Why am I not a vegetarian?

It’s a serious question. I seem like just the kind of person who would be vegetarian, demographically speaking. I’ve even gone through periods of my life where I was functionally vegetarian much of the time and could easily have made the transition. Why not, then? Do I have a principled reason, or just a series of post-hoc rationalizations? Or is it something in between, something in my temperament that makes me resist taking the plunge?

First possible reason: a general distrust of very abstract moral principles, such as a blanket prohibition on “killing.” As I sometimes discuss despite the horrifying comment threads it generates, I am pro-choice and find it hard to get worked up about consciously choosing to terminate a pregnancy given the many ways in which pregnancies terminate themselves. I can see a desire to regulate late-term abortions, but a sensible regulatory regime would basically track with most people’s moral intuitions and hence would likely be redundant — in any case, I trust individual women to make the call more than I do our corrupt political elites. Yet I am not a cafeteria anti-Catholic here. I embrace a seamless ethic of death, in that I do not in principle oppose the death penalty. I don’t trust the American judicial system to administer it fairly, and so as a prudential measure I would support abolishing it in America. But there are some things you do and you don’t get to come back from, in my view. So basically, I’m not going to be convinced by the argument that we shouldn’t eat meat because it involves killing something.

Another reason: a distrust of ethical consumer choices. Yes, factory farming is an abomination. If there were laws proposing to outlaw it, I would support those laws, regardless of their effect on the cost or availability of meat. In the meantime, I purchase organic meat when possible. Yet I just don’t have it in me to make a big deal out of it or insist on it, just like I don’t have it in me to move heaven and earth to make sure my garbage is recycled. I make my token gesture, but systemic problems have systemic solutions. I’m part of the society in which I live, and no amount of ritualistic keeping my hands clean is going to change anything.

It’s not as though those abstract arguments are what’s really at stake in my everyday life. There are dispositional issues, probably stemming largely from the trauma of an evangelical upbringing. I have an aversion to asceticism in general, because my life is already so abstemious that giving up small indulgences seems a little too sad. I don’t want to choke down some joyless “vegetarian option” every day for the rest of my life. Maybe at home or with packed lunches I can be purely utilitarian, but if I’m going to a restaurant, I want to really enjoy it. And frankly, there are key vegetables that I deeply dislike. The texture of tomatoes, both cooked and uncooked, repulses me. Bell peppers are another stumbling block, as are cucumbers. I’ve tried to train myself to like all of them, and I’ve failed.

I also don’t want to be a pain in the ass for hosts. I don’t want to constrain the choice of meal someone can prepare me in their home or the choice of restaurant. This is one key principle from Pauline Christianity on which I will not budge: always be a good guest, always accept what’s put before you. I don’t want them to experience my dietary preference as a moral judgment on them — which will likely happen at least sometimes, whether I intend it that way or not. It’s not as though they or I can do anything about the system of food production, so why create bad feelings?

Yet is there even a desire for transgression at work? I eat hot dogs (primarily on American “grilling out” holidays) and fast food (above all when on road trips). I tried the McRib once, within the last couple years. I cultivate omnivorism, even going out of my way to get organ meat when it’s on the menu. I eat veal on occasion. I’ve eaten steak tartare in front of vegans, not thinking about the fact that they may be grossed out (something I would not repeat now that I realize that). I make at least as many token gestures against ethical food consumption as I do toward it.

But is that really what’s at stake here? For various reasons, hot dogs are comfort food for me — I was often left to fend for myself at dinner time, and they were among the easy options that my mom always kept in stock. And as for trying everything, I was often made fun of for repeating the same order at restaurants, and so I cultivated a habit of finding the least “boring” thing in order to avoid all criticism.

Does this add up to anything? Probably not. I know I’m not addressing the arguments in favor of vegetarianism or veganism in their strongest form by any means, but I don’t think that abstract discursive arguments are really what’s at stake at the intimate level of something like how you eat. For me, it seems like becoming a vegetarian would mean changing into a different kind of person, and I don’t want to make that particular change. Maybe something will happen to make that change plausible and even urgent at a gut level, but it hasn’t happened yet.

15 Responses to “Why am I not a vegetarian?”

  1. Sofia Says:

    Wrong assumption that you don’t have an effect on food industry. You- as all the people in the world with acquisitive power- have the control over it. If you demand it, you get it. Basic principle about consumption (economic laws)
    And about the system, wrong again. You are part of the system, your behavior helps reproduce it. Saying you don’t have power in it is just a belief so you don’t try to change it.

  2. mattintoledo Says:

    I gave up pork for logically flawed, probably kind of silly personal reasons and I really relate to not wanting to be a bad guest. It rarely comes up, but there have been a few times (e.g. a friend’s dad’s funeral luncheon, surprise visit to my brother’s) where not eating pork would’ve been conspicuous and made people feel bad. Instead of making a fuss or insisting I didn’t mind eating a comically small dinner, I just ate the damn pork.

    My wife and I have talked about going vegetarian and I think if we do, I may just tell people it’s for health reasons. That way, the two or three times a year it’s an issue, if there isn’t a vegetarian option, it’ll be the same thing. We’ll just eat our dinner and nobody will feel the need to apologize profusely.

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    That’s insane. The market doesn’t read all our minds and give us what we want. There are plenty of unmet consumer “demands” out there.

  4. gerrycanavan Says:

    I more or less agree with you; I’ve always felt I was a vegetarian first and then cast about for a reason. That said, though, I think “a general distrust of very abstract moral principles, such as a blanket prohibition on ‘killing'” is ether a strawman proposition or an ad hoc ethical proposition that doesn’t really scale beyond this particular case.

    If we reframe the question as “don’t cause beings that can feel pain pain when you don’t have to*” — which seems to me has got to be a, if not *the*, core proposition of ethical reasoning — it seems like something like vegetarianism has got to be morally obligatory if you can afford it and if your food ecosystem can provide you with a full diet that way. Coetzee’s THE LIVES OF ANIMALS has always spoken to me in this way.


    * Obviously that “have to” is something we can argue about. My personal standard is pretty low: I wear leather belts and shoes because I think the alternatives look terrible. I don’t make a scene at parties if I discover I’ve accidentally been served meat. But in general, on a day-to-day level, even given that low bar it’s hard for me to say that anyone middle-class in our pre-apocalyptic America “has to” purchase and consume meat. On an abstract level a lazy, inconsistent vegetarianism seems the bare minimum to me given any interest in the pain of animals at all, though again I was already there on the gut level of revulsion so perhaps I ought to check my instinctual moral privilege.

  5. gerrycanavan Says:

    One more thing that occurs to me: If “flexitarian” had been a recognizable “personal brand” when I made the switch at 18 in the late 1990s I think I might have preferred to have done that instead. But maybe the gut-level revulsion issue would have overrun my pragmatism even then.

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I like the concept of “checking your instinctual moral privilege.” You have to recognize that you just were a better person out of the gate and not everyone has that advantage!

  7. Alex Says:

    Though a signed up vegetarian, I have always thought the point about consumer boycott was a strong argument against the stance as a shining moral principle and form of political reasoning. A vegetarian/vegan lifestyle for the most part seems in this mode – that though I have personally not eaten meat, it doesn’t seem clear to me how I have prevented a single animal death.

    For what it is worth I used to find the hospitality argument fairly interesting at least, but I’ve now come to the view that there is something a bit sick about accepting all a host’s customs when you have such a strong disagreement – one can easily take it to extreme examples about what a guest might be led to accept that I won’t bore you with here. I think the moral condemnation of the habits of a meat eater is inevitable with any normative stance when encountering a person that does not share them.

  8. V. David James Says:

    Enjoyed this post! Rarely have I read something that mirrored my thoughts (cognitive and affective) on a set of topics in so exact a manner, right down to the traumatic evangelical upbringing as a signal influence.The only thing that I would add about vegetarianism, and “organic” for that matter, is that they are also for the most part privileged choices of a certain class. It’s much easier to be a “beautiful soul” when your pockets are full and your retirement comfortably secure.

