Did you start eating meat?
December 6, 2012 12:17 PM   Subscribe

My parents raised me to be a vegetarian. Now one of them isn't anymore.

From the very beginning I was taught that eating animals was cruel and unhealthy. I took to it easily, made it part of my identity and never questioned it. I'm in my mid-twenties now and I've never had a bite of meat.

A few years ago I went on a trip with my mother and nearly had my eyes pop out of my sockets when I saw her joyfully dig in to a freshly caught fish.

I've never truly been able to reconcile that with the values instilled in me as a child. Initially I was, why is she eating that poor fish? Later, why did she raise me not to? How could she change her mind?

She started craving it and felt it was good for her. Healthy, check.
The fish had a good life. It's what people have always done here. Humane, check.


She was always the more moderate parent. She would have the occasional glass of wine, while my father would never drink a drop. I decided early on that I like wine.

I started thinking about something uncomfortable. Maybe I should try eating wild fish? And if wild fish then maybe properly raised and pastured cows? And goats? Maybe eating meat in moderation isn't all that bad? After all, that's what my grandparents and their grandparents' grandparents did.

These are difficult questions for me. My parents taught me to use reason and always think critically (at least about everything else) but it's incredibly hard to question convictions that I've held all my life. It doesn't help that my dad is so vocal about his disapproval of people that eat animals.

Has anyone here been in a similar situation? Did you start eating meat? Just fish? Is it possible to only eat humanely raised meat? Is it even ethical?

Sorry for the rambling nature of this "question". I'm just looking for some insights, ideas and anecdotes after exhausting some of the literature on the subject and thinking that both sides, Singer/Foer (Animal Liberation/Eating Animals) and Pollan (Omnivore's Dilemma) make sense.

This part of Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography captures my feelings pretty well, especially the last sentence...

"I believe I have omitted mentioning that in my first Voyage from Boston, being becalm'd off Block Island, our People set about catching Cod and hawl'd up a great many. Hitherto I had stuck to my Resolution of not eating animal Food; and on this Occasion, I consider'd with my Master Tryon, the taking every Fish as a kind of unprovok'd Murder, since none of them had or ever could do us any Injury that might justify the Slaughter. All this seem'd very reasonable. But I had formerly been a great Lover of Fish, and when this came hot out of the Frying Pan, it smelt admirably well. I balanc'd some time between Principle and Inclination: till I recollected, that when the Fish were opened, I saw smaller Fish taken out of their Stomachs: Then thought I, if you eat one another, I don't see why we mayn't eat you. So I din'd upon Cod very heartily and continu'd to eat with other People, returning only now and than occasionally to a vegetable Diet. So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable Creature, since it enables one to find or make a Reason for every thing one has a mind to do."
posted by anonymous to Religion & Philosophy (46 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Do you want to eat meat or fish? Because if you don't actually want to or need to, there's no reason for you to start, even if your mom does. You can just accept that you care more about your mom being healthy than the fish being alive, doesn't mean you have to eat it too.

I don't mean to encourage you one way or another, but if you're not comfortable with the idea then why do it?
posted by captaincrouton at 12:21 PM on December 6, 2012 [10 favorites]

Foer's book is probably the best of the anti-carnivore books I've read. And probably the best of the pro-carnivore books that I've read is The River Cottage Meat Book, which is part cookbook, part discussion of the ethics of animal husbandry, slaughter, and consumption.

Bear in mind that your body may never become accustomed to eating meat after being vegetarian for this long.
posted by gauche at 12:22 PM on December 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

Is it possible to only eat humanely raised meat? Is it even ethical?

There is no objective concept of ethics (or, for that matter, "moderation",) and I bet you know that quite well. You're the only person who can make this call, so you just need to trust yourself that you are educated enough to do the right thing, and it sounds like you clearly are. What your parents do or do not do does not have to have any bearing on what you do or do not do. In fact, the values with which they raised you revolve around that concept. Do you want to try eating fish or meat? If so, then try it. There's no Vegetarian Authority that will revoke your status if you have a piece of sustainable sushi or a bite from someone's ethically-sourced burger.
posted by griphus at 12:25 PM on December 6, 2012 [16 favorites]

There's a lot of stuff our parents impart to us as we grow up. Some of it is useful, some isn't. Part of being an adult is to work out which of the things works for us and which doesn't.

If you're a happy vegetarian, and you're healthy, you can't miss what you've never had. So why start eating meat now?

I eschewed red meat for a decade before I developed severe anemia, a hemotologist told me that I HAD to start eating red meat. So I did.

I buy my meat at the farmer's market and I choose grassfed, humanely raised beef and happy hogs. I buy free-range organic chickens.

I have no scruples about the food chain, I'm perfectly comfortable with it. But you may not be.

