Veganism: Putting a face to that plate of bacon
I’ve been a vegetarian since my senior year of high school. But I hadn’t really examined why I became a vegetarian in a long time. I have canned answers I give curious murder-mongers, but they’re generally terse statements of ideology. After thinking about it, I’ve decided that the logical, consistent step is to become vegan. In a perfect world, everyone else would be vegan too. We don’t live in a perfect world, though, and it’s not possible for everyone to make the switch. The key is to do the best one can given the information and resources available. It’s not really enough to say “everyone should be vegan” (or “everyone should stop buying clothes made in sweatshops” or whatever), which seems to me to be the basic message of most ethically based movements.
More broadly, examining one’s beliefs, in everything from political ideology to consumer choices, is important. Before I became a vegetarian, I ate meat because it was a habit, it was pleasurable and it was how I was raised. I’d never really thought about becoming a vegetarian even though I had an intuitive sense that I didn’t want to hurt animals. There’s obviously a gap between the examination of beliefs and then putting them into practice, and the idea of examining one’s beliefs both for accuracy and logical consistency is important. With regard to veganism and animal rights more broadly, I always thought it was intuitive that most animals experience pain. I generally shy away from inflicting pain on others (at least, physical pain), so why wouldn’t I try to avoid contributing to animals’ pain? But there are other, more complicated factors involved in implementing that decision and deciding exactly what “avoiding inflicting pain on animals” means. For example, until recently, I had never thought about the concept of giving non-human animals rights that would protect them from being slaughtered. Obviously, the Constitution was not written with the well-being of cows (or as George Washington would say, “ye olde foodstuffs”) in mind. If not rights in the constitutional sense, then, why not a general respect for their well-being and reducing their suffering?
It’s true that it’s intuitively less easy to empathize with animals that do not look or think like us—though perhaps this is in part because we are, for the most part, trained from childhood to view them as either meat or pets or both. Yeah, we like cute pictures of pet pigs, but that stops few people from eating bacon. That kind of cognitive dissonance should be questioned, although maybe it isn’t cognitive dissonance at all. Placing animals in the “cute” category turns them into objects for our pleasure. It’s similar to objectification of women; it’s harder to respect a person whom you’re trained to view as a sexual object. Examining the problem of the objectification of women is a pretty recent development itself.
The rights of women, African Americans, Native Americans and any number of minority groups seemed ludicrous at one point. The idea of giving rights to non-human animals may seem ludicrous now, but in a few hundred years, it might be normal. Already it’s fairly easy to become a vegetarian in the United States and not that much more onerous to become a vegan (given a certain level of income, of course). The main factors that prevent the spread of vegetarianism are social pressure, limited access to healthy vegetarian food and the gustatory pleasure derived from eating. The first two are understandable. If you’re poor, your main concern is earning enough to buy food—going through the process of changing your diet and seeking out vegan products is burdensome if you have neither time nor disposable income. I’m lucky enough to be in a privileged position where I can afford to do the research and shop to support a vegan lifestyle. It’s not possible for everyone. The one argument I have no patience for is the pleasurable aspects of eating meat. You really mean to tell me that you value your own momentary pleasure enough to contribute to the pain of other animals?
No one is “perfectly ethical” in that he or she can always avoid doing harm. In general, we give historical figures like Woodrow Wilson something of a pass for racist attitudes because it was a different time. People are products of their times. I can see a similar attitude being prevalent a thousand years from now when we’re all wearing neon bodysuits on our moon base: “Yeah, Nelson Mandela was pretty great and all, even though he did eat meat.” That said, if an individual has information about animal suffering and has the resources to implement that switch, as do so many of us at Wash. U. and in the United States more generally, he or she should make that change. The “failure” to become a vegan or vegetarian doesn’t make an immoral person, but keeping an attitude of consciousness, of examining the attitudes you hold dear, is important and not just in terms of diet.