  9. Erasmuslijn Says:

    I’m going to attempt to distinguish between “liberal vegetarianism” and “radical vegetarianism.” This is because I concur with your refutations of certain weak arguments in favor of abstaining from meat but want to draw your attention to the stronger ones.

    The liberal strain is the one you note that’s concerned above all else with asceticism, personal purity, and “keeping one’s hands clean.” It’s what gets manifested in, say, PETA’s recurring practice of putting down women or PoC in their quest to assert their righteousness. LV’s may indeed minimize their carbon footprint or complicity in factory farming, but they’re largely acting as individuals for their own benefit and nothing more.

    Radical vegetarianism, I would argue, is more about acknowledging the heavy politicization of our food and eating habits and finding opposition to the mainstream politics as a worthwhile anti-capitalist commitment. Foregoing meat while enjoying meals with friends and loved ones become opportunities to discuss the dynamics that make a Big Mac cheaper than a salad, our chicken so full of antibiotics, our corn going to cows instead of the starving third world, and so on (no preaching required – most veg*ns can confirm that other people start these conversation all the time). The cruelty needed to let factory farming exist is much like the cruelty needed to let labor exploitation exist – it’s framed as immutably natural and it resists examination whenever possible. If you’re at all interested in the ruthless critique of all that exists, food is (sorry) not off the table.

    Our first world eating habits, as you know, are disastrous in many ways. The poor are afflicted with the worst health conditions because a number of influences has made it so meat, corn, and sugar are the only cheap and widely available foods. The answer is not with the myopic LV who insists on, say, shaming poor people for eating at McDonald’s, but with the RV arguing that we need to build alternatives. Telling off LV’s for shaming poorer consumers only does them half a service – they don’t need to be scolded for their material condition, yes, but if they’re still doomed to eat their way to heart disease and death at 60, what is the point of winning that argument?

    Anarchist gardening projects have demonstrated the potential for sustainable and autonomous “direct action” that has the added bonus of being healthy and fun. Showing the people at your dinner table that another way of living is possible, and that you care enough about them to struggle for it, is an act of solidarity. If you are privileged enough to afford it, it’s worth the trouble.

    You can say that meals are beyond politics or that ideology can be set aside in the case of visiting people at their homes, but I will close by pointing out that “always be a good guest” might qualify as one of those abstract moral principals that you feel deserves so much skepticism.

  10. M. Says:

    It’s a strategy.
    “Do I wish to deploy this strategy right now, Y/N?”
    Whenever I think of things in terms of ‘I should/will/could/must do this with my life’, it is likely to fail, and very often I will come to sabotage the decision, actively, gleefully.

  11. mijnheer Says:

    You’ve given a series of really lame excuses for not becoming vegetarian (try replacing “animals” with “women” or “black people”, or “animal flesh” with “human flesh”) — unless you simply believe that the lives and sufferings of animals count very little, morally speaking. And if that is indeed what you believe, then you have failed to tell us why the lives and sufferings of animals count for so little. (In particular, you have failed to address what is called “the argument from marginal cases”.) I am always amazed (or at least I used to be) at how the critical faculties of even very bright people desert them when the topic of giving up meat arises.

  12. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Does the proper use of one’s “critical faculties” include obviously begging the question like you do in your first parenthetical?

  13. mijnheer Says:

    Hi. I might be begging the question if I had not added the part of the sentence that begins with “unless”. Perhaps I should have been more diplomatic, and simply said that your argument seems incomplete as it stands.

  14. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m surprised you even regard it as an “argument” in the first place. The whole point is that I don’t think abstract discursive arguments are decisive in this kind of question — and as such, I would dismiss the “argument from marginal cases” as a clever conceptual trap that very clearly lacks the kind of force that would make someone feel constrained to change their life in a significant way.

  15. Marvin Lindsay (@lindsay_marvin) Says:

    Gratitude > asceticism. I’m sort of ashamed of the demands I put on my hosts a decade ago when I asked not to be served meat.


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