[Note: This page was written several years ago, and I’m not vegetarian anymore, but I still relate to much of what I wrote then.]
People ask me a lot why I’m a vegetarian. Every vegetarian I know gets asked this a lot. I’m sometimes tempted to answer “Why aren’t you?” But I know why, usually — because they’ve never thought that much about their eating habits. And why miss a chance to tell someone how much I love being vegetarian? So here’s the current long-form answer.
Insight and Experiment
In the fall of 2001, I took a class called The Philosophical Foundations of Cognitive Science. Looking back on it, I’m not sure whether any of what we read and learned has bearing on modern cogsci, but it was a good basic class in the philosophy of cognition. Given that, I also don’t understand why we read some of Peter Singer’s classic book Animal Liberation, but we did.
Singer’s book describes, basically, why it’s ridiculously unethical to eat animals the way we currently do, in large industrial farm settings (factory farms). Whether you believe his ethics are completely philosophically sound or not, the major ethical problems with our current practices are clear. We inflict incredible amounts of unnecessary suffering on animals in order to satisfy what amounts to simple gustatory preference. It’s easy to find out what the suffering is, but in brief outline, the following: animals are housed in unnatural conditions and treated in unnatural ways that induce extreme emotional distress and ill health, and frequently killed early in their lives and not in merciful ways.
I was, at that time, an enthusiastic omnivore. I didn’t think I even could be a vegetarian. But the book bothered me, and it occurred to me that I could at least give it a try. I decided to give up beef, pork, and lamb, as well as any meat that I didn’t eat frequently (goat, rabbit, ostrich, etc — not a daily sacrifice, but why not include it, I figured). My theory was that if I could manage that, I could then consider giving up poultry, and later fish and animal products like gelatin.
It worked, obviously. It did take me five years, and I’m still a little lazy about things like gelatin. But I consider myself ever a work in progress, foodwise. I missed my meat at first, and it took a while to learn to cook and eat vegetarian.
Why didn’t I decide to just eat free-range, organic, yay-happy-meat, given that my problem isn’t fundamentally with killing animals for food? Several reasons. First, I do not like dealing with raw meat. It’s slimy and germy
(the latter especially thanks to the factory farms). Second, it’s too hard — you have to be really aware about the meat, and not accept claims like “free-range” at face value, because they aren’t always what thay seem. Third, it’s hard to explain to others when dealing with community eating; I haven’t had too much trouble explaining being vegetarian (although some people encounter resistance from family and friends, the worst I’ve gotten is forgetfulness). Fourth, it’s too expensive. The raising practices are not cheap (or else the whole industry would use them), and I was a college student on a budget. (Now I’m a linguist on a budget.) Fifth, it’s not environmentally efficient. Feeding me with plants is way more efficient than feeding a cow and then feeding the cow to me.
So, I’m vegetarian. The last time I ate meat was Thanksgiving 2004; the last time I ate fish was January 2006. Both times afterwards I felt icky and decided that was the last time. I don’t miss it now. In fact, I kind of find the idea of eating meat or fish a little gross now, about on the same scale as eating mushrooms or olives, which I strongly dislike, but a little stronger because I see meat as an inefficient germ factory instead of just a food I happen to not care for. I eat a lot more vegetables, beans, and different types of grain now. I love tofu, it turns out. So for me the whole experience has really been one of learning and growing and enjoying food intensely, and I do recommend it to you, if you think it’s possible for you. And if you don’t, your imagination may just be failing you.
Recently I’ve been doing some more in-depth thinking about my eating habits, stimulated by my reaction to The Omnivore’s Dilemma.