Do what feels right to YOU.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:29 PM on December 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

If I listened to a lot of my parents' advice, I'd be homeless by now.
posted by Melismata at 12:29 PM on December 6, 2012 [23 favorites]

There's no right answer. It's whatever is comfortable and right for you, both from a health perspective (a lot of people would say red meat does more harm than good to the body) and ethical perspective. My parents, siblings, and wife eat beef and pork but I don't. Yet I eat chicken and fish, so I guess I'm a "zero legs and two legs are OK but four legs are not OK" kind of guy. It makes no sense really, it's just my personal choice. At this point in your life it doesn't need to be about what your parents do or say, or did or said, but rather should be about what you want to do. They felt a certain way when you were growing up but it's OK that your mother has changed - that's how life is, it's not static. It's great you are thinking about these things, you sound like a very conscientious person.
posted by Dansaman at 12:39 PM on December 6, 2012

Hi, I was also raised vegetarian, and have never really eaten meat (couple of spit takes, and maybe not enough questions about lard/fish sauce, but whatevs.).

I'd say that I've been in similar situations, and not eaten meat. I want to emphasize two things: One, I think it's fairly possible to eat meat in an ethical way. My reasons for not doing so come down to a pretty utilitarian stance — I think eating meat, in the main, causes unnecessary suffering, and I think that the vast majority of meat is farmed in a way that makes the world a worse place for everyone involved. But there are limits to that, in that I think there are definitely ways to make the experience of the animal involve less suffering, and in that there are times when a human's need should be weighted more than an individual animal's.

But fundamentally, my position is that this is something upon which reasonable people may differ, and that your ethical stance is both subjective and personal — I remain a vegetarian because I choose to remain a vegetarian, not because I want other people to be a vegetarian or because I think I'm more moral or anything like that.

(I've mentioned before an analogy for my diet: I think that meat is unnecessary for me, and because of that I think of it as an inelegant choice for my diet, like taking more than three motions to pull into a parking space. Sometimes more than three motions are necessary, and I'm not going to judge someone else for parking in the way that makes them feel comfortable, unless they're taking up two spaces — i.e. negatively impacting other people directly.)
posted by klangklangston at 12:41 PM on December 6, 2012 [17 favorites]

Well, you have an opportunity not many people take advantage of -- to question your underlying assumptions and chew on it for awhile.

I mean this in the nicest way possible (we are all very guilty of this) -- I suspect you assumed a certain moral high ground about not eating meat. Like -- gee, I'm glad I'm morally superior to those people who eat meat. But seeing your mother eat meat has raised a couple of issues: your moral high ground isn't your own -- because you now realize how very influenced it is by your upbringing. Your parents basically dictated your eating habits for you, but also gave you the impression that you're superior for being dictated to. And you have to decide whether or not to judge your mother. She was in your circle of distinction before and now she's not.

And now you're sort of faced with the idea that you could also decide to eat meat. Wow -- it didn't take much for you to once again be influenced by your parents! (Again -- this describes ALL of us.)

Here's the thing -- you're already tainted, imperfect and on shaky moral ground. If you've ever used a washing machine or ridden in a vehicle or done just about any task of modern daily living - you've helped to deplete the earth's resources, benefitted from exploited labor, and probably killed some animals. (Bugs on the windshield at the very least.) it's not weird to draw the line at eating meat. What's weird is that people are so proud of themselves for it! When we're all so busy doing so many other awful things!

You don't have to eat meat, but you don't have to not too either. But you might recognize that we are all cruel, in our ways...you most likely never deserved the moral high ground to begin with, and you can decide to stop taking social credit for not eating meat.

(And if you miss the social credit, you can always put yourself forward as the-morally-superior-one-who eschews-social-credit-and-refuses-to-judge-people. That's the new) moral high ground.)
posted by vitabellosi at 12:41 PM on December 6, 2012 [11 favorites]

I wasn't raised vegetarian, but I stopped eating meat at a pretty young age (8) on my own, and then began eating it again in my mid-20s.

It's possible to make yourself crazy about this. At the end of the day, I feel fine eating animals that have had a good life up until they were killed, and I think if you want to do eat animals, you should. Life is full of actions with consequences ("I'm spending this money on a new computer, but I could be donating it to starving orphans!"), and if you allow yourself to ponder all of them ad infinitum, you'll go crazy.
posted by needs more cowbell at 12:41 PM on December 6, 2012

I'd eat a lot less meat and dairy were it not for the fact that abstaining completely is inconvenient for me. It's easy for Bill Clinton to be a vegan because he has enough money to have a personal chef.

First of all, what your parents provided you growing up were hard-and-fast rules for your benefit as a child. Think of them now more as guideposts. It is healthy to be a vegetarian. That doesn't mean that meat and fish is completely unhealthy, just that a diet without those things is healthy. Next, think of your diet less as a moral stance than as a personal discipline. Taking the stairs at work instead of using the elevator is healthy and disciplined. That doesn't mean that people who use the elevator are unhealthy and lazy, but your mode of living works well for you, and since you're good at sticking with it, there's no reason to stop now.

