I realize that most people aren’t vegetarian. And I realize that most people don’t seem comfortable engaging in self-reflection and questioning their own beliefs and figuring out if their actions are consistent with their beliefs, etc. That said, it still surprises me a little bit when I hear people say why they aren’t vegetarian. Wait — “surprise” isn’t the right word. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that it bugs me. Why? Welcome to the subject of this post.
Well, first of all, many people do feel compelled to say “I could never be vegetarian because _____”. To me this implies that on some level they either want to be vegetarian or feel that it’s the “right” thing to do or that they should do it or whatever. I mean, I’m not talking about people who say this in response to someone asking them “Why aren’t you vegetarian?”. I mean, for example, people often write those sentences in their OKCupid profiles in the “What are your favorite foods” section. Nobody mentioned vegetarianism specifically until they brought it up. In the “what am I doing with my life” section I don’t write things like “I could never be a pedophile because those clumsy kids always drop their candy bars on the upholstery in my car.” People do write things like “I can’t go to the gym as much as I’d like because I’m just so busy.” The implication being that of course we all should go to the gym regularly and it’s the right thing to do, so one feels compelled to explain why they do not. So it’s weird to me that a lot of people (at least as far as I can see) look at vegetarianism the same way. Like they need to give an excuse for why they aren’t one. And that brings me to the bulk of my post…
They are almost always giving excuses. I can’t remember anyone ever writing “I am not vegetarian because I feel my desires are more important than the lives, emotions, and pain of animals.” Or “I am not vegetarian because I believe I am higher on the food chain — if I am able to make you my prey, then I don’t think it’s wrong to do so.” Instead they make the same kind of excuses as the dude who doesn’t go to the gym. Sure, we’re all busy, but if it’s important enough to me, then I’ll make time to go to the gym. I’ll figure something out. The reason I don’t go is because there are other things that are more important to me. Plus I’m lazy.
One excuse I hear a lot is “I could never be vegetarian because I love bacon too much.” To me that implies that the person thus eats no meat other than bacon, since obviously that’s the one thing stopping them. However, that never turns out to be the case. They just eat meat indiscriminately, using bacon as their excuse. It’s like saying “I could never be a law-abiding citizen because I like to speed” and then using that as a justification to commit arson. Obviously there’s more going on here than just a love of bacon.
That last one is really a more specific version of the most common excuse I see, which is “I could never be vegetarian because I like meat.” Oh really? I’ve got news for this person. I *love* the taste of most meat (and seafood) (and cheese) (and eggs) (and cream). It’s true there are vegetarians and vegans who give these things up because they don’t like them, or they give them up for ethical reasons but never liked them that much anyway. But there are plenty of us for whom that’s not the case. Liking meat (even really loving the taste, as is the case with me) does not compel one to eat it. I really love having sex with women. This does not make me decide to rape them. Or even just have sex indiscriminately with any woman who is willing. Human beings are able to make choices, even when those choices may conflict with their desires. People who make these excuses (both this one and the bacon one) are essentially saying that their enjoyment of the taste of meat is so important to them that they don’t mind the fact that animals are tortured, live lives of pain and terror and sadness and fear, and are ultimately killed in order to provide them with this taste experience. Although I don’t think most folks actually think that through. Otherwise they could just write that down (or perhaps a version which is sanitized and lets them feel better about it) rather than the excuse that liking meat somehow renders them unable to be vegetarian.
Another common excuse: “I want to be vegetarian but it’s just too hard.” Jesus Christ, seriously? First, since I most often run into this stuff on OKCupid, and since I tend to browse folks who live near me, then much of the time the people writing this live in Austin. And I cannot imagine a place on earth where it is easier to be vegetarian than Austin. Every grocery story has tons of vegetarian options, and almost every restaurant does as well. There are plenty of vegetarian-only restaurants. There are numerous social groups of fellow vegetarians who meet to try restaurants, share recipes, have potlucks, or just socialize. Anyone who actually wants to be vegetarian in Austin and finds it too difficult…well, I have a very hard time believing it. That to me sounds like they don’t want to be vegetarian very badly. Easier just to ignore the pain, suffering, and killing of the animals. And even if you don’t have the fortune of living in Austin, it’s still pretty easy in most of America. My mom lives in rural east Texas, and even her grocery store has enough vegan and vegetarian options that I can eat a good variety while I am there. The restaurants have sufficient vegetarian options, but being vegan would be a bit more challenging out there when it comes to restaurants. But if we’re just talking about being vegetarian, I fail to see how anyone in the first world who wants to do it would be unable to do it.
