Essay:Becoming Vegetarian

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In the wake of an enlightening and difficult debate about the morality of eating meat, I found myself wanting to explain more clearly my reasons for my vegetarianism and how I did it.

Once upon a time...

I grew up eating a pretty standard American diet, if a little bland. My parents are divorced and my mother worked, so while she made an effort at dinnertime, it was often defrosted or canned foods. Plus, even though I came up in the South, my mother was from the Midwest and the food showed it. The spiciest thing she ever made was a black-bean jambalaya from a box. I used to think it was an interesting change, but in retrospect shifting from one type of Uncle Ben's boil-in-a-bag meal to another one isn't exactly a culinary voyage of discovery.

As I passed through my teens, though, I went out to eat at some different kinds of restaurants. My father would take me to a Chinese place or out for sushi, and I grew to be interested in new types of foods. Again, in retrospect the super-sweet "Chinese" food served in American Chinese restaurants is not actually very new or interesting, but compared to a steady diet of canned sweet corn (with a little salt) and lemon chicken breast, it was exciting.

But eventually I got older and began trying truly interesting food and more exotic fare. By the time I was going through college, I had become a veteran of Thai, (real) Italian, Vietnamese, Korean, Mediterranean, and other new kinds of foods. Moreover, I had learned to cook to some small extent. I generally went to the store every day and tried something new as often as I could. I thought trying a new kind of food was fun. Probably being somewhat of a pretentious jackass also helped, since it was a world that a lot of my contemporaries knew nothing about. When you're twenty, it's a real ego-boost to be the only person in the room who knows what to do with fish sauce. This growth occurred at much the same time my atheism was evolving and I was developing my philosophy, which dovetailed with being a foodie nicely.

Thus it was that I was also one of the most dedicated and adventurous meat-eaters you are likely to meet. My favorite food was beefsteak. I liked it bloody, so I would get it from a decent butcher where it was unadulterated with food coloring, then I'd slap it in a blazing cast-iron pan with a little rub-down of salt and pepper. Thirty seconds or so on each side, and then it went on a plate with a potato. The outside would be crispy and sweet, while the inside was essentially raw.

My penchant for exploration also meant that I tried a plethora of new and unusual meat-based foods. Frogs' legs, goat, alligator, buffalo, and others all vanished into my delighted mouth. After reading The Old Man and the Sea, I immediately went out and got a slab of tuna to eat raw, with only a bit of salt. I made steak tartar and slurped back tray after tray of oysters. I ate a plate of octopus that was still alive, chewing carefully so I wouldn't choke as the tentacles gripped the inside of my mouth and throat. I had a bowl of dog soup, which was boring and tasted like stringy beef. I had veal and foie gras and kidney pie. Flesh was always the centerpiece of every meal, and always the most exciting thing to eat.

I was a meat-eater.

I begin to learn.

Like everyone else I knew, I was aware of vegetarianism and held it in contempt. And like many other meat-eaters, I was needlessly aggressive about it at times. In retrospect, I think I knew something wasn't really right and I wanted to prove it. But at the time, I was just self-righteous. The pain and suffering of animals didn't matter to me and could be ignored. I was okay with leather and dog-fighting and with factory farming. It was early in my philosophy, so I didn't really have any good reasons for eating meat, but neither was I aware of any good arguments against it. So I would laugh with my friends at vegans, gleefully pointing out that animal glue is the most widely-used adhesive in every building or that "organic" or "cruelty-free" were meaningless terms without any enforcement. I scoffed at animal rights activists. Animals had no rights, I said, and that was only proper. They were not intelligent.

However, like all members of the over-educated intelligentsia, I was an avid reader. And I prided myself on both open-mindedness and a dedication to the truth. I held it as an iron precept that no belief or proposition should be free from scrutiny or thought. A life should be lived on principles, and those principles had to be grounded in the firmest rock, not in the thoughtless sand of ignorance. And so, because I did not know about vegetarianism and animal rights, I had to learn.

I am a child of the technology age, and so it is not surprising that the first place I went was the Internet. And in this modern age, I was aware of PETA as well. So to their website I went, looking for answers.

As anyone who has ever been there knows, it's not a terribly helpful website when it comes to philosophy. They go for what's most effective on most people, and that tends to be appeals to emotion or shock value. They describe how a fish feels just as much as your puppy, and how terrible the agony of a factory-farmed cow can be. And while those points are all well and good, they're only meaningful if animal suffering is meaningful. PETA never made a case for that. I was pleased with myself, secretly. It's comforting to be proven right in your lifestyle.

You see, it's not that I was unaware of the suffering of animals. I wasn't stupid. I knew veal calves lived their lives unable to move (to keep their flesh tender) and that many cows were abused and slaughtered in great pain. But I thought that wasn't important. I was consistent, at least.

Eventually, however, I realized that I had to go a little deeper and really make an effort, or I couldn't conscientiously say that I had looked into the arguments for animal rights and found them wanting. Saying that PETA didn't convince you of animal rights is a lot like saying that Stalin didn't convince you about socialism.


