Morality and animal welfare

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Right after I got out of grad school, I had a fight with a friend about veal.  Said friend loved veal, and more importantly, wanted to cook veal for me; I refused to eat it, which made him mad. It was not, he pointed out, consistent to care about veal calves but happily eat industrially farmed chicken.

"You're right," I said.  "I'm going back to being a vegetarian."

Surprisingly, this did not fill him with the thrill of victory.  He just got madder. "I don't want you to stop eating chicken," he said, exasperatedly, "I want you to start eating veal!"

Little did I suspect that I would be having some version of this conversation every time I dared blog about being a vegan.

Is it possible to be a vegan without judging other people?  It had better be, because I just don't have time to pass judgment on the overwhelming majority of people in the world who eat animal products.  Obviously, having decided that it's morally wrong to eat animal products, I can't exactly say that I think it's perfectly okay for other people to do so.  On the other hand, I recognize that the universe is a complicated place, and my moral judgements are imperfect.

Or maybe a better way to say it is that there are moral judgements, and then there are moral judgements. I wish more people would stop eating meat, but I also think it is possible to be a perfectly good, moral human being and still eat meat, in a way that I don't think it is possible to be a good moral human being and still rape twelve-year olds.  I have judged the behavior and found it wanting, but I do not judge, in any way, the people who indulge in it.  I think there's something wrong with eating meat, but I don't think there's anything wrong with meat-eaters.

If it makes you feel any better, I do eat animal products occasionally, when I am travelling and can't get anything else--I think that animal suffering deserves considerable, but not absolute, weight in moral calculations about diet.  Given the evidence that vegan children tend to be shorter and have lower IQs than non-vegan children, if I had children I would probably raise them vegetarian rather than vegan.  And I wouldn't feel bad about it, either, any more than I feel bad about animal drug testing.

But this isn't enough for many of my critics, who want me to never mention being a vegan, lest they feel bad.  Even better if I stopped being a vegan entirely, so that they wouldn't suffer with the knowledge that someone, somewhere, is enjoying a hearty bowl of split pea soup with tofu croutons.  Like most vegetarians, I suspect that my angriest critics are those who, like me, feel that eating meat is wrong--and therefore want me to do it too, so that they don't have to think about their own choices.  

Well, apologies, but I think that I have a moral obligation to be a vegan.  And I blog about it because many of my readers are vegan, and they like to read about it.  And also, because I'd like people to know that if you are thinking about animal welfare, being a vegetarian or a vegan is nowhere near as hard as you think it is--believe me, I never thought when I tried veganism for Lent that I'd be able to stick with it, but it's surprisingly easy to keep up with.

But the one reason I am not blogging about it is to make people feel bad.  First of all, this never works--if you tell people they're evil, they just get defensive.  Second of all, unless you are willing to wall yourself up in a PETA compound, it is not possible to have anything approaching decent interaction with other humans if you spend all your time judging their eating habits.  But third, and most importantly, I don't think they're evil.  It's okay.  Eat your double bacon cheeseburger.  I'll still love you every bit as much.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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