It’s a serious question. I seem like just the kind of person who would be vegetarian, demographically speaking. I’ve even gone through periods of my life where I was functionally vegetarian much of the time and could easily have made the transition. Why not, then? Do I have a principled reason, or just a series of post-hoc rationalizations? Or is it something in between, something in my temperament that makes me resist taking the plunge?
First possible reason: a general distrust of very abstract moral principles, such as a blanket prohibition on “killing.” As I sometimes discuss despite the horrifying comment threads it generates, I am pro-choice and find it hard to get worked up about consciously choosing to terminate a pregnancy given the many ways in which pregnancies terminate themselves. I can see a desire to regulate late-term abortions, but a sensible regulatory regime would basically track with most people’s moral intuitions and hence would likely be redundant — in any case, I trust individual women to make the call more than I do our corrupt political elites. Yet I am not a cafeteria anti-Catholic here. I embrace a seamless ethic of death, in that I do not in principle oppose the death penalty. I don’t trust the American judicial system to administer it fairly, and so as a prudential measure I would support abolishing it in America. But there are some things you do and you don’t get to come back from, in my view. So basically, I’m not going to be convinced by the argument that we shouldn’t eat meat because it involves killing something.
Another reason: a distrust of ethical consumer choices. Yes, factory farming is an abomination. If there were laws proposing to outlaw it, I would support those laws, regardless of their effect on the cost or availability of meat. In the meantime, I purchase organic meat when possible. Yet I just don’t have it in me to make a big deal out of it or insist on it, just like I don’t have it in me to move heaven and earth to make sure my garbage is recycled. I make my token gesture, but systemic problems have systemic solutions. I’m part of the society in which I live, and no amount of ritualistic keeping my hands clean is going to change anything.
It’s not as though those abstract arguments are what’s really at stake in my everyday life. There are dispositional issues, probably stemming largely from the trauma of an evangelical upbringing. I have an aversion to asceticism in general, because my life is already so abstemious that giving up small indulgences seems a little too sad. I don’t want to choke down some joyless “vegetarian option” every day for the rest of my life. Maybe at home or with packed lunches I can be purely utilitarian, but if I’m going to a restaurant, I want to really enjoy it. And frankly, there are key vegetables that I deeply dislike. The texture of tomatoes, both cooked and uncooked, repulses me. Bell peppers are another stumbling block, as are cucumbers. I’ve tried to train myself to like all of them, and I’ve failed.
I also don’t want to be a pain in the ass for hosts. I don’t want to constrain the choice of meal someone can prepare me in their home or the choice of restaurant. This is one key principle from Pauline Christianity on which I will not budge: always be a good guest, always accept what’s put before you. I don’t want them to experience my dietary preference as a moral judgment on them — which will likely happen at least sometimes, whether I intend it that way or not. It’s not as though they or I can do anything about the system of food production, so why create bad feelings?
Yet is there even a desire for transgression at work? I eat hot dogs (primarily on American “grilling out” holidays) and fast food (above all when on road trips). I tried the McRib once, within the last couple years. I cultivate omnivorism, even going out of my way to get organ meat when it’s on the menu. I eat veal on occasion. I’ve eaten steak tartare in front of vegans, not thinking about the fact that they may be grossed out (something I would not repeat now that I realize that). I make at least as many token gestures against ethical food consumption as I do toward it.
But is that really what’s at stake here? For various reasons, hot dogs are comfort food for me — I was often left to fend for myself at dinner time, and they were among the easy options that my mom always kept in stock. And as for trying everything, I was often made fun of for repeating the same order at restaurants, and so I cultivated a habit of finding the least “boring” thing in order to avoid all criticism.
Does this add up to anything? Probably not. I know I’m not addressing the arguments in favor of vegetarianism or veganism in their strongest form by any means, but I don’t think that abstract discursive arguments are really what’s at stake at the intimate level of something like how you eat. For me, it seems like becoming a vegetarian would mean changing into a different kind of person, and I don’t want to make that particular change. Maybe something will happen to make that change plausible and even urgent at a gut level, but it hasn’t happened yet.