The case for flexitarianism

The case for flexitarianism September 15, 2014

A few days ago, our beloved editor Vlad Chituc posted a piece about why atheists should be vegans. He makes a compelling case, and you should definitely read it.

In super-paraphrased form (sorry, Vlad), his argument goes something like this:

Causing suffering is only justifiable if doing so is a means for achieving some higher goal (or avoiding suffering that is even worse).

The animals we raise for food undergo tremendous suffering, but we do not need to eat animals in order to lead long, happy, and healthy lives. Therefore, the tremendous suffering we cause to animals could be avoided at minimal cost to us.

Moreover, science suggests that the animals we raise for food experience pain in ways that are roughly similar to the way in which we do. Now, and here’s the clincher: Unless there is some reason why we should sharply distinguish animal suffering from human suffering (i.e. believing that humans are created in God’s image, have souls, or are otherwise given a unique place in nature), we cannot justify the amount of suffering we cause to animals simply because we happen to prefer steak over vegetables. But since atheists don’t believe in those things, they should take animal suffering seriously and, by extension, be vegans.

I disagree with Vlad. Let me qualify that. I agree with him that people should not eat animals. However, his argument overlooks the important social implications our food and diet choices have.

Predictably, Vlad’s post triggered a significant negative response. While some of that response was based on rejection of the basic premise that we should take animal welfare seriously, a lot of it was rooted in concern about the difficulty of maintaining a vegan diet. Some commenters also felt judged by Vlad’s assertion that the decision not to eat meat should be a “no-brainer.”

Obviously, the world would be a much better place if everyone was a vegan—and not just for animals. Diets based on animal protein take an enormous toll on our environment, both through pollution and through increased demands for agricultural land. In 2010, the United Nations pointed to a shift away from animal products as the only feasible option for reducing agriculture’s negative impact on the environment. Moreover, meat-heavy diets are linked to a plethora of health problems.

But as long as most people continue to eat meat, our best chance of reducing the overall meat consumption is to encourage a society-wide shift toward a less meat-intensive diet. And to this end, I’m concerned that advocates for veganism let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Vegans speak with authority on matters concerning food and ethics. They have the courage of their convictions. Their diets, if universally adopted, would significantly reduce both human and animal suffering worldwide.

But although this air of superiority is deserved, it often proves counterproductive to their cause. As Vlad noted in his follow-up piece “On feeling judged,” people have an inherent aversion to being painted as morally inferior. To avoid this feeling, most people write off vegans as fringe extremists. This isn’t hard to do since veganism, with its emphasis on personal purity, gives off a slightly cultish vibe to outsiders.

If we truly want to reduce the suffering caused by a diet centered around animal products, I think we should work hard to come off as less forceful. The best way of doing so is to adopt a flexitarian approach.

Obviously, we should still opt for animal-free options when preparing our own food. And when we go out to eat with friends, we should try our best to work with the menu to dine meat-free whenever possible.

What we should avoid, however, is making a scene if no vegan options are available. And we should definitely avoid making friends and acquaintances uncomfortable inviting us over for dinner without going through the effort of making separate dishes for us. Doing so only serves to support the hardliner, moralizing stereotypes, and does little to bring people over to our side.

In my experience, people often pick up on the fact that I don’t order meat at restaurants. When they do, they tend to ask me whether I’m vegetarian, and why. But these questions are usually born out of curiosity, not confrontation.

That’s the advantage of flexitarianism. Rather than forcing an ethical debate on the people around me, I am frequently invited to share my perspective. And I know for a fact that this has led several of my friends and acquaintances to reduce their own meat consumption. If I have to eat some non-vegetarian lasagna on occasion to accomplish that, I’m fine with it.

Edit: The sentence “Vegans speak with authority on matters concerning food and ethics” originally read “Vegans possess an air of moral superiority in discussions about food and ethics.” The original phrasing was extremely clumsy on my part. I apologize.

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