And so it was that I found Peter Singer.

Now, I had already been vaguely aware of Peter Singer. When I turned from the Church to agnosticism, it was just an abandonment of beliefs. But when I found philosophy, I had sought out the thinkers of the past and present. It had been Bertrand Russell, John Stuart Mill, Carl Sagan, Kurt Vonnegut, C.S. Lewis, Ayn Rand, and a dozen others who taught me how to reason. Amongst the great names, there was Peter Singer. I knew him was the modern utilitarian who did not compromise; he was the John Stuart Mill of practicality and consistency. But I now also discovered that he was by a wide margin the most prominent advocate and thinker about animal rights in history.

The essence of Singer's philosophy is that suffering is worthy of consideration in any approach to life, most particularly in utilitarianism. He points out, for instance, that intelligence cannot be the metric for consideration of suffering, or else the profoundly mentally disabled would merit no more consideration that an animal of comparable intelligence. Nor do we accord high intelligence any special consideration. Absent any a priori bias, he says, there is no credible argument for making "being a human" the criterion for having rights. Such arguments tend to amount to "just because," in the end, particularly when the question is asked of the smartest apes.

I do not agree with Singer on most issues. He is a utilitarian, and I believe in ethical reciprocity (if there is a label for me, I am not aware of it). I don't think the retarded should be killed if it's convenient, and don't think great apes should have property rights. But in the end, I was forced to conclude that this subset of his logic was still valid, even if you don't approach the matter as a utilitarian. Animals suffer just as much as humans, as far as can be seen. Even if suffering corresponds with intelligence to some degree, as has been suggested by some thinkers - asserting that animals live in a "perpetual present" unable to appreciate certain depths of feeling - their suffering is still significant. It still matters.

I realized with a terrible shudder that the suffering of animals was important. And I realized that my whole life would have to change, forever.

Making a change.

I read some more and checked out the counter-arguments, but my conclusions didn't move. I really, really wished that they would. Being a vegetarian is terrible and hard, and the prospect was all the worse for someone as zealously adventurous and delightedly carnivorous as myself. But I couldn't convince myself in good faith, and didn't see how I could knowingly do something wrong every day for the rest of my life. Moaning to everyone who would listen, I decided to become a pescatarian.

A pescatarian only eats various fish and shellfish. They don't eat beef or pork or chicken. It seemed the right thing to do, since it wouldn't be as hard but would be a big step in the right direction. Plus, fish must suffer much less than a cow.

I made it about three months. Every day was a struggle.

I would go to the store and see the slabs of beef laid out on crisp paper. If I could have, I would have happily seized one and gulped it raw in big chunks. And pork ribs at a barbecue, glistening with grease and emerging steaming and savory from the smoker. And chicken wing contests when I was out with the boys - I had give that up, too! And I was great at eating the spiciest wings... I was always the only one who could handle Wing Hut's "atomic" wings, delectable little bits of meat that were so spicy I would have reddened contact burns around my mouth the rest of the day. Going out to eat became a pain, and going to dinner parties was a nightmare. It is very awkward to be unable to eat the succulent centerpiece dish at a dinner party. Everyone notices and you have to explain yourself and then defend your beliefs and it's just terrible.

After three months, though, I went to Korea for a teaching position. And I gave myself a pass. "It's just too hard," I told myself. Necessity dictated I eat meat again. For the same reason that a New Guinea tribesman gets to morally eat the meat he catches, I was going to give myself a freebie while I was abroad.

Now, in some sense this is true. It would have been hard not to eat meat in Korea, harder than it is in America. There is a much smaller diversity of foods available in a country where almost everything is locally grown. And it is a lot harder to find alternatives when you have only a smattering of the language.

But I could have done it. I know this, because eventually I did. And I finally managed to find a way to make it easy. Meals became a pleasure again. Cooking became fun. And the agony of constant yearning went away.

At peace.

I stopped eating all meat. No more fish, no more scallops, no more oysters. Nothing that hovered on the line or was questionable or maybe far enough down the scale. No meat of any kind. It was a solid rule, it was an easy standard. It meant that there was little questioning to be done. There was no more need for constant judgment calls.

Everything became easier. And after about a month, I stopped wanting to eat meat. While it's still delicious and I would love to go have a steak even now, the urge - the yearning - faded away.

Dinner parties and restaurants were slightly more difficult at times, but even they became easier to deal with, counter-intuitively. One would expect that it would be even harder to find a veggie item than it would be to only eat fish, and to a certain extent that's right. But almost every restaurant has at least one veggie item. And once it gradually became known I was a vegetarian (as such news spreads), dinner parties also became easier. It's an easy rule to remember and account for when you have a guest, rather than some complicated fish-only thing that people tend to find more confusing than one would think.

But even if social events had become ten times harder, it would have been worth it. The ability to appreciate and love your food is very precious, and it wasn't until I had lost it that I could understand that. I stopped thinking about what I was missing, and began to love what I had. I'd found peace.

