“Hey Naomi, do you want this piece of bacon?”
“No thanks, I’m a vegetarian.”
I’m an ethical eater. Although I suppose my ethics extends past what I put in my mouth, I quite like the alliteration of the moniker I came up with so I prefer to call myself that. Well actually, seeing as “ethical eating” isn’t exactly a recognised thing yet I pretty much just call myself a vegetarian. As a general rule this works pretty well as it means I don’t have to launch into a full fledged explanation of my value system over afternoon sarnies. I also do it because it’s polite, I’m not militant about my beliefs and I don’t particularly want people to feel judged when I ask about the ethics of where the food has come from when they are going to order it regardless. I think it’s just rude to go out for dinner with people who are all going to be eating meat and then point out the gory details (however true) of where that meat has come from before they eat it. Assuming the role of resident vegetarian generally goes unquestioned unless I’m dining with a militant carnivore who insists that eating meat is in our genes and that all vegetarians are self-denying fools. Then I will explain that actually I do eat meat and see it as an important if not vital part of a balanced diet but that I take into consideration the quality of life of the animal that I’m eating. I try as far as possible to only financially contribute to meat that has been ethically reared and slaughtered in as humane a manner as possible. It’s true that often when eating out the restaurant will not serve ethically sourced food, and if they do there’s a high probability that it will be more expensive, but I simply weigh the pleasure I get out of eating it with the agony the animal might have gone through before it arrived on my plate and make my decision accordingly. Not only does this alleviate my conscience but it means in general I reduce the quantity of meat I eat in favour of a meat of better quality (because an animal that has been allowed to live outside of a cage and is fed properly yields higher quality meat). Then I sort of sit back and smirk because I get to make the person who made what was probably quite a jerky comment feel uncomfortable about their own eating habits. Because really, what can they respond to that? Either they can argue that animals cannot feel, which is just ignorant, or they can say that they simply don’t care about those feelings. Fine, if they’re justifying their own eating habits, but they still can’t attack mine because regardless of how much they care, if they acknowledge that animals do feel pain then they agree with the principle that it is better to eat ethically than not to. My position just makes a lot of sense.
Now occasionally I’ll have to go one further in my argument, and this is generally but not always when the person I am talking to is actually a vegetarian themselves. This argument is often a criticism of the standards that farmers must adhere to in order to market their products as “free range” or “organic”. It’s true that often a “free range” chicken is only permitted a metre more space than a battery hen but the standards in the EU are getting more rigorous daily and it is my personal belief that contributing to the market of more ethically conscious products does a whole lot more for the animals than boycotting meat altogether. Because in reality, people will go on eating meat regardless of what you do, and I reckon the only vote that really counts these days is that of your wallet, and so that’s how I use it. In the couple of years since I started eating ethically I have definitely noticed an increase both in supermarkets and in restaurants of ethical food and so the lifestyle I lead is really not that hard to keep up with. The only problem I encounter is that it’s marginally more expensive but really that’s just forced me to recognise that I don’t need to eat meat with every single meal.
One last thing I encounter, particularly from the first sort of person (the militant carnivore, desperately trying to come up with a rebuttal) is wild accusations that I care more about animals than I do about people. “Are you as ethically conscious of all aspects of your life?” they ask, and I respond that yes, I try to be. As far as food goes, I try to only buy fair trade tea, coffee, chocolate, fruit, etc. As for other dimensions, I won’t support any clothes produced in sweatshops with unhealthy working conditions, where workers are ill paid or child labour laws are broken. Unfortunately the source of many highstreet branded clothing is sometimes unclear, but all retailers are legally held to certain ethical standards and I can’t be held to blame for unwittingly buying an item of clothing that, it turns out, was produced illegally.
I felt like, however informal this may be, writing something like this down is a sort of reassuring act in itself, because I genuinely feel that my stance on these things is reasonable and yet more often than not I find myself having to defend it against somewhat aggressive attacks. I hope this elucidated my thoughts a bit and maybe drawn attention to an ethical stance you might not previously have considered.