Dear Princess ‘Ishka,
“Man is what he eats” is a famous pun from the 19th century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. Being a defender of materialism, he wanted to emphasize the materiality of human identity, against the idealistic philosophical trend of his time. If eating equals being, however loose that might be intended, choosing what to eat defines to a certain extent what we are. In certain historical periods and places, choices about what to eat have been constrained to the point that the alternatives couldn’t have been but two: to eat anything you could find or die of starvation. But in the world of today, especially in what is called the “western world”, we face the opposite problem: we have an endless amount of things to eat among which to choose, and finding the criteria of choice has become an issue.
Last summer I read an article from Spiegel, about the many ways we construct our identities by means of eating: there are reasons based on health, ethical reasons, religious reasons, and many others. None of these reasons is apparently transparent enough as to give a guarantee that our choice will escape incoherence and inconsistency. One could be tempted to say that the only perfectly rational choice would be to weigh price and value and find each time a solution. But this proposal begs the question of what criteria we should consider to understand value. Again, is it how healthy a product is (its nutritional value)? Ethical considerations? Religion? Else?
In this letter I would like to defend the vegetarian and vegan choice (from now on, VVC) as a rationally plausible one, not strictly insofar as it is ethical, but insofar as it is a cultural phenomenon. To be more precise, I will consider vegetarians and vegans as people who choose what to be by choosing what to eat, namely to give up meat and derived products. The criterion of choice is based on emphasizing ethics, however sharable the ethical considerations might be.
Defending VVC against what, you might legitimately ask? Against the worry that individual choices to contrast vast-scale ethical problems, such as the capitalistic exploitation of animals, offer no solution to those problems at all. This critique is found among people, who are skeptical about the possibility of changing our systems of production without structural changes of the economy. Since individual choices have no influence other than slightly re-orient the market, those choices will always be taken in a capitalistic framework and are doomed to be either irrelevant or just to change the nature of the problem without solving it, say by destroying forests for the mass production of soy instead of directly killing animals.
My defense is simple and I have already exposed it. If you consider VVC as a strictly ethical choice, to be evaluated in terms of its practical consequences, the worry just proposed will be valid. But VVC is also a choice about what certain people want to be: they don’t want to be insensitive to animal sufferings, to waste and to ecological damages. They possibly don’t find any truly successful theoretical or practical solution, but they want to understand themselves as “caring for those matters”. And they find expression of their distress, hopes, value system, etc. in VVC.
This is also a way of putting ethics into practice, however less demanding it might be. It shouldn’t be a way to feel ethically superior, but it is a way to show some sort of “existential commitment”, which resembles a religion, and just like all religions it can sometimes fall into fanaticism. The difference with religion is however, that the foundation of VVC doesn’t come from unconditional faith in a divinity, but rather from theoretical and factual assumptions on reality and coherent and consistent deductions from those assumptions. How far reaching and comprehensive of reality those assumptions are, is certainly questionable. But ethics and rationality require us to get to action, even if sometimes we don’t have enough evidence for stating the perfect morality or perfect rationality of our actions. Likewise, not making a pondered decision, would be clearly more ethically and rationally controversial. There is no escape.
I really don’t see a way of believing that the phenomenon of VVC should be a priori labelled as an irrational trend for rich people, forgetting the “true enemy”. The “true enemy” remains, and VVC is most probably not a way to fight it successfully. But, as far as vegetarians and vegans are concerned, please, let them eat cake (vegan, if necessary).