Irrationally Speaking on vegetarianism.

Massimo Pigliucci’s blog Rationally Speaking is normally very good, but this post by contributor Julia Galef is just silly. The basic point she makes is that vegetarians are being irrational if they refuse to eat meat even if they receive it on a pizza by accident. Oh, and they should eat oysters also. (Odd that she cites Peter Singer as a reason to do so, since he talks about why he doesn’t in his book).

Having been a vegetarian for more than 20 years, I can say that Julia really has no clue about this. Most of the vegetarians I know do not consider meat to be food anymore. Many are even put off by it. So, seeing pepperoni on a pizza would render it unappealing or even unpalatable to many vegetarians, regardless of whether the animal was already dead and it was presented by accident. Also, it should be obvious that if one chooses to stop eating meat because they associate it with suffering, then this association does not simply vanish when one hasn’t actually asked for meat but receives it accidentally.

How to explain these persistent constraints to Julia? Maybe an analogy would work. Imagine you’re eating a delicious stew and you ask the chef what kind of meat is in it. He says, “dog” (or, if you prefer, “cat” or perhaps “endangered black rhino”). The animal is already dead, butchered, prepared, and served. So, by Julia’s logic, it would be irrational for you to stop eating the stew. In fact, given that you already do eat meat, and given that it’s pretty arbitrary which animals we consider food and which companions, any revulsion you might feel is even more irrational than a vegetarian removing pepperoni from a pizza.

It’s a surprising lapse in reasoning on an otherwise great blog.


5 comments to Irrationally Speaking on vegetarianism.

  • tkozak

    Hmm, I think that example (your stew is a pet!) actually just further emphasizes the point Galef is shooting for…the fact that a stew, which up until 5 seconds ago you considered delicious, suddenly becomes disgusting when you find out it is dog-meat IS irrational!  You said yourself that the distinction between food and non-food animals is arbitrary.  So what you seem to be saying is that because the average reader will likely  have a given irrational reaction, Galef is wrong for calling out vegetarians on a different irrational reaction.  That doesn’t work.
    However I don’t think you’re wrong overall.
    I think the real flaw with Galef’s argument is that she doesn’t accurately assess the thought process behind a vegetarian lifestyle (for moral vegetarians, that is…health-based is a completely different kettle).  The reasoning as I understand it is more like this: “Eating animals causes suffering, and my personal decision to not eat animal flesh is a statement which may in some small way discourage the general practice of causing suffering for food. Therefore, I do not eat meat.  Period.”    Whereas she seems to suggest some sort of case-by-case assessment of whether any particular mouthful causes the eater to create suffering, which is pretty unrealistic (if, perhaps, highly rational).  In other words, vegetarians do operate under a rational system, just not the one Galef asserts.
    Similarly, your point about the association between meat and suffering, and the revulsion vegetarians may come to feel for meat (not considering it food) is valid as it further illustrates the difference between the real vegetarian’s though process, and Galef’s bite-by-bite test process.  In actual life, a vegetarian has rational reasons for designating meat as non-food.  Again, for moral vegetarians a large part of this is the desire to not in any way support or condone the killing of animals for food as an acceptable act.  Eating the “accidental” pepperoni, or any meat, would break that rule, and this is why all meat is off-limits.  This is similar (Godwin alert!) to the decision not to use data from Nazi medical experiments even if it could save lives – the atrocities have already been committed, using the data would cause no NEW suffering, after all.  But there are rational reasons for declaring that information off-limits.  Or again, we have rational reasons for desiring to discourage human cannibalism, therefore we do not allow the eating of the already-dead, even though this would not cause murder.
    The other big issue here is that there’s a subtext of “…and therefore, people shouldn’t be vegetarians because it is irrational,” which brings out your reaction in defense of the rationality of vegetarians.

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    • So what you seem to be saying is that because the average reader will likely have a given irrational reaction, Galef is wrong for calling out vegetarians on a different irrational reaction. That doesn’t work.

      Similarly, your point about the association between meat and suffering, and the revulsion vegetarians may come to feel for meat (not considering it food) is valid as it further illustrates the difference between the real vegetarian’s though process, and Galef’s bite-by-bite test process.

      I wasn’t making the former tu quoque argument, I was using the example to illustrate the latter fact that no one, non-vegetarians included, decides bite by bite.

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  • The fact is there are at least two independent rationale to be a vegetarian, one of which is rational (the tremendous environmental cost of raising meat animals leading to pollution and global warming), and one which is emotional (someone who is, as you say, “put off by meat” for sentimental reasons). Someone who is the first sort of vegetarian won’t order meat in order to minimize his or her carbon footprint, but won’t throw a fit if meat is accidentally  served to them, as sending it back would only cause *more* environmental damage as the food would simply in all likelihood be thrown away.
     

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  • sylvia

    I think the thing to keep in mind is that there are so many people who are vegetarian in so many different ways for so many different reasons; it’s a label everyone identifies with differently, and therefore treats differently.

    I’m sure that in 20 years of vegetarianism, you’ve experienced, as I have, that uttering the phrase “I’m a vegetarian,” is necessarily followed by an interview:
    “What type?”
    “Why?”
    “Is it for health, or because you don’t want to eat animals?”
    “Do you eat fish?”
    “How about seafood?”
    “Are eggs okay?”
    “Do you want me to flip your veggie burger with a different spatula than I flip the other burgers?” (I have been asked this!)

    This is inevitable, if everyone defines their vegetarianism their own way, with their own reasoning–and we are perfectly allowed to do so!  Ultimately it’s a choice we are making to bring about a better world in some way, to live in accordance with our beliefs, and we each try the best we can.

    As often happens with labels, “vegetarian” is one that lacks scope and doesn’t represent all people in the group uniformly. I know I have trouble with it, because my definition has some flexibility as my reasoning is similar to Galef’s. So now I’m thinking “rational vegetarianism” just might fit…

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  • I do agree it’s rather hypocritical of non-vegetarians to deride vegetarians for being essentially picky about their food, and yet later go protest against eating dogs or whatever. See, as a carnivore, I take it all the way — I find nothing wrong with eating dogs or cats or whatever (How would a devout Hindu think of us eating cows, by the way?), as long as it tastes reasonable and doesn’t kill me. Those who do object to eating dogs, for example, automatically lose the right to criticise vegetarians for their choices.
     
    Also, there’s just so many types of vegetarians — I have a friend who, despite never having touched meat in her life, cooks lamb for her boyfriend. I find that particularly heartwarming =D  There’s also people who do it for moral and/or political or social reasons… ‘vegetarian’ is a rather polyphyletic category. Just my two cents…
    (I just have issues with anyone who prosyletises their morality and shoves it down everyone else’s throats, regardless of what that morality actually is and whether or not I agree with it. Don’t teach me how to live, and chances are, I’ll find you substantially less annoying ;-) )

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