I wasn’t planning on writing a blog entry today on why I’ve chosen to be vegan. What happened was this: I was reading a blog entry by The Blissful Chef. The entry posed the question “What’s the difference between a dolphin and a cow?” It then went on to talk about why people eat meat, and why people view some animals differently than others. At first I had just planned to post a link to the blog entry on Facebook and Twitter, to get a conversation started about it. But after reading the entry, and watching the two embedded videos, it got me thinking. The first video made a point which is pretty obvious, but that I had never really thought about — people don’t choose to eat meat, they are trained to eat it from childhood. Parents don’t sit their children down, explain what meat is and how it is obtained, and then ask their child if they’d like to eat it or not. I think it is important for vegans and vegetarians to realize this. I don’t think it makes eating meat right, but it helps me understand why so many people do it who would otherwise describe themselves as animal lovers. This got me thinking back to why I became vegetarian, and later vegan. It is something I get asked somewhat regularly, so I decided to try to explain it here.
I ate meat for most of my life, and love the taste of most meat and seafood. I became vegetarian in 2002, at age 25. It was not for health reasons, or because I dislike meat. And it wasn’t even that I didn’t think about the fact that meat came from animals — I remember liking to pretend I was a dinosaur ripping the flesh from my victims when I’d eat a drumstick. And I’m not talking about as a child — to this day when I eat broccoli I imagine myself as a brontosaurus (I don’t care if scientists say there’s no such dinosaur — in my world there is!) eating a tree. What? Everyone doesn’t do that? Well, they should. But I digress.
I’ve outlined the things which were NOT the reasons I became vegetarian. Why, then, did I do it? In my memory it came to me as an epiphany, but it could well have been something I slowly realized over a period of weeks — clarity of memory has never been my strong suit. I realized that if in order to eat meat, I had to kill and cut up the animal myself, I wouldn’t do it. Not because it would be gross — I’m sure it would be, but I’m a guy who loves horror movies. I can handle gross. It was because I wouldn’t want to have to kill a cow or a chicken or even a fish in order to eat it. I was someone who had always described myself as an animal lover, and I felt it was hypocritical of me to eat meat only because someone else did the killing and I didn’t have to see it. That’s what made me vegetarian.
Over the years, I’ve thought about this choice a lot. The more I thought about it, the more I believed this choice was necessary if I was to live consistently with my morals. Overlooking seafood for the moment, it is well known that chickens, turkey, cows, and pigs have some degree of intelligence and experience fear and pain. In fact, all evidence points to the fact that pigs are more intelligent than dogs. I knew I would be outraged if someone was mistreating their cat or dog, so why wouldn’t this equally apply to other animals? Why are certain animals exempt from animal cruelty laws? And this ties back into the blog entry mentioned earlier. I don’t understand how someone can saw it is morally wrong to mistreat a dog, but it is not morally wrong to mistreat a pig.
The more I thought about my decision to be vegetarian, and my ethics in general, I’ve come to realize that my philosophy is to do the least harm to the world. I’m pragmatic about it. If I find a live roach in my house, and if I am able to capture it before the cats eat it, then I’ll transport it outside. But if I find ants in my house, and if I can’t plug up whatever passage they’re using to get in, then I will use ant poison. I do my best to avoid any unnecessary harm, but it’s impossible to live without doing some harm.
But what about plants? Why is it not wrong to kill a plant? I’ve given this question some thought. First, if it were possible to somehow have a complete diet without killing any living things, that would be great. But as of now, that’s not possible. And I’m not some kind of martyr who would sooner die than kill a living thing. If I were in the wilderness and the only way to survive would be to kill and eat an animal, I would do it. And I understand there there may be some countries or cultures where it would be very difficult to be healthy and vegetarian/vegan, due to the availability or affordability of various food items. But for those of us living in America above the poverty line and with access to a grocery store, it is both affordable and practical to be vegetarian or vegan. But let’s get back to the original question — why kill plants? Ignoring the fact that in many cases you don’t have to kill a plant in order to eat its fruit, I return to my philosophy of least harm. Whether I am killing a plant or animal, in both cases I am killing a life. But in the case of a cow, for example, it can experience fear and pain. There’s no evidence to suggest that plants can experience those things. So to me, it is more harmful to kill the cow. And all the more so if it is a factory farmed cow, because then even it’s brief life is miserable.
Now that kind of implies that I’m valuing animals based on their intelligence, or the complexity of their brains and nervous systems. I think that’s true to an extent. I don’t think a cow is intrinsically “more valuable” than a clam, but I do think that a clam is not capable of experiencing anguish in the way that a cow is. Because of that, I think killing a cow is crueler. Especially, again, if we’re including its life prior to slaughter in a factory farm.
Okay, so why did I become vegan? As before, it wasn’t for health reasons, it was for ethical reasons. There were two main reasons. First, in general I feel that animals should be free to live their lives and they do not exist to serve humans. Second, the dairy and egg industries are every bit as cruel as the meat industries. Plus, the dairy industry directly supports the veal industry — veal would be much less affordable if it wasn’t essentially subsidized by the dairy industry. I slowly became aware of these things, and realized I had to become vegan in order to live consistently with my morals.
Having been vegan for over a year now, I’ve refined my beliefs a bit. People would ask me what I felt about keeping chickens as pets and eating their eggs. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I probably wouldn’t have a problem with this, provided the chickens were actually treated and cared for as beloved pets. After all, how could I justify keeping my cats imprisoned in my house, but then say it’s wrong to keep chickens? And if you’re keeping chickens, what is wrong with eating the unfertilized eggs? I don’t see that it’s in any way harming the chickens.
What about honey? This is one I need to give more thought. Specifically, do bees being used for honey have different quality of life from wild bees? It seems like it would largely be the same, apart from the fact that the hives are smoked in order to knock out the bees and get their honey. Is that painful/traumatic/whatever to the bees? I don’t know. And from what I recall, honey isn’t useful to the bees — it’s just kind of a byproduct. But now that I’m writing this, I seem to remember that royal jelly (also made by the bees) is something that humans harvest, and it IS something used by the bees. Do the humans take enough to hurt the bees? Anyway, this is the sort of thought process I go through when confronted with a question like this. For now I’m being fully vegan. In time I may make exceptions, such as the case of keeping chickens as pets.
Oh, and before I forget! Many people will assuage their consciences by buying eggs from “free range” chickens. Unfortunately, it’s very easy for farmers to call their chickens free range and still give them terrible lives. Personally I wouldn’t trust anything printed on a package — I’d want further evidence of how exactly the farm operates.
Okay, well, I’m all blogged out for now. Sorry if it got a bit rambly there at the end!