Ethical vegetarianism and compromise

Early last week, I had a little chat via Twitter with the Spark The Conversation crowd on the matter of choosing between a principled but poor life, and selling out your morals to be wealthy. Notably, I’m a piss-poor lumpenprole.

I’m not sure what the boundary between developed-world poverty, and developed-world getting-by is in monetary terms, but I’m close. I get by on less than the aspirationals, although it helps that I don’t have a housing loan or children to burn money on.

So what would be the upside of my selling out? Well, I’ve been told it’s not too late for me to enter into the world of professional fishing. I could probably still make quite a bit of money this way if I applied myself to it.

There’s the obvious barrier of course. I don’t kill animals if I don’t have to, and I don’t get other people to do it for me; I’ve made an ethical decision not to be a party to inflicting this kind of suffering. Obviously, this rules out fishing.

There are degrees of commitment, and a spectrum of values in relation to the matter. Some people are weekend meat-eaters attempting to lower their environmental footprint, while others are lacto-ovo vegetarian every day of the week because it forms a Diderot unity with their newsboy caps and teashades. Others again won’t drink milk in order to keep the fairies at the bottom of the garden happy, and then of course, there are those who eat meat with an array of motivations for doing so (and those who don’t think about it at all).

Now unless you’re the vegetarian Übermensch (is that even possible?) or the last human on Earth, you’re going to have to deal with other people holding at least some of these values. You’ll have to treat these values as either rationally non-binding (within practical or definitional boundaries – I’ll spare us all the meta-ethics), or even just practically outside the realm of discussion. You’ll have to compromise at some point (even ending your association is a kind of compromise).

Which brings the discussion up to about last Friday night, when I was out having dinner with a couple of local Humanists. Vegetarians outnumbered meat-eaters two-to-one, and a conversation was sparked!

I was the overzealous new guy on the vegetarian block (it’s been about two years now), being a bit of a know-it-all (not that it got me into trouble), when I had the issue of compromise raised smack bang in front of my face. I managed to swerve at the last-minute, only clipping the corner of my ego.

I was feeling pretty happy with myself, having been able to say (to Spark The Conversation) that I’d chosen not to compromise myself, that this had saved me having to engage in all sorts of mental gymnastics, and that I had no regrets. But at what juncture can you practically compromise with the rest of the world, without compromising your values?

I have for example, let someone eat a hamburger in my house – months ago, mind you. Just how much then, has my moral agency contributed towards the demand for beef? What percent (if any) of a dead cow am I responsible for on account of this tolerance?

What if I did have kids? What if they refused vegetarian meals?

What happens if in the workplace, I become part of the chain-of-custody of an animal-product that involved suffering?

The rule I think, in preventing compromise from becoming moral bankruptcy, is down to how much agency you’re allowed by other people. That without allowing yourself to become too small, you make sure undesired moral choices are reasonably outside your control, and that within the scope of your agency, you consistently make decisions in-line with your values.

Then the question then becomes one of how to get on with other people in a way that either increases your agency, or at least doesn’t see it sidelined, in addition to challenging other people to think critically about ethics. Welcome to politics (and confusion).

~Bruce

Note: Spark The Conversation will be holding an event at the Melbourne Fringe Festival on the 1st and 2nd of October, where ‘Eloise Maree facilitates the participant’s engagement with their own personal truths and subjective opinions’. The event will be live streamed, and involve online participation via social media.

(Photo source: Davide Vizzini)

Groan… People who just can't get over your vegetarianism

Way back in 1998, I made my first attempt at vegetarianism after being chewed out, rightly, by a young lady who thought I was better than that.

It wasn’t easy and like my many attempts, it only lasted a few weeks. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, eating meat is something that’s normalised in me.

The primary reason – always the primary reason – has been that of the suffering of animals.

I’ve been told a lot of dodgy-to-not-so-convincing reasons such as the claim that it will increase your lifespan.

The World Health Organisation is the source usually cited for the studies that saw higher mortality amongst meat eaters than vegetarians. But, what people citing this source – apparently not reading or not understanding it – don’t tell you is that the vegetarian groups in the earlier study had a lower incidence of smoking and once this was accounted for in further studies, the morbidity difference between lacto-ovo vegetarians and meat-eaters went away. In fact the vegans scored significantly worse.

Then there’s the water and fossil fuel usage. I’m not adverse to the idea that not eating meat in general may leave a smaller carbon footprint, or save water. But I’m yet to be shown a convincing study by the advocates. The problem with research I’ve been shown is usually that fuel/water usage between vegetarian and meat-sources are counted differently (e.g. double counting for meat produce, or omitting certain uses from vegetable produce while counting it for meat produce).

Although, I’m not prepared to go into great length looking into the veracity of either when even if true, it wouldn’t change my behaviour. My vegetarianism doesn’t hinge on the truth of  either of these kinds of arguments.

