• Environmental and health concerns point toward vegetarian diet.
• Concern for animal suffering leads some away from meat.
• Vegetarian morality has deep roots.
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Vegetarianism is on the rise. Actress Pamela Anderson recently served vegetarian meals to inmates in an Arizona jail. Anderson explained that vegetarian meals help promote compassion and nonviolence. The sheriff was less idealistic: he touted meatless meals as a cost-saving measure.
Not only is a meatless diet compassionate and cheap, it is also good for the environment. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that avoiding meat saves water. According to the Times’ data, it takes about 22 gallons of water to produce one ounce of soy burger, compared with 106 gallons of water to produce one ounce of beef. Earlier this year, The U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee concluded in a draft report that vegetarian diets are both better for the environment and better for human health.
The health argument is complex. Another study, from a medical university in Graz, Austria, concluded that vegetarians are less healthy. Exercise, affluence and other factors matter with regard to health. If you double down on French fries, you don’t benefit from skipping the burger. Despite the Graz study, the consensus seems to be that vegetarian diets are healthy and environmentally sustainable.
My own journey to vegetarianism began 20 years ago when my sister asked me to clean a chicken. She liked to eat chicken, she said, but the preparation grossed her out. That got me thinking about my own disconnect from the meat I ate. I decided that if I wasn’t willing to kill it and clean it myself, I wasn’t going to eat it. I haven’t eaten meat in 20 years. And I’m healthy and happy.
I discussed vegetarianism with a carnivorous dinner companion the other night. He told me of growing up on a poultry farm, where he’d killed more than his share of chickens. He had also slaughtered goats and cows. He admitted that it’s not pleasant to kill and bleed a cow. But he happily munched his steak. Disgusting but delicious, he suggested.
There’s no doubt that some disgusting things are necessary and justifiable. But meat eating is not. You can live quite well without it. But an argument based upon our feelings of disgust is fairly weak. A deeper moral argument focuses on the question of animal suffering.
Now some deny that animals suffer, claiming that animal pain is merely a physical response without moral meaning. But pet owners will disagree. Dogs wince in pain and wag their tales in delight. If I care about the suffering of dogs or cats, then I should care about other critters.
Some carnivores argue that the pleasure of meat offsets the suffering of the animal. But vegetarians claim that the pain of the pig outweighs the pleasure of bacon. We should be more humble, I think, about causing suffering in the name of pleasure. Related to this is the idea the we should “live simply so that others may simply live.”
Vegetarianism also has mystical and ascetic overtones. In Hinduism and Buddhism, for example, a commitment to nonviolence can be extended toward compassion for all living things. In ancient Rome, the philosopher Porphyry made a similar argument. He thought that learning to be considerate of animals helped us learn to be compassionate to one another. He also thought that taming the appetite for meat helped to liberate the soul.
You don’t have to be a mystic or monk, however, to understand that it is good to avoid causing suffering. Nor do you have to think that animals are equal to humans to reach vegetarian conclusions. Human interests matter more than animal interests. If I were trapped with my dogs and my children on a desert island, we’d eat the dogs. But in a world with plentiful vegetarian options, one can eat well without eating meat.
I’m not dogmatic about this. I eat fish and eggs on occasion. I don’t nitpick the ingredients in food served by friends or in restaurants. And I don’t mind sharing a table with amiable meat eaters.
There are vicious vegans and caring carnivores. There is no necessary connection between diet and morality. But vegetarianism reminds us to think about reducing suffering and simplifying our needs. Vegetarianism can improve the world, one bite at a time.