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I became a vegetarian about a month ago. Well, technically the term is apparently Pescatarian, given that our friends in the sea are not safe from my revised dietary planning. While the general reaction from those I know has ranged from indifference to shock followed by varying degrees of teasing, I have been challenged on a few occasions to explain exactly why I would do something so strange and bizarre. I am usually asked this by people who have a barrage of pro-meat, cows-can-suffer arguments on hand. Which makes explaining that my reasons for doing it (insofar as I have thought them through) have absolutely nothing to do with livestock welfare or nutritional health all the more unanticipated.

The animal cruelty argument is an interesting one, and one worth taking a moment to talk about. Although not my primary reason for adopting a veggie diet, I seem to be bombarded with enough animals-exist-to-be-eaten rhetoric that a short rebuttal seems in order. Unlike far too many of my friends, I don’t do formal philosophy at all, so all this first principles argumentation stuff is largely beyond my ken. However – it seems obvious enough that animals with even marginal intelligence and awareness of their surrounding can anticipate an immediate death and in many cases do realise that they are about to experience pain, bringing about a degree of fear and (as an understatement) anxiety about the near future. Cows and chickens led to slaughter would be a fair example of such behaviour. As far as I am aware, seafood (with the exception of dolphins and whales, perhaps) have no such developed understandings and so are exempted from this discussion. It would therefore be correct, on the surface of it, to say that eating meat (in general) supports an industry which causes fear and pain to animals which are aware of it.

I don’t like that animals suffer, you don’t care, and so we reach an impasse

I don’t think that is a particularly controversial statement, and one which opponents will usually concede. Their stock reply, however, is usually something to the effect that eating them is the natural order of things and takes precedence over their intellectual processes. Or, in the case of some more blunt conversations I have had – they are animals, so who cares. The point then, is that the suffering of the animals is important only insofar as we are willing to attach weight to it. I am willing to attach enough weight to it that I intend to (try to) stop eating meat, while  others may not give a fig. The argument at this point breaks down in the same way as a religious faith one, since you accord no emotional weight to something I do accord value to. There is no objective reason for either of our stances – we simply chose them either from socialisation or conscious decision, and no amount of haggling is likely to redirect the emotional decision that either of us has taken in this regard. I don’t like that animals suffer, you don’t care, and so we reach an impasse where neither of us can claim to be objectively correct any more than the other. The fact that I happen to be in a minority is irrelevant.

Related to this point, is the secondary rebuttal that “it won’t make a difference, the animals will still die any way”. Yes, they will. My not eating meat will no more reduce the number of cows being slaughtered than praying to a pair of shoes will. The only difference is that while the problem will persist without me, I will at least have the satisfaction of knowing that I am not an active contributor to it. In the same way that disagreeing with Apartheid and refusing to actively propagate the system would probably (in the context of you as an individual) have made no difference at all, you could at least be smug in the knowledge that you were not part of perpetuating the system. It is a small point to make, but as someone sitting on this side of the fence at the moment – that smugness is pretty fulfilling.

Little by little, they add up to a life which isn’t one of your choosing, but rather one of convenience.

But these, in the end, were not the reasons I decided to try quitting meat. They are the reasons that it has become surprisingly easy to persist in being vegetarian since, but were not the primary motivation. No sir. That had to do with making actual choices in life. There is a Buddhist philosophy that teaches that the way to becoming a better person is to take control of more of your life and live it consciously. Every day, we make a thousand decisions because that was how we were brought up, or because it is easier to do X than Y, or because our social community does it like that. Not actively making such decisions, but repeatedly exercising conditioned group behaviour serves only to reduce you to being a sophisticated social automaton – acting in concord with your surroundings and without any higher appreciation for your decisions. Because ultimately, they were not your decisions. You never chose whether to eat meat (or in many cases, worship a particular god, pursue a certain career or a bunch of other things). Those were an acceptance of common practice, not the result of a rational, intentional assessment of the options available to you. Little by little, they add up to a life which isn’t one of your choosing, but rather one of convenience.

And so, because I would like my life to be mine, and because I abhor “that is how it is done” as a reason for any sort of behaviour, what I eat became the subject of actual, rational decision-making. The result of which is deciding (in part for the reasons above) to try being vegetarian. It’s a small, and ultimately probably irrelevant area of my life to try exercising free choice in, but I have found the conscious awareness of the experience – of each meal, of how meat-related most fast food menus are, of how not tasty most of Kauai’s purely veg options are – to be quite refreshing.

It’s been nearly a month so far, and has become easy enough that it will probably persist a lot longer. And so, the next time you decide a meal – ask yourself whether this is something you actually thought about, and made a conscious decision to do. Or are you simply rationalising the behaviour that you inherited from everyone else around you. If you want to eat the animals, and it makes you happy, and you have a justification that works for you, then by all means go ahead. Just make sure that what you eat, and ultimately a thousand other aspects of your experience of yourself, are decisions that you made and own – not inherited behaviours that you adopted way back and have repeated unquestioningly.  Then, regardless of your decision, you probably have a small right to be smug.