Sunday, September 18, 2011

Self Interest and Vegetarianism

Advocates of vegetarianism and veganism often provide a three-pronged argument for their views: the Environmental Argument, the Moral Argument, and the Health Argument. The Environmental and Moral Arguments center on issues that appeal to more abstract or distal concerns than the Health Argument, and because of this, the Health Argument seems conspicuously to be gaining ground lately, especially in a culture dominated by values of self-interest and, as some argue, Baby Boomer obsessions with aging (or rather, not aging). A few prominent examples include Bill Clinton's recent conversion and "coming out" as a vegan; notorious British carnivore, author, and chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's recent public advocacy for the eating of mostly fresh grains and vegetables (though Fearnley-Whittingstall swears that he is not now (nor ever will be) a vegetarian); and the success of the documentary film Forks Over Knives. These cases seem to support the view that in a consumer culture populated by aging agents of self-interest, perhaps the most effective argument for vegetarianism will turn out to be not the one that requires ethical abstractions about the lives of other sentient beings or the rescuing of the biosphere, but the one that convinces people that they will feel better, and live longer, healthier lives if they adopt a whole-foods, vegetarian diet. That such (un-)enlightened self-interest, such obsessions with the self, may turn out to have positive, unintended consequences that will decrease animal suffering and decelerate global climate change I find both encouraging and discouraging. Encouraging for obvious, consequentialist reasons; discouraging because to think that the same Adam-Smith-like forces that gave us things like rampant consumerism, environmental destruction, and factory farming might need be relied on to move us towards solutions to the problems it created, can sink the spirits of those of us who believe that we can be moved to action and change by those more "abstract" and "distal" ethical concerns.

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