Creative Commons License

Friday 30 November 2018

Filosophy on Friday: Vegetarian or not

Non-ethical Vegetarianism. Written and unpublished in 2009.

Vegetarianism is often described as an ethical lifestyle choice. I became a 'vegetarian' primarily for health reasons, this is something other vegetarians have a tough time figuring out. First, let me describe my position. My diet is not correctly vegetarian, but pescetarian or what is amusingly called 'semi-vegetarianism', basically, I occasionally eat fish. About twelve years ago I decided to stop eating all other meat, I did not have to provide a reasoned argument to myself, but I have since had to retrospectively provide one for other people who cannot understand either; why I wouldn't eat meat or why I wouldn't call it an ethical position. Before that, let's look at what other proper vegetarians are likely to say about their reasons.

A less-than-common ethical vegetarian position is “animals are people too.” The argument of this position is that animals have complex emotion lives, feel pain, are in other ways similar to us and therefore they should be respected and (presumably) cared for in the same way we care for other people. This argument is based on a flawed premise (several actually), it is the fallacious position of 'argument by analogy'. This argument has also been used to describe why we would react to seeing a person in pain or to put it another way, 'how do we know that that person is in pain and not acting?' The argument from analogy says that because they seem to be in pain and we have experienced similar pain we can then surmise that they are probably in pain. This argument is extremely problematic (which is polite philosophical term used when something is obviously wrong) for a number of reasons, so I'll just stick to the ones that help our human/animal picture, it presupposes that every perceptual experience of an event requires a mental process. Now, science may describe something like a process, light in the form of radiation effects the eyes and neurons fire in the brain inciting memory and so forth, but this sort of 'subconscious' activity isn't particularly illuminating in how we phenomenologically encounter things (whether they be people or animals in pain) in the world. I'll summarise my position as “we see pain.” We might say that we simply recognise another in pain and our reaction to that may be called ethical, i.e. we don't start on the assumption that she might NOT be in pain (unless we have grounds for that conclusion) but that she is and the decision to help or aid them (secondary to the recognition of pain) depends on who we are and where we are (to simplify matter). Our reaction to other life forms is more complex, we would (I assume) react with more emotion to the death of a horse or dog than we would to the death of a rabbit or pigeon. This shows that our reactions to animals in pain is somewhat cultural convention and leads to a more sensible vegetarian position.

A more common-sense vegetarian position is that “animals are living beings that do not deserve to suffer.” This is further elaborated with the argument that we, as the dominant intelligence, do not need to kill animals for food anymore. Of course, the 'we' in question might only be the developed 'West' as in developing countries there really isn't always much choice over what to eat. If you have meat and the other option is starving, then it isn't much of a choice, although the poor in the developing countries also tend to have a 'vegetarian' diet as well, but this isn't an ethical choice either (more of an imposition). So, let's just focus on people with enough food to make a choice of what to eat.

A common argument against vegetarianism (and that we do not need to eat meat to sustain a healthy diet) is simply, “I LIKE eating meat and dislike vegetables, why should I give it up?” One might reply with moral or environmental (more common nowadays) reasons. The environmental position for vegetarianism is that cattle (etc.) use up so many resources in their rearing and adversely effect the environmental in the process that it is in our best interests to cut down the amount of cattle we have. The simple-minded reaction to this (carrying on with the theme) is, “what would you do with all the cows, kill them all?” Well, no, it wouldn't need to be immediate. The amount of cattle born would simply be controlled more rigorously. However, an appeal to environmental grounds is unlikely to convince our steak-loving friend to whom the prospect of Global warming is seen as an opportunity to work on his tan. For the environmental argument to be more persuasive there needs to be a cultural shift in the acceptance of environmental issues, however this still does not address the practice of rearing animals for meat as a moral wrong. So, let's return to that position.

We might say, with the common-sense vegetarians, that although animals are not equal to people that they ARE fellow life-forms and that we, as intellectually superior beings, have a duty to protect and not exploit them, especially when the vegetarian or vegan diet is show to be more healthy and sustainable than a meat-based diet. Let's call this the 'guardian' position. First, the claim for vegetarianism as a more healthy and sustainable diet is refuted by other claims, also backed up with scientific 'evidence', only going to prove (I think) that science can pretty much prove anything (especially if properly funded). The guardian position leads back into the environmental picture quite easily, "our reasons for adopting this ethical stance are due to a holistic understanding of the planet." That is, accepting our place in the Global ecosystem is also to realise the importance how we source our food and how that effects every other structure. Perhaps, this guardian position leads not to total vegetarianism but to a more balanced diet. However, in this holistic picture a certain religious view also becomes apparent. A new-age, pseudo-buddhist/hindu, that advocates vegetarianism as a 'higher' calling. To this, as with most religious views, there is little argument (that will be heard).

Of course, we might say “are we the ones to protect the planet, can't it look after itself?” However, this position probably just looks cavalier and arrogant (if not slightly ignorant). A less extreme version of this could be to say that "we kill as we live, everything we do adversely effects the planet anyway." I say, less extreme, but this nihilistic position is really just the reverse of the guardian position. That is, “it's all fucked anyway so let's have a burger and fuck 'em.” To these young men (as they mostly are) I would reply that, it is true that everything we do effects others in some ways. Even sustainably sourced food (vegetarian or not) might be construed to have negative implications, but that it makes more sense to try and limit one's impact than to simply wave one's hands in the air and give up.

