Two things came up for me: Being a vegetarian amounts to being a picky eater and virtues are not generally lifestyle choices.
First, the human body is designed to be omnivorous. Tooth and stomach design, not to mention inclination, are evidence of this. Humans don’t have the ripping teeth or beaks of a predator, but they do have the grinding teeth like other meat eaters and that vegetarian animals are conspicuously missing. The enzymes—and the sheer length—of the digestive organs are specifically meant to break meat down and distribute its various elements throughout the body. But even more than that, no amount of coaxing will make a giraffe eat meat. Meat simply does not smell or look like food to them. Humans, for the most part, do like the taste, sight, and smell of meat. That some of us don’t is parallel to having a favorite color or preferring the countryside to the beach.
There are many reasons for being a vegetarian. Some choose this path because they object to the way the animals are treated during their short lives. Some choose it because they don’t like the idea of eating something that could look back at them. Some have religious reasons—whether or not they agree, their religious beliefs or cultures proscribe eating either all animals or certain animals. And some choose not to eat meat for health reasons—in some cases, the body simply has to work too hard to digest meat, leaving them vulnerable to disease, and in others, there are allergies, sensitivities, and digestive complaints that are solved with this simple change.
I’m in that last group. I stopped eating red meat when I was a teenager (mostly because I didn’t like it much, and partially because I was a bit of a hippie and the diet fit into that) and almost immediately I stopped getting colds and flu. More recently, my liver has decided that fat is not my friend, and it’s way easier to eat a controlled-fat diet without animal products of any kind.
Gosh, and I feel better too. Again.
Now that I’m a vegan, I find that it’s hard to keep my protein levels up. When I was a teen, it didn’t matter much, but now, I pay for those sorts of imbalances. I’m probably also paying for the imbalances of my youthful ignorance about balanced nutrition. So I count protein intake much as others count calories. I have all kinds of supplements and processed foods that give my protein count a boost when I simply cannot eat another bite of tofu, nuts, or beans. There is a significant improvement in how I feel when my protein count is above 40 grams a day, so I’m pretty committed to counting protein grams. (Protein requirements are determined by body weight, so your requirement could be higher or lower than mine.)
But none of this feels particularly virtuous. Oh, it’s true that I make most of my own food—that’s one truly beneficial side-effect of this choice. I have more control over the fuel I supply myself with than omnivores with a typical American-style diet. But there’s not much that can be counted as virtuous in a typical American-style diet. It’s full of processed foods, has a horrible imbalance of meat and dairy products, and seems to eschew carbohydrates as evil rather than as a good source of energy.
But is avoiding an American-style diet enough to make vegetarianism into a virtue?
It seems to me that a virtue is more like a personality trait or a natural inclination than a choice. I mean, a person can choose to be kind, gracious, merciful, charitable, or wise, but really, these things come more naturally to some than to others. There is the instinct to make a sarcastic remark just as there is the instinct to hug someone who weeps. Not having the sarcastic impulse is a virtue, as is the impulse to comfort someone.
Does being virtuous mean denying natural urges? Like not punching the cretin who cut you off for the third time while on the bridge today or jumping into bed with that hunky construction worker or spending beyond the budget? Does it mean keeping the house clean, volunteering to charitable organizations, calling parents regularly, and respecting other people?
My first encounter with a raw-food vegan (not only do they eat no animal products, but nothing can be heated over 110 degrees Fahrenheit either), led me to think that this diet was an enormous inconvenience. Eating in an ordinary restaurant was a problem, making a meal without a lot of warning was a problem, and frankly, he was constantly eating something, which was a lot like being friends with a caterpillar. He thought of his diet as “taking the high road.” I didn’t see it that way at the time, and I still don’t see it, nearly a decade later. Besides. I like less of my day to be devoted to fueling myself and more of the fuel to be about pleasure than function.
But that’s just my choice.
I talked to a vegetarian friend about this issue, and she said that she doesn’t tell dinner hosts that she’s a vegetarian. If she is served chicken, for instance, she just eats it. She said that she doesn’t seem to suffer for it (physically or psychically) unless she’s eaten more animal flesh in a short period of time than usual (like three times in a week). But she’s not a vegan, and her diet is about ethics, not health. Inconveniencing a host is less ethical to her than eating the meat, so she just goes along with the crowd.
In her case, eating meat is more virtuous in certain circumstances than not eating it. On her own, she doesn’t eat meat, though, and I haven’t noticed her being uncomfortable staying vegetarian around other vegetarians or judging when other vegetarians step off the narrow path.
It seems like people who are NOT vegetarians are the ones who think of being a vegetarian as virtuous. Is it that we’ve now labeled any sort of abstinence as virtuous? Does that make subsistence farmers more virtuous than those of us who work in an office because they procure their food from their own sweat equity rather than from the corner market?
I guess I don’t think of my dietary habits as virtuous in a general way. I think of some of the details as virtuous, such as counting protein intake or baking my own bread, but in general, it’s just a choice, like wearing certain clothes or living in a particular place. But if you want to think of my diet as virtuous, I can live with that.
I can also live with it if you think I’m just being picky.