A few weeks ago I spent some time browsing the books at one of my favourite book shops in Melbourne. One volume that caught my eye was a new work of philosophical essays by a well respected British philosopher. I cannot say that I remember his name, because in order to decide if I was interested in the book, I opened it randomly and began reading his essay on why everyone should be vegetarians, and was dismayed.
The book's cover had promised intelligent and well thought out discussions, what I found was an essay of superficial and somewhat vacuous arguments. His two points were: 1) we should not kill other living creatures, and 2) the processes by which meat is manufactured is gross. I am serious. He spent a great portion of his essay describing how entrails are removed, and explaining that meat is soft because it is putrefying.
I have to admit that my first reaction was: what a city kid! He is offering purely aesthetic reasons for dissuading people from eating meat, which could be equally applied to vegetables. I know, because that was my favourite trick at university cafeterias for getting other people's chocolate chip cookies: I would describe in detail how the various ingredients were made.
From both experience and a lot of thought I can come up with good reasons both for being a vegetarian, and for remaining omnivorous. The stance I have finally taken is one where I am mostly vegetarian.
I am not a medical doctor nor a medical researcher. So, I cannot give definitive reasons for any particular diet here. But I can speak from personal trial and error.
I have never been very fond of meat, and therefore had been heading towards vegetarianism just as soon as I left home. Between a largely vegetable diet and being underweight since I was a kid, I have frequently had doctors decide they needed to test my iron levels. The tests have always come back fine, and more than that, sometimes a little high.
However, my nutritional health became subject to close scrutiny when in one week I lost seven pounds without reducing my food intake. My doctor at the time decided that my body had given up on coping with some food item. After losing several more pounds and looking like death warmed over, we discovered that my body just did not like mammal meat; white or red meat made no difference, I became outright sick from eating mammals. Fish or fowl, on the otherhand, were fine. I then became a vegetarian in earnest, or rather a chicketarian, as my sister says.
You see, occasionally I crave chicken. I suppose being female, I do need the boost at that time of the month. So, my body was still wanting some of the benefits of meat. However, things did not end there. At the end of each of my university degrees I have had memory problems. I figured it was just intellectual burnout. Then I was clued into trying B complex vitamins. Like a miracle, my memory improved. Interestingly, I have since found various post-graduate students to whom I have recommended trying a B supplement have also had their memory improve. Certain B vitamins are most readily found in animal products and can be deficient in vegetarian diets. Lack of vitamins such as B12 can result in poor memory, amongst other symptoms.
In our mouths we have both canines and molars. Canines are the teeth that carnivores have. Molars are the teeth that vegetable eating mammals have. My understanding is that we have evolved in such a way that our bodies actually need a diversity of foods in order to be at optimal health. What particular selection can differ from race to race, and person to person. Yes, we can do some things in order to make a strictly vegetarian diet a healthy one, but maybe not always. For those who choose a vegetarian way of life, perhaps some flexibility and compassion is needed when examining other people's eating lifestyles.
The argument that says, we should all be vegetarians because to eat meat is cruelty to animals, concerned me for a long time. I have a great love of animals. I have a great love of compassion and ethics. What outlook on our relationship to animals would best serve our mutual needs, and benefit the planet?
I do not see myself as separate from the animal kingdom. I may be the most sapient animal on the planet, but I am still a mammalian creature. Animals eat other animals. Because humanity has a certain amount of awareness, we are in a position whereby we can choose what we will eat, and thereby choose not to eat other animals. But the question remains then, is it cruel for animals to be eating animals? Do we judge lions, wolves, dolphins, whales, etc. for eating gazelle, rabbits, minnows, seals, etc.? People have long killed other carnivores simply for being carnivorous, but carnivores too are a part of the ecosystem and have a role to play in its health. I suppose the more basic question that we are dealing with here would be: Is death cruel?
Death is a necessary part of life at all levels. The death and decomposition of leaves provides nutrients for the grass to grow, grass dies in being eaten by a deer so that it may live, the death of the deer in being eaten by a wolf helps the wolf to live, the death of the wolf creates decayed matter that grass can grow upon. Death in and of itself is not cruel, though it frightens creatures who can be aware of an ending to their existence. Creating unnecessary pain is cruel.
I do not have a problem with eating meat because an animal has died. I do have a problem with animals being raised and killed in a distressing and painful manner, such as when they are kept in battery farms. I have problems with using the animal wastefully by perhaps raising an animal only for its skin, then throwing away the rest. I also have problems with feeding and injecting animals with chemicals that can damage the animal's health, my health, and the health of the ecosystem. I believe that if we give an animal a good life, kill the animal such that it experiences little to no pain or fear, use all of the animal, then we are proving ourselves to be thoughtful, maybe even compassionate omnivores.
With this outlook I would still draw the line at which animals I feel are acceptable and unacceptable to eat. I find it unacceptable to eat animals which are scarce, perhaps even endangered. This is why even though I can physically eat fish, given how over-fished the ocean is, I try to keep my intake of these animals to the absolute minimum. When I do eat fish I choose only farmed fish, such as trout or salmon. I find it unacceptable to eat animals who are raised to the significant damage of a local ecosystem. In Australia rabbits were released to create an easy food source in the outback. They soon became a plague damaging native flora and fauna wherever they took hold. I worry about some of the new genetically modified plants and animals having the potential for similar damage, given how poorly tested they have been. I find it unacceptable to eat or even use in certain ways animals who have evolved sapience.
All animals are sentient, meaning aware; it is one of the defining characteristics between plants and animals. Not all animals are sapient, meaning self aware. For a long time we considered ourselves, "Homo sapiens", separate from the animal kingdom precisely because of our sapience, but it is becoming clear that other animals share this characteristic--though maybe not to the same degree as ourselves. Certain apes, whales, dolphins, and elephants have demonstrated a degree of self awareness, often equivalent to ourselves at various stages of childhood. If we believe our children should be given certain specific rights, then these animals should be extended those same rights. When an animal is only sentient, then I feel we can deal with that animal as part of a group, and should consider the welfare of the group when using that animal in any way. When an animal is sapient, we need to deal with that animal on an individual basis, taking into consideration each animal's individual wants and needs.
Sheer human volume I feel is the best argument for vegetarianism. As a species we have become too successful in our breeding and survival rates, and must now tread the earth carefully so as to preserve resources, and keep from eventually wiping ourselves out through starvation, global warming, and the like. Raising a field of cattle uses up many resources without producing as much food as say a field of rye. I remember as a child people would have a Sunday roast, then eat meat leftovers for the rest of the week. These days people have bacon and eggs for breakfast, a hamburger for lunch, then a steak and two vegetable dinner. This sort of diet puts a lot of strain on the environment and isn't even that healthy.
Vegetarianism can certainly help in this arena.What would help even more is sharing some of those vegetables with the rest of the world. When people feel secure that their basic needs are and will be met, they tend not to have as many children. When people are better educated, they also tend to have fewer children. Save the environment by saving and educating ourselves. This is a significant step amongst many we can take.
I find the politics of eating can be volatile at times. People are often dogmatic about their positions concerning vegetarianism vs. meat eating. As such the extremes get better representation than a moderate position which might have enough appeal to be effective in bringing about lasting positive change. I trust that my thoughts and experiences here will help people to consider such a position.
Copyright © 26 February 2003, Katherine Phelps