So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable Creature, since it enables one to find or make a Reason for every thing one has a mind to do.

"Man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalizing animal." - Robert Heinlein
posted by deanc at 12:42 PM on December 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm vegetarian. I could see myself ethically eating meat in very limited circumstances:

1) if the animal had died naturally without intervention but was not diseased (the meat is still good to eat)
2) if I was unable to survive well without eating meat (stranded on meat island, sick and needing meat medicine, etc)

But that's me. Here's a question - was this The fish had a good life. It's what people have always done here. Humane, check. your take as well as your mother's? Because many vegetarians will not agree with the Humane, check. (And frankly, some will also quarrel with the Healthy, check.)

Could you kill the animals you want to eat yourself or envision doing so? I think that's the bare minimum you should be okay with before deciding to take up eating meat.
posted by vegartanipla at 12:43 PM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I should also mention that I am a former Moral High Groundist vegetarian -- and a bunch of other -Ists. I could've bumper stickered my way into heaven.
posted by vitabellosi at 12:43 PM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you do decide you want to start eating ethically sourced meat in small quantities, would it be possible for you to go work on (even just for a day)/visit farm that raises animals for ethical consumption for a while before you decide? I found that a really eye-opening experience that made me much more comfortable with eating meat (I worked on a goat farm.) We loved those goats. We named those goats. We worked like the blazes for those goats, hauling hay, building shelters, keeping them healthy, trading money (which had to be earned by us in other ways) for feed and medicine. Every day, sun up to sun down, we pretty much slaved in service to those goats. I enjoyed every minute of it, and they had a wonderful, full life of affection and good treatment from humans and fellow goats. And then it was over. My labor made them a good life; now their good lives feed my continued labor.

What about wild food that actually needs to be harvested? The US is experiencing a population explosion of whitetailed deer, because the native predators (wolves, etc.) are now less prevalent. If you shoot a deer to eat, you are not doing that individual deer any favors-- but in the long run, you are making deer healthier as a whole.

Everyone else is right, though. There is no right answer, and no universal reason you should or should not eat meat. Do what's comfortable for now; it might change later, and that's fine too.
posted by WidgetAlley at 12:45 PM on December 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

I was vegan for over five years, omni for a while, vegetarian again for a while, and now eat humanely-raised meat (my rule-of-thumb guideline is that I know the person who killed it).

Some things that have affected my decisions:
- you can't farm plants sustainably without also farming animals
- humane life for the animal
- humane slaughter
- environmental impacts of the things I eat
- starting "active commuting" and being hungry all the time, despite planning ample, balanced vegan meals
- cultural context of the place I lived at the time - I ate a lot of fish when I lived on an island, now wild meats are readily available to me and I eat those

As suggested above, it's okay to be experimental about this. You can change your mind as many times as you need to.
posted by momus_window at 12:46 PM on December 6, 2012 [6 favorites]

I've never really understood the rationalizing of eating fish but not other meat, myself. Sure, maybe the fish was wild, but it still probably was not the most pleasant end to have a hook puncture its mouth and then slowly suffocate.

I do eat fish/meat, but if I were to not eat it on the grounds of cruelty, I don't think I'd be able to eat fish either.
posted by nakedmolerats at 12:46 PM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Forgot to add: eating kosher meat is a very ethical way of eating meat. The animal must be killed humanely, and the butcher must say a prayer beforehand, thanking the animal for its life.
posted by Melismata at 12:46 PM on December 6, 2012

You don't have to eat meat just because your Mom does. If not eating meat makes you happy, don't ever touch a drop of meat. Food and eating issues are extremely personal, and only you can decide what is right for you.
posted by SkylitDrawl at 12:47 PM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is one of the strange things about coming into adulthood, that you realize your parents don't have a special line on truth -- they are just people trying to figure the world out like anybody else. So the values they raised you with are not automatically certified to be correct.

I'm not being flippant; I do think this is a genuinely disconcerting thing to come to terms with. So, you're left in the position of just doing your best to decide which of those values you endorse for yourself.

You already know that there are reasonable arguments on both sides.

You also know there are lots of options as far as how restrictive a diet you choose - do you avoid all animal products, or just flesh? do you avoid things that use animal products in their processing but not in the finished product? do you avoid other actions that involve killing animals? do you make exceptions in certain circumstances? ...etc.

I think it's important to do your best to live up to your ideals, but also to accept this is a world of imperfection, we're imperfect beings, and we don't often attain moral perfection - so try to have compassion for people's decisions on this topic (both yourself and your parents).
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:48 PM on December 6, 2012 [17 favorites]

Maybe I should try eating wild fish? And if wild fish then maybe properly raised and pastured cows? And goats? Maybe eating meat in moderation isn't all that bad? After all, that's what my grandparents and their grandparents' grandparents did.

Unless you have a moral objection to it, honestly, I would try it. Worst case, you try it, decide that you don't like it and move on.

