Vegetarianism has been on the rise for some time now, finally taking root in my own household. I am participating, so to speak, but it’s not that I find arguments for this eating lifestyle particularly compelling; I don’t. No, I participate mostly for the sake of supporting those who are enamored by the idea and because I don’t want to make my own dinner all the time. But why aren’t I completely compelled by the arguments for vegetarianism alone? Let’s examine the typical vegetarian’s arguments for abandoning meat in their diet.
To begin with, it’s fair to say that your garden-variety vegetarian finds the idea of farming animals for food repugnant. I can certainly understand this as I am generally against cruelty to any animal that isn’t human. Packing animals in close corners, feeding them something we wouldn’t eat ourselves, pumping them full of hormones, snatching calves from their mothers, wood-chipping chicks if they’re the wrong sex; well, it’s enough to leave a bad taste in any humane person’s mouth. While those of us who occasionally fall off the vegetarian food wagon hope against hope our chicken piccata roamed around happily clueless before being snatched from its bliss like a child in Indonesia, we really know better, and to know better – to know what’s really going on and be okay with it – kinda makes a person an asshole. And we’ve got enough assholes, truth be told.
Fortunately, I don’t find meat all that tasty, or at least not so tasty I couldn’t live without it. After my own father died of a massive heart attack given his meat-saturated diet (though there was the smoking and some drinking, too), I’ve never thought of meat as something I just had to have. And knowing an animal suffered for my culinary enjoyment kind of makes me nauseous when I think about it. Others disagree and their argument is often something like, “Then they (animals) shouldn’t be so damn tasty.” Yes, but if we suddenly discovered how tasty people were, would that suddenly make it okay to eat them? Sometimes this leads to the follow-up argument that God gave human beings dominion over animals (which somehow got translated into “Be shitty to animals”) so it’s all good; the Boss said so. I’m not convinced. It seems like people treat animals the way they’d like to treat other human beings ‘cept that those pesky societal norms stave off their more primitive desires. I’d say thank goodness if treating each other with some dignity weren’t becoming abnormal.
But I digress; I offer my own counter argument to vegetarians here: That eating a plant is equally or even potentially worse than eating an animal. Vegetarians seem content to take life so long as it does not possess a nervous system like most animals do. The reasoning is that if some lifeform is sufficiently close enough to being human, it is cruel to kill and eat that thing. But this is a completely arbitrary distinction. If you’ll notice, many vegetarians are content to include fish in their diet, citing that fish are sufficiently unlike human beings to warrant eating them. Having seen many a fish hooked and pulled out of the water, I’m reasonably sure they feel as much pain as any land animal. So the argument becomes, “I think X is like me (or worse, X is cute), therefore I will not eat it. Y however…” There is no solid delineation for what is sufficiently like a human being to warrant sparing its life and not eating that thing. Who gets to be the authority on such a matter? Arbitrary reasoning is not objective, so the ‘moral’ choice a person makes to become a vegetarian and how far they take it is based solely on subjective reasoning.
It is likewise subjective to assume that plants do not feel pain or suffer from what we do to them. We know that all lifeforms react to the environment around them and what we can pain are sensations the nervous system sends to our brain to tell us harm is taking place. It is therefore reasonable to assume that tearing or uprooting a plant adversely affects a plant and that they don’t somehow sense this. Granted, plants do not have a nervous system like mammals and other animals do, but certainly plants possess a mechanism to react to harm in much the same way they obviously react to positive conditions like sunlight. For all we know, uprooting a plant may make it feel something entirely worse than pain. We don’t know. In not knowing, we should err on the side of caution, not continue on our merry way and say, “Whoops, sorry, we were wrong about you” if we find out plants do feel pain. Then again, that is the tract the United States took in regards to its era of slavery so I guess there is precedent for behaving/eating the way we do.
Ideally then, we really shouldn’t eat anything that may potentially feel pain in our efforts to eat it, if we’re on a quest to claim some moral high ground. Fruits and nuts appear okay to eat then seeing how they are the attempt of plants to procreate and not ‘alive’ in and of themselves or cannot grow unless they’re given the proper circumstances or conditions. In the end, the so-called moral argument given by vegetarians is utterly lost on me; it rings as hollow as a gourd.
This aside, I do believe there are some good arguments to be made in favor of a vegetarian diet. First and foremost is the environmental argument. While a majority of human beings seem to care very little about how poisonous they make their own immediate environment…well, that’s just it. Look, the Romans didn’t know they were poisoning themselves with lead and this was a contributing factor to the fall of their empire. We don’t have that excuse anymore. We know what we’re doing to the environment and the vast majority of us still don’t care. We don’t care that the environment sometimes – maybe often – contributes to cancer yet people ‘race for a cure’ instead of doing the obvious, cleaning up a toxic environment. (I might also mention that people who constantly consume meat have higher rates of cancer than vegetarians.) I know full well that cancer is a horrible, devastating disease but there are steps we can take to minimize our risk to succumbing to it, and taking care of the environment should be chief among those steps. And this is to say nothing of the methane – a particularly nasty greenhouse gas – that is released into the atmosphere due to cattle farming. Shoot, sorry; I forgot rising temperatures aren’t mankind’s fault. (You know mankind can’t take the blame for anything it does to itself.)
As alluded to a few moments ago, there is also much evidence that a vegetarian or meat-restricted diet is healthier and this is a good reason to choose this dietary avenue. This is not to say that being a vegetarian doesn’t take planning, it does. Much of the protein (and to a much lesser degree vitamins, minerals and fats) we get easily from animal products are not readily found in plants, meaning a vegetarian must eat a broader range of plants to meet their essential nutrient needs. Given the downside of consuming so much meat, both for the environment and our health, taking the time to do a little planning couldn’t hurt. Facebook and Twitter will still be there after the ten minutes you’re gone doing some research.
There is sufficiently proper reasons to be a vegetarian but let’s not pretend that the ‘moral’ argument is one of them. Getting into an ‘conversation’ with a carnivore and bringing that argument up is only going to make said carnivore run out to the store and buy a cow’s worth of ground meat. Of course, hard core carnivores don’t care about being healthy either, so perhaps the point is moo-t. Vegetarians; do what’s right for yourself and let time win the battle for you. While you console the meat-eater in your family as they lay dying of cancer, you can say, “I told ya so.”