Vegetarian Ethics: It’s not black and white

What is an ethical amount of meat for a vegetarian to eat?

The answer seems obvious: Zero, right? I’ll argue this is incorrect. I’ll begin with the story of a chicken sandwich, the vegetarian atheist who ate it (me), and who almost felt badly enough about it to pray.

I’ve been a vegetarian for about 3 years now for ethical reasons. I want to cause as little suffering as reasonably possible. It’s the right thing to do.

Two weeks ago, Ellen Lundgren and I were on a 6-hour drive to the CFI Leadership Conference in Buffalo, NY. Around 8, we stopped for dinner. We were on a tight schedule and didn’t want to stop anywhere too time-consuming.

The only restaurant we could find that was open, nearby, and quick was Wendy’s. Wendy’s does have several non-meat items, but they are all sides or desserts. If you’re at Wendy’s, and you want the nutrition—and hunger satiation—that comes only from protein, you’re going to have to order something with meat. So I did, for the first time in several years.

I prefer chicken to beef because chickens are stupider than cows, and are physically less capable of suffering. (Similarly, I feel less bad about Caesar salads, which contain anchovies, than chicken sandwichs).

Despite my atheism, when I sat down, I had a very strong urge to pray for the chicken, though I knew it was superstitious. I think this was left over from the days when I prayed before eating—I became a vegetarian around the same time I became an atheist.

I believe it was a bit of déjà vu. Ellen thought it was funny; I decided to blog about it.

Many vegetarians, and especially vegans I think, tend to be more judgmental and dogmatic about their food. A friend once asked me if I think I’m better than she is because I’m a vegetarian. I told her yes, I do think vegetarianism is morally superior; if we’re defining “better” as “acting more ethically,” then it follows that I think I’m better. Integrity is one of the more useful measures of quality in a person. However, I don’t think this makes her a bad person, nor me a good person. My friend is great in other ways, and more ethical than me in many.

I don’t see vegetarianism as an inconvenience most of the time, not more than, for example, holding the door for someone. You learn to do it as part of living in a peaceful society. Not eating animals is the moral choice if reasonably possible—and it’s usually easy, for most people in 1st-world countries. It’s the environmentally-sound choice. Vegetables are delicious and nutritious. And you sleep better. What’s not to like?

Vegetarianism does not mean simply cutting meat from your diet. It means replacing animal sources of protein with vegetable sources of protein, like nuts & beans. In the words of Leo Tolstoy:

One can live and be healthy without killing animals for food; therefore, if he eats meat, he participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite. And to act so is immoral.

I’m not vegan—I eat eggs, dairy, etc if I know they came from ethical sources. By ethical I mean that as little unnecessary suffering was involved as reasonably possible. Although one can avoid any unnecessary suffering by never contributing to demand, I find this DOES cause unnecessary suffering—to me. It is very inconvenient, if not impossible, to forgo the use of all animal products.

Vegetarianism is not an all-or-nothing way of life. I wouldn’t ask someone to give up meat entirely, but you can certainly eat less and just replace it with other protein. On similar utilitarian grounds, I’ll eat meat when it maximizes happiness. It would’ve caused me more “suffering” to wait 4 more hours to eat something on this road-trip than it would have to eat part of a chicken that was dead long before I deliberated over whether or not to order it.

It’s also acceptable for vegetarians to eat meat on utilitarian grounds if otherwise-edible meat is going to waste, to be “enjoyed” only by bugs and microbes: I’ve no problem eating it instead. I will enjoy it much more than microbes will.

I desire to contribute to net demand for meat as little as possible. This is something we should all strive for. It’s not necessary to eat meat in order to live healthily, and it’s the most ethical choice.

Until next time,


  • Frances Bean

    I think it’s ridiculous that you can sit on your high horse in one sentence and say that you think you’re morally superior to people who eat meat and then in the next say that you ate meat. Wendy’s has excellent choices for vegetarians, much better than McDonalds or Burger King. Just call it what it was, a moment of weakness. I would never knock someone for having a weak moment but I will for daring to call yourself better than meat eaters when you A. ate meat and B. aren’t even a vegan. There was no excuse in your situation and I think you should cool it with the holier than thou BS.

