dietary choices (for my vegetarian friends)

I have a serious question. I’m looking for two things: 1) recommendations for books that discuss the morality/ethics of eating different foods (plant, animal, etc) and how those decisions are made, and 2) your own personal opinions/anecdotes about/for the dietary strategy you have adopted.

The reason I ask this is because I’m a bit perplexed about what factors go into this for various people. I’ve asked a lot of my various vegetarian/vegan friends why they don’t eat meat, or some forms of meat, but not others, or animal products/byproducts but not meat, but I’ve never gotten a concise/straight answer, really. I realize I’m opening a big can of worms here (but not eating them).

Here’s an abbreviated list of some of the various points/counterpoints and strategies I’ve encountered for dietary decisions, some of which I agree with and some that I don’t (as noted):

  • Taxonomy-based exclusionary diets – the most general definition of vegetarianism is “doesn’t eat animals – that is, the decision-making is based essentially on the evolutionary class/branch of creature. Although this taxonomy is the common-place discriminator, it’s clearly just a convenient mechanism and not the actual justification for not eating them. For example, if it became clear that a plant suddenly developed some form of sentience, I don’t think most vegetarians would eat it, right? More on that later. But why do animals get a pass and not plants? Why not fungus? And what about slime molds?
  • Sentience – this is a complicated one, because our (humanity’s) definition and understanding of sentience itself is pretty weak, so I have a hard time with this as a method for discriminating what you eat or not. If we define it as general awareness, then it fails a consistency test with vegetarianism, because there almost all plants are aware in some way or another. They grow, they reproduce, they re-orient towards light sources. They fight, they consume one another. They consume animals. They sense and repair injuries. One common test for advanced sentience is self-recognition, but obviously all sorts of animals (dogs, for example) fail that test miserably. So a more likely criteria for “sentience” in this context is something else, aka:
  • Pain/Suffering – this is the other most common justification for vegetarianism – that killing for food causes undue suffering/pain in the victims. Either in the actual act of being killed for food, or their suffering in being raised. I can jive with this, but I again have doubts/questions about how exactly this is a form of criteria that somehow applies to animals but not to plants or other creatures. There’s an old Mitch Hedberg joke: “If fish could scream, the ocean would be loud as shit.” I know it sounds a bit puerile or something you talk about on the couch after smoking a joint, but who’s to say plants don’t feel pain? Or, to be a little more scientific, what is our criteria for discrimination there? A central nervous system? Or does it have less to do with pain/suffering and more with:
  • Killing – this is an odd one for me, but there is the criteria that you should never kill anything for food. A lot of vegetarians consider this consistent with their diet, because I guess they don’t consider plants alive, or alive (or conscious) “enough”. There are groups, however, that extend this to plants as well. Jains, for example, will not eat root vegetables, because it kills the plant.
  • Intelligence – I’ve heard this as a basis for dietary decisions in general, vegetarianism aside. For example, I have a friend who won’t eat octopus because of their recently observed intelligence. This gets into a similar interesting discriminatory strategy I’ve seen:
  • Evolutionary/genetic similarity – i.e. very rarely will you hear anyone (in our western culture anyway) advocating eating primates at all. There seems to be a trend based loosely on the food chain, or maybe more superficial shared characteristics that makes it taboo to eat a creature similar to us. (And there are evolutionary theories that demonstrate why this is potentially a good strategy.)
  • Environmental concerns – mostly citing the vast quantity of resources put into domesticated production of meat. For example, the number of people that could be fed with a vegetable crop versus the number of people that can be fed by a domesticated animal fed using that same quantity of crop. This is actually the only compelling argument I’ve heard, but only in a very limited circumstance. This concern really only pertains to mass-farmed domesticated animals (pigs/cows) and is really a question of our oversized agricultural system in general. It’s a compelling argument to avoid eating mass-farmed red meat or pork (which I’ve considered), but it’s not a moral argument for not eating meat. And further, if you consider that human beings evolved as omnivores, there’s a compelling argument to make that everyone switching to a vegetarian diet could be disastrous for the environment. Just as many animals could be displaced/killed by expanding agriculture, if not more. We evolved in a complicated, sympathetic system of competing and cooperating species/organisms for millions and millions of years. Granted, that delicate balance and our dietary evolution has been jarringly disrupted and upended in the last few thousand years, but that’s a side-effect of technology and scale, not of our dietary choices. That is to say: our evolutionary “nature” isn’t really justification to keep eating meat necessarily, but there’s no compelling argument that it’s “natural” not to, either (or even relevant anymore)

Part of the reason I am curious about all this is because of the controversy that has emerged as a result of this story:

DES MOINES, Iowa – An animal rights group publicized a video Tuesday showing unwanted chicks being tossed alive into a grinder at an Iowa plant and accused egg hatcheries of being “perhaps the cruelest industry” in the world.

This story was posted on facebook by a few friends, and most of the resulting conversations involved vegetarianism/veganism as a choice that precludes and condemns this sort of thing. The controversy is interesting to me because all the above arguments factor in to how/why we should/shouldn’t consider this cruel. As far as intelligence goes, chickens are pretty lacking – they’re basically a giant hardwired grain-pecking egg-laying machine. Neural network science probably isn’t far off from reproducing this sort of behaviour. As far as the pain/suffering – I hate to say it, but being tossed into a grinder is probably a pretty quick and painless death, compared to other methods (and arguably the pain experienced in a millisecond of crushing is comparable to a lifetime cooped up in close quarters being forcefed and stuffed with hormones until having your head chopped off and body drained for processing, I’m just sayin’). What is the outrage, here? Is it really that people are having an emotional response because a chick is “cute”? Is this how most people make decisions on their dietary intake? I can think of a million other standard practices in food processing that strike me as way worse than this.

So, anyways, that’s what got me thinking, but in general I’m curious, as I said, how you guys make these decisions. I’m also looking for reading material on the topic, if you know of any.