Finally then, what are my apparent non-ethical reasons? As I stated at the beginning it was for 'health' reasons, now, that's not particularly true. Since I've stopped eating (most) meat my diet HAS improved, and I've become a much better cook too, but I was never overweight or had any particular reason that my diet needed to change radically for health reasons. In fact, my position might just be the opposite of the man that loves his steak and chips. But that's not quite it either. Really, I suppose, I just don't have a reason. If you ask me, I might tell you something, but there's no great philosophical reasoning behind it and why must there be? Must we have a complex set of reasons behind every benign choice (or seeming 'choice') we make with our lives?

My 2018 Reply: Non-ethical Morals

I stopped being a vegetarian, or more correctly a pescetarian, in February 2012. The defining meal was not as impressive, it was a reduced to clear chicken sandwich from Tesco's in Coventry, but the action was a total rejection of the 'lifestyle' I had lived up until that point. There were several resons behind my change, some of which I had been internally debating for some time, but the final push came about because of the death of my close friend. It should be noted that after Thomas died, I also fully withdrew from my PhD and made other decisions that were more or less motivated by grief. Some of which, I retracted from (that is, I didn't kill myself), others I regretted, and others (like this decision) I did not change from. In the case of vegetarianism, it was because, as I said, there was an already exisiting conflict within myself concerning my 'lifestyle' at the time, as well as a cultural shift (as I perceived it) towards what would become known as 'virtue signalling'. Although that term has been quickly corrupted by the alt-right and is now merely a term of abuse rather than anything worthwhile. For a contemporary history of the term 'virture signal' watch the informative youtube video by hbomberguy.

You might wonder how could I proclaim (in 2009) that I had 'no complex set of reasons' behind my ethical lifestyle and also state that I was conflicted about said choice. Perhaps I would have been less conflicted if I had adopted a more militant ethical position? It would have at least given me a stock answer to every time as I was challenged about my behaviour, which was almost constantly.

However, as I have said in other discussions on other topics, to do so would not be to act as I am. Being in state of anxious self-questioning is my default position. Why then cease to be a vegetarian?

If my reason to stop vegetarianism was to have an end to the repeated questioning about why am I doing such-and-such then it was a monumental failure. As I now have the question 'why did you stop?' as well as people expecting that I am vegetarian (because they have forgotten or, more interestingly, they are simply assuming it in me) and then having to describe both why someone might want to be vegetarian and why they would not. Luckily that was not the reason.

Did I miss eating meat? Well, not really, certainly not at any point while I was a vegetarian, although it is true that I have found several things that I ate before and have only recently tried that I do now enjoy. We never used to eat roast chicken when I was younger, for example, something that I now quite look forward to. However, I felt constrained by my choices certainly and as someone who at that time (in 2012) was living on very little money, I found it difficuly to get a proper meal within my budget. Potatoes, lentils and cabbage only provide so much.

It was such that when a vegetarian meal would always cost the same as a meat-based meal despite being essentially the same meals, but with one of them including meat, it started to highlight some social attitudes. The fact that by weight tofu would cost more than chicken, or that some cheeses would cost more than beef, or that asparagus would cost more than fish. That the former 'peasant' staples of polenta, bulgur wheat, couscous, and quinoa would also find their value increasing as the demand for such items increased, showed that vegetarianism had become profitable.

Once a 'style' has shown itself as a marketable commodity we can expect saturation, followed by a backlash and then either a return to a previous early state (and it's later revival) or the disappearance of said style. As fashions have always been about more than clothing and music, but also hold a particular worldview, then their cultural appeal and limited lifespan can be well expected. However, when these 'fashions' were (or are) about rejecting this commodification it is something of an abhorrence to find them comercialised in such a manner. In a sense, it can be seen as the further success of 'capitalism realism' in the cuture wars, in that all perspectives are shown to be reducible to capitalism as such there is no other possible way of existence. At least, that is the perspective being sold to you.

However, even if we bypass this aspect of the effect of capitalism and anti-capitalism (there is yet no such word to successfully encapsulate the opposition as no such opposition has yet been successfully formed) upon our 'lifestyles' there is the more generic position to be considered. If you want to belong to such-and-such a group then you must be prepared to pay for your membership.

Although the cynical perspective is to dismiss such-and-such a lifestyle as a 'fad' (something in itself unarguable) this does not lessen their present cultural impact (not unless this view becomes the majority view and even if it does counter-cultural is very marketable right now). Although it might draw some attention to the shallowness of the actual lifestyle being portrayed. That is, as a performative cultural display of a lifestyle, rather than one that holds onto any actual ethical values. Those who are vegan today for stylistic reasons are unlikely to have the moral wherewithall to withstand even a slight cultural shift against their 'beliefs'.

You might now turn this argument upon myself. Was then my own dissolutionment with pescetarianism because my beliefs lacked the certitude of a definite background argument? Was it, in fact, nothing more than a performance of having a identity, one that I lacked the backbone to critically support when placed under any sort of pressure?

Perhaps. Perhaps I've never really cared. Perhaps my environmentalism is rather born out of my own fear of death. Perhaps people do not really care for others, but only for their own sake, but then the thief also believes that everyone else steals. However, I believe in the truth and value of care.

My personal perspective does not refute or deny vegetarianism, nor is my argument with capitalism one that denies others a moral life within capitalism. I do believe it is possible to be a moral being in even the most non-ethical states of being.

So, when I eat my burger now I do not say “fuck 'em” but neither do I interrogate my own actions for moral reasoning at every step. I do retain an awareness that allowing these 'breaches' in moral culpability is the slippery slope of middle-aged acceptance of dogma. I try and eat a balanced diet within my budget, I consider my environmental impact, but I do not punish myself for when I cannot live up to certain ideals.

Tangentially Related Photo of a Favourite Public House