University of Chicago philosophy and law professor Brian Leiter recently conducted a poll on his blog, Leiter Reports, that sought to measure the eating habits of philosophy students and teachers. More than 2,000 votes were cast. Here are some of the findings:
- Eight percent of respondents were vegans (a rate 10-20 times higher than the population at large);
- Twenty-five percent were vegetarians (a rate about 8 times higher than the population at large);
- Sixty-seven percent were carnivores;
Yet, as one could expect given that the survey involves philosophers, things are more complex than they appear. Almost one-quarter of vegetarians, and one half of carnivores, said they had ethical doubts about their eating practices. Leiter suspects that the vegetarians with doubts think they really ought to be vegans. On the other hand, carnivores are likely mulling over the arguments for a vegetarian lifestyle.
Perhaps the most surprising finding was that only five percent of respondents said ethical reasons were central as to why they eat meat. Think about that for a moment: sixty-seven percent of philosophers eat meat, but only five percent claim that their reasons for doing so are very important to them.
If you’re interested, Leiter has more insight and a discussion going on his blog.
Many people believe that obesity is caused by a lack of moral fiber. That is, those who are overweight are in their situation because they lack the willpower necessary to keep in shape. If only they had a stronger backbone, they’d be fit.
But this is simply not the case, says Zoe Williams in the Guardian.
There is a widespread underestimation, or blank refusal to admit, how much cheaper cheap food really is. It became a mantra of the mainstream, as obesity started to define the pathology of this century, that the problem was not poverty, it was education. This was based on two facts. The first was that everybody, except affluent women, was getting fatter. So it couldn’t be related to poverty, since it was hitting upper-middle class men.
The second was that an organic vegetable box would always be cheaper than a pack of Findus Crispy pancakes; therefore the more healthily you ate, the less you would spend. And I saw plenty of counter-arguments to that, identifying poor eating habits as a result of deprivation. One was that people with kids and very little money can’t afford to waste food, so have to buy things that children are likely to eat, which more or less means food with too much salt and not enough fresh vegetation. Another was that people battling food scarcity tend to overeat when food is available, and depending on what they’re overeating, a missed meal the next day won’t compensate for that.
Both of those propositions make sense, but I rarely heard people say, just look at the phenomenal value for money, calories-per-penny in a McDonald’s. It blows your mind how cheap a £1 cheeseburger is; crisps are even cheaper. Cheap foods are fatty, and the whole point of fat is satiety. If you look at fresh vegetables in the old-fashioned way, as fuel, rather than the modern way, as an embodiment of morality and self-governance, they are terrible value, especially the organic ones.
So, why do people make sloth argument? And what are the implications of thinking about obesity differently?
I think there’s an element of projection here, where people who can afford to eat well – and do – still secretly yearn for a Big Mac, and it’s their own yearning rather than political deliberation that makes them think they’re looking at a lack of willpower from the McDonald’s classes. But this has nothing to do with willpower.
I understand this strenuous avoidance of reality. Once you accept that crap food is an economic, not a moral choice, you have to accept a whole raft of unpleasant outcomes as a function of deprivation, not an illustration of a lack of backbone. You have to accept that 24,000 “lifestyle-related” yearly deaths from diabetes are related not to sloth but to poverty. Sure, it’s still a lifestyle, but it’s not a choice. You have to accept that the education agenda against obesity – vegetables and regular exercise – will never work (that should be obvious, just by looking at the data or, failing that, just by looking around).
By Michael De Dora
I became a vegetarian in early 2008 because, after a good deal of thought, I decided that eating non-human animals was immoral. I judged that using animals for the sake of pleasure was wrong, and I adopted the moral stance of vegetarianism. Nearly three years later, I am still a vegetarian. Yet the moral basis for my position has changed. Allow me to explain.
I made the switch from omnivore to vegetarian on or around Feb. 18, 2008. That day marked the largest ground beef recall in United States history, after the government learned that cattle unfit for consumption were entering the food supply. Undercover videos shot by the Humane Society showed factory workers kicking and prodding cows with forklifts to get them into the slaughterhouse. I did more research into how animals are treated at factory farms, and my conscience was shaken. How could we treat sentient animals in such ways? I quickly concluded that the factory farming system is inherently bad, as it treats animals as commodities not worthy of moral concern, and I became a vegetarian. I haven’t eaten meat since that day.
However, I now see a flaw in my reasoning. I equated the treatment of animals to the killing of animals. My concern was not the act of killing, but the suffering these animals would endure (and even that is a complex debate, of course, for not all non-human animals have the same capacity to feel pain). I never had a reason to oppose the consumption of animals per se, I only objected to treating them poorly.
Many vegetarians (and vegan, but let’s stick with one position) argue that we should not use animals as a means to some end, but as inherently important, worthy of certain rights and protections. This is a morsel from Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy. Kant argued that every human being is deserving of respect (i.e., moral concern) because of its cognitive faculties – its autonomy, ability to reason, make free choices, and plan for the future. Vegetarians would have us expand this to non-human animals. But there is no reason to suppose that animals have such capacities, and I see little reason – judging from scientific evidence and philosophical thinking – to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Here, then, is where we reach an interesting juncture: if there are no compelling ethical reasons to not kill animals for food, then vegetarianism risks degenerating from a moral stance to the level of preference.
Then again, there may be other compelling reasons in favor of the vegetarian stance. An immediate and undeniable one is the manner in which meat is typically produced, as it relates to the animals themselves.* In the U.S., factory-farmed animals are treated horribly. This matters because of the fact that animals are sentient – that is, they can feel or perceive pain. Thus, one could argue that eating meat is immoral given how the meat is produced. This would once again make vegetarianism a moral stance. This is now the basis of my vegetarianism. In fact, I have realized that it was all along.
Of course, vegetarians like myself can’t just sit out the meat-eating game and claim the highest moral ground. We also need to go out and make our moral case. The means by which humans produce meat for mass consumption are largely immoral, but they need not be so. And I think the key is to focus on improving how we “use” sentient animals. Simply put, we ought to treat the animals that we do eat well before they are killed. Not only do I think this is the correct moral argument to make, but it also seems that it would be more acceptable to society because it’s not really asking very much.
Yet, even if these changes were made, I think I still wouldn’t eat meat. That would no longer be because I think it is morally wrong – it would be because I simply don’t prefer it any longer.
* I specify that this consideration centers on animals because this could also lead to a discussion of the damage that mass meat production does to the environment. This is an important issue, but I didn’t have the time to expand on it in this essay. More here. But notice that we need not completely cut off meat production to make significant improvements in this area.
Note: this essay was first published on the blog Rationally Speaking in January 2011. In the coming months, I will be republishing many of my articles that previously appeared elsewhere in an effort to house more of my work here.