Why I Am A Vegetarian

Alright, so this is the final part of a three part series (part 1 and part 2)

I became a vegetarian about 2 years ago, I believe it was May of 2008, after reading essays by philosopher Peter Singer (the book I read these essays in was Writing on an Ethical Life…if you happen to click on that link, you’ll understand why I ripped the cover off the book after I purchased it *shudder*). I’ve also attempted to be a vegan (with varying levels of success) for about a year. Now, I must qualify both of these descriptors of my diet, since I’m not really either, in the strict sense of never eating meat or animal products. For example, I will eat some kinds of animals without a second thought (most crustaceans, insects, some seafood…), and I will eat any animal (…except humans…I guess….) if I believe it has been raised humanely and slaughtered humanely (i.e. without due harm).

I don’t really feel like going through the whole logic of my decision, but if you are interested I would suggest you read the aforementioned book. However, a quick summary would probably go like so:

  • some animals can suffer in, what I believe may be, a meaningful way.
  • which animals can feel suffering, and to what degree, almost certainly depends on the complexity of their nervous systems (the organ that enables the feeling of pain).
  • thus, if I were to line up animals on a blurry spectrum from animals that feel nothing to animals that have the potential to suffer the most, it would go as follows: insects < crustaceans < fish and small animals < cats, dogs, cows, pigs < humans and dolphins.
  • the certainty I have that these creatures can feel pain decreases along that spectrum (from right to left obviously), and there comes a point where I’m sort of 50/50 as to whether or not the animal feels pain. That point is fish and small animals, and to be safe, I’ve tried not to eat any of those creatures.
  • since most of the farm animals that are used for meat come from factory farm conditions, and slaugtherhouses that don’t try and reduce the animal’s pain, I decided to stop eating them (vegetarian).
    that is: I can get along just fine without causing another creature pain just so that I can have a tastier meal (yes, I like the taste of meat. I still say that steak is my favourite food…)
  • when I realized that the slaughtering part wasn’t the only point where an animal may suffer (terrible farming conditions), I decided to try and be a vegan.

How does this relate to the other blog posts I wrote? I guess I was trying to explain how consciousness is a weird thing, completely useless in terms of evolution, and probably only arises as a byproduct in animals (in different levels: dolphins and humans highest > primates > larger mammals > etc.) that have evolved complex brains used to deal with interpreting complex behaviour of other animals (predators, prey, friends and enemies). Hmmm, I guess I was giving some philosophy and science behind my vegetarian choice…

If anyone is a fan of Hofstradter, I would suggest reading I Am a Strange Loop….not because it’s as amazing as GEB, but because of his discussion of why he became a vegetarian (same reason as my own), and the way he dealt with the death of his wife (it’s very touching).

Here’s a presentation by Singer at Princeton titled The Ethics of What We Eat:

[note: This article seems unfinished to me…I may come back to it and edit it sometime in the future]


About dontdontoperate

28 year old originally from Barrie, Ontario, Canada. H.B.Sc. from UofT with a major in chemistry and a double minor in philosophy and math. M.Sc. from UofT in physiology and neuroscience. Finished my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at McMaster in the fall of 2013.
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8 Responses to Why I Am A Vegetarian

  1. tinako says:

    Every time I turn around, it seems like there is another study showing the surprisingly rich intelligence and emotional capacity of various animals, all the way down to insects. For example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lobster#Capacity_for_pain, http://abclocal.go.com/kgo/story?section=news/local/south_bay&id=7451150

    I’m not sure it makes sense to assume that the animals and insects that we haven’t specifically studied can’t feel pain. I prefer to err on the side of caution when it comes to unnecessary suffering.

    Thanks for the post – it’s good to think about these things – so many people do not.

