The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates recently wrote two posts on why he’s “going vegetarian.” One thing that always seems to happen when someone discusses their decision to become vegetarian is that people take umbrage–as thought they’re being personally attacked. Some of TNC’s commenters fall into this category.
One argument made there–and one that comes up with surprising frequency–is that vegetarians (and vegans) are being irresponsible by “dropping out” of the meat production system instead of working for change “from within.” One of TNC’s commenters writes:
I would argue that vegetarianism is in fact the easy way out: removing oneself from the problems of meat consumption and societal harm it causes doesn’t necessarily change anything–even on a personal level.
There are a few problems with this argument. First, it cuts both ways: if my going veggie doesn’t necessarily change anything (presumably because one person’s impact is too small), then how would my buying “ethical” meat change anything? Second, there’s nothing preventing vegetarians from working on a societal level to reform the practices and institutions of food production. (The Humane Society’s Wayne Pacelle is a good example: he’s a vegan who is ruthlessly pragmatic in working for factory farming reforms.) Third, I’m willing to bet that vegetarians are more likely, on average, to be involved with efforts to reform and find alternatives to our industrial food system than their meat-eating counterparts.
It’s also strange to suggest that it would be somehow bad to “remove oneself form the problems of meat consuption.” Would it be bad to remove oneself from the problems of clothes made in sweatshops or produce harevested by exploited workers if it were possible? And besides, surely no one is obliged to eat meat.
Ultimately the motive for ethical vegetarianism (and veganism) isn’t just to effect change in an obvious consequentialist sense. It’s an act rooted in a desire for integrity, of opting out of the products of an industry that is cruel and unjust. There is moral value in simply refusing to participate in some practices, even if others don’t follow suit, and even if doing so doesn’t bring those practices to a halt.