Now if it’s not hard enough for me just to check my food sources while at the same time resisting the urges that were inculcated into me as a child, people have to go and make it harder by being dicks.

There’s a phrase of Bertrand Russell’s that is apt, “conventional people are roused to fury by departure from convention, largely because they regard such departure as a criticism of themselves.” Although to be more precise, I’d go with “roused to resolve cognitive dissonance through ego defence”.

I’m not talking about the likes of a friend that said “I’m going to give you so much shit from now on!” There’s no mental gymnastics there – just humour and an understated, implicit admission of moral failure.

It’s pretence and moral indignation that’s the problem.

People most often like to think of themselves as being good. The observation that I’m avoiding doing something bad, something that they’re themselves doing, causes dissonance with my meat-eating acquaintances’ self-image of goodness.

I’m not judgemental about it. I don’t jump down anyone’s throat. The only time I snap at anyone about the issue is when they’re already digging away at me.

It’s not jumping down someone’s throat if they started it.

1998 (I paraphrase).

Cousin: “Would you like a metwurst sandwich?”

Me: “Geez! I’m a vegetarian! I only told you again a couple of hours ago.”

Cousin: “I CAN EAT WHAT I WANT!”

Notice how I’m supposed to be oppressing my cousin?

I didn’t tell anyone what to eat in that conversation. I was newly vegetarian, committed but struggling, had communicated the fact already and was then thoughtlessly offered something that he knew I’d find tasty.

I’ve found it amazing the level of mental gymnastics some people will go to blame me for something because of my vegetarianism, even if it hasn’t happened yet.

Last Christmas (again, I paraphrase).

Mother: “I hope you’re not going to ruin Christmas for everyone else with this [vegetarianism].”

My not eating meat will ruin Christmas for everyone else? Even though I’d already pre-cooked my own Christmas lunch and tea to save any hassles.

And if it’s not a big enough pain in the arse that they’ve got these kind of issues, it’s the mental gymnastics they go through to convince themselves that they aren’t going through mental gymnastics.

“I’m just trying to be a good host!”

“I forgot you’re a vegetarian!” (An odd thing to forget given how obsessed and neurotic they can be about it, no?)

It’s the ones who are the “forgetful good hosts” that needle you about it the most. Needle, needle, needle.

They’ll serve something up with a big fat hot steak or piece of pork with crackling smacked on the plate, hover it in front of your face and then proceed to inquire as if to be considerate.

Of course they know this kind of thing is attractive to me, they know that I don’t want to be offered meat and rather than ask if I don’t want it, they’ll ask why I don’t want it and if I’m sure I don’t want it, all in the tone of the most conscientious host. All while hovering the plate in front of my face.

The context always shows they should know how to behave better. You’ve already talked to them about it within the past few hours. They spend time trying to “serve” you, all why others are waiting hungrily. And why ask why you don’t want it if they don’t already know you don’t want it?

Odd behaviour for the conscientious or for anyone who supposedly doesn’t realise that you don’t eat meat.

I mentioned some of the justifications I don’t use to inform my vegetarianism – health and environmental reasons.

Yet surprisingly after the umpteenth time I’ve told them “no”, they can still pull the straw man rejoinder like…

“It won’t kill you!”

…or…

“It won’t cause that much environmental damage. Just one.”

Of course, I don’t repeat my reasons for being a vegetarian ad infinitum to people who behave like this. What’s the point of expressing a moral justification if your interlocutor isn’t interested in listening.

But it’s not like I haven’t tried – it’s just that I’ve learned that it’s futile so I’ve stopped.

And oh, the sheer hypocrisy of asking why, when they don’t care why! The disingenuous questions aren’t much fun.

I no longer justify my choice if they ask me to explain. The dialogue is closed.

And why not? It is my body after all.

Why am I even having to have these discussions? Well, we know the answer of course – my choice through no intent on my part reflects on them in a way that they aren’t willing to admit to themselves.

But that’s their problem. I shouldn’t have to hear about it. I’m sick of hearing about it.

It makes being a vegetarian that much more difficult on top of everything else.

There’s only so much time before I grow so tired of this that I’ll stop being the passive party and I’ll actively use their own neurosis on the issue against them.

The discomfort they feel now at my being a vegetarian – the imagined persecution through imagined ruined public holidays and imagined chastisings – will seem insignificant when I play the double jeopardy card and actually do what I’ve been accused of doing. Namely chastise and ruin public holidays.

It’s either that or just walking away when it gets too much. Ultimately, I can afford to burn these bridges if my stock in these relationships falls so low.

I’ve been vegetarian for over half a year now and things are staying that way.

~ Bruce

(Photo source: Davide Vizzini)