most resources are available from the UNC Libraries and its website. Some are available from the Chapel Hill Public Library.


Databases & Indexes
Subject headings
Web resources


Subject headings

These are some useful terms to use when searching for books on ethical vegetarianism in the UNC Library Catalog.

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Dyer, Judith C. Vegetarianism : an annotated bibliography. N.J. : Scarecrow Press, 1982.
Davis Z5776.V44 D93 1982

Comprehensive listing of publications on vegetarianism from pre-20th century through 1980. Although more recent material is not included, the wide range of sources covered, including a section on works devoted to philosophical aspects of vegetarianism, make it a useful resource.

Kistler, John M. Animal rights : a subject guide, bibliography, and Internet companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000.
Davis HV4708 .K57 2000

Bibliography of post-1985 publications on animal rights. According to ARBA 2001 (American Reference Books Annual), while pro-animal rights materials are predominant, "the annotations for books on both sides of the issue are fair and reasonable." The extensive listings of websites in this book are probably not going to be the most useful feature given their ephemeral nature.

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Fox, Michael Allen. Deep vegetarianism. Philadelphia : Temple University Press, 1999.
Davis TX392 .F79 1999

Overview and analysis of the debates over ethical vegetarianism. Includes a section on arguments against vegetarianism and an extensive bibliography.

George, Kathryn Paxton. Animal, vegetable, or woman? : a feminist critique of ethical vegetarianism. Albany : State University of New York Press, c2000.
Davis TX392 .G46 2000

Challenges the arguments made by contemporary theorists on ethical vegetarianism such as Carol Adams, Tom Regan, and Peter Singer.

Lappé, Frances Moore and Lappé, Anna. Hope's edge: the next diet for a small planet. New York : Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2002.
UL GE42 .L364 2002

As in her classic, Diet for a small planet, Lappé outlines a ethical rationale for vegetarianism from the perspective of ending world hunger. Hope's edge takes into account all the changes that have occurred in the 30 years since her groundbreaking work was published such as genetically modified organisms and the increasing corporatization of agriculture.

Marcus, Eric. Vegan: the new ethics of eating. Ithaca, New York: McBooks Press, c2001.
Davis RM236 .M37 2001

Outline of the reasons for choosing a vegan diet. Includes a long list of resources. The reader should be cautioned that this book is by no means objective. This book is also available for free as a pdf file at the author's website,

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Scully, Matthew. Dominion : the power of man, the suffering of animals, and the call to mercy. New York, N.Y. : St. Martin's Press, 2002.
Davis HV4708 .S38 2002

Library Journal describes this as "one of the best books ever written on the subject of animal welfare." Interestingly, Scully's political perspective is that of a conservative Christian

Spencer, Colin. Vegetarianism : a history. London : Grub Street, 2000.
Davis TX392 .S72 2000

This revised and updated edition of The Heretic's Feast is exactly what its title states. The focus is primarily on the history of vegetarianism in the West and the religious, health, and social motivations for the choice to abstain from meat, beginning in 2400 BC.

Walters, Kerry S. and Lisa Portmess, eds. Ethical vegetarianism: from Pythagoras to Peter Singer. Albany: SUNY Press, 1999.

Excerpts from writings by major thinkers on the subject of ethical vegetarianism from ancient Greeks to present-day philosophers and theorists. Also included are appendices with arguments against ethical vegetarianism and anti-vegetarian sources.

Walters, Kerry S. and Lisa Portmess, eds. Religious vegetarianism : from Hesiod to the Dalai Lama. Albany : State University of New York Press, c2001.
Davis BL65.V44 R45 2001

Excerpts from writings on religious vegetarianism from ancient Greeks to modern-day Christians and Buddhists with a focus "on spiritual questions raised by the slaughter of animals for food."

Young, Richard Alan. Is God a vegetarian? : Christianity, vegetarianism, and animal rights. Chicago: Open Court, c1999.
Davis BT749 .Y68 1999

Examines biblical scholarship to explore the question of whether Christians should be vegetarians. Both Choice and Christian Century describe this book as accessible.

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Databases and Indexes

Academic Search Elite

Academic Search Elite includes articles from a wide variety of disciplines. For the most part, it indexes scholarly journals and also has coverage of national newspapers like the New York Times. It includes full text articles.

ATLA Religion Database

ATLA is an excellent source for articles on religion. It does not include full text articles.

