27 December 2003

Becoming a Vegetarian (or Demi-Vegetarian)

I stopped eating red meat (i.e., all animal products except turkey, chicken, fish, and eggs) on 11 February 1981, when I was twenty-three years old. I was in law school at the time, hence cooking my own meals. Something happened while I was reading Peter Singer's 1975 book Animal Liberation. I can't say that Singer persuaded me, rationally. It was more like he emboldened me or gave me permission to change my diet. I had always loved animals and felt uncomfortable about eating their flesh, but I didn't know anyone who was a vegetarian and thought I'd be viewed by my family and friends as a crank. My family had always eaten meat, and still does.

As I read Singer, I kept thinking, "Here's someone who is extremely intelligent and who thinks it's wrong to eat meat." I also liked the fact that Singer made no appeal to emotion or sentiment. He was a hard-headed, factually grounded philosopher. Singer became my model and my inspiration. However much I was mocked by family and friends for giving up red meat, I would know that Singer, at least, was on my side. This may seem silly to some, but it's hard for young people (I consider twenty-three young) to take moral stands by themselves. Young people are herd animals. I knew that becoming a vegetarian would require vast changes in my life. I would have to learn how to cook. I would have to learn about nutrition. I would have to adjust my social life. How do you say to a host, without seeming rude or boastful, that you don't eat meat?

As I explain to my students when I lecture on Singer, a decision to become a vegetarian doesn't change one's tastes or desires all of a sudden. For some time prior to giving up red meat, I had stopped at a Burger King outside Flint, Michigan, on my way home from college classes. I always bought a hamburger and a cup of coffee for the long drive to Vassar. It was part of my routine. Once I stopped eating red meat, I had no reason to stop at Burger King. For a long time thereafter, I missed stopping there and missed the taste of the hamburger. Driving by was a forlorn event. Meanwhile, my mother continued cooking meat for my family. I enjoyed the smell and secretly wished I could eat what she cooked. The point is, I still craved meat after I gave it up. This must be counted as a cost of becoming a vegetarian.

But eventually, to my surprise, my affect caught up with my will. I found, as time went by, that I no longer craved meat. I became indifferent to it. And then, miracle of miracles, I came to be disgusted by it. To this day, I cannot watch television advertisements showing frying or broiling hamburgers, with grease dripping from them. It sickens me. Nor can I look at raw meat being sliced. It's interesting how the various parts of the self strive for integration. My moral beliefs (cognition), my volition, my affect, and my conative or desiring side have reintegrated themselves. I assume this happens to others and not just to me. So if you're contemplating becoming a vegetarian, or just giving up red meat (as I initially did), don't fear that you'll be gustatorily frustrated for the rest of your life. You'll probably be frustrated for a while, and may even curse your decision from time to time, but eventually you'll feel integrated again. It's a wonderful, liberating feeling.