If you decide to try certain types of meat, by all means make sure they were responsibly raised and cared for....and also make sure that it's prepared well. Even if you can find some humanely raised chickens, don't have them in nugget form, and unless you're a naturally and gifted chef, I would have someone you trust, or a really goddamn good restaurant be the ones to serve you.

I'm not a vegan, but I enjoy vegan dishes from time to time...but I'm rarely the one to make them myself, because I don't really grok the physics of cooking without animals (namely their fats) very well.
posted by furnace.heart at 12:48 PM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just as a word of warning, I stopped eating red meat for a couple years when we were very poor and it still gives me stomach pains if I indulge, so if you're going to try some, ramp up slowly.

I think it'd be different if this was a closely-held personal conviction that you came to after a lot of soul-searching. And maybe it is, but your post gives me the impression of someone just realizing you did this because it's what your parents told you was right, not because it's something you came to personally.

In terms of ethics, depends on your ethics. For me, pigs, cows, chickens, etc...well, their entire purpose in life is to be eaten. They're domesticated species we've bred and maintained exclusively for that purpose. I don't think eating a cow is denying it some higher purpose in the world. However, there's no cause to be, well, dicks to them.

I'm less comfortable about things like an octopus, which is strikingly intelligent. But that's me.

You'll find some of this is societal, too. Raising dogs or horses to be eaten is horrifying in the United States but perfectly normal in some cultures. Some of my Chinese and Korean friends regard fussy dog people with the same bemused bewilderment that you'd probably feel if someone was being very fussy about making sure their (indoor only!) cow had a nice day at the cow-y day care or were concerned because their pig didn't want to sleep at the foot of the bed anymore. Likewise, I was overseas once and cheerfully ordered a reindeer burger which was perfectly fine because reindeer were "livestock" in the country we were in but for Americans it's "Oh my god you're eating Rudolph!"
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 12:50 PM on December 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

[Folks let's not do the "let me tell you how gruesomely animals are killed" thing here and answer the OPs question]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 1:00 PM on December 6, 2012

For her, this may have started as a health thing that she is justifying with moral reasons. (Whether it is moral or not is something you need to decide for yourself.) Women, in particular, need more iron than most vegetarians (and especially vegans) get. Some people do okay with it, some don't. I was vegetarian for a year (because I wanted to eat healthier -- I have no objection to meat) and ended up anemic. I don't eat a lot of meat, especially red meat, because too much and my body objects, but I do need some. If you have a craving for it, go ahead -- you might end up healthier because of it. If you don't crave it, then you're probably doing okay on what you're eating now.
posted by DoubleLune at 1:01 PM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm a vegetarian right now. I have been an omnivore and a vegan and will probably go back and forth between all three of those things for the rest of my life. I care a lot about animals and think corporate farming is horrible and I like to be healthy and all that, and sometimes it just feels easier than others to keep all that stuff in mind while I'm eating my dinner.

That said, it doesn't matter to you what I eat, probably. It doesn't matter to me what you eat. Because we are all individuals who make decisions for ourselves based upon what is important to us at any given time. That is no less true for your parents just because they birthed and raised you; they're still individuals who make their own decisions, and now that you're an adult, their decisions don't have to have a fundamental bearing on your life. They raised you as a vegetarian, but they also raised you as somebody who thinks for yourself. So forget what your mom is putting in her body, and think about what you feel comfortable putting into yours. That's the only thing that matters here.
posted by something something at 1:02 PM on December 6, 2012

Oh, and here's a general rule I have for life that is applicable here: If you aren't sure you want to do something, don't do it. It sounds like eating meat is probably going to stress you out a lot, since just the idea of it is preoccupying so much of your mind. Don't put yourself through giving up vegetarianism unless you have an instinctive gut feeling that you really, really want to do it.
posted by something something at 1:04 PM on December 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Not eating meat reduces your carbon footprint substantially.
posted by goethean at 1:10 PM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't think your mom's eating fish should influence you much one way or another. It doesn't mean what she taught you was wrong. I guess her decision to eat meat might cause you to re-examine your food ethics, but I don't think you have to change them, and you don't have to justify them, and even if you're not 100% convinced it's wrong to eat meat, that doesn't mean you have to eat meat.

A big part of the reason I eat the animals I eat is because I grew up eating those animals and so it feels "normal" to me (also, it's convenient). Decisions about what to eat that I make as an adult are really different-feeling to me. Like, someone offered me whale (Minke). I suspect it was no more unsustainable than swordfish, which I eat occasionally. And probably no more sentient than a pig, which I also eat sometimes. And the carbon footprint was probably no worse than other foods I eat. But I pretty confidently drew the line at whale, and refused to eat it, even though I knew it was going to be thrown away if I did not eat it, and it was totally for ethical reasons, and I have no real rational basis for that ethical decision but it was important to me not to eat the whale. (I realize this sounds ridiculous!)
posted by mskyle at 1:12 PM on December 6, 2012

You also may wish to check out The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability.

