The ethical dilemma of vegetarianism: there isn’t one

vegetarianism veganism viewpoint the saint
Illustration: Beatrice Herman
factory farming vegetarianism veganism the saint
Photo: Creative Commons

As an omnivore, I’ve been confronted so many times with the argument for vegetarianism that any time the discussion is raised, I zone out and just get bored. When someone pushes me harder, I’ve fallen into the pattern of giving vague answers (the worst), “I agree with your moral justification but I just can’t give up meat. It’s delicious!”

How many of us can deny that, on at least one level, eating meat is wrong? Whether in terms of the environment, ethics, or health. There is abundant evidence, that vegetarians never fail to cite, about how the process of meat production (what an unsavoury euphemism for the raising and killing of animals) is detrimental to the environment. Pigs are as smart if not smarter than dogs, but you would never consider eating dog meat, so why would you continue to consume pork?

Imagine puppies being forced into abominable conditions, grown in a disgusting factory with no space to move, and then slaughtered when they grow up to become the food on your plate. Why do we continue to eat meat that is reared in these unethical ways? Do we even know where meat that is served in our halls comes from? Are there any negative effects of not eating meat that cannot be overcome without meat? Have we ever heard that eating too many pieces of spinach will kill you?

The argument is clear in my mind (hopefully this summary will acquaint the unfamiliar) but this isn’t the interesting part: what is fascinating is that the argument doesn’t really change people’s minds. The strength of the argument belies the change that occurs. I have no argument for eating meat that isn’t riddled with hypocrisy and holes, but still I persist, because of some undefined sense that it is what people do, what people have always done, and that I can do what I want with my body and my parents’ money.

There is a term that C. Wright Mills composed which comes to mind when I consider these sorts of topics (where as a fallible homosapien I fail to do the right thing despite fully understanding its larger consequences that extend past me, the individual, and into our global community). Mills calls it sociological imagination, the understanding that social outcomes are a result of what we do. I believe that we as a culture seem to lack this. It isn’t that I don’t understand the basics of supply and demand, and how less demand can lead to less production of meat, I’ve simply held the unfounded belief that none of my actions are of any consequence to the world.

vegetarianism veganism viewpoint the saint
Illustration: Beatrice Herman

I have the sense that eating meat is fine, because it brings me pleasure and I have not seen its consequences. Surely if Tesco is selling meat, it must be alright, right? Wrong, why would government have any more moral authority than you as a person? Did the US not invade Iraq? Did the Brits not join them? If I confront this “sense” that eating meat is fine with fact, for example with “shock” videos of animals being slaughtered (which do not really deserve the epithet of shock, since that word implies some sort of dishonest agenda behind its conception, and the videos are really just footage of another Tuesday at the Meat Production Factory) my sense might change for the time-being.

Perhaps I will think about not eating meat for a few days, but that will stop when the implicit encouragement of my other friends, through their unpunished consumption of animals, revives the empty argument that my actions are meaningless back into my mind. An argument, though weak and irrational, which is presented with both more proximity and more frequency than the self-evident argument of a pig being slaughtered. Put simply, it’s either a tempting offer of meat, or watching that horrible video again.

But one needs to have courage and remind oneself that real change begins within oneself. Maybe, it means developing the habit of watching those videos at least once per day to calibrate the moral compass. Or it means trying to connect long-term consequences with the action of consuming meat (like imagining yourself with heart-disease).

You could also watch Leonardo DiCaprio fight like hell against global warming and think, hey, maybe he makes some kind of sense. Over the course of a year or so, eating only vegetables like a rabbit might become just routine for you. You can go to bed happy every night with a meatless day and an empty stomach. There are steps that even the half-committed can take, like myself.

You could try to implement, or support, a Meatless Monday in your halls which will have a larger environmental impact overall than just you alone trying to change the world. Ask your catering staff if this can be done, or your hall committee (Andrew Melville Hall is already trying to implement the policy). If you live in a flat, you could start a flatwide Meatless Monday. It’s the least you could do, the least I could do. Perhaps guilt exists for good reason sometimes.


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