BioethicsLine (via PubMed)

Although the primary focus of PubMed is medicine and related areas of science, it also indexes citations which would formerly have been included in BioethicsLine. Full text articles are not included.

Expanded Academic ASAP

Expanded Academic ASAP is also multidisciplinary. It indexes scholarly, trade, and general-interest publications, and many articles are full text.

Issues and Controversies

Issues and Controversies is a good source for basic overviews on unfamiliar subjects. The articles discuss both pro and con sides of issues.

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Philosopher's Index

As one might expect, Philosopher's Index indexes books and journals on philosophy; it also covers ethics, useful for this subject, and other related areas of study. Full text articles are not included in this database.


Encyclopedia of animal rights and animal welfare / edited by Marc Bekoff with Carron A. Meaney ; foreword by Jane Goodall. Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Press, 1998.
Davis Ref HV4708 .E53 1998

Essays on a wide array of subjects relevant to animal rights and welfare from the perspective of a variety of disciplines such as biology, psychology, and law.. ARBA 2000 considers this work "an excellent addition to the literature on animal rights and animal welfare." Each essay includes a short bibliography.


Akers, Keith. A vegetarian sourcebook. Denver, CO: Vegetarian Press, 1983.
UL TX392 .A425 1983

According to the WomanSource Catalog and Review, this book's overview of vegetarian ethics offers "well-researched information." It also has a useful bibliography. The 1993 edition is also available at the Chapel Hill Public Library (615.362 Ake).

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Electronic serial produced by Cornell Students for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that bills itself as a "forum for discussion, information, and education about animal rights and liberation issues."

Animals' agenda
Davis HV4701 .A5

Published by the Animal Rights Network for the purpose of providing information, news, and opinion on animal rights. Selected articles are available online at

Vegetarian Journal

Published by the Vegetarian Resource Group, "a non-profit organization dedicated to educating the public on vegetarianism and the interrelated issues of health, nutrition, ecology, ethics, and world hunger." Full text articles from this journal from July, 2000 to the present are available from InfoTrac OneFile, a database available through the UNC Libraries' website. Selected articles from the journal from 1993 to the present are available on their website at

Vegetarian Times

Monthly magazine primarily focused on vegetarian diet and nutrition but which also publishes some articles on ethical aspects of vegetarianism. Full text articles from this publication from October, 1996 to the present are available in Masterfile Premier, a database available through the UNC Libraries' website.

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Web resources

American Meat Institute

The American Meat Institute, a meat industry trade association, offers an opposing viewpoint on vegetarianism and animal welfare on its website.

Animals and Ethics

Article from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy that presents differing theories on the status of animals in relation to humans. Written by Scott Wilson, a graduate student in philosophy at University of California, Santa Barbara.

Animal Consciousness

Article from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Colin Allen, a philosophy professor at Texas A & M, describing arguments for and against animal consciousness.

Christian Vegetarian Association

The Christian Vegetarian Association is an "international, non-denominational ministry of believers dedicated to respectfully promoting healthy, Christ-centered and God-honoring living among Christians." Many of the members of their board of directors are authors of well-regarded books on vegetarianism and ethics. Their site is hosted by

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Jewish Veg

This site addresses vegetarianism from a Jewish perspective. It is also hosted by

Religion and Vegetarianism

The International Vegetarian Union's page on religion and vegetarianism includes links to information on Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and other perspectives on vegetarianism.

Tom Regan Animal Rights Archive

The Tom Regan Animal Rights Archive is a fabulous resource for anyone interested in researching ethical aspects of vegetarianism. Tom Regan, perhaps best known for his 1983 book, "The Case for Animal Rights," was a professor of philosophy for over 30 years at North Carolina State University. The website lists the "notes, letters, manuscripts and typescripts, books and pamphlets, and audiovisual materials" he donated to the NCSU Libraries as well as a comprehensive list of links on animal rights and related subjects.

Although their site is a bit busy, it is full of good information with numerous discussion boards hosted by and columns on vegetarianism by well-regarded academics and writers. A lot of the content relates more to food and nutrition, but there are also many links to sites on animal rights and other ethical concerns. Another nice feature is "Mad Cow Corral" which lists recent headlines relevant to vegetarianism and animal rights.

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E-mail questions to Meghan Lafferty at
Last updated December 11, 2002.

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