Monday, October 16, 2017

The ethics of talking about the ethics of eating

It’s not uncommon to hear someone at a meal asking the vegan in the room “So, why are you vegan?”, often said while biting into a chicken leg. Similar to asking a person who came alone to the party “Do you have a significant other?”, or asking “Where are you from?” when we detect an unfamiliar accent in someone’s speech, confronting the vegan with such a question is a common and accepted practice that is however much more complex than may appear. Asking “why are you vegan?” forces the interlocutor into a web of complicated ethical questions, and drags the one who asks into it, too. Before asking, we should pause and consider whether we want to impose this on the interlocutor, who most likely just wants to eat their meal, and whether we are actually ready to get entangled in that ethical web.

Let me share a story. It happened to a friend; let’s call them Vegan. Vegan had one of those professional dinners during which everyone is supposed to relax after a long day of work conversations and planning collaborations, and get to know each other better in a more informal setting. Potential Collaborators knew that Vegan was vegan, and, when organizing the dinner, they made sure the fancy restaurant had vegan options. However, as it often happens, what the restaurant staff understood as “vegan options” were less than stellar. “They can have the side dishes, boiled green beans or spinach” said the waiter. ”Or the pasta without sauce”. Potential Collaborators looked at each other in silence. “Those are vegan”, added the waiter, showing signs of impatience. Having their veganism put on the spot was an uncomfortable, but – alas - a rather familiar situation to Vegan. Vegan mustered some excitement about an order of boiled spinach. Meals were served. The waiter placed in front of Potential Collaborators a chunk of salmon framed by roasted potatoes and zucchini, a carrousel of lamb ribs accompanied by mushrooms and carrots, and two servings of some part of a cow surrounded by a steaming mix of vegetables. On a smaller plate, the waiter placed in front of Vegan a pile of boiled spinach. The conversation, which had a pleasant flow until then, stumbled. Potential Collaborator 1 apologized, followed by Potential Collaborator 2, and before 3 and 4 could join in Vegan enthusiastically expressed their profound love for boiled spinach, and their satisfaction with the meal. For a moment it seemed as if they could just laugh at the absurdity (why were all those colorful veggies inaccessible to Vegan?) and overcome the awkwardness. Vegan inquired about the wine, desperate to diffuse the attention from their clumsy pile of boiled spinach. Great effort was invested from all parties in recovering the conversation. But then, it happened. Potential Collaborator 2 inquired “So, why are you vegan?”. At this point Vegan gave up and accepted this was going to be an uncomfortable night all along. Vegan summarized their (moral) arguments, and added how becoming vegan brought the satisfaction of finally feeling coherent, behaving in line with their values. As Vegan talked, Potential Collaborators suspended their meat-eating. “You shamed us” said 1, with a sincere, quiet look, and an increasing sense of internal incoherence (this I’m hypothesizing, it was not included in the story my friend told) (I also hypothesize that Potential Collaborators 2, 3 & 4 felt slightly annoyed at the thought of working with someone with what seemed like a sense of moral superiority). The relaxed conversation was never recovered. Collaboration never occurred.

Was my friend self-righteous, as vegans are often portrayed? Vegan was forced to behave as if they were so. Think about it: you are about to eat your meal and are asked why you hold a set of morals that diverge from everyone else’s in the room. Unless you start trashing your own values, whatever you say is going to question everyone else’s moral stance. Do we want to impose that burden on our interlocutor? We are often unaware of the moral streaks in seemingly innocent questions. 

Consider the two examples from before: when you ask the single in the room about their significant other, you are subjecting them to the not-always-welcome assumption of amatonormativity, assigning inflated social value to monogamous romantic relationships; when you ask “where are you from?”, you are conveying the way the interlocutor speaks seems to you more relevant than the content of what they are saying (you might additionally assume that your past trip to that country is something your interlocutor is interested in learning about). 

I’m issuing a warning here: be aware of the hidden moral magnitude of these questions. The vegan, like the single or the non-native, might have zero interest in getting dragged into a moral deliberation. They can actually be especially unenthusiastic about those questions (the vegan would rather eat than justify, again, what they eat, the single avoids that question at every social event, while the non-native gets it several times a day). Are you sure you want to invite into the conversation the moral spill-over that will ensue? And if so, do you think that using someone’s oddity as a trigger for moral considerations about that very oddity is a good way to go? If you still find good reasons to ask, consider then whether you are ready to engage in a good argument without getting defensive about your meat, your marriage or your assumed cosmopolitanism.

There are many interesting questions to discuss about the ethics of eating. For example, arguments in favor of veganism/vegetarianism might be based on attributing intelligence to non-human animals, or the capacity to feel pain. They can appeal to the economic and environmental inefficiency of animal farming, to the morality of torturing and killing animals, or they can be the inevitable conclusion of a strong commitment not to contribute to objectification, exploitation and violence. Arguments in favor of eating meat, on the other hand, might appeal to naturalness, cultural values, or economic accessibility. Some appeal to the idea that vegetarianism sets priorities wrong: with so many human needs, animal welfare is not the priority (Tania Lombrozo has a good response to this: being good isn’t a zero-sum game). All these questions bring together considerations from different disciplines (e.g. philosophy of mind, environmental studies, psychology, ethics) and are worth long discussions. These discussions are better had voluntarily (and preferably not while eating).

If when sitting next to a vegan at lunch, you feel the pull to ask “why are you vegan?”, consider whether the occasion invites or can handle the moral weight of that. The vegan might be just interested in eating their spinach.

Saray Ayala-López
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


  1. Saray, thanks for this cool piece. I love philosophy that concludes in some useful advice.

    I think I do not agree with your conclusion that Vegan was forced into ruining the evening like that. I think they could simply have replied, "Well, we could talk about this if you really want to, but in my experience the reasons I give tend to make non Vegans uncomfortable, so it might be better not to risk derailing us from our purpose in getting together tonight." In fact, I think you could make an argument that any vegan should become adroit with this reply. Of course it would be better if people thought a little bit more before they asked a question like that.

    The other thing I think is that Vegan's interlocutors are thin-skinned wimps. I HATE people like that :) They ask a question, they get an honest answer, and their feelings get hurt. Grow up. In this sense I don't think the problem is asking the question; it's being the sort of person who can't handle the answer.

  2. Saray,

    As someone who often asks the question "why are you [X]" at the most inconvenient times, I want to say a word on behalf of those who might be seen as prying when [X] is filled in with 'Vegan.'

    Sometimes the reason is just to discover whether the reasons for being X are (as you put it) 'moral' or whether they are merely (merely!) 'biographical' or 'prudential' or something else.

    And this is often the only reason for asking the question. Like "oh, for the typical moral reasons." Or "it's the way I always grew up" or "I have a mix of moral and non-moral reasons." I remember one time being answered by "well, I figure slavery is just as bad as murder." To which I replied, "huh. Good point." (It was a family meal, with my kids and their kids running around, and there wasn't either time or interest in either person to debate it further.)

    Maybe this comes from the fact that my advisor was a person who wrote about 'moral vegetarianism' a lot, and was quick to distinguish it from the other kinds of vegetarianism then current--not "immoral" (!), but merely non-moral, based on health or culture or whatever.

    Still, your post has got me thinking. After all, I also have a strong disposition to try to make folks feel at ease, and not put on the spot, whether they are in the role of Vegan or Potential Collaborators. And I often do find myself avoiding potentially sensitive topics for precisely the reasons you advance in this piece. Life's too short to always be dragged into debating the moral questions of life.

    At the same time, I think there is some responsibility on the part of the answerer of such questions to calibrate their responses in such a way as to achieve their other goals for the evening.

    For example, although it's not typically as evident from the items I eat, there are plenty of things people could ask me about at a meal that could prompt an honest answer from me which would derail the evening's discussion quite a bit.

    But if I get asked those questions, I do often have the option of giving an honest, though abbreviated, answer, which politely redirects the conversation to other things. "Don't get me started" is one way (not my favorite!). "Ah, that's a big question, which I'd love to discuss more some other time, but my quick, hand-waving answer is [P]" is another.

    I guess my bottom line here is that perhaps there is a responsibility to think before you ask potentially awkward questions, and a responsibility to think before you give potentially awkward answers. (Where 'awkward' is a function both of the content of the topic being discussed, and the context of the discussion.)

  3. I tend to agree with Saray and generally avoid asking personal questions (because I’ve grown to hate being asked personal questions).

    The personal questions we ask may just be a way to make small talk or express some genuine curiosity. But they also may reveal our beliefs and biases about what is normal—the things that do not attract attention and require investigation--and what is abnormal. Those who participate in what is perceived as abnormal have to bear this additional burden in society of explaining themselves. We may believe that it is not fair to impose this additional burden on some segment of the population. It may not be a huge burden (as Randy and Russell say, not every question has to invite a long, uncomfortable conversation), but it is a burden nonetheless—one that is borne by certain individuals and not others and one that can be compounded as the things that are perceived as abnormal intersect.

    On the other topic raised here, the ethics of eating meat, I think there is more than one morally defensible view.

    Veganism: no use of animal products

    Vegetarianism: no eating of meat, but use of some animal products

    Conscientious omnivore: selective eating of meat and use of animal products

    As a person who tries to be a conscientious omnivore, I’m not making excuses for my meat-eating habits or striving to be a vegan, but not there yet. Instead, I’m against the use of animals for experimentation, the hunting of animals for pleasure alone, and the mass production of meat for human over-consumption. But I’m not against eating meat.

    Here’s why (and these thoughts could be further developed). I apply a standard of justice that relies as a baseline on nonhuman animals in their natural habitats or species-appropriate environments. A violation of justice occurs when we intentionally do something that places nonhuman animals below the baseline. I also do not assume that death is itself a bad thing; there can be good and bad deaths. We can imagine a world where human animals hunt nonhuman animals for meat and predatory nonhuman animals hunt other animals for meat. Such things may occur without running afoul of my standard of justice. However, my standard of justice is violated (1) when we consume more meat than necessary or healthy; (2) when we engage in practices that involve additional pain and suffering beyond what an animal would experience in its natural habitat, or (3) when we contribute to conditions that (a) create dependency (e.g., captivity) and/or invoke additional duties (of care, including with respect to (2) above) and (b) we violate these additional duties. My view is motivated by the practices of some indigenous peoples, who also ate meat (and engaged in other practices involving nonhuman animals) in a way that avoided (1), (2), and (3). If a Native American hunted and killed a buffalo to feed his family, is this morally wrong? If a grizzly bear seeking food attacked and killed me, is this morally wrong. What makes these acts *morally* wrong depends on an intentional violation of some standard of evaluation.

    I should also stress that I’m *trying* to be a conscientious omnivore (and am not always successful). I also recognize that I’m in a position to spend an extra amount every week just to purchase meat that supposedly has been produced without violating (1), (2), and (3).

  4. thank you Randy, Russell, and Chong, for your comments.
    Randy, I wonder if Vegan would have been seen as even more self-righteous and would have spoiled the dinner even more if they would have said what you propose. Doesn't that sound a little bit like "hey, I'm not only more careful when eating, I'm also a good person and I'm going to warn you that this is a risky question you are asking". I'm issuing exactly that warning here, but I'm not sure I would do that in response to the "why are you vegan?" question... Or maybe I would!

    Russell, you are right that it is not always moral reasons that bring people to veganism, so that question doesn't necessarily open the moral pandora box.

    Chong, yes, we agree on that. About your defense of conscientious meat-eating, that is very interesting. I wouldn't say that a native american hunting for food is doing a morally working thing. Some people would respond to you that if you can afford avoiding inflicting the pain, objectification, and/or death involved in meat eating, then you have good reasons to stop eating meat. This response is also intended to address the fact that being vegan/vegetarian is sometimes might not be the cheapest option (if you want to stay healthy, and depending on the available options around you).

    1. Saray, I don't think so. I don't really even think the original reply has to come off as self-righteous in order to have the effect you attribute to it. But if you imagine someone basically just communicating that it is a really long discussion and they don't want to compromise the evening with it, that doesn't strike me as a self-righteous reponse. But I'm a bad one to ask, because I don't think I would respond the way that your imagined wimpy interlocutors did either.

  5. Saray,

    As a fellow vegan, I'm sure it comes as no surprise to say I fully understand where you're coming from and appreciate your detailed articulation of a frustration I've encountered more than a few times. I've rarely felt put out by being asked why I'm vegan, but it took me a long time to figure out how to answer in a way that didn't make me come across as judgmental (and I'm still not sure I always succeed.) It's very difficult to speak my reasons clearly, convey the gravity of the issue and my convictions regarding it, while at the same time not alienating my interlocutors. I like to think of myself as a good ambassador for veganism, but like all matters of diplomacy it can be tricky.

    But in the interests of challenging your thesis, I'm tempted to turn the query on it's head. Maybe my inclination to diplomacy and your friend's inclination to polite decorum are, themselves, morally objectionable. Perhaps, given grotesque moral treatment of animals in modern agriculture, the environmental impacts of factory farms, and the consequences for the global poor, vegans shouldn't be so concerned with decorum. Maybe we should be more evangelical, more passionate and public in our advocacy. This is not to say we should be jerks or do things that we know will be counterproductive, but it is to say that perhaps we should care more about trying to improve the situation and less about the comfort of ourselves or the people we're talking to.

    To wit: maybe when someone asks 'why are you vegan?' we shouldn't hold back the unvarnished truth, regardless of the social consequences. If this means we burn some bridges, maybe that's a price worth paying.

    1. that's a good point, Garrett. I'm resistant to evangelical moves. Also, and sadly, we all know that people are not convinced by arguments! (I also resist this!). But maybe, as you suggest, we have a duty here.

  6. I’m planning to write a post on the ethics of eating meat in a future post (rather than going off track here), but one thing that comes to mind that is relevant both to talking about X and X, is whether veganism is effective in convincing others about the need for reform. There are gradual and more drastic positions on such issues and the gradualist position may be normatively preferable because of its effectiveness. The vegan, whether tactful or otherwise, may not convince many to change the “grotesque moral treatment of animals in modern agriculture” (as Garret nicely put it).

    Drastic Position (DP): Don’t eat meat.

    Gradualist Position (GP): Eat humanely raised meat and eat less meat.

    Between DP and GP, GP may be more effective in causing the industry to evaluate how meat is raised and strive to do this more humanely. GP also may gain support with the broader population and cause people to be mindful about their consumption. While both bring awareness to the ethical issues, DP may do this in a way that keeps the goal so far beyond reach (for different reasons, e.g., people's preferences and institutionalized conditions).

    It also may be the case that GP is normatively preferable for other reasons beyond its effectiveness (as I will argue later) and both GP and DP, if we’re honest, rely on metaphysical or meta-ethical assumptions that are themselves controversial (re: the moral status of nonhuman animals). What GP also has going for it is that it is compatible with many different starting points (rather than suggesting that those who do not believe that a cow is their moral equal are just unenlightened) and, for this reason, is likely to have more traction.

    1. I'm looking forward to reading your post on this, Chong. My first thought when reading you was that a diet of humanely raised meat is more expensive and a vegan diet, and this would be a minus for the Gradualist Position, for not many people can afford that type of diet (the vegan diet can be, though, more expensive compared to one that includes non-humanely raised meat. A bunch of carrots is often more expensive than a burger).