Thoughts on Food from an Ethical Vegetarian

I realized that as a vegetarian, my brain was wired differently when I first got into an argument with someone over dinner about capital punishment.

“You support murdering people?” that person demanded, “that’s inhuman. How could you have so little value for life? I can’t understand that perspective.”

I’m the one with no value for life?” I retorted, “how could you say that? Your plate is a death penalty!”

We both looked down. He had a bowl of Korean beef rice before him. I suppose most people would call my reply a logical fallacy of some sorts but to an individual like me, who’s vegetarian for ethical reasons and believes that animal and human lives hold about the same value in comparison to each other, such a split in logic feels so impossible to reconcile that it’s practically illogical. My friend didn’t understand how a human could be in favor of killing another human. I didn’t understand how a human could happily slaughter innocent animals in their childhood, but stand against eliminating adult murders and rapists for the safety of society. 

Being vegetarian for ethical reasons is not just an exercise in restraint and self-denial as many would have you believe, but an exhausting process of constantly trying to understand and repair the almost tectonic rifts in reasoning and morals that others seem perfectly content to live with. Upon describing a dinner I went to where my Japanese hosts ordered something maroon and slimy that was once a happily trotting horse, my European listener was horrified. 

“How could they do that?” she demanded, “eating a horse? What were they thinking?”

“You eat cows and pigs,” I pointed out, “why is it so horrifying if someone eats a horse? Isn’t the horse also a farm animal? That’s your cultural bias speaking.”

That led to a spluttering and hole-ridden explanation of why dogs, cats, and horses fall in the group of “animals that civilized people don’t eat” while cows, pigs, chickens, and sea creatures are perfectly acceptable when burned to crisp and presented in bite-sized pieces. 

“Because you ride horses,” my friend concluded at last.

“You can ride anything if you put your mind to it,” I replied.

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Over the years I’ve had this discussion with many friends and acquaintances. Contrary to popular belief, most vegetarians don’t go around proselytizing their way of life; I’m usually drawn into arguments by those around me who are surprised or skeptical and want to learn more about why I insist on inconveniencing myself and others with regard to my food when I’m generally flexible in most other affairs. I’ve met people who would eat horses but not dogs; ones who would eat dogs and horses but not cats and goldfish; people who would eat anything except insects; people who would eat everything as long as it wasn’t alive and squirming on their plate; people who wouldn’t eat endangered animals; people who would eat everything except humans and pandas, and even a few who admitted that they’d be open to eating humans (as long as said human wasn’t murdered or diseased). With the exception of those in the final category, I find everyone else completely illogical and arbitrary in their dietary values. 

Same with hunting, actually. I fail to understand the rage and self-righteousness shown by people who condemn the trophy hunting of exotic animals but are happy to sink their teeth into hamburgers and sushi. In my opinion, these two acts should both be accepted or they should both be forbidden. Honestly speaking, surely the loss of one lion doesn’t make as much of an impact on the world’s ecosystem as does the slaughter of 9.2 billion land animals a year, right? Friends and acquaintances have tried to explain to me that this is because the hunted animal in question is rare, endangered even, and cows/pigs/sheep/fish/etc. are in large supply and need human control and slaughter to keep their population from exploding. “Following your logic, isn’t it all right to hunt humans?” I venture to ask. 

I’m yet to get a satisfactory reply to this one. 

Vegetarianism also begs the question of how intimate one is willing to get with their food. The idea of learning how my lunch traveled from the farm to my table intrigues me and I loved an educational trip we took in college where we went out to the field and pulled up carrots under the farmer’s supervision, before having our own harvested vegetables cooked and presented to us for lunch later. I’m perfectly happy to follow my food on its journey from beginning to end. But interestingly, people who aren’t vegetarian have mixed feelings about it. How many people would be willing to accompany an energetic cow to the slaughter house, watch its confusion at being hooked, witness the creature being cut open lengthwise while it moos in agony, seeing its bloody organs splatter to the floor before it’s dismembered, have its furry skin ripped off, turned into unrecognizable chunks of pink, and then tossed into a fire and covered in seasoning for human consumption? Not many people, I think I can safely say. How many of them would be able to do such an act for themselves? An even smaller group. I find myself confused by why and how so many humans are able to switch off that discomfort and partake in the final product, protected from pain and distress only because they don’t see the entire process. It’s just not something I’m capable of. 

