My Vegetarian Kick has Pushed My Privilege Off the Charts
Sorting through the hypocrisy of food righteousness
Perhaps I was feeling a bit hypocritical, precious, or privileged, or all three, as my reading list moved from Eating Animals to Inconspicuous Consumption to Wild Souls (with Last Child in the Woods waiting in the wings), for I got to thinking about my choice to eat less meat (but still fish) and more plants (but not the disgusting ones like beets), but still eat dairy (I love eggs and cheese!), and how I was really just navigating a continuum that is rooted in privilege. I felt fraudulent. I based my choices on three considerations: ethics, environment, health. Before we get into those, let’s first dig into the continuum of choices.
Here is the rationale for each position, as told through fictional “Zach”:
- Zach eats as an indiscriminate omnivore, for no other reason than that’s the food the industrial complex (in kahoots with Madison Avenue) pushes on him morning, noon, and night.
- Zach now wants to eat healthier, so he stops eating hot dogs, ground meat, and anything he cannot identify as animal flesh; he becomes a discriminate omnivore.
- Zach gets concerned about the environmental impact of factory farming, so he now only eats farm to table meat, preferably sourced locally. He wants to know where his meat has come from, and what the animals have been fed (probably, grass and corn casserole, with a dash of antibiotics).
- Zach gets concerned about the health warnings around red meat consumption, so he cuts out beef and lamb (and fatty pork while he’s at it). He becomes a lean-meat-for-protein guy.
- Zach now believes he has a moral obligation to do no harm to sentient beings, but he struggles to draw the line on which animals this applies to, after reading the scientific literature and 19th century philosophers. He arbitrarily choses “animals with legs”, and continues to eat fish, dairy, and eggs. He becomes a pescatarian.
- Zach now believes he should eat no animal, sentient or not, so he becomes a vegetarian.
- Zach now decides to eat no dairy products, as it is invariably produced under stressful circumstances (for the animals and the workers), and it is produced for the sole purpose of human consumption; he becomes a vegan.
- Zach now goes fully organic, for health and environmental reasons (pesticides), though this comes more from the organic food lobby than anywhere else. He still doesn’t really know what’s in or on his vegetables.
- Zach now stops eating factory farmed food altogether, including plants, due to his environmental concerns (degradation of soil) and shoddy labor practices.
- Zach now stops eating locally farmed food, and is forced to forage his local area for food: mushrooms, plants, and insects are most readily available where he lives. He becomes very thin as a result.
- Zach now becomes concerned about his impact on insects and all the other living things that he comes across, including plants, so he doesn’t leave the house, for fear of stepping on them. He develops scurvy. He’s barely alive.
- Zach eventually starves to death, as no edible food is available that doesn’t derive from soy or corn.
Of course, the last few scenarios are tongue-in-cheek, but I provide them to prove the point that our food choices are all part of a continuum, where the rationale for each “position” is pretty arbitrary (i.e. the principles that underlay them can be easily deconstructed), and the global impact of our choices is minimal (or futile).
Thus, this brings us to the question: When on the continuum does someone become “right” in their position on food? (“Righteous” is a very different question, and one that starts pretty early on in the progression) To begin to answer this question, it can help to apply three lenses, and see where one might land on the continuum.
Ethical perspective: Animals are sentient creatures, fish included, and I have a moral obligation to not participate in their harm.
Environmental perspective: Factory farming is brutal on the environment (not to mention the animals), has put traditional farmers out of business, and only exists because we insist on eating affordable meat. Thus, I will not support this industry on any level.
Health perspective: We don’t need to eat meat to get enough protein, and plant-based diets have proven to be the best for one’s health and wellness.
Now that we have a frame of reference (note that the Ethical (E) perspective allows you to satisfy all three considerations), let’s look at the concept of privilege, defined by Peggy McIntosh as “an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.”
Adding a “privilege curve” to our continuum illustrates the inverse relationship between privilege and our choices. For example, as wealth increases, so does our ability to make an increasingly privileged choice. The same rings true for geography, as sustainable farms are not sprinkled equitably across the globe, but tend to be found in developed countries.
So, “right” is proportional to privilege, and we can make the following statements:
- It’s a privilege to have the resources to make choices that don’t negatively impact animals or the environment.
- It’s a privilege to say “protect the environment” as an American, and tell a burgeoning middle class in developing countries to refrain from meat consumption.
- It’s a privilege to be able to choose healthy foods over substandard meat fried in oils.
- It’s a privilege to not have to worry about the negative financial implications of the local factory farm closing.
Where will I now choose to land, after living nearly three months as a pescatarian (eye-rolling is permitted)? As a little experiment last night, I included baked pork in some Mexican food, and while it was tasty, I really didn’t get the ‘wow’ that I thought I would, so I easily could have foregone it.
I don’t like to work in absolutes, though that makes things cleaner. It is also a very masculine way to approach a dilemma: through rules that do not leave space for empathy or nuances in a particular context. I will instead employ the idea of moral particularism, articulated by philosopher Lori Gruen. Gruen believes the most moral way to act is to pay attention to all the features of a particular case, where you can engage in both emotional and rational thinking, and develop a bespoke rationale for your choice. According to Emma Marris in Wild Souls (p. 41), “Each case is different, after all. This approach leaves lots of room for context, relationships, and feelings to matter.”
Is this a cop-out? Perhaps. But it’s also a more pragmatic approach, and something that offers a better chance to stick. Let’s again look at the three considerations:
- Ethical: Can I really ensure I do not eat any meat that comes from an animal that was abused? I think so, especially if I err on the side of conservatism.
- Environmental: Can I limit my business to local farms that practice environmental sustainability and ethical treatment of animals. That’s easy where I live.
- Health: Can I choose a plant-based diet, and still get all the nutrients and energy I need to be active. Yes. I am thankful to have the resources for this.
I am not trying to litigate whether eating animals is ethical, eco-friendly, or healthful. Such a choice needs to be made by the individual, in his/her/their particular context. Rather, it is the thought process to such decisions that I find intellectually stimulating. Now let’s see what’s in the fridge!