the moral hazards of flexitarianism

Some of my new Australian friends have pointed out, with their characteristic candor, that I can’t be a real vegetarian, mainly for the reason that they have seen me eating meat on occasion. As much as this annoys me, they’re right. By definition I’m not a strict vegetarian, it’s just that the occasions when I do eat meat are rare. So what does that make me — “almost-vegetarian”? “practical vegetarian”? “flexitarian”? “convenientarian”?

Sounds a bit hypocritical, doesn’t it? And while an idiosyncratic, but honestly and consistently applied, set of dietary choices might be grounds for some people to scoff, Dante has a special ditch in the Eighth Circle of Hell reserved for hypocrites. But rather than denying it, or acting sheepish and guilty, or giving up and saying “damn you carnivores, you were right all along!” through a mouthful of prime rib, maybe this is a good time to unpack this a little bit and re-evaluate why I make the choices I do. And I’ll do that here, since I have a feeling I’m not the only one making choices like mine.

Pros

There are of course plenty of practical reasons for eating less meat than the national average. The stuff is expensive and messy to work with. One has to watch out for diseases (not just BSE, but increasingly antibiotic-resistant microbes like salmonella and E. coli) both in keeping and preparing it. Meat is often high in cholesterol and saturated fat, not good if you have a history of heart disease in your family. There are ecological concerns, since the cultivation of livestock is one of the most resource-intensive and polluting activities we undertake: the factory farming of livestock uses enormously more water per unit weight than vegetables, and huge amounts of nutrient-hungry grains the production of which take a terrible toll on the soil. The resultant streams of manure, which currently form runoff into waterways instead of being productively used to fertilize crops, foul entire ecosystems. There are ethical concerns: the animals on industrial farms usually live lives which are brutish and short, cramped into impossibly small spaces, hobbled and mutilated, and are treated with contempt and cruelty which has become the subject of numerous documentaries. More details and references can be found in John Robbins’ well-researched books Diet for a New America and The Food Revolution. (This man was the heir to the fortunes of the Baskin-Robbins ice cream company, so he certainly stood to lose quite a bit by writing such books.)

All of these concerns can in principle be addressed and mitigated by various best practices supported by, I think, most people who can afford to do so and who don’t have financial interests in business as usual: organic farming, which eliminates the non-medical use of antibiotics; free-range farming and grass-feeding, which produce leaner cuts and allow the animals more normal lives; humane procedures in slaughterhouses and processing facilities; cooking the meat well done and keeping preparation surfaces clean. Many people already vote for these practices by preferentially buying from businesses who implement them, or sometimes by writing letters to companies or to their elected officials.

There are of course other concerns which cannot be so addressed, and where compromise is unacceptable. There is the abstention from various kinds or all kinds of meat for religious reasons on the ground that it is ritually unclean (see Kashrut, Halal and other variants). Another branch of opinion is the claim made that animals are not actually ours to use in any way, regardless of how sensitively we might treat them; its adherents are vegans.

Cons

Of course there are arguments in favor of meat. I’m going to skip past the mockery along the lines of “I like vegetarians… WITH KETCHUP AND RELISH.” and move on to those arguments I find most convincing. If you simply like eating meat and that’s your main argument for continuing, nothing else I say is likely to impact your opinion very much.

There are those who suggest vegetarianism is somehow unnatural, giving as one of their main justifications that humans evolved to eat meat (among other things). While this is certainly true, let’s look at what science tells us we get out of eating meat: protein, calories, and nutrients like iron and vitamin B12.

  • Complete protein can be obtained from soy, and if one is willing to combine vegetable sources of protein it isn’t hard to get all one needs from, say, beans and rice. You don’t even have to eat them at the same meal as long as you consume them within the same 24 hours or so.

  • Calories are important and some sources point out that the rise of meat-eating among early hominids coincided with an increase in brain size; as a specimen of Homo sapiens, your brain takes up 25% of the calories you take in! Nobody who has ever patronized a vending machine, though, would argue that we’re failing to get enough calories these days. If any, we’re getting too many, hence obesity, heart disease and adult-onset diabetes.

