I meet vegetarians almost every day. Some of my good friends are vegetarians. In fact, my wife is a vegetarian. While there is one good reason to be a vegetarian – the reason, conveniently, that my wife espouses, which I will explicate below, many of the other reasons are either inane, insensitive, overly subjective or not very well thought through. Accordingly, we will review some of the famous reasons to be a vegetarian and analyze each argument’s merit individually.
Religious: Rav Kook said that in messianic times, people will no longer eat meat. Offerings in the Third Temple will be vegetable based, so let’s be vegetarians now.
First, no where do we find that it is a virtue to live our lives in accordance with the prophetic expectations of the messianic era. No one puts their pet fox in the lamb’s pen, smartly. Second, there is no reason to believe that Rav Kook is correct. Putting aside that Maimonides writes in the last chapters of the Mishnah Torah that we have NO authoritative tradition of what will occur during the messianic time period, save certain generalizations, many people would claim that it is heretical to believe the Torah’s commandments will change then.
Pain: We ought not pain, stress or otherwise inconvenience animals unnecessarily. Apparently slaughtering them is one of the greatest inconveniences to their lives. Therefore, moral people ought to refrain from eating them.
The “pain” argument is one that humans are specifically attune to. In truth a large percentage of the human race, as well as many philosophers, define a ‘good’ day (or a ‘good’ life) by the avoidance of pain (in addition, sometimes, to the experiencing of pleasure). Accordingly, they superimpose that definition on the animal kingdom. If it is good enough for me, they reason, then it should also be good enough for animals, and equally apply to them. Accordingly, they feel, one may not kill animals. There are many underlying assumptions in this argument, but the one that is most fraught with philosophical haughtiness (1) is that human/animal pain is special, and therefore must be avoided more than others’ pains. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that plants HATE being killed. (2) I’ve never discussed this with a plant (or an animal for that matter, in the name of full disclosure), but I think it is a safe assumption. So, why would a vegetarian be more attune to the pain and suffering of an animal than that of a plant? Two reasons come to mind: it is more obvious (ie in your face), and the animals seem to feel the same pain I feel when I am pained. It is clear that these two reasons are self-serving, and do not exist in a vacuum. Indeed, it is not that we care about animals, but that we truly ONLY care about ourselves. Indeed, these vegetarians would reason: I can empathize with that pain, therefore I must try to stop it from ever occurring. Obviously, one should not make ethical decisions solely based on the fact that I can empathize with the event. If that were the case, depending on the level of empathy, a minority group could be thrown under the train tracks, and be excluded from enjoying the protections of a civilized society. Personally, I want all to feel the same care, understanding and sense of loss when they kill ANY living thing on earth. We ought to empathize with death in general. When one consumes meat or vegetables, s/he ought to care and understand that this thing has sacrificed its life in order to sustain my life: everything is part of Elton John’s ‘Circle of Life,’ not just the things I care about. If one does not feel comfortable with that fact, it is possible that s/he has chosen the wrong universe to take part of.
Experience: One ought only eat an animal if s/he kills it him/herself.
I see no merit in this argument. Should I only drive a car if I could build it? This argument is not one that modern economies can stomach easily. I think a really tough (and possibly abusive) parent thought of this once, and just went with it. Nonetheless, if one does see merit in this perspective, I encourage you to learn the laws of slaughtering, and slaughter the animal yourself. And, if that it too hard, there are bugs and fish that one can enjoy without performing the ritual of slaughtering.
Animals are treated inhumanely: hormones, poor living conditions, inefficiency, etc. By supporting the unethical treatment of animals, your actions just further this vicious cycle. Therefore, one has a moral obligation to refrain from eating meat.
I feel it makes sense to claim that one ought not support an inherently corrupt and evil enterprise (unless the good outweighs the bad). And, I think that we can all agree that one ought treat animals justly. In fact, Jews are enjoined not to pain animals unnecessarily. And, if one chooses not to support the meat industry because s/he believes that the industry is not doing enough to care for the well-being of the animal population, that is great. But, that does not mean that one ought to be a vegetarian. There are a ton of organic and “good” farms one can enjoy his/her meat from. Or, maybe it is time to start your own ‘ethical’ farm.
Health: It is healthier to practice vegetarianism.
In truth, this is not an argument for or against the consumption of animals, but that we ought to live a healthy lifestyle. I think that we can all agree to that, even if it involves eating a little red meat here and there.
Yucky: I feel meat is ‘yucky.’ Therefore, I’m a vegetarian.
This is quite the compelling argument. First, the argument is not universal; it solely applies to s/he that feels meat is ‘yucky.’ Second, most would agree that one ought to avoid yucky things in life, as long as it does not overly inconvenience one’s life. We still want people to change diapers, and doctors and nurses to do lots of yucky things to us, but regarding matters that ‘preference’ is involved, like the foods we consume, one ought to avoid the ‘yucky.’ Thank God I married the one opinion that makes sense and is ethical.
(1) AKA: wrong
(2) I’ve actually read an article on the topic where the author explains in detail how vegetables cringe and are pained by their removal from the ground/tree, but I cannot verify the accuracy of the article