I am neither a vegan nor a vegetarian. But I think that vegans definitely have the higher moral ground when it comes to ethical behavior, followed closely by vegetarians since they include all animals in the circle of compassion. But for some reason, some people take aim at them, trying to find areas in which they are not ‘pure’ in their avoidance of animal suffering and using that to accuse them of hypocrisy.
Ethicist Peter Singer is often the target of such scrutiny. He is a strong supporter of the animal rights movement and has taken many other strong ethical stances such as arguing that just as much as we would be willing to give up something to benefit our own children, so should we be willing to do the same to benefit children elsewhere on the globe whom we do not even know. People sometimes accuse him of not being consistent because the logical conclusion of his argument would be for him to give pretty much all that he owns to the poor since there is always someone worse off. Although he does give up a lot more than most people, the fact that he does not wear rags and live on the streets is taken by some as a sign that he is not being true to his beliefs.
This is unfair. It is not that hard to find inconsistencies between broad ethical principles advocated by anyone and their actual behavior because modern life is complicated and involves many unavoidable compromises unless one goes completely off the grid and lives the life of a hermit. If we dig deep enough, we will find that all of us violate out stated ethical principles in some way.
For example philosopher Andrew Smith argues that vegetarianism is impossible because plants also ‘consume’ meat and thus even if we eat only plants, we are indirectly eating meat and are at least indirectly complicit in the suffering of sentient beings.
Plants acquire nutrients from the soil, which is composed, among other things, of decayed plant and animal remains. So even those who assume they subsist solely on a plant-based diet actually eat animal remains as well.
This is why it’s impossible to be a vegetarian.
For example, many vegetarians cite the sentience of animals as a reason to abstain from eating them. But there’s good reason to believe that plants are sentient, too. In other words, they’re acutely aware of and responsive to their surroundings, and they respond, in kind, to both pleasant and unpleasant experiences.
Smith is, as philosophers are wont to do, taking his argument to the logical conclusion. But his point is not that we should give up on being vegans or vegetarians since he himself is a vegan but that we should be aware of how complex is the web of life that we are part of.
This larger view may have influenced the couple Matthew and Terces Engelhart who owned some highly regarded vegan restaurants and had been vegetarians themselves for 40 years and vegans for over a dozen. They decided to start eating meat and explained their reasons in a blog post. They said it was not a frivolous decision but based on what they felt was a more comprehensive view of the ecosystem, but also mixed up in their rationale was some stuff about Jesus and it being part of god’s plan for the world. They received very harsh criticism from the vegan community, including the death threats that seem to be the inevitable part of any internet mob reaction, for what was seen as a betrayal of vegan values. Abandonment by one’s allies is often harder to take than the behavior of those who have always been hostile to one’s views.
I suspect that charges of hypocrisy aimed by non-vegetarians at vegans and vegetarians in general and people like Singer in particular is because, having gone much further than we have in trying to minimize the suffering of animals, they make us feel uncomfortable about our own lifestyle choices. But the choice should not be between absolute purity or total indifference to animal suffering. Surely we can concede that all of us lie on a continuum and that striving to minimize our complicity in the suffering of animals is a worthwhile goal even in the absence of achieving 100% success?
My own meager contribution to this effort has been to reduce my consumption of meat and to try and find alternatives to factory farm products. I recognize it is pretty low on the scale and I try to inch higher.