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Ethics Lifestyle

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,

Dave

Creative General Opinion

And now, if you will, a Metaphor….

Imagine a massive ship filled with many sailors…

At some time, a rumor began spreading amongst all the people that the boat was heading towards an island that was unbelievably amazing; an island where all the normal laws of reality were suspended and ultimate, endless bliss would enrapture them forever. Many of the sailors took so much joy from this thought that they began ignoring their duties on the ship, doing little more than staring out on the horizon and waiting for the island to appear. Many others did indeed continue their day-to-day tasks on the ship, helping to keep it clean and such, but they constantly talked about the island. It was their obsession, their passion, and their pride. Groups and sub-groups formed around different ideas of what the island would be like. Some thought it would be tropical, others temperate, and still others thought it would have every climate imaginable for all people to enjoy. Arguments sprang up over what sorts of foods would be present on the island!

At various times, different sailors would hold out their spyglasses and shout aloud “I see it! I see the island there!” and many would swell with enthusiasm…that is, until it was revealed that the crier had seen wrong (or, on occasion, even outright lied). Despite all these false alarms and misplaced swells of hope, the vast majority of the sailors kept believing, to the point of certainty, that the island was just over the next wave.

Eventually, almost all of the sailors took to ignoring the present duties of ship-board life and chose to stare out on the horizon with their own spyglasses, each on certain that they could see the island in the distance (despite some of them looking in utterly opposite directions). Indeed, there were many heated arguments, but one thing every one of them could agree on was this: regardless of exactly where it was or what it was like, that perfect island was definitely out there, somewhere. It just had to be.

One day, one of the sailors climbed up to the top of the mast and found two other sailors there, arguing.

“I think the island will be temperate!” said the first. “It will be temperate, I tell you!”

“Ah, but you’re mistaken, friend. It will be tropical!” said the second. “I guarantee you, for I can see it!” he continued, holding his spyglass aloft.

“Fool!” shouted the first. “I can see it, and it is, in fact, quite temperate!”

At that point, the third sailor (who had just climbed up) yanked the spyglasses from both others and told them this:

“Actually, friends, you’re both mistaken. If you’ll just look right here,” he said, gesturing to the ends of their spyglasses, “you’ll see that you each just drew what you wanted the island to be like on the glass. You were never actually seeing the island; you just painted what you wanted to see and thus saw it in your own imagination. Now if you’ll just look without these faulty spyglasses, you’ll quickly see that there is no island; in fact, there never was an island. However, what we do have is an amazing ship with everything you could ever really want already on it. There are lots of other people onboard, too. You can get to know them, make friends, find lovers, and have wonderful conversations. You can learn, eat, relax, work, and overall have a merry life aboard this ship if you’ll only just stop obsessing over this island you came up with.”

“But the island is supposed to be perfect!” cried the first sailor.

“Indeed! Perfect!” shouted the second, both of them clearly distraught at this news.

“Ah, but that is exactly why it doesn’t exist, friends,” said the third sailor. He reached out and put his hands on their shoulders: “Nothing perfect is out there. I’ll admit it, this ship is sometimes leaky and some of the other people aboard aren’t too terribly pleasant. But I think you’ll find that once you stop daydreaming about perfection and start happily working with what you do have, you’ll find yourselves much happier.”

Behold, our ship

Now, guess which sailor was the Atheist…