My Nearly Meatless Decade

In the spring of either 2014 or 2015 I became a vegetarian - I didn't think to record the exact date - which means it's now been ten or possibly nine years. That's a good enough time for a retrospective as any, I think.


In a word, ethics. I do suspect vegetarianism has improved my physical health (although there's no control group, so that's just speculation), and probably my carbon footprint is lower than average, but those are secondary downstream effects of an ethical choice.

I resolved to stop eating meat during a time in high school when I was reading a lot of moral philosophy1. There's no specific source I can cite as the deciding factor - Peter Singer probably comes closest - but here's the composite argument I extracted from the field as a whole:

  1. One should not cause suffering if an alternative is possible
  2. The animals we raise for food (or some non-trivial subset of them) are probably capable of something worthy of being called "suffering".
  3. If a being capable of suffering is subjected to conditions like the ones of our food animals, it's hard to see how they couldn't suffer. I'm not going to link anything specific here, but... factory farms are quite bleak, y'all. Research at your own risk.
  4. By 2 and 3, it's reasonable to assume that raising animals for food causes suffering
  5. To eat meat is to implicitly support the conditions under which that meat was produced. Put another way, the existence of people who eat meat is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for the existence of the meat industry.
  6. By 5, eating meat causes suffering (or at least contributes to conditions that cause suffering, which I will take as basically equivalent)
  7. An alternative exists to eating meat: it's called vegetarianism
  8. Therefore, one should be vegetarian.

That's a pretty consequentialist argument, reflective of my belief at the time that utilitarianism was an Infinite Ethics Glitch that could resolve all moral questions (I no longer consider myself a consequentialist but I'll leave that for another time). Regardless, I still think the basic shape is solid, and a version of it remains central to my thinking.2


I've had people comment that I must have incredible willpower to keep myself from eating meat for so long, but that's absolutely not the case. I actually have terrible willpower about most things. I do vaguely remember being tempted by burgers and such right after I committed to vegetarianism, so I suppose I've had to exert some non-zero amount of willpower over the years, but pretty quickly I fell into a feedback loop that removed any need for active mental exertion. The less meat you eat, the less you want to eat meat - it's really that simple.

Occasionally, when someone offers me meat and I decline by saying I'm a vegetarian, they'll like, wiggle the pork chop enticingly and say "come on, you're not going to have any?" That's not a cool thing to do when someone tells you they don't eat meat, in case it must be said, but I've never felt offended by this because I no longer mentally classify meat as food at all. Instead, it's very funny. Imagine if you saw a guy chowing down on a bowl of doorstops; he offers you one, and you decline by saying you don't eat doorstops. The guy says "come on, treat yourself, you only live once!", as though you'd said you were on a low-doorstop diet but would be willing to cheat a bit if it were a really tasty doorstop. In my crazy twisted world this happens pretty regularly. It's not an aversion, necessarily - I'm not grossed out by other people eating meat around me, or even by raw meat in a butcher's window. It's just... not food?

That said, this has been only a nearly meatless decade. Since I made the initial commitment to vegetarianism I've retained an exception clause for cases of unique, one-time experiences. To labor the previous analogy into incoherence: I'm willing to try a doorstop, but only if I'm passing through an Italian village that's known around the world for its unique doorstop-based dishes, and even then it's just out of a completionist urge to have tried it.

This has proven a good compromise I think. It's allowed me to sample schnitzel in Cologne (enjoyable because it was fried and salty, but I wished it were eggplant or something instead of pork) and a herring sandwich in Amsterdam (disgusting, irredeemable, forever turned me against the Dutch), to name a few. There's no danger of a slippery slope back into carnivory - the most common result is being glad I tried it, but having no desire for more.3 As long as those episodes are truly exceptional I don't feel any moral tension, since the marginal impact of one dumpling every 2 years is basically nil IMO.

Will I Continue?

Yes, at least for the foreseeable future. There's essentially no downsides at present, and plenty of benefits. That said, I'm at least a little curious about how my tastes would change if I re-introduced meat as a regular part of my diet - how long would it take until I re-adjust and start thinking of it as food? How would it effect my mood and energy? The ethical considerations haven't stopped being relevant, though, so I'll likely wait until cell-cultured meat is widely available to experiment. For the time being, here's to another ten (or maybe nine) legume-centered years!


My pseudo-psychology pet theory is that there's a developmental stage, around 13-16 or so, where you internalize for the first time that you can just have beliefs and no one can stop you, so you pick up the nearest catalog of ideas and try a few on for size, just to see how they fit. Eventually you either grow out of it and enter the mainstream, or you go insane and start a blog. Either way, the ghosts of those initial choices shape your later thinking, so which specific catalog you grab has a lasting impact. I've often wondered about the universe where I grabbed 4chan instead of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. There but for the grace of God go I.


The astute reader will note this argument applies just as well, if not better, to veganism over vegetarianism. Why am I not vegan then? Well I kind of am, in that when I've lived on my own in the past decade I've consciously cut out eggs and dairy. But for long stretches of that time period I've also lived with housemates or family and split cooking duties with others, and I felt bad condemning everyone else in the household to share my dietary choices involuntarily. Cutting out meat or leaving it on the side as a non-default option is an easier point of compromise in a communal kitchen than cutting out dairy, I think.


With exactly one exception for xiaolongbao, a food so delicious and yet so fundamentally meaty I can only conclude it was placed on this earth by the Devil himself specifically to tempt me.