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29.6.07

Reasons To Eat Plants

A friend of a friend is doing an online survey about attitudes toward food, particularly meat versus vegetables. At the end it gives you a rating on various reasons for preferring a plant-based diet. My scores are:

Health Effects of Meat-Eating 46%
Psychological Effects of Meat-Eating 21%
Animal Welfare Concerns 72%
Environmental Impact of Meat-Eating 79%
Aesthetic Concerns (Taste, Disgust) 66%
Concerns about Peace of Mind/Conscience 64%
Meat-Eating as a Violation of Natural Order 50%
Social Justice Concerns 68%
Cost and Convenience Issues 65%


They're all pretty high, but that's because I only picked 1 or 2 (out of 5) for a question when I thought the statement was either ridiculous or the opposite was true. So, for example, my 46% on "Health Effects" is basically a neutral position. I don't think a diet with or without meat is intrinsically healthier, since there are so many other factors at work -- so going vegan as a magic bullet for dietary health is dangerous. (I actually suspect that the optimal diet for the average person includes some meat, but there are plenty of adequately healthy omnivorous and herbivorous diets.) A similar thing can be said for meat-eating as a violation of the natural order. It seems abundantly clear to me from archaeology and anthropology that humans evolved as omnivores, and claims to the contrary are wishful romanticism. However, I don't find such "follow nature" arguments to be normatively compelling. If I can be adequately healthy without eating meat -- and it's clear that I can -- I don't care what my caveman ancestors ate.

It should be no surprise to anyone who has read this blog for a while that my top two concerns are animal rights and environmental impacts. They would probably be higher if some of the statements hadn't been phrased in fairly absolutist terms (e.g. implying that going vegetarian would save the Earth -- it's one thing that would help, but it's not the only thing).

The social justice factor suffered from a similar problem. I think there are significant social justice problems with the current meat industry, but they're more about feedlots polluting groundwater and fouling neighborhoods and presenting hazards to slaughterhouse workers, rather than the survey's focus on famine. The survey tended to be interested in a pretty simple Malthusian chain of reasoning -- if we produce X units of corn, we can either feed X/10 people, or X/10 cows who in turn will feed X/100 people. But as Amartya Sen has shown, famine is a question of political economy and whether people have access to food, not the sheer volume of food that exists.

The aesthetic concerns and cost and convenience issues relate to the disagreement I had a while back with Hugo Schwyzer -- herbivory is sort of a rut for me, so even if they were to come up with eco-friendly synthetic fair trade meat that answered all of my objections to the meat I currently have access to, I probably wouldn't start eating it. I was never tempted by the "eat only organic free-range meat" lifestyle because it just seemed like too much work to find that kind of meat.

The one I scored very low on was "psychological effects." I presume this was the Kantian type of arguments -- that eating meat is linked to violence in general. I find these arguments unpersuasive because they seem to entail a simplistic psychology and sociology that see all violence as springing from the same internal violent tendencies. (Rebutting these kind of psychological arguments is the one context in which it's relevant to mention that Hitler was a vegetarian.) I did notice something interesting, though, about the phrasing of some of the questions that I presume make up this scale -- e.g. "Eating dead animals is barbaric," "People who eat animals are more likely to behave like animals." If these statements were coming from an article or blog post, I'd have a field day with the irony of promoting vegetarianism -- which is ordinarily framed as a way of showing compassion for and non-domination of animals -- as a way of separating ourselves from the animals.

I notice the survey does not include the reason that I originally stopped eating meat -- the person I was dating at the time was a vegetarian. That may sound silly, but it's part of a larger issue of food as a form of social bonding and belonging.

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