Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Vegetarianism and Existential Angst

There are two kinds of vegetarians in this world. The first are what I call “conscious vegetarians”, those that think it is wrong to eat other sentient beings and hence stop eating the meat of those living things that they think of as sentient. There appear to be all kinds of gradations among conscious vegetarians. Some of these people think fish is OK to eat (it is harvested in some sense?) while at the other end of the spectrum, some others think dairy products should be excluded as well. I even met this one crazy Belgian guy who was a vegetarian most of the time because he said he only ate those animals that he killed himself! The second kind of vegetarians I call “absent minded vegetarians” (a breed special to South India?), to which category I belong. We are vegetarians because we have always been and have enough inertia built into our systems that we stay that way and we borrow the “it is wrong to eat animals” idea from the conscious vegetarians whenever the need arises to justify our lifestyle.

One fine day, I woke up and said to myself I will not be an “absent minded” anything anymore and I will associate a logical reason or a contextual rationale with everything I do from this time forward. So, I thought I will start with something simple, I will come up with a rationale for why I eat what I eat and not other things. As it turned out, this was easier said than done. I realized that one can look at vegetarianism from all kinds of points of view. The most obvious one is ethical, but ethics is such a poorly defined quantity that I did not want to start there. So, I first considered some other examples. One point of view could be economics. You can feed more people off a given amount of land if you used the land to grow grains rather than to grow animals. So, a theory could be promulgated stating that if everybody became vegetarians, we could eliminate hunger in the world. But this is an oversimplification of such great magnitude that I did not even want to get into it. Another point of view could be biology. Are human beings by nature meant to be carnivores or herbivores? Since this looks like a question with a clear cut answer, I asked Google to see what the consensus was. As it turns out there are clearly demarcated camps, one of which thinks we are herbivores (don’t have the right teeth or claws to be carnivores) and the other thinks we are carnivores (don’t have the right digestive system to be herbivores). And even if you wanted to go with “the majority is right” kind of thing, both camps appear to be equal in terms of number of campers and the quality of campers! So, I had to give up on that as well.

So, finally I had to come back to the ethics point of view for the rationale I was in the quest for. Hence I formulated the following Sophistry (as you will see, it does not deserve the dignity of being called an argument). Right up to the point at which human civilization came about, there was only what we now call the natural world. And in the natural world the governing principle was and is “survival of the mightiest”, yes? What sets the civilized world apart from the natural world is that here apparently the governing principle is “One for all and All for one”, to quote the The Three Musketeers. Well, may be it is not the governing principle yet. But it is clearly the goal towards which we are evolving, right? We try to take care of the old, the infirm and the underprivileged in our society. And with the passage of time we have gone on broadening our definition of what constitutes our society, from “my family” to “my country” to eventually “all human beings”. If you agree with the above, then the natural next step is to extend this consideration to animals as well and not eat them, right? So, this sophistry says that vegetarianism is the natural next step in our social evolution and incidentally some of us are already there!

I was fascinated with the above “argument”! It even explained the fact that I drink milk (in India the cow is supposed to be part of the society right? You take care of your cow even when she is too old to give milk). So I said to myself, since I don’t have a cow I take care of, I will stop drinking milk. And I have been a “no leather no silk” person anyway. So, my lifestyle is completely explained by the above the rationale and all is fine with the world. But then I ran into the roadblock of my laziness and inertia for change. I started disliking the idea of not having yoghurt which had been a staple for my breakfast for a large number of years. So I went back to my “argument” above to see if I could modify it suitably so that I can have a rationale and still continue to live the way I have absent-mindedly lived all these years anyway.

But in the process of revisiting the argument I noticed something. If you take the argument all the way then you must eventually include plants in your society right? This in itself is not fatal because unlike animals, plants want us to eat them. We are supposed to eat the fruit so that it can be dispersed properly for example. But then, we must limit ourselves to “plants that want to be eaten”, namely fruit. You can’t possibly live like that! So then I said may be the rationale is that you can eat what you grow. But then you grow cows and pigs and chicken as well. How are they different from eggplants and cucumbers and potatoes? That they can walk and make noise? That I can look them in the eye while I cannot do that to an eggplant? All the lines were blurring and I was getting dizzy! And all this in quest of rationale in the simplest aspect of my existence, eating! What is going to happen when I try to address the logic behind the more complicated aspects like love, suffering and so on?

So, by the end of the day (that day on which I woke up and said I wanted “logic” to govern my every action), I decided that life is much simpler if you did not analyze it and tried to make sense out of it. Just be. And so now I just am!


Sanketh said...

Nicely done.

shalabh said...