You can eat meat or not. It really isn't going to matter to anyone else. However, when you are thinking about the "poor fish", it is worth bearing in mind that even a vegan diet is not death-free. For you to eat anything, something had to die. I am not merely talking about the dead vegetable but the nitrogen cycle of which the decomposition of animal corpses is a vital component. It is almost a certainty that any vegetable you eat, even if organic, was grown using fertilizer containing the manure and remains of factory-farmed animals.

I think the "circle of life" is important to keep in mind. I recently taught this to my 8-year-old son that something has to die for us to eat; we picked out a live lobster, killed it at home, and ate it. This, I told him, is why we pray before we eat, don't overeat, and then give thanks when we are done. (FWIW, we're Eastern Orthodox Christians so we obtain from meat to one extent or another for about half the year)

It might also be helpful to consider that the "poor fish", if it hadn't been caught, was very likely not going to die of old age. Almost all animals that we eat in the anglosphere are prey animals. If your mother didn't eat that fish, a predator fish or other marine predator would have.

I am essentially the opposite of you because I do not have any animals that I consider taboo. I have eaten whale, horse, dolphin, a live octopus I caught and killed, and other animals that most westerners would consider immoral or gross to eat. You'll probably never go to that extreme, but I think it is possible to eat animals in a way that will not offend your sense of morality. I think it is commendable that you are approaching this issue in such a conscientious way.
posted by Tanizaki at 1:32 PM on December 6, 2012 [6 favorites]

Ghostride The Whip: "Just as a word of warning, I stopped eating red meat for a couple years when we were very poor and it still gives me stomach pains if I indulge, so if you're going to try some, ramp up slowly."

This is indeed a serious consideration. My sister went vegetarian for around a decade after eating some bad meat in Mexico. It just made her queasy to even think about it. Eventually she decided to eat meat again, but did in fact experience some gastrointestinal issues when she'd eat too much of it.

I've always been a meat eater, so I can't really speak to the ethics.
posted by wierdo at 1:35 PM on December 6, 2012

Is it even ethical?

No one can answer this question for you. My take is very different that what a vegetarian would say. It's totally subjective. To me, it's a question of personhood: sapient things should generally not be killed outside of self-defense. Hence, I really couldn't care less about the quality of a fish's or a cow's life, but we should not eat apes and cetaceans.


This, however, is outside the realm of ethics and is a question of fact. Over-consumption of meat is not healthy. And there are other factors (a specific medical condition, or pollutants in the meat), but if we're just talking about the health of meat as a concept, then yes, it is healthy and you were misinformed. Like any animal, our healthiest diet is the one we evolved to eat. All apes do some degree of meat-eating; the mainstream account of human evolution is that as proto-humans left the jungle, we adapted to new conditions by opportunistic scavenging and eventually, full-scale hunting. Obviously, we are omnivores, and today's meat-eating is extremely high compared to those days, but meat is a natual part of a human diet.
posted by spaltavian at 1:36 PM on December 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

It is absolutely possible to integrate humanely raised animals into your diet, especially if you are going from full vegetarian to pescatarian/omnivore. A lot of the time when people disparage humanely raised meat it's from the perspective of "If the average American that eats X amount of factory farmed meat tried to replace all that meat with humanely raised meat, it would be far too expensive / not possible to raise that much meat." You are coming from the opposite direction - you already eat no meat, so adding a little bit isn't going to cost that much money. I am personally of the opinion that for most people it is healthiest to include a variety of animal products (eggs, dairy, meat, fish) and cover all your bases nutritionally speaking.

If I were you, I would start off trying some pretty non-offensive fish/shellfish products and working my way up. Maybe start off with some wild-caught shrimp sauteed in butter with spaghetti, or a bagel with wild-caught lox (smoked salmon) and cream cheese? From there you could try getting to a restaurant that advertises humanely raised animals and trying some products. Like bacon. Bacon is a pretty good introductory meat food.
posted by permiechickie at 2:07 PM on December 6, 2012

I can't answer whether eating meat is right for you.

But as for your discomfort about questioning the beliefs your parents raised you with: you're supposed to do that. It can be really painful - especially if you had a relatively happy upbringing - when you have to start peeling away the childs-eye-view of Infallible Mom and Dad and realize that they might be wrong or seemingly hypocritical*. They're human, which can be hard to come to terms with.

*It's not hypocrisy to believe something and then change your mind with additional experience and information. One of the crappy things about getting older is realizing how ridiculously idealistic and wrong you used to be...and probably are right now but won't know it for another 10 years.

It is certainly feasible to only eat humanely-raised meat, assuming you live in a location where you have some choices for obtaining it. You can abstain from meat when you don't have an option for ethically-sourced products.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:20 PM on December 6, 2012

If you were an Inuit, your diet would be mostly seal meat. If you could not move away from there, you would have two choices: eat meat ... or die. Would it be ethical to eat meat in those circumstances? Is eating meat unhealthy? I would venture to say that, for Inuits, the answer would be YES to the first question (and opposite to that which your parents taught you) and the answer would be NO to the second (and contrary to what a few people have already written and clearly believe).

