Sunday, May 15, 2011


There are three primary reasons why one might choose to be vegetarian: ethics, morals, and health.

The ethical arguments are that the production and consumption of meat is wasteful, expensive, bad for the environment. Perhaps so, especially in these days; once upon a time, having a family pig or such was actually a good and natural way to go. I would not choose to be a vegetarian only for such ethical reasons, though I do consider them valid concerns.

Health is certainly a concern as well. Yes, eating meat can be bad for one. So can not eating meat. If health were my only concern, I would be moderate in my consumption, not abstemious.

The idea of eating the decaying flesh of animals does seem a bit repugnant, when one thinks on it. But then so are many other things that make up our ordinary lives. It is certainly possible to live a healthy life with or without meat, so I do not count this as a particularly strong argument for my own vegetarian choice.

Though both of the preceding reasons do help weigh in the favor of a vegetarian diet, it is the moral argument that has primarily swayed me. I should say that my position reflects a private moral choice and is not a comment nor judgement on anyone else's decision to eat meat.

There is the matter of respect for life. Ah, but what life? Plants have life too. The virus that might kill me has life (sort of) and I'm quite willing to eradicate it. So there is a hierarchy involved -- some life must be considered more valuable than other.

For me, the dividing line is the ability to think. And I define thinking as the capacity to learn. An ant does not think, by this definition. It will always do exactly the same thing when faced with identical conditions. Its responses are hard-wired. It can not learn to do anything else. This is true of most, but not all, invertebrates.

A corollary of being able to learn is the feeling of pain. Obviously, if a creature is unable to learn then pain would serve no purpose. It could never be taught to avoid it. It would never recognize it. It is reasonable to assume, then, that any creature that can not learn would not feel pain in any sense that we do. It avoids 'painful' situations purely in a mechanical, non-thinking manner.

All animals with backbones have the ability to learn. I would believe that they do feel pain, just as you and I. I do not eat (and try not to kill) any creature with a backbone.

Some animals without backbones, however, do exhibit the ability to learn and to avoid pain, most notably octopi and squid. So I've crossed calamari off my diet. I am willing to eat clams, oysters, probably shrimp and scallops. I don't consume a lot of them but I can't find a valid moral reason not to.

Nor can I find any objection to the consumption of milk, honey, or any other food created by animals. At one time, I was on the fence when it came to eggs, particularly fertile ones as they do grow into animals, but I've concluded that an egg is just an egg, obviously not able to think or feel, and therefore completely acceptable.

A friend told me, several year ago, that she was not willing to eat anything she would not be willing to kill. In her case, that meant no beef or pork, nor, I have assumed, mammals in general. She consumed turkey and chicken and fish readily. I think that's where my current vegetarianism got its start, though I had dabbled for health reasons (and the occasional religious fast) earlier. I realized that I was not willing to kill any creature that was aware of its pain and, therefore, was also unwilling to approve of their killing by eating them.

I do recognize that there are times when we might have to put aside our moral objections. If we are starving, if our lives are threatened, we will kill. The thing is to recognize that the taking of life is still 'wrong,' not to become callous, to know that the lesser of evils remains an evil, however necessary it may be.

So I've no qualms about swatting a cockroach -- no more than pulling a radish out of my garden -- but I do regret having to kill a rat. As with many Native Americans and other hunter cultures around the world, I try to respect the spirit of the animals we may be required to kill. It is a serious matter -- yes, even taking the life of a mouse.

Since this is, as I stated, a private moral decision, I do not force it on my carnivorous animal pets. It would be poor judgement -- and possibly downright cruel -- to attempt to make my cat and dog into vegetarians! I regret that animals die to feed them, but that is indeed the way of nature and they can not choose. I can, being human, choose otherwise for myself.

And I have chosen otherwise. I've pretty much always been in favor of nonviolence but it took me a while to work it out in some areas of my life. I certainly don't claim any great gift of understanding, any extraordinary insight. I'm just trying to work out the terms of my personal peace treaty with creation.

Stephen Brooke ©2011

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