Its a fantastic post- just because it attempts to find answers to something that many Indians follow as part of culture, and many westerners follow as a fad or a 'enhanced' kind of a thing or just mebe 'feel and look' better premise.
My attempt at answering- of course while believing in your arguements is the follwoing- (1)All research in the world shows vegan lifestyle is 'healthier'- for the heart, for the skin, and acts as a detox for the entire body (So basically medical science says vegetarian is better). (2) there is a theory that the next wave of loss of life (like Pralaya or apocalypse) on earth will be through epidemic diseases that are passed in the food chain- maximum probability is through animals eating animals and getting infected- we are already seeing that through Bird Flu getting into the food chain (3) The argument that a civil society might not eat meat/flesh is also right- because even though an eggplant does not have 'eyes' to look back at you, eating a plant product is not the same as killing an animal, tearing off the flesh, seeing the blood ooze out- or even as disgusting sounding as looking at something moving and killing to eat its body parts (frogs feet? Pigs tongue? a fish whose head is cut and gravy is put on top?). OK even though you dnt do the kiiling urself, the description of the parts and then eating the parts is not extremely 'evolved'. You don't say I ate the liver of a plant, or a hand of the plant or plant's feet or anything- if you argue with impunity that the branches of a tree are its hands (!!)- well at least you do not call them 'hands'- yes- just the description of a thing can make it more civilized (and I do not mean Lambs feet marinated in schezwan sauce...-fancy does not mean 'evolved')- and so, even if you call Fish Head by any other name, you can still see it is a fish whose Head has been cut off, lying in a plate- with two eyes and an open mouth!- Therefore resemblence- by words or by looks, scent or even feel- to anything moving and living- should digress an 'evolved' individual away.
Dairy Products like milk or unfertilized egg is also OK according to my 'corrupted vegan' mind, because you do not kill a moving living being, and it is something that is replenished with time (you chop off a feet of an animal- it won't grow again right?)- it does cause any pain or discomfort either. (Pls do not bring forward the fact that many cows are injected and so are hen- the 'method' is a part of a different discussion- which everyone condemns- vegetarian or otherwise)


Parag said...

i have too been puzzled trying to find a rationale for my diet. We learn in school that plants are living and that they feel pain as much as you and I do. That you do not notice it is hardly an excuse.

CuriousCat said...

Sanketh: Thank you!

Shalabh: 1) I did not think of the animal transmitted disease thing. Thank you for pointing it out to me (but on the other hand I had to stop eating spinach a while back what with E coli and all). 2) And yes you are right about "conditioning" playing a role. I look in the mirror and see hands and feet and eyes and hence relate better with those that have these features and find it hard to eat them. Thank you!

CuriousCat said...

parag: So...what do we do? Eat plants that want to be eaten? :)

apu said...

Interesting. I belong to the second breed, constantly trying to move to the first :)

You might find this recent book, The Omnivore's dilemma, an interesting read.

CuriousCat said...

Thanks apu, I will look for the book in my next shopping spree.

schizo said...

[quote](1)All research in the world shows vegan lifestyle is 'healthier'- for the heart, for the skin, and acts as a detox for the entire body (So basically medical science says vegetarian is better).[/quote]

shalabh, that's plain rubbish.

2 there are lots of theories, what is to say tomorrwo a plan virus will not jump ontu humans?
all pralayas have been caused by human beings who cant keep their surroundings and them selves clean and dont know what moderation means.. this is of course assuming that the earth has had apocalypses before.

@ parag, plants can feel pain?:-)

the cockiness of the above statements is bec ia happen to be a medical student, (very academically challenged) and wrong reasons for right things are just too distastefull.

vegetarianism is good, it is in most cases sufficient for all nutritive purposes, but the boday needs animal protien, its hard wired that way, and i tell you if the water supply in india did not supply us with all the vit. b12 we need a lot of our bipedal obligate herbivours would be fighting megaloblastic anemia,

long comment

bad boy scziho

n cookie for schzio

CuriousCat said...

Schizo : you read somebody else's long comment so you are entitled to a long one yourself. But Schizo is grumpy! So definitely no cookie for schizo :)
BTW : Good luck for the KBA thingie!

Suds said...

an interesting read..i think this symbolizes what a lot of vegetarians (and that too a lot of south indian veggies) go through their whole life. But an interesting statistic I have noticed is that most indian vegetarians are converting to carnivores once they come out of india.I am sure you must have noticed it too.

B. said...

hey this comment might seem a little late in coming but i chanced upon your blog while surfing...so i'm not the only south indian vegetarian actually analysing our vegetarianess...we seem to have follwowed similiar paths of analysis and come to the same conclusion...except that i realised why jains dont eat root vegetables cos that actually kills vis a vis eating anything else that "wants"/doesnt want/couldnt careless if it were eatem :P
great blog :)

CuriousCat said...

Thank you B! And you are not saying that just this one post is good right?:))

B. said...

jeez! pushy arent we? :P...
well upon ur subtle insistence i did read some more :)

CuriousCat said...

Thanks for yeilding to the push B !:)
Now only one thing stands between you becoming my favorite visitor : you just have to keep coming back!!:))

GrumbleB. said...

i'm back :)
i'm commenting using my blogger id so now u can drop in sometime too...

CuriousCat said...

Oh I surely will! And sorry for the delay in the response, missed your comment!