The reason I am mentioning this is to reinforce the fact that circumstances can sometimes dictate what is ethical or not and, therefore, it is rarely possible to say with absolute certainty "this is ethical and that is not". For most people, eating meat implies a greater damage to the environment (larger environmental footprint) than eating vegetables and fruits. However eating locally produced meat could possibly be less damaging to the environment (and more ethical?) than eating exotic fruit. And, by exotic fruit, I might include something as common as bananas and oranges - whereas for others it could be apples.

Implied in your question is the fact that you are lucky enough to have a choice as to what you eat - the vast majority of people on this planet do not have a similar choice: they eat what they can get, in order to survive.

If you accept this, then you should realize that your existing convictions are not absolute truths. BUT, this should not stop you from being a vegetarian if you so desire. If you make the choice to continue not eating meat, then chances are that it is the best way to reduce your environmental footprint and is an ethical choice for you.

(I'm leaving aside the ethics regarding eating sentient animals ... we are sentient animals ourselves and I don't believe that there is a foolproof way to determine if eating other animals is ethical or not - again, it might depend on circumstances.)
posted by aroberge at 2:26 PM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

"You also may wish to check out The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability."

The first review on that page fairly excoriates the book as being a mish-mash of anecdote, cherry-picking and poor research, and the reviewer is a hunter-gatherer diet anthropologist.

You can eat meat or not. It really isn't going to matter to anyone else. However, when you are thinking about the "poor fish", it is worth bearing in mind that even a vegan diet is not death-free. For you to eat anything, something had to die. I am not merely talking about the dead vegetable but the nitrogen cycle of which the decomposition of animal corpses is a vital component. It is almost a certainty that any vegetable you eat, even if organic, was grown using fertilizer containing the manure and remains of factory-farmed animals."

The difference you're eliding is the necessity of violent death. To over-simplify, the response to hearing that someone was murdered is not, "Well, everyone dies." And no, it is not almost a certainty that every vegetable you eat was grown with fertilizer from factory farmed animals. What "organic" means differs based on the certification, but most eschew that industrialized fertilizer.
posted by klangklangston at 2:30 PM on December 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Until recently and only in relatively few countries is meat the mandatory staple it is now. The way it used to be, occasionally there would be a chicken, or there would be huge communal feasts at slaughter time, or it would be a special purchase. I suspect that there was a lot less agonizing over food choices back then, it was just practical survival, nutrition, health. Now people of all walks of life have substantial slabs of meat on their plate for every meal, every day, such that a meal without meat is alien to them. It's a historical anomaly but it's become something of a perceived right, and the vegetarian's choice not to partake threatens that perceived right. Whether you want it to or not, what you eat becomes a statement about you.

How crazy is that, that we have so many options for fulfilling this most basic of physiological needs that how we eat has become a lifestyle choice! And we all judge each other for the dietary choices we make! Not just junk food vs. real food, but how it's raised, how it's slaughtered, in what kind of dirt it's grown, how far it's traveled to get to your plate, how much the workers earned to produce it, whether the store that sells it offers health insurance to its staff, what your diet says about your politics, your compassion, your morals.

You grew up in an environment where all of that societal judgment was present all the time. You don't say that your father is vocal about disapproving eating animals ... you say he is vocal about his disapproval of people that eat animals. So your father disapproves of your mother now. And if you eat meat your father will disapprove of you. No wonder you're confused, having that hanging over a choice you have to make every single day of your life!
posted by headnsouth at 2:43 PM on December 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

I believe that moderation is healthy and often the most ethical choice, especially with food. On my best days, moderation is what I'm striving for.

I've also spent almost my entire life trying to walk a funky impossibly-perfect balance between my parents' opinions, and this is neither healthy nor ethically defensible (at least, if you consider protection of your own mental health as an ethical imperative.) Now I try for lots of moderation there, too, as well as a good bit of "just do the best you can in the moment" type thinking.

No matter what, I suggest you work hard at not worrying too much about the reasons your parents do things, or whether or not something they do is ethically defensible or rational or whatever. It's exhausting and you will never, ever, ever come to a sane, reasonable conclusion on the matter. The sooner you rid yourself of the habit of analyzing them, the better off you'll be.

Oh, and you may be interested in the NYT's "Tell Us Why It's Ethical To Eat Meat" contest from a while back, as well as the Conscientious Omnivore's reading list.
posted by SMPA at 2:47 PM on December 6, 2012

I was vegan for over 5 years, and vegetarian for many years before and after that. Eventually I started eating meat for one reason: I was having a really difficult time managing my blood sugar (and thus my ability to think and live a productive life) on a meat-free diet, especially once I developed a soy and wheat allergy. Beans and nuts were my only reliable source of protein but beans were too high in carbs and nuts... eh, not so good as a main meal.

