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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,


Conferences Opinion

Skepticon and the True Believer

My trip to Skepticon was delightful. Good friends, great presentations, and lots of thought provoking discussions with the attendees. The only cloud on the whole experience, speaking for myself, was the brouhaha over a local restaurant refusing to serve the convention’s participants on the grounds of their non-religious status. While the owner of this “Christian Business” did eventually apologize, the episode left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.  But what struck me the most was my own reaction.

To paraphrase Greta Christina, many religious people, especially Christians, have a nasty habit when confronted with injustice enacted by members of their faith. This habit is to brush the incident aside with an, “Oh, that’s not the True Faith,” and leave the matter there. What this says to their conversational partner is that they’re far more concerned about their own reputation than the injustice innocent people have suffered.

I have to admit that I also have this habit. When I heard about this incident, my first internal reaction was: “That man calls himself a Christian?  Hardly, a real Christian wouldn’t do that.” A moment of reflection (and Ms. Christina’s timely words) suggested to me that I was being just as dismissive of this man as he was towards my friends. “True Faith” is a term that gets thrown around a lot, but it hasn’t been since this year that I’ve given any serious thought to what that means. Apart from the fact that there are thousands (upon thousands) of versions of my own religion, you can find plenty of discord and descent within almost any of those versions. What level of arrogance does it take to sate that my own interpretation is ‘the’ correct one? Or that my “True Faith” makes me more of a human being, entitled to greater privilege, than the rest of the population?

Additionally, using a term like “True Faith” usually only serves as a disavowal of responsibility. It’s very comforting to believe oneself an enlightened individual immune to prejudice or flawed reasoning. It’s also egotistical and apathetic towards the plight of others. The world we live in is a far cry from heaven on earth. What’s worse, many horrific acts are carried out every day in heaven’s name. The victims of these acts aren’t concerned with whether or not they’re representative of our own belief system, or the history of doctrinal divergence. We need to stop trying to absolve ourselves, god, and the Church of the charge of moral depravity through empty words and complacent behavior. We have a responsibility, not as the few, lucky, chosen of god, but as human beings, to fight discrimination and and injustice wherever we find it.  So many Christians ask themselves what they’ll say about their life when they stand before god, what can we say to our fellow human beings if we ignore their suffering? What can we possibly say in defense of ourselves for tolerating bigotry and ignorance? “It’s not the True Faith,” isn’t good enough.


Jaime Wise is a devoted member of Center for Inquiry on Campus at Grand Valley State University where she is studying Writing and English and continues to be a model of rationality and tolerance from within the Christian faith. She has defined herself as a Christian Humanist and has started a theology sub-committee of CFI GVSU to discuss matters of Theology from outside the usual Christian context.