I think I’ve covered the excuses I run into the most. I know there are others. And they all bug me. If you are going to decide to eat meat, then own the decision. Don’t act like you’re doing it because you have to, because you *couldn’t* be vegetarian. Yes, you could, and you are choosing not to. Ask yourself why you are making that choice, find out if it conflicts with your beliefs. If you think it’s wrong to kill a pet dog, then why is that wrong but not what the meat industry does? If you think it’s wrong to hunt for sport (or wrong to hunt at all), then why is that wrong but not the meat industry? Or, for that matter, forget the meat industry. Why is it wrong to kill a pet dog but not wrong for a farmer to kill a pig — a pig which is more intelligent than that dog, and is capable of the same pain and range of emotions? Everyone will (and should) make their own choices about how they will live their lives. But they should be deliberate choices, not unthinking ones or ones justified by feeble excuses.
June 21, 2011 at 8:44 am
I have been a vegetarian for about 10 years now. I find that most people are far more concerned with me being a vegetarian than I am. When we go places, they worry that there will be an option for me but I assure them that almost anywhere I go, I will be able to find food. It isn’t hard at all if you try at all.
I also have friends that feel the need to tell me every time they haven’t had meat for more than 4 days at a time. I always congratulate them and am very supportive… but what is that about? Is this their way of not feeling guilty or something?
PS: Have you been to the Spiral Diner in either Fort Worth or Dallas? I am from Fort Worth and go every chance I get when I am up there. It is my little slice of Austin in North Texas. :)
January 9, 2013 at 4:24 pm
I have not been to the Spiral Diner, but I will definitely check it out next time I am up there!
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November 28, 2011 at 11:06 am
I’ve heard a lot of things like, “I could never be vegan because I love cheese too much.” I always reply, “Then give up all animal products BUT cheese.” And of course they don’t. Sometimes I get a laugh, like they think I was joking. Or perhaps their laughter is an attempt to diffuse the guilt they’re trying really hard not to think about and feel.
January 9, 2013 at 3:04 pm
Lol, I think you sincerely overestimate this guilt you think we feel :) if I felt guilty about eating meat, I wouldn’t. But I don’t.
January 9, 2013 at 4:23 pm
I don’t think Andrea or I were implying that everyone feels that guilt. At least in my case, I was talking specifically about people who say things like “I couldn’t be vegan because I love cheese” — especially when they volunteer this information out of the blue, not when someone asks them about veganism. I think that sort of behavior implies there is some underlying feeling that they SHOULD be vegan or vegetarian, and they feel the need to justify why they are not. Obviously if someone is asked directly why they are not vegetarian, then I can see where they might get defensive and say something like that. But my post was really talking about dating sites, where the people are just asked a generic question like “What is your favorite food?”. If their response to that includes “I could never be vegetarian because I love bacon”, then it makes me wonder what motivated them to say that. People don’t make comments like that about dietary habits that they don’t think they should be following anyway, at least in my experience.
February 8, 2013 at 3:49 pm
Fair point, and after watching several documentaries and reading Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” I am definitely coming around to your view of “do no harm.”
My new question is: do you believe it is okay to purchase and consume dairy and egg products that aren’t a part of the industrial food process? Dairy cows that are actually allowed to graze, not over-milked, and chickens that are pasture-farmed and allowed to lay comfortably?
I realize the inevitable harvesting of these animals for food may present a problem, but what if I bought a cow and some chickens and kept them as pets that I milked and collected eggs from, never to be consumed as meat? I know I’m splitting hairs, and I’m totally doing it deliberately, because I’m still finding my way through the ethics of eating.
February 8, 2013 at 7:20 pm
Thanks for the comment. You pose a good question, and one that I’ve also pondered. My answer is actually different for cows and chickens.