Anyway, over the last 4 years I switched to adding moderate amounts of meat and fish to my diet, mostly coming from the Pacific NW where I live. I feel much healthier and I've been able to really appreciate food and cooking in so many more ways because I have more options when dining out.

And now, I'm back to being mostly vegetarian because I've lost my palate for land animals and I'm constantly craving things like green veg and salmon more than anything.

My point? Nothing is forever, not even dietary choices. Your body's needs will change over time and you need to adapt accordingly. Listen to your body-- I find that almost all of my cravings mean something in terms of a nutrient I am lacking and any sensitivities/allergies/lack of interest in things means I've started to consume too much of it. Listening to your body and respecting its needs is probably the most ethical way to live, period.
posted by joan_holloway at 2:54 PM on December 6, 2012

I have a "vegetarian" friend who used to be very strict, but for the last few years eats wild game meats from animals that were introduced and therefore damaging to the local environment, or even native animals that are overpopulated and have to be culled. She figures that these have to be culled anyway, and it's better that the meat is not wasted, and also that they live very natural lives before they end up on her table. So she eats rabbit and kangaroo and goat and camel and wild pork and wild venison (but not fish, because of over-fishing concerns).
posted by lollusc at 3:29 PM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ok, I'll take a different point of view from most of the relativistic advice here. I would argue that if you're fine and dandy with not eating meat, you have somewhat of an ethical imperative to do so. Controlling for other variables, a vegetarian diet is better for the earth than an omnivorous diet. Addressing this to you, not as a personal intention to get fighty with other respondents: a lot of people are very quick to get hand-wavy and cast food choice as an amoral issue, because it justifies the fact that they're choosing a luxury that does harm. Everyone chooses luxuries that do harm-- this computer didn't fall out of the sky-- but if you're all culturally set up not to partake, why do so?
posted by threeants at 3:53 PM on December 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Most of the advice in this thread seems not to provide you with the sort of answer you are looking for, an explanation (not merely a rationalization) for why it is ethical to eat fish. It's a reasonable demand, and it's not the sort of thing that is best answered by saying it's entirely up in the air. There's some ground to walk on, here.

You mention having been influenced by Singer. I am unpersuaded by Singer's arguments for vegetarianism, primarily because I doubt that we ought to give much weight to the preferences of animals like fish. They ought to be given some weight, to be sure. Just not very much.

Why? Actually, some pro-vegans have explained the point pretty nicely. We don't know whether fish can suffer, in any morally relevant sense of the term. There is good reason to suspect that they cannot, given their cortical structure. But (and here I'm leaving the Vegan Outreach folks behind) suffering admits of degrees, and even if fish can suffer it is surely not of a degree that should stop us from eating them.

The only reply I've heard to this is a terrible slippery slope argument to the effect that if we accept eating fish, then we might as well start eating cows; if cows, then pigs; if pigs, then dolphins; etc. I think it would be reasonable to deny the first step down the slope. True, the difference between the sort of suffering that might be felt by fish and the sort that might be felt by cows is vague. But that's alright. Morality might be vague. (Not subjective, but vague -- an important difference.)

Then you'd have an ethical argument, along utilitarian lines, that it is permissible to eat fish, but not necessarily to eat "higher" animals.
posted by voltairemodern at 5:00 PM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're perfectly comfortable with your current diet, there's no need to change it just because your mother did. If you find yourself having cravings then you might be in need of omega fatty acids or the like, which would be a reason to make the experiment IF you were comfortable with it.

For myself, I was a vegetarian for ten years, started craving salmon and after a year or so realized that this was a consistent request coming from my body, which was clearly in need of something in the salmon. I did struggle ethically for a while, but in the end managed to strike the same logical bargain that your mother did. So there was no passing craving or curiosity, but a sustained request from my body which could be logically interpreted as a deficiency in need of correction. If you have none of this, enjoy yourself as you are. :D
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 5:07 PM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I took to it easily, made it part of my identity and never questioned it.

Allowing the things you do to define what you think you are is a mistake that will cause you all kinds of apparently unrelated grief. Now would be a good time to start reflecting on that.

"You are what you eat" is a statement about chemistry, not morality.
posted by flabdablet at 7:43 PM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

The difference you're eliding is the necessity of violent death.

For prey animals, there is rarely another kind.

And no, it is not almost a certainty that every vegetable you eat was grown with fertilizer from factory farmed animals. What "organic" means differs based on the certification, but most eschew that industrialized fertilizer.

You are mistaken in this regard. While definitions vary, under the USDA National Organic Program, permitted fertilizers simply may not contain synthetic ingredients. Dead animals are not synthetic. Bloodmeal and bonemeal from slaughterhouses, feathermeal from poultry slaughter, and fishmeal and "liquid fish" from fishing operations are not "eschewed" but the standard organic fertilizers. For example, you might want to use Peaceful Valley Bloodmeal, Peaceful Valley Bonemeal, or a custom blend from True Organic Products ("We can provide any custom blend a grower requires, from liquid fish to feather meal, blood meal or bone meal.")

