I go back and forth on writing about this topic, especially in the public setting. Many of you who normally read this blog will already know about my decision to become a vegan in the past year, so many apologies if you’ve already heard me speak about the ideas I’ll be bringing up in this post. As an additional disclaimer, I should note that this post is only speaking about my decision to become a vegan, and these reasons carry importance to me and my life, which does not mean that they carry importance or weight in your life or another’s.
Many think that becoming vegan has to do with becoming a more ‘hip’ person, and it’s not wrong that many have become vegan because of the image that the movement holds. (Queue the doctored Instagram post of someone posting their new açai bowl they just bought from the local vegan café.)
I do not belong to that movement.
Thinking back to the summer before I left for the UK, I was what I considered to be a non-dogmatic vegetarian. Namely, I wouldn’t buy or cook meat myself, but if I was offered meat I would eat it. After moving to London, I started taking the vegetarianism a little more seriously, but still ate meat here and there, especially after coming home for the holidays in December. However, a month after coming back to London from home, I decided that the cheese in the sandwich I was eating at the time would be the last bit of cheese I would eat, at least for the foreseeable future.
I remember that same month being dotted with a few articles by Peter Singer, and in my global ethics class we were asked to watch a short video of Peter Singer explaining his article, Famine, Affluence and Morality. I’ve talked about that article in previous posts, and I’m not intending to focus on the article here. However, Peter Singer made a passing remark in this video about being a vegetarian, going along the lines of, “I simply choose to not eat the flesh of another animal.”
It must have been the word flesh, or perhaps the mere simplicity in the way he said the phrase, that struck me – yes, this makes sense, why would I consume the flesh of another animal? So that’s the first ethical decision made – I didn’t want to be killing animals for their flesh, especially if 1) I could get my nutrients elsewhere and 2) it was not a necessity for me to eat an animal to survive.
If it wasn’t the last two listed reasons that also contributed to my being vegan over vegetarianism, I usually cite more reasons for making the choice to convert… firstly, a couple instrumental reasons (what we might consider ‘real world’ reasons that exist outside ideal theory): 1) dairy agriculture contributes, to the best of my understanding, to a worsening-by-the-day industry that is environmentally bad (taking up obscene amounts of water and contributing significantly to greenhouse gases) and 2) dairy farm animals, especially in countries like the US and the UK, are treated more like living pieces of meat and containers for milk as opposed to truly living, sentient beings. I might also think about a more intrinsic reason, that mainly being the fact that I can look an animal in the eye and live happily knowing that I don’t use, nor exploit (to any extent), their bodies for their products.
I could go on about these reasons, but the main point of this post is not to describe why I went vegan (because everyone has their own reasons for choosing to eat what they do). However, I’d like to highlight a difference in the reaction to veganism that I get here in the UK and in other societies like the US. (Disclaimer: this information is purely anecdotal and speaks only to my experiences, which can surely be argued further with other perspectives.)
Put simply, when it’s found out that I’m vegan in London, my actions are seen as morally commendable; others usually react with, “Yeah, I guess I could mainly go vegan, but my gosh I just couldn’t cut out the cheese. I love cheese.” Or, “Wow, props to you, man, I just love how good meat tastes.” A respectful conversation ensues about the benefits and shortcomings of veganism, and I usually come out of the conversation with a little more information from both sides, either helping me believe further in my ideals or spending more thought in why I actually eat this way.
However, at times when others (many belonging to the US, others living in Germany or France, others coming from predominantly Hispanic backgrounds) question me about my veganism, I feel more like I’m being put on trial for attacking one’s living relative: “Ahh, why do you have to be vegan? Don’t you miss cheese? Are you getting enough protein?” Or, “Yeah, I just feel like meals without meat just aren’t enough. Don’t you snack a lot throughout the day?” Or, “Isn’t it just more expensive to be a vegan?” Or, my favourite, “Nuts cannot be milked because they don’t have udders!!”
Regardless of how I may have made these comments seem (and my bias towards the comments), each respondent carries a valid concern, that which manifests when we start to realise how tied up food is in one’s culture.
I made it a point to use the word “ethical” when talking about my decision to become a vegan. There is, importantly, a key difference between the word “ethical” and the word “moral”, where one (‘ethical’) shows that the difference between right and wrong is contextually-dependent, where the other (‘moral’) implies that there are universal rights or wrongs. However, this does not mean that we can simply apply a context to an ethical problem and instantly get the correct ethical answer (we’re not doing algebra here).
What I mean to say is that I think being vegan is a bit easier in London because it’s a part of the culture, and the population of vegans is only increasing. However, we see that meat in countries in Central or South America revolve so greatly around meat that it would be absurd to think that giving up such a thing could happen in such a culture (think of Peruvian or Brazilian culture, perhaps).
This brings me to why I think my veganism is an ethical decision and not a moral decision (the answer *might* be different with vegetarianism, but even then I’m not so sure). Many (even the English) keep asking me what will come of my veganism once I’m in El Salvador (if this is the first time that I’m mentioning this, I’m sorry! Just stick with me here and you’ll get a life update soon). Essentially, my frame of ethics may happen to clash periodically with other culturally-developed ethical frameworks that I encounter, perhaps in deciding what to do if a family gives me a plate of food (out of Salvadoran hospitality) that contains any bit of animals.
The peculiar thing about ethics is that we must not ever realise that we have done the moral groundwork once, never having to reevaluate in the future. Because ethics is so contextually-dependent, we must not ever stop evaluating our ethical decisions in new contexts and frameworks. Even more, if we wish to believe that our personal ethical guidelines are in fact moral truth, the only way we could prove so was to find every single possible case in which the ethical decision in question could arise and see what happens. (Time’s a ticking!)
All joking aside, the key takeaway is that no matter what we believe is right or wrong in one context, we must always remain open to what another has to say or show us, for they might manage to give us a compelling-enough counter example to change our minds. As such, we must always remain constantly respectful of new situations and cultures around us.
It may be that I hope everyone I meet around the globe has a mutual love for a plant-based diet like me, but I have to realise that my veganism is an ethical choice, one that will continue to prod and poke at my body of ethics, keeping that body in a constantly dynamic state. If anything, some form of mutual respect will predominate any negative assumptions.
P.S. the penultimate paragraph is alluding to a difference I notice in English versus US politics – that of disagreement and open-minded listening versus disagreement and stubbornness to even hearing what the other side has to say. I might say, mind the difference!