  • B12 does indeed come only from animal sources. Well, actually it comes from cobalt-fixing bacteria in the soil, which is typically consumed along with grass by cattle and other livestock. (Which is why it should bother you even more that we’re feeding them corn these days, and not grass.) It’s still present in eggs and cheese, though, so if you’re willing to eat those things you can get enough to live on. If you’re worried about your intake (as you should be if you’re a vegan), you can take supplements.

This last prospect does make veganism hard to scale up, though, since although a few people can certainly take B12, it isn’t clear that we would have the industrial capacity or wherewithal to produce enough if everyone on the planet, or even a very large fraction, became vegan. (Unlikely, I know, but bear with me and Kant here, I like the categorial imperative too much to throw it away outright. It’s not clear to me how much those who advocate that everyone should be vegetarians have thought much about what would happen if everyone were.)

Veganism is also a challenge for pregnant and lactating women who need more calories, protein and nutrients to make sure their child develops normally. That’s something I won’t have to worry about, but that’s another situation in which people have either had to figure out creative solutions or make the decision to lapse temporarily.

In related news, “lacto-ovo”-vegetarianism may not scale very well itself, since dairy products like eggs and milk are tied to the reproductive cycles of livestock. So for example, for every N gallons of milk you drink, there’s a male calf somewhere out there who’s gonna get a bolt to the head, and you might as well eat him once he does. Your personal calculation about how big N has to be before you stop drinking milk or eating cheese is too long to be contained in this margin. Ditto for eggs and roosters.

Finally, if animals are allowed free range and farmed in sustainable and sensible ways, they actually provide valuable ecosystem services. Manure can be used as fertilizer instead of ammonium nitrate made from fossil fuels. (We may not be thermodynamically capable of sustaining our current level of agricultural production without heavy fossil fuel use, but we should certainly try.) And by eating grass, cattle increase our planet’s carrying capacity by taking energy and nutrients bound up in plants we humans can’t eat, and making them available to us as meat or dairy. So cultivation and killing of animals, whether or not we eat them, is probably going to continue in some form, and at least for now it probably should, although we get to choose how.

Lapses

So, those are the broad strokes of the situation. 99% of the time you probably apply one or more of these arguments in your daily life, whether unconsciously or explicitly, according to your values. But the devil is in the details, and the remaining 1% of cases on the border are what teach you what your values really are. What if:

  • You’re on a plane and you requested the vegetarian meal, hoping to have your dietary preferences respected. Because the airline industry is a faceless corporate blob which doesn’t want to be bothered with your individual preferences, they forgot and the flight attendant asks you if you want the beef or the chicken. Do you reject it outright and go hungry, satisfied that you’ve stood by your principles? Do you just skip the main course and settle for the sad-looking pile of iceberg lettuce and taste-free cherry tomatoes on the tray, which is what the average inhabitant of the American Midwest thinks vegetarians live on, knowing that the meat will only be thrown away and that the animal to whom it used to belong died for no good reason? (If so, do you accept the well-meaning offerings of extra iceberg lettuce from your fellow passengers, because let’s face it, they weren’t gonna eat it either?) Do you raise a fuss to see whether a spare vegetarian meal can be found anywhere on the plane? Or do you grudgingly accept the dead animal just this once so your stomach will have the same topology once the plane lands?

  • You’re over at a friend’s house for dinner. Turns out his/her parents are in town, and his/her grandparents who came over on the boat from the Old World, none of whom you’ve met before. There are two main dishes, one made with beef and one with chicken; you weren’t consulted about the menu and you didn’t think it was your place to speak up in advance, a decision you are coming to regret. The people on the plane don’t know you from Adam and couldn’t care less, but for people from a time and a culture where food and hospitality are synonymous, your rejection thereof will raise some awkward questions. Do you stand firm and patiently explain to them the evils of factory farming while the food gets cold? Or do you join in the communal ritual, taking any residual awkwardness on yourself, and eating the food you’ve been given, which you have to admit is really good?

  • You’re traveling in a foreign country where it is commonly believed that fish are vegetables. In one restaurant you went to, they had two octopi in a fish tank on display in the foyer when you walked in, and only one on your way out the door. While it’s an industralized nation where vegetable-only options can be obtained with some effort, some of the local seafood options present unique cultural experiences which you may not have the opportunity to try again for a really long time, if ever. Do you take the plunge and see what octopus tastes like? Or do you remember that octopi are intelligent and sensitive creatures, despite belonging to a whole different phylum from ourselves, and content yourself with the seasoned cucumber and rice?

  • There are many items which, while not meat as such, use animal by-products. Do you eat cheese made with animal rennet? What about marshmallows made with gelatin? Sugar refined with animal bone char? (For that matter, do you use water filters or petroleum jelly, or paint with black paints?) What about honey? Even if leather jackets aren’t your style, do you still wear leather shoes? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes”, you’re certainly not a vegan; but do you still consider yourself a vegetarian? Why or why not?

I’ve been in situations similar to each of these multiple times. I have made a wide spectrum of decisions, depending on the circumstances and how I felt. Sometimes it hasn’t even required thresholds like the one I described; it might be enough for me to know that a piece of meat might go to waste, and it is one such occasion that’s prompted this bit of soul-searching. I suppose it all means I don’t have a particularly principled view of vegetarianism. But these lapse situations usually arise at, at most, one meal a month, and historically only every few months. In the past I haven’t considered it too disingenuous to describe myself as “vegetarian” as a shorthand to communicate to others the kind of food I’d usually like to be served, and to describe my commitment to reducing my impact on the planet and my fellow sentient beings.

Unless you’re doing it for religious reasons, it probably doesn’t make much personal sense to take great care to cut out meat out of your diet entirely. The lengths to which one must go to be truly conscientious are astounding. In his autobiography, Gandhi mentions that he lived on a steady diet of lemons and nuts for years, and that he did so after a careful deliberative process meant to maximize logical and ethical consistency. I respect the man for his accomplishments in human rights, but I found this behavior nutty when I read about it. To me it didn’t seem far from that level of austerity to the perilous ledge of Breatharianism, the visible practitioners of which should not be allowed to get away with misleading others in such dangerous ways.

However, if your reason for abstaining is to raise public awareness of the dangers and injustices associated with meat consumption, then you need to be very conscientious because you’re intentionally making your choices more visible. Nobody will take you seriously if you are discovered to apply your principles only situationally. You may fully expect to be offered meat again in the future and asked why it’s not okay now when it was perfectly fine before. It may be possible to give nuanced and reasoned arguments every time you make the decision to lapse; indeed, you may need to do this if only to keep yourself convinced of your own sincerity. But in this way, you pay for any convenience gained by the lapse with additional energy explained in justifying why you’re doing what you’re doing.

In short, by calling yourself “vegetarian” you are donning a very specific, ethically charged mantle with associated expectations for your behavior. This can be a powerful force for social change, but you don’t get to keep the extra moral authority if your actions don’t always measure up against the expectations you’re setting for yourself, and indeed may be doing more harm than good. Gandhi knew this well, and so his apparent nuttiness is in fact intimately bound up with his immense ethical impact. (There is also the cultural association with hippies and other eccentrics, although vegetarian diets are becoming more mainstream these days.) For a common person with limitations and no ambitions for sainthood, it’s probably more honest and will do more good in the long run simply to say that you eat meat only rarely and that you’re concerned about public health, the environment, the suffering of animals, etc. You can then raise legitimate concerns about those very real problems in the world without necessarily being seen as a weirdo, hypocrite, etc.

So, while I’ve done a fair amount of homework on the matter, I probably need to do still more homework in order to be able to have meaningful conversations with people about the impact of one’s dietary choices on the wider world. Particularly important is to actually run the numbers before making assertions, as I’ve learned is important to do in a scientific context. There is a perceived danger of being seen as “preachy”, but I think this label is usually more commonly associated with hypocrites than people with a real point to make. If in the end I think my decisions really are the best ones, for specific reasons other than mere personal whim, I ought to be able to describe them with clarity and conviction to anyone willing to listen.

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About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
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