Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

Eating Animals II

I'll reiterate that I'm not trying to evangelize for vegetarianism. While I don't eat meat, I have no problem with my friends who do. I suppose that, intellectually, I would prefer that people don't (though, that would probably hold true no matter which side of the fence I myself came down on), but it's not a strong enough preference for me to spend social capital, time, or any other resources spreading my vegetarianism, even to the people close to me. I simply don't care enough.

Aside: If you've ever asked me why I think industrially-produced meat is gross, and I grossed you out, it's not because I'm trying to convert you. I was only telling the truth. I won't campaign against the meatpacking industry, but I certainly won't spend any effort to protect them.

Yesterday I wrote about the events that led me to choose vegetarianism, and some of the beliefs that underlie my continuing choice. If there were a few intended takeaways, they were these:

  • The modern meat-production industry is gross, from beginning to end. This is my opinion, and you don't have to agree with it.
  • Agribusiness, like any industry presented with enormous demand, has undertaken a century-long drive to cut costs literally everywhere possible. And the meat industry -- delivering unthinkable quantities at historically low prices -- has cut more costs than anyone else. This is a fact, and you sort of do have to agree with it.
  • My response to the two above points is to give my food money to what I perceive to be the lesser of (many) possible evils. I don't feel particularly vehemently about it, but I haven't idly broken the commitment (on purpose) in more than three years. This is a personal decision, and you don't have to respect it.

With all that behind us, to business:


Why don't I feel more strongly about vegetarianism? After all, it seems that I accept a staggering array of pro-veg arguments, many of which regularly convince other people to swear off meat for life.

You know, I don't really know. Maybe because I know that it's not a popular cause, and I'd rather use my social capital elsewhere. (Classic mistake: assuming that social capital doesn't exist between friends.) Maybe because I don't see myself in great vegetarian activists, and so I assume that I'm not one. Honestly, though, I think it's because it's not important to me. I don't eat meat because I feel no special attachment to meat, and it's easier to decide to be vegetarian all the time than some of the time, but then again, the term for 'animal suffering' in my personal utility function is really quite small. (Sorry again, speciesists.)

So it's a small choice. People often think that it's a big deal, but I suspect that they've never tried it. My brother was, for the first three years of my vegetarianism, still a very avid meat-eater, but recently (after, of all things, taking the same course I did...) gave it up. Anyone who sat through our dinnertime conversations during the "a dinner table divided" years would have sworn he'd never do it, but now I remain convinced, more than ever, that -- given sufficient dietary alternatives -- eating meatless is pretty easy to do.


One of the most compelling arguments Foer makes against vegetarianism ("A straightforward case for vegetarianism is worth writing," he says on page 13, "but it's not what I've written here.") is that it's downright antisocial. Tribes -- fellowships -- families -- revolve around food. Stories are told over the dinner table, and ancient traditions are passed down to us intricately entangled with questions of what-to-eat, when-to-eat. (c.f. Communion, any of the fasting traditions, the rules of Halal or Kosher, Lent, Passover, and the secular traditions, too: Christmas (whether it be cookies, a full feast, or informal Chinese food), Thanksgiving dinner, Fourth-of-July cookouts, Valentine's-Day chocolates, new-year dumplings, birthday cakes, wedding receptions, wedding dinners, party hors d'ouevres, football food, movie-theatre popcorn...)

Food is essential to life. And we require it pretty much constantly, so gustatory impulses are wired into our brains at a pretty deep level. (The evo-devo came back! Oh no! Don't worry, I'll keep it brief and nontechnical. Or maybe just nontechnical.) I'm convinced that food controls our impulses more than sex. Anecdote and speculation:

Today, I ordered a grilled-cheese sandwich at the dining hall. (Because, you know, all the rest of the food was approximately awful.) Halfway through, I stopped being hungry. I put it down. But I stayed at my seat and carried on the conversation I'd been having.

A few minutes later, I was taking another bite. I put it down. By the time there were only two bites left, I was trying to figure out where my sandwich had gone, while taking a small nibble off one end...I finished the sandwich, of course. Who wouldn't? At an evolutionary level, once you've bitten into something and found it to be not-fatal, the impulse to keep eating it is almost overwhelmingly strong.

After all, safe food doesn't just grow on trees. For that matter, the impulse to eat what everyone else is eating -- it's most likely safe -- is also very strong. Humans are one of the few animals that share food, but most of the 'important' food that we eat, we share.

See the list of food-rituals above; how many of them involve sharing the food in question?