    • Frances Bean

      I just wanted to add that I’m a long time vegan before someone tried to claim I’m just annoyed at being called out for eating meat, because I haven’t had an animal product in 10 years.

  • Utstroh

    The ethical part isn’t about whether you consume the chicken or some microbes do. YOU PAY FOR THE CHICKEN. You support the industry that is cruel to chickens as opposed to allowing them to take a loss on the cruelty. Vote w/ your dollars. Pack a bag of snacks for long trips, but dont fund cruelty. That’s unethical.

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  • Matt Foss

    Very interesting post, Dave.  I like that you treat it as a dietary choice and not as a religion.  I myself am not a vegetarian, but I try to minimize my meat intake as much as possible to minimize my contribution to practices in the meat industry.  My rule is that I won’t sacrifice nutrition to avoid meat, and if there is a nutritious vegetarian option on the menu somewhere, I will try it.

    • Dave Muscato

      Hi Matt,

      Your description is pretty close to the way I see it. There are few things in this world I’m comfortable being dogmatic about. Not eating animals is one of them—you just have to do the best you can.

      I have less of a problem eating, for example, deer jerky made from hunted deer. In the area where I live, there is an overpopulation of deer, because in constructing our cities, we have killed off all of their natural predators. As a result, deer often get hit by cars, which is a very slow, painful way for them to go. I would much rather well-equipped hunters do this, and actually make jerky out of them. While I would prefer that they don’t die in the first place, if this is the lesser of two evils, I’m in favor of it.

  • Barbara Noon

    I agree with a lot in this article, but I would have eaten the sides or gone hungry until the next gas station when I would have gotten chips or nuts or anything else.  Chickens feel a lot of pain, if you have ever watched the factory farm videos, but everyone has to rationalize and you certainly did your best to figure out how to handle the situation.  Glad you are still vegetarian. Keep it up! 
    Being vegan is a protest, so a life-long boycott of animal foods and products is the mindset.  Yet I know cheating vegans!  I do not cheat myself, nor do I have the urge to ever eat meat products.  Praying of course, would only give you peace, it would do nothing for the chicken.  The only way to stop factory farm abuse is to not purchase the food. 
    Now, there will probably be people who see this and think I am a hateful vegan and how dare I suggest that someone drive a little further, or eat sides.  How dare I deprive them of their right to consume? 
    Just saying what I feel is truly right and moral.

    • Dave Muscato

      I agree that contributing as little as reasonably possible to animal suffering is the most right and moral course of action. Then it just comes down to what’s reasonably possible, and that varies depending on lots of factors. If you were on a deserted island, and could either eat some canned meat that crashed there with you, or go hungry, my guess is that you would go for the meat pretty quickly. I wasn’t on a deserted island but it’s a matter of degree. As I said in my previous comment, I think I did the wrong thing, but I wouldn’t fault someone else for doing what I did. People should do the best that they can, and not beat themselves up over it. Most people are not doing the best they can, though.

  • Mauro Bettanin

    So, let me get this straight. You are in such bad physical condition that if you have to wait 4 hours to eat, you could , I don’t know, die or suffer severe physical damages (Heart attack, liver failure, kidneys detaching by themselves from your body and asking for asylum in Canada)?  The only solution was to Wendy’s meat? They *really* had no alternatives (fries, cake, cookies)? I am asking because,a s a vegetarian for the last 25 years, I have never found myself in such a desperate situation that meat was the only ay to save my life.

    • Dave Muscato

      For what it’s worth, I actually do have a severe heart condition such that I’m actually under orders from my cardiologist to wear a portable EKG heart monitor to keep track of it at all times. A fried chicken sandwich is no worse than fried potatoes in that regard, though.

      My point with this post is that I do feel bad about it. I think it was the wrong choice, although like I said, the goal is to do the best you can. If the best someone can do is cut down on their meat consumption, I’m happy with that. I applaud you for doing better than apparently I was able to do.

  • Brendan

    Great post

    • Dave Muscato

      Thank you :)