Humanitie, the quarterly publication of the Humanist Society of Scotland, is out now. In it is my second column, included below. Visit the Not Quite So Friendly Humanist for the twin column. (Confession: I cadged my title from his. It was too good not to.)
I’m a vegetarian. I don’t eat meat because I don’t want to cause the deaths of sentient beings. I cannot justify killing them (or paying someone else to kill them) just for my pleasure or convenience. It is a decision based on deeply-held values, and one I try to stick to despite frequent temptations. It is also, I think, a natural consequence of humanist philosophy – indeed, an essay by humanist philosopher A.C. Grayling was the catalyst for my shift to vegetarianism this past February.*
Having grown up omnivorous, it has been difficult to become vegetarian. Despite the strong rational and compassionate argument for vegetarianism, the habits and tastes of thirty years cannot easily be set aside. I miss the taste of meat: steaks, fish suppers, roast beef sandwiches. It is against this non-rational urging that my ethical decision always fights. I am happy to say that my daughter will not have that struggle: deciding between a vegetarian or an omnivorous diet, she will not be distracted by the irrational influence of habit and custom.
I’ve had a wide range of reactions since becoming vegetarian: indifference, curiosity, even encouragement and support. Mostly indifference, though. It’s no more an issue to most people than declaring a taste for Thai food. But for some people, my vegetarianism is not so easy to accept.
For example, my parents have told me that, by calling my choice an “ethical” one, I imply that their choice is an unethical one. Not only that, my dad raises beef cattle – so my choice also implicitly condemns his work.
I want to be clear: I do not condemn people who choose to include meat in their diet. Eating meat does not mean they are less ethical. Am I being hypocritical, holding myself to one standard and others to a different one?
No. Humanist ethics need not polarize the world of choice into right and wrong, good and bad. Human understanding is imperfect and provisional; this inherent humility of humanism means that I do not set up every personal choice as absolute and universal.
We are a somewhat smarter type of ape, using our ape senses and our ape reasoning to construct meaning and purpose in a confusing and ambiguous world. This ambiguity requires us to be flexible and accommodating of the various ways that people infuse the world with value.
I encourage everyone to think about our kinship with other animals. Consider carefully whether the value of their lives is so small as to be outweighed by the comfort of our habits, or by the slightly greater convenience of constructing an adequate diet with meat.
Think about it, and try to be true to your convictions. Whatever they are. That’s all I ask.
* “Speciesism”, from The Meaning of Things