A parallel.

It's a lot like my experience with religion. When I was a boy, I was Catholic and an omnivore and things were easy. Adultery was wrong and eating beef was okay. God was in his heaven and all was right with the world.

As I grew, I became an agnostic. I didn't understand the burden of proof involved (as Russell's teapot would later demonstrate to me) and just stepped away from morality as a whole. Adultery was fine and so was everything else (a realization in part inspired by a relationship with a married woman). And I became an even more dedicated meat-eater, and flaunted that the suffering of animals was meaningless. It was edgy and cool and consistent. Nothing was wrong and everything was okay.

Later, I began to find a philosophy. I thought and reasoned, and worked out what was right and what was wrong. But each step was hard and there seemed to be no easy principles. Adultery was maybe wrong because someone got hurt, but not in every case or something like that. And I stopped eating most meat but not fish, and tried to judge each case on its own. Some things were wrong and some things were right, adultery and meat included, but each decision was a struggle.

Eventually, I found a coherent philosophy that seemed solid down to the bottom and without any of the flaws that riddled its alternatives. I could decide my principles and live by them, and did. Adultery was mildly wrong if you weren't married because you were helping someone else break an oath, and very wrong if you were married because you were breaking your own oath. And I didn't eat meat.

I have lost some elements of my life when I gave up eating meat. I will never know what some kinds of things taste like. I can never try some dishes. Those possibilities aren't ethically open to me anymore. And I have voluntarily given up some more possibilities that might ethically be open to me, because it's just so much easier that way and it makes me happy. But I have gained philosophy and morality, and I sleep very well.

I don't want to make anyone feel bad, although it might be nice if you looked into this yourself. I don't think anyone can make another person's moral decisions for them, and don't judge those who arrive at different conclusions than I did. I don't think a Buddhist is necessarily stupid or immoral for following his religion, any more than I think a meat-eater is necessarily stupid or immoral for eating meat. I found my answers, but that's exactly what they are: my answers.

What I do want to do is to encourage you to think about your own answers. If you think you've looked into the reasoning and philosophy enough, then so be it. But I like to think at least one person will realize he's avoided thinking about it because of the possible consequences. And maybe that person will think about it now. That's all I want: think about it, hard.

Other reasons.

While not my main reason, a couple of other reasons have since been introduced to me and hardened my resolve:

  • Environmentalism. This is one point people seldom argue on, but seem to prefer not to think about. Eating factory-farmed meat/fish is the most staggeringly terrible thing you can do to the environment. I am hard-pressed to really believe anyone if they say they care about the environment but still eat factory-farmed meat. Most people just try not to think about it and do it anyway. A reduction is also good, of course, but elimination is best.
  • Health. Generally speaking, it is much healthier to be a vegetarian. Naturally, you can healthily eat meat as well, but it's a lot easier and more significant when you don't eat any at all. Saturated fat and cholesterol plummet, vitamins and anti-oxidants skyrocket, and you're just overall a lot healthier. Again, just reducing the amount of meat consumed is a step in the right direction.

Addendum: the Combine Harvester Argument

A prominent counter-argument goes something along the lines of, "You still kill all kinds of animals to eat, since thousands of animals die during the production of vegetables and grains."

In some ways, this can be the cheap excuse of someone who doesn't really want to face their own actions. A lot of otherwise good people really don't want to think about the morality of eating animals. But this can still be a reasonable objection to my own consistency, and deserves serious address. After all, if I kill so many of them, why not eat one or two to boot?

My answer is twofold:

  • The two kinds of death and suffering are not equivalent, morally. Millions of animals are raised to slaughter, or specifically pulled from the water to be killed. If I do not eat beef, that lessens the demand for beef a tiny amount (the amount for which I am culpable) and may lead to fewer cows being killed. Same with chicken and pork and fish. But I do have to eat something. I eat vegetables and grains - and wherever possible, I eat organic or hand-picked varieties. Considering how eating is a necessity and I do my best (and would do better if opportunities became available) I think I'm acting correctly.
  • Even if I was still doing wrong to eat wheat because of the shrews and rats that die in the blades of the combine harvesters, that would not make it right to eat meat. I would still be doing much, much less harm by being a vegetarian.

Is it not possible that future generations will regard our own present agribusiness and eating practices in much the same way we now view Nero’s entertainments or Aztec sacrifices? My own immediate reaction is that such a comparison is hysterical, extreme—and yet the reason it seems extreme to me appears to be that I believe animals are less morally important than human beings; and when it comes to defending such a belief, even to myself, I have to acknowledge that (a) I have an obvious selfish interest in this belief, since I like to eat certain kinds of animals and want to be able to keep doing it, and (b) I have not succeeded in working out any sort of personal ethical system in which the belief is truly defensible instead of just selfishly convenient.
—David Foster Wallace

See also


Practical Ethics.
In Defense of Animals.