Monday, May 07, 2012


This is the winning entry in an essay competition that appeared in the NYTimes magazine, about the ethics of eating meat. It's quite enlightening to go to The Ethicist section in the magazine and read an overview of the contest entries, judging process etc. But this essay is written in what I consider an enviably balanced and reasonable tone.


I was interested to notice a point made by The Ethicist, Ariel Kaminer, in her essay introducing the results of the competition. She makes the point that meat-eating is connected to wealth and offers as proof that much more meat is consumed in wealthy nations. She adds, "In any case, a vast number of the world’s ethical vegetarians live in India." I think she's suggesting that since India is a poor country, it's not surprising that a majority of Indians are vegetarians.

But is it true that Indians are "ethical vegetarians"? I'm not so sure about that. The proportion of high- to low-caste Indians would definitely suggest otherwise -- i.e., since there are larger numbers of Indians of low caste and since strict vegetarianism is an upper-caste feature, it follows that a majority of Indians are meat-eaters. They may not actually get much meat because of the expense involved -- so they're vegetarian by default -- but they would eat meat if they got it. I have also read that manual laborers cannot actually "afford" to be vegetarian because hard physical labour requires a greater amount of protein than a pure vegetarian diet can deliver on a limited budget.

And again, I wouldn't say that even those Indians who are traditional vegetarians are "ethical" in their choice of food. They don't eat meat because they've been raised to consider it disgusting. Plus, eating meat can result in loss of caste purity and, by association, social status.

I certainly have friends who don't eat meat because they believe it's wrong to deprive a sentient being of life -- but the much vaster majority of the vegetarians I have known are merely following the dietary plan within which they've been raised, because being vegetarian is intrinsic to "who they are". Similarities can be found amongst those meat-eaters in the West who are horrified at the thought of eating dog- or whale-meat (and horse-meat amongst the non-French!) -- the distaste is real, but it's based on culture rather than ethics or cold logic.

Me? I would love, for ethical reasons, to be vegetarian. But I'm not. As it happens, I eat very little meat -- maybe half a dozen times in a month -- and I never crave it or miss it if I happen to be a guest in an entirely meatless household. But when it's offered to me, I enjoy it, try to be mindful of the Life Force as I eat it and do my best never to waste it.

No comments: