Growing up in India, I didn’t get to eat meat as often as I would have liked. In most households in many parts of India, the diet is mostly vegetarian, and ours was no exception. Meat wasn’t an everyday thing, it was a treat. We got meat once or twice a week at the most, and I ate it with gusto and relish when we did. Incidentally, most of my friends were vegetarian for religious and cultural regions, but we never spoke about meat or the ethics of meat-eating. It was just something that never came up. It tasted great, I didn’t think about it, I ate it.
When I moved to America after high school, I was eating meat at least twice a day, every day. It felt like a dream for a long time. I didn’t pause to think about where my food came from or the ethics of eating meat. The thought of giving up meat didn’t even begin to cross my mind. But things would change, slowly.
I took an Intro to Philosophy class in college and loved it. I had a great professor. We spent a good chunk of our time going over moral philosophy, although we never discussed animal rights or vegetarianism specifically. What I discovered through the class is that I really enjoy moral philosophy, and it was a subject I payed some attention every now and then, ever since. I still ate meat this whole time.
Much later, I sat down to read the works of Peter Singer, the ethicist who touched off the Animal Liberation movement of the twentieth century, and arguably the most influential living philosopher. Suddenly, things began to change. I was attracted to his utilitarianism and I couldn’t help but agree with pretty much everything he wrote on the subject of animal welfare. But I also couldn’t bring myself to accept his conclusions. I didn’t want to give up meat. I looked around desperately for arguments I could use to justify eating meat. I searched for the best objections I could find to Singer’s arguments. I ended up reading a lot more of the literature on animal ethics than I had ever intended.
After a while, I had to admit that I’d lost. I could find no ethical or rational justification for my position. But I’m not purely rational, so I continued eating meat. I knew about what animals go through in factory farms – Singer describes them in chilling detail in Animal Liberation. I knew what I was doing was wrong. But I didn’t stop. My conscience was not clear, but I didn’t stop.
In May 2014, for the first time, I watched some video footage of what typically happens to animals at a factory farm. It was a short video, barely over a minute long, but I couldn’t watch the whole thing. I was very close to tears halfway through it. What pages and pages of philosophical arguments and written descriptions of factory farms couldn’t do for me, the video did in a matter of seconds. I made a decision almost instantly: no more. I couldn’t be party to this. I initially wanted to go vegan immediately, but I thought about it for a while and decided to take smaller steps. I would be a vegetarian first, and then slowly give up all animal products and eventually go vegan. May 20 was my last day as a meat-eater.
So I’ve been a vegetarian for a little over a year now. The transition has been much, much easier than I thought it would be, probably because my diet in India was mostly vegetarian. It was somewhat inconvenient for the first few weeks though. I missed meat, but the craving soon stopped. I can look at non-vegetarian dishes I wouldn’t have been able to resist a year ago and not feel a thing now. Finding vegetarian food hasn’t been hard either.
A number of other things have changed as well. My approach to animal welfare was initially based on my utilitarian leanings. But I continued reading the literature on animal rights / welfare, and was also very impressed with Tom Regan and his deontological approach to animal rights. My thinking slowly began to evolve, and ultimately, I rejected both utilitarian and deontological frameworks and settled with virtue ethics. My opposition to factory farming and my reasons for abstaining from meat are probably best captured by a passage from Rosalind Hursthouse’s paper Applying Virtue Ethics to Our Treatment of Other Animals:
Can I, in all honesty, deny the existence of this suffering? No, I can’t… Can I think it is anything but callous to shrug this off and say it doesn’t matter? No, I can’t. Can I deny that the practices are cruel? No, I can’t. Then what am I doing being party to them? It won’t do for me to say that I am not engaging in cruelty myself… [T]he virtue of compassion is what I am supposed to be acquiring and exercising. I can no more think of myself as compassionate while I am party to such cruelty than I could think of myself as just if, scrupulously avoiding owning slaves, I still enjoyed the fruits of slave labor.
Also, the excellent SisyphusRedeemed (@SisyphusRedemed on Twitter) was kind enough to email me a copy of his dissertation on virtue ethics and our treatment of nonhuman animals. I learned a huge amount from it about meta, normative and applied ethics. Reading his dissertation has also strengthened my conviction that eating animals cannot be justified even if the animals in question lived good lives and died painless deaths. Thanks again, SisyphusRedeemed!
As a matter of practice, I’ve been trying to move closer and closer to veganism. I’ve given up most animal products: only cheese remains. I’ve cut down my cheese intake as well. Hopefully, it won’t be too long before I stop using animal products entirely.
Is there anything I regret about all this? I’m not sure. I feel uneasy and somewhat ashamed by the fact that the rational arguments weren’t enough to motivate me to give up meat. I shouldn’t have needed a horrible video to shake me up. By far the most disappointing part of this journey, however, has been the time I’ve spent talking to other people about these issues. My family has been pretty supportive and I think I may have won my mother over to vegetarianism, but with most friends, as with most strangers on the Internet, things haven’t gone so well. I’m saddened by the constant displays of callousness and complacency that I come across. I’m tired of having to deal with the same set of bad arguments that try to justify meat-eating over and over again. So I don’t try to convince people to give up meat anymore. It just doesn’t feel worth it.
What about the future? There are two books I want to finish reading at the earliest. One is The Animal Question: Why Nonhuman Animals Deserve Human Rights by Paola Cavalieri. The other is The Pig Who Sang to the Moon: The Emotional Lives of Farm Animals by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson. And as I said earlier, I also want to complete my transition to veganism. If all goes well, I won’t be using any animal products a year from now.