04 December 2003

Vegetarianism as a Lifelong Project

Suppose you believe that it's wrong to consume animal products. You yourself, let us suppose, are a vegan. What attitude should you take toward those who share your view but who continue to eat certain animal products? Should you be understanding and encouraging, or should you be judgmental? Should you chalk it up to moral weakness, or should you view it as perfidy and hypocrisy?

My interest in this question is partly philosophical and partly personal. I gave up red meat (i.e., all animal products except poultry, seafood, and eggs) on 11 February 1981. I had been raised with a traditional omnivorous diet and didn't want to eliminate all animal products at once. I knew that I would never backslide, and I haven't, but I wanted to work my way into vegetarianism gradually. Eventually I would become a vegan; it was only a matter of time.

It may sound funny, but I laid out a timetable for eliminating animal products from my diet. (I like to do things systematically.) At the end of 1981, I would give up turkey. I did. That left chicken, seafood, and eggs. (I'm allergic to dairy products, so that wasn't something to worry about.) The plan was to give up chicken the following year. Alas, I did not. I remained at this place until a couple of years ago, when I gave up chicken. I still get traces of chicken in various food products, such as ramen; but I don't eat any chicken flesh. I continue to eat seafood, however (such as tuna), and I still eat eggs, although I buy only eggs in cartons that read "From Free-Roaming Hens."

My dear friend and fellow blogger Mylan Engel has criticized me mercilessly for continuing to eat tuna and eggs. He says that even the eggs I buy bring pain, suffering, and death to chickens. I don't deny that. But I don't want to focus on that right now. I want to focus on whether it makes sense for someone like Mylan to praise someone like me. Admittedly, I don't live up to my principles; but am I not close, and doesn't that count for something? Am I not doing better than most others? Is it all or nothing? Are you either morally pure or no better than a carnivore?

Do you see the issue? My own view is that vegetarians and vegans should ease up. Every little bit helps. Vegetarianism comes easily to some people. They stop eating animal products cold turkey. (Sorry.) They go whole hog. (Sorry again.) But not everyone is as strong-willed as these individuals. For most people, dietary changes are the hardest changes to make. Most people, upon reaching adulthood, continue to eat (and enjoy) what they ate and enjoyed as children. If you developed a taste for meat growing up, not eating it (whether for health or for moral reasons) will be experienced as a loss.

Also, people need to learn how to make tasty, nutritious, filling vegetarian meals. This takes time. One needs to learn where to find the ingredients. More time. Vegetarianism is a lifelong project, not a decision. It is a way of working oneself pure over time. The key is not to backslide; but if you gradually eliminate certain animal products from your diet—whether by species or by food group (say, poultry)—you are on the right track. Even if you cut back on the amount of a particular animal product, without eliminating it entirely, you are making moral progress. Those who have gone further along the track than you should celebrate your progress and encourage you to continue. They should not badger you or make you feel bad for not being perfect.