People become vegetarian or vegan for a variety of reasons, including animal rights, environmental protection, and health consciousness, among others. In this column, we address the subject of “ethical vegetarianism.” Is vegetarianism an effective method of change? Is it worthwhile?
Worth a Hill of Beans
By Jess Zalph
As a vegetarian, people frequently ask if I’m okay with them eating meat around me. Yes, of course it’s fine, as long as you don’t chew it up and then spit it on my face. Same goes for carrots.
People frequently ask why I’m a vegetarian. What’s the point? Well, originally the reason was that my parents are vegetarians, and, like favorite sports teams and political views, ideologies are often adopted. I’ve stuck with it not just out of habit or taste aversion, but because I feel that it is a good cause.
People frequently ask what the point is of these “ethical reasons.” I can’t actually think I’m doing anything, can I?
It depends on how you look at it. If I were to make a tally mark for each animal I have directly saved, I would have a grand total of zero tally marks, excluding worms I’ve rescued from sidewalks.
But that’s not all there is to it. I know several people who have become vegetarian at some point after talking to me about it. I know many more who have stopped eating meat, or tried to, since coming to this school simply because it is a large part of the culture. Exposure breeds favorability, for better or for worse.
This trend plays out on a broader scale. Consumption of meat and poultry in the United States dropped approximately 12 percent between 2007 and 2012. Between 2002 and 2006, the market for direct non-meat alternatives that replace animal products nearly doubled, from $1.5 billion to $2.8 billion. Assuming most things in this world come down to money, providing economic incentives for a shift toward vegetarianism is the strongest impact a person can have.
Of course, moral reasons are not the only ones that explain this adjustment in the American diet. Health and environmental awareness certainly play into the shift as well. However, what is key is that the dialogue has changed, with many of the most vocal participants in that dialogue being those vegetarians that have adopted this diet for the sake of doing something good.
We can continue to argue whether there is a moral justification for vegetarianism at all. It is difficult to approach this discussion without running up against the argument that because eating meat is a part of human nature it should never, and will never, be changed. However, this is true of so many things: war, for example, is arguably a good comparison. All I know is that the animals killed to feed humans generally suffer. I also know there is a reason most parents don’t want their children to know the animal on the farm is the same as the animal on the plate—given this knowledge, small children without any notion of the world as it “must be” will be wildly disturbed.
So is being a moral vegetarian worthwhile? I say, “yes.” I say “yes” because I do not want to be part of something that I feel is wrong, an embedded institution that I feel causes suffering for animals. I say “yes” because any shift at all is a shift in a more humane direction. I only get to sign my name to so many things in this world, and given the personal choice between “good” and minimally effective, and “bad” and completely ineffective, I’m going to choose the former.
By Willie Zabar
Let me start by saying that I don’t have a problem with vegetarianism itself. Humans are an omnivorous species capable of digesting both meat and plant matter, and it’s up to individuals to decide how much of each is right for them. Eat meat, or don’t eat meat; I don’t care. I’m not some kind of meat chauvinist—and yes, they do exist. If you don’t believe me, try expressing a dislike of bacon in public. I understand the symbolic gesture of vegetarianism, but I don’t think it actually does anything.
For most moral vegetarians, it seems that the main goal is to curtail animal suffering. This is a goal that I—and anyone with any sense of decency—can get behind. I hate factory farms and I recognize their detrimental effects on human health and the environment. That being said, the simple act of refusing to eat meat does virtually nothing to help the animals born into these conditions. I understand that if everyone took this platform, then there would be nobody left to eat meat, and, therefore, animal suffering would cease; however, this is simply not going to happen, at least not anytime soon.
However, even if we assume becoming a vegetarian is a means toward the end of a completely meat-free society, it completely neglects the issue of animal suffering in the meantime. Not adding to a problem is not the same thing as fighting it. When you pass up a steak, the cow that you’re “saving” is still going to be raised in squalor and be eaten by somebody else. You have done nothing to help that particular animal.
Here’s an analogy: say you found out that the makers of your favorite brand of blue jeans were employing unfair sweatshop labor that resulted in workers suffering, so you decide to stop wearing jeans altogether. While you’re hurting their business, you aren’t doing anything to improve the underlying situation: at the end of the day, those workers are still going be suffering. If you were, however, to find out which companies didn’t implement these inhumane methods and support them instead, while organizing a proper boycott of the guilty companies, then you would be making a difference.
In the same way, it makes more sense to distinguish those who treat their animals with proper care from those who foster abusive environments, rather than unilaterally rejecting meat. Even if you believe that we are capable of transitioning into a fully meat-free society, doesn’t it make more sense to eliminate the most egregious offenders first? Otherwise, you are just washing your hands of the situation without actually addressing its core problems.