I have a problem: I want to be a vegetarian. “So what’s the problem?” you might ask. I am half German and Germans tend to eat meat, a lot of meat. Not without reason every major city from Frankfurt to Nürnberg has a sausage named after itself.
But why bother at all? First of all, there are health reasons. I guess most of us are aware that especially red meat has a lot of saturated fats, cholesterol, purine, lacks vitamins (except the vitamin b-complex), and is mostly stuffed with antibiotics as well as steroids.
Excessive meat consumption is, therefore, responsible for a number of diseases from osteoporosis, to diabetes, to arthritis and obesity. That seems obvious, considering that humans are not natural meat eaters, but rather originally frugivores, judging by our teeth and digestive system.
Some people say that all necessary proteins can be obtained from vegetables, although most doctors would recommend to eat white meat approximately twice a week, in order to obtain those essential amino acids which are solely contained in meat. Hence, from the point of view of health, reduced meat consumption might be justifiable.
More important for me to overcome my Germanness, is the fact that meat consumption is taking a tremendous toil on our environment. Whether it may be the amount of vegetables, fossil fuels, and water, which are required to produce meat and which could be redistributed to those in need, or the methane emission of cows.
Closely linked to these factors is also the rising cost of meat. Because of the constantly growing demand of meat in the developing countries, the price will explode in the next decades. At least for me that should be a motivation, for German’s also have the reputation of being parsimonious.
Yet, the most important reason for me as a philosopher is a moral one. Is there any reason defending meat consumption? Perhaps survival? Except for some native tribes (mostly in the non-arable areas), no one is depending on meat for his life nowadays.
Some might say it is simply our superiority that permits us to kill ‘lower’ creatures. This thought is pretty common in the west and is supported by the Bible, which states that “everything that lives and moves will be food for you.” (Genesis 9:3)
This thinking leads us to an irresponsible “speciesism”, as the most eminent philosophical proponent of vegetarianism, Peter Singer, called it. Elating the human animal and his rights above other animals stands in line with western philosophical thought, which defined men as being human because of his or her rationality and virtue, in contrast to the negative, irrational part in us, our animalistic side.
Not only did this cause the distinction and suffering of a plethora of other species, biologist like Frans de Waal revealed that parts of our so called humane side, such as morality, find their origin within animals, who bequeathed us these capabilities to refine them.
If one argues that one is allowed to devour someone else, because of one’s superior intelligence, then why do we not do the same with half of the cabinet? In this case it is necessary to define worthy life, as the capability of suffering and enjoying, instead of intelligence, for this would depreciate, for instance, every retarded person or infant.
Or in Singer’s words: “If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans?”
An often mentioned example to support my argument: imagine, aliens with an IQ that surpasses our minuscule, self-destructive intelligence by far would come to this earth and start gulping down your family, because they are a relish, inferior in their intelligence, and not part of their species.
Nonetheless, there is a problem. Recent experiments have shown that trees and plants, too, are able to suffer in some abstract way. So should we not eat plants either? Here the argument does not hold, as we are depending on them for survival, the same way a lion is depending on meat.
Since the extent and the expression of suffering are totally different between a fearing animal and a plant or vegetable which appears indifferent (to us) about its ending, it seems obvious to eat greens. Still, we should not consume above our requirement.
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who was besides the approach to meat consumption impressed by the Indian culture, used the very same argument in order to justify meat consumption. According to him, with “the increase of the clearness of consciousness, suffering increases proportionally.”
And as we humans would suffer more without meat than an animal who is killed, Schopenhauer concludes that it is not immoral to eat meat. I think that is his German tummy speaking, not his brain, for I do not know anyone who suffered from becoming a vegetarian – rather on the contrary.
Lastly, intertwined with the moral argument, there is the spiritual argument. Many Hindus and Buddhist refrain from meat, due to the principle of non-violence (ahimsa) and since it has a negative impact on the spiritual development. Or why else would have every elated soul from Mahatma Gandhi to Guru Nanak Dev abstained from dead flesh?
Through meat consumption we ingest negative energy, as we absorb the fear and agony of the dead animal, so the argument goes. A couple of years ago an English study backed this claim empirically, by reducing the meat consumption of prisoners. As it turned out, the prisoners who eat vegetables instead of meat became less aggressive.
Eventually, I guess there is no argument that a human carnivore can use to vindicate him- or herself, but his or her social habit, or, as in my case, akrasia (weak will), as the Greeks called it.
Plato divided the soul in three parts, among them the appetitive and the rational part. I have the impression that the appetitive part and its yearning for the carnal savour is fighting against my rational part, which is instructing me to withstand the enticing butter chicken roll in front of me. It is my German side struggling against my Indian side.
This is the problem with philosophy: knowing does not automatically imply acting. But I am on the right track: I have reduced my meat consumption by more than 50%. Not too bad for a German, considering that we do not have so many varieties of delicious vegetable curries.
* Photo by Alastair Atkinson