Vegetarians Who Eat Meat?

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I recently ran across an article in Newsweek entitled “Vegetarians Who Eat Meat”, which got me thinking about two issues. The first is whether a person can be a vegetarian and also eat meat. The second is whether the way the meat animal is raised impacts the morality of eating it.

On the face of it, a vegetarian cannot eat meat and remain a vegetarian. To use an analogy, just as a bachelor cannot be married, a vegetarian cannot be a meat eater.¬† Of course, some folks might wish to be able to call themselves “vegetarians” yet have the occasional cheeseburger. A conversation with such a person¬† at a party might go like this:

Vegetarian: (loudly) “Does this have meat in it? I’m a vegetarian, so I want to avoid eating any meat.”

Me: “Yes, that ham salad has ham in it. That’s meat, you know. But, I’ve seen you eat meat recently-like that cheeseburger you had the other day.”

Vegetarian: “Well, I do have a little meat now and then. But I’m still a vegetarian.”

Me: “Ah. I know some people who practice abstinence that way: they only have a little sex now and then.”

But perhaps being a vegetarian is not like being abstinent, but rather like being honest. An honest person does not stop being honest just because they tell a fib now and then. What matters is that such a person is mostly honest. As such, perhaps being a vegetarian is like being honest: they do not have to always avoid meat to justly keep the label, they just have to do so the majority of the time.

Also, there are many variations on the vegetarian theme, so a person could (with a suitable category choice) be a vegetarian and still consume meat. This, of course, does lead to some questions about what it means to be a vegetarian if people can claim that title despite consuming meat. But, as I see it, as long a they are not too self-righteous about it there is no harm in letting them enjoy their self applied title.

I’ll address the second issue in my next blog post.

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19 Comments.

  1. What stops us from changing the definition of vegetarian to:- A vegetarian is a person who prefers to eat as little meat as possible. Is this not more in keeping with how the practice is seen to be conducted?

    I incidentally know a few women who claim their husbands, to whom they are legally married, have retained all the characteristics of bachelors. So perhaps in a sense, a married bachelor is possible.

  2. It is not a matter of “defining” vegetarianism, but of “using” it. Of course, I could advance my own definition and play with it, but the question is how are we to pin down “the predicate of being a vegetarian”.

    Aside this, I love meat. :)

  3. Here’s a good video on the subject: http://meat.org

  4. It is true that being a vegetarian is not like being a virgin – ie, once you lose the status, it’s gone forever. It is true that being a vegetarian is like being honest, in the sense that you can break the rule and still be classified as a vegetarian or being honest. However, if you take the attitude that you’re honest, but you’re willing to lie once in a while, then you’re not honest. You’re mostly honest. Same goes for being a vegetarian. You wouldn’t be completely vegetarian. This assumes the common definition of the word is in use (ie no meat), just as honest means exactly what it means.

  5. If being a vegetarian is an ethical statement against eating meat which was processed from suffering farm animals, then it is theoretically possible to eat meat from those animals which “led a happy life”. There’s no hypocrisy here. Vegetarianism isn’t a dogmatic religion, but an attempt alleviate the abuse of farm animals.

    However, some practical questions might be raised as to how one goes about acquiring the information whether his dinner was a “happy chicken” or a “unhappy chicken”. If there’s a doubt, the default reaction should be abstinence, but it if can be shown clearly that it was a free range chicken etc…, then eating it is an ethical thing to do. Although you might still argue how ethical it is to eat happy chickens, as opposed to unhappy ones.

  6. Don,

    These men have bachelor-like behavior, but lack the essential qualification: they are no longer single. :)

    Also, all real men retain those traits-as long as the wife is not looking. ;)

  7. R-frog,

    I agree that there is a moral distinction between eating meat from an animal that suffered in the process and one that did not. That is actually the reason I won’t eat veal. However, I’d say that a vegetarian who eats meat should be called something else, perhaps the Latin phrase for “eater of the happy meat.” Can a Classics scholar help us out with translation? :)

    There is, as you note, that practical problem. One way to solve it is to do things the old way: raise your own animals for food. That way they can be lovingly raised and then lovingly be-headed.

  8. A “vegetarian” I know eats meet but hates the word “flextarian” (someone who mostly avoids meat but remains flexible) because it makes it sound she’s not committed to vegetarianism. The rest of her moral decisions are treated with equal conviction.

    For seven years I was a strict vegetarian because of a health problem. It’s amazing how many people challenged me because I wear leather belts and shoes. Now I seldom eat meat.

    Vegetarians are traditionally those that avoid eating meat. It’s a diet. The reasons for an individuals decision get into the ethics. Me? I wanted to avoid gout attacks-and it worked.

  9. As you’ve argued in this article, veganism seems to win the environmental, dietary and moral arguments. You also point out the cognitive dissonance intrinsic to eating meat. Counter arguments to veganism are rather unimpressive. To me it’s simple though. I don’t want animals to suffer so I don’t eat meat.

  10. I’ve been a vegetarian for some time now… and having met a good number of other vegetarians, it’s apparent who the “real” ones are. I know that’s a bit of a subjective term, but there’s a definitive line between vegetarians and what I call “part-time” vegetarians; those who like to wear the label, but still consume meat on a regular basis, albeit in small amounts.

  11. The “honest man” comparison is close to how I see it, but I think being a vegetarian is–or can be, depending on how you define it–like being a Christian. If I were a Christian it wouldn’t be because I never sinned, it would be because I would aspire to be sinless.
    If I tell a lie or have premarital sex, or smoke crystal meth with a same-sex prostitute, I can still be a Christian.
    I can aspire to the vegetarian ideals of compassion and a clean environment, yet indulge in a bloody ribeye now and again.

  12. I like the idea of making the concept of vegetarian compatible with eating meat occasionally. Since even the most voracious carnivour spends at most 2% of his waking life ingesting meat, a small figure, you’ll agree, then I can resolutely affirm to (more or less) lifelong vegetarianism.

  13. People can call themselves whatever they will but that does not mean that they are what they call themselves. If I call myself a vegetarian but allow myself the occasional Big Mac, then I am misusing the term, just as a self-professed Christian would be misusing that term if she allowed herself to occasionally pray to Allah. Having ideals and then not measuring up to them is one thing, abandoning them for the sake of convenience, or pleasure, is something else.

  14. I agree that calling yourself a Vegetarian is a misnomer if you occasionally eat meat. However, one must consider the specific ethical reason why one becomes a Vegetarian.

    If it is for environmental reasons, its perfectly acceptable if it results in, say, an 80 percent reduction in animal products and in turn greenhouses gases.

    I personally think thats the most convincing argument by far to become a vegetarian and calling someone a “fake” vegetarian is counterintuitive to what you stand for.

  15. I think the reason why many vegetarians-who-occasionally-eat-meat have a hard time persuading the hardcore ones that they’re on the same team is because vegetarianism has been taken over by an identity politics. Haraway would rather have a discussion around coalition-affinities than on identities. Identity politics was born out of the market and so, is easily co-optable by the market. It can get quite dogmatic when movements become fixed on rigidly defined politics, rather than on movements led largely by kinship and support. But of course, this holds on to the idea that vegetarianism is still a movement, which hopefully it is.

  16. From a practical standpoint, excluding semi-vegetarians would drive out useful allies (if one wants to cast this as a movement). Most movements have a hardcore center, but really need the softer majority to make the movement last and become a mainstream influence.

  17. I think that in order for our language to work the way it does, we have to stick to definitions. One definition. e.g. A vegetarian is someone who does not consume any meat from a living creature. By sticking to this we can communicate effectively because we understand what someone means when they say “I’m vegetarian”. However, people who eat meat occasionally or only consume fish but no other meat and still label themselves veggie, should introduce new sub names similar to ‘lacto vegetarian’ (doesn’t eat meat and doesn’t drink milk) etc. so that ‘vegetarian’ original meaning remains in tact and not with shades of grey.

  18. ilovelilly4ever

    ok soo i want to be a vegitarian because im very young and i want to try new things but i still want to eat a lil chicken and steak and ribs but not alot, enough to have protein and grow :lol: :smile: :grin: :mrgreen:

  19. but if you think about it some people are vegetarians for their whole life whilst others a few months; you wouldnt classify one as being more of a vegetarian at the time that they didnt eat meat.

    so a person could easily be a vegetarian for a day, then eat meat, then call themself a vegetarian again; just as a meat eater can not eat meat for 5 years but still not consider them self a vegetarian.

    really its a moral and mental state of mind if anything.

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