A vegetarian experiment

Recently, my friends and I went to the NYC Maker Faire, and on the way back had a ~3 hour car ride. We got to talking about vegetarianism, saying how for the most part, despite most of us taking a devil’s advocate position at some point, we all agree that we don’t really have a defensible position for eating meat. Yet, we’re all fairly carnivorous. In fact, during the height of that conversation, we were going out of our way to get to a Five Guys burger place, so… the irony was not lost on us.

Anyway, we covered a lot of ground that I mostly won’t bring up here, because I’m sure it’s cliche and naive to anyone who is remotely involved in this. However, I thought there were a couple interesting points.

First is that, a thing we probably all kind of assumed was that, if you buy that human suffering trumps animal suffering (which I think is reasonable enough, and we all mostly agreed on) (i.e., ideally no creature suffers, but a human just has more capacity to feel and understand pain than like, a chicken or a clam), you can make this argument of, “well there’s currently a genocide/ethnic cleansing in XYZ place (for example, currently in Myanmar), that seems more important, why don’t you do something about that?”

Part of the argument isn’t bad; if there are different terrible things that are happening and you’d like to stop them, you should probably try and stop the worst ones first. But, in this case, another important detail is the personal cost/efficacy. For example, how, right now, would you do something about that genocide? I guess donations (but to whom? I’m guessing the problem isn’t that we can’t fund troops to send them there, it’s that gov’ts don’t want to get involved), but probably  “bother your congressman” is more effective, but even then… I dunno.

On the other hand, I can personally stop eating meat very, very easily. In fact, while working to stop a genocide on the other side of the world is a very active pursuit (i.e., you have to do something), not eating meat could be defined as the opposite of that (you just have to not do something harmful). Though, I get that almost anything could probably be phrased that way (that is, I’m not causing the genocide myself, so the problem is really at a different stage; for the factory farm case, we’re currently taking part in the killing), so it may not mean a whole lot. Regardless, the point is that the solution is much more obvious/easily realizable, and honestly kind of easy to do.

Another is that we seemed to mostly agree that we weren’t as bothered by the animal’s death as by its suffering. This is a bit morbid, but it seemed like if the animal was killed quickly and without too much fear (though I’m sure that gets messed up pretty often too), that didn’t bother us so much, but we don’t like the idea of a cow never being able to move its whole life. But that has a kind of uncomfortable implication for us. Vegetarianism fixes the death problem, but if we’re still eating eggs, milk, etc, the animals are still there, and may honestly lead worse lives than the meat creatures, because they’re made to stay alive longer. So it seems like vegetarianism may be a kind of stopgap solution, and veganism is the “right” one. Still, “perfect is the enemy of the good”, etc.

Another thing related to this. For an animal that doesn’t know it’s going to die and can’t comprehend its death, if it has an otherwise good life, this might justify bringing the creature into existence for the purpose of dying. I’ve heard this used to justify free range animals: they live a decent life, and then are killed some day without expecting it too much. My friends knew this as the “one bad day” theory (which is morbid but kind of funny). I’ve also heard various philosophers say that about justifying a creature’s existence: if you integrate the happiness and sadness over their whole life, and it comes out positive, it’s better for that creature to have existed than not (which has a “value” of “0”).

I’m actually a little uneasy about this argument more generally, because I think that if a creature doesn’t exist, that shouldn’t necessarily get marked down as “0”, it should be more like “not a number”. If this makes any sense, it feels like a very anthropomorphic (maybe?) argument; when you already exist like we do, and have had a family and friends and great experiences, the thought of having never existed seems like this terrible alternative. But it’s not really the same, because you wouldn’t miss it, because there would be nobody to miss anything. I see how the same logic might be applied to the nonexistence of death, but that seems different: you already do experience these things when you’re living, and you also know that people will miss you when you’re gone, which causes you current pain (aside from physical pain actually accompanying death).

Similarly, another problem I have with it is that, I don’t really think that “maximizing total theoretically possible happiness” is that great a pursuit… I.e., if I imagine a world with X really happy people, and you told me that we could actually bring into existence and support 2X really happy people, to be honest, I don’t feel any great need to do that. I get that there will be more happiness, total, and there would definitely be practical reasons to, but I don’t think it’s actually the “correct” moral choice.

Anyway, an obvious counterargument a vegetarian could give to “you should bring a well kept cow into existence to someday be killed” is, “if you’re willing to bring the cow into existence, why do you have to kill it at all? Couldn’t you just bring it into existence and also be a vegetarian?” I don’t think this would have the “maximizing happiness” effect though, because far more cows will be brought into existence if there’s the driving market force of people wanting to eat them. Sure, ideally we all have 20 optional pets that we raise just to have more happiness in the world, but that’s definitely not the low hanging fruit in this situation. So, a question for a vegetarian might be, if you get to choose that there are either 1M cows in the world, all leading happy lives and dying naturally, or 100M cows, and they also lead good lives, but are painlessly killed one day, which would you choose?

Anyway, so far this has all been rambling thoughts and speculation (if only I could somehow get paid for that). The second half of this is more practical: at some point during our conversation, someone suggested that we try a short term experiment, going vegetarian for a month!

(Keep in mind that this conversation was literally happening while eating burgers.)

Somehow, everyone was surprisingly enthusiastic about it. So, since that meal we’ve all (except for a certain weener who started late) been vegetarian. Here are a few observations, so far, in no particular order.