In the case of cows, they aren’t going to give milk unless they give birth to a calf. You can keep them producing milk for a while after the calf is born, although if you are going to allow the calf to drink what it needs, then you’ll be cutting into the milk you’d end up getting. But ultimately you would either need to keep getting the cow pregnant, or you would need to try to artificially keep the cow producing milk indefinitely. In the former case, you’d quickly end up with a lot of cows, and that’s not really sustainable in the long term (if you are trying to let them all live out their natural lives in comfort). But regardless, I am not comfortable with the idea of making the cow produce milk and continue to produce milk well beyond what it normally would be doing. I don’t know whether or not that is a pleasant experience for a cow, but it does seem to be putting them through something just because it benefits me, without considering whether it’s good for them or pleasant for them. So when it comes to dairy, I wouldn’t think it’s okay even under the circumstances you describe.
For chickens, they are going to lay eggs regardless of what you do. You don’t have to make them do it. And if the eggs don’t get fertilized, then they won’t turn into baby chickens. I don’t think you are doing the chickens any harm by taking the eggs before they can get fertilized (and much like with spaying/neutering of other pets, it allows you to prevent their population from growing too large). So in the case of chickens, as long as you are treating them like a beloved pet, meeting their needs, treating them with respect, giving them veterinary care, etc, then I don’t have any ethical objection to eating their eggs. Ultimately this seems very similar to me to having a pet cat or dog. You’re taking their love and affection and companionship, and you’re giving them the best life that you can. And if I could take their shedded cat fur and use it to my benefit, I wouldn’t object to that either.
I think in an ideal world I like the idea that every animal would be allowed to pursue its own destiny and given free choice, but I don’t think that’s realistic in the world today. To some extent humans need to be stewards for animals, because we are part of the reason the world is a lot more dangerous for them than it used to be. And because we have the ability to make moral decisions in a way that most animals cannot. So if we’re trying to do minimal harm in the world and if we’re trying to make life as good as possible for our fellow thinking/feeling creatures, then I don’t think there’s any problem with also getting a benefit from it, provided it’s not at the expense of what’s best for the animal. So for cows, I think the idea of keeping them perpetually pregnant and/or producing milk is something you are doing not with the animal’s best interest at heart, whereas the chicken is going to produce eggs either way, and there is a real reason why it’s not desirable to allow them to get fertilized most of the time.
Does that make sense? This is a subject I still ponder frequently — I’m curious to know your thoughts on it.
February 10, 2013 at 12:27 am
Aha! I completely forgot about the necessity of calving or hormones to keep a cow producing milk. I do agree that there is an ethical conflict there. You know, that and, we’re humans. We’re not really meant to drink milk from cows, or any at all after, what? A year or so? Perhaps I’ll switch back to soy, I recently found out that you can use it for baking, so I see no reason to continue to buy milk.
I also saw a documentary (I think it was Veducated?) where it explained that the dairy industry supports the veal industry (all those cow pregnancies you described, apparently) which was like a punch in the gut. The moment I found out what veal was, I believe I was around 12, I vowed never to eat it again, and haven’t, and haven’t missed it, as much as I used to love it. Now, knowing how much I’m contributing to the veal industry with all the milk, cheese, yogurt, sour cream, and butter I eat… 8[
I was hoping there was a good vegan cheese substitute, but from what I’ve read, nothing really compares. Have you found anything? Is it just something you have to get used to? I don’t know, I think quitting smoking will have been easier than trying to quit cheese…
For a while, I thought maybe I would be okay with purchasing meat and dairy from a local farmer, who lets his animals do what comes naturally to them until it was time to slaughter and eat them, but then I realized that even if they’ve lived a “good life,” I still can’t handle the thought of them being strung up and killed :/ I freak out and cry if my dog yelps, why should any other animal be any different?
Finally, I’m REALLY worried. I am currently engaged to an avid meat eater, whom I’ve already told there will be no beef in the house, so if he wants it, he has to get it at lunch or order it when we go out to eat. I can’t IMAGINE saying “oh, by the way, no meat, no cheese, none of that.” I am genuinely concerned that he would ask for the ring back, and leave me. Is it possible to cohabitate with someone who isn’t vegan? Is being a vegan more important that a 4 1/2 year relationship? I do believe that if he REALLY thought about it, and read and learned about the current American food system, he would change, but he DOESN’T think about it, because he doesn’t WANT to. I’ve told him some of the things I’ve learned recently, and he stops for a moment, ponders, agrees that it sucks, and then orders steak (seriously, this happened last night). I just don’t know if I can detach myself from my food like that anymore…
February 11, 2013 at 4:48 pm
Yeah, a lot of people don’t realize that veal would be much more expensive if the dairy industry did not exist. In terms of vegan cheese, I’ve found that Daiya brand is the best widely-available option. The taste and consistency and meltiness (which I assume is a word) are all very cheesular (also totally a word). But I will also say that I really thought it would be difficult to give up cheese, and it turned out to be not very difficult. I thought I’d be craving it a lot, but it didn’t turn out that way. I do think that even if you do crave it at first, it is something that wanes over time, just like giving up any deeply-ingrained habit.
Your concerns about your relationship are ones which hit close to home for me. Even after I became vegetarian, and later vegan, I dated people who ate meat. But it increasingly bothered me, because on many levels they seemed to truly love animals, but that love didn’t extend to being willing to change their habits or lifestyle. It was exactly like you describe with your fiance — they would usually agree with my logic, but would still go on eating their regular diet. At most they would offer a rationalization, talking about humane farming (even though they’d still order meat at restaurants without making any effort to determine the origin of the meat), an individual not making a difference, etc — the usual arguments.
In my case, I eventually decided that not only would I only get into a relationship with fellow vegans/vegetarians, but also only ones whose dietary choice was an ethical decision. If they were veggie for health reasons, then I’d worry that they’d change at some point, since you can be healthy and not be vegan or vegetarian (all other things being equal, I do think veggie is healthier, but you can be healthy non-veggie and you can be unhealthy veggie). And I didn’t want to get into a relationship with someone who would be willing to “convert” to being veggie for me. The main reason is that for me personally, I really want to be with someone who embraces the “be compassionate and do the least harm” philosophy, and I think being veggie is a pretty natural consequence of that. And of course if they weren’t veggie because they wanted to be, then there’s every chance that they’d not want to keep it up after a while. But perhaps most of all, I think ultimatums in relationships have a great risk of leading to resentment. I didn’t want someone to feel like I had made them do something that they didn’t want to do. It seemed like that could cause problems down the line.
So that’s not a very encouraging response about your concerns with your relationship. :( But I don’t think it’s hopeless. A few things to consider:
– If you truly think that he has the same fundamental values that you do, then there is a good chance that given enough time, he may come around to your way of thinking. For example, consider many of the discussions that you and I have had about the ethics of eating animals. Your views have changed a lot. And the same thing happened with me — I ate meat well into adulthood before I had given it enough thought and started making changes. You are an intelligent, compassionate, and thoughtful person, so it seems likely that these traits are also present in your partner. Given time and patience and not too much pressure, he may make the change on his own. In terms of the marriage and giving the ring back, you could consider indefinitely delaying the marriage itself. Remain engaged and see what happens. Talk to him about this, but not as an ultimatum. Give him space to think it through himself, but make sure he knows it’s very very important to you. I think there’s a good chance he may start down the road to being veggie.
– Even if you do go down the road of essentially issuing an ultimatum, it’s possible that it wouldn’t be disastrous. If you two are good at communicating, then you could hopefully work through any conflicts that arise from this. It may not be easy, but I think that if two people love each other and are willing to communicate openly and honestly, then they can get past a lot of obstacles.
– It is always weird to me, but a lot of ethical veggie folks end up in long-term relationships with non-veggies. I’m not sure how they reconcile it in their minds, but they do it. I think some people decide that they can be a good influence that way, by setting an example, and hoping that if nothing else they will reduce the meat intake of their partner. I know that for me personally, I’d have a very hard time doing this, but I also know that a lot of people do it.
– Finally, you’re still very young, and there are a lot of people out there. If this ethical value is very important to you, and if it’s not something that will work in your relationship, then it’s very sad and unfortunate, but a lot of relationships end not because of lack of love, but because of sad, stupid incompatibilities. My last serious relationship ended even though we both loved each other and wanted it to work, but we just did not work together. Now I’m very happy in a new relationship with a woman who, although I do not believe in soul mates, almost makes me reconsider that position. So if your relationship does end, it may seem like you won’t find something that good again, but chances are you would meet someone who makes you wonder how you ever were with anyone else.