Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Vegetarians and Starter Pistols

[You know, sometimes I sit down to try to fire of a quick blog. Sometimes, that goes awry...]

As you may know, I'm kind of a vegetarian.

Well, technically I'm a “flexitarian,” which I describe as being a vegetarian with commitment issues. I try to eat as little meat as possible, and when I do eat meat, I try to make sure that it's humanely, sustainably raised, and so on.

There are several reasons that I have drastically reduced my meat intake. Part of it is environmental—it takes more natural resources to raise meat than to raise plant-based food, and there are far fewer side effects to that kind of farming (read a little bit about the “waste management” on animal farms, and it may change the way you think about eating meat!). And, there's a basic morality issue for me. Put simply, I figure that the fewer things that I kill, even indirectly, the better. Clearly, I don't think that killing a chicken, or one which someone else has killed, is a terrible sin. If I did, I'd be a complete vegetarian. But, it seems that not killing something is generally morally and spiritually superior to killing something, and so I try to minimize the killing.

Like most non-extremist positions, it gets tricky. Convincing myself that I shouldn't eat chicken today, when I let myself do so yesterday, always involves dealing with some inconsistency. But, I find the most cognitive dissonance when I think about the impact that I, by myself, am having. Yesterday, I passed on some delicious looking chicken, and had a veggie sandwich instead*. But, I asked myself if a single chicken was saved by this decision? I mean, given the amount of food that they process at that place, did my decision have any impact, whatsoever, on the overall food orders that this chain will place? And, if not, did my decision really make any difference, at all?

* by the way, if you have an “Earl of Sandwhich” near you, try the veggie sandwich. It's really delicious!

What about when I'm at an event where meat is being served, and any meat which isn't eaten will be thrown out? What possible benefit (I'm ignoring health reasons for being a vegetarian right now) is there to not eating meat in that situation?

This is part of why I'm not a complete vegetarian, and part of why I don't judge those who do eat meat. Given how complicated and ambiguous the larger reality actually is, it just doesn't make sense, to me, to be that extreme. But, for me, personally, it still makes sense to lean vegetarian. And, to use a cliché, there's a simple reason for it:

I'd rather be part of the solution, then be part of the problem.

That's really what it comes down to, for me. I don't think that my decision to avoid meat will have an enormous impact on the world. I acknowledge that it may often have zero impact, whatsoever. But, I feel that, often in a way which I can't articulate well, there's a benefit to doing the right thing, even if there is no practical impact. I prefer, when I can, to make a decision based on what I believe to be right, even if the “effects” are only symbolic.

I was thinking about this because of an op-ed in the New York Times today which talked about the culture of narcissism, and used the example of people who use tricks to benefit themselves in air travel:

if you must a check a bag, pack an unloaded starter pistol in it, so that the Transportation Security Administration will flag the piece of luggage, thus diminishing or altogether eliminating the possibility of its loss. It’s extra work and fretting for them but, hey, you get peace of mind. Isn’t that what counts?

The problem, obviously, is what happens if everyone starts taking this advice? What if our airline security is completely jammed up by thousands, even millions, of people using this trick? In this case, that's unlikely to happen, but there are plenty of other examples we can think of, as well. If I cheat on my taxes, there is no discernable impact on the government, or on society. But, if we all cheat, then there is a major impact.

What we're really talking about here is what's known in environmental circles as “The Comments Problem.” What happens when an improper act on my part creates large benefit for me, but has no discernible negative impact on the whole? But, that's only true if few people partake. For example—imagine a common meadow (“common” in the sense of “shared”) which is off-limits to grazing. If I let my sheep graze there, there are no ill effects, but I benefit from free grazing. But, if all shepherds did this, then the meadow would be ruined, and we'd all feel the effects. How do you go about protecting the commons? How do we convince the shepherds to behave altruistically, when any objective analysis of personal benefit would tell them not to do so.

The standard answer, at least in modern times, seems to be through the use of penalties—if we catch you grazing in the Commons, or parking in handicapped spots, or otherwise gaming the system, we'll fine you, or maybe arrest you. But, there are all sorts of problems with that, including the difficulty of enforcement.

Better would be to create a culture of communal responsibility, and altruism. A culture in which the idea of caring for others as much as for ourselves is a core value. In which we instinctively believe that “what's best for me?” is not the first, or most important question.

It's especially hard to do hold to this viewpoint, when others aren't being as communally-minded. It's always tempting to abuse “the commons,” no matter what others may be doing. But, committing yourself to proper behavior, when everyone else is benefiting from non-communal, narcissistic behavior is difficult—it makes you feel like a sucker. Why should I be the only one who's doing the right thing? It takes a lot of discipline, and a lot of commitment, to stay true to principles in these situations.

I don't have any magic answers, any silver bullets. Not surprisingly, I think that religion can, and must, play a part in this. Judaism places a high value on community, and on sacrifice in its name. On thinking of the corporate whole, before we think of ourselves. And, Judaism also emphasizes doing what is right, regardless of reward or benefit. As always, that's not to say that Judaism is better than other religions in this regard, or that religious people in general are better than secularists. It's just to say that this is one area in which my religion espouses values that resonate with me deeply, and move me to try to be a better person.

Ultimately, though, it comes down to the personal. All that a religion, or a blog, or an Op-Ed can do is to try to convince us. We have to make our own decisions. And, hopefully, we'll learn that when we make a decision for the greater good, it's almost always the right thing to do. And, hopefully, that will be reward enough.

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