It’s not really that hard, which we mostly predicted. Don’t get me wrong, I love the taste of meat, but to be honest I rarely cook it myself these days. That’s partly because of my living situation at the moment (subletting for a few months), but I never really cooked meat for just myself that much; it’s generally more of a pain to prepare (and how are you supposed to catch all the squirrels? They’re so quick). So, it literally hasn’t changed my home eating habits at all. Similarly, lunches/dinners I buy for myself are easy. I was mostly getting Chipotle salad bowls anyway, so changing the meat to the tofu was barely noticeable.

The one slightly hard part has been when I’ve had to go out to eat with people, at a restaurant I didn’t choose, for two reasons. The first is that, and I never really realized it before, at some restaurants, they actually have very few vegetarian dishes. My lab recently went out for a goodbye lunch at a local Greek restaurant, and there were only two or three entrees without meat. I mean, not a tragedy, but pretty few choices. Similarly, I’m noticing that the vegetarian dishes are usually kind of…unimpressive, but not because they don’t have meat, just incidentally. That is, taking the Greek place as an example, the veggie dishes were eh, whereas there were meat dishes that I would have loved (moussaka!) even without the meat; they were just better dishes that I guess they don’t bother making meatless at some places.

Another interesting part has been the different receptions we’ve gotten. My mom is a health nut, and was pretty excited and enthusiastic when I told her about our experiment. She visited this weekend, and insisted on cooking a huge vegetarian (turned out to be unintentionally vegan, actually) meal for us. On the other hand, my friend Ben also recently went home and reported back that his family was (playfully) giving him minor shit. Then again, like 80% of the reason to have kids is to tease and bother them, so I get it. So far I don’t think any of us have gotten any actual aggressive responses, but to be fair we’ve also basically just brief tourists to this lifestyle (we’re not like this is who I am now mom GOSH LEAVE ME ALONE).

Related to the accidental vegan meal, we’ve all agreed from talking that being vegetarian is pretty easy so far, but veganism would be a real hurdle for a couple reasons. One is the feeling of “fullness”. My friend Will and I were talking about it the other night. I had just made an enormous vegetarian Italian meal for us: garlic bread, stuffed shells, with tomato/spinach sauce roasted on top. As you’d expect, we filled our greedy maws and rolled around moaning, feeling very satisfied. When we managed to become mobile again and were biking home, Will and I remarked that it was easy to get this satisfied, “heavy” feeling without meat, but it’d be pretty hard to do without eggs and cheese. My mom’s vegan meal was massive, and I felt absolutely stuffed, but it was still somehow unsatisfying. I mean, maybe that’s actually healthy; maybe your eyes aren’t supposed to defocus and roll back into your head when you eat OR WHATEVER, but I’d still definitely miss that sometimes.

The other thing is that it’s pretty obvious when something’s vegetarian or not, if you go out to eat at a restaurant or friend’s house. But dairy/eggs are just in everything, so if you wanted to be truly vegan, you’d have to either go to special places, or get things you could be really sure are vegan, or be the annoying vegan guy who asks the waiter. Also, vegan ice cream…ugh. It’s like a joke trope at this point, a vegan being like “no, I know what you think, but this vegan ice cream is actually really good! And not just for vegan ice cream, it’s actually good!”

And yet… it never is. My working hypothesis is that they must have forgotten how good actual ice cream is.

One last thing is that it’s definitely changing the profile of what I eat. With meat, my ideal lunch/dinner was very protein heavy, carb-light (think Chipotle salad bowl with meat, no rice, extra beans). This is a little harder to do vegetarian.

Anyway, this has been fun so far. We seem to be taking different tacks as well. I’m mostly going for a minimal thing, whereas my friend Liz is getting adventurous and trying new recipes and ingredients she wouldn’t otherwise do. I think several of us have said that, though we probably won’t stick to this when the month is done, we probably will change our diets a little. For example, I think it wouldn’t be too bad to get rid of beef; it’s not really my favorite meat anyway and I feel for cows a lot more than I do for chickens (and I really don’t give a shit about most seafood animals. I mean, a clam? They’re like a fuckin rock that happens to also filter water).

Similarly, I think it would be interesting to try a few other variants as well, to judge their relative difficulty/pain levels. One might be, you can eat meat, but it has to be free range/private college educated/whatever animals only. So, the pain would really be in our pockets (with, by extension, probably a bit less meat eating overall). This would be interesting, since it’d be difficult for a different reason. It’d have a similar thing as to the vegan problem of needing to know the source; you could either go to places you know treat their animals well (shoutout to Chipotle once again, now where’s my sponsorship?), or be the annoying Portlandia source-asking guy, or just play it safe and get something vegetarian. We could also try “pescetarianism” or whatever, and maybe, if we really want to feel the pain someday, a month of veganism. It’d have to be in a very different life setting than where I am now, but I think it’d also be very good to try only eating meat you raised and/or killed yourself (chickens, hunting, etc). That would make the reality of the death that we’re normally only implicitly causing very “real”, which I bet would make you feel some way you really wouldn’t any other way. You might decide that killing a chicken is not as big a deal as you thought, or you might get so nauseated meat would never even be desirable to you again.

Boy, talk about ending on a happy note… cheerio!

One thought on “A vegetarian experiment

  1. The attempt to quantify a worthwhile life based on happiness (or even usefulness) is rough. You can start by saying the life is worthwhile if the happy days outnumber the bad ones, but I’m sure plenty of people would say that a life of great days with a week of hard, otherwise unrewarding work in between each would be well worth it. So you apply a multiplier of at least 6 to every happy day to measure its worthiness. If one happy day every two weeks, at least 13. Where do you stop, Declan Oller of Declan Oller’s Meat Learn? What about the “one *good* day” situation: Is a long, miserable life with a single good day worth living?

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