Saturday, April 17, 2010

The social costs of being vegetarian

Here's a pretty interesting interview with Melissa McEwen on Let them Eat Meat.  I've posted my main objection with Melissa's position, but I also want to say, that I might be splitting hairs here, since her diet isn't one that I would particularly disagree with (it sounds like she is what Singer would call a conscientious omnivore).

Over here Pamela JSW writes that we ought not be vegetarians because of the harm it does to us!  In the interview above, Melissa suggests one of the wrongs of a vegetarian diet is that it affects the family dynamic.  No longer can a single dish feed the entire family, but people must bend around the individual's eating preferences.  Pamela makes the same argument in her first argument. 

These are the social costs of being a vegetarian.  Are these enough reasons not the be a vegetarian?  (I'm not suggesting here that Melissa is saying that it is.  Pamela says this problem is surmountable)  I think that these should be taken seriously as concerns, since they do affect lots of people (everyone you know and would like to eat with you essentially), and they affect particularly the people you care about (family and friends). 

Being vegetarian is more than just choosing for yourself.  Its also being accommodating of others.  I'd never dream to invite myself over to a friend's house and demand a meat free meal.  If I'm invited, I might expect that they would take my eating choices into consideration.  But when I invite friends over, I also take their eating choices into consideration as well.  That's simple politeness.  Does this mean I sometimes buy meat?  Yes.  Not much, and not very often, but I do.  Does this go counter to my personal beliefs?  Yes.

But if I were a christian, and I invited someone over to my house, I wouldn't necessarily expect them to come to church with me.  There is a line somewhere in the hazy sands that we must draw, but where that line is, I don't expect to have an easy answer.    If my friend were Muslim and asked if she could pray while she was at my home, I wouldn't object. 

Pamela's third argument however, is a little more interesting.  She says that being a vegetarian may cause me to look down on others, in a moral way.  Seeing most of my friends are not vegetarians makes me look at them as morally inferior, or with a defected character, which would harm the relationships that I hold with them.

Now, I don't think is an absolute.  If you're a veg, or vegan that you will look down on others.  I think I do it every day.  Rather, instead, I think it might be indicative of a flaw in your own character, a kind of moral judgmental-ness.  Instead of evaluating a person as a whole in their moral character, one fixates on simply a particular aspect of their character.  Now no doubt, people can be bad people because of an aspect of their character, and ignore that aspect, they're a great person.  But a wise person (since we're talking virtue theory) would be able to distinguish between acts that tarnish the whole of a person's character, versus ones that do not.  I'm not sure diet is one that is, so I don't judge people based on their eating habits.  


  1. I will have to agree that Pamela's third argument is a little out of line because I don't see how being a vegetarian can have anything to do with one's virtues - the two just don't add up. Like you mentioned, this is definitely an indicative of a flaw in one's own character - a kind of moral judgmental-ness.

    Being vegetarian is not as easy as it sounds, but the feeling at the end of the day that you stood by what you feel is morally correct feels good.

    Being vegetarian is just as normal.


  2. Hi Wayne,

    Glad to stumble across this - for some reason, it didn't show up as an incoming link to my blog, or I would have chimed in sooner!

    To be clear, I don't think the problem of morally looking down on others is a decisive one, and its pull will be highly dependent on the circumstances (probably including, but not limited to, facts about you, facts about the other people, your culture, your socioeconomic status, etc).

    It had become a huge problem for me personally, and I don't mean to suggest that I am not guilty of the vice of being overly judgmental. However, I don't see any reason to think that the wise person will necessarily refrain from judging omnivores in this way. If you thought your friends and family were engaging in some other behavior that habitually causes much suffering - baby slapping, beating their dogs, etc. - you would look down upon them, with good reason. And how about if they wanted to slap a baby or beat a dog in front of you, in polite company?

    Once one has bought into the general framework of veg*nism and animal rights, animal foods eating is put on a par with other blameworthy behaviors that warrant active disapproval. Veg*n persuasion involves not only rational argument, but also appeals to empathy and disgust. This has at least a tendency to backfire, when you are now disposed to see a lack of empathy in others, and to be disgusted with their behavior.

    @SK above: I'm not sure why you don't see how virtues and vegetarianism can "add up" - how about mercy, temperance, and empathy, just for starters?

  3. Hey PJSW! Glad to see you here!

    Quick response... If eating meat is equivalent to baby slapping, then isn't the harm to the animal greater than the harm to our character?

    It seems like you're saying this act (veg) is wrong because it harms our character. So we should refrain from engaging in this act (veg) to prevent harm to our character. And Typically I would agree, but in this case, the cessation of the act that would harm our character would harm animals in a direct way instead.

    Why choose this? Wouldn't it be better to choose the character harming action, and then perhaps develop our character to avoid the harms caused by our action (veg)?