    • dontdontoperate says:

      One of those links is broken 😦
      I really doubt insects can feel pain in a meaningful way.
      Also, that link about the Lobster was not very convincing. Yes, I acknowledge that crustaceans will have nociceptors. These would have evolved so that the creature would know if it was being damaged, and its nervous system has evolved appropriate responsive behaviours. This, however, does not show that these creatures can ‘feel’ pain. I would reserve this for creatures with more complex nervous systems, nervous systems that have evolved to read other animals complex behaviours.
      However, it is certainly still possible that Lobsters do feel pain, and so, if you don’t need to eat ’em, I grant it that it would be smarter not to, and thus to avoid the whole issue.
      I agree with you there.
      Thank you for the comment! I really appreciate your opinion. Indeed, perhaps I’m rationalizing because I can’t see myself caring for insects, just as some (most?) people rationalize because they can’t see themselves giving up meat. Perhaps…

      • tinako says:

        Hmm, both links worked when I clicked them just now. They’re not that important, though – they’re not meant to be 100% convincing, just an example of the sort of stuff that is popping up all the time. The point is, I think we generally underrate other creatures.

        I’m also not trying to make a case about insects from a scientific view so much, or rather I didn’t mean to. I think the reason that I feel compassion for insects (and even arachnids, which kind of freak me out) is not so much that it is physiologically accurate or good for them as that it is good for me. No question, my absolute favorite thing about becoming vegan was that it freed me to express my values, specifically compassion, without limits. If I kill a spider in my home instead of ushering it outside, what does that do to me? What did I have to suppress in myself, what did I make myself do? Did I do it because I mocked my own compassion? How do I really see myself? Who do I really want to be?

        Call it fear or call it automatic response, there is no question that the spider appears to cower in the corner when I reach for it. What will my response be? It defines me beyond the moment.

        I pick worms off the wet street and fling them into the grass as I go along partly out of compassion for their suffering, but also because I prefer who I am when I do it as opposed to stepping over them (or on them). I believe this practice makes me a more caring person, less preoccupied with myself or obsessed with other peoples’ perceptions of the crazy worm lady.

        I replied to your post not to contradict you but because when I read the limits you place on your compassion, I felt compassion for you, because I think those limits are hurting you. I recognize your words because at one time or another, I said more or less the same things – deciding to go vegan was one of the most painful decisions I ever made, and I did a lot of twisting. I don’t want to bum you out, though – the good news is that the pain disappeared the instant I chose.

        I’m so glad you like my blog. Have a great day!

  2. dontdontoperate says:

    Also, I just visited your blog. It seems WONDERFUL! I don’t think I get enough visits to hope that more people will visit yours…but hey! You’ve got me now.

  3. dontdontoperate says:

    I got the link to work!
    That is definitely interesting research. But again, just because an animal has behaviour that reflects an emotion, does not mean that the animal ‘experiences’ that emotion. However, it does mean more than an animal that does not express these behaviours (or maybe we don’t know how to read their behaviours?).
    What I was trying to bring up in this three part blog post was that the important issue is whether animals can ‘experience’ pain, as opposed to their brains having evolved to compute and respond without experience.
    Since I believe conscious experience would only really evolve from evolution that selected for more and more complex brains that were needed to compute more and more complex social behaviour, to the point where the social reading looped back onto itself, somehow enabling the creature to ‘read’ itself, and somehow ‘experience’.
    Right, so although fish, small animals, some crustaceans have to some extent evolved emotional states (fear, stress, etc.), I’m not convinced they have complex enough nervous system to ‘feel’ these emotions in an ethically important sense.
    But again, I give real credence to the philosophy “if we don’t know, and it won’t hurt us to stop eating them, then we should not kill them just in case they do feel suffering in a meaningful way”

    I think that the compassion you have is enviable in a sense, because perhaps you have more compassion for others than I do. That, I feel, everyone could use more of. However, I don’t think you should feel bad for my compassionless behaviour towards worms and insects, just as you should not feel bad for my compassionless behaviour towards chairs, cabbages, bacteria, sponges, etc.
    That’s why I think it’s important scientifically whether or not some creatures can really benefit or suffer from out compassion or compassionlessness.
    I guess the flip side of the coin is the fact that you may be worrying yourself (not saying you, specifically, are, I’m just pointing out how some people might feel if they took on your compassion) more than you need to, such as if a person feels deep empathy for all bacteria, leading them to fall into a catatonic state due to stress for the never-ending bacterial genocide (obviously a ridiculously over exaggerated example…but I think you get my point)

    BUT! I am happy you commented and got me to think more about these things.
    And yes, your site is a joy, I think I’ll make some potato and chickpea curry tonight 😉

    OH! Also, did you know that some places in Nazi germany boiling lobster alive was illegal? Right, I found that on wikipedia, but the source was from a book that I believe references an article in some obscure journal for which I couldn’t get access to 😦
    But there is easily obtainable evidence of some places in nazi germany making vivisections illegal…

  4. tinako says:

    I see your point, that it still all boils down to can they really feel it. I probably include that in my head, and there still is a line, but I guess I tend to draw it way farther down than many people, as I said, partly because I tend to give the critters more credit and benefit of the doubt, and partly because I believe it’s good for me. For a silly (but I think still valid) example, if I choose to show kindness to a chair (maybe clean it up), or choose to smash it to bits with a sledgehammer, that leaves me in two very different states of mind. This is pretty far off your topic of innate animal intelligence, and yet for me it’s related. Maybe I could say that the violence we inflict on others is equally, automatically, inflicted on ourselves, and the particular characteristics of the other don’t really matter.

    I noticed in your “about” page you mentioned religion and philosophy as interests. I’m basically talking about Buddhist (not Hindu) karma. I realize that’s not the point you were making in your post, but it’s how I approach the same issue: what to eat. It’s not mumbo-jumbo, just how does how we act affect us?

    Anyway, sorry to have hijacked your post.

    Don’t worry, I don’t feel “bad,” and I would never call you compassionless by any stretch. I just saw the bulleted “buts” and thought, “that’s too bad, it’s seems like it’s hanging you up.” I should probably mind my own business, but you seem to be taking it well.

    Yeah, I noticed that about Nazi Germany. I would need better documentation to believe it. I saw some pretty convincing arguments/evidence that the “Hitler was a vegetarian” thing was mostly myth. Not that it’s important in itself, but some people like to drag that out when vegetarians get too uppity.

    I hope your curry went well!

  5. dontdontoperate says:

    I think we understand each other now. I can respect your choice in working in a frame of mind where you behave more constructively than destructively, more compassionately than not, etc.

    I can see the Buddhist concept of karma as being really helpful in living a good life, but perhaps not required. For instance, the lives we live are entwined and enmeshed in a soup of complex human interactions. It makes sense that, if we’re nice, honest, and decent people, other people will treat us better, and our lives will be better for it. I’m not sure an actual, ontological concept of karma is required (i.e. a cosmological balance that punishes and rewards in perfect measure). Sorry, I don’t even know if that’s the idea of karma that you subscribe to…I guess I was just writing out my thoughts…

    Also: I like that you hijacked my post. I didn’t even know people visited this site, let alone cared enough to post a thoughtful comment 😉

    Pfff, when DOESN’T someone bring up nazi’s and hitler when they’re trying to put down another person’s beliefs: “oh yeah? well hitler was a _____” christian, atheist, vegetarian, etc.

  6. tinako says:

    I wasn’t clear – it’s the non-supernatural karma I find helpful, not the stereotypical divine justice (“My Name is Earl”) one. I think the Hindus believed karma was divine justice, and then the Buddha steered his followers away from that. But Buddhism is a pretty wide net, so probably not all Buddhists understand karma in the same way.

    Funny you mention Hitler as both a Christian and an atheist – just last night I read halfway through Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris in which he counters the H.W.a.A. argument with his own H.W.a C. argument.

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