Like I said, for you to eat, something had to die.
posted by Tanizaki at 7:45 PM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was also raised vegetarian, though the sort that eats eggs and fish. (And on Thanksgiving, I sometimes had turkey, because I was curious and it was around.) I've never been interested in hamburgers or bacon, though my sister went on to eat both. All four of my parents have gone back to eating meat, because of health issues, and I found I was actually a little irked that a lot of those foods don't feel like options to me. I did add poultry to my seafood vegetarian menu, but I've never been able to eat mammals. I do sometimes wish that beef and pork looked and smelled appealing to me, but I think they just will never really seem like food to me. I have raised my daughter as an omnivore (though she is certainly free to be vegetarian if she wishes) because I'd like her to have those options throughout her life.

I do try hard to make sure that the meat we buy is as ethical as I can find out. Whether that's enough for you is for you to decide.
posted by Margalo Epps at 8:01 PM on December 6, 2012

Is it possible to only eat humanely raised meat? Is it even ethical?

Where do you live? I live in a place where I can easily buy meat from small farmers that has been raised and slaughtered ethically. That meat comes from land that wouldn't be otherwise producing soybeans or whatever. Without that, I'd be a lot less comfortable eating meat.

The point being, this is a totally situation and individual question; there is no unambiguous answer. You need to look at your particular situation and resources, and see if you are comfortable where that plays out. My situation is not yours, and vice versa. In these questions, people tend to give perfect answers (eg "I eat local ethical meat" or "I eat local ethical vegetarian food") that don't fit perfectly into most people's imperfect lives.
posted by Forktine at 10:55 PM on December 6, 2012

If you do decide to start eating fish, please do consider the environmental impact of the types of fish you choose. Much of the world's fish stocks have been damaged by overfishing and the sustainable choices can be quite surprising. You might find the answers to this question helpful.

I was also raised vegetarian, by parents who later divorced and started eating meat when they met non-vegetarian new partners. My two brothers are now also omnivores; in the case of one, I think eating meat likely saved his life. I went the other way, became vegan in 2004 and am now mostly vegan.

I no longer believe that global veganism is the one solution for sustainability and against cruelty, but given the state of the world now I lke to think that my diet balances things out a little. At the same time, though, I've found that allowing myself some leeway is better for my mental health than being too hardline with myself. (I live in a country where a vegan diet is difficult to sustain and in fact I just had a croissant for breakfast.) This article by George Monbiot was very thought provoking for me.

To sum up, I think challenging your inherited beliefs is healthy and living by an unbendable regimen of rules is not, even if they are rules you've come up with yourself. Remember that even if you eat some meat and fish now, you can always give it up again in the future. There's a lot of good advice in the rest of the thread that I won't repeat. Good luck!
posted by daisyk at 1:03 AM on December 7, 2012

I'm kind of the other way around: came from a very meat-eating midwestern family, cut out red meat at age 12 or so, and bit-by-bit became full vegetarian seven years ago, at 23 when I stopped eating fish. I get questioned pretty often about my reasons for being vegetarian; it's a bit of a mish-mash of animal welfare, ecological concerns of large-scale meat production, a bit of latent buddhism, and a healthy dollop of confirmation bias. Which doesn't make a great succinct explanation on the whole, but that's were I'm at.

It's gotten to where the idea of eating meat really grosses me out. If I'm given something meaty by accident at a restaurant I'll be polite about it, but it sets off this kind of rage-reaction which is a bit hard to explain. Along the lines of 'I don't want to be complicit in this murder.'

That said, everyone needs to choose their lines. Most people put their lines just shy of eating humans; you can put yours pretty much wherever you like. I spent most of last year trying out veganism, but ultimately concluded that it wasn't quite for me, for a variety of reasons. You get to choose your own adventure here, decide what's right and wrong for you.

I'm currently in Kenya, and it's a delicate balance explaining that I'm vegetarian while also letting people know I'm grateful that they're willing to share food with me, and also not sound like some condescending holier-than-thou type, of the variety despised by some of the posters upthread. A 16 year-old girl the other day told me, 'God gave man power over animals, so it's ok to eat them.' My non-vocalized response was that I should never hire a baby-sitter, as giving them power over the baby might lead to cannibalism. I think it's interesting that a lot of beliefs based on religious grounds get a complete pass, given more sanctity than rationally chosen ethical stances. But I don't challenge people on their own decisions about meat-eating; my choices aren't about them. If anything, I explain the ecological arguments, and advocate for moderation; I know my own reasons don't extend universally, and they don't need to.

ok, enough rambling.........

(Also, Lierre Keith (author of the Vegetarian Myth) doesn't know the difference between science and her morning bowel movement. I've read a bit of her stuff and was mindboggled by how completely off-base she was.)
posted by kaibutsu at 3:25 PM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

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