Why Vegetarians Should Be Prepared to Bend Their Own Rules

"It’s a common enough scenario. A vegetarian has been invited to a friend’s place for dinner. The host forgets that the guest is a vegetarian, and places a pork chop in front of her. What is she to do? "

 

 

It’s a common enough scenario. A vegetarian has been invited to a friend’s place for dinner. The host forgets that the guest is a vegetarian, and places a pork chop in front of her. What is she to do? Probably her initial feelings will be disgust and repulsion. Vegetarians often develop these sorts of attitudes towards meat-based food, making it easier for them to be absolutists about shunning meat.


Suppose, though, that the vegetarian overcomes her feelings of distaste, and decides to eat the chop, perhaps out of politeness to her host. Has she done something morally reprehensible? Chances are that what she has been served won’t be the kind of humanely raised meat that some (but not all) ethical vegetarians find permissible to consume. More likely, it would be the product of cruel, intensive factory farming. Eating the meat under these circumstances couldn’t then be an act of what the philosopher Jeff McMahan calls ‘benign carnivorism’. Would the vegetarian guest have done something wrong by breaking her own moral code?

Most vegetarians are concerned about animal suffering caused by meat consumption, or about the impact of factory farming on the environment. For simplicity’s sake, I will consider only the case of animal suffering, but the same argument could be applied to the other bad consequences of today’s practices of factory farming, including, for example, greenhouse gas emissions, inefficient use of land, and use of pesticides, fertiliser, fuel, feed and water, as well as the use of antibiotics causing antibiotic resistance in livestock’s bacteria which is then passed on to humans.

Because eating meat typically supports the practice of raising animals in factory farms where they are inhumanely treated and killed, eating meat is likely to contribute to animal suffering (or to the other bad consequences of factory farming). Now, if we agree that one of the good reasons for being vegetarian is that eating meat to some degree encourages practices that cause animal suffering, then at a first glance it might seem that eating meat only rarely is morally permissible (but see the philosopher Shelly Kagan for a counterargument) because it is very likely that eating meat only occasionally will not have any impact on the amount of suffering inflicted on animals.

However, by not eating meat, and especially by not eating meat when they are offered it in front of non-vegetarians, vegetarians send out a message to other people. By sticking to their ethical commitment, vegetarians signal that there is something wrong with being a carnivore, thus prompting other people to consider the morality of their habit of eating meat and perhaps even persuading them that consuming meat is wrong. In other words, the positive impact of being a vegetarian, in terms of reduction of animal suffering, might be amplified when vegetarianism is publicly defended and demonstrated in social contexts. And, conversely, making exceptions to vegetarianism might convey the message that eating meat is not so bad after all. If even vegetarians sometimes eat meat, then eating meat can’t be so reprehensible from a moral perspective, can it? So perhaps the guest who ate the pork chop was morally wrong for this reason: she sent out the wrong message to the people who were having dinner with her.

But it isn’t as simple as that. Avoiding meat in all circumstances, including in the circumstances in which the vegetarian guest found herself, is a strategy that can backfire. Plausibly, the ‘right’ message to be sent to non-vegetarians is one that increases the chances that as many of them as possible will give up meat or at least reduce their meat consumption. If people perceive vegetarianism as a position that allows for no exception, they are probably less likely to become vegetarian. A flexible moral position is more appealing than a rigid one that allows for no exceptions. It is more likely that people would be convinced to become flexible vegetarians – that is, that they abstain from eating meat with some exceptions – than to become rigid vegetarians, and being a flexible vegetarian is preferable, from a moral perspective, to being a carnivore.

So the vegetarian guest’s eating meat when offered has probably shown the host that it is possible to be a (flexible) vegetarian and, at the same time, occasionally enjoy some meat without feeling guilty. This has certainly made (flexible) vegetarianism look more accessible and more appealing than it would have been if the guest had refused to eat meat. Granted, perhaps by eating meat only occasionally one would lose the right to call herself a ‘vegetarian’, but this might not be all that important. What matters more is that a world with many people who eat meat only occasionally is far preferable to the world we currently live in where there are relatively few vegetarians and a vast majority of carnivores.

Alberto Giubilini

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This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.