I’m not saying my logic or diet is perfect. I find myself confronted by vegans or those following a 100% plant-based lifestyle, who consider even buying honey, wearing silk, drinking milk, and/or riding horses to be a form of cruelty unacceptable to their values. They tell me that by supporting the dairy industry, I encourage the slaughter of newly born calves. They accuse me of paying for the live grinding of male baby chicks in huge machines barely days after birth, through my demand for eggs. And guess what? I agree. I watched documentaries and read articles that changed my view. It took me a while, but I realized that if eating something sent a pang of guilt through me with every bite, forcing me to come up with numerous justifications for as to why I absolutely had to eat something that another living creature was brutalized for, especially when I believe human and animal lives are equal, maybe that’s the sign of a disconnect between my ethics and my behavior. And one of them needs to change. 

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“But chicken tastes so good!"  “How can you live without bacon?” If I had a dollar for every time someone whined this in my face…

By being vegetarian, I don’t purport to claim that it’s the most delicious dietary lifestyle out there. It’s actually highly likely that it’s not and we do the best we can with the limited resources and substitutes that we’re given. For me, an ethical choice is not the same as a pleasurable one, and it shouldn't have to be. This is especially significant, because it’s a demonstration to myself each and everyday without fail that my ethics come before my most basic bodily impulses. If we all lived life chasing after the objects and experiences that provided the most pleasure, that would be a truly terrifying society to live in. I'm sure that each and every one in this world has a value and principle so precious that to compromise on them is unthinkable. I certainly hope so. 

But to answer the question: From the few accidental encounters I’ve had with meat and fish, I doubt I’m missing out on much and I would take a tofu steak over a real one any day. 

The bad news...vegetarianism is expensive and what's more, it comes with a social cost. Though I don’t blame the people who think of me this way, I’m generally considered a killjoy with little to no consideration for others. Living in Japan where vegetarianism and veganism is still relatively rare and the few restaurants catering to such diets are generally on the pricier side (hey, vegetables are expensive), it’s common for me to be politely excluded from social gatherings and meal plans with even close friends. I cook for myself 90% of the time and the one or two times I eat out during the week, I’m usually staring at the wall at a single-seater booth since it wouldn’t be fair on my part to pressure other people into joining me in what is essentially my personal ethical stance. 

You’d be surprised at how much bonding and relationship building takes place between people who frequently share meals together and how reluctant people are to interact with others when there’s no food present. As a result, I find myself on the fringe of most groups and societies, always slipping out before the meals or appearing after they’ve finished. By this time, a rapport has been established amongst those who ate together and I’m the unassimilated anomaly. Our society’s almost nauseating obsession with food and culinary experiences has definitely impacted my social life and, though irrational to many, it’s one of the main reasons I can’t stand food bloggers and restaurateurs. Meanwhile, dating people who aren’t vegetarian or vegan is a challenge I don’t want to even attempt, because in spite of the numerous logistical problems that we need to work out between ourselves, I don’t think that a (healthy) relationship between two partners who have incompatible ethical standpoints will survive for long. Especially when these ethics pertain to which living beings deserve to live and die.

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At the end of the day, being vegetarian for ethical reasons is as liberating as it is lonely. This article isn’t meant to try and convert anyone to a lifestyle or criticize those whose beliefs differ from mine, but simply serve (see what I did there?) as a small introduction from my standpoint to readers who want to better understand why some of us think, act, and